In a few days, I’ll be headed to Arizona for the Tucson Festival of Books, a two-day literary shindig on the University of Arizona campus. I’ve been there before; it’s a really fun weekend, and I’m looking forward to returning. One of my first official duties will be to moderate a panel called “Living in the Extreme,” with three authors: Chris Bohjalian, Jamie Ford, and Brendan Mathews. It’s a sort of “rich people follies” theme, or, as the official festival description puts it, “Get swept away in luxurious lifestyles as characters try to have all the riches that life has to offer until it starts to quickly crumble away.”
It should be a fun hour: I’ve had the good fortune to meet Chris and Jamie before, and they’re both fun interviews as well as great writers, and I’m loving Brendan’s debut novel, The World of Tomorrow, so I can’t wait to meet him and ask him about it. But, as somebody pointed out to me recently, between the three of them and me, it’s rather a testosterone-laden panel.
That’s doubly mortifying, not just because I care about diversity and representation in literary culture, but because I’ve actually vocally complained about such imbalances when I’ve seen them perpetuated at other events. And pointing to the overall diversity of the Festival is worth a great many points, but there’s still this panel to address.
Like many of you, I watched Frances McDormand accept the Best Actress Academy Award Sunday night—that electric moment when she invited all the women who’d been nominated for any award that evening to stand up and be seen, and left the stage with this declaration: “I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.”
As you’ve probably seen a couple dozen times since then, an inclusion rider is a clause you can demand in your contracts, when you’re a big enough star, that requires the production that’s hired you to maintain an agreed-upon level of diversity in its hiring across the board. It’s a great idea, and on a non-contractual level, people have been doing this with panels at book festivals and other types of conferences for a while now.
So, if I’d recognized the problem early enough, I could have asked the festival organizers to find at least one woman writer who’d be a good fit for the panel, perhaps even made my participation contingent upon achieving that diversity. And maybe, even though I don’t feel like I grasped the situation in time, I still should have done that. My take, though, is that, having made the commitment, I should honor it. (Again, the festival overall is very diverse, and there are a number of women-only panels, so I feel a little less guilty and mortified.)
I’ve been thinking lately about a phrase in 2 Corinthians; the King James version has it as “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ,” but more modern translations tend to cast it along the lines of “taking every thought captive.” People generally interpret Paul’s statement as saying we should take our sinful thoughts and stamp them down, but I think there’s more to it than that. It might just be about corralling our stray, loose thoughts—all the mental and emotional energy that gets diverted into superfluous, superficial matters—and redirecting that energy toward “the obedience of Christ.” And, perhaps, learning to see in every situation the ways in which that obedience is needed and can be enacted.
But you can take that principle and apply it to other missions, like diversity in literary culture. You can—and, here, I mean I can—do a better job of being truly aware of how the dynamics of diversity (or the lack of diversity!) are playing out in a given situation, and of using that awareness to make consistently proactive steps to remedy the situation when it needs remedying and to celebrate the situation when it deserves celebrating. As Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians, “See the things right before your face.” Don’t fall prey to frivolous distractions; focus on what matters.
Recognize, too, that no matter how sincere you are about that mission, you’re going to screw up occasionally. When that happens, figure out where you went wrong and what you need to pay attention to moving forward, and then move forward. If you need to make amends, make amends. If you just didn’t do all you could, do all you can the next time around—and then try pushing yourself a bit further than that.
As for my panel this weekend, here’s what I’m planning to do: Before I invite the audience to ask the three authors questions, I’m going to tell them about some other great “rich people’s follies” novels they should read. Books like Stephanie Clifford’s Everybody Rise, Randy Susan Meyers’ The Widow of Wall Street, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, Anna Pitoniak’s The Futures, or Susan Rieger’s The Heirs. Oh! There’s also a really wonderful novel from a few years back by Clare McMillan called Gilded Age, a reboot of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth set in modern-day Cleveland. It’d be fun to steer people back to that one.
My reading list doesn’t have to be limited to gender diversity, either. I should encourage people to read Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and Rich People Problems, or Rumaan Alam’s Rich and Pretty. I’ll have to think of some others. There’s so many great books I could recommend to folks…
Anyway, if you’re in Tucson for the Festival of Books this weekend, I hope you’ll come say hello! You’ll have an opportunity to hear from a lot of great writers, and you’ll probably walk away with a couple books, or at the very least a reading list to carry you over through this spring and beyond.
(Note: This edition of “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives” is freely available. Soon, the newsletter will take up a $5/month subscription model. You’ll still be able to get the occasional free edition, usually about once a month, but paid subscribers will receive two additional mailings each month—approximately one mailing every ten days. The next mailing, then, should be around March 20th; that one will be free, too, so everybody gets a chance to see what’s available. I hope you’ll consider subscribing!)