Thoughts from a White, Male Fiction Editor for Minority Writers

by Jake Weber

It’s no secret that the publishing industry is overwhelmingly white and female.  Our journal here at Baltimore Review is—as anyone who looks at our “staff” link can see—not wildly different. We’re not 78% white and female, but we’re mostly white and majority female. We do have some diversity, and we make good use of it—we recently had a story on caste politics in India and happened to have an editor on staff who could speak authoritatively about its background. We don’t know why our demographics are this way, any more than anyone can explain satisfactorily why publishing’s demographics are what they are. We’re all volunteers, and we would be happy to take more help. If you’re a minority and qualified to work at a literary magazine (and willing to work for nothing more than an occasional delicious meal at the senior editor’s house), let the senior editor/master chef know.

In the meantime, though, I’d like to talk to minority writers out there wondering what your status as a minority means for your chances of publication. It can be enormously frustrating trying to find an outlet for your voice. We all know that, even non-minorities; it’s happened to all of us. It still happens to all of us on staff here at BR all the time. This is an imaginative leap for me to put myself in your place, but I would guess that when you’re scratching your head trying to figure out what you have to do to get your story or poem out there, the idea has to come into your mind that being a minority is hurting you. It’s an additional doubt in your mind I don’t have to deal with: Is a majority white editorial team unable to appreciate what you’ve written?

This is a huge question. I’m not going to try to give you easy answers, or tell you that your concerns are misplaced. The best I can do is try to take you inside the mind of an editor working for the magazine and let you draw your own conclusions about what that means for you. Here are a few things I’d hope you know:

1. We don’t always know what our unconscious biases are, but we know we have them. We’re all writers. Part of our temperament is to learn new things and open up to new ways of seeing things. That doesn’t keep us from being human, of course, and that means we can fall into ruts like anyone else. We end up looking for the same kinds of stories over and over instead of looking for the story that does something different. We can’t promise that your story is always going to find us in the right frame of mind to be open to it, but we do promise that we’re committed to the notion that we need to constantly fight to get ourselves in that mindset. It means you’ve got a shot.

2. New can be really, really good. We read a lot of stories/poems. Lots and lots. With all the things out there to write about, it’s amazing that we end up seeing similar stories so often. I’ve read plenty of stories that were apparently inspired by the writer’s trip to Europe during grad school. We also get a lot of domestic realism that is fairly similar. So if you write about an experience that is not familiar to us, that could actually be an enormous plus. It really might.

3. Of course, we’re human, so take it easy with the newness. There is an ongoing argument that MFA programs have homogenized literature to the point that 90% of all stories sound the same. I don’t think I’d go that far, but we probably do tend to develop certain prejudices toward certain stylistic tendencies. Your job, of course, is to subvert our sacred cows, to remake literature and blow apart our notions of what a story should be. But in order to subvert a system, you have to first be able to fluently use that system. This is a pretty good example of someone doing it right from both ends.

4. Your odds are zero if you don’t submit. Rejection is something every writer faces. It doesn’t hit us all equally, so it doesn’t quite make us all equal, but it is an equalizing force because it is humbling, brutal, and we’ve all faced it at least sometimes. (Two for me this week!) You may face more problems overcoming rejection than I do, but, like with me, every rejection is also a chance to learn something. You can’t let your long odds defeat you to the point you quit trying. I’m troubled by how little minority fiction other than Southeast Asian we seem to get. Our journal is named for a fantastic, historic, troubled city that is 64% black. I hear very little from that segment of the population. I believe fiction is a powerful tool for everyone, and it disturbs me to think that it might be dying among some populations (even faster than it seems to be just dying, period). It’s bad enough how I hear that only women read novels (even if there is some truth to it). I’m worried a day will come when literary fiction is considered something only white people do. We want diversity. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s not only a truer representation of our regional roots, it makes for a better overall product. But we can’t publish what we don’t get. Keep submitting.