since you asked…

Now they will retreat into a cloud of smoke and congratulate themselves on being masters of the universe.

How I imagine this committee’s meetings to look like

I don’t hate CBC Diversity. It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

I have explained this to people in smaller clips, like on Twitter, but given the strength of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, and given the rude, snarky tweet I received from an editor whom I will mention again, who went from engaging in polite conversation (which she dropped into – I did not tag her; rather, she inserted herself into an interaction I had going with someone else) to being condescending and belittling, it seemed prudent to write this post.

I wish I could find a YouTube clip of this, but you know in Titanic where Rose explains to Jack what the first class men do when they go for brandy? “Now they will retreat into a cloud of smoke and congratulate each other on being masters of the universe.” That is how I imagine the members of the CBC Diversity team. They’ve said they like diversity, so now they praise each other for having such progressive feelings and leave no room for growth or criticism. I have reasons for this – from personal experience, anecdotal evidence from friends and colleagues, and general observations.

I don’t object to the existence or mission of a group of editors saying that they care about diversity in literature, especially when they are from big companies. That’s great. We need that. In fact, I first heard about it when one of the founding members emailed a listserv I’m on and asked that anyone who wanted to be involved in any way email her. I sent a very excited email about how I’d love to guest post or tweet or do whatever I could.

I got no response.

I don’t expect everyone to want me. I don’t expect everyone to bow down to my opinions and invite me to contribute. (Especially not from that listserv. It’s a very clique-y one, and I know I’m not well liked there.) But still. To not respond to someone who was sincere and nice, just to dash off a quick “thanks, but no thanks” email, is not too much to ask. I don’t care how important you are – you are never too busy to be courteous. If you think you are, I suggest you call your parents and ask why they raised such an entitled brat. Truly. Everyone has the time to be polite. Period.

So there was that. But I was still willing to see what they had to say. I visited the blog and commented on it. And not a single one of my comments was ever approved. Given that the only comments I ever saw approved on their posts were ones with applause and praise, I can only assume that they are not interested in engaging with any constructive criticism or questions. The comments I made were both complimentary and critical, because I believe the committee deserves both of those things. They deserve praise for publicly committing to a good thing, but also, anyone who writes a blog post about such a topic should be prepared and willing to engage with further questions, other viewpoints, and constructive criticism. And they refused.

I followed their account on GoodReads, since they weren’t interested in mutually friending me (I don’t see why they would, so I’m not offended). I still follow them, because I find it useful to know general things about the content categories of books when I don’t have time to read them but am looking at them as potential titles to add to our collection at work. They are very good about tagging such things. So I follow them, even when I disagree with their inclusion of books that have been reviewed and found to be culturally insensitive or problematic. Even when I find it disingenuous that they only admit that when prompted to, so they are still positioning their account as an offering of quality booklists and basically putting a footnote that says, “Oh, these might be crappy or offensive, but whatever.” Because highlighting the existence of diverse books is the first step, and then there are enough people aware of them that you can have really constructive discussions about what makes things problematic, who has the right to tell whose stories, etc. Steps. I can respect CBC Diversity for taking steps. Nobody is asking them to start at step one and move to step 27 without the little ones in between.

I’m not going to out anyone when it comes to anecdotes, since many of these have been offered to me via Twitter DM or Facebook, but I have heard from colleagues that they, too, have constructively criticized blog posts or GoodReads practices and been ignored or blocked. #fwiw

It’s clear that CBC Diversity is not interested in conversation, only in providing platforms to keep saying the same limited message over and over.

This is not about personally attacking people, and I’m not sure why people are taking it as such, except that people are people, so of course. But I’m criticizing a group, not a person. The only time I have talked to individual members of CBC Diversity (barring one, with whom I’m friendly on totally other terms) is when they get involved in a conversation I’m having with someone else. Like the past two days. Also, I don’t hate anyone in the group. I’m sure I have engaged with – or at least followed – many members on social media. And you can’t really hate people you don’t know, so it wouldn’t really be possible for me to hate the other members. What I hate is the idea that because you have said you care about diversity, you’re untouchable, and you’re above reproach. And that is the feeling I get from CBC Diversity and its members. They give off the impression that caring is enough (it’s not), that one person publishing one book is enough to change the industry and the world (please don’t give me the starfish metaphor), and that publishing more titles by non cis/het WASP authors also somehow fixes institutional racism and makes it okay for “non-diverse” books to continue to come out without having their privilege and sensitivity checked. And, again, I see them only accepting posts from people who share what seems to be their view of diversity – talk about how much you like it, but don’t call out anything bad, like problematic portrayals of marginalized groups. It’s the same sunshine-and-unicorns posts over and over again on their site, with no strong commitments to reducing the status quo shit they publish (you can’t publish everything, which means you can only take on more diverse voices if you stop taking on so many that reflect the status quo or that rehash the same story with the same characters), no mentions at all about talking to head honchos and publicity departments about actually putting marketing dollars behind these new books, no talking about how they’ve approached authors already on their lists to talk about how they can contribute to helping this effort.

Again, I don’t hate CBC Diversity overall. I appreciate that they laid out specific actions to take when they started, like having hiring fairs and reaching out to college students, and they have done those things. And I think there are things that editors do that are really cool, like when Donna Bray* posted this on her Twitter:

Asking for someone to share their expertise when you can’t fully weigh in on the accuracy of something? AWESOME.

But then she said this to me, which was annoying, deflating, and just bullshit:

That just doesn’t get to be an excuse anymore. Just as I firmly believe that you as an editor are not doing your job if you don’t call out your author for problematic portrayals or stereotypes or cliches, I’m also tired of the whole “But why can’t people climb up my ladder of privilege and hand me their marginalized things so I can elevate them?” (Someone else said that better.) If you’re a bigshot editor at a fancy publishing company, you probably don’t read your slush pile, and that’s where more of your marginalized voices are going to be found. If they’re even there. You should be reading blogs, lit mags, etc, looking for worthwhile voices. If you don’t want to take the time, then fine. But then you don’t get to say that you are committed to seeking out strong voices. If your books don’t sell, it’s because you’re not promoting them right. Or because they’re bad. But we’re going with the assumption that these are good books, so you should probably look at how their publicity budget looks, at whether reps at conferences even know these books exist, at whether you’re balancing promotion in the marginalized communities where these books will be well received AND in the general promotional arenas you would send any other book to, at whether you’re connecting with bloggers on the ground who have already made it clear that they want diverse books of high quality and that if they get them, they will promote the shit out of them for you. For free. Maybe for an ARC; that would be nice.

Cheryl Klein, on the other hand, knows that’s not how you do it. She realized she hadn’t seen work from Native writers, so she asked an expert to hook her up with people. Then she had Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out of Here. Not even hard. The right thing to do. Sarah McCarry knows how to do this, too, and she’s awesome. Because, again, if you’re committed to DIVERSITY, not just committed to telling people you’re into diversity, you better be walking the walk by reading blogs like Racialicious, checking out literary magazines like Sucker and Hunger Mountain, and attending writing conferences where undiscovered, unpublished writers of color are trying to make a go of it.

Again, I don’t care if you do it or not. I do care if you’re saying you’re doing it but then not following through. Buying a couple books here and there and then letting them flounder because you don’t promote them with the same effort, methods, or money as your usual books is not making a change. Telling people you welcome their voices on your blog and then blocking them (not even having the courage to tell them you’re rejecting them) because they don’t align exactly with your snowflake beliefs is a lie. And that is my problem with CBC Diversity.

I realize I’m not making friends by writing this. Posting this is a difficult thing to do, as I write and hope to publish my work with people who work at these publishing companies, and when I do, I want their full support. But that’s the thing – I am not making this personal; I am not making this about grudges. I am making this about experiences and measured observations. That’s all.

*tbh I have no idea if she’s part of the CBC Diversity committee. But this is still cool.

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3 thoughts on “since you asked…

  1. I’m skeptical of CBC Diversity for this reason: their Goodreads bookshelf of books by/about American Indians. It has some books with really awful stereotyping, bias, and factual error. Old ones (ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS) and new ones (STARFISH). I fully understand that my requests to set those books aside are perceived as efforts to censor, but in an initiative that is about getting quality books into the hands of children, I cannot see that list as in alignment with the goals of the committee.

    I had a twitter convo with Daniel Nayeri (one of the committee members) a few days ago. He said that O’Dell didn’t have outright contempt for Native people, and that “one can teach it [ISLAND] as benevolent damage.” I was, and am, stuck on that phrase. What does it mean?!

    Later we continued that discussion at the CBC Diversity blog post in response to BookCon, but as before, there was a refusal to reconsider the books on the shelves.

    When CBC Diversity was launched a few years ago, they invited me to write for it, in the “It’s Complicated” series. I wasn’t publicly critical of the bookshelf at that point. I waited and hoped they would revisit the shelf but they didn’t. So, I went public with my objections and discussed my concerns with fellow members of the American Indian Library Association. At ALA, CBC Diversity had a panel. There, Naomi Bishop, an officer in the American Indian Library Association, Oralia Garza de Cortes (a leader in Latino literature/librarianship), and Lee Byrd (of CInco Puntos Press) asked some very hard questions about that shelf and basically got nowhere. Then–and now–CBC Diversity is standing by their shelves.

    In that Twitter convo with Daniel, he said he’d gladly add additional books by Native writers. I was surprised because last time around, that was not possible. Only books by CBC members could go onto those shelves. So I gave him a handful of titles. I haven’t looked yet to see if they’re on the shelf.

    Thanks for your post. I appreciate that it feels risky to you as a writer. My critiques feel risky, too–not because I’m a writer–but because I am afraid of backlash for the books I find worthy of promotion at my site and in my workshops and professional publications. Such is the world we live in.

  2. I wish I had time to follow the lists more closely — I am frustrated about not being able to find books that reflect the kids I work work with, and so, I was happy to see there was talk a foot to try and address that diversity desert. Thanks for sharing your take on ways it could be deeper.

    • Oh, I miss O&P! And you. Definitely Diversity in YA will help for the older kids, and Rich in Color and the Brown Bookshelf are great blogs that highlight stuff. And The Pirate Tree will be right up your alley.

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