Essay : Online Literary Magazines and their (Intense) Diversity Problem
I’ve never felt the need to begin an essay with a clarifying note, but there’s a first time for everything. I’ve been writing reviews for Electric Literature since 2014, always trying to focus on indie presses and authors. The venue has been good to me and I think they’ve built a superb platform. The fact that this piece uses them as an example shouldn’t be taken as a critique of them alone; I’m using EL in order to start a much larger discussion that affects most online literary magazines. Furthermore, I’ve already expressed my willingness to continue writing reviews for them as long as we focus on POC, indie presses, women, and books by members of the LGBTQ community. Now let’s get to it.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece about the negative responses and reviews I’ve received for having Spanish and Spanglish in Zero Saints. A friend recommended Electric Literature as a good venue for the piece and I sent it their way. It was rejected. No big deal. I also received a rejection from Hobart that day for a nonfiction piece about a dead horse and a junkie. Rejection is part of the game and I’ve collected quite an impressive list of rejections in the past half decade, so I immediately sent the piece to another fantastic publication. However, the rejection came with an invitation to move away from a defense of my book and Spanish and write a piece that focused on all other languages used in fiction, even those created by authors. I didn’t reply to that, but my book also has Russian and Lucumí in it, and no one has complained about those. For me, not putting the focus on Spanish and Spanglish and the negativity placed on them is diluting the struggle of Latino authors across the globe and shifting focus to something that’s not really an issue at all...unless there’s suddenly a massive influx of elves and their citizenship, rights, and presence in popular fiction becomes an hot issue. In any case, I moved on.
Then came last Saturday, April 30th. I was reading at home when I got a text from author Brian Allen Carr. Getting a text from Brian is usually a good thing. This time it wasn’t. He sent me a link to a piece published at Electric Literature about ten books that “capture the ineffable thing that makes Texas Texas.” I’ve lived in Texas for almost a decade and I’ve been writing fiction and nonfiction in and about it for most of that time, so I read the piece immediately. Here’s a synopsis: a list of nine books kinda/sorta about Texas written by white authors and one short story by David Foster Wallace set in DC, all picked by a white woman who never lived in Texas. Even if the piece hadn’t kicked things off with the most privileged intro I’ve read this year, I’d still be angry about it. Why? Because you can’t have a fucking list of novels that “capture” Texas without at least one POC in there. Almost half of this state is brown, and some whitewashed list is just not gonna cut it. You can’t have a list about novels that capture Texas without Tejanos, without Mexican Americans, without Latinos, without African Americans. And if you’re going to mention some white authors, you better make sure Joe Lansdale is in there or your list is a sad joke because reading Lansdale is reading everything that's weird and wonderful about this state.
Listen, I’m not going to start debating literary versus genre crap again, but I will say this: if you want to write and write about books, you have to read far and wide. The fact that this list didn’t mention new Texan voices like poet Edward Vidaurre or even Brian Allen Carr (The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World is one of the best celebrations of Mexican lore ever written by a non-Mexican author) is somewhat acceptable, but not mentioning Dagoberto Gilb or Tomas Rivera is not. Are you seriously going to include a short by DFW set in DC but not mention Sandra Cisneros? You’re going to put Annie Proulx, who was born in Connecticut and went to Vermont University, in there but you’re going leave out Gloria Anzaldúa? What captures the experience of a great number of Texas residents better than her Borderlands?
As I exchanged messages on Facebook with a group of authors who were as shocked as I was abut that list, a tiny voice in my head told me “Mellow out, man. Maybe you’re just angry that this got published and your piece was rejected.” I tend to listen to the voices in my head, so I did just that. First, I recalled a few experiences with rejection from top-notch venues. Then, seeing them all together like that, I realized these magazines have a serious problem: they work hard at staying very white, very clean, very removed from the gritty side of life and the world.
Just to make sure I wasn’t telling myself stories, I decided to head back to the computer, pull up EL again, and looked at the rest of what they had up on the homepage. Besides the whitewashed list, they had “Giving Highsmith Her Due — and Her Dirt: Tyler’s Last by David Winner,” which is a review of a book by a white dude from London written by a white lady that kicks off praising Todd Haynes, an white indie film director, and Patricia Highsmith. Then came “TED WILSON REVIEWS THE WORLD: A BABY HUMMINGBIRD,” which is a review of a baby hummingbird written by a white man. That was followed by “All The Lasting Things Subverts the Way with Which Society Measures Success,” in which a white lady very eloquently reviews a novel by a white dude with an MFA (she mentions William Faulkner!). Up next was “Rebecca Schiff on Humor, Crafting the Perfect Line and Casual Sex in Fiction: An Interview,” in which two white women (kudos for all the women on that homepage) discuss humor and other things. Moving on. “My Journey Into the Woods: What Stephen Sondheim Taught Me About Conceiving a Child.” No surprises here: white lady working on her debut novel writes about a white composer. Then came arguably the best article on the homepage, which I’d read earlier in the week and even got in touch with the author: “Noir Is Protest Literature: That’s Why It’s Having a Renaissance.” Unfortunately, the piece was more like a question about what folks interested in diverse noir should be reading, and it was written by a guy born in Virginia. This last piece includes the line: “Western literature in general has an inclusion problem (to put it gently), but in the case of noir it is particularly ironic.” Can you say understatement?
That brings us to my main point: most big literature sites are cultivating an utterly bland, painfully homogenized, ridiculously celebratory, and shamefully plastic version of literature. In a recent interview, Bookslut head honcho Jessa Crispin said there “seems to be less and less underground” nowadays. She’s wrong. The underground is now bigger and better than ever, but the lit sites everyone reads are purposefully not paying attention. The discourse has always been whitewashed, and they refuse to change. Go to your favorite lit site and look at the masthead. Doesn’t that shit remind you of The Brady Bunch? Now go to the homepage and see how many pieces in there are by white authors or folks with MFAs. Sure, if you dig into the archives you’ll find some pieces by POC, but not nearly as many as you should. Literature is supposed to be a mirror, and most of these lit sites are not letting everyone get close enough to be reflected.
Again, I’m not picking on Electric Literature; I’m pointing at all of them. I pitched a piece on photographer Earlier Hudnall to one of the most important publications in Texas. They took it. I went to Houston and spent a weekend watching Hudnall work and walking with him through the Wards. I wrote my piece and sent it in. The editor said it was full of purple prose. I rewrote it. He said I was focusing too much on gentrification and the way Hudnall was chronicling it. I tweaked it a bit more. The editor said I should take the race stuff out and focus on the art. I pulled the piece. Another time, I pitched a review of Brian Allen Carr’s Motherfucking Sharks to a great venue. They said yes. I sent it in. Then they told me someone at the top refused to run it because it had “motherfucking” in the title. Well, if you can’t deal with the fact that this is a racist country and some folks are screwed, landlocked, and angry, you shouldn’t accept stories about folks who speak about those issues. Likewise, if you refuse to run a review of an outstanding work of fiction by one of the most exciting voices working today because there’s a “bad” word in the title, maybe you need to grow the fuck up and accept that some people write using those words.
Time to wrap this up. Sorry for the long piece, lovely creatures. What I want to leave you with is this: diversity matters. Accepting that not everyone writes the kind of stuff that gets published in journals with pastel-colored covers featuring a bird or a cloud matters. Putting a spotlight on everything that’s happening away from the Big Five matters. Recognizing that homogeneity isn’t exciting or fair matters. Publishing work by those inhabiting Otherness matters. Calling out bullshit when you see it matters, and that’s exactly what I tried to do here. It’s time for the big lit sites to get a little dirty, hang out en el barrio, say a few curse words, and start celebrating divergence and multiplicity. It’s time to make sure women, Asians, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, trans folks, and everybody else start feeling welcome to submit pieces everywhere regardless of size. Yeah, it’s time to inject a little variety into this thing, to give the whole shebang some brass ovaries and start changing for the better.