« My First Review! | Main | Reading Update »

February 16, 2010

Why Aren't Women and POC Submitting Their Work?

ETA 5/6/13: I'm re-reading this now because of a discussion I'm having with someone, and I'm realizing that some of the criticisms below in comments are more accurate than I could see at the time I wrote it. I wrote this post with the explicit intention of "validating" the perception that women/poc submissions "aren't as good" as white submissions as a rhetorical device. My intention was to validate that perception to draw the reader in, and then smack them over the head with the fact that too many terrific women/poc writers simply aren't submitting for the following reasons (etc.)

I'm realizing now that this was not a super-effective tactic. And I have to admit that I didn't think it through clearly. When I conceived of this piece, I had recently been fired from a paid gig at an online magazine that was all white (except for me) and mostly male. Although I got some legit-sounding excuses for being fired, I didn't think it was a coincidence that I was fired right after I intensified my campaign to diversify the artists and writers being covered in the magazine. These things are hard to prove, though. The editor in question had told me that: a) they didn't get enough submissions from writers-oc and b) the ones they got weren't good enough. I had also been trying to diversify another (paid) online magazine that some friends were involved with and that I read but didn't contribute to. They told me the same thing: not enough submissions, not good enough. The way the editors I knew said this reminded me of how editors in this online fight had been saying that they don't get enough woc subs, and I noticed (or thought I noticed) that there was an unspoken implication that the subs they did get weren't good enough.

The other thing was that I thought it might well be true that the editors I had talked to weren't getting good submissions from woc because the good woc weren't submitting to them. I had had that experience as an editor of a poc magazine -- one of not getting enough good submissions even though I was seeing terrific writers in the community all the time. That was something that no one would say in public, and I was struck with the idea of writing a piece that did say it, and then turned it around on its ear. And then I simply wrote it, without thinking of how off-putting or ultimately inaccurate that would be. Bait-and-switch is fundamentally dishonest, and even if my intention was always honesty, honest dishonesty is ... uh ... problematic? I should have been more straightforward, is what I'm saying.

Also, a writer below took me to task for saying that most women or poc "fail" to make the leap to mainstream mags. My intention was always to use the word "fail" to mean "didn't do," and my critic contended that my use of "fail" expressed actual failure in the not doing. I.e.: it sounded like I was criticizing women/poc for not making that leap, and calling them failures. Because this was never my intention, I dismissed the criticism at the time. In re-reading, I'm realizing that she was completely right. This is exactly how that sentence, and its contextualizing language, reads. I should have worded that much more carefully. My critic, understandably, didn't believe me when I wrote back that an accusation of "failure" wasn't my intention with that wording. All I can say about that is that when I wrote this post, I had just recently made a completely conscious decision to publish my first book with a diversity-focused feminist small press, and deliberately did not submit it anywhere else. I did NOT consider this "not doing" a "failure."

Now, on to the original post:

***

I'm about to post something more on the general topic area of literary diversity, but I realized that I've never actually written a more foundational post that I've been meaning to write for a couple of years now.

Basically, this is about the totally valid and justified complaints of white editors that writers of color and women aren't submitting enough work to them. This is absolutely true (as far as it goes.) If you teach (as I do) writing in community orgs, 90-99% of your students will be women and poc. If you've studied creative writing in universities, even or especially at the MFA level (as I have), you'll know that about 60-75% of students are women. But start reading slush for a major publisher or journal and you'll notice a sudden, steep drop in the percentages of women, and an even steeper drop in the percentages of poc submitting work. And look at what is actually published and you'll see the drop is even steeper: mostly men, mostly white.

ETA: Some of Those who read slush know will tell you (although it's not cool to talk about in these terms ETA: as evidenced by the heated comments below. Please note, this is my experience and that of many folks I've talked to or read stuff from, not a universal experience.) that the submissions from women and poc are often disproportionately sucky, which is sometimes why even the proportions of women and poc who submit aren't reflected in the proportions of women and poc actually published. (Sometimes. There's usually also a factor of white male editors not quite getting the culture or language of marginalized writers, so they don't fully appreciate the nuances of the work. But that's another discussion.) So when a white male editor says, "We only had one woman and one poc in the anthology because we were going for the best work," that could be true, or true-ish.

(ETA: with reference to comments below, let me just put in here that your percentages may vary. We're still working with more women (and a larger percentage of poc) attending writing classes, but more men and white writers actually submitting work. How radical your discrepancy is, like I said, varies, but the discrepancy exists.)

And yet, I know from teaching and learning in community and academic settings that there are metric tons of good poc and women writers out there, just waiting to be plucked from the vine.

What gives?

For someone like me, and many of you, who are in on every step in the long, slow process of literary accomplishment (looks like this: community writing classes, MFA courses, community readings, ethnic magazines, indy publishers, mainstream lit magazines, major publishers -- I am or have been involved in all of these except the last two) it's very easy to see that there's a huge chasm at one step in this process. And that chasm comes between writers developing their craft in the bosom of their communities, and writers taking a leap away from their local identity communities into the ether of the mainstream -- basically at the point where writers have to take a deep breath and submit their work to mainstream editors who don't know them and aren't familiar with the communities they come from.

Here's the problem:

MOST WOMEN AND POC WRITERS FAIL TO MAKE THAT LEAP.

Yeah, that's right: most of them. You know all the "ethnic" and women midlist writers at majors who will get dropped soon and move to indies because they get no attention? For every one of those, there are at least three who never bothered with the majors but stayed in indie and community publishing, and ten who never made the leap to publishers at all. Yes, it's true. It's not that most women and poc writers fail to become good enough to make that leap. It's that, of those that reach a point where they CAN make the leap, most either don't recognize that they've reached that point, or, for other reasons they never manage to make the leap.

I have a friend near my age who was taking community writing classes with me, started an MFA the year after I did, and has been writing just as long. When this friend finally got a story published, it was in an ethnic mag. Last time I checked, my friend still hadn't submitted any work to mainstream journals.

Why not? What are those reasons? Enlightened editors want to know. Well, I have some ideas, although I can't speak for all women/poc writers who don't make the leap (please feel free to add ideas in the comments.) These reasons are in order of frequency (in my opinion):

  • Many women/poc writers don't hang out in mainstream literary circles locally or online so they don't know what to expect or what's expected of them in this scene. They don't understand how to "break in" to mainstream markets, so they stick to the literary scene they know how to work.
  • They don't know about your publishing house/journal (see directly above).
  • They know about your publishing house or journal but don't think you take work from women/"ethnic" writers. (This impression usually comes from the actual dearth of women/poc writers in your mag or on your list.)
  • They know you'll technically read work from women/ethnic writers, but don't believe their work will be taken seriously or given a fair reading.
  • They know you'll read their work with an earnest intention of fair play, but don't believe you're equipped to understand it.
  • Those who do submit work often don't submit their best work, because they fear their best work will be considered "too ethnic" or "chicklit," so they submit more standard "literary" work that their hearts weren't really in.
  • They don't think that anyone like them READS your books or your magazine, and they want to reach their own audience.
  • They have a political agenda around their work and have decided that that agenda is best served by keeping their work within their communities.
  • ETA: Ide Cyan and Minal Hajratwala added another good point in the comments. As Minal put it: "A serious economic/class differential that means that many women of color who write are barely able to eke out the hours to write, let alone any extra hours to venture into a whole new & unwelcoming literary 'scene,' to network, attend conferences/ workshops, research publications, submit work, blog or read blogs, deal with rejection (in the face of a host of other societal rejections)... Some of the students in my community-based classes are writing mainly because it helps them survive, and the idea of publication is not a priority."

Most of those good writers who don't submit do it for the first two reasons. I know, it's hard for editors and publishers to remember a time when they didn't know the rules and the landscape. Many editors and publishers grew up in culturally savvy families or communities, so they don't even know how they learned the rules and the landscape. But the folks who aren't submitting either don't know the rules, or don't think they're considered important enough to engage the rules. They either don't have a map to the landscape, or simply think that it's a closed, privately-owned parcel of land. And far too often they're right.

And most of them aren't necessarily even aware that they think this way. I can't tell you how many writers I've encouraged to submit their work who had never done it before because it simply never occurred to them. They never signed up for a writers list-serv. They don't read lit blogs that post opportunities on them. They don't know about Writers Market or the Poets & Writers database. They don't know that you can (and sort of have to) look the various markets up and note down their guidelines and simply submit work according to the guidelines. (There's a big component in here of internalized racism, where the writer has been absorbing messages of her inferiority for her entire life, and is unwilling to risk being rejected on that basis, but that's another blog post.)

I have a good friend who has been writing for decades. My friend has a towering reputation in local and extended identity communities, is invited to read around 10 times a year in a variety of venues, has had work published in a number of anthologies, has edited an identity-based anthology published by an indy publisher, and has also been the editor of a literary journal. This friend had an offer of a book on the table from an indy before the economy went to shit and the publisher had to taper off publications for a while. This friend has never made an unsolicited submission. So when the indy publisher had to rescind the book offer, my friend didn't know what to do. When I suggested we get proactive and prepare a package of work to send out as an unsolicited submission, my friend was both surprised and relieved. And this is someone with a lot of publication and literary experience. This is someone even the most boneheaded white male publisher would be delighted to get a submission from.

So, the point of all of this is that editors have to go out and find good writers of color and women writers just like they have to go out and find good white male writers. The obvious first place to start is independent magazines and publishers, but editors will need to go deeper than that. (I won't go into it again here.) And the big issue is not just knowing where to look, but knowing how to approach.

A number of small gestures can make a huge difference. Make the whole experience as painless and welcoming as possible. For example:

  • Make sure your submission guidelines are easy to find on your website. Don't hide them. Add language to your guidelines that specifically welcomes women and writers of color. Something like "We are especially interested in innovative work by women, writers of color, and writers from historically marginalized groups. We love to discover new writers!" Don't beat around the bush. Be plain.
  • When you go through your back issues/backlist for the big names to list on your website, be sure to put the names of women writers and poc front and center. A publisher/magazine that has a lot of recognizable "minority" names on its website is basically putting out the welcome mat for "minority" writers. This is a subtle language you must learn to speak.
  • When you send a call for submissions out on a list-serv or send it to a website for a "minority" group, be sure to personalize it and express your strong desire to get submissions. Sign it with your name. Say something like, "I really want to encourage you all to submit work. Our submissions pile isn't nearly as diverse as it needs to be, and as a result, our publications aren't as diverse as they need to be. You can help change that. Please take a chance on us and send us your best work!"
  • Write up a brief primer (maybe a paragraph) on how to make an effective submission (including maybe a little something about what to put, and what not to put, in a cover letter.) Include this in your call for submissions. Make your expectations plain, and don't give anyone any excuses not to submit.
  • Be sure to ask them to tell you in their cover letter where they heard about your magazine or publishing house, so you can track where the submissions are coming from; and ask them to include a brief bio that talks about their origins, so you can get a sense of where your writers are coming from. Encourage them to talk to you about who they are and what their process is, so you can understand it all better.
  • If you're rejecting a promising submission from someone who's obviously a writer of color or who says they're coming from a poc website or list-serv, be sure you personalize the rejection with at least some minimal feedback, and an encouragement to submit again. Yes, I know you don't have time, but it's part of an editor's job to cultivate promising writers, and if you want a healthy field of diverse writers in ten years, you have to plant now. This is assuming that you actually DO send rejection letters out. Many journals don't reject in a timely or consistent manner, and there's nothing more off-putting to someone who already thinks they're not going to get a fair shot, than being utterly ignored. Basically, acknowledgment is key, even when you're rejecting.

That's all fairly easy, surface stuff. But if editors and publishers really want to become more diverse and reflective of 21st Century reality, they're going to have to change the way their organizations approach the work itself. Changes like:

  • Having some non-white, non-WASPy names on your masthead or staff list. Yes, we do read these. Yes, we are turned off when we don't see any names like ours. Yes, I'm much more likely to send a story to a market with an editor of color or a woman editor first (although there are so few of these that I've learned not be picky.) And if a market's guidelines don't say anything about multiculturalism, but do say stuff about "no genre" and "high quality" (both euphemisms for New Yorker-style Carverism,) all the masthead names sound white, and all the author names on the website are or sound white, I'm probably not going to bother to submit to you at all.
  • Having a diverse editorial board or a diverse set of guest editors. Aside from the above issue, they'll make an effort to reach out to their communities if they understand that that's their job (no, you can't just tokenize an editor and watch her go. If your mag isn't diverse, she'll often just assume you only want white male writers and do her job that way.)
  • If you're successful in all this, your volume of submissions should increase. Go to ethnic and gender studies departments at your local universities and pick up an extra, slush-reading intern there. Put the intern's name on the masthead. Let your intern know that their expertise in ethnic/gender studies is needed and they should point out any boneheadedness in editorial decisions if they see it.
  • Having an editorial mission statement and a strategic or business plan whose language fundamentally reflects a deep commitment to diversity.
  • Being advocated for in the community by a diverse set of respected writers. (Yes, when one of us has been published by a market, we DO immediately go out and tell our peeps to submit there. When one of our respected leaders tells us this stuff, we particularly prick up our ears. And when an editor buttonholes one of us and says "How do I get [your folks] to submit to [my magazine/house]?" without sticking their feet in their mouths, we do go straight to Facebook and post a link.)
  • Having a "usual round" of in-person visits to open mics, reading series, classrooms, etc that are in diverse communities, so you're "touching" minority writers all the time.
  • When you request work from big name writers, hit up women writers and poc as often as you can. This is not to fill out your minority quota with big names, but rather to use the big names to entice emerging marginalized writers to submit to you.
  • Be constantly reading marginalized writers. Duh.
  • This is whole 'nother blog post, but start actively (and savvily) marketing your books/magazines to marginalized communities. It's a cycle: if they're reading it, they'll want to submit to it. If they're being published in it, they'll want to read it. Rinse, repeat.
Yeah, as I've said before, it's a lot of work. And you do have to change the way you do that work in the first place. But if you want actual diversity and not just lip service and real frustration, this is where you start.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451c59b69e20120a8a3369b970b

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Why Aren't Women and POC Submitting Their Work?:

Comments

I must say I was surprised to read this. I read a lot of slush and I have not shared your experience in the least.

What Lauren said above. I've edited 11 anthologies, published at least one story that wound up in Best American Short Stories, and I have not shared your experience of the slush pile.

In my genre (fantasy and science fiction), slush runs 60/40 or 70/30 M:F, insofar as the byline can taken as an indicator. (I have usually found 10-15% of any slush pile is gender-ambiguous due to use of initials or ungendered names such as Chris or Pat.)

My manuscripts generally didn't come with any POC identifiers, unless the writer happened to have a particularly ethnic byline, but even that isn't enough for me to assume ethnicity.

As for the internal language and idiom of the story, in the F/SF field, it's just as routine for people to write outside type as within type. There are no valid assumptions to be made there. (My most recent novel from Tor Books (part of Macmillan) is a single POV first person tale about a young South Asian girl who would be queer-identified if her world setting encompassed such a concept - what does that tell you about my gender or ethnicity?)

So while I don't know squat about MFA programs or the literary scene, I'm an active, award-nominated editor and award-winning writer in one of the most vibrant short fiction scenes in American letters, and your assertions about women and POC in slush do not match my experience at all.

Perhaps your students are trying to publish in the wrong markets

"Those who read slush know (although it's not cool to talk about in these terms) that the submissions from women and poc are often disproportionately sucky, which is sometimes why even the proportions of women and poc who submit aren't reflected in the proportions of women and poc actually published."

Sorry, we don't know that.

And I'm pretty suspicious of people who claim to "know" it.

Rachel, this is based on my experience and that of many people I've talked to and what comes out around the corners of many discussions like this. If that's not your experience then it's not.

What I'm trying to get at here is why so many good writers are not submitting their work or their best work. Focusing on whether or not you've ever gotten good submissions from women or poc in your slush pile is missing the point.

And yes, I did say that it's not cool to talk about in these terms, which you just demonstrated.

Lauren and Jay: thanks for chiming in. That's what happens when you generalize based on specific experiences. Other people's specific experiences will contradict yours. :P

However, even if my estimations were rather extreme, 60 - 70% male submissions does rather make my point for me, doesn't it? (And let's keep in mind here that I'm not primarily talking about the SF field here, either.)

And Jay:

As for the internal language and idiom of the story, in the F/SF field, it's just as routine for people to write outside type as within type. There are no valid assumptions to be made there.

I don't believe I said anything about the internal language and idiom of the story, nor did I set up any "types" within which poc are not writing. What I said was:

There's usually also a factor of white male editors not quite getting the culture or language of marginalized writers, so they don't fully appreciate the nuances of the work.

Something similar to this happened just last year with regard to Nisi Shawl's collection FILTER HOUSE, which many poc (including Chip Delany) regarded as wonderfully vibrant and which Matt Cheney publicly deemed "lifeless." There was some discussion on list-servs about this and it's hard to say where the discrepancy was, since Matt Cheney isn't stupid or a poor reader.

Of course, you can try to chalk it up to a matter of taste, but even people who don't like certain writing will still pick up on the "life" in it. The main conclusion in these discussions was that maybe he wasn't picking up on the subtleties of what Nisi was writing about; maybe the situations she set up in the stories didn't resonate with him because he didn't have any experience with those sorts of situations, so allusions to them fell flat. Etc. These aren't about the literary issue of missing out on internal language and idiom, but rather on the human issue of not having a common basis of experience to make cultural (non-literary) allusions resonate.

By the way, Cheney himself wrote a little about the clash of perspectives.

Like I said above, this is another blog post for another time, but I would like to suggest that a broader experience reading "ethnic" lit could help this issue. Since the experience of reading literature is widely regarded as similar neurologically to remembering something, the more "ethnic" lit one reads that refers to certain kinds of marginalized experiences, the more one "remembers" those experiences the next time they read about them, and the more those experiences resonate. Presumably.

And finally:

Perhaps your students are trying to publish in the wrong markets

is missing the whole point of my post. As I said above, most of my students AREN'T trying to publish. The point of this post was WHY NOT. Also, what does "the wrong markets" mean, exactly? I believe I covered that in my reasons above, in the part where women and poc don't submit to mainstream markets because they don't believe they'll get a fair hearing.

This is where you can't judge how many people are trying to publish by the numbers of submissions you've gotten in slush. (I'm not just, or even primarily, talking about the SF field here.) The people you see in the slush pile have already made the leap. You can't see all the people who are good but haven't made the leap, because they're simply not there.

This has not been my experience as a slush reader, but I agree with your assertion that it is "not cool" to talk about the writing of entire groups of folks who submit to markets as "disproportionately sucky."

hm, that's weird. my comments got posted in reverse order. oh well.

It's not my experience, but then again, I'm not the one who made the claim that my experience was the experience of all slush readers.

You wrote "Slush readers know." Well, a lot of us don't. Care to reassess your statement so that it doesn't suggest an inaccurate illusion of consensus?

If it's your personal feeling that work submitted to you by women and POC is disproportionately sucky, then own it.

If it's something you're concluding from your own experience and talking to other slush readers, then say that.

But don't write about your opinion as if it's a universal fact and then expect other people not to say "What the fuck?"

Okay Rachel, accepted. And I'll add another caveat above about my rhetorical technique.

But try not to derail this discussion any more than you already have. Focusing yourself and others on one arguable thing I wrote to set up the main discussion is distracting everyone from the main discussion.

If you disagree that women and poc aren't submitting in sufficient numbers to mainstream publishers, say so, and we can have that out. If you do agree about this, let's stop quibbling about how I chose to word my set up to this argument.

Claire, I really don't know if Rachel is "derailing" as much as pointing out a flawed (sucky?) starting assumption. To me, putting others down to make a point doesn't seem like the most effective rhetorical device. It was tough for me to get to the "real discussion" of your post because I was so concerned by your (in my opinion) pretty offensive introductory paragraphs.

Women and POC aren't submitting in sufficient numbers.

However, justifying the prejudice against submissions *that exist* by calling them disproportionately sucky (based on unsubstantiated comments from unidentified people who read slush*) reinforces the prejudices and barriers that both women and POC experience when submitting.

(*Your disclaimer--which I do appreciate--seems to indicate that you are not one of the people who is making this claim: e.g. you're not the one saying that women and POC who submit are disproportionately sucky. So that refocuses us on the unidentified other slush readers--and why exactly am I supposed to accept their claim at face value? Why am I supposed to dismiss the probability that they see submitted writing by women and people of color as "disproportionately sucky" because of their entrenched prejudices? I don't even know who they are, let alone how they've come to these conclusions. And I understand why you probably won't identify them, but that just means I'm not going to take their anonymous opinions very seriously, especially when they're backed up by zero data, zero observations, and zero argument.)

I think it's legitimate to say that if editors don't like the work by women and people of color that turns up in their slush piles then they should make sure to keep reading more women and more people of color until they find the work by those groups that they do like, since women and people of color can have any number of reasons for choosing not to submit to given venues, and the editors may not be hitting the rich veins of unsubmitted work that are out there. As an editor of a reprint venue, I did many of the things you suggest; I specifically solicited and read for work by writers of color, and while I did spend a deal of energy on it, I would have liked to have spent more.

But the problem wasn't with the women and non-white writers who found me, many of whom were brilliant.

When women and POC opt out of some markets because they think they won't be given a fair reading, maybe it's because the readers think that writing by women and POC is "disproportionately sucky." That phrase would sure make me worry that I wasn't about to get a fair reading. Why assume the problem is with the women and the POC sending there, and not with the readers who are coming to that conclusion?

Certainly, it's not something I'm willing to take on faith, and your post demands I must.

This issue--which you choose to wave away as derailing--is central to how we form solutions to the lack of submissions from women and people of color. Some structural issues can be addressed by urging editors to be more active. However, you can only get so far when you accept dismissals of the work by women and poc who do submit at face value.

Molly, I think the problem here is that you're assuming I'm "putting others down" rather than trying to get at a strange situation. What I was pointing out above is not that women and poc suck as writers, but that the submissions a lot of people have reported getting from women and poc aren't that good, despite the fact that there are tons of good women and poc writers out there. That has also been MY experience.

Note, I never said above or here that my or anyone else's experience was that we got NO good submissions from women or poc. It was rather that we didn't get as many good submissions from women or poc as we would expect to from the numbers of good women/poc writers we've seen in the community.

I've seen this in big and small ways, from the self-help publisher I worked for way back when, whose readership was 9999% women and who got 75% submissions from men (mostly crap) and only crap from women, to the Asian American magazine I edited lit for a few years back, which got about 60% submissions from men, and crappy submissions from women -- most of them still in college.

At the same time that I was working at the As Am lit mag, I was also teaching writing in the As Am community in San Francisco -- classes of 90% women with at least two or three women per class who could've been published in my magazine. Did they submit? No. And once again, the women who did submit to my mag were the young, the inexperienced, and yes, the sucky. And we're talking about an ethnic mag, not a mainstream lit journal.

When this discussion has come up in the SF community before, a few male editors have said in indirect ways that they didn't get enough good submissions from poc or women. And they've been absolutely clobbered for it. And maybe that was justified, since there's no way of telling how they judged the work that was submitted to them.

But I've been feeling a twinge of sympathy there for a long time, because I know that what I've read in the past in slush doesn't reflect the quality of the actual field of writers out there, and I know that it's because a lot of the good writers just aren't submitting to these editors. That's the whole point of this post.

So if you dispute that a disproportionate number of the SUBMISSIONS (not the writing in general, mind you, just the submissions) from women and poc are sucky, what you are saying in essence is that all editors who don't publish women and poc enough are racist and sexist. That's the implication anyway.

And while I think editorial racism and sexism is an element in this issue, it's not the whole story. There are aspects to the gender/racial thing, and to racism/sexism, which don't rely on an editor being racist/sexist to play out to the detriment of poc and women.

I find it hilarious that you think someone pointing out the obnoxiousness of your generalization about what "slush readers know" is somehow derailing.

This entire ESSAY is a big snowball of generalizations--not to mention judgments.

Really.

I'd suggest taking a deep breath and trying it again, recognizing all the assumptions you're making. Some of us don't necessarily value the literary venues and publishers you're talking about more than those lowly "ethnic" journals and publishers. And maybe we aren't all that interested in submitting our work to them for an assortment of reasons, some of which may intersect with some of what you've listed (but without the barely-concealed judgment).

You said: But I've been feeling a twinge of sympathy there for a long time, because I know that what I've read in the past in slush doesn't reflect the quality of the actual field of writers out there, and I know that it's because a lot of the good writers just aren't submitting to these editors. That's the whole point of this post.

Cool. Maybe. I work for a magazine that actively solicits women/poc authors, so maybe I don't see these "disproportionately sucky" submissions from women/poc. . . but maybe not.

What I'm saying to you is that if what you said above is truly the point of your post. . . why begin with such bizarre, confrontational language? And then edit it when people object to be sort of conciliatory but sort of also "JEEZ" about the whole thing? I just don't understand your introduction, I guess. I'm sure the women/poc writers out there appreciate your "twinge of sympathy" but I'm sure a lot of us would also appreciate not being insulted. Whatevs.

Lauren: Your last comment cleared up some of my confusion about your not understanding things I believed I already dealt with in my post. You don't seem to realize that I am a woman of color (Asian, mixed race) and a writer who submits work to a variety of journals (mainstream as well as "ethnic.") I've also worked for over a decade in the Bay Area's communities of color, primarily in Asian American groups, and have taught writing classes for years in the same situation. I also STARTED an ethnic magazine with a group of friends and was the literary editor there for several years. And I'm about to publish one of my own stories there (and am very excited about it.)

So your assumption that I value literary publications more than "ethnic" ones is just wrong. This post is not about how literary and mainstream publications are more valuable so poc should be submitting more to them, but rather about answering the question that has come up often from mainstream editors about why more poc aren't submitting to their mags/houses.

And you bringing up that many poc writers don't value mainstream pubs more than "ethnic" ones (which I brought up in my post, by the way -- did you read the whole thing?) is one of the reasons I give that often submissions from poc to mainstream pubs are disproportionately sucky. It's because some of the best poc writers aren't submitting to mainstream pubs at all, they're sticking to community pubs.

Nowhere in my post did I say this was a problem. I only treated it as a point of confusion for editors of mainstream pubs who don't understand the situation.

And what exactly should I "try again"? Again, I call derailing, because you still haven't addressed my main points, which are about why a lot of good poc writers aren't submitting to mainstream pubs. Please read that over again and discuss THAT, since I think I've taken your point (three times now) about the "disproprotionately sucky" submissions.

Or do you dispute that a lot of good poc writers aren't submitting to mainstream pubs?

Molly,

I work for a magazine that actively solicits women/poc authors, so maybe I don't see these "disproportionately sucky" submissions from women/poc. . . but maybe not.

Yeah, if you're getting sufficient good subs from women/poc writers, then this post isn't about you. It's about the editors who aren't and who say they aren't -- and those editors come up every time this discussion comes up, from Seal Press to Mammoth Mike.

And yes, I do think it's a derail when I write a post about a situation and a set of opinions that's well-documented all over the internet, and you come in saying it can't be true because it isn't true for you. I'm glad that you're effective in soliciting good subs from women/poc, and I'll direct my friends to your website. But this post then isn't about you and your experience may not be relevant to the discussion.

And your impression that my opening paragraphs were bizarrely confrontational might just be the feeling of someone who feels confronted by them. The only thing I changed was the implication that the experience I characterized was a universal one. That was a bad rhetorical choice on my part, which is why I acknowledged it and changed it. But that doesn't change the fact that a lot of people report that experience.

Are we done with this now?

p.s. @ Lauren: Oh, I got stuck on the poc thing. I also just published a short collection of stories with a small, indy, feminist publisher in Seattle. I did substantial research into a number of more mainstream and bigger name publishers who have chapbook or small book series, but I only submitted to Aqueduct, because I felt that this was the ideal place for my book. So what I put in my list about poc/women preferring to stay with community or identity-based pubs instead of trying mainstream ones comes directly from my own experience as well as that of many writers I know.

It wasn't written with "barely concealed judgment" as you put it. You injected the judgment into it yourself.

I don't think I got anything wrong, Claire, beginning with who you are, since I've met you and shared a stage with you.

That's part of why I find it fascinating that this essay is directed not at people of color and women--objects in this discussion for whom you're speaking, but apparently not subjects. I don't see you asking us about our experiences with submitting to various markets (not only do we read mainstream publications, but we also read your blog!) as opposed to using anecdata to make pronouncements that you at least initially assumed were universal not only to other editors but to other women writers and writers of color.

Onto the points you're making:

When I mentioned barely-concealed judgments in my previous comment, I was talking not about the "sucky" pronouncement but your assertion that some of these writers have a "political agenda." To me, that seems pretty loaded. Would you mind unpacking that a bit? Also, this:

"MOST WOMEN AND POC WRITERS FAIL TO MAKE THAT LEAP."

I don't know--seems to me like that's a leap you expect us to want to make. (Otherwise, why would we be "failing" to make it? Why not "deciding not to" make it?) Considering the ongoing issues a writers from the demographics being discussed here have been having publicly with even "progressive" presses and journals during the last couple of years, I'd say it's not a failure to decide as a writer than you'd rather put your energy elsewhere than in chasing fame and money in the inherently racist, sexist, and homophobic mainstream literary industrial complex.

Further, it seems to me that you're ignoring something as obvious as daylight with regard to publishing (indy or mainstream): good old-fashioned nepotism. Editors publish people they know. If the majority of editors at mainstream houses happen to be white and male, it's not terribly surprising that their writers--and submitters--happen to be as well. So, if I can't name-drop or reference a publication that I think an editor will either recognize or care about in my cover letter, I may not bother submitting if there are other places I feel I may have an "in."

While a lot of the advice you give to editors later on is sound, I think it is at least fair to point out this elephant in the room--which goes beyond the issues of racism and sexism that you sort of glaze over here.

As to whether or not we're "done" with this, I'm curious why you seem so shocked that people are pointing out what is, at best, your unfortunate word choice and letting you know that it's offensive. Alas, you cannot un-ring a bell. You can apologize, however, instead of being defensive and accusing your readers of derailing a conversation that you started off on the wrong foot.

Lauren, sorry I didn't recognize your name! Yikes!

As far as your argument that I'm ignoring nepotism in publishing, well, yeah, I am ignoring it, because it's not relevant to a discussion about why poc/women writers aren't submitting to mainstream publishers, except insofar as

  • They know about your publishing house or journal but don't think you take work from women/"ethnic" writers. (This impression usually comes from the actual dearth of women/poc writers in your mag or on your list.)

  • They know you'll technically read work from women/ethnic writers, but don't believe their work will be taken seriously or given a fair reading.

  • They know you'll read their work with an earnest intention of fair play, but don't believe you're equipped to understand it.

Let me just repeat for the umpteenth time: this post is NOT ABOUT why women/poc aren't getting PUBLISHED. It's about why women/poc AREN'T SUBMITTING. Please see the title again.

What you wrote about that I totally agree with. But IT'S NOT WHAT THIS POST IS ABOUT. argh.

As far as your exegesis of the word "fail," ... sigh. Again, all I can say is that you're the one projecting the judgment onto it. I'm talking about "not submitting to mainstream publishers -- why?" So "not submitting" = "failure to submit" grammatically and literally. Could I have used another word? Yes. Did I? No? Am I going to change it because you don't like my use of it? No. Will I change it even if you insist that I must have meant something negative by it? No.

I don't know--seems to me like that's a leap you expect us to want to make.

Again, that's your projection. In the absence of any value judgment from me that's apparent in the text, you're free to put your own value judgement upon it. So knock yourself out. But let's be clear: what you're putting in there is your own interpretation. It's not based on what I actually said. As for my real opinion on this topic, I refer you to my comment directly above, where I explain my reasons for not submitting MY OWN BOOK to mainstream publishers -- basically for my own failure to make that leap.

And finally, I don't think what people are primarily objecting to is my unfortunate word choice. If I had said instead "My experience has been that the quality of submissions from women and poc has been low," I think I would have gotten a similar response. All I can say is: that's my experience. The quality of submissions is low; the quality of writing I see in the community is high, and there's lots of it. I can understand why a lot of editors say they're not getting enough submissions and what they're getting isn't always great, because I've had that experience myself, even in ethnic pubs. My intention here is to tease out why there's such a disconnect between what gets written and what gets submitted.

If you killed that part of my argument, you'd still be left with "women and poc don't submit often enough to mainstream publishers" (often enough, that is, for mainstream publishers to get the diversity we'd like to see.) And maybe I should have just stuck to that. But I didn't and, as you said, you can't unring a bell. I'm not going to apologize for something I still stand behind just because it was an unpopular thing to say.

I understand that people thought it sounded like I was saying that women and poc suck as writers, but I think by now it's pretty obvious that I wasn't saying that. So. Explain to me why it is so offensive to point out that, for example, the quality of poc submissions may be perceived as low at some mainstream publications in part because the best poc writers are not submitting to those publications?

Did you want me to apologize because many people don't have the same experience I did and some of my friends and acquaintances did? Or did you want me to apologize because people misunderstood what I was saying?

It's about the editors who aren't and who say they aren't -- and those editors come up every time this discussion comes up, from Seal Press to Mammoth Mike.

If you're referring to Mike Ashley here, he certainly never claimed that submissions by women and poc were "disproportionately sucky." Nor did he actually have an open submission process for his Mammoth anthology, which makes the question of slush and its composition moot.

No, Nick, I wasn't referring to Mike Ashley himself, but some of the folks who got in on that discussion (and other discussions) and said things like "We only choose the best for our (predominantly white and male) publications, regardless of gender or race," implying that the female and poc submissions they got were sucky.

What I've been trying to say here, over and over again, is not that there isn't a racist/sexist aspect to how slush is read by the readers and editors, but rather that that's not the only thing in operation here. Sometimes submissions DO suck, disproportionate to the quality of writing that's actually out there not being submitted.

I think I'm gonna stop saying it, though, because I'm starting to suspect that people aren't hearing me because they don't want to, and not because I'm not saying it right.

Actually, Claire, I think you'd be getting a very different response had you written:

"My experience has been that the quality of submissions from women and poc has been low."

Note that it's not only writers like myself who are taking offense here, but other editors who do not share your view and don't seem thrilled for you to put words in their mouths as you make generalizations about our inability to submit anything of quality to editors.

And again, to the points I made that you didn't address:

"When I mentioned barely-concealed judgments in my previous comment, I was talking not about the "sucky" pronouncement but your assertion that some of these writers have a "political agenda." To me, that seems pretty loaded. Would you mind unpacking that a bit?"

Also, with regard to "failure," I will continue to believe that it's not just a matter of semantics but a belief on your part that women and people of color should be submitting more to mainstream journals, even as you ignore and fail to really address instead of glaze over the very valid reasons why we may choose not to.

As for my interpretation of your words... well, you're a writer. It's half your job to make sure you're understood, and from what I'm seeing, many of the commenters here understood very well what you were saying. We just disagree with it.

Deuces,
LW

"When I mentioned barely-concealed judgments in my previous comment, I was talking not about the "sucky" pronouncement but your assertion that some of these writers have a "political agenda." To me, that seems pretty loaded. Would you mind unpacking that a bit?"

Okay. By "political agenda" I meant that what women/poc write in a social justice context is often intended to speak specifically to that social justice context. So the writer may not want that piece to show up in a mainstream pub where it might be seen to be accommodating mainstream views. Or that writer may have written the piece specifically to be read in a community context, so they want to see it in a community pub. Or they may have written specifically to be in discussion with their identity community, so they wanted it to be published in a place where their identity community would already be in that conversation.

Also, with regard to "failure," I will continue to believe that it's not just a matter of semantics but a belief on your part that women and people of color should be submitting more to mainstream journals, even as you ignore and fail to really address instead of glaze over the very valid reasons why we may choose not to.

I've already said what I had to say about the word "failure" and am done. I won't engage in a yes i did no you didn't about it. You can believe what you like in the face my contention that you're wrong. But do consider how disrespectful of ME it is to say "you've said what you meant but I don't believe you."

As far as "glazing over" the "very valid reasons why we may choose not to," here's a great opportunity for you to unpack what those reasons are that I missed. And that's what I meant by addressing the main part of my post. Since my post was primarily about addressing those very valid reasons why women/poc choose not to submit work to mainstream pubs, I'm delighted that you've finally turned your attention to that.

I'm going out for a while, but I look forward to hearing your thoughts when I return.

"We only choose the best for our (predominantly white and male) publications, regardless of gender or race," implying that the female and poc submissions they got were sucky.

That sounds like a pretty big leap to me. For one thing, most of those same people generally claim that what they receive from women/pocs (to the extent they can tell) and what they publish from women/pocs generally are proportional. I followed those discussions extremely closely and certainly don't remember anyone saying anything that would imply that women/poc who submit are worse than men/whites who submit.

Also, as noted all over the place, your experience seems to be much less common than you claimed. I've read slush for indie presses, magazines, anthologies, etc. and if anything work women submit tends to be better than work men submit. This was true across poetry, political non-fiction, and SF/F/H.

To clarify:

When I say you're glazing over valid reasons people of color and women may not bother / may not deign / may fail to submit their work to mainstream pubs, I'm referring to the sexism and racism that you casually dismissed as being "other" reasons we don't appear in print as opposed to some of the reasons we don't submit in the first place. Our expectations and experiences within the various corners of the literary world aren't all fiction. I know, from my own experience and that of writers with whom I'm acquainted (since anecdata apparently rules in this here conversation), that the way our work is read, judged, and framed by prospective publishers is often influenced by their dominant positions. As in, "We don't publish that kind of writing," where "that kind of" equals "Black" or "gay." I think it's not a failure on my part to eschew chasing that particular carrot. I'd like more than to be the diversity button an editor gets to wear at a lit convention. We don't all cotton to being or having our work tokenized, and I don't think that can brushed aside in this conversation.

Another clarification:

"Deuces" alludes to the two-finger peace sign, meaning "peace out," meaning...

I'm done.

LW

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Join My Mailing List!