Unless it’s to support someone I know or explicitly recommended, I no longer read white men. It’s not to make a political statement so much as I’m tired of seeing the world through their eyes. If you asked me to name my literary influences, it would probably take an hour before a white man appeared.
Not so for Claire Vaye Watkins, as she explains in her lecture/essay published at Tin House, “On Pandering.”
Among other things, it examines Watkins’ need for validation from white men, as readers, as mentors and as favorable comparisons. She confesses that she’s “been writing to impress old white men” and provides a list of those she had studied and hoped to emulate. I’d been following the essay fairly well until this point. Here, I stumbled and thought “how foreign.”
When I read Watkins’ confession, I realized her essay wasn’t written for me, a black woman who largely reads other women, especially those of color, trying to get published. I didn’t mind that. Everything isn’t made for everyone, and it shouldn’t have to be.
I am not a part of the Literary (with a capital L) world. I freelance, writing personal essays, pop culture criticism and television recaps for various significant websites. Right now, I have a few politely ignored emails about my current book proposal and innumerable contest rejections. I’ve participated in creative writing retreats and have attempted to earn a master of fine arts degree in poetry. Health and financial issues have kept me from that particular piece of vellum, but I continue to aim for my ultimate goal of being a Writer with a Well-Received Book.
In “On Pandering,” we find a woman who, for all intents and purposes, has achieved that goal. Watkins has her MFA, two published books, plus various other publications and awards -- all while focusing on how white men will react to her work. They seemingly were the most important part of her audience. Her essay made me think about finding an audience for my own work. Should I begin to concern myself with writing what white men will love? Should I try to sound like white men whose work is most often reviewed?
I’ve recently begun sending out a book proposal for a collection of personal essays. Nothing significant has happened yet, and I know these things take time, but I’m worried about it. I frequently wonder if it will be “black enough” or “too black” for literary agents. My ultimate hope is that my personal essays will help show the diversity of black life, but are the white people in charge of publishing interested in that?
To grab the white literary world, a project by a person of color seems like it must have a heightened sense of “culture and ethnicity,” as if to show the author is authentically black/Latino/Asian/Native, etc. I’m reminded of Robert Townsend’s iconic, satiric film "Hollywood Shuffle," which tells the story of Bobby Taylor, a black actor trying to make it in an industry that wants him to be a caricature. He frequently goes on auditions where white executives tell him to act blacker.
Worrying about how to appeal to the gatekeepers of publishing is exactly the kind of pandering Watkins discusses. I don’t want my work to portray what white agents and publishers may consider black life, a depiction usually steeped in severe suffering of some kind.
My criticism here is not to diminish those who have experienced significant trauma and used literature as an outlet. I know that most of the canon features suffering, whether it’s the anguish of searching for a white whale or that of being forced to convalesce in a room filled with yellow wallpaper. Watkins’ essay made me question the type of pandering I would have to do, in order to have my work stand out.
I worry agents will dismiss me because there’s already a Roxane Gay, a Kiese Laymon, a Jesmyn Ward, all writers I admire and who influence me. It seems like the gatekeepers can only allow a certain number of black authors in at a time, whereas Watkins’ essay points out that the more writers with a white male sensibility, the better. She ends the essay with a call to destroy the system that lets in so few people, and it reaffirms that she wasn’t talking to me, someone on the outside trying to get in. I am hoping for access to the literary world via an agent and book deal (or two or three). Watkins’ call to shake up the system is directed at the people already there — the agents, publishers and marketers.
Watkins demands we create our own canons instead of trying to find our place in that built by old white men in ivy league towers. I’ve already done that. Her rousing call to arms isn’t for me. And that’s fine. I hope her intended audience does more than give her a standing ovation. I hope they pay attention and turn applause into action.
In the past several years, the calls for increased diversity in publishing (and other media) have grown louder. The success and recognition of black authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Marlon James, Gregory Pardlo, Claudia Rankine, Angela Flournoy, and Robin Coste Lewis in the last year give me hope that the publishing gatekeepers recognize there are worlds beyond straight white male protagonists. Social media has helped initiate significant differences in how writers of color can market themselves so change is happening.
Watkins wanted her work as a writer to blend safely and respectfully into the canon of “old white men,” but the idea of wanting my voice to be indistinguishable from the choir doesn’t appeal to me. White men have been the tastemakers for so long. It’s time to change that. Hopefully Watkins’ appeal will light a fire under those who need it, not only for my sake as someone trying to make my way into the publishing industry, but also for the sake of American literature as a whole.
Nichole Perkins is a freelance writer, based in her hometown of Nashville, Tenn.