A few weeks ago UK writer Tony Rock wrote a blog about our policy on diversity. In it, he seemed to be making the case that by encouraging diversity in our pages, we were making it more difficult for certain writers to be published.
His comments were based on a paragraph that is on our About Cover Letters page. It’s worth revisiting:
When writers self-identify in their cover letter or biographical statement, those disclosures help us to do a better job in balancing, for example, the ratio of male and female writers, emerging and established writers, writers from the US and abroad, writers inside and outside academia, younger and older writers, or gay and straight writers in any individual issue.
Mr. Rock wrote, “…I want my work to be judged on its own merits. Now, in the (as my Duotrope experience tells me) highly unlikely event that my work is considered good enough to be exchanged for money rather than another emailed knock-back, I’d hate to think that what got it over the line was the fact that I was an unknown, 15-year-old, foreign, lesbian dropout. Equally, I’d hate to think that my story missed out because I wasn’t.”
Despite the self-effacing comment about his work, this statement contains an implicit message that the writing of “others” is somehow less relevant, and less well written, and that such work is often published as an expression of political correctness rather than a recognition of literary quality. Promoting diversity doesn’t prejudice TLR against anyone, but Mr. Rock’s blog got me thinking about how being a straight white male myself plays into my decisions regarding the fiction we publish.
What motivates those decisions? How do I try to achieve a diverse balance among contributors and maintain literary excellence? Can a person of my background and upbringing even be a fair judge of writing from diverse sources?
The recent controversy over Lionel Striver’s speech in Brisbane, in which she defended cultural appropriation by writers and has since been disavowed by the conference organizers and vigorously criticized by some writers, only raises the stakes of this issue. The conversation should extend to editors. As decision makers, we must acknowledge not only our role in curating creative writing, but also be willing to discuss our methods and our qualifications to do so.
To answer those questions above I have to go back a long way.
I was raised in a time and place of almost zero diversity. This was in suburban Long Island in the 1960s, a place with an odd mix of liberal educational values, yet one in which segregation was the unspoken norm: I remember only one African American, two Latino, and no Asian students in my high school student body of over a thousand kids. In those days, I was taught to believe that the works of certain writers—almost all of them white and male—were the pinnacle of literature. The writing of women, persons of color, and other marginalized groups was generally not part of that conversation. Good writing seemed to be about people with whom I could identify; people who, whatever their problems or personalities, shared my values, talked like me, looked like me. Sure, we occasionally studied writing from other sources, but those stories were exceptions, curiosities, nods of diversity to keep the critics quiet.
The sixties, of course, were also the height of the civil rights struggle, and surely the news and debates of the day had an impact, even on a kid growing up in segregated Long Island. I remember parroting my father’s negative opinions and fear about demonstrators and activists, extending even to the people who attended Woodstock in 1969. But I remember also a nascent wonderment at these events, and for the people who felt so strongly about them.
I’ve had the advantages of education and wanderlust over the decades since, and the scope of my learning has changed significantly. I left Long Island after high school. Something inside told me to get away. I dropped out of college and joined the Air Force. For the next four years my existence was more multicultural and multiracial, in part because it was enforced by military regulations, but also because by working alongside people, one begins to appreciate them as people instead of statistics. When I received my discharge I moved to Long Beach, California, a city of many origins and lifestyles, and a government devoted to inclusiveness. As I worked my way into positions as a newspaper editor and mayor’s staff member, my colleagues and friends began to look less like me, or rather, I looked less like them. Diversity had become my home.
Despite all the changes, I wonder how much my baseline values are still embedded; the lessons of one’s childhood tend to remain hardwired into us, whether we admit it or not. Mine have been layered over many times with experience and learning, as well as the responsibility that comes with editing a literary journal designed to appeal to a broad readership. But perhaps they are still inside, like recessive genes, waiting for a chance to manifest.
So as an editor, when I like a submission and decide to move it to a higher level of consideration, I almost always ask myself why I like it. Part of that inquiry includes asking if it appeals to my gut, those old ideals of proper fiction, or if I believe it’s good because of what I’ve learned since, through decades of writing, study, and an MFA. I ask as well if it will appeal to a larger audience, the one for which I curate the fiction in TLR. I believe this should be a conscious effort. Understanding my inherent biases—recognizing that they might still affect my judgment—must play a part to ensure a process that’s fair to all submitters.
I would not pretend to know what it’s like to be black, or a woman, or gay, or disabled. But can I be sympathetic enough to those perspectives to judge them fairly? My answer is to do what I have always done—influences notwithstanding—to seek out the new, the different, the other.
This approach opens me to possibilities of origin. When I’m reading submissions, I’m always looking for something beyond my experience: some new subject, or place, or culture, or even just a totally new way of looking at a subject I’m familiar with. Frankly, I believe it’s an editor’s duty to do this. It’s an approach that I liken to a scientist’s: inquisitive about what he doesn’t know, and dedicated to exploring and understanding those areas. It’s cultures, lifestyles, and literary styles not one’s own. It’s an insatiable thirst for knowledge, of both the exterior world and the interior, which not incidentally leads to recognition of a truth, which is that stories from across the human spectrum and experience are necessary to understand the nature of the world, not just the place in which one lives or the people one grew up with. It’s the abnegation of that childhood tribalism. I only wish I’d had more such stories when I was a schoolkid.
Is it possible for a writer to represent other perspectives without being able to personally experience them? Women and men write across gender lines successfully all the time. There are many examples of fiction that crosses boundaries of culture and sexual orientation, written by people who can empathize another’s experience. But there are many poor ones as well, written from a false perspective and therefore made judgmental, enough for us to seek out the identity of the writer to help determine authenticity. That’s why the key word in our statement is “balancing.” We’re not shutting out anyone. We ask writers to self identify because we’re trying to ensure that those new stories and viewpoints—the legitimate ones—have an opportunity to be published.
This makes it easy for someone to ask what I will do if faced with two stories that I feel are of equal literary merit—will I choose one over another based on who wrote it? Trouble is, that’s not the right question. Ask instead which one deals with the new: the new place, the unreported dilemma, the undiscovered life. Which one brings that new thing to light authentically, from within experience or true empathy? The question should be: am I actively looking for new and underrepresented stories? And then the answer is yes, because they have not been told and deserve to be told.
And whoever the writer is, the work still has to exhibit literary excellence in terms of language, voice, grammar, characterization, and all those aspects of writing they teach in writing courses. It must be better than 99 percent of what comes in through the submission portal or I won’t publish it, period.
Maybe all this doesn’t especially qualify me to judge writing from diverse sources, but at least there I have backup. My choices aren’t made in a vacuum. Instead I have the help and support of my co-editors at TLR, Kelly Davio and Yi Shun Lai, each of whom has the kind of first-hand knowledge of marginalized voices that I can only sympathize with. We work together on many decisions, which adds an aspect of diversity to my editing.
If this explanation of how I edit still leads someone to say that I am guilty of preferential treatment, so be it. To that person, though, I would say look within. Examine your motivations, the foundations of your belief. Are they based on some ancient idea about who people are and how they identify, or on the quality of their work and what they’re saying? If you look hard enough you may find that the force that keeps your writing from being published comes from inside, not from any conspiracy. It’s the recessive gene activated: the cancer that tells you your writing is great when in fact it could be improved. It’s the fear that keeps you from exploring the new. It’s the disease that says your failure is always someone else’s fault.
Open. Seek out the unknown. Embrace the breadth and the beauty—and the ugliness—of the world. Make them yours and leave the excuses behind. Become, as I still am, a work in progress. Your writing, and you, will thrive.
As for the statement on our cover letter page, I stand by it.
 My ancestry, for the record, is Italian: half Tuscan, half Sicilian.
 The intricacies of cultural, sexual orientation, gender, and other forms of literary appropriation, as well as deliberate author misrepresentation, are far too involved to get into here.