Resolved: A Year of Great(er) Expectations

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The most frustrating part of not being able to keep quiet about the willful ways in which people are perfectly happy to enable the status quo is that when you voice concerns about the lack of diversity in any given arena, you are automatically positioned as that person, the shrill and humorless obsessive who simply cannot let things be.

There are days when I am happiest contemplating the trivial. As of late, I have been particularly consumed by the nuances of that commercial with the dancing hamsters and the scary future robots. The moment when the lead hamster throws his arm over his head to indicate he’s ready to rock? I am obsessed with that moment. I am also in love with the hamsters wearing Velcro leather high tops and the disembodied dancing robot. I have a routine I do when I see this commercial. That is, I have practiced the choreography the way I did when watching Janet Jackson videos when I was a kid. These are the kinds of things I enjoy thinking about. I feel the need to mention this because I am increasingly paranoid that certain forces are determined to make me go down as that person who won’t shut up. I need you to know I have happy, ridiculous thoughts with alarming regularity.

But.

In Time, at the end of 2011, Lev Grossman shared seven books he is looking forward to in 2012. These speculative lists are always fun because you get to learn about books on the horizon. They whet the literary appetite and who doesn’t love a good whetting? The list is comprised entirely of books by white men. This is not at all surprising. Certainly, there is stylistic diversity across the books, but in too many other ways, the list is lacking. I don’t know that I would get riled up about the list in and of itself. It’s such a small sample. There are thousands of books being released next year. Grossman cannot be expected to accommodate all or even a reasonable fraction of those books. He is looking forward to what he is looking forward to. I don’t care.

But.

At the end of Grossman’s list, he makes an infuriating, flippant statement. He writes, “This completes our survey of 2012 books written by white men. I don’t know what happened to the diversity there. Sorry. I have my New Year’s resolution now.”

There’s no great mystery as to what happened to diversity. It was ignored. Fine. Grossman shouldn’t have to pretend to look forward to books just because they were written by women or writers of color. He’s looking forward to seven books and certainly, within that context, there should be some leeway in terms of the kinds of books represented.

Grossman should have said nothing, nothing at all because by saying something, he whacked the hornet’s nest. In acknowledging the oversight so cavalierly, he makes the lack of diversity far more pronounced. He comes off as disingenuous, at best. “Ha ha,” he tells us, “I’ll do better next year.” But probably, he won’t. Maybe, he can’t.

When you really think about it, though, the condescension and trivializing in the faux apology are kind of outrageous. In the time it took Grossman to point at his list and acknowledge the lack of diversity, he could have simply added two or three books to his list by women or writers of color that also interested him. Surely such titles exist. Amazing books are being released in 2012. Grossman didn’t do this because he knew he did not have to. That’s what all of this boils down to—people generally only do what they have to do or what is expected of them and clearly, we are living in a time of staggeringly low expectations.

These status quo matters are, perhaps, relatively trivial individually, but collectively, the myopia indicated by such narrow lists and measures is overwhelming. Grossman’s list is indicative of the pervasive cultural issues affecting the publishing industry. It would be silly to imply that this problem either begins or ends with Grossman. His list is one of many cancerous cells in a very sick organism. The problem is that historically, the majority of books receiving the most critical attention and publicity are written by white men, so what else could he choose from? The problem is that publishers do more to push the books written by white men, those known quantities. The problem is that major publications like Time continue to prioritize the opinions of white men as their book critics. The problem is that we don’t expect anything different.

But.

To tell you the truth, I am bored with this conversation. Are you bored? You must be. The conversation doesn’t change because the status quo doesn’t change and clearly, pointing out that these problems exist doesn’t change the status quo. We know what the problem is. Talking about this cultural myopia in publishing (and elsewhere, for that matter) is spitting in the wind. The people who really need to hear the message, they don’t care and they don’t need to care because there’s no (financial) imperative for them to do so.

I’m tired of wiping my own saliva off my face. Those of us who want to see more diversity, of all kinds, from lists that look backward and forward, from measures of excellence, from Tables of Content, from book covers, we are simply trying to fight the good fight. Increasingly, however, I have realized that the good fight is no match for the status quo. I sound defeated, perhaps. I’m not. I won’t really shut up. Anyone who knows me, knows that.

But.

I want to find a more productive way of approaching these issues. I want to start thinking about how underrepresented writers can better infiltrate the great white, masculine wall of publishing and publicity. I don’t know how to make this happen but I do know it is going to take far more than pointing at the hulking elephant.

I don’t want to be silent about issues that concern me because all too often, silence implies consent, but I also want to feel like we’re moving forward and making some kind of difference. Perhaps I want too much but that’s nothing new. I’m going to spend 2012 trying to figure out a better way to talk about these issues. I’m going to spend 2012 seeking out the kind of writing I know is out there but is not receiving the attention it deserves. I’m going to spend 2012 committed to great(er) expectations rather than surrendering to the status quo. We’ll see how this goes.

In the meantime, I’ve created a list of some of the books I am looking forward to this coming year from both major and small presses.

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A Random, Deeply Subjective Selection of Books I Am Looking Forward To in 2012 Mostly Written by Women but Also Some Men

Why We Never Talk About Sugar by Aubrey Hirsch (Big Wonderful Press)

Aubrey Hirsch is a wonderful writer on the verge of great things. I had a chance to read an early copy of Why We Never Talk About Sugar and loved this book. The stories are intelligent and subtle. The impeccable quality of the writing reminded me of Emma Straub’s The Other People We Married. Many of the stories are inspired by science and people trying to grapple with the complexities of an unknowable world. In stories like, “Certainty,” where a woman is convinced she will get her lover pregnant, Hirsch shows us how to believe in quiet magic. In the title story, Hirsch shows us the charm of her imagination and how carefully she will break your heart. This book was one of the most satisfying reads I’ve enjoyed in recent memory and I cannot wait for other people to discover Hirsch’s talent and this book’s many charms. You can read the title story here.

My Only Wife by Jac Jemc (Dzanc Books)

I haven’t read this book yet but I’ve read a lot of Jac Jemc’s other writing. She’s one of those writers who works brilliantly within the realm of the strange but does so with absolute control and flawless writing. I was particularly impressed with her chapbook, These Strangers She Invited In (Greying Ghost), a small collection of intricately detailed stories that lead the reader to unexpected places. I’m really looking forward to seeing how Jemc tells a story in the long form.

Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch (Hawthorne)

The one book I could not shut up about in 2011 was Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, so I am eager to see what she does next. Having read some of Yuknavitch’s earlier work, I appreciate the way she experiments with narrative and language and emotion, It will be interesting, just like with Jemc, to see how Yuknavitch translates her formidable skills to a longer piece of fictional work. This book also has an amazing cover.

Thunderbird by Dorothea Lasky (Wave Books)

Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life is one of my favorite books of poetry and I recently read a poem, “I Had a Man,” from the forthcoming Thunderbird in the Winter issue of The Paris Review. Lasky’s poetry is stunning and she does interesting things with clean, spare language, cadence and form. When I read her poetry, I am often struck by the grace of the writing and how she can use such elegant writing to express vulgarity. In “I Had a Man,” for example, she writes: This violence that we put on women/ I don’t think it’s crazy/ Someone I know said/ “Oh, that man was crazy”/ I don’t think he was crazy/ Maybe he could tell I had a look in my eye/ That wasn’t crazy anymore/ Maybe he could feel the/ wild cool blood in me/ And it frightened him. All Lasky’s poetry is this powerful and engaging. I can’t wait to read Thunderbird.

The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein (Melville House)

During my last year of graduate school two years ago, my friends and I heard a lot of ominous talk about the terrible academic job market so each of us began to develop a fallback plan. I was going to move in with my parents and hopefully get a job at Barnes & Noble. I was so certain I wouldn’t get a job, I nearly convinced myself that I actually wanted to move back home and go retail. In The Fallback Plan, Esther Kohler’s fallback plan is to move in with her parents after graduating from Northwestern. She ends up taking a job as a nanny for a family who has recently lost a child and is forced to deal with their painful family dynamics while taking care of their daughter, May. She’s also suffering depression and the anxiety of not knowing what to do with her life. I was skeptical when I started to read this book because the premise did not thrill me but Stein wrote a really poignant, well-paced book and she does a remarkable job of capturing the uncertainty so many of us face during our twenties. She does so without being cloying or coy. I was surprisingly moved by this book. There’s also an interesting story within the story and taken as a whole, I found myself thinking, “What smart writing; what a smart writer.”

This is What They Say by M. Bartley Seigel (Typecast Publishing)

Yes. M. Bartley Seigel is my co-editor at PANK. I would be looking forward to his debut prose poetry collection even if I did not know him personally. His poetry is gritty and he puts the most gorgeous rhythm into each poem.  He also does a lot with repetition, layering ideas and words in the most pleasing ways. You can practically hear him reading the work when you read his poetry on the page. I also love his work because so much of his writing focuses on the rural, almost forgotten places, where the people have dirt under their fingers and gaunt faces, and broken lives but he does so with strength and honesty. This book is also exciting because Typecast doesn’t really make books, they make book objects. The design and production are going to be spectacular and the presentation will only enhance the fine writing.

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant by Alex Gilvarry (Viking)

We live in a complicated political climate and with the Senate recently passing the abhorrent National Defense Authorization act, which stipulates, among other things, that suspected terrorists can be held indefinitely and without trial, Gilvarry’s novel is particularly timely. This witty novel tells the story of a rising fashion designer, Boyet Hernandez, who is taken to Gitmo in the middle of the night. The novel is his confession. The writing is dark and funny but it’s also a painful reminder that we live in a country where civil liberties are being eroded in alarming ways.

Falcons on the Floor by Justin Sirois (Publishing Genius Press)

I just received my copy of this book and I am really looking forward to reading this novel because it tells the story of the battle of Fallujah from the perspective of Iraqis a perspective sorely lacking from so many novels and stories about the war. I am also interested in this book because Sirois consulted heavily with Haneen Alshujairy and is so deeply committed to increasing awareness about the Middle East. I am interested to see how he brings his passion for the region to this novel.

Home by Toni Morrison (Knopf)

I don’t know that any book has ever confounded and intrigued me as much as Beloved, and Morrison is one of those writers for whom I hold the utmost respect. She could be releasing a phonebook next year and I’d be curious as to how she arranged the information therein.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Knopf)

“The Love of My Life,” an essay Strayed wrote about the death of her mother is the most perfect essay I’ve ever read. She is one of those writers who writes about profound emotions in ways that feel almost decadent. I’m looking forward to Wild because after reading her novel Torch, I want to know more about the writer who could put so much breathtaking heart into a novel.

Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung (Riverhead Books)

As the child of immigrants, I am always interested in stories about cultural identity and trying to find home when you don’t really fit anywhere and the complex mythologies of immigrant families. I cannot wait to read Forgotten Country to see how Chung deals with the tensions of identity and family. She is such a fine, elegant writer. Chung was selected as one of Granta’s New Voices writers and in her story, “Wish,” which is so perfect, she writes, “Everything I wished I could give you, I’d already given away,” and the line, where it’s placed and how it’s written is so necessary to the story it took my breath away the first time I read it. That’s how all her writing works—words as intricate puzzle pieces. I just know her novel will be stunning.

Fast Machine by Elizabeth Ellen (Short Flight/Long Drive Books)

Short Flight/ Long Drive books has never put out a book that wasn’t excellent (Big World, Avian Gospels, etc.) so Fast Machine’s excellence is a sure thing. Ellen’s writing is amazing. I am a closet fan of everything she writes from essays to poetry to short fiction and it will be nice to have some of her writing, old and new, collected in one book. The best thing about Ellen’s writing is that it has big brass balls. There is seemingly nothing she won’t write about but more than the fearlessness is how Ellen writes about anything. She is willing to go there over and over and over but she does so really, really well. If you’re not familiar with Ellen’s work, start with “The Last American Woman,” and “bulldyke” and “What Was Meant.” You’ll see what I mean.

Pure by Julianna Baggott (Grand Central)

I love Julianna Baggott unabashedly, and one of the things I love most is her omnivorous writing ability. She can seemingly write anything and is unafraid to write across genres, and does so prolifically. She always reminds me that it is okay to want to write in different genres. The Miss America Family is one of my go-to comfort reading books and I am endlessly charmed by The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, which she wrote under the penname Bridget Asher. I’m looking forward to Pure because once again, she’s treading into a new genre and because I enjoy apocalyptic settings. I just finished the Hunger Games trilogy and am hoping Pure is equally thrilling.

A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez (Algonquin)

Alvarez is such a lyrical and wonderful writer so I look forward to A Wedding in Haiti because I want to see what the country looks like through her eyes. The premise of this nonfiction book is really interesting and while I am often wary of how Haiti is written, I feel like the country will be safe in Alvarez’s hands.


Roxane Gay's writing appears or is forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2012, New Stories From the Midwest 2011 and 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, NOON, Salon, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK, and an HTMLGIANT contributor. She is also the author of Ayiti. You can find her online at http://www.roxanegay.com. More from this author →