Why Representation Matters

As it usually does in my little bunker, my latest thought came from a social media post, and the many comment. Really, it was one comment, and the many replies to it. Got me thinking, and reflecting.

The comment was about the lack of inclusion in the writing community, though it could really have applied to any writing community. In this particular case, it was the dearth of black writers. And, of course, someone had to bring up this age old gem:

Do we need to see color? Shouldn’t the best writing come up on its own?

And I have a few problems with this line of thought. On its face, it’s agreeable. The best writing should come up. But even now, in the less inclusive, white male dominated writing community, the best work doesn’t always rise to the top. We severely underestimate how much of any writing community is a popularity contest. Hard work makes a great writer, but the ability to schmooze makes a successful writer.

Art and Fame, a study by Columbia Business School, found that success in the art world was more driven by an artist’s social connections than by any objective measure of creativity. Not that creativity isn’t important, or that a creative misanthrope can’t find success, but social networks are critically important for the success of creatives.

So it isn’t so simple as the cream rises to the top. There’s a social component to this. There are cliques like there are with anything. There are writer’s conventions with the same old panelists, anthologies with the same old contributors, the names everyone knows. Marginalized voices aren’t always kept out because of bigotry, not blatant bigotry. It’s more of a laziness that comes from knowing it’s a problem, but not a problem important enough to make the collective effort to fix.

I am a marginalized voice. I battle a severe mental illness daily. More than one. And I know at least what it’s like to feel “otherness” and have to spend more energy that I should have to to conform to the expectations of a “norm.” I haven’t been able to go enjoy networking at cons because my anxiety wouldn’t let me travel, and tele-presence, which we all adjusted to in a New York minute when we had to, wasn’t seen as worth the investment just to satisfy a small number of outliers like me.

The above paragraph is not a boohoo on me. I’m fine. And I’d like to think I’m a good enough writer to make a meaningful contribution to the zeitgeist. But the more barriers there are to me finding a place in the social network of my fellow writers, the fewer opportunities I will have to contribute my unique experience to the collective unconscious. And the more apathetic the writing world is about actively finding POC, women, LGBTQ+, disabled, and mentally ill writers, the greater our collective loss.

It is a moral imperative to go out and bring marginalized voices into the network of “in the know.” It’s the right thing to do because it is what’s fair to those writers. But there is also a historical imperative to do this. Art, writing and music is the flesh wrapping the bones of history. If it’s not preserved, it will decay. And we need to make sure future generations can see the whole body of our work.

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