From a 2001 Chicago…

From a 2001 Chicago Tribune review of four Indian novels, by Avani Patel:

"Do you have nut-brown skin? Long silky hair? Deep, limpid pools for eyes? Well then, what are you waiting for? If you are Indian, and female, and even mildly inclined toward the literary arts, you should, if you already haven't done so, start writing your novel.

"If recent releases are any indication, you will have no trouble seeing the tale into print. No longer do you have to worry about meeting the standard of brilliance, or even proficiency. Pen something passable, and sooner than you think, you will be a published author. You are, after all, Indian: exotic, mysterious, inscrutable. Or so far-too-many recent works of Indian fiction would have you believe."

Eep.

15 thoughts on “From a 2001 Chicago…”

  1. *sigh* I’m used to getting this kind of complaint from those Western white male writers who feel panicked at having to share their turf. My response is the same, though; if brown-skinned women writers have such an advantage, what explains the fact that our books are still by far in the minority on the shelves in the bookstores?

    But in this person’s own mean-spirited way, they may be flagging something that’s worth discussing: I do think that sometimes writing by writers from marginalized groups (I include low income, disabled and queer people of any cultural group under that umbrella) can get rushed into print before they’re quite ready, for one reason or another that I think boils down to publishing houses being in a hurry to get the level of representation out there that isn’t currently occurring. Call it noble or call it jumping on the bandwagon; I don’t care, so long as it means that I as a reader get to read a wider diversity of writing from a reader diversity of experience. That’s good by me.

    Yet simply publishing people isn’t the whole picture when you’re dealing with communities where for the most part the access to training, development, workshopping–the systemic stuff–isn’t available to our emerging writers in the same ways as it is to emerging writers from the dominant culture if (and I think this “if” is important) we’re trying to write from our experience, our needs, and our contexts. Talk to anybody who tries to attend a standard writing workshop if they’re for example financially underprivileged, or queer, or both. Often they’re getting unhelpful and patronizing feedback from people who share few of their life experiences, and who by far are in the majority in the many workshops in North America. Same thing when you’re submitting your work to a publishing house. Note that I’m not by any means saying that straight, white, privileged class folks are de facto bad critiquers; that’s patently not the case. With my first novel, I lucked into an editor who is white, but who lives in Brooklyn and has direct connections with Black community, and some experience of Caribbean culture; and she’s a curious, open-minded person. All that gave her enough background to have half a chance at editing my work properly. And as a first-time novelist, I needed that editing. Even so, there were some aspects of language and culture where she just had to trust me. I can see that happening with other editors who don’t have the background to be able to do an informed edit, but who like the writing and want to see it in print. Or I can see where perhaps sometimes small presses from our own communities feel a very powerful responsibility to get our voices out there; to get the ball rolling, and because of a paucity of voices, perhaps they don’t feel they have the luxury of picking only the very best.

    Yet however you define “good” writing, which is a whole ‘nother argument, good writing by people of colour does get published. And more of the “good” stuff is more likely to get published as more writers of colour get published. I’m not interested in trying to halt the very necessary process of change by saying, “but wait! Some of this writing is bad!” I think (Theodore Sturgeon, was it?) was quite right: 90% of everything is crap. That’s not a good enough reason for the kind of damage that this reviewer is potentially doing to Indian women writers. In what’s probably an effort to raise the bar (always a good idea, but there are helpful and decidedly unhelpful ways to go about it), I fear that what he or she has done is instead to create more–and erroneously reasoned, I believe–ammunition for mainstream publishing and funding agencies to refuse support to Indian women writers, and for mainstream readers to refuse to read them, thus making it less likely that the excellent ones will get access to large scale distribution.

    Mary Anne, I think writing like yours helps to keep the bar high. Don’t let this person’s fretting get you down.

  2. Yeah, I’m responding to my own comment. What I’m trying to say is that it’s misplaced to put the blame for a *systemic* problem of access and representation on the *individuals* who are working hard to correct it; namely, the writers, editors and publishers.

  3. Hell, everybody in the literary world who busts ass to make their institutions, their courses, their labour pool inclusive and diverse. It’s an uphill battle, and this kind of carping doesn’t help.

    Okay, going to have a cool drink now.

  4. I wouldn’t even go so far as to wonder if there is “access to training, development, workshopping–the systemic stuff” in these cases — there’s isn’t much evidence in the reviewer’s vitriol that the books described actually a) are bad, and b) are bad for reasons of publishing industry Indian fetishism.

    White, petit-bourgeois guys with all the access in the world very often don’t manage to transcend “something passable” but they don’t get nailed for it. Only rarely is their privileged position given as a reason for their success despite a century of failure in American lit. One probably wouldn’t see books by Dave Eggers, Rick Moody, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Franzen lined up and denounced based on middle-class (in Moody’s case, ruling-class) whiteness, and one certainly wouldn’t extend that to suggest “Well, if you’re white, you’re in.”

    It’s the formulation that these bad novels are bad because the authors are Indian, while white novelists are just allowed to stink of the joint on an individualist level, that I am choking on.

  5. I feel like I’ve been slightly unfair to this reviewer (who appears to be an Indian male, based on the name) in giving you just this excerpt. In the rest of the review, he does go on to discuss each of the four novels in detail, and some he praises for being particularized, specific, and therefore interesting, while others he denounces for being cliched and relying on an Indian exoticized marketability.

    Not to undercut your points, either, which I do think very much apply quite often, and even to some extent with this guy (whom I read as rather resenting the ease with which Indian *women* are getting published; I’m wondering if he’s a frustrated would-be novelist himself). Just to give a few more details for the sake of fairness.

  6. Yeah, what Nick said. Though the reviewer doesn’t seem to be saying that the novels are bad because they’re written by Indian women, but that bad writers are getting published because they’re pretty, femmy Indian women.

  7. Quoth Nick:

    One probably wouldn’t see books by Dave Eggers, Rick Moody, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Franzen lined up and denounced based on middle-class (in Moody’s case, ruling-class) whiteness, and one certainly wouldn’t extend that to suggest “Well, if you’re white, you’re in.”

    One wouldn’t? In what universe?

  8. The universe where the authors I list are showered in rose petals by the major review organs. When someone dares declare that the emperor has no clothes, as Dale Peck did with Moody, then it’s another round of shoot the messenger. In the case of Peck, he was assailed with a variety of homophobic attacks.

    Also, in the universe (don’t be confused, it’s the same universe, just another reason) where a very large number of loudly unpublished white middle-class authors would render any such claim nonsensical.

    Can you come up with any quotes from the book pages of a paper as widely read as the Chicago Tribune where a number of white writers are denounced as being talentless goofs who got published due to their skin color and social position? I seriously doubt it.

  9. I’ll grant that I don’t usually read book reviews at all, so I can’t speak to that particular culture. (I’ve never heard of Dale Peck before, although I think I’ve found the review I think you’re referring to through Google. Which would seem to answer your challenge, actually, referring to Eggers, Franzen, Wallace, Pynchon and others as “the white man’s ivory tower”; how it was taken seems an irrelevant point. Unless, perhaps, you happen to know that Patel was lionized for his review…)

    All I do know (and the basis of my reaction) is that the sort of attitude you’re claiming doesn’t exist towards white male writers is pretty pervasive in academia, or at least the corners of it I have experience with.

    Also, the excerpt posted seemed to be taking issue with the novels being reviewed playing on Indian stereotypes, the last two quoted sentences claiming that recent releases would have you believe that Indians are “exotic, mysterious, inscrutable.” That is, the point isn’t that Indian writers are “talentless goofs,” it’s that some of them are relying on a fetishization of their own culture to market their work. But I’ll grant that it’s hard to be certain of this without the context, and I don’t have access to the Trib’s archives. (My school library’s edition of Lexis-Nexis appears to be very much abridged.)

  10. There is a significant difference between pointing out that middle-class whites have an advantage in publishing and the claim of the review Mary Anne quoted:

    Do you have nut-brown skin? Long silky hair? Deep, limpid pools for eyes? Well then, what are you waiting for? … If recent releases are any indication, you will have no trouble seeing the tale into print.

    The equivalent would be something like:

    Did your family tree begin when the Angles met the Saxons? Do you have a face and skintone reminiscent of a peeled potato? A degree from a prestigious Northeastern liberal arts college? Closet full of cable-knit sweaters? Well, then what are you waiting for?…If recent releases are any indication, you will have no trouble seeing the tale into print.

    Peck isn’t making a claim that any of the writers he lists as being part of the WMIT are there because of their whiteness. We know this because the members of the WMIT he lists includes black author Colson Whitehead (who has the degree and sweaters) — that’s the point of that sentence, in fact. And I seriously doubt that you could find among even the flightiest postmodernists of the acadame the claim that any middle-class white who cares to publish novels could do so based on their appearance and whim. Not the least reason why is the number of middle-class whites among flighty postmodernists who’d love to publish novels on a whim but can’t.

    On the snippet of the review here, I also stand by the “talentless goof” summary because the snippet at least doesn’t declare that Indian female authors are marketing themselves in any way. They are being marketed by publishers, in spite of the utter lack of talent (talentless) and a failure to recognize this absense (goofs). Perhaps I’m giving Patel too much credit; while he does stick a knife in the back of the authors, his main claim seems to be that the publishers are trying to cash in on some “curry fever” by publishing any Indian woman they could.

    Nobody is saying that Jonathan Safran Foer got published (and a $500,000) because he, like Dave Eggers, is white.

  11. Well, sure, by selecting the sentences you like,ignoring the bit where he attributes this perspective to the content of recent works, you can make this say whatever you’d like. Reiterating it doesn’t make it an accurate portrayal of what the author is saying.

  12. I did no such thing.

    The author’s claim is that Indian women can be published, in spite of their lack of ability, because they are Indian. (“Pen something passable, and sooner than you think, you will be a published author. You are, after all, Indian: exotic, mysterious, inscrutable.”)

    I pointed out that the racism of this comment comes from the fact that nobody points to a bad book by middle-class white people and claims that the authors’ whiteness is what allowed those bad books to published. This is in my very first comment, btw.

    What you don’t seem to get is that the content of the books is immaterial: at best he is correlating certain content (poorly-written Orientalism) with certain authors (Indian women) and then suggesting that pretty much any Indian woman can get published regardless of their ability, because they are Indian. Correlation is not causation — pointing out that three Indians wrote bad books does not lead to the conclusion that Indians have a free ride to publication because they are Indian.

    You made the hyperbolic suggestion that I must be living in some other universe, apparently because you think bad books by white authors are frequently denounced in the the same manner (e.g., “If you’re white, you need not be good to get published.”)

    I asked you for evidence of someone in a book review saying something of the sort.

    You have, after two go-rounds and one whole day, provided none, except for a bit of textual torture of Dale Peck’s book review (manufactured evidence is not evidence) and some vague handwaving toward academia (0=0).

    I will take your repeated strawman building and question-dodging as an admission that you have no such evidence for your claim — even the extended claim that this attitude is common in the unnamed, unsourced bit of the academy you’re a part of — and that you dislike the notion of making sure your opinions correspond to evidence (as opposed to simply having them correspond to such bugaboos as the imaginary literary critic who claims that any white man can get his book published, regardless of quality.)

    Well, there’s hardly any reason for me to carry on a discussion with someone like that, is there?

  13. “The author’s claim is that Indian women can be published, in spite of their lack of ability, because they are Indian.”

    You keep saying that, but keep ignoring the final sentence of the excerpt, thus ignoring my counter-claim that he does no such thing. How, then, do you account for “Or so far-too-many recent works of Indian fiction would have you believe.” You might be able to shoehorn it into your interpretation if it read “Or so far-too-many recent works of Indian fiction would lead you to believe,” but that’s very different from what he wrote. Given the actual text that appears there, “would have you believe” clearly refers to a claim contained in those works, specifically that someone Indian is “exotic, mysterious, inscrutable,” and thus that anything written by somebody of that ethnicity can easily get published.

    But, then, you ignored this obvious bit of parsing the first two times I pointed it out without offering any alternative explanation for the actual wording of the final sentence, so, yes, I agree, a discussion is precisely something we’re not actually having.

  14. Nick, I pretty much agree with the direction of your comments, so take this if you would as a data point, more than a disagreement: while I think you’re generally quite correct that few people in white establishment will say that bad white writers find it easier to get published because they’re white, if one were to say something like that in communities of colour, one would probably get more than a few murmurs of agreement.

  15. Latecoming to this thread, I note that

    Do you have nut-brown skin? Long silky hair? Deep, limpid pools for eyes?

    …is not quite equivalent to

    Did your family tree begin when the Angles met the Saxons? Do you have a face and skintone reminiscent of a peeled potato? A degree from a prestigious Northeastern liberal arts college? Closet full of cable-knit sweaters?

    …if for no other reason that the appeal to sexual fetish in the former is not merely subtext but theme. Although the equivalence could hold if tuberphillia is more widespread than I’ve heard.

    The short excerpt that Mary Anne provided dwells not on talentless goofs getting published because of unspecific minority-group membership but on a hypothesized benefit that Western fetish confers on “pretty, femmy Indian women,” as Nalo says above.

    As Mary Anne mentions in “Under the Skin“, this kind of benefit can accrue (by definition) only to someone who is unusual in their context; white males being so prevalent in Western authorship, the particular bitterness in this review can’t meaningfully be inverted.

    I mention this because sexual (or sexualized) envy seemed like such a strong emphasis in the review, and only Nalo had mentioned it directly. I’m far from qualified to do anything but point it out, but, as this is the parlor of someone who makes it her profession to be so qualified, it seemed worth mentioning.

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