By Chelsey Shannon, editor
This post is part of the three-part series Forms to Suit Function: Rethinking the Editorial Intake Process.
To start, three points:
- No editor—no person—knows everything.
- What you do know depends on how your body gets interpreted by the state and other people.
- In a stratified, oppressive society, who you are dictates how individuals and institutions value your knowledge. That perceived value translates into power—whether political, economic, social, or aesthetic or artistic power.
In the United States and in many other places, this means (still) dealing with the ways that Eurocentric, male, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied ways of knowing are considered both the default and implicitly superior. Knowledge is understood as a limited, hoardable commodity, instead of a living, infinitely renewable force that exists via interrelationship, through reaching beyond one’s own experience to exchange and share insights with others—and, crucially, of letting that very exchange shift one’s own experiences and applications of knowledge. Yet, in the standard Western epistemic approach, White men of privilege are still implicitly the “best at” knowing.
Similar assumptions dictate the merits of U.S. literature. For instance, let’s say our national literary corpus is a self-serve ice cream sundae bar at a moderately exciting social event. There are the vats of vanilla, the canvas for the custom cones and cups to come. And then there’s the multitude of toppings. Per the status quo, we know which writings would be the ice cream—seen not just as essential, but as universally, pleasurably essential. And we know which would just be the nuts, syrup, or crushed Oreos that may be opted into, or not—because, thanks to the magic of ice cream, the reader/ice cream socializer is guaranteed a tasty treat either way.
But what if we’re sick of ice cream? What if we want a different type of treat?
Over the amassment of the U.S. American canon and in mainstream publishing still, marginalized points of view are treated as inessential and insubstantial on their own. This includes the writings, knowledges, of Black, Indigenous, Asian, and/or Latinx people; trans, nonbinary, queer people; people with intellectual and physical disabilities; members of religious minorities; women, trans and cis; poor, immigrant, and “disrespectable” people, including sex workers, those formerly or currently incarcerated, undocumented people, refugees, and others.
This group represents a vast range of epistemic standpoints and corresponding bodies of knowledge. Such writings may (depending on the month of the year) be lifted up to “complement” the “traditional” canons—but rarely do we acknowledge that works by marginalized writers may have literary conventions and values entirely their own, ones that may even ignore or defy normative standards, as informed by the varying epistemes of these writers and their lived experiences.
Yet such works are still treated as gratuitous appendages to a White male-dominant body of American literature, one that’s supposedly hermeneutically complete and satisfying all on its own. Under an oppressive hegemony, hierarchy—not holisticness—is the name of the game, and literary work rendered through a Eurocentric, cishet male knowledge base is often considered to be of empirically better, more “universal” quality than work that is not.
On the front of race, this impression is well backed by market trends. A 2020 New York Times study analyzed a data set of about 8,000 fiction books published by major U.S. publishing houses between the years 1950 and 2018. 95% were written by White authors. Despite the sometimes articulated myth that BIPOC writers have a competitive edge by virtue of their race—and despite performative allyship on publishers’ and literary prizes’ social media accounts—these are the numbers.
This Whiteness is mirrored by that of the publishing industry itself. Editorial staff in particular have actually gotten slightly Whiter in the last years, according to the Diversity Baseline Survey by Lee & Low Books, conducted in 2015 and again in 2019. In 2019, 85% of the editorial staff of the 153 respondent organizations were White, actually up 3% from the survey’s first iteration. If we, for a second, set the bar so low as basic numerical parity, current U.S. Census data suggests that the population is about 60% White, meaning White editors overrepresent their demographic by 25%. That 25% share of editorship translates to thousands of people, thousands of jobs, thousands of relationships with authors, thousands of books, and numberless psychic impressions that would swell to shifts of the canon, culture, and status quo—shifts unchartable from where we stand now, and deeply alluring for that exact reason.
Because it’s not just about numbers, of course. More racial diversity among editors is an obvious need, but that alone won’t expunge White supremacy from publishing, won’t repair the underpayment and under-publishing of BIPOC writers or end the embrace of academic and literary ethnic frauds. It will not uncover decades of stories—of knowledge—that could have been well-cultivated and disseminated by this point in time. Importantly, marginalized writers do and have long created their own literary enclaves, workshops, presses, and publications, in addition to their own aesthetic cultures and craft standards. But as racialized and gendered economic oppression in the U.S. threatens the viability of many marginalized literary communities, this should not be writers’ only viable option for having their work feel sunlight.
With some of this lost work irrecoverable, and in my own capacity as a queer Black woman editor just a few years into the field, I’ve been thinking about how things can be made better going forward. And luckily, I’m not alone. It’s my belief that abolition is the ultimate answer to the injustices on which the literary establishment rests (and feeds)—but I also believe there are tangible ways to reduce harm pending that, ways to make the instruments of this country’s ever emerging literary cannon conducive for writers of numerous standpoints.
In other words, shall we serve up something more enticing than that melting ice cream sundae?
More on the concept of revising the editing process itself—and the possible political ramifications of that revision—in the next installment of this series!