In my opinion, this is, perhaps the most overlooked TED talk on writing out there. Most people skip it because it is subtitled, but the teacher in me loves this for many reasons, particularly the message that you can be more than one thing at once: a taxi driver AND a writer, a businessman AND a writer, an scientist AND a writer. I think many people forget this. They think that this writing thing is all or nothing, and my STEM-school students often say they don't have time for creative writing. That they are working towards being an engineer or a doctor or some other thing that will, undoubtedly, make more money. Young-ha Kim offers a beautiful reminder that we can be many things at once. As he points out, the artist is there inside us, right from the start. Give a kid a chance and he'll make art happily, without much prompting. At some point, we become disconnected from that childhood self, but the artist is still in there, inside us, yearning to get out.
Can we be honest here? Lately, I've been frustrated with the publishing world. In graduate school, I used to travel to the annual AWP Writers Conference specifically to seek out panels about what it meant to be a diverse writer in today's literary world. After each panel presentation, the audience peppered the writers with questions - if we depicted queer characters, we wanted to know, did we risk being marginalized? By writing ourselves, were we committing literary suicide?
Over and over, the advice had the same Field of Dreams-esque mantra - "If you write it, they will come." Over and over, we were told that our task as writers was to not worry about what agents or editors might think. Our task was to do the best we could by telling the best story we could. And if the book was good... And if the craft was good... then the story would speak for itself.
And so, like the good student I have always been, this is what I set forth to do. For the last 10 years, I've written draft after draft after draft of a novel. Each draft was read and vetted by professors and peers and friends and readers (in grad workshops and writing conferences and writing groups), and each draft became a much improved version of the book's earlier self until I finally had a book worth putting out in the world (and let me tell you, it wasn't easy thinking through that many drafts, but I was learning and growing at the same time, and often drafts were as much about undoing as much as they were about doing, but that is another post entirely)...and yet...and still...as I query agent after agent, I keep getting the same responses: "This is a great book...." "This is a well written book..." "I really like these characters..." "I read this with a lot of enthusiasm...."
....BUT... (because of course there is a "but")
...the book is just not marketable.
And so, suffice to say, I've been thinking not just about this idea of "marketability," but also those who deem something to be marketable in the first place. At the 2016 Association of Writers and Writing Conferences in Los Angeles, I attended a panel titled "Agents without Borders," which featured five literary agents speaking about their experiences in the publishing world. During the Q&A, someone wanted to know – how did diversity fit into their decisions? Were they [the agents] looking for diverse writers? At first, the panelists said what you were supposed to when you are in that situation. Of course! Yes, we love diverse writers…(some of our best friends are diverse writers…) But one of the panelists decided to be real: “To be honest,” she said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “diversity is something I am interested in, but it’s the publishers that are the problem.” Apparently, because the publishers were not a diverse group, they were unable to recognize the need for more diverse stories.
In a recent interview publishedy by Gertrude, Michael Thomas Ford offers up a similar idea, arguing that since our literary gatekeepers "are not gay themselves," gay literature is being defined by people outside the queer community. This, as you can imagine, is highly problematic. As Ford explains, the result is that "we’re only allowed one version of our lives at a time, and it’s the one that non-gay people find the most compelling. Or, more often, the most depressing, because what I see a lot of is praise for books in which gay people are portrayed in a tragic fashion, books in which being gay is a terrible struggle filled with depression and addiction and sadness. Those are the stories we’re allowed to have—the ones where we are acceptable subjects to the gatekeepers of the literary world."
In other words, what Ford is saying (and what I, too, have found myself worrying over) is what happens when our stories do not fit into what these gatekeepers THINK are gay stories? What if our stories are about people who do not hate ourselves, who are not bullied, who do fit in? (Imagine that!). What if our stories are stories about love and loss? What if our stories are about the mistakes we make in life, or about wanting life to have purpose? Or about grief? These are gay stories, too, aren’t they, in the same way that a story about a divorced white man is also a story of what it means to be a white male in today’s world?
After all, a character's “queerness” is a part of their identity; it does shape the way that character engages with a given situation, even if the queerness is not the subject of the story. But because these stories do not include the key “gay” ingredients, will our stories continue to be overlooked as being “not gay enough” to be marketable? And by only getting the “gay enough” stories published, are we not allowing for a multitude of stories about what it means to be “gay” today? (and here you could substitute gay or queer for any other non-normative noun – black, brown, Asian, etc. For, as Cynthia Nixon said during a rally at the Stonewall Inn earlier this year– if we didn’t know we were all working for the same cause before, we know it now).
Michael Cunningham, in an interview with Ursula K. LeGuin, said that he believes that our current phase of literature is a phase that he’s coined as a “broadening.” That right now, we are in a phase – at least according to him – where our idea of literature is expanding to include other perspectives and genres previously kept out of the the “literary” cannon. If this is the case, however, then the broadening needs to happen across all lines – we as writers need to broaden, to write characters more like ourselves, and less like the old white men in the stories we get in graduate workshops. The powers that be need to broaden so that they are publishing the new stories people like us are writing, and, of course, we, as readers, we need to broaden as well. We need to seek out more stories of other groups, not just our own, and then gift these books to other people and encourage them to do the same. We need to put pressure on the literary landscape, to say no more, and in that way cause, effective, lasting change.
Here at the end, I want to acknowledge something that needs acknowledging: there is a good chance that the book I've written is simply not good enough. That literary agents out there are rejecting it, not because it is not marketable, but because they are too kind to tell me that my writing is not up to par. But wouldn't it be nice to live in a world where writers like me don't have to worry about overcoming BOTH the standards of "good writing" and the standards of the literary priveleged all in one, ugly swoop?
Note: A portion of this post originally appeared in an 2017 AWP Talk titled "The Politics of Queering Characters"