Hush Pile: Clapping back at literary stereotypes

Tuesday morning. We’re all here in Editing a Literary Journal, MFA candidates at Virginia Tech, groggy from weekends filled with homework, hiking, writing, and catching up on sleep. The room is relaxed and fun–the perfect way to approach a job we love (editing this journal!) that relates closely to our disciplines (writing!). We report out to the team on our progress, then get to work. Everyone opens their laptop and starts to read, discovering your brilliant gems of poems and stories, your pieces that might need just one more revision, and the inner machinations of your mind.

Any reader for a magazine or press (shoutout to our professors and friends at Noemi!) will remark on how, working through the beloved slushpile, one can see a cultural zeitgeist woven through contemporary creative writing. Some months, it’s the word “cartography” that takes hold of the collective imagination; other times, it’s a short story set in a hole-in-the-wall bar which reminds us of our favorite place down the road. Sitting on the other end of Submittable is like watching poll numbers come in: we see, entry by entry, the trends; we think, perhaps, from behind these crystal screens, we can predict the future. We have a direct line to the collective unconscious of, well, you all. And it’s fascinating.  

But sometimes, we see another editor across the table slump forward slightly, shake their head, lean into a hand with a sigh. Like living in the world, being a reader of creative writing sometimes forces us into conversations we didn’t realize we’d have to have. Except we can’t have these conversations with a one-way screen. Sometimes our direct line into the collective brain will reveal the icky parts of our collective unconscious–those parts in which a little problematic seed has grown, unbeknownst to us, like a silent tapeworm. Our frustration in the editing room comes from a societal phenomenon that goes by different names depending on who you ask. Some refer to it as “political incorrectness” or “ignorance” or “bigotry” but each of those phrases carries a certain cultural weight that doesn’t necessarily reflect the personality of the writer. We just call these “microaggressions.”

We read fiction and poetry from all over the world, from writers with perspectives as unique and varied as their writing styles. Each editor (all of us also from different backgrounds) takes their job seriously, and we read with attention to story, imagination, technique, and the writer’s ability to engage their audience in a way that makes us care about the characters. So when we receive submissions with even subtle microaggressions–uneasy racial descriptors, gender bias, metaphors objectifying women, or covert misogyny, we first feel the effect of that microaggression on our own, very real, bodies. We can’t talk back to these microaggressions. Except for, maybe, in this blog post. Here in the minnesota review classroom and at home, we read in silence, in our heads. And when the bias of the problematic world seeps its way into a poem or a story, we just have to witness it. To take it. In our own voices. In our own heads. That’s when we’ll look up, forehead in our hands, trying to understand. Are we being “too sensitive” or have we just been insulted? How can we be fair readers in light of feeling like something about a story is off? An unwelcome thought passes through our minds: Is that how people really see me?

We’re all on different journeys toward the end goal of decolonizing our minds–decolonizing them of the capitalist jingles, of the Hulu commercials, of too-beautiful Instagram people/food/destination vacations, of everything we’ve ever been told from society about being a woman or being black or being queer–but it’s hard to strip ourselves completely of implicit bias, this little wayward seed. Maybe it’s even impossible. Still, we can apologize for our judgments and attempt to harness the power of language for something good and real. But you can’t have a conversation with a slushpile. The result, self-preserving as we are, is to hit the reject button (kind of like an eject button, except we remain seated in our chairs and the piece disappears down a chute leading nowhere). It’s a thumbs-down to unexamined bias and a thumbs-down to perpetuating assumptions, even in fiction, harmless as they may seem.

One of our editors is a former art critic and journalist, who spent a year writing an expose on business practices that negatively affect transgender people. Another editor is a former high school teacher, who never let a fourteen year-old (even one she didn’t know) get away with saying “gay,” or calling a male friend a “woman,” or even wearing a football jersey of a problematically-branded Washington team without a serious conversation. Yet another editor worked for a tribal college in Arctic Alaska, serving largely Iñupiq students, shifting between two cultures on a daily basis. The three editors mentioned come from professional backgrounds that have illuminated new ways to reflect on inherent biases. We’re comfortable discussing the ways our work and experiences changed our global outlook, and we all became better writers because of these examinations. In our roles at the minnesota review, we have a responsibility to bring our knowledge and skills to making the magazine the best it can be.

As writers ourselves, we’ve all read work–good, thoughtful work–that succeeds in developing a character who holds biases and perpetuates microaggressions, or even outright aggressions (macroaggressions?). For better or worse, there are some engaging and readable characters in the history of literature that are racist, misogynistic, classist, who draw readers into their character arc and fate. Literature wouldn’t be the same without Dolores Umbridge, Heathcliff, Nurse Ratched, and other villains who say and think awful things about humanity as a whole. Who doesn’t love a good transgressive poem? What’s the point of art if not to push boundaries and explore the hidden parts of our society? We encourage that, but if you are starting a piece of writing and think your protag can casually slip in an unexamined offensive comment, please, we beg you, think twice.

It’s difficult, maybe even impossible, to pull off a story about a character who is subtly racist, misogynistic, homophobic, whatever, because none of those things are subtle (except with maybe Atticus Finch, whose character changed over the course of years of discourse and a second, unanticipated novel; for more on that, see here). And at this editor table, we are made up of readers and writers who’ve experienced aggression in not subtle (and often deeply unsettling) ways. If you truly need to write a character who has these beliefs about race and gender and class, if you truly need to objectify the female body in that metaphor, do your part as a writer to make those biases actually come from the character or the speaker and not the author. This involves research, lots of editing, generous beta readers, a firm conviction as to why the world needs this character, and how this story or poem will contribute to literature and our culture in a way that does not perpetuate injustice. If you approach cultural or racial biases with lackadaisical writing or subtle references, you risk the work leading back to the author. While writing characters or poems with subversive behaviors or thoughts, follow the old adage: Go big or go home! Take a page from Sam Pink and really embrace the garbage-nature of humankind.

Yeah, lots of great literature is about horrible people and events, because horrible people and events exist in the world. If you’re thinking about writing from a perspective different from your own, we totally encourage that and want you to do it well. It would be irresponsible to avoid writing bad things for fear of offending one reader. Sarah Hollowell has a great post about writing from a different perspective, and what to consider when you decide to try it out. In that piece, she says “the fact is that when you’re writing outside your experience, you’re gonna mess something up. You’re going to say something that makes a person you’re trying to represent go, ‘Wait a second, that’s not how it feels. That’s not what it’s like to be me…BUT ALL IS NOT LOST. There are things that you can keep in mind, things to avoid, things to consider doing.'”

None of us want to play PC police. We’re here to lift the veil between writer and reader a little bit and hopefully convey what it’s like to read something that disregards or downplays our human experiences. We like our characters to demonstrate growth and complexity from beginning to end. A ditzy prom date with nice feet doesn’t make the brooding and sensitive teenage boy any more interesting. A token non-white friend with stilted or regional dialect does not mean the piece has diversity. Sexual fantasies or violent fantasies are way less effective than fantasies about cooking an amazing meal and throwing it out the window, or fantasies about adopting all the cats at a shelter and setting them free in an elementary school. We like our poems to push the limits of what’s acceptable, to go wild and take us on that journey, so as long as they’re well-researched, responsible, and generous. What is subversive IRL is not always interesting, and what is truly interesting often incorporates human complexity in a way that feels subversive through the writing itself. You can add depth and personality to a character without resorting to slurs and barely sketched-out foil characters. You can push through a difficult poem without resorting to irresponsible ethics.

So, think about your readers. Especially when sending work to journals. You’re not sure who is reading your work at the editor’s table (full disclosure: this semester, our editor table contains no white men) or who will pick up the journal once it’s been published. Editors are the front line between your work and publication. Please don’t send us long descriptions of essentially headless and personality-less women who never factor into the arc just to give the narrator something to think about. Please don’t write in meaningless violence or sexual aggression that adds nothing to the story. Please don’t write love poems that focus solely on the body of the beloved unless you’ve got a great reason; like, maybe you’re writing a 21st-century blason d’amour. Maybe the takeaway is this: if you gotta write that stuff, get it out of the way in private, then throw it away and start over. Work on developing characters with rich personal experiences. Work on making poems that interrogate assumptions. Ask yourself: can all readers be invested in this character? In this image? Is the way this character behaves totally necessary for the plot to move forward? If the answer is no, think about it. Write towards another idea. Write an interrogation of your own idea. Read something you wish you’d written. And always return to your work with the creative and individual perspective it deserves. If you do that, so will your readers.

It’s enough to live in this world full of unexamined hatred. In creative writing–where anything is possible, where we can imagine a different kind of life–we hope to dip into the empathic well in each and every reader to elicit reactions that resonate and ripple like concentric circles on water. Affecting people on this scale is why many writers become writers, and why many books have the capacity to change lives, cultures, and the world.



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