By: Alice Stephens
have a dream. I want to be a novelist. So, I took the first step. I wrote a novel. Actually, I took the first step twice, but more about that later.
I took the second step. I found representation. My agent is not just any agent, she represents Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award finalists and New York Times bestsellers. She knows talent.
It’s that third step where I’ve run into trouble, the one where an editor offers to publish my book.
Well, some people might say, that just means you’re not ready yet. Your product is not up to par. Go back and write another one. When you have written something worthy of publication, the gates will magically open for you, and you will get that contract.
I sort of believed it the first time. Because fiction-writing is a lonely and forbidding enterprise, like rowing across an ocean with only the stars to guide you, it is easy to doubt yourself, to wonder if you’ve lost your way.
But as a book reviewer, I read a lot of contemporary fiction. I know that even if my prose is not as lush as Rachel Kushner’s, or as complexly structured as David Mitchell’s, my books are as good as, if not better than, many recently published literary novels. And they do not tread over well-worn ground.
There was no consensus to the editors’ comments on my first manuscript. While one said she didn’t like my writing style, others thought the prose was beautiful, but the main character was not sympathetic enough, whatever that means. One feebly offered that it was hard to keep track of the characters with their foreign names. Some sniffed that at 124,500 words, it was too long. An editor grumbled that there wasn’t enough drama (never mind that it literally starts with a bang as a nuclear bomb explodes over Nagasaki), and then went on to praise a manuscript that he was editing by an Asian-American author well-known for her bound-feet and inner-courtyard soap operas. I took that to mean it wasn’t that my story was short on drama, but on the kind of drama he wanted to see in a book about Asians.
Well, OK, then. Determined, I set out to write my second book. While the first novel was a labor of love that took seven years to research and write, this one was written fast, from the heart, in the short-n-sharp style that editors favor these days. I like to say it is the book I was born (or adopted) to write, featuring two “it” topics: international adoption and North Korea. Plus, it has a killer title: Famous Adopted People.
The rejections that came in were just as coded and befuddling as those for the first book. Once again, there were those who did not like the main character. (Since when did that become a criteria for novels? The canon of western literature is a rogue’s gallery of despicable main characters.) Another common complaint was that the book straddled too many genres, and therefore was not marketable. Someone asserted that the American public does not want to read books that primarily take place in foreign countries. Someone else said she had recently published a novel about adoption and it didn’t sell well, so she’d pass on mine. Would she say, I recently published a novel on the Holocaust that failed to find an audience, so I’m not going to publish any more Holocaust novels? Yeah, right. Then there was the editor who said she much preferred a novel she had published about the redemptive act of adopting Chinese babies.
You know what I think? I think she liked that book because it was written by a white woman for white people, lauding the brave journey to adopting an ethnic baby, which resulted in the earth-shattering revelation, learned through other’s reactions to her adopted child, that prejudice exists in the world.
I get it.
An editor really has to love your work to represent it. But when all of those editors come from the same ethnic background, they tend to love the same subjects and misunderstand or dismiss as unimportant subjects with which they have no experience. An unfamiliar theme is a “marketing challenge”, and in today’s publishing world, the marketing of a book is often more important than the content.
Take a look at literary fiction written by Asian women published by mainstream publishers. While you find a smattering of excellent novels on contemporary subjects, such as Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and My Year of Meats, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, the list is overwhelmingly dominated by what I like to call jade-and-silk dramas. These books primarily take place in pre-World War II, custom-bound Asian countries and feature a beautiful headstrong woman, usually a prostitute, concubine or first wife, who makes all sorts of bad decisions as she claws her way to a happy ending. They are filled with ancient-Chinese-secret type lore, superstition, and a firm belief in fate. Typically, the cover features a glimpse of a woman, perhaps featuring her lush lips or her jet-black hair (but rarely her whole face), with a flash of silk or a fan.
It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that this is how white editors see Asians. This is what they know how to market, stereotypes. It’s lazy and it’s easy. Assumptions do not have to be challenged.
Things are changing, though. Tired of being reduced to one-dimensional caricatures, minorities are refusing to be silent any longer. Movements such as We Need Diverse Books, Minorities in Publishing, and VIDA Women in Literary Arts, which recently added a Women of Color count to their annual survey on gender parity in literary magazines, are gaining followers and getting coverage in the mainstream media. These grassroots efforts are beginning to make the gatekeepers uncomfortable and giving minority writers a sense of empowerment.
But there is a long way to go. Look at the profiles of editors of the Big Five publishers, and you will see a sea of white. When one race makes the decisions on what will be published and read, they choose those books that speak to them. What we get is a glut of books about men-children stumbling their way towards maturity; the better impulses of human nature conquering evil in Holocaust and World War II dramas; vampires, zombies, and wizards; and minorities stuck decades in the past as they battle the forces of their own superstitions and quaint traditions.
I have a dream that one day manuscripts will be judged not by the ethnicity of the writer but by their content. I have a dream that the whiteout of literature will end, and books will reflect our world in all its glorious diversity. BW
From editorial assistant to copy editor to blogger, Alice Stephens has had a long and varied career working with the written word.
Born in Korea, she has lived on four continents, most recently in Japan, and traveled extensively around the world. She now makes her home in the Washington D.C. area.
Her column, Alice in Wordland, appears monthly on the Washington Independent Review of Books’ Books Blog. Be a pioneer and follow her on Twitter at @AliceKSStephens.