Years ago, there was a powerful writer that I liked. His stories were energetic, lyrical, evocative and imaginative, so I studied a couple dozen of them to see what I could learn from him.
The author was a songwriters and composer, which explained his poetic bent, but I found something odd when looking at the heart of his stories, trying to discover what his great message was. It seemed to me that the themes of his stories could best be summed up as “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.” In short, if one of his characters met a beautiful woman, he’d have to screw her. If there was a drug mentioned in the story, someone had to take it. And if there was a song lyric in there, it was definitely rock. Shallow stuff. This created a certain sense of predictability to some otherwise powerful stories, and I’ve always felt that as a writer, this fellow’s career became a bit of a cautionary tale.
I’ve never wanted to be the kind of writer who could so easily be summed up and dismissed.
In the past few months, I’ve been hearing numerous reports about publishers who want to limit what writers talk about—and of course thereby limit which writers get published. There are national discussions going on in entertainment—discussions about racial equality, gender identity, and women’s rights. I applaud that. Our society is messed up and has been for a long time.
I’m just not sure that big publishers know how to handle delicate social issues. Sometimes it seems that instead of being surgeons who excise a tumor with a scalpel, publishers attack social problems with machetes.
For example, a reader in Texas reported in December that he was listening to National Public Radio and an editor said that the major young adult publishing company that she worked for was not interested in books that dealt with straight romances. They were interested only in publishing stories with gay romances.
That seems odd to me. After all, more than 90 percent of people are straight. No, it’s more than odd, it’s screwed up. Couldn’t I write a romance about a straight relationship that was culturally relevant? Couldn’t I write about how to respect a young woman’s boundaries, for example, or create a Hispanic male protagonist as a love interest? What kind of idiot publisher would suggest that only gay romances should be written about? Isn’t that overkill?
Last summer another author had a major publisher sit on his manuscript for months. When they rejected it, they did so because a top manager said, “We aren’t interested in publishing any manuscripts by white men this year.” They were more interested in talking about racial issues or sexual issues, and corporate policy is that all white men are incapable of writing authentically about such things.
To be honest, I agree that as a white male I’m at a disadvantage when writing about certain issues, but there are ways. For example, the authors for Green Book, the Academy Award-winning picture about a friendship between a bisexual black man and an Italian thug was penned by three writers who were all white males. I submit that a writer’s gender or color should not be how a publisher gauges the quality of a story.
A few weeks ago, I asked a young adult writer what she had in the pipeline and she said, “Well, I have several novels making the rounds, but as a white woman I’m not getting any interest. I’m not seen as being culturally relevant anymore.” Now, this author is a strong feminist, but apparently publishers want something more.
Culturally relevant. How do you define culturally relevant? Do you imagine that there is only a small list of narrow agreed-upon topics that are culturally relevant? Or could there be bigger issues that corporate America and Big Brother don’t want you to discuss?
In the past few months I’ve begun to see some shifts in the types of stories being submitted to the Writers of the Future Contest. I’ve been seeing more culturally diverse protagonists and more gay romance in the short story submissions I get. I like that just fine, but it seems to me that I’m seeing what I will call “New Predictability” in stories. If a woman meets a woman, she has to screw her. If race is mentioned in a story, the dark-skinned person has to win. If a young girl is a protagonist, she has to be morally, intellectually and physically superior to every male in the story.
Sigh. This is what you get when you try to enforce cultural diversity by committee.
As authors, we need to be better than cliché ideas. Diversity is fine, but I also want to see stories that are original and profound.