The Dangerous Lure of Writing for White Readers in an MFA
November 28, 2017 1:53 PM   Subscribe

As a white woman who loves Basquiat, abhors patriarchal storytelling, and is best described as a prim and proper punk, I choose fiction to take me to places I never thought of going or even knew existed. I don't want an author to pander. I want to know what their deepest and most personal truth is, even if I am not the target audience.

I just assume fiction is a wild ride, and a form of literary cosplay. There are way too many untapped markets that are crying for fiction that speaks to them. I do not know why publishers have tunnel vision in that department, but we are being denied innovations in storytelling because of it.

It bothers me when people feel obligated to be someone other than their authentic selves, but I think the culprit is that fiction does not have a diversity of storytelling structures. If there were other ways of telling stories, none of this bigotry would have a chance to take root and grow.

Thank you for the link.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 2:13 PM on November 28 [2 favorites]

Imagine a nonfiction workshop that includes a single black female writer. If this writer has spent much of her time studying, say, postcolonial theory and the literary implications of double consciousness, she may choose to take a circuitous path when it comes to how she conveys “truth” on the page. But if none of her graduate school compatriots are familiar with this literary and cultural lineage, her formal choices are likely to be questioned.

Interesting! I'm a white person with an MFA in nonfiction writing, and I had problems along these lines with one of my classmates' pieces. I wish I'd had more knowledge then; I might have appreciated her work more.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:20 PM on November 28 [3 favorites]

This was great. Not only as an example of how representation matters (in just about everything) but also the imposter syndrome involved in being bi-racial. Multi-racial people in this country certainly get "not minority enough" flack from their minority community, but from White America they just get "not white.Minority." It can be such an uncomfortable and frustrating gray area at times.

At dinner one night I had the pleasure of sitting across from the poet, Jericho Brown. He was one of the funniest, most irreverent people I’ve met in years. And loud. The next day, when I saw him read, his voice took on a tone I can’t quite describe, it was so quiet and tender. It had a breathiness, a moaning quality that sucked us in. He was magnetic. He was someone completely different. Not like, “whoa, what a drama queen.” I mean, “holy shit. He is a shape shifter.”

I loved this line.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 2:44 PM on November 28 [3 favorites]

I have so many thoughts and feelings that came from reading Aisha Sabatini Sloan's excellent essay, but what I can’t get out my head right now is this passage:

I’ve been so busy responding to the feedback I got in workshop when I had intended to write an experimental nonfiction book about interviews I’d done with women of mixed race around the world. In my first workshop, I was told, by my professor, “Nobody cares about this.” My interest in writing about people whose experience resembled my own was something that my professor went so far as to diagnose—he described my project as “compulsive.” I was told, by a classmate who was genuinely speaking out of what he thought was love: “I’m not interested in them. I want to hear about your family. I want to hear more about your dad. What was it like to grow up the way you did?”

Whoever this professor is, and whoever this student is, they need to be kept away from influencing young writers.

I've worked with many young writers on their debut books, and this kind of nonsense is exactly what shouldn’t be said. I don't know what they think they were doing, but they're telling young writers to ignore what makes them want to write. This is worse than useless advice, it's harmful.
posted by Kattullus at 3:16 PM on November 28 [20 favorites]

this was lovely and illuminating, thank you for sharing.
posted by sibboleth at 3:22 PM on November 28 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I wanna read that book.
posted by lauranesson at 3:23 PM on November 28 [1 favorite]

I’ve been so busy responding to the feedback I got in workshop when I had intended to write an experimental nonfiction book about interviews I’d done with women of mixed race around the world. In my first workshop, I was told, by my professor, “Nobody cares about this.”

I literally gasped aloud when I read this. I was reading along, trying to forcibly slow myself down to think about context and how much I could learn from this when, like a kid learning to ride a bike but staring too hard at his handlebars instead of what lay ahead, I hit that trashcan some asshole decided to leave on the sidewalk.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 3:41 PM on November 28 [11 favorites]

I’ve been so busy responding to the feedback I got in workshop when I had intended to write an experimental nonfiction book about interviews I’d done with women of mixed race around the world. In my first workshop, I was told, by my professor, “Nobody cares about this.”

WTF? I want to read this. I care about this. I buy a fuckton of books.

And ... I know this isn't about me. I'm a white woman, so it is very specifically not about me. But ... I think people who read a lot want to read books that help them experience the way someone else sees the world. Sometimes that's educational, when you're reading a book by or about someone who's really different from you. Sometimes it's about reading something and feeling known, or less alone, because someone else shares your experiences and speaks your language.

Thank you for posting this. This author has an amazing voice, and I would love to read something by her that wasn't written for me.

I really want to find that professor and tell him to got to hell.
posted by lunasol at 4:38 PM on November 28 [5 favorites]

Very thought provoking piece. I enjoyed her writing and will certainly seek out more of it in hopes that, in fact, it is not written for me.
Over the past several years I have made an effort to seek out authors of color, but mostly fiction. this made me question whether and how some, or all of them, alter their artistic vision to suit a white american audience. I'm certain that some authors always write with the audience in mind, and some never do, and some are motivated purely by artistic vision and others purely by commercial success and those things will never be divorced from the publishing industry and the broader culture at large.
This, of course, is tangential to Sloan's literary milieu, which relies on elements of acceptance which are more specific and narrow and leads to apprehensions that she expresses. My hope is that she is encouraged from now on to be true to her vision, difficult though that may be.
posted by OHenryPacey at 5:08 PM on November 28 [1 favorite]

I am humiliated that I was never really writing with a black reader in mind. All of the overtures that are made to “explain” the experience of being a minority are tiny coded signals that the reader is presumably unfamiliar with this experience.

This is kind of how I feel commenting on race on Metafilter.
posted by dmh at 6:00 PM on November 28 [15 favorites]

And this is why Afro-Pessimism. I mean, there's only, like, 4 centuries of Black folk and other folks of color writing about their experiences under white supremacy, and even writing to a white audience, at least some of the time, and white folk still can't get it. Won't get it.

"Write for us," we demand, "but we won't read it or take it on board."
posted by allthinky at 8:10 AM on November 29 [1 favorite]

"Write for us," we demand, "but we won't read it or take it on board."

I have seen this sentiment a lot recently, and it goes along with my reaction to the very next thread on the blue, which I haven't been able to articulate yet.

Millions of white americans voted for Obama, and believe in the hope and the change that he represented, and yet here we are because of so many reasons still, and it seems like perhaps it's a sort of fantasy wish fulfillment of the oppressed that the worst of their oppressors will be the ones to say "yes, i want to hear your story" (as in the video).

Te-Nehisi Coates won the national book award and perhaps millions of white americans read Between the World and Me and yet we are somehow waiting for the Koch brothers, or Jared Kushner or Ivanka Trump to come around or hear one more story that will be the tipping point. It won't.

I have to believe that we are making progress. I see white allies at BLM marches and at counter-protests for Nazi rallies, I see articles like this one that wouldn't have gotten attention a decade ago (even though her struggle is not a new struggle) and I take hope that we can educate enough of the new generation that there will be a sea change some day, but we are still a long way from our institutions (and by this i mean the type of academia that Sloan is struggling with) shedding their prejudicial habits, so it's totally right for her to move on from trying to please the wrong audience in order for her to be true to herself and it should be right for her to teach the next generation of writers that the approval of the white patriarchy is not what they should be seeking. Those things will not exclude those of us who care from reading those works, and that other audience will begin to matter less and less.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:38 AM on November 29 [1 favorite]

« Older The only reliable method is iteration and trial...   |   Rhyme Displays that Engrave Deep as X-Rays Newer »

You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.