Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives

The old normal cannot continue. The new normal needs you to come alive.

One of the newsletters I’ve been reading more closely over the last few months is Kelsey McKinney’s Written Out, which aims to reconstruct our literary history by paying attention to the women writers who have been overlooked or underappreciated in the past. In recent weeks, McKinney’s thoughts have turned to Black writers, and the current phenomenon of the antiracist reading list and the ways it can, lazily deployed, “reduce incredible work by black writers to something white people read for self-improvement and not beautiful works on their own.”

As someone who had recommended some books on this topic I’d found meaningful, I gave McKinney’s perspective, and the Lauren Michele Jackson essay that prompted her to share it, a great deal of consideration. This, I think, is the heart of her message:

“You do not read Nobel Laureate and American Treasure Toni Morrison because you feel bad about being white. You read her because she is arguably the best novelist America has ever produced.”

She had her own recommendations, books she thought we should read “because they are good and we like reading good things,” and really there’s no disagreeing with that criteria.

The following week, McKinney took what she described as “a hard look at my bookshelf,” and realized that despite her best intentions, her reading was still heavily shaped by the dominant White culture. This immediately resonated with me, because I’d gone through a similar self-discovery process eight years ago, grappling with the beam in my own reading eye., particularly concerning gender iniquities. “Book critics, like everybody else, have culturally embedded biases which, when left unchecked, tend to reinforce the status quo,” I wrote back then. “In this case, no matter how often prominent figures in the world of literary criticism insist gender plays no role in their decisions about what to review, male writers consistently get the better deal.” 

Just like McKinney, though, when I sat down and did the math, I wasn’t much better than the New York Times at maintaining a truly diverse canon. “Why, despite my intentions, which had already begun to take shape, did I tend to veer towards this book rather than that one?” I wondered—and what could I do to fix it?

“I can’t fall back on excuses like ‘these are the books that publishers send me,’ or more broadly ‘these are the books that get published,’ to justify these results, because that’s just lazy; the books are out there, and it’s my job to search for them… I like to tell myself that I’m reviewing books to hold a mirror up to contemporary culture—more often than not to celebrate it, true, but in the broadest sense to engage with it. It seems, however, that I may be at risk of holding a mirror up to myself.” 

Happily, the literary world seems to be substantially less defensive about its White patriarchal biases than it was back in 2012. It’s still plenty defensive, mind you; a recent attempt by the National Book Critics Circle to craft a statement in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement ended in a huffy farrago of finger-pointing and mass resignation after the poet and essayist Hope Wabuke publicly circulated an email that had been sent to board members by Philadelphia-based book reviewer Carlin Romano, who declared, “I resent the idea that whites in the book publishing and literary world are an oppositional force that needs to be assigned to reeducation camps.”

Of course, Romano isn’t an isolated figure within literary circles, and the heel-digging attitude he displays isn’t limited to the fancy end of the book spectrum. Remember back in January, when entrenched racism rotted Romance Writers of America from the inside? This is what I said then:

“As long as romance publishers continue to think in terms of, say, ‘African-American readers’ or ‘LGBTQ readers’ as niche markets that can serviced with discrete, finite efforts, they will continue to define the mainstream in ways that predominantly cater to heterosexual white women, and writers who can effectively cater to that audience will reap the rewards.”

That’s still true of romance, and it’s definitely still true of publishing as a whole.

And yet people are more aware of the problem, and more willing to acknowledge it, than they have been in the past. We don’t always know how to fix it, though—and sometimes we’re too quick to take the easy way out. “This isn’t the time to circle up with other white people and discuss black pain in the abstract,” warns Tre Johnson. Reading a few books won’t fix the problem, and too many people think that reading the books is all they have to do, especially if they made a big deal of buying those books from a Black-owned independent bookstore. (In fact, because everybody decided to order the few books all at once, bookstores are waiting for publishers to do additional printings so they can fulfill their orders—and some customers, who expected to have their homework done by now, are calling up the bookstores to berate them for poor service and demand their money book, blissfully ignorant of the privilege they’re flexing.)

By all means, read the memoirs-with-cultural-analysis that I told you about; dive into the literary list Kelsey McKinney curated. As you read those books, however, make room for them to change your life—then change your life.

“The right acknowledgment of black justice, humanity, freedom, and happiness won’t be found in your book clubs, protest signs, chalk talks, or organizational statements,” Johnson continues. “It will be found in your earnest willingness to dismantle systems that stand in our way—be they at your job, in your social network, your neighborhood associations, your family, or your home.”

Ibram X. Kendi says there’s no such thing as being “non-racist.” You’re either actively racist, passively complicit in racism, or actively antiracist. It’s not that we have an opportunity now to be antiracist—we have always had that opportunity, and some of us have failed to seize that opportunity more often than we may care to admit.

That complicity is bound tightly in complacency—and though it may seem strange to talk about complacency considering how many of us have had our lives upended this year, I believe it’s the right word for the occasion. Fortunately, you don’t have to be complacent about systemic racism, just as you don’t have to be complacent about this systemic failure of a Trump-led federal government (and several state governments) to deal with the crisis we’re facing. We can refuse to accept the status quo. We can destroy what were once our safe and happy lives, and choose a different way of being in this world. Let’s acknowledge where we’ve fallen short, and dedicate ourselves to doing better moving forward.

(Black Lives Matter/Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof logo created by Tom Haviv for JFREJ)

Here Are Some Books You Should Read

In the last edition of this newsletter, I encouraged you to read Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. It combines her personal experience of racism as a Black woman in America with broader cultural analysis, and it’s extremely powerful. Brown also has a Substack newsletter, and I’d encourage you to read her recent short essay, “Trouble the Narrative.”

“History. Scripture. Social Revolutions. Black Struggle. None of these can be boiled down into one convenient sentence. It’s condescending, lazy, and uneducated. It’s thoughtless. And thoughtless isn’t what we need right now.

Trouble the narratives of white supremacy and anti-blackness. Or else we will keep repeating this cycle.”

One way to trouble the narrative that white supremacy imposes upon our daily lives is to go beyond simply declaring your opposition to racism and becoming an active antiracist. You should read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, another combination of memoir and cultural analysis, to learn more about how you can set about doing that. In some ways, I think it might be useful to compare it to what other writers have called “decolonizing your mind,” and in that context I’d like to point you toward Kaitlin Curtice’s Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God. Curtice writes within an explicitly Christian framework, as well as within her own Native experience, but frankly it’s almost impossible to talk about how and why American culture is the way it is without discussing how and why mainstream Christian culture has become the way that it is, so even if it’s not your religious tradition, you’re going to get something useful out of reading her.

That’s also why I would encourage you to read Lenny Duncan’s Dear Church, even if you’re not a Lutheran—I’m not, either—because the legacy of prejudice Rev. Duncan identifies within his own congregation is one we all have to confront.

I don’t have anything particularly insightful to tell you about writing just now. All I can do is point to these writers, who have done the work of grappling with their most profound concerns in order, as Thomas Jefferson says in that pivotal scene from 1776, “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.”

Whatever you’re writing, that ought to be your goal, too—and by reading these four books, you’ll not only see four ways to achieve that goal, you’ll learn to look at this world in a different way—and, I hope, join these four writers in striving to make it a better world.

You can also do some reading about the specific crisis of a systemically racist police state. There are actually two free ebooks available this week:Who Do You Serve? Who Do You Protect? from Haymarket Books and The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence from the University of Chicago Press.

In This House We Don't Say "Sellout"

We're all just out here trying to make a living...

I don’t have that much to add to the conversation over the past few days about Alison Roman’s unfortunate comments during a recent interview about her rising profile in the cookbook world. “Unfortunate” is really understating it, actually. What happened is, she looked at Marie Kondo’s recent successes and commented, “I’m like, damn, bitch, you fucking just sold out immediately!” Then added, “What Chrissy Teigen has done is so crazy to me… [It] horrifies me and it’s not something that I ever want to do.”

Abigail Koffler makes some excellent points about the latent racist culture involved in swiping at two women of color for doing much the same Roman’s doing, just with more of a headstart. Alicia Kennedy covers some of that territory as well, but also expands to a larger theme, namely that “food writing is the domain of snobs and elitists,” even when—perhaps especially when—they’re trying to pass themselves off as cultural rebels.

To her credit, within a few days Roman had realized that her remarks were “stupid, careless, and insensitive,” and issued a public apology on Twitter. It’s an “I’m sorry, and…” apology, rather than “I’m sorry, but…” apology, and that makes a big difference, depending on where she goes from here. She explicitly notes the element of white privilege that allowed her to proceed as unthinkingly as she had, and along those lines I’d note that mine is not necessarily the perspective you need to hear about all that, so I’ll simply refer you to Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, because you will learn a lot from it and because she’s awesome.

At the same time, I want to touch briefly upon the turn in the conversation that led to Roman’s offensive remarks. My knowledge of the cookbook/foodie scene is superficial at best, but it’s not hard to tell that Roman is the Next Big Thing, and so the topic turned to the increased demands on her time and energy, and the pressure to do more things for more outlets. “I’d rather stay small and always be myself,” Roman told the interviewer. “But at the same time, I do need to figure out how to turn this into money.”

Though the plunge from “I need to figure out how to turn this into money” to “damn, bitch, you fucking just sold out” is an ugly one, I do understand where Roman was coming from at the beginning of that arc—because I, too, would very much like to create a life that enables me to dedicate myself to my strongest passions, and to share what I produce from those passions with people who would find it meaningful, we live in a market-driven world, and you need money in order to participate in that world, let alone thrive in it.

And I’m sure a lot of other writers can relate to that as well. They could even relate to the danger Roman articulates—that she might feel pressured into doing something that runs counter to her identity for the sake of attempting to her public image and her market value.

I grew up watching the debate over “selling out” endlessly rehashed in the punk rock arena, and in the early 2000s I watched bloggers argue over the merits of staying with your own homemade website or taking a job at a corporate media outlet. (For varying levels of “corporate.”) I’ve been fortunate enough that, for the most part, I’ve been able to take jobs at places where I was able to do work I found personally meaningful without being forced to make excessive compromises. There have been a few times when that wasn’t true, and they were the most frustrating experiences of my adult life, in one case giving me so much anxiety that I had to go on lorazepam just to sleep through the night.

(Believe me, though, when I say that I recognize that I am extremely privileged to be able to talk about working with a bearable level of personal compromise, and to have the freedom to pursue that kind of work. Privileged not just on a social and cultural level, but on a personal level as well.)

Let’s stipulate that, as a writer, I want some degree of public success. What I’ve come to realize over time, though, is that I want to use that success as a tool to improve upon my ability to share what I have to say with readers, not simply accept it as the preferred outcome of all that sharing. Obviously, having a good public image is better for one’s career than having a bad public image—but creative decisions should always be made with serving your audience weighing more heavily as a consideration than strengthening your brand.

It’s possible to go too far in the direction of serving your audience, of course, although I’d argue that in at least some cases it’s a kind of pandering that comes about because of an excessive concern with strengthening your brand. In other cases, the problem is that you spend so much time serving the audience that you forget to take care of yourself, and grind yourself down to a point where you’re not able to continue serving them as well as you had been. Because self-care is important—and, what with the market-driven world and all that, self-care means preserving your financial health along with preserving your emotional and physical health.

I do think “selling out” is a real thing. I recognize that artists make creative decisions—that people of all kinds make professional decisions—that serve their own immediate interests with little or no consideration for anybody else, or for the ultimate quality of their work.

The big questions you need to ask yourself, in my opinion, are “Is this what I want to be doing with my life?” and “Will this lead to something I sincerely want to share with others?” If you start with those questions, rather than “Is this good for my brand?” or “Will I get a lot of money for this?”, then you’re simply doing what you love, and if you can still answer those later questions affirmatively, well, all the better for you!

At the same time, we’re all out here just trying to make a living. Somebody might look like a “sellout” to you, because of their success, when in reality they’re taking advantage of an opportunity to do some of the most personal work of their career. As Alison Roman learned the hard way, we can leap to judgment too quickly, leaning into our own prejudices and insecurities.

If you want to avoid that trap, one sure way to do it is to keep your eyes on your own paper, and focus on doing the best job you can without worrying about anyone else.

About five years ago, I did an interview with Gil Roth for his Virtual Memories podcast. Lately, he’s been checking in with several of his guests to see how they’re holding up during the pandemic, so I spoke with him last weekend. It’s about 50 minutes long, and we talk about this newsletter a bit, but we also talk about why I’m not watching much television anymore (especially not the daily briefings from any government officials), how I became a Quaker over Zoom last month, and what’s so interesting about The Anarchist’s Tool Chest that it’s become my go-to reading at the end of at least two or three evenings a week. Among other things.

If you have the time, be sure to listen to some of the other episodes as well.

I've Got a Zoom ID, Let's Put on a Show!

The romance reading series I co-curate has moved online. I think it went pretty well.

It’s been a bit longer than I’d anticipated since the last newsletter! I apologize for that. One of the things that I’ve been working on in that time is Lady Jane’s Salon, a reading series for romance writers I’ve co-curated for more than a decade. Usually, we meet every other month at Madame X, a very cool bar on Houston Street in lower Manhattan. Back in March, though, we made the decision to postpone our April event to May, hopeful that the situation might have resolved by now. Oh, how optimistic we were in those days!

Anyway, it wasn’t too long into April that we realized holding a reading in a bar in Manhattan on May 4th wasn’t likely to happen, and I decided to explore our options for doing the event virtually. It was soon apparent that our best option was to record a Zoom meeting, and we set aside a Sunday afternoon at the end of the month when everyone would be available.

That reading is now on YouTube, featuring three great authors: Skye McDonald, Adriana Herrera, and Maya Rodale. They each picked some fun scenes from their most recent books, which are all available in one form or another from WORD, an indie bookstore in Brooklyn and Jersey City that does a great job of covering the romance market. (Skye’s Nemesis is only available in print there, and Adriana’s American Sweethearts is only available as an ebook, but Maya’s An Heiress to Remember is available in either format.)

Watching the footage, it’s really obvious that I need a haircut, but I also realized how much fun I was having during the event—that it felt really good to be doing something with writers I liked, supporting a genre that I like, and putting it out there for other fans as well. We’re going to do another reading later this month, so we can have it online by June 1st, and now that I’ve got the technical side of things sorted out, I’m looking forward to it even more.

If you are already a fan of romance fiction, I think you’re really going to enjoy this event. If you aren’t, I have an argument in its favor—or just give this reading a try!

Potential, Opportunity, Distraction, Intention

"Our job is to come out of this as our full & alive & authentic selves.”—@BaileyJoWelch

I am a big fan of Lost Art Press, an independent publisher just across the river from Cincinnati. Lately, LAP’s blog has been featuring sneak previews from an upcoming collection of essays by Charles H. Hayward, who spent more than a quarter of a century as the editor of The Woodworker. One recent excerpt, for example, included a quote from the 19th-century art critic and social theorist John Ruskin. “The weakest among us,” Ruskin wrote, “has a gift, however seemingly trivial, which is peculiar to him, and which worthily used will be a gift also to his race for ever.”

Here’s what Hayward had to say about that:

“In how many of us, I wonder, does the gift lie dormant? It is like a seed which must be fed and watered before it can yield its fruit, and wether it will be a weakly or a sturdy plant depends mainly on just how much attention we are prepared to give it. Honest, persevering work is the first requirement, and with it goes the courage to battle with any defect of our own temperament, whether of impatience or carelessness or laziness, that will hinder and thwart our progress. In this way a man may become a competent handicraftsman, turning out work which will not shame him.”

Setting aside the chauvinism of the era, I think this can be a useful way to think about our writing practices. I’ve long been skeptical about the notion of innate talent, the idea that some people start out with more innate ability than others, that they’re just more “naturally” creative or expressive. As far as I can tell, it’s pretty much all skill, and differences in capability can be attributed to how much opportunity a person has been given, from an early age, to develop that skill, and how much opportunity they’ve been willing to seize for themselves.

I want to emphasize the role of “how much opportunity a person has been given,” because one objection I have to how Hayward frames the issue is his discussion of “defect(s) of our own temperament.” I’m not denying that impatience and carelessness and laziness can be traits that get in the way of developing our capability to express ourselves—at the same time, I want to acknowledge that, in many ways, modern society is arranged in ways that withhold opportunity from us, sometimes more deliberately than others, and from some people more deliberately than others. So I don’t think that not being at the top of your game as a writer represents any kind of moral failing, and I certainly don’t think that being at the top of your game as a writer represents any kind of moral success.

(Mind you, being at the top of your game as a writer almost always comes with a stronger sense of self-awareness, and a stronger recognition of one’s personal agenda. A better philosophy scholar than I would be able to tell you whether that, in and of itself, constitutes a “moral success.” My instinctive reaction is that the self-awareness we cultivate through a diligent writing practice is not in and of itself a moral success, but that it can be used to achieve one.)

In the last few newsletters, I’ve reassured you that it’s okay if you haven’t been writing at your best lately, or even if you haven’t been writing at all, and that’s still true. And here’s something I wrote two years ago, when I never imagined we’d all be stuck in our rooms for more than a month:

“We’re not writing machines, after all. The key is intention: If you’re willing to continually apply yourself to your writing, even after you’ve seemingly fallen short of the mark, you’ll have something to show for your work eventually. And, perhaps, every time you pick yourself up after having a setback reduces the likelihood of falling into that same trap again. (Reduces, not eliminates. Again, we’re not machines.)”

So it’s important not to lose sight of the dream, because there’s far more to a writing practice than finding wide swathes of time in which to pour your soul out on paper fill an electronic file with scintillating prose. Earlier this evening, I came across a wonderful tweet from Bailey Jo Welch-Pomerantz:

“It is not our job to come out of this quarantine thin
or fluent in a new language
or with another book deal
or having perfected a new hobby
or with an immaculate house.

Our job is to come out of this as our full & alive & authentic selves.”

For some of us, coming out of the pandemic with a more authentic understanding of our lives and what we’re meant to be doing with them might result in some scintillating prose, but for a lot of us it won’t, and that’s okay. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how metanoia, a term from the New Testament that has commonly been translated as “repentance” but might more accurately be called “a change of heart,” isn’t so much a result as an ongoing process, and I also recently used that result/process analogy to describe the Buddhist concept of “metta,” or compassion meditation. And now I’m coming to realize that this applies to our True Self as well.

You’re never going to be perfect. But as long as you’re holding intention in your heart, and doing your best to act on it, you will inevitably come closer in some way to the things you want to say, and the life you want to live. And though we might not be working under optimum conditions, you have as much raw potential to accomplish that as anybody else.

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