Dropping the Velvet Rope

I’ve heard more times than I’d like about how the call for diversification of submissions for literary magazines is making it harder for white, male, heterosexual (WMH) writers to find homes for their work. As the Nonfiction Editor of Blue Mesa Review and a WMH writer, I’m calling for exactly that, more diversity in our submissions. But let’s talk about what diversity is and isn’t in my view.

To me a diversity of submissions isn’t just making sure the names in the contributor list meet an arbitrary mix of gender and ethnicity. That is checklist diversity. What I’m looking for in terms of diverse work comes in the form of the persona conveyed on the page. If you look at the case of Michael Hudson submitting under the name Yi-Fen Chou and being selected for the 2015 edition of The Best American Poetry, the name Yi-Fen Chou conveys diversity if you’re only looking at the contributor list, but the persona in the work is decidedly middle-aged, white male. While I personally think the poem was fine, it isn’t a selection I believe I would have made because, regardless of the author’s name, it didn’t represent a diverse enough experience or perspective from mine. That’s not to suggest the decisions of other editors are suspect or invalid. We all have our own objectives and tastes.

I read to learn. The best way to gain understanding and tolerance of other people and cultures is to engage in their art. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts blew me away. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen changed the way I look at the world. Hollywood Notebook by Wendy C. Ortiz had me scratching my head and re-reading in the best possible way. I feel compelled to understand how others engage in the world and I hope our readers feel the same. So I want to share diverse perspectives, such as these, in Blue Mesa Review, I don’t just want diverse names on the contributor page.

Of course this elicits the question from the WMH writer as to whether or not this is discriminatory. It is discriminatory against stories, but not people. In my interest for diverse personas and perspectives, I’m not saying I don’t want to read WMH writers and that I wouldn’t publish them. I love WMH writers. I am one. Tobias Wolff and Erik Larson are stylistic role models for me. Salinger made me want to write. But I’d be doing a disservice to our highly diverse readership if I only included work from perspectives that are similar to mine and that are otherwise widely available. This is not at all excluding WMH writers. They have the same opportunity to get published as any writers. However, they too need to provide a unique perspective in their work, something different from mine, something compelling and interesting, something that keeps the reader in discovery mode. I want to read work that teaches me. Of course, I can’t explain specifically what this means, but I know it when I see it.

Let’s face it, there are scads of magazines and editors that publish WMH writers. Calling for diverse viewpoints isn’t intended, in my view, to eliminate those options, but is simply opening the door to other perspectives. When complaints arise about it becoming harder for WMH writers, it’s because many don’t recognize they’ve had a velvet rope entry into the arena. To some, it feels as if they are being pushed to the back of the line in favor of other groups. In reality, calls for diversity are removing the rope altogether and opening the doors to festival seating. If it’s getting harder to place WMH work, it’s not because of discrimination, but because of deeper competition. To get published, you need to have a unique and interesting perspective in your work, because if you don’t, Maggie Nelson is going to eat your lunch.

Originally from South Dakota, Steve Howe has lived in many cities around the country and now calls Albuquerque, NM home. He is a second year MFA student in Creative Nonfiction, though he also explores poetry and writing for the stage. Steve’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus and he is currently working on a series of essays exploring various social issues through memoir. You can follow him on Twitter at @howestevend.


Steve Howe