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Archives: Diversity

Questions 18 Through 22

Questions 18 Through 22

Some more questions from Stephen Burt:

18. How often are readers from “marked,” or subordinated, or “minority” subject positions, asked to read as if they were not coming from those positions, to look at a literary work as if we were cisgendered, or male, or “middle American,” or well-off, or white?

19. How often are readers from “unmarked” or majority or until-recently-the-majority subject positions asked to read as if they were not coming from those positions, to look at a literary work as if we were Filipino, or Icelandic, or black?

20. Are the “asks” (or demands) in questions 18 and 19 demands of the same kind?

21. How often are readers unfamiliar with carpentry, or particle physics, or runway fashion, or haute cuisine, or Latin, asked to read as if we already recognized references to those fields?

22. Are the “asks” (or demands) in question 21 demands of the same kind as those in questions 18 and 19?

A charming retired gentleman participated in a novel workshop I taught in the DC area, and during a routine discussion of verisimilitude we debated the importance of authentic detail on the reader’s experience. He’d spent most of his life at sea—career Navy—and assured his fellow workshop members that, love him or hate him, the author of The Hunt for Red October hadn’t spent much time on submarines.   This student actually rather enjoyed Tom Clancy’s cold war tomes, although he admitted that in this particular case part of his pleasure arose from sneering at the implausible or inaccurate detail. I declined his offer to peruse his annotated copy of the novel.

31 Questions: Some Answers

31 Questions: Some Answers

Earlier this year I posted a link to a most excellent piece: Stephen Burt’s THIRTY-ONE QUESTIONS AND TWELVE APOLOGIES BY WAY OF A THANK-YOU NOTE FOR THE 2013 VIDA COUNT, and at the time I promised to write in response some of the questions. Life intervened, but I did want to return to that project, if only because I was so deeply stimulated by the original article. Here’s the first post:

Stephen Burt’s Question #9:

Is it possible to read a piece of literary writing without imagining that the author has an age, or a profession, or an ethnic identification, or a height, or a weight, or a race?

Well, yes, maybe, but which of us has the opportunity to read anything with the identifying information redacted—other than contest judges that is. For the rest of us, the publisher conveniently plasters images of the author on the cover and everything else we want to know is neatly summarized in the biographical notes. The message couldn’t be clearer: A person like you will enjoy reading something by a person like this.

I Just Work Here

I Just Work Here

Part of my AWP tradition is to attend each year at least one of the several panels devoted to the painful, recounting of the horrors visited upon writers of color while earning their MFAs in creative writing. On April 30 The New Yorker book blog published what is likely the highest profile version of this genre. Junot Diaz describes his program thusly:

Too white as in Cornell had almost no POC—no people of color—in it. Too white as in the MFA had no faculty of color in the fiction program—like none—and neither the faculty nor the administration saw that lack of color as a big problem. (At least the students are diverse, they told us.) Too white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc). In my workshop there was an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force (it’s class!). In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area—at all. Shit, in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that “race discussions” were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.

You can read the rest of the post here.

Stephen Burt Has Some Questions

Stephen Burt Has Some Questions

In addition to almost hiring me away from SMU to come back and teach at my Alma Mater, Macalester, Stephen Burt is also one of our finest literary critics, essayists and poets.  I am intrigued with a post  that he wrote for the VIDA blog.  VIDA, founded in 2009, encourages female writers of literature and others to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing, and among other projects it has tracked the percentages of women published and/or reviewed in leading literary publications.  In his blogpost, Burt puts pressure on the assumptions that underlie “the count.”

Here are a few questions from the post:

7. Is it possible to read a piece of literary writing without imagining that the author has a gender (perhaps an unusual gender, or maybe two gender or three genders, but at least one)?

8. How do you think the answer to that question (beginning “Is it even possible”) would differ in a language, such as Persian, where neither pronouns, nor noun case-endings, differed by gender?

9. Is it possible to read a piece of literary writing without imagining that the author has an age, or a profession, or an ethnic identification, or a height, or a weight, or a race?

10. Is it possible to read a piece of literary writing without imagining that it has an author?

11. What about cookbooks, hard-news journalism, government documents, furniture-store instructions, math? Must we imagine authors for all those?

The other twenty-five questions are equally engaging.  I’m linking to Burt’s piece today, and then I thought I’d spend the week answering a few of his question myself.  Click on the link below to read the rest of the post.

It’s All About Me

It’s All About Me

Here are the first two sentences of the novel:

“That Janet Williams hadn’t liked children all that much she blamed on the boy’s mother. Children annoyed her, frankly—all that incessant energy, the enthusiasm for obnoxious music and inedible food, their general and relentless neediness.”

I Can’t Say it Enough


Sanctuary, Haven, Asylum, Refuge.  Kimbilio can be translated variously: Even with the world’s most careful planning (and my service ARE for rent, at prices you most certainly cannot afford) the past week’s shelter and solace only happened because of the people who came together to make them happen.  There’ll be plenty of time to debrief, but first the public appreciation to those without whom none of this would have been a success. 

Working My Way Through This List

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Just attended the best literary event of my life, and, guess what?  It was my f@&%!^& event!  An evaluation from the world’s toughest critic reports that the inaugural Kimbilio retreat was a massive success.  Which is to say that no one is harder on himself than me, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome.

The Start of Something BIG


Two and a half days of Kimbilio, and all I can manage is the formula:

1.  Twenty-two brilliant, generous, engaged, passionate, compassionate, excited and wonderfully diverse writers

2. A beautiful remote mountainside retreat, where it’s pleasantly cool and the staff is as welcoming and attentive as they can be.

3. The generous support of colleagues back home at SMU English.

4. And all this happening at the time when it’s most needed.

Mix well.  Add a Supermoon.  Stand back and watch what happens.

Click on the Kimbilio Link to see the names of the 19 members of our inaugural class.

The twenty-two also include  my brilliantly talented colleagues ZZ Packer and Dolen Perkins Valdez and our amazing hard-working on-site coordinator Diana Napier.


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