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A literary trick
May 24, 2014 7:08 AM   Subscribe

From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid. In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male. This white straight male default was of course not biased in any way by its white straight maleness—no way! Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.
In the New Yorker Junot Diaz talks about MFA vs POC.

One way in which this plays out was described by Anne Ursu talking about the way mainstream literary criticism has anointed John Green as the saviour of Young Adult fiction:
So the peculiar canonization of John Green and this string of bizarre articles that anoint him as the vanguard of a post-sparkly-vampire seriousness in YA isn’t simply about taking a white male more seriously than everyone else. It’s also about privileging a certain narrative structure—the dominant narrative’s dominant narrative. It’s not only that Green is a straight white man, it’s that he writes in the way that generations of straight white men have deemed important and Literary. And in art, the remaking of form has historically made the establishment very uncomfortable.
Apart from his own writing, Junot Diaz is perhaps best known for the following quote:
“Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.
Which may be the most visible way in which the tension between literary values and writers of colour Diaz talks about in his essay plays out. For example in a Strange Horizons review of the science fiction anthology The Long Hidden where the reviewer was critical about the use of dialect in one story:
Troy L. Wiggins’s “A Score of Roses” features heavy use of phonetic dialect, a literary trick which works perhaps one time out of a hundred—a shame, because the story underneath all the “chil’ren”s and “yo’self”s is charming.
Which sparked a mini debate about dialect, first on Twitter with Daniel José Older (one of the editors of The Long Hidden) and Rose Lemberg criticising the assumptions made in the review.

Meanwhile Troy L. Wiggins himself wrote his own response about dialect being called a "literay trick":
And, to be honest, I’m still not angry at the reviewer for not understanding before that review went to print exactly why her statement would be problematic. That she was essentially claiming that the voice I used to tell my story wasn’t sufficient, because it was a trick–and hackneyed to boot. That maybe this suggestion crossed the line from “i didn’t like this story” to “this story’s quality is invalid because of this THING.” Another friend of mine, another fantastic creator, recently gave me this advice: “Tell it true.” Sure, I could have used a style of dialogue that was less–whatever, I don’t know what would have been appropriate for the reviewer–but it wouldn’t have been true.
He also linked to Junot Diaz's MFA vs POC essay and talked about his own experiences in writing workshops:
n my first year workshop, there was a young dreadlocked black woman who wrote in the tradition of Hurston, Walker, and Wright. Homegirl took big steps. She wrote in a powerful voice that mixed Wright’s sensibilities with Hurston’s down-home universes. Her stories examined the unique kinship of women who love each other in all the ways that humans should. They were powerful and poignant. She wove images in her work that captured the sorrow and joy of being in love.

But her dialogue. Oh! A tragedy.

She used AAVE. Vernacular. Dialect. American black folks’ speak. That specter of language, that literary trick that made the folks in our workshop cringe in their boots with actual physical discomfort because they didn’t get it, because it was alien and they didn’t understand, or because they didn’t think it had an appropriate use in the type of high-minded literature that undergraduate students in a first year writing workshop like to think that they are producing.
Responding to this were the editors of Abyss and Apex, a speculative fiction magazine you may know from wikihistory. They had their own struggles with finding a balance between using dialect and keeping a story accesible for readers who don't speak said dialect:
We wanted our readers, who span the English-speaking world, to feel as if they were transported to the Caribbean – but without constantly feeling like they needed to stop for directions. We looked to Grenadian author Tobias S. Buckell (Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, Sly Mongoose) as an example of an author who used authentic island patois without overwhelming the story to the point where he alienated a large portion of his non-Caribbean readers. The St. Thomas-born, US-residing author of “Name Calling” worked with our Canadian-born, Trinidad-raised editor Tonya Liburd to make this happen.
To further illustrate their point, they published both the edited and unedited versions of Celeste Rita Baker's Name Calling. reading both versions, Amal El-Mohtar summed it up as "One reading took me to an island. The other brought the island to me".

Tobias Buckell, cited in the editorial as somebody who had gotten that balance right, had his own response:
Please do not hold me up in this way. For one, it is dangerous to other writers seeking to find their voices. It’s dangerous to me, as you sell me out as a brick in the wall. And it adds to a potentially dangerous view that there is a proper way to do dialect at all. I’m one way, and I’m always flattered and humbled when I’m held up as an example. But only that. *An* example.
Strange Horizons meanwhile, which has itself always championed more diversity in science fiction, was quick to apologise in the comments to the review (and also rounded up the various responses to the review on their blog):
I think our editorial failure here was in not encouraging Katherine to consider those nuances when developing her argument -- for which we apologise to her as well as to our readers. In the context of a review of a collection with Long Hidden's stated mission, it was inappropriate to frame writing dialect as a "literary trick" and to pass over the whole topic so briefly.
posted by MartinWisse (114 comments total) 73 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks for this. Junot Diaz is my favorite writer right now for various reasons, including when I saw him in person on his book tour for his last collection of short stories. I like his writing, but he's hella smart about race with his perspective as POC in academia.
posted by Pocahontas at 7:44 AM on May 24 [2 favorites]


So the old brouhaha about Dead White Males from long ago turns out to be a Problem Not Solved. To hear that a bunch of white people in academia insist it's just about class, not race (this is a post-racial society, after all!) is a little sad. These people oughta get out in the real world a little more often…or at least read about it.
posted by kozad at 7:45 AM on May 24 [2 favorites]


One thing I always wondered about is how would a Spanish translation of _Oscar Wao_ be done? The book is in English with the Spanish sprinkled throughout, for annotation or explication later for non-Spanish speakers. But if the entire text is translated to Spanish...how is the effect preserved? Maybe it can't.
posted by Pocahontas at 7:49 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]


To further illustrate their point, they published both the edited and unedited versions of Celeste Rita Baker's Name Calling.

I haven't read all of the other links yet except this and the main Junot Diaz article, but the "unedited" version is wildly, leaps and bounds, better. Those edits removed all the good and kept only some "de"s and "dem"s.

As always, Junot makes good points. I've met a couple of people he mentions in the piece and he's right about them, too, and more than right about the ways an institution and a group of people can be hostile and exclusionary, and resistant to change, without necessarily setting out to deliberately be that way. I hope his workshop continues, grows, and becomes a model for doing it better.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:51 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]


> Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people]
> think we’re taking over.

Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Paulo Coelho, Miguel de Unamuno, Franscisco Ayala, Isabel Allende, Carlos Fuentes, Miguel Angel Asturias, Miguel de Cervantes and several other folks you may have heard of think he's being silly.
posted by jfuller at 7:54 AM on May 24 [6 favorites]


Wow, the comments section is very . . . Not befitting of the New Yorker.
posted by Think_Long at 7:56 AM on May 24 [3 favorites]


Workshop writers write. Workshop writers worship workshop. Workshop writers wrestle with workshop. Write, writer, write!
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:56 AM on May 24 [2 favorites]


Goddamn I went and started reading the comments section again

never read the comments section never read the comments section never read the comments section
posted by dubitable at 8:02 AM on May 24 [8 favorites]


Dialect is one of those things that goes in and out of fashion, even among writers of color. Sometimes it's regarded as "othering", sometimes as "authentic". Many of the great writers of color have been fiercely resistant to it, others (most notably Baldwin) liked using AAVE grammer but standard English spelling. Full dialect came back into fashion with postmodernism's general taste for breakdown of language, but it will likely fade as the next generation starts slaying their fathers.

So discussion of it really has to be historically informed, and aware of how contingent tastes for it are, and how much they're based on literary fashion rather than general principles. Which is a kind of discussion that Twitter culture, with its taste for heroes and villains, call-outs and alliances, is totally incapable of.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:04 AM on May 24 [26 favorites]


I thought Diaz made a couple of interesting points in an otherwise whiny article written in an affectedly slangy, profanity-laced style.

As one of the comments pointed out, though, "Poor Junot. With only a Pulitzer, a MacArthur, and an MIT professorship to his name, he has been very oppressed."
posted by shivohum at 8:19 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]


As one of the comments pointed out, though, "Poor Junot. With only a Pulitzer, a MacArthur, and an MIT professorship to his name, he has been very oppressed."
But the point of the thing wasn't about him. He found what he needed outside the formal confines of the workshop and is fine. The point is about the friend he calls Athena, who was brilliant and talented and who dropped out and hasn't published anything since. And there's no way of knowing whether she would have published if the workshop had been different, but she might have, and he thinks that the fact that she hasn't is a loss.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:22 AM on May 24 [30 favorites]


Heaven forbid that Junot Diaz use slang or profanity, of all things.
posted by blucevalo at 8:24 AM on May 24 [9 favorites]


I thought Diaz made a couple of interesting points in an otherwise whiny article written in an affectedly slangy, profanity-laced style.

Have you ever read Diaz? His signature style is a tight weave of afro-Caribbean/American patter with standard prose. He gets a lot of shit for it, which is kind of related to the point of his article, and I think most of the negative response for the swearing and slang is from people who have a pretty unflexible definition of what "good writing" should be.

As one of the comments pointed out, though, "Poor Junot. With only a Pulitzer, a MacArthur, and an MIT professorship to his name, he has been very oppressed."

Did he have those things as a young POC in an all white MFA program, which was the topic of the article? Do all of the young POC writers who express the same complaints to him deserve this same dismissal? They certainly haven't gotten their pulitzers yet.
posted by Think_Long at 8:32 AM on May 24 [25 favorites]


I thought Diaz made a couple of interesting points in an otherwise whiny article written in an affectedly slangy, profanity-laced style.

Agreed. Except for the part about interesting points.
posted by azaner at 8:40 AM on May 24


ThatFuzzyBastard is spot on. The question of altered spelling, in particular, is a key distinction, because while some of the greats of African American literature have used it to triumphant effect (Charles Chesnutt, Zora Neale Hurston) a large part of its legacy comes via white writers (Twain, but also Margaret Mitchell, and that lady who wrote The Help).

And the thing about changing spelling to reflect dialect is that two seconds of thought reveals an inherent inconsistency: no one speaks words they way they're spelled. The difference between "yourself" and "yo'self" is barely audible, and it certainly doesn't work in any way to meaningfully distinguish the speech of a white Southerner from a black Southerner, for example. I'm from the Northeast. I graduated from a fancy school. I don't think I have a dramatically noticeable accent. Nonetheless, if you were to write me saying the word "motherfucker" phonetically, it would be "Muthafuckeh." And yet, I can damn well guarantee you that no writer using me as a character would misspell my "motherfucker" that way...unless they were trying to signal my townie roots, and call attention to the fact that I didn't really "belong" in my fancy milieu. That seems especially true if you alter the spelling of one group but not another. It's the very definition of 'othering.'

So, for that reason, I do think that changing the spelling of words (as opposed to grammar or word choice) for one set of characters but not another is a particularly fraught decision, even for writers of color. Which is not even remotely to say that people shouldn't do it, or that it can't be reclaimed. But it seems to me that if a writer makes this choice, they can't really defend it on the basis of "I'm just trying to represent my own experience," because that is manifestly untrue. The black vernacular is not more inherently 'misspelled' than any other. Rather, they're referring back to a particular literary heritage, one that contains a long history of both resistance and racism.

That Strange Horizons review was particularly lazy, though.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:44 AM on May 24 [34 favorites]


Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Paulo Coelho, Miguel de Unamuno, Franscisco Ayala, Isabel Allende, Carlos Fuentes, Miguel Angel Asturias, Miguel de Cervantes and several other folks you may have heard of think he's being silly.

Talk about a misreading of his point.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:45 AM on May 24 [29 favorites]


You know, there are entire literary traditions that are solely written in languages other than English. There are even entire workshops here in the US that don't have a single American student and are almost entirely POC writing in languages other than English.

Maybe Diaz was in a shitty writing workshop. Or maybe he was in the workshop he needed most.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:46 AM on May 24


Also, Junot Diaz is easily one of the greatest writers of this generation, and everybody who's casually shitting on his style without having read any of his books is embarrassing themselves. I mean seriously, this is a "Who is this James Joyce guy and why can't he just write normal" level of embarrassing.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:50 AM on May 24 [34 favorites]


As one of the comments pointed out, though, "Poor Junot. With only a Pulitzer, a MacArthur, and an MIT professorship to his name, he has been very oppressed."

The existence of a single successful author of color does very, very little to disprove the idea that authors of color are systematically marginalized. Or, as Jon Stewart put it when someone asked why the media wasn't covering good news from Iraq, "Yeah, how come you never hear about the cars that don't blow up?"
posted by Etrigan at 8:50 AM on May 24 [14 favorites]


I think framing it as an MFA problem kind of misses the point. Isn't the problem one of academia in general. How many black or hispanic computer science professors are there? When it comes to the issues of having a community, are writing programs that much worse? And if they are, isn't it at least somewhat related to the fact that they're typically part of *English* departments?
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:51 AM on May 24


I don't have an MFA, but I can tell you that both my English classes in high school and even my law school experience were both much more diverse - with regard to the class, instructors, and material - than how he describes his MFA experience, and maybe even my BFA experience (in film).

I mean, in high school, we read Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Leslie Marmon Silko, et al. Not saying it was perfect or anything like that, but, you know. With regard to, say, William Gaddis, it's not even like the problem is just that he's white - it's that William Gaddis' audience is pretty well-defined, no matter that it's not a conscious decision.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:59 AM on May 24


You know, there are entire literary traditions that are solely written in languages other than English. There are even entire workshops here in the US that don't have a single American student and are almost entirely POC writing in languages other than English.
Do you really want to imply that Junot Diaz, an American writer who writes dialogue in Spanish and English because that's how his mostly-American characters speak, should be attending a workshop that is explicitly for people who are not US citizens? Because that would be kind of fucked up.
I think framing it as an MFA problem kind of misses the point.
I don't think he's missing the point. He's trying to make a different point than you are. This grew out of a discussion about whether would-be writers are better off getting an MFA or moving to New York. (There are, of course, all sorts of weird assumptions built into the idea that those are the only two choices.) He's pointing out that this choice works differently for writers who are POC. I assume that the "move to New York" side of the equation does, too, but that's not what he's talking about here. This isn't about academia, but about the available paths to become a writer.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:59 AM on May 24 [11 favorites]


Dialect is one of those things that goes in and out of fashion, even among writers of color.

It seems kind of dumb to talk about using something that goes to the heart of people's identity as something that can "go in and out of fashion". Rather, it seems more that the use of dialect is more related to how much space is given to it/reclaimed from a largely white establishment.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:06 AM on May 24 [5 favorites]


This grew out of a discussion about whether would-be writers are better off getting an MFA or moving to New York.

I was going for the broader picture, but OK, let's stick with that. Diaz went to Cornell, which is 5% Hispanic and 10% Black, in terns of student body population. Might he had a different experience at ASU (5% / 19%) or Florida Atlantic (22% / 18%)?

I'm not arguing the point that universities should be more diverse, but generalizing on one data point isn't really fair, either.

(As I side note, I'm betting that the whole trend toward adjunct faculty rather than tenure-track is hurting diversity as well.)
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:11 AM on May 24 [2 favorites]


It seems kind of dumb to talk about using something that goes to the heart of people's identity as something that can "go in and out of fashion".

The idea that writing in dialect, both in spelling and grammar "goes to the heart of people's identity" is precisely the idea that goes in and out of fashion, and your assumption that writing in dialect is what any writer of color would do if only they could would be most amusing to Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and many others. Your conviction that you are announcing a timeless truth reveals an ignorance of literary history.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:12 AM on May 24 [13 favorites]


It's really discouraging when a bunch of really interesting links focusing on how people of color perceive something and are perceived is inevitably met by some people going "Nuh-uh here is one point that obviously negates everything all those people think and experience." Like they're obligated to prove the experience of other people is wrong, or like this is a discussion where there are sides and one has to be wrong and it's their job to show the wrongness.
posted by rtha at 9:13 AM on May 24 [45 favorites]


And if they are, isn't it at least somewhat related to the fact that they're typically part of *English* departments?

... because people of color don't speak English?
posted by hoyland at 9:16 AM on May 24 [5 favorites]


It's especially worth noting that the historical context of writing in dialect goes all the way back to the beginnings of "American literature", in the question of whether the South would be represented by novels of the pastoral South, which relished dialect spelling as an extension of the minstrel show, and abolitionist slave narratives, which usually (though not always) eschewed dialect as an attack on the dignity of black people. This is where the battle really kicks off, and is why so many writers of color hated dialect, and so many white editors demanded it. And why it is so absurd to insist that writing in dialect is the only true representation of a minority experience.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:18 AM on May 24 [12 favorites]


Do you really want to imply that Junot Diaz, an American writer who writes dialogue in Spanish and English because that's how his mostly-American characters speak, should be attending a workshop that is explicitly for people who are not US citizens? Because that would be kind of fucked up.

Right, your interpretation of my brief statement is kind of fucked up. But that's what MeFi does lately.

What I am saying is that Diaz has his own blind spots and his own privilege, and can be embarrassingly parochial too. He might have benefitted from being in a workshop that is not exclusively English focused, it contains other groups where he could rub elbows with writers who, say for example, are seeking asylum in the US because their government wants to kill them over what they have written. Or perhaps he was in exactly the right program, one that could confirm his biases and give him exactly the obstacles he wanted. I congratulate Diaz for climbing that molehill.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:23 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]


I don't get it... Alice Munro is a straight, white male? Anyway, she became an author the old-fashioned way, by writing, and not be attending a technocratic, professorial MFA program.

Munro also writes about women.

This is once again one of those cases where the Left pounce on any hint of heterogeneity in order to divide and conquer.

Also, if you take a look at "Best American Short Stories" over the past twenty-five years, Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid are all well-represented.

Bah, good writing is good writing, you don't need a goddamn quota system to find it.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:28 AM on May 24 [3 favorites]


Junot Diaz: In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area—at all. Shit, in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that “race discussions” were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.

This reminded me a little of this post, about how things like the Iowa Writers Workshop explicitly discourage writers from writing political works:

Since the 1980s, the textbook most widely assigned in American creative-writing classes has been Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction. Early editions (there are now eight) dared students to go ahead and try to write a story based on intellectual content—a political, religious, scientific, or moral idea—rather than the senses and contingent experience. Such a project "is likely to produce a bad story. If it produces a bad story, it will be invaluably instructive to you, and you will be relieved of the onus of ever doing it again."
posted by dng at 9:34 AM on May 24 [3 favorites]


Bah, good writing is good writing, you don't need a goddamn quota system to find it.

Was that really your takeaway of the main point(s) of the links? Seriously?
posted by rtha at 9:35 AM on May 24 [8 favorites]


Right, your interpretation of my brief statement is kind of fucked up. But that's what MeFi does lately.

Actually, considering your further explenation, I think that was bang on. After all, you're saying that in his mid twenties he knew that some twenty odd years later he would be making arguments about the blindness of mainstream writing programmes about people of colours and therefore deliberately set out to find the one MFA workshop in the whole of late eighties, early nineties American academia that confirmed his stereotypes.

That seems a bit much.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:36 AM on May 24


I always felt that Junot Diaz and William Gaddis wrote in the same tradition. I've never been in an MFA program, and I'm sure my take on writers and traditions says nothing about them and everything about me.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 9:43 AM on May 24


What I am saying is that Diaz has his own blind spots and his own privilege, and can be embarrassingly parochial too.

Whether you like his essay or not, I am comfortable saying that calling him "parochial" is wildly and inappropriately wrong, even ignorant. There's nothing in the essay or in anything of his that I've ever read to support that, though perhaps it's out there somewhere.

He's not a perfect person (and his more autobiographical pieces show this), but he's scary smart and is exquisitely aware of his privilege. I've had dinner with him a couple of times; people I'm close to have known him for more than twenty years. They would be the first to describe his personal flaws, but it's weird to read some of the casual dismissals of him as a writer here -- even people who actively dislike him as a person don't dismiss his writing that way.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:50 AM on May 24 [5 favorites]


Was that really your takeaway of the main point(s) of the links? Seriously?

Hell yes.

Like, what the fuck do you want? To force people to read your writing? It doesn't work that way! People like to read what they like to read. This isn't some sort of Stalinist social-realist "politically correct" (in the classical meaning of the term) movement, for crying out loud. Or it ought not to be.

Writing is hard, publishing is harder. And in case Junot Diaz hasn't noticed, publishing is in transformation at the moment. It's both harder than it used to be to publish, and easier in some ways thanks to self-publishing.

What I read in all of this is that they want the New Yorker and other key cultural institutions to prescribe some sort of "POC" policy that acknowledges "privilege." Fine. If this is true, it would be interesting to see how long Conde Naste funds the magazine... which is intended to be consumed on the train by wealthy commuters travelling to their fund manager jobs in Manhatten.

I say all this as a Creative Writing grad. A very small percentage (less than 1 percent) of my cohort 25 years ago earn a living as a writer.

Writing and publishing is fucking hard. It seems ridiculous to be talking about what we ought to be publishing. Doesn't the reader decide that?
posted by KokuRyu at 9:51 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]


I can't tell if the argument is that a MFA program "exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro" simply should not exist, or if it should just be clearly labeled as such.
posted by tew at 9:54 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]


Whether you like his essay or not, I am comfortable saying that calling him "parochial" is wildly and inappropriately wrong, even ignorant. There's nothing in the essay or in anything of his that I've ever read to support that, though perhaps it's out there somewhere.


Given that he thinks a single MFA program at a single school accurately represents all MFA programs, I'd say "parochial" is exactly the right word. That's not an insult---lots of great writers are parochial, and many great writers have said silly things when they attempt to generalize from their own experience. But it is a good reminder that novelists are not social scientists.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:00 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]


It seems ridiculous to be talking about what we ought to be publishing. Doesn't the reader decide that?

Oh, a market-based defense of privilege. How... novel.

(puts on sunglasses)
posted by Etrigan at 10:02 AM on May 24 [20 favorites]


Like, what the fuck do you want? To force people to read your writing?

With regard to MFAs, course curricula are indeed an accepted means of "forcing" people to read things! When the program is more or less literally devoted to training writers to be better writers, it makes sense to pay attention to what we're presenting as What Writing Is. There is no One True Way to deal with these various issues, but you'll have to deal with them one way or another.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:09 AM on May 24 [5 favorites]


Oh, a market-based defense of privilege. How... novel.

You can mock me all you want (rather than engaging in discussion), but as a (failed?) writer I would love to know how to force people to read my short stories. Can you explain that to me?
posted by KokuRyu at 10:10 AM on May 24


Like, what the fuck do you want? To force people to read your writing? It doesn't work that way! People like to read what they like to read. This isn't some sort of Stalinist social-realist "politically correct" (in the classical meaning of the term) movement, for crying out loud. Or it ought not to be.

Are you fucking kidding me? People read what they're told to read, implicitly and ex-! They read the NYT best sellers. They read all the popular stuff their friends read. They read what's anointed as Good by critics. They read (or say they've read) what's canonized as Great Literature. Good christ, how many years were there no people of color and almost no women included in a typical university literature survey course? MFA courses, in case you don't know, are in fact all about "forcing" students to read certain things and not other things!

Don't worry: No one is going to force you to read something you don't want to read in order to fulfill some kind of quota. Like, say, the kind of quota you can easily find in...the New Yorker, where The Woman Writer of the issue can reliably be found to have contributed a poem, or perhaps a review of a dance performance.
posted by rtha at 10:11 AM on May 24 [18 favorites]


I think we can all agree that MFA programs are ridiculous, and are intended to "professionalize" writing, creating a technocratic class of "writing teachers" who publish in wank-off journals while relying on in most cases public-funded teaching positions to scrape by and pay the bills.

The MFA programs themselves act as profit centers for the universities. That's fine, but then again I haven't read a short story in the New Yorker or Granta for more than ten years because of the MFA schlock that is coming out.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:13 AM on May 24 [2 favorites]


Given that he thinks a single MFA program at a single school accurately represents all MFA programs, I'd say "parochial" is exactly the right word.

No he doesn't; he gives it as an example and as is shown in the actual post here, other people have had the same experiences, years later.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:16 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]


You can mock me all you want (rather than engaging in discussion), but as a (failed?) writer I would love to know how to force people to read my short stories. Can you explain that to me?

That's not what this article is about. And complaining about "a goddamn quota system" and how any expansion of the almighty canon or the pure academy or the benevolent Invisible Hand to include voices of color or other historically marginalized voices will inevitably lead to some sort of Elitist Centralized Command Library is classic not-engaging-in-discussion.
posted by Etrigan at 10:17 AM on May 24 [10 favorites]


It seems ridiculous to be talking about what we ought to be publishing. Doesn't the reader decide that?

Of course the reader doesn't. Publishers and other gatekeepers do.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:18 AM on May 24 [2 favorites]


I can't tell if the argument is that a MFA program "exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro" simply should not exist, or if it should just be clearly labeled as such.

Rather, opening up writing programmes beyond this narrow band of acceptable writers and more attention paid to writing that doesn't conform to the standards set by these writers.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:20 AM on May 24 [2 favorites]


KokuRyu, no one here is even suggesting we force people to read Junot Diaz (though I'm not opposed to the idea). That's an extremely obtuse read of the situation. But do you honestly think we live in a society that's at a point where our literary community doesn't even need to consider what sort of long-standing cultural and political biases are affecting what we consider to be "worthy" writing?
posted by FirstMateKate at 10:29 AM on May 24 [4 favorites]


Yeah, he's generalizing from one MFA program that he failed to investigate prior to attending -- like maybe he shoulda asked if all they were gonna be reading was Gaddis and Munro and who his teachers would be -- well, yeah, of course it was a shitty experience.

Nevertheless, good for him sticking it out, and having a career, and building the kind of workshop he wished he'd found way back then. That's how it's supposed to work.

I had the opportunity to fill in this past year for a prof who had to leave due to illness, and who had been my adviser when I was an MFAr. I didn't cover his MFA classes, just his Intro to Fiction Writing course. It's been several years since I've been on campus, and I was struck first by how young everybody is, suddenly, and second, by how diverse they are. It was diverse back in the late 90s, of course. But nothing like it is now.

That diversity is evident in the MFA program, too. It's not as evident among the faculty, however. But that's changing, and the change will come in a hurry, eventually, as the cohort of faculty that was hired in the late 60s and early 70s (my adviser, Rafael Zepeda, among them), retires and are replaced by younger faculty who are maybe more in agreement with Diaz' POV. Certainly the students in the MFA are, if their work is an indication.

Those big old institutions are conservative and slow to change, but change they will.
posted by notyou at 10:31 AM on May 24 [1 favorite]


Yeah, he's generalizing from one MFA program that he failed to investigate prior to attending -- like maybe he shoulda asked if all they were gonna be reading was Gaddis and Munro and who his teachers would be -- well, yeah, of course it was a shitty experience.

Oh my god did you people read the article? This is not about one man's pissed off rant about a single MFA program at Cornell that one time. Did you miss his testimonial that he's having these same discussions with young writers of color across the country? He specifically stated he's had the "my program is too white" conversation hundreds of times.
posted by FirstMateKate at 10:35 AM on May 24 [16 favorites]


Can we talk about the bit where critics are anointing John Green the savior of YA despite the fact that YA's enormous success is fueled largely by women writers and lately, by nonwhite writers also? Because that is giving me rage-fits.
posted by emjaybee at 10:37 AM on May 24 [15 favorites]


> Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people]
> think we’re taking over.

Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Paulo Coelho, Miguel de Unamuno, Franscisco Ayala, Isabel Allende, Carlos Fuentes, Miguel Angel Asturias, Miguel de Cervantes and several other folks you may have heard of think he's being silly.


Who are those people? I've never read any of them in my Honors/AP English classes for high school, or my triple major social science degree which required about a full semester's worth of reading and writing on humanities.

But I have dated more than one woman who has tattooed her body with elvish. So maybe he's not being silly.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:02 AM on May 24 [6 favorites]


Not really a derail, there's a reason I included that article, as it's an example of the kind of thing Diaz was talking about, both in the assumption that a certain kind of "realist" writing is superior to everything else and the dismissal of everybody but male, white writers.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:09 AM on May 24


[A few comments deleted; let's skip the "here's what Mefi is like" or "this discussion sucks" and just actually have the good discussion we'd rather be having?]
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:09 AM on May 24 [2 favorites]


From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid

I have trouble with this basic thesis. In the lit classes I took -just basic Freshman literature classes - I encountered zero of Junot's "traditional" list and seven of eight on the "ignored" list.

Granted it was Ann Arbor, 1984. and we liked to think we were more enlightened and multi-culti ... but I have a hard time believing it was that different.

It's such a well written essay, but I have a suspicion that he's twisting his observations to make them fit his thesis.
posted by kanewai at 11:24 AM on May 24 [2 favorites]


But do you honestly think we live in a society that's at a point where our literary community doesn't even need to consider what sort of long-standing cultural and political biases are affecting what we consider to be "worthy" writing?

I tend to agree with Stephen King's longstanding disdain for writers (and critics) who self-identify as "literary."

While King is not my cup of tea exactly, I don't see why his writing is any worse that Junot Diaz's writing. But the thing is, as a readers it's my choice - and writers are writing to be read, right? And I don't buy that publishers and editors are gatekeepers anymore. Publishing is transforming.

And there is the ability for anyone out there to self-publish online if they want to, and to get read if they want to.

Junot Diaz is lucky (though I am not calling him privileged), in that he can earn a living from writing. But earning a living as a literary author is much rarer than winning the lottery.

So my question is, if publishing a book isn't going to earn you much money, why do it at all? Why not self publish? Or write a blog?

My answer is that by publishing you're getting some sort of recognition as being a "real author." Even though you could self-publish on Amazon if you wanted to, and still get read by thousands or even millions of people.

I tend to think there is a multiplicity of venues for marginalized voices to be heard now, in 2014, and that this desire to transform the New Yorker or MFA programs or whatever is in fact a desire for Junot and other "POC" writers to join that privileged elite.

There seems to be some sort of deep psychological need to be affirmed that, yes POC are "real writers."

Like Stephen King, real writers get read. Real life is not required reading in an undergrad course.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:30 AM on May 24


There seems to be some sort of deep psychological need to be affirmed that, yes POC are "real writers."

gosh

I wonder why that would be
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:39 AM on May 24 [9 favorites]



Can we talk about the bit where critics are anointing John Green the savior of YA despite the fact that YA's enormous success is fueled largely by women writers and lately, by nonwhite writers also? Because that is giving me rage-fits.
posted by emjaybee at 1:37 PM on May 24 [2 favorites +] [!]


Yes. And it's not just that the YA scene is dominated by his books. Earlier this year (this may have already been brought up on Metafilter), 4 of the 10 on the NYT's YA bestseller list were John Green. And of others on the list, only 2 were women, and they both had strong ties to John Green. Unfortunately we live in a time where the media really likes the sort of "On Man to Rule Them All" dynamics when it comes to entertainment/media. John Green is the champion of YA! So-and-so is the savior of whatever, blah blah blah.
posted by FirstMateKate at 11:43 AM on May 24 [3 favorites]


Who are those people? I've never read any of them in my Honors/AP English classes for high school, or my triple major social science degree which required about a full semester's worth of reading and writing on humanities.

Me either. Maybe we should have.
posted by the_bone at 11:44 AM on May 24


I tend to think there is a multiplicity of venues for marginalized voices to be heard now, in 2014, and that this desire to transform the New Yorker or MFA programs or whatever is in fact a desire for Junot and other "POC" writers to join that privileged elite.

There seems to be some sort of deep psychological need to be affirmed that, yes POC are "real writers."


As a queer woman I think a lot about the argument for/against the kind of assimilation you're alluding to. But, here's the thing: that's my choice to make. And it's also Diaz's choice, and the individual choices of the thousands of POC writers who you're imploring to just be grateful that it's 2014.

Diaz's choice is pretty obvious. And it's really disheartening to see people try to hand wave away the problem as non-existent, either because they think academia's not really that white, or they notice the whiteness, but are content to say that keeping POC writers where there are now should be sufficient enough.
posted by FirstMateKate at 11:55 AM on May 24 [7 favorites]


The One In Which I Share My Entry Point To Feminist Thought
The core curriculum is a staple at Columbia. Every undergraduate for the nearly a century has taken these courses. On one hand, it’s kind of cool to have a unifying set of books to explain the underlying philosophy of western civilization, and on the other hand it’s indicative of why women and people of color have had to agitate for equality in leadership and representation in every aspect of our society. In my reading and discussion of those books, I understood that whole narratives were being erased, and lauding these stories meant to reinforce the supremacy of knowledge through the western white male gaze. Those classes were actually a microcosm of the world in which we were expected to enter and out of survival, a world we needed to change.
posted by Corinth at 12:09 PM on May 24 [2 favorites]


My wife is a high school English teacher in an overwhelmingly nonwhite school and she's regularly assigned Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danticat, along with Ken Kesey and Tennessee Williams. FWIW. The kids seem to like it. (although when they were shown the film version of Williams' Streetcar Named Desire, some of her female students swooned over the young Brando and had trouble believing that he was the same actor who played Don Corleone.)
posted by jonmc at 12:22 PM on May 24


Granted it was Ann Arbor, 1984. and we liked to think we were more enlightened and multi-culti ... but I have a hard time believing it was that different.

But it does depend on the time and place. Some places are more inclusive than others. Diaz is right on the money and it is not just Literature classes/workshops where there is a total white bread mentality where no one in charge can see how culturally monopolistic they are. I just back from such an event and Diaz's article ran through my mind the whole time.

Thank you for this brilliant link...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 12:24 PM on May 24


It's such a well written essay, but I have a suspicion that he's twisting his observations to make them fit his thesis.

Hm. This piece caught my attention because I graduated from Cornell six years before Diaz got his MFA, and thus arrived ten years before he left. Granted, I was an undergrad taking a lot of electives in the English department and not in the MFA program (which is also in the English department), and an MFA experience is not an undergrad experience. This is all particularly interesting to read, because Cornell has long focused (as in, since its founding) on the concept of "diversity" (in professors, students, opinions, perspectives, disciplines) to the point of offering itself up for daily parody. You couldn't go a day in 1986 without someone pointing out the importance of exploring how diverse cultural backgrounds inform our understanding of ourselves, those around us, socio-political structures and life. Yadda.

It was in the elective literature classes I took at Cornell that I read Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. These authors weren't taught in narrowly structured "let's learn about the other" but in mainstream offerings like Literature and Morality, 20th Century Literature, etc. There were certainly "old, dead white men" classes where each session was peppered with professor-led discussion of how the Eurocentric literary "Western canon" wasn't wrong, per se, but it was incredibly incomplete for anyone who cared about reading literature or understanding humanity.

I lived in an international dorm and my freshman orientation group spent a large chunk of an evening talking about how surprised so many of them (from Asia, Africa, Europe, South America…with just a few of us from North America) were that so many of the freshman writing seminars not only didn't focus on the Western canon but embraced variety ("diversity!" we joked) of cultural perspectives.

I'm absolutely not saying that Diaz is wrong about the MFA experience at Cornell. I'm merely surprised that the MFA experience Diaz had was so much more lacking in diversity of leadership and encouragement of diversity of cultural expression than my own experience in the prior decade. But certainly my surprise is more likely indicative of my own baseline cultural expectations.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 12:29 PM on May 24 [1 favorite]


While I realize I'm probably not the intended audience for the Diaz piece, I feel like I might be more sympathetic to it, or able to squeeze myself into its vantage, if it somehow acknowledged and explained why it isn't such a rarefied class of complaint as it at appears to be to somebody not within throwing distance of its cultural orbit. If I'm telling somebody about this, I'm first saying that a very successful author wrote a thing in the New Yorker about his ivy league creative writing program being inadequately racially conscious, and how that reflects a larger problematic about racial consciousness...
posted by batfish at 12:34 PM on May 24


The rampant "whitesplaining" in this thread is a reminder of why I have felt the need to bow out of all threads dealing with race. I honestly do not understand why some folks can not just STFU and listen when someone tries to relate their experiences. Someone experiencing the world differently from you does not negate your own experiences, it merely shows that our world is very complicated, and not everyone gets the same treatment/experiences the same things. How is acknowledging this truth so threatening to so many people?
posted by anansi at 12:37 PM on May 24 [29 favorites]


How is acknowledging this truth so threatening to so many people?

I think if we could answer that, we'd understand the way things are a lot better than we do. And maybe change them.
posted by emjaybee at 12:40 PM on May 24 [3 favorites]


Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Paulo Coelho, Miguel de Unamuno, Franscisco Ayala, Isabel Allende, Carlos Fuentes, Miguel Angel Asturias, Miguel de Cervantes and several other folks you may have heard of think he's being silly.

>Who are those people? I've never read any of them in my Honors/AP English classes for high school, or my triple major social science degree which required about a full semester's worth of reading and writing on humanities.


What, not even Cervantes? Did they teach Dante? It's another issue (that's still based on an in-group/out-group distinction), but this is not the first time I've heard about programs in the US/UK not bothering with non-anglophone classics.

Coelho writes in Portuguese and if you ask me, he's in better company than he deserves, in that comment.
posted by ersatz at 12:51 PM on May 24 [2 favorites]


The One In Which I Share My Entry Point To Feminist Thought

Where's the exit point? When I first entered college in the 1970s, the battleground was feminism. I dropped out and came back to school in the early 90s, but the feminists were still fighting a battle they had basically won years ago. All the old men who became professors under the GI Bill after the Korean War and Vietnam were retiring or dying of old age. The gender demographics were not only being restored to balance in the faculty and administration, the student population was starting to skew towards a majority of women. The battle was already won, they just hadn't won the peace yet.

That demographic situation was explained to me by a middle-aged white female professor, I actually returned to school in 1992 just to study under her. But we didn't click. I did click with a visiting professor from Haiti. I begged her to stay and join the faculty. She would be the first POC in this department, but I was solely motivated by self-interest. I wanted her to be my mentor. She did eventually join the faculty, but it was a battle, and she got no help whatsoever from the feminist faction in my department. They had become the entrenched interest she had to fight against. She wasn't fighting their battle alongside them, so she was of no use to them. The feminists did not understand that they were now the old guard, they completely missed the wave of multiculturalism, even as it washed over them.

So if you are currently a POC Professor at MIT, and you're still fighting the same multiculturalism battle you were as a young grad student, you are now an old fogey, an obstacle, the entrenched interest that some new group is beginning to fight against. I have no idea where that battle is being fought, I'm an old fogey too.

Oh.. on preview:

The rampant "whitesplaining" in this thread is a reminder of why I have felt the need to bow out of all threads dealing with race. I honestly do not understand why some folks can not just STFU and listen when someone tries to relate their experiences.

Yeah, great threadshitting there. The reason why I cannot STFU is that this story is an insult to my intelligence. We are even starting to get confirmation like this comment that Diaz may have been stretching the truth (beyond the breaking point IMHO) and that the battle was over before he ever started. His tale reminds me of the stories I used to hear from WWII vets. The stories evolved over the years, as they were told over and over, until each guy was claiming that they single-handedly won the war.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:56 PM on May 24 [1 favorite]


We are even starting to get confirmation like this comment that Diaz may have been stretching the truth (beyond the breaking point IMHO)

At my Ivy college in the 80s you could totally graduate with a degree in English and never have to have read more than one or two women writers or non-white writers if you didn't want to. You keep insisting that this is impossible and I wish you would fucking stop that. Sorry to insult your intelligence with my experience but that's not actually my problem.

* I was a history major and could easily have graduated without having taken any classes that included the study of people who were not white men.
posted by rtha at 1:12 PM on May 24 [8 favorites]


One thing I always wondered about is how would a Spanish translation of _Oscar Wao_ be done? The book is in English with the Spanish sprinkled throughout, for annotation or explication later for non-Spanish speakers. But if the entire text is translated to Spanish...how is the effect preserved? Maybe it can't.

I have both versions right here. I haven't read the book yet, but flipping through and finding a few bits of Spanish shows that the Spanish words are largely left in Spanish - so yes, I think the effect is probably lost in translation. There are some minor but interesting differences in spelling.

There is a note on the translation:
Nuestras notas al pie de página se encuentran entre corchetes [] para distinguirlas de las del autor. También, se ha tratado de preservar el español del texto original lo más posible.
(My rough translation:)
Our footnotes have brackets [] to distinguish them from the author's. In addition, we've tried to preserve the Spanish of the original text as much as possible.
(The original English book has loads of footnotes. These are kept in the translation, of course, but there are also additional footnotes.)

So, a few examples (the page numbers are from the English paperback first, then Spanish paperback):

p. 23 footnote/24 footnote :

Pa' 'fuera! his mother roared.
¡Pa fuera! su mamá ordenaba.

p. 81 / 84 :
Hija, come here!
¡Hija, ven acá!

allergic to tranquilidad
alérgica a la tranquilidad

p. 161 / :

Mamá, she gasped, mamá.
Tranquilísate, muchacha.

Mamá, jadeó, mamá.
Tranquilízate, muchacha.

Page 84 in the Spanish version has two of the extra footnotes. The text has references to Minas Tirith and Mordor, and the footnotes explain that Minas Tirith is a fortified city in Tolkien's work, that at one point it's the capital of Gondor, and that Sauron, the Dark Lord, lives in Mordor.


This was a great post, MartinWisse - thank you.
posted by kristi at 1:13 PM on May 24 [4 favorites]


We are even starting to get confirmation like this comment that Diaz may have been stretching the truth (beyond the breaking point IMHO) and that the battle was over before he ever started.

Your reading of this is seriously weird. Here's what Diaz actually says:

but then at the start of my second year something happened. A massive Latino student movement sparked up on campus. That shit almost never happens but there it was, the real deal and, desperate for anything like a community, I jumped right the fuck in. That solidarity more or less saved my life. Made everything in workshop bearable because I suddenly had a group of people on campus who pulled for me, a group of people who saw me. Not a bad movement either—we scored some solids against the University and that also gives you a ton of heart.

He's talking about the activism leading to the 1993 Day Hall takeover, a long and involved struggle that began with vandalized artwork and had strong resonances with the 1969 admin building takeover by black activists. It resulted in a few substantive changes on the campus and is an indication of how much pent up frustration and anger there was by Latino students.

Far from the fight being over before he got there, during the 2006-2007 academic year only 41 of Cornell’s 1,627 faculty members teaching on its Ithaca campus were Latino. That doesn't sound to me like all the issues of representation and inclusiveness have been fully settled.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:25 PM on May 24 [8 favorites]


I avoid writing slang. It's just jarring, the way it stands out from the text surrounding it, the staccato of apostrophes and exotic distribution of letter patterns. You can render the entire text in slang, but that looks weird, too, awkward, as if the words themselves are ill at ease being expressed in Helvetica and Times New Roman glyphs.

For me it is very difficult to release the experience of a different culture through tools and forms that are deeply and thoroughly rooted in another culture. I have found it troubling to abstract this experience; to act as if it is a trivial transposition, to be able to render any arbitrary experience in the twenty-six letters of the Latin alphabet, on a machine that tells you it is a "ThinkPad", using software that presents you with an "uncluttered, intuitive, easy-to-use interface that will boost your productivity".

For me, the expression needs to be seamless to be persuasive, and to be seamless, all cultural and notional expectations need to be subsumed in it. That is what lulls the mind into the sense of security it needs to fully accept an outlandishly different experience.

Of course this is just my personal feeling about these things. Other writers do things differently and better. But it felt exhilarating (not surprising, just exhilarating), when I stumbled across the screenplay from The Wire -- that show which dealt with race in a way that's more seamless, more modern, more generous than anything I've ever seen -- to discover that the script has rarely any jarring renditions of slang at all. It just never signals a punch and you never get to know what hit you.
posted by dmh at 1:37 PM on May 24


Can we talk about the bit where critics are anointing John Green the savior of YA despite the fact that YA's enormous success is fueled largely by women writers and lately, by nonwhite writers also? Because that is giving me rage-fits.

It doesn't give me rage-fits so much as it just depresses me. Green himself seems like a good guy with an enthusiastic fanbase only partially built on his books, but anointing him as the voice or savior of YA is annoying on so many different levels. As a genre fan, it annoys me that Green's contemporary, non-genre books get so much attention and praise when the really interesting stuff happening in YA is genre. As a YA fan, it's annoying that he's getting so much attention when there are other, better YA authors. Of course, those other authors are women.

Green's influence is ludicrously disproportionate, and I don't know what, if anything, can be done from within the YA community to fix the problem. Talking about and promoting women and POC authors only does so much when media, critics, and even fandom are just so devoted to rallying around the latest white dude as the voice of YA.
posted by yasaman at 1:41 PM on May 24 [3 favorites]


> Who are those people? I've never read any of them in my Honors/AP English classes for high school, or my triple major
> social science degree which required about a full semester's worth of reading and writing on humanities.

Heh. Yeah, I've been to a couple of schools like that. Gone as soon as I got into someplace better that I could afford.


> It seems kind of dumb to talk about using something that goes to the heart of people's identity as something that can "go
> in and out of fashion". Rather, it seems more that the use of dialect is more related to how much space is given to
> it/reclaimed from a largely white establishment.

During this fifteen minute segment. Previously it has been given quite a bit of space by a largely white establishment. Disney even made a movie.

"Tu'n me loose, fo' I kick de natal stuffin' outen you," sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, but de Tar-Baby, she ain't sayin' nuthin'. She des hilt on, en de Brer Rabbit lose de use er his feet in de same way. Brer Fox, he lay low. Den Brer Rabbit squall out dat ef de Tar-Baby don't tu'n 'im loose he butt 'er cranksided. En den he butted, en his head got stuck. Den Brer Fox, he sa'ntered fort', lookin' dez ez innercent ez wunner yo' mammy's mockin'-birds.



> Someone experiencing the world differently from you does not negate your own experiences, it merely shows that our
> world is very complicated, and not everyone gets the same treatment/experiences the same things. How is
> acknowledging this truth so threatening to so many people?

A point which applies to anansi as much as anyone else (Junot Diaz, par example.)
posted by jfuller at 2:07 PM on May 24 [2 favorites]


I honestly do not understand why some folks can not just STFU and listen when someone tries to relate their experiences.

There is no discussion, no engagement, and no change possible if we just shut the fuck up and listen. That mentality is more suited for a church, not a forum.
posted by kanewai at 2:33 PM on May 24 [3 favorites]


Like, say, the kind of quota you can easily find in...the New Yorker, where The Woman Writer of the issue can reliably be found to have contributed a poem, or perhaps a review of a dance performance.

You mean The New Yorker, the magazine that regularly runs pieces on politics, literature, and society by Zadie Smith, Ariel Levy, ZZ Packer, Alice Munro, Nancy Franklin, Renata Adler, Susan Orlean, Elizabeth Kolbert, Katherine Boo, Janet Malcolm, Dana Goodyear, and quite a few others?

Whenever people go off on The New Yorker, it quickly becomes obvious that they don't know anything about it.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 2:35 PM on May 24 [1 favorite]


This is the Age of the Writing Program—but in the early 90s none of that had come to pass.

Diaz, per his post, enrolled in Cornell in the early 90s. Henry Louis Gates was poached from Cornell to Duke in 1989, who quite unabashedly created the most impressive cutting edge Lit Crit super group ever (one that took pains to dismantle the hegemony of white men -- well, until Fish poisoned that well). And he was at Harvard by 1991. I, Rigoberta Menchú had already gone through one round of controversy (about its inclusion in reading lists, not its veracity).

I wrote my senior thesis in a lit program in 1993. It was about expanding the canon, and most of my primary resources dated 5-10 years earlier. How Diaz got through undergrad without being at aware of it, or reading David Lodge (simply to get perspective on the hollow cynicism with which everyone viewed the MLA/MFA racket) speaks to a limitation of experience that simply cannot be laid at the feet of most Lit programs in the 90s. Many in the 80s, and most in the 70s. But this? No way.

Is my experience universal? Nope. But neither is Diaz's.
posted by 99_ at 2:44 PM on May 24 [1 favorite]


Actually, ThatFuzzyBastard, the New Yorker has never really cracked 15% in terms of female representation (bylined items/features/etc). Dennis Loy Johnson at MobyLives tracked this for about six/seven years (that I recall) from 1999-2006 or so and the numbers are not good. This is solid quantitative data.
posted by 99_ at 2:47 PM on May 24 [5 favorites]


You mean The New Yorker,

Yeah, that one, in this universe, that I had a subscription to for 20some years and OH GOSH I guess I forgot I was illiterate and couldn't actually read any of the issues, nor am I capable of interpreting my own observations, so thank you so much for your corrections.

At The New Yorker, whose byline disparity was covered by CJR in 2005, men wrote 449 articles in 2010, while women wrote 163—or 26.63 percent of the total. In 2011, that percentage slid to 26.44 percent. link
posted by rtha at 2:59 PM on May 24 [7 favorites]


Let's dick measure our subs!

I got the CD set that was issued in 2004, so I own literally every copy through then, and had a sub from ca 1993 through to 2012.

Also, I do believe VIDA does total bylines. Johnson narrowed to it tent pole articles so a couple TOTTs and television reviews couldn't bump the numbers.

NEXT!
posted by 99_ at 3:04 PM on May 24


What?
posted by rtha at 3:05 PM on May 24


rtha, Sorry, thought you were New Yorkersplaining to me.
posted by 99_ at 3:07 PM on May 24


I guess I forgot I was illiterate and couldn't actually read any of the issues, nor am I capable of interpreting my own observations, so thank you so much for your corrections.

Given that you said that in The New Yorker, "The Woman Writer of the issue can reliably be found to have contributed a poem, or perhaps a review of a dance performance," I can only conclude that in all those years of subscribing you somehow missed Ariel Levy on The Van Dykes, Susan Orlean on The Shaggs, Janet Malcolm on crime, Zadie Smith on comedy, or any of the many, many pieces of writing by women that were not a poem or a dance review. Which is a shame---they're quite good!
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 3:17 PM on May 24


Oh, okay, yeah - no, I was attempting to, uh, me-splain to TFB.

But in the course of finding that link, I also ran across Why 88% of books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white authors at poynter, which makes for an interesting read.

On preview: Sorry to have confused you with my specific examples, TFB. Next time I will check with you to be sure I am not making a point you think I am unqualified to make.
posted by rtha at 3:18 PM on May 24 [2 favorites]


[Knock it off, folks. Memail is your option if you must. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 3:32 PM on May 24 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting this. Excellent.

hal_c_on, you went to shitty schools. My NYC high school English dept., covered works by many POC, 20 years ago.
posted by zarq at 9:50 PM on May 24


I am just jumping in to say if anyone in this thread was able to do a FPP about John Green, I would favourite that so hard. I listened to The Fault in Our Stars because I'm screening books for one of my kids with very picky taste, and it was decent. Cute. But later when I was trying to explain to my husband about the plot, I caught myself and went, you know what, it is an awful book. The cynical melodrama and structuring of the emotional beats - it is A Very Special Episode. And I read a lot of YA, and to have this as the top pick is just such a shame. It reminded me of the I Am Number Four paint-by-numbers YA series.

I struggle with dialect in Asian literature. I try to read a lot of local and regional writing, and many chose to mix in chinese dialects and malay. There are also English variants (as valid as received english, but noticeably different to read on the page). Translations and footnotes only go so far. There was a gorgeous little graphic novel recently about teenagers and a ghost with lots of Singapore-specific phrases. I knew a few and had to keep asking my husband for the rest or googling them, and it was definitely a barrier the first time, throwing me out of the reading immersion. But it was worth it because someone shouting "You seow ah?" is both accurate for that character in that time and place, and the meaning that is slightly different from "Are you nuts?"

Junot Diaz and William Gaddis are both alien to me and require additional context and language research to fully understand.

Dialect is a very powerful literary technique. It reminds me of second-person POV. I've read a few books and more shorts that have worked brilliantly that way, and so many more that have butchered it badly.

But it seems to only be visible when it is a minority dialect. Dialect and slang don't exist as a white middle-class writing artifact. John Irving and Raymond Carver for example read to me that way.
posted by viggorlijah at 1:14 AM on May 25 [3 favorites]


I honestly do not understand why some folks can not just STFU and listen when someone tries to relate their experiences.

I don't understand why some folks urge us not to read the comments. (Though it's pretty funny that this admonitions comes in the form of - a comment.)
posted by IndigoJones at 7:58 AM on May 25


> I think we can all agree that MFA programs are ridiculous

Nope.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:20 AM on May 26


hal_c_on, you went to shitty schools. My NYC high school English dept., covered works by many POC, 20 years ago.

I went to chicago public schools, went to he in the burbs, then went to Indiana university in Bloomington.


My statement isn't reflecting the fact that if one DID try to seek out literature written by non-white males, it was available. It is reflecting the fact, that mostly white male literature was part of the non-humanities based degree.

The only people who were taught those works were people who specifically took classes that explored non-white literature.

I never read a book by a foreign author at my large public university until I took a class in Sufi lit. I never read a book by a black woman at my large public university until I enrolled myself in African American lit. I had to seek this shit out.

So all the people going in about how your school is awesome...you're missing the point. Unless students specifically seek Toni Morrison, they won't read her. They'll be too busy being assigned the typical lit that everyone reads.

Why have I had to deconstruct the shit outta the charge of the light brigade in hs, but didn't even know that Phyllis Wheatley even existed till I was in my 20s.

It wasn't because of my public schooling.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:13 AM on May 26 [2 favorites]


I never read a book by a foreign author at my large public university until I took a class in Sufi lit. I never read a book by a black woman at my large public university until I enrolled myself in African American lit. I had to seek this shit out.

I took a class in the South Asian Studies department as an undergrad to meet the reading and composition requirement. I'm not going to claim I was diversifying my education--I had a terrible registration slot that semester and there were seats in that class, which was the same way I'd ended up in the Slavic department for the first half of the requirement. I'm pretty sure that's the only class where I read anything by a person of color in college and it was in a class I only had to take because I hadn't taken AP English, which had a syllabus comprised overwhelmingly of white men.

(Now I'm trying to think of books assigned in high school not written by white men. Somewhat unpredictably I read the Joy Luck Club in school, which replaced Their Eyes Were Watching God. Honors English meant I missed Black Boy. I find it hard believing that was it, but that's all I can remember. And I suppose it wouldn't shock me if that was it.)
posted by hoyland at 12:11 PM on May 26


Now I'm trying to think of books assigned in high school not written by white men.

Now I'm trying to think of books assigned in high school. Period. The only book I recall offhand is LOTR, which I read a few chapters and decided it was such insufferable crap that I absolutely refused to read it and got into endless arguments with the teacher, resulting in bad grades. Oh yeah, Catch-22. Ponderous rubbish. Oh and Black Like Me. I guess a story about a white guy passing as black was considered a multicultural experience back in the 70s. At least it was short.

Don't extrapolate from the rubbish k12 literature programs. It's amateur hour, compared to college. I went on to get a degree in Japanese Language and Literature and I don't think I read a single eurocentric book the entire time I was in college, except for Kafka's Metamorphosis, as written in Japanese. Very amusing. I did meet a few prizewinning authors from Japan, but then, my school has the International Writing Program and supposedly it is considered the next stop after you are awarded the Akutagawa Prize.

High school is where the teachers decide what crap you have to read. But if you're in college and you're dissatisfied with the crap they ask you to read, drop the damn class and enroll in something else. Or go to the library or bookstore and read something else. This is why I have a hard time with articles like the OP. He declares he is angry they didn't tell him to read the multicultural content he needed. They also didn't tell him to tie his shoelaces. He should have figured out by then, that he could do these on his own. But that's not really his problem. He really is angry that his university wasn't forcing everyone to read the authors he considered important. Now that he is a professor, heaven help his poor students.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:01 PM on May 26


> Now I'm trying to think of books assigned in high school not written by white men.

They never offered you The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers? Not even in translation? Alexandre Dumas père was as black as the sitting US President is.
posted by jfuller at 3:26 PM on May 26


Now I'm trying to think of books assigned in high school. Period.

Ah, but I can remember at least two or three from each year. I did ask some people and a lot of people came up with To Kill a Mockingbird, though that was junior high for me.

While the article is about MFAs, I think we've drifted into a large question of the diversity of authors and texts taught to undergraduates. It's virtually tautological that if you did a degree in Japanese literature, you read a lot of stuff written by people of color. I did math, with a heavy dose of German on the side. I'm not terribly dissatisfied with what I read in German classes--the selection of some of the shorter readings in the language classes could be diversified, but it was okay.

Perhaps you don't need to be told to read books by people who have experiences unlike your own, but, overwhelmingly, people generally need to be told and they need to read have read those books if they're going to purport to have an understanding of writing (for the MFA people) or if the university has any interest in standing behind its press releases about the value of liberal education (which it may not have, knowing many universities).

They never offered you The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers? Not even in translation? Alexandre Dumas père was as black as the sitting US President is.

No. (Forget about not in translation. My French classes (at two different universities) have been hilariously bad at handling colonialism. One of the textbooks tried very hard to pretend people in Senegal woke up one morning and decided it would awfully convenient if they took up French.) We did read Letter from Birmingham Jail, but I'm not sure if that should count, since it was one day.
posted by hoyland at 3:34 PM on May 26


LOL I dropped 4th year French in high school because the teacher assigned me Le Comte de Monte-Cristo in a simplified vocabulary 1000 words only edition as my final project. It was so infuriatingly dumb and unreadable that I dropped the class a month before I completed the class. This forced me into taking 2 years of foreign language at my university, which was a good thing since that became one of my degrees.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:36 PM on May 26


Alexandre Dumas père was as black as the sitting US President is.

Claiming Dumas as an author of color is like saying the Bible satisfies diversity requirements because it's about a Jew.
posted by Etrigan at 3:38 PM on May 26 [1 favorite]


While the article is about MFAs, I think we've drifted into a large question of the diversity of authors and texts taught to undergraduates. It's virtually tautological that if you did a degree in Japanese literature, you read a lot of stuff written by people of color. I did math, with a heavy dose of German on the side.

Well this is a general problem all over the humanities. I look at it from the language angle because that's my degree area. Well, one of them, I have two undergrad degrees. Yeah that was stupid, I could have done an MA or MFA in the same time and same money. But I got 6 years of both programs.

I checked into the grad programs in my area. I also have a BFA in Studio Art. If I wanted to do an MA in Art History, here is the requirement straight off their website:

M.A. students must demonstrate proficiency in French or German by the end of their third semester. Proficiency is determined by a translation exam administered under the direction of the art history division. Credit earned in language courses does not count toward the degree.

I asked and my 6 years of Japanese is not acceptable, even if I want to study Japanese art. This is absolutely outrageous. The art historians want you to be able to access the canonical literature in art history, which apparently they think is exclusively written in French or German. And three semesters to demonstrate fluency? Including a bunch of specialized art history terms? You wouldn't have time to do anything but language studies, and you certainly wouldn't be able to apply it to reading relevant literature in your subject area. But this language requirement has been unchanged for decades.

Maybe this is getting back to the FPP topic, which seems to be partly about the use of foreign language in English lit and the breaking of Eurocentric hegemony in the arts. Maybe just the acknowledgement that other languages exist is a start. It reminds me of the current trend in big budget movies. Some movies in English have short scenes with foreign language dialogue but now oftentimes they don't subtitle it, which might make a key scene incomprehensible and leave huge gaps in the plot. I really don't know what they're trying to achieve by doing this.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:59 PM on May 26 [1 favorite]


> Claiming Dumas as an author of color is like saying the Bible satisfies diversity
> requirements because it's about a Jew.

TFB, etrigan, so sad you think so. Won't expand TFB because it will just make work for the mods, but Dumas père was beyond the least little doubt a person of color, or a colored person, or a darkie, according to the French people of his time and according to himself. (And also, ahem, an author.) Need I go on beyond that just for the historically ignorant? I won't--only because it would make work for the mods (who know they can trust me not to do that!)-- but I will cheerfully quote Dumas himself on the subject:

My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.

That's new to you, etrigan, isn't it? TFB.
posted by jfuller at 6:35 PM on May 26


There is nothing quite so amusing as someone who's snotty about how knowledgeable he is while being factually incorrect. Dumas -- as your quote notes -- was a quarter African. His father, General-in-Chief Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, was "as black as the sitting US President is", as you put it.

And I still say that citing him as an author of color is lawyerly bullshit -- hence my pointing out that one could just as accurately say that the Bible is about a Jew. Feel free to disagree about that part. I'm sure the mods won't mind.
posted by Etrigan at 6:57 PM on May 26


Dumas -- as your quote notes -- was a quarter African.

But this still makes him a "person of color." At least as I understand it. I must admit to being very surprised that you would argue otherwise. Especially since he was proud of his heritage and self-identified as a POC. The linked article discusses running themes regarding race and racism throughout his works that relate to his personal experiences.

Etrigan, I don't understand? What am I missing here? What is it about him that you feel somehow disqualifies him as a person of color?
posted by zarq at 8:09 PM on May 26


Keeping in mind I've not read any of his work, I think there is some issue around the fact Dumas was a person of color has been largely erased in how he's talked about. If you totally ignore it when you're teaching, you don't get to claim him towards representation later. (I'm struggling to think of another example, not that there aren't any, just that my brain isn't firing right now.)
posted by hoyland at 4:43 AM on May 27 [1 favorite]


hoyland: "Keeping in mind I've not read any of his work, I think there is some issue around the fact Dumas was a person of color has been largely erased in how he's talked about. If you totally ignore it when you're teaching, you don't get to claim him towards representation later. (I'm struggling to think of another example, not that there aren't any, just that my brain isn't firing right now.)"

Anecdata point: I was one of the most widely-read students in my high school, went to a college that had a two-quarter core course called "Self and Society" that focused on "'self' and 'society' and the interactions between the two" (current reading list), and studied French for many years during high school and college.

It wasn't until after I had graduated that I learned that Dumas was a person of color. I don't remember a single instructor mentioning anything about him being of African ancestry — he was, at least by omission, lumped in with the other dead French writers we discussed.
posted by Lexica at 11:38 AM on May 27 [1 favorite]


Dumas
Dumas
Dumas
Georges (Georges is a short novel by Alexandre Dumas, père set on the island of Mauritius, from 1810 to 1824. This novel is of particular interest to scholars because Dumas reused many of the ideas and plot devices later in The Count of Monte Cristo, and because race and racism are at the center of this novel, and this was a topic on which Dumas, despite his part-African ancestry, rarely wrote.)
Memoirs

You'll be saying Edgar Mittelholzer isn't a writer of colour next.
posted by glasseyes at 11:41 AM on May 27




hoyland: "I think there is some issue around the fact Dumas was a person of color has been largely erased in how he's talked about. If you totally ignore it when you're teaching, you don't get to claim him towards representation later."

Lexica: "It wasn't until after I had graduated that I learned that Dumas was a person of color. I don't remember a single instructor mentioning anything about him being of African ancestry — he was, at least by omission, lumped in with the other dead French writers we discussed."

I'm still failing to see why Dumas status as a person of color should be argued against for any reason. People don't teach that he was a POC, so therefore he's not a fit representative? Not black enough?

Please.
posted by zarq at 7:38 AM on May 28


People don't teach that he was a POC, so therefore he's not a fit representative? Not black enough?

No one is arguing against his status as a person of color (and it was jfuller who brought up "how" black he was, not me or hoyland or Lexica). What we're pointing out is that his status as an author of color seems to be wholly retroactive, brought up defensively (in this discussion, at least) as a way of showing that, yes, indeed, there are authors of color taught in the curriculum.

So yes, the fact that people don't teach that Dumas was a person of color is important in this discussion. Like I said the first time, no one counts the Bible as a book written by non-white men about a non-white man. Why not? Because it would be technically correct bullshit to do so. Ditto counting Dumas as an author of color if the fact and/or context of his race isn't part of the curriculum.
posted by Etrigan at 7:48 AM on May 28 [1 favorite]


I guess I'm a little confused about how the whole question of Dumas's racial identity relates to the topic of this post, which I read to be about how some voices are systematically marginalized and other kinds of voices systematically elevated throughout the American literary establishment, from the MFA programs where young writers go to get trained to the book reviews and articles where readers get information about which books they might want to read. How does Dumas being a POC support or challenge that argument? Is Dumas held up as a role model for writers in MFA programs? I have never done an MFA program, but I would be surprised if that were widespread. Do reviewers compare writers to Dumas in book reviews? I can't say I've seen it, and I'm not convinced that the comparison would be positive if it were to happen, because Dumas is pretty out of fashion. I'm just not sure what the whole Dumas thing is getting at here, except as a kind of cheap gotcha to deflect attention from the central argument.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:08 AM on May 28 [5 favorites]


Etrigan: " No one is arguing against his status as a person of color (and it was jfuller who brought up "how" black he was, not me or hoyland or Lexica).

Your response questioned his POC relevance. First you said that Dumas was a "quarter African." Which is accurate and a correction to jfuller, but you're also arguing that Dumas is not a fit representative of Black authors, so yes, the juxtaposition strikes me as problematic. Here's why:

What we're pointing out is that his status as an author of color seems to be wholly retroactive, brought up defensively (in this discussion, at least) as a way of showing that, yes, indeed, there are authors of color taught in the curriculum.

Not wholly retroactive. I was taught Georges in senior (High School) English in 1989 in NYC. It's a huge school system. They didn't whitewash Dumas' heritage. What I was taught is actually counter to what Wikipedia says: Dumas did incoporate racial themes into his work, and did acknowledge his heritage.

"So yes, the fact that people don't teach that Dumas was a person of color is important in this discussion.

Except for the fact that you're saying no one teaches that Dumas was a POC, and I know from personal experience that even 20 years ago people were doing so.

Feel free to respond to this or not. I agree with ArbitraryAndCapricious that I'm contributing to an unhelpful derail here and would prefer not to continue. Have said my piece and will let it go.
posted by zarq at 8:45 AM on May 28


Which is accurate and a correction to jfuller, but you're also arguing that Dumas is not a fit representative of Black authors, so yes, the juxtaposition strikes me as problematic.

No, I'm arguing that Dumas must be taught as an author of color in order to count as an author of color. It's great that you were taught Georges and Dumas' racial heritage in high school. But that doesn't mean that everyone is (or was). Having The Count of Monte Cristo on a curriculum doesn't automatically move that curriculum to the "sufficiently representative of non-white authors" side of the ledger.
posted by Etrigan at 8:55 AM on May 28 [2 favorites]


As a data point, I'm reasonably well-read and have read at least one or two stories by Dumas, and until this thread I had no idea that he was black (or whatever term he would have used at that time for himself).
posted by Dip Flash at 10:18 PM on May 28 [1 favorite]


> No, I'm arguing that Dumas must be taught as an author of color in order to count as an author of color.

You seldom see that stated so openly. Ghod help you if you, a person of color and a writer, ever manage to break out of the "writers of color" ghetto. Or, equivalently, the "woman writers" ghetto, or any of the other special-status categories. Don't ask "why can't I just be a writer, not always a Black writer, a Hispanic writer, a female writer?" If ever you do pull that trick off racists will still see your color; mysogynists will still see your sex. But your former allies on the social justice end of things will drop you like first period algebra, because all they cared about was your special status category, not you. As Etrigan says, you will no longer count.
posted by jfuller at 8:06 AM on May 31


But your former allies on the social justice end of things will drop you like first period algebra, because all they cared about was your special status category, not you. As Etrigan says, you will no longer count.

That's twisting the argument pretty severely. There's space between acknowledging and tokenizing.
posted by hoyland at 8:24 AM on May 31 [3 favorites]


Sadly, one more or less always sees "No, you're the real racist" stated so openly.

The reason that social justice warriors want more representation of creators who aren't straight cis white men isn't because they like comfortably ghettoized minority writers they can point to. It's because students who aren't straight cis white men are better served by having examples who are more like them. Dumas can be such an example, but he has to, y'know, be an example in order to be an example.
posted by Etrigan at 8:53 AM on May 31


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