A Northwest Based Literary Journal

A Week-Long Discussion on Diversity in Literature: Day 7

Today’s blog is the final one in our week-long discussion of diversity in literature, with posts from a TLR contributor or editor. We hope the series has encouraged a lively discussion. Comments are open.


The Education of the Caveman Within

By Joe Ponepinto

I have only explanations, not excuses. I have to start somewhere.

We are social creatures, evolved to embrace the culture into which we were born, but also to reject “the other.” It’s so easy to do this—it doesn’t require any more thinking than our prehistoric ancestors gave it. It’s our nature to like people we perceive as being like us, and to distrust those we perceive as different. Back then it was because “the other” represented a real threat of some kind: to food, to safety, to sexual opportunity. Today, the threat is largely imaginary, yet still felt as strongly.

How do we respond when the society in which we live distrusts us, and sees us as the other?

Being white, male and straight, I can’t answer that question directly, although in my life I’ve experienced exclusion based on petty cultural differences (being of Italian heritage actually mattered to some people where I grew up), and my personal bane, cronyism. But it ain’t the same, I know.

Fifteen years ago, I married my beautiful wife, Dona, who is African-American. But for a while in my life, I would not even have dated a black woman. Such was the insular culture in which I was raised, in lower-middle-class suburban Long Island, where the races and cultures were largely segregated. There were no black students in any of my classes through high school. I remember two Latino kids—one was a friend, the other I couldn’t stand. I recall one Asian boy in eighth grade, an exchange student from South Korea.

It’s a sign of an arrested culture to exclude the perceived other. It’s an indication of a culture so afraid of losing its identity that its members isolate themselves in order to avoid change, which can only be imagined as harmful to the core culture. It’s caveman thinking.

But back to that question. In the literary world, in the upper echelons of publishing (which according to Publisher’s Weekly’s annual survey are 89% white), I get the impression that for all their proclaimed experience and education and liberal pronouncements, the people in charge still make subconsciously caveman decisions: I like this guy. He thinks like I do. I’ll hire him.

Out here in the trenches, in the land of indie publishers and literary journals, the reaction is predictable. Dozens of contests, journals and book publishers restrict submissions to people of a certain race, gender, sexual orientation or disability to ensure an authentic forum for the work, and more importantly, to validate writers who have been disregarded by mainstream publishing. The drawback is that it also becomes a form of self-isolation from the cultures these publishers ultimately wish to influence. To the dominant ones, this can sound like: You won’t publish us over there; well then we won’t publish you over here. Meanwhile it doesn’t really help to see established, mainstream journals run story after story about a white couple in a car, going nowhere and lamenting their relationship, which indicates not just the banality of such existence, but an almost complete lack of curiosity about the way others live. (I’ve received at least five of those this week in the slush.) It’s this write-what-you-know-and-only-what-you-know divisiveness that seems to pervade every segment of our literary world, as well as our daily lives.

As a writer and editor for thirty-plus years, having spent a decade in journalism and having lived in perhaps a dozen places around the country, I have found that I identify less and less with the cultures and subcultures that make up our society, particularly the one into which I was born. That’s because although each one promises a shared sense of identity and camaraderie, it also demands conformity to its norms and sometimes illogical beliefs in order to participate as a member. I’ve never been able to sacrifice that much of my individuality. I can no longer accept culture’s artificial boundaries.

By belonging to none, I hope to belong to all.

In my editorial capacity, where my physical appearance doesn’t matter, that worldview may find a purpose. Yes, my decisions will probably always be somewhat influenced by the whiteness, maleness and straightness of my early education, but they will also lean more heavily on my experiences in the years since. Those experiences drive me to stay interested in intelligent ideas from every origin, to be curious about people more than cultures, to reject the idea of the hated other. Within this philosophy I must always accept that understanding diversity for me is still a second-hand proposition, a hearsay. I may never truly experience discrimination. I can sympathize with those discriminated against, but I cannot know what it is like to be denied opportunity based on skin color or gender or sexual orientation or ability.

Nor can I know what it is like to grow up in a culture other than the one I experienced. But as an adult I can remove its blinders. I can appreciate its benefits, but also recognize its wrongs and leave them behind. And I can encourage the process of such change for others through my work at TLR. Our world is too complex and connected now to accommodate prehistoric thinking.

Joe Ponepinto is the Publisher and Fiction Editor of Tahoma Literary Review.

Tagged as: , , , , ,

Categorised in: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry

6 Responses

  1. Thanks for this beautiful post, Joe and here’s to greater inclusion everywhere in the arts and in our beleaguered 21st Century.

  2. This has been a wonderful series of posts, I thank Tahoma Literary Review for this fascinating discussion.

    I do wonder, though, if it’s maybe a little too easy to discuss the need for diversity on the side of writers and publishers (who, after all, would oppose that?). I wonder if the issue becomes more complicated if we turn it around and direct it to *readers*? That is to say: Should *readers* of literature be more interested in reading diverse authors?

    Maybe we’re on more dangerous ground when we say it that way. After all, people turn to literature for all sorts of reasons, and it may possibly be the case–I’m not saying it definitely is, just hypothesizing–that, for many or even most readers, exploring diversity is not preeminent among those reasons.

    It *may* be the case that many readers turn to literature for the opposite reason–not to explore diversity but rather to enrich their experiences of their own identity, to find themselves reflected in some way back to them (if that’s not too Hegelian a phrase). It *may* be that many people, even those who are firmly committed to promoting diversity in our society, nonetheless are not so interested in diversity when it comes to deciding what novel to read next.

    Maybe, when it comes to exploring and furthering and learning about diversity, readers often prefer non-fictional sources (memoirs, histories, critical theory, etc.). For them, when it comes to *literature,* to fiction and poetry, what fulfills them the most is the literature that is, in some way or other, about themselves.

    If that were true–and I’m not saying it is, but it is a possibility–then would we want to say to those readers, “No, you’re wrong…you really ought to WANT to read authors whose experiences with cultural and racial and sexual and class identity are radically different from yours.”

    That’s a tougher stance to take, I think. To demand that readers want what we think they should want.

    And since the entries in this series all were a little personal, I don’t mind confessing that, when it comes to my own choices in literature, I am mostly interested in a diversity of *style*, of voice and narrative technique, and I’m not particularly concerned with who the author is. And, if I’m being brutally honest, when it comes to learning about people and experiences that are radically different from my own, I don’t think fiction or poetry is what I would typically turn to. I would probably rather find a good piece of non-fiction.

    I wonder if our demand for more diversity in fiction and poetry is somehow equivalent to a demand that I, as a reader, *should* want to read more literature about people whose lives are very different from my own? What if that’s not the role that literature plays in my life? Would I just be wrong?


    • Thanks for taking the time to comment so thoughtfully, Alexander. You’ve raised some questions that are perhaps best answered by individual readers as they make their reading choices. I would say, though, that there is a difference in exploring diversity through nonfiction as opposed to fiction. Just my opinion of course, but the first is mainly a quest for knowledge, while the latter is a quest for story, and story is, as you pointed out, a more personal experience for a reader. It’s also, as Joseph Campbell wrote, a core aspect of culture, a shared narrative among a particular people. Perhaps that’s why some of our guest bloggers noted the lack of diversity not so much in literature, but within the stories authors tell. The author must decide, then, which is the better story: the one that is a reflection of what is, or the one that explores what should be?

    • Hi, A. Joachim Glage —

      You write: “It *may* be the case that many readers turn to literature for the opposite reason–not to explore diversity but rather to enrich their experiences of their own identity, to find themselves reflected in some way back to them.”

      I agree with you that this isn’t uncommon. To an alarming degree, one’s worldview can be as broad or narrow as the media one consumes. To me, one of the main challenges for a writer today is to reach a reader unaccustomed encountering a conflicting perspective (political, religious, social, or aesthetic).

      I wonder, though, how writers with disabilities, LGBTQ writers, writers of color, writers who aren’t upper-middle-class, writers who are women might see themselves “reflected” in the canon, or even in a lot of what’s currently being published (and, once published, promoted). It’s a measure of privilege to just reach up on the shelf and to be able to find yourself somewhere. It’s another to see yourself reflected in the display windows of most bookstores.

      That said, I think we agree that readers have to *want* diversity in literature. Perhaps one difference between our views is how much a reader misses out on when he doesn’t demand a literature that reflects not his individual self, but his larger world?

      • Greetings tkdalton, and thank you for your reply. You wrote: “I wonder, though, how writers with disabilities, LGBTQ writers, writers of color, writers who aren’t upper-middle-class, writers who are women might see themselves “reflected” in the canon, or even in a lot of what’s currently being published (and, once published, promoted).”

        I wonder that too. And that’s part of my point–I think it’s easy to get behind a call for more diversity in the writers and books being published and sold in the bookstores. We all want that, right? But what is not so easy is to demand of *readers* that they ought to be interested in those books, that they ought to read authors who are very different from them, etc. There’s a bit more of an “ick” factor in that–telling people what role literature *ought* to play in their lives.

        And then this too: “Perhaps one difference between our views is how much a reader misses out on when he doesn’t demand a literature that reflects not his individual self, but his larger world?”

        I think what you say here is true, but maybe also banal. After all, no matter what books you read in your life, you will always be missing out. No matter what. There are more brilliant books than you have time to read. If you spend your whole life trying to read as many diverse authors as possible, you may get a good sense of the lives of many people who are very different from you, but then by doing that you will no doubt have “missed out” on things that someone who instead spent her whole life just reading Harold Bloom’s canon will have gotten.

        Which again brings us back to the critical question of what role literature *ought* to play in people’s lives. Is it the role of literature to expose us as much as possible to, as you say, “the larger world?” What if many people prefer to be exposed to that larger world through other means–news, history, politics, film, biographies, etc.–and turn to literature for more selfish reasons? For more personal, self-reflecting purposes? Sure, they’re “missing out,” but as I mentioned above no matter what you read you’re missing out. The real question is: Do we have any real moral leverage to demand of a reader that he/she expose him/herself to that larger world *through literature?* What if that’s just not the role that literature plays in such a reader’s life?

        I guess I just want to say that it’s trickier when you focus on readers.

  3. Another personal, honest and insightful post on the subject of diversity in literature. I appreciate your recognition Joe that we are who we are based on the accumulation of our experiences and that no one needs to apologize for that no matter where we come from. As you demonstrate, it truly is a matter of how we approach the world with what we have gained.

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