An Open Letter to the Literary Community

An Open Letter to the Literary Community,

American Letters are in crisis. With the recent election, I’ve seen our community struggle with all the things we got wrong. For decades, we’ve told young writers not to be “political” in their writing, which somehow transformed into “don’t write about anything important. Only write in ways that quietly reinforce the culture we have now.” We took imagination out of fiction and said to write realism or your work wouldn’t be taken seriously, wouldn’t be important. We were wrong in our approaches, even when our intentions were good, and the results have been devastating.

Now more than ever we need writers who look at the broader picture, whose writing will help shape a new world for people to inhabit. We need writers who include a broad range of characters in their stories, essays, plays, and poetry; who don’t treat female, of color, LGBTQ, disabled, etc people and characters as anomalies, as stereotypes or spectacles; who don’t only include those people and characters in supporting roles or only focus on their seemingly “otherness.”

We need writers who look at the broader picture and question themselves and their work and what value it has or doesn’t have. Who think globally and locally. Who are aware of more than themselves and their lives. Who notice the environment and other people. We need writers who are helpful in workshops to all of their peers, who do not try to force their aesthetics onto people who are writing from different backgrounds and experiences, who won’t other their experiences or try to diminish or control their contributions. We need writers who listen. Who think. Who try to help their peers write the best work that they can, in the way they want to write it.

We need writers who read broadly and are familiar with a ride range of literary styles and the works of people from many different backgrounds, including female authors, writers of color, and LGBTQ writers. (And to provide such opportunities and requirements for all of our students.) We need writers who don’t show up to MFA programs and pretend they’re Ernest Hemingway like two-thirds of the men in my MFA program did. Who won’t belittle and diminish peers who aren’t writing from the white male canon of American Literature, and won’t attempt to replicate outdated ideas and norms in their own work (and actions) either.

Most people who attend MFA programs stop writing within a few years, and yet we do very little to protect people from harm while they attend our programs. Those of us who have MFAs, who aren’t middle class cis white men, have the battle scars from finishing our degrees, the wounds from being forced to listen to people who didn’t listen to us, who were unfamiliar with traditions outside the mostly white male literary canon presented in Kindergarten-graduate school classrooms across the country. Sometimes it wasn’t only our peers, but our faculty who didn’t take our ideas and contributions seriously, who didn’t have any knowledge of feminist schools of writing, of the reality of life and writing for people of color, for bi-lingual writers, of what’s being done in the LGBTQ writing community, of environmental writing, etc.

Ignorance and an adherence to a colonial point of view in our deeply white supremacist, misogynistic, racist, classist, elitist literary canon has pushed most of us to the margins and kept us there, maybe with a few electives on the contributions to literature by people like us (women, people of color, poor people, non-cis people, etc), as core courses replicate dangerous power structures and work to silence our voices on multiple levels. At the same time, people who are NOT us occasionally tell their versions of our stories and win awards for treating us as stereotypes and spectacles, then are told how brave they are for writing stories about those poor, sad marginalized people.

Now more than ever, it’s vitally important to American Letters to train a new generation of writers from a broader swathe of the population, and I know from personal experience that the only way that can be a truly productive and inclusive environment is if the majority of the people involved are on the same page morally, ethically, creatively, and intellectually, if we share the same commitments to equality and inclusion and hearing new voices speak to us in new ways. We all aspire to greatness in our craft, in our style, and now, we all need to aspire to greatness in our content as well. There are enough stories about the thoughts and feelings and experiences of middle class white men that don’t include the thoughts and feelings and experiences of other people. We’ve already exceeded the limits for how many stories we laud and force other people to read that are essentially about white men and their very important feelings. We need a better, more thoughtful, more inclusive, more forward-looking literature. Our courses need to be inclusive, and our MFA programs need to be inclusive and constructive in ways they haven’t been to date.

I am writing this as a person who has a BA and MFA in creative writing, who was the 2011-2013 Fiction Fellow at Emory University, who by 2014 decided to take a break from the “literary” community because of all of these problems. Literary magazines say they’re looking for diversity and inclusion, but then I’d read the same old stories told the same old ways. I was sick of it, so I started seeing other people. In genre magazines, I found important stories about a wide variety of people in a variety of circumstances. Stories with protagonists of color, female protagonists, LGBTQ protagonists, where the stories weren’t about their “otherness.” In genre magazines, I read stories that actually mattered, that were about important issues of the day and the wider world outside the precious thoughts and feelings of academic white writers.

Before the election, I was quietly filing for divorce from the “literary community,” but I now realize I need to make an effort to make the literary community a better place that actually lives up to the ideals it’s so proud of that it doesn’t actually practice. I am calling on each and every one of you to look at yourselves, at your courses, at your programs, at your literary magazines, at your admissions processes, at your own writing, and decolonize. Words are great. Of course I think so, I’m a writer too. But, as Octavia Butler said, “Belief initiates and guides action—or else it does nothing.” It’s time to act on our beliefs.

Best,
Harmony Neal
happyepsilon@gmail.com

PS: Please feel free to share my statement and/or your own similar calls to action wherever you’d like, with no need for additional permission from me.

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