The other day, an older male cishet white writer who I consider a mentor posted a rant on social media about how writers these days are nominated for awards based more on their identities – as women, BIPOC, or LQBTQ+ individuals – rather than on the strength and impact of their work alone. It made me very sad, and I’ve thought of little else since. Over the last several years, I’ve seen many straight while male writers, especially older ones, complaining about how publishing now discriminates against them. I’m going to be 59 next month, which probably qualifies me for old man status myself. I’m white, I’ve always identified as male (although personality-wise, I’m a mix of stereotypical male and female traits), and I’ve been primarily heterosexual throughout my life and consider myself straight. I suppose this makes me as a good a person as any to write an open letter to my fellow Old White Cishet Males (OWCM’s) explaining why the current awareness of diversity in publishing is a good thing.
Many OWCM’s believe they can’t get published – or nominated for awards – anymore. Pen America recently released a report on equity in publishing. You can read it here: https://pen.org/report/race-equity-and-book-publishing/ The short version is that OWCM’s (and Young White Cishet Males) are still published far more than any other group and hold more positions in the publishing industry. But I understand how it can feel to OWCM’s that they aren’t wanted in publishing. I’ve seen editors and agents post on social media that they don’t want submissions from OWCM’s, and I know of one award committee which decided to only consider women for awards one year (they didn’t make this preference public, though). I suspect these editors and agents have realized how many more OWCM’s they have on their lists than anyone else, and they’re trying to broaden those lists. Except they never say this is their motivation. I also see many younger people talk about OWCM’s as a singular toxic group, engaging in the kind of prejudice that they accuse OWCM’s of harboring. As a college friend of mine was fond of saying, there’s no standard like a double standard. All of these things can contribute to the impression that OWCM’s have that publishing doesn’t want them anymore, but the truth is that publishing doesn’t only want them anymore. OWCM’s grew up in a world where they belonged everywhere. No place was closed to them, and if it was, they just forced their way in, because they were taught that total and complete access was their birthright. Many of them literally have no concept that the world and everything in it doesn’t belong to them, and when they find out they can’t always have everything, can’t always be centered, when they are sometimes told NO, it confuses the hell out of them and often enrages them. Fellow OWCM’s, you need to learn that life isn’t all about you and your desires. It’s about everyone, and that includes publishing.
Some OWCM’s believe that publishing’s current focus on diversity is all about leftist social engineering. Maybe that’s part of it (I’m a leftist so the notion doesn’t bother me), but publishing is a business and if diversity is currently selling, publishers will seek to increase it. A lot of people fear that publishing, which has only gone so far with increasing diversity, may backslide before too long because they see diversity only as a trend that they’re paying lip service to. I hope that doesn’t happen. One person’s “social engineering” is another’s leveling a playing field that’s been heavily skewed to OWCM’s for far too long. That seems like simple fairness to me, but when you’ve been heavily privileged all your life – which OWCM’s as a group have been – any change in that status can seem like people are trying to take away what’s rightfully yours. You’re not more special than any one else in the world, OWCM’s. You need to get used to it, not because you think someone is trying to force you to do so, but because it’s the right thing to do.
Here's are few more bits of advice for my fellow OWCM’s:
· Listen more than you talk – a lot more. When you’ve been at the top of the power structure all your life, you tend to center your own point of view, automatically and without realizing it. The way to counter this is to listen to other people’s experiences – people who are not and have never been at the top of the power structure – without prejudice or judgment (as best you can; you’re only human). Try to learn from them. Imagine living their lives. You’re a writer. You should be good at imagining. This will increase your understanding and empathy, making you a better person. I’ve grown so much as a person over the years listening to my students (I teach at an urban community college) and from reading posts from different people on social media.
· View diversity as extra-added value. The writing needs to be good to get published. Most books traditionally published will never be great classics of world literature, but they’ll be entertaining and well crafted. A writer’s lived experience is extra added value, and women, BIPOC, and LQBTQ+ writers bring perspectives that haven’t been represented much in publishing (if at all). This is good. It makes literature richer and our overall culture stronger.
· Remember that people can publish works or give awards for whatever reasons they want. WCM’s (young or old) aren’t owed publishing contracts and awards more than anyone else is. Publishers can have different genre lines – mystery, romance, science fiction, etc. You can think of diverse books as another type of genre if you want, one in which the books are written by people who belong to the culture they’re writing about. You could write diverse books too if you belong to some racial/ethnic/cultural group other than WCM. Publishers and readers aren’t interested in work centering the WCM experience because that’s mostly what we’ve gotten for centuries. As for awards, they aren’t about being objectively “best,” because “best” is always a subjective judgment. An award simply means that a certain group of people decided to honor a certain work at a certain time for certain reasons. Those reasons can be anything, and if one of those reasons happens to be that, since women, BIPOC. And LQTBQ+ authors were excluded from awards for so long, they’re being actively considered, so what? They’re being considered alongside works by WCM’s. You simply have more competition now, WCM’s. I’ll never understand why conservatives and libertarians in particular seem so upset about this. Aren’t they supposed to value competition? Maybe they’re just mad that they don’t have the ability to define the playing field and the rules, in which case they don’t really value competition do they? They only value having the upper hand.
· Up your game. Traditional publishing has always been hard. Want to be competitive in this new world? You need to do what you’ve always needed to do. Try to write better than your best every time. If you’re an OCWM like me, this means not getting lazy and resting on your laurels. It’s human nature to slow down as we age and want to take it easy. Nothing wrong with that if that’s what you want to do. But if you want to stay at the top of your game, you have to keep working and keep working hard, just like you’ve always done.
· Self-publish. Don’t like the way traditional publishing is going or how awards are being given? Say fuck it all and self-publish. No one’s forcing you to remain part of a community that’s changing in ways you don’t like. You’re not going to stop the changes. You’re only going to make yourself and others miserable if you try. Self-publish and be happy.
· Try to adjust to your new “neighbors” and contribute to your community. Change is the only constant in life. Imagine that you’ve lived in the same neighborhood for decades. People have moved out. People have moved in. Some have died. Some have grown old and don’t leave their homes much, if at all. You may pine for the old neighborhood, and the status you held in it, but none of that is ever coming back. Not only can’t you control what the neighborhood becomes, it would be wrong of you to try. It’s not your neighborhood, and it never was. It belonged to everyone who lived there then, and it belongs to everyone who lives there now. You can work to adjust to the current neighborhood, find a place in it, and contribute, or you can isolate yourself from it. If you do this, though, you should do your best not to harm the neighborhood. Unless you’re determined to be a dick. But why bother? All that does is waste your time and energy, and it achieves nothing in the end. Plus, it will damage – if not completely destroy – whatever legacy you’ve built in the field.
That’s all I’ve got at the moment. If you have any suggestions or thoughts, feel free to leave them in the comments. I’ll remove any comments that aren’t civil and constructive, though.
No Department of Shameless Self-Promotion this time. I’m not up for it.