Another quote from Sondheim.
I might be giving the impression that I obsess about these diversity issues. Not usually—even if it is the case that our workplaces and the media and (this week in particular) the justice system constantly reminds us of various hierarchies and the strong will to make sure everyone knows and stays in their assigned places.
On National Shame Undergraduate Slackers Day, which at SMU we celebrate at least once a month, (if not more), I always bring up S.E. Hinton, who began working on The Outsiders while still in high school and published it during her freshman year in college. It has since become an enduring classic of young adult literature and sells on average of 500,000 copies a year. (So I want you slackers think real hard about that when you hand me your little three-paged, whiney, wrote-this-morning-while-still-drunk, not-so-thinly-disguised memoirs.)
The publishing numbers for younger readers are grim, but things have been A LOT worse. During my classroom years, you could line up the multicultural fiction on one shelf and still have room for several sets of encyclopedias. This was just before the emergence of Walter Dean Myers’ star, and if you wanted to do right in terms of reflecting the culture of the students, the pickins’ were pretty slim. In fact, the choices were two: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Sounder.
Circulating on the web today is a blog post from the children’s book publisher Lee & Low. The post documents the fact that over the past twenty years there has been no significant change in the percentage of books published for children by or about people of color. The data reported in this post were gathered by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s at the University of Wisconsin and can be found here: Childrens Books by and About People of Color.
Lunch in Poulsbo with Irene yesterday, and as we discussed the pub date for A Star in the Face of the Sky, at which point it occurred to me that I had completely forgotten my intention to consider hiring a publicist. This speaks to both my busy-ness, as well as my lack of attention to business. And also to the fact that thinking about business makes me have to think about the way that books are marketed, which makes me think about how book are placed in identity boxes—which I wrote about here—and then, in line with the current thread, makes me think about boxes in general, specifically the ones writers get dumped into. Let’s talk about the race box. The walls look like this:
This week’s celebrity chef kerfuffle reminds me of the best definition of bigotry I ever heard: Racism is when someone reminds you that you’re black so that they can be white. Poor Paula: life would have been so much more…genteel, if certain persons knew their place.
Like most creative writing teachers I try to be both non-prescriptive and as neutral about content. Students can and should and do write about the topics of their choice—which further complicates the question of the diversity of our casts of characters. I know someone who was shamed into diversifying the cast of a novel, and, trust me, that didn’t turn out well. Neither does it minimize my fascination with our pervasive literary monoculture.