Monday, June 12, 2006

The Pressure to Conform


Publishing is already a tough business, but it's made even tougher when you're burdened by the pressure to conform. To fall in line with the status quo of racist traditions and expectations.

Suffice it to say, I am definitely so burdened - and I get it from both sides of the fence. When I was born, my palette of choices and interests were pre-determined, and God forbid I stray from that palette, as I apparently did when I chose not to write ethnic content!

"Burn her! Burn her now! Burn that &%@# at the stake!"

It appears history has conditioned whites to expect blacks to know and conform to their station as "minorities". And black people have also been conditioned to expect each other to know and conform to said station, as well.

Not surprisingly, these racist expectations aren't exclusively black and white (no pun intended). Author Tess Gerritsen wrote about the intense criticism and anger she's gotten from within the Asian-American community. In one account, she'd been invited to speak at a gathering of Asian-American journalists and wound up fielding "Uncle Tom" insults in response to her presentation! Here's some of what she shared:


"I told them, during the presentation, that I had made a conscious decision as a novelist to feature mainstream characters and mainstream themes in my books, and not limit myself to Asian American plots. While I do use Asian characters, they are more likely to be secondary characters. As I explained it to the audience, I'm a working writer, and I want to sell to the largest audience possible. I have a mortgage to pay and kids to send to college and the bottom line for me is ... where's the money?

.......Audience members were visibly angry as they rose and said, essentially, that I was an Asian Uncle Tom. That I had a responsibility to my race to write about Asians. And why the hell was I writing under the name "Gerritsen" (my legal, married name) and not under my Chinese name? Clearly, I must be ashamed of my race.

They didn't accept my choices, which were purely practical. My goal was to reach the widest audience and become a bestselling author, which indeed I was -- and the reason I got invited to the convention in the first place. The very fact of my success, you would think, would make them listen and take notes. All it did was get them angry.

Even after I got home, the criticism didn't end. I continued to read online grousing about my status as an Uncle Tom. "Asian Americans should strive for success without resorting to the disgusting strategies that Tess Gerritsen used." And of course, they were never, ever going to buy any of my books.

No wonder so few Asian Americans make it onto the bestseller lists. We're too busy shooting each other down.

The lesson here? You can't count on your own race to applaud your success."
And that's the discouraging truth. My own decision to write universal subject matter has been met with equally harsh criticism and resentment in the black community, and in the white, raised eyebrows when I object to being prefaced and defined by my skin color. How come you're not writing about black ghetto or thug life? Or baby mama drama? Or race relations? Or slavery? How come you're not primarily focusing on African-American media, bookstores, and conferences? How come you're not doing what we expect of people with that skin color? How dare you. Just who do you think you are? What makes you think you're special?

"Burn her, burn her now!"

My Take?
Tess Gerritsen is right. If you want to appeal to the largest possible audience, you must write mainstream material. The decision is indeed practical.

Writing for a specific ethnic group - a smaller, segregated audience - will never yield the same potential rewards as writing for the mainstream - a much larger, commercial audience. It's about numbers - not ethnic obligation - though many people just don't see it that way, and proceed to harbor malice toward you for making what they see as the "race traitor" choice. And it is a choice. One that should be afforded to all---and respected by all.

I respect the right of any author who chooses to pen black (or African-American as it's called) characters. And they should respect my right to choose not to. I will never succumb to the pressure to conform with insidious racial ground rules by starting to write ethnic content and characters. Likewise, I will never swallow the unjust ridicule or cower to the judgmental admonishment that comes with being a "minority" (as some Americans are ridiculously branded) who chooses to write for a mainstream audience. That's a passionate declaration for my critics. I was not born in debt. And further, I don't project my choices onto others, criticizing them for not choosing accordingly. Govern yourselves, not me.

The only thing I've ever wanted to do is tell engrossing stories people find difficult to put down---As many people as humanly possible. Why don't I have the right to do that freely? You know, if we don't erase the latent expectations - allowing writers to enjoy the freedoms and liberties they're entitled to as human beings - the publishing industry is doomed to the warfare of racial division.

Your Take?
What are your thoughts on the pressure to conform? Be honest. Are you a contributor? Do you - consciously or unconsciously - expect non-white authors to stick to writing with an obligation to their skin color in mind? Why or why not?

How are the pressures of racial conformity impartially beneficial to all, as opposed to some?

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21 comments:

  1. MB... Thank you for putting me on your favorite blogs... :-)

    If you write mainstream, then you should be published as mainstream. I don't usually read local writers except for Native American writers.

    The reason is I grew up around a reservation and I saw the problems that Native Americans have. I understand that way of life...

    I have no interest in stories set in Eastern states i.e. New York. Although I do like reading about Florida--John D. MacDonald.

    I believe that you had every reason to be upset with your publishing house. And you are right that writing as an ethnicity does cut out many of your readers.

    Hope things are getting better. Cyn

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  2. Rebecca Donna TricolliJune 13, 2006 12:52 AM

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  5. Hi Millenia,

    I think this type of pressure is ridiculous and bravo to you for not giving in to it!

    I hear what "Chick Lit Gurrl" is saying, but I think Millenia made it clear in her post that just because someone is black, that doesn't mean they should be obligated to write black characters. People write historical, fantasy, sci-fi, etc., but an American writer can't write whatever type of characters they want to in their American fiction? Bullshit.

    I think you should do what works for you, and don't let what other writers choose to do bother you so much. Like Millenia so rightly said, govern yourself, not her or any other writer. It's their perogative, just as your choices are yours.

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  6. Seems to me like chicky gurrl is most definitely a contributor! You really aren't "free" to do what you want when people have decided it's bad not to write about your own ethnicity, while James Patterson can freely write about a black detective and make millions from it!!!........stand your ground, Millenia! Don't let these crack pot pressure cookers phase you!

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  7. I don't think it is wrong to make money when you are doing something you love to do...

    I don't believe we should starve for our art... and neither should MB

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  8. Ancient ReaderJune 14, 2006 7:57 PM

    Chick lit Gurrl, Said:

    ** As a black writer, my main characters are typically black; however, I have a multicultural cast because, just as in real life, no one race lives alone. **

    When any author consistently peopled main characters of their own race, however representing mixture of the society, isn't that emitting from a racist mind?

    From an introspective point of view, why on earth would a writer do such a thing-- could it possibly be for the love of their our own race, say--- and in addition, does it suggest that your race is much more special than other races, what is the purposeful exclusion all about? What would happen if you made the main characters of your novel to be from a different race?

    This Post I think, is about pressure to conform, and to conform to what... "The Jim Crow" in publishing here and now?

    Why so many (with few exceptions) blacks continue to make excuses for slave master's relegation of blacks, that has been past on to their posterity. Is it a sin for anyone to claim what's rightfully theirs by the laws of nature, and secondly by the constitution of The United States of America?

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  9. I think Millenia has it right. Books shouldn't be categorized berause by the race of the writer, but rather by their content. There's nothing wrong with the AA niche--as long as it's segregated by the book's content 9ethnic and cultural tone and content) rather than merely by race.

    It seems simple to me. There's nothing wrong with the AA niche as long as it's segregated by content, not race.

    Then Susan Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees would have been categorized as an AA book also and marketed accordingly. Harvard's Education by Brockmann would have been sitting with the AA romance instead of on the mainstream shelves.

    Books should be marketed by their content rather than by the race of their author. That's it.

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  10. Ancient ReaderJune 15, 2006 1:39 PM

    Monica said:

    ** Books should be marketed by their content rather than by the race of their author. That's it. **

    Welcome back Monica. I'm well impressed by such unequivocal posit by you.

    As I've been saying, one of the first move a disadvantaged person should make is to utter, logically exact expression. Because others disrespect you when you don't. Explicit logical boundaries in speech put others on notice that you're not fooling around. To me that has resounded in Monica's piece.

    Now, let to whom it may be concerned take note of that quote above, that has been made by the well acclaimed Monica.

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  11. I don't buy or read books based on the race of the author. I read books based on the content--I like suspense and mysteries, so I could care less if the author is white, black, brown, yellow, or any color in between. I just want a good story.

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  12. Steven Barnes posted a powerful blog entry on a related issue:

    http://darkush.blogspot.com/2006/06/sharp-stick-in-i.html

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  13. Claudia:

    Thank you for that referral to Steven Barnes site. I was able to access his blog, read and left a comment there.

    The racial issue seems to be everywhere...sure needs cleaning up.

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  14. Allison,
    I'm curious. Did you happen to notice which mysteries/ suspense novels you read that weren't written by white people? Besides Walter Mosley or maybe Millenia's book, which is more of a family drama.

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  15. Monica Jackson has a pretty good related post here.

    I think it's important to note that the objection to conformity isn't about decreasing opportunity in the industry. It's obviously about increasing it.

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  16. I do have to admit that I give in to the pressure. I'm not heavy on discription, don't actually come out and say my main characters are black, but editors have put pressure on me to "spice up" the dialogue in some places with ethnic sayings or tones.

    Ah. The pressure bites, it really does. That's why I'm in awe of Millenia for standing her ground. It takes real guts to fight against a major publishing house.

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  17. So does mainstream equated to white, in your post? Can blacks and other ethnic groups be included in the 'mainstream'?

    I also wonder that often books are marketed to women, and no one ever complains, don't men read, too? Is this sexism?

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  18. Uh...anonymous, I think it's pretty obvious that blacks and other ethnic groups are not considered mainstream, hence the nature of the problem.

    As for marketing to more men, perhaps no one ever complains because no one ever has a problem with it. And perhaps that's a completely unrelated topic you could discuss on a blog of your own.

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  19. Monica Jackson encapsulated the problem thus:
    "Books should be marketed by their content rather than by the race of their author. That's it."

    Keyword there: should.

    And in many cases, books are marketed, promoted, shelved, etc. by content. Example:

    Agatha Christie is the iconic mystery writer, isn't she? Care to count how many of her books featured a male detective as main character? Furthermore, she was British--Poirot wasn't.

    Why aren't black American (or any other ethnic minority's) writers given the same treatment?

    Are we going to argue that Dame Christie was more a Belgian male than Millenia Black or Monica Jackson can be a white/Asian/Latino/alien whatever? Because that seems to be what chick lit gurrrl and some others are saying.

    And sorry, but at least I can't see the logic there. So, back to Monica's statement.

    We need more individuals--those eagles ancient reader mentions--to soar high, to show the way to the rest of us. Social and economic change cannot be accomplished otherwise.

    Many kudos and gratitude to Millenia for standing her ground.

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  20. You mentioned several black authors who are listed, in other book club clubs, and not just Black Expressions, hence my question. Didn't understand why you didn't type white when you meant white.

    And, regarding the sexism, I would expect both genders, to join the fight against sexism, and not only that gender that is discriminated against.

    Maybe that's why all the -isms continue to exist -- the attitude -- it's not my problem, thus I am not concern, so let someone else worry and do something about it.

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  21. What's wrong with this anonymous prick? Trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents. Arguing points about sexism that nobody's even contradicted. You should go start your own blog, you can keep arguing with yourself there. Ha, ha, ha!

    Millenia, keep fighting the racist conformity, and ignore the idiots because their nonsense speaks for itself.

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