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Is the Inclusivity That’s Happening in the Arts Real or Fake?

Some say it’s good. Some say it’s bad. I say it’s overdue and inevitable.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao.

A curious phenomenon is happening in the arts.

Living as I do in the hinterlands of Italy, I was only recently made aware of a cultural reckoning that is shaking the very foundations of my profession (writing and publishing), and every other profession that falls within the rubric of creative work.

It is writing and publishing specifically, however, that I would like to address.

In an industry that was once the exclusive province of white cis-men and to a lesser extent white cis-women, now Black, Latinx, LGBTQ writers are finally getting their just due. Diversity and inclusion are the name of the game in publishing these days, and it is refreshing to have so many alternative voices.

In the not-too-distant past, trans- or queer- authors and authors of color were rarely given a place at the table. Now, that table is filled with different voices, different perspectives, and believe me when I tell you, those perspectives are sorely needed.

But there is only so much room at that table — and the tables themselves have been dramatically turned on those who were traditionally seated at them.

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Not long ago, marginalized communities were on the outside looking in at a publishing schedule full of white authors. Now, it is white authors who are a “tough sell.” My own novel, which even my wonderful agent couldn’t get a contract for, was dismissed as “another story about white women divorcing.” I’m my toughest critic, but even I can say with some authority that the book is about a lot more than that. Yet the mere fact of there being a racial qualifier gives you some idea what’s going on.

To be clear — emphatically clear — while I’m surprised by this turn of events, I’m not bitter. For one, I find it easy to accept that it’s not my turn. It hurts me that any voices are marginalized, especially Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ voices. I also happen to love other perspectives, which is why I read so prodigiously.

But I have very little financial skin in the game.

My livelihood comes from writing, yes, but not exclusively from novel writing. I make money editing, proofreading, ghostwriting, corporate writing, blogging, taking the occasional translation gig, and yes, writing novels.

Yet for writers who feel as though they’ve been left off the Christmas list, it’s a different story. “Woke culture run amok” is a common refrain. “Virtue signaling” is another. Talent and respect for craft aren’t enough anymore. Everyone feels as though they must reinvent themselves as queer or biracial — or risk going extinct. When the pendulum swings, it never swings halfway.

But have we gone too far in the other direction — or have we not gone far enough?

Some of this new-found inclusivity in publishing feels a little surfacey to me. The vast majority of people in power, the kingmakers, are still white. This focus on marginalized voices smacks of favors bestowed, not actual change. For change to be real, it has to be inclusive at all levels, not just a few of them.

Just such an accusation of fake inclusivity was recently lobbed at the editorial staff of the New Yorker, a legacy publisher that’s about as Old Guard as they come. A long-time archivist named Erin Overbey was fired for having (in her words) “consistently & persistently SUWF — a.k.a. Spoken Up While Female.” Her bone of contention with the magazine was the usual one: pay and hiring inequities.

If you look at the numbers, they’re quite damning. Per Gawker: “Overbey claimed that, in the past 15 years, less than 0.01 percent of print feature and critic pieces had been edited by a Black editor; the print magazine, likewise, had published ‘only 4 book reviews by African-American women’ in its 96-year existence.”

Ouch.

Overbey’s thought-provoking thread, which you can read here, speaks a searing truth: “White people are rarely actively racist at these publications [e.g., legacy publications like the New Yorker, Vogue, Vanity Fair, etc.]. They simply never bother to challenge the status quo — typically out of concern that they will be inconvenienced or made to feel uncomfortable. And so the status quo often remains entrenched for literally decades.”

There’s something deeply thrilling about people who speak truth to power, who are completely out of f*cks to give. Especially when they’re simultaneously setting fire to their careers.

Overbey is doing the spadework for all of us.

Photo by Clay Banks.

Side note: the New Yorker is owned by a global media empire called Condé Nast. I had my own #MeToo moment with Condé Nast years ago. As a newly published author, I was invited by one of the male editors at GQ to lunch at the Four Seasons hotel in Manhattan, an invitation I eagerly accepted. He wanted to discuss the possibility of giving me my own column in the magazine — a career-making opportunity. He was urbane and charming. I was chatty and nervous. I thought I was there for real. He thought I was there for fun.

At the end of our lunch, this GQ editor turned to me and said insinuatingly, “Let’s go take a ride in the limo.”

Young as I was, the subtext was painfully clear: do me in the limo and I might give you the job. I didn’t and he didn’t. I wanted nowhere near that limo. But the shock and disgust of that experience has never left me.

This was thirty years ago. How much do you think things have actually changed?

That is precisely why I worry about this new-found celebration of marginalized voices. I want it to be genuine and long-lasting … but will it be? And if history is any gauge, at what point should we expect a backlash that is sure to be as fierce as it is inevitable? Those in power rarely share the throne. On the other hand, if you’re a marginalized author who’s never been let into the throne room in the first place, there’s no ground for you to defend.

I have additional concerns. Young writers of color are being thrust prematurely into a spotlight that not all of them are prepared for. African-American novelist Jumi Bello is just such a writer. Her much ballyhooed debut novel, The Leaving, was recently canceled by her publisher, Riverhead, after it was discovered that entire sections had been plagiarized.

Pleading mental health issues and an allergic reaction to an antidepressant, Bello then wrote an essay titled “I Plagiarized Parts of My Debut Novel. Here’s Why.” Except that even her essay was plagiarized and has since been removed from circulation.

There will be no redemption tour for Bello. Her career is over before it began.

Do I think Bello was just naturally bad, somehow, or a subpar writer? Absolutely not. She was a victim of a system that appears to be checking boxes (“Let’s see — we have four queer Black writers, one Asian, one trans, and three immigrants ….”)

Bello simply wasn’t ready for the scrutiny. She folded under the pressure. She did what people in similar situations have been doing since time immemorial: she cheated.

Another example of checking boxes is a trans writer who goes by the handle Our Lady J. She’s a classically trained pianist with oodles of talent, but being a writer isn’t one of them. There were two shows I used to be wild about: comedy-drama series Transparent and drama series Pose, both about the trans community and bursting with trans talent. Finally, here were shows that accurately portrayed a greatly maligned people. I was fully invested in the writing, the acting, and the story telling … until from one episode to the next, all three collapsed. Why? The producers of Pose and Transparent decided that handing over the reins to Our Lady J, who is not a screenplay writer, was a good idea. Both series became unbearable to watch, so I stopped doing it.

Trans multi-hyphenate artist Our Lady J

In a perfect world, we would have something approximating meritocracy. The only considerations would be quality of the story and quality of the prose. But that’s not the reality we live in. Frankly, it never was. The arts, especially film, music, and publishing, have become “competitively inclusive,” dramatically tilting the table in favor of marginalized communities, now to the exclusion of everyone else. Even those who have paid their dues, learned their craft, and done their time.

I don’t see this as bad — or necessarily wrong. But it is a reshuffling of the deck. Some may see it as unfair, but marginalizing the marginalized is also unfair, and it’s been going on for a lot longer.

I see it as an opportunity.

By disengaging from the demands of a capricious marketplace, by no longer seeking a place at a table, I am free to do whatever I want to do. I am now learning what it feels like to be marginalized (even more than I was already marginalized as a woman). I know something that Black artists have known since forever: instead of hoping to be included in someone else’s space, create your own space. Make it the coolest, most interesting, most subversive, most cutting edge, most creative space you can. Hone your voice. Do your art. Don’t worry what anyone else thinks.

In publishing, all heads roll downhill. That’s true of editors, agents, and writers. My advice to marginalized communities who now find themselves feted by New York publishers is this: dig in. Hold the line. At some point, they’ll be coming for you, sure, but you’re strong, and you’re used to a fight.

And despite all that, we have miles to go before we sleep.

When there are just as many people of color who own the publishing houses as there are authors of color who write for them, when just as many women are in executive positions at Conde Nast as there are men riding in limos, when just as many sports teams are under Black ownership as there are Black athletes wearing the team jerseys, then and only then will we have achieved parity.

Until then, we have a racist, sexist system that no amount of “inclusion” can rectify. We’ll keep using people up and spitting them out.

Copyright © 2022 Stacey Eskelin

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Stacey Keith

Stacey Keith

Culture, Lifestyle, Travel, Thoughtful Entertainment.