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.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:
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.
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.
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