The Challenges of “Reading Blind” in a Diverse World

03/08/2016

We’ve been reading blind at The Tishman Review for over a year now. We’re also committed to publishing an equal number of women as men and to have within our journal work from diverse voices. It has been a challenge to incorporate both of these policies, but not in the ways we’d anticipated.

We read blind simply because we don’t want to practice nepotism. Our general practice is to read blind and select pieces for publication strictly from the submission queue. After our inaugural issue (almost entirely solicited and prior to joining Submittable) we have, in a couple of instances, published solicited material. We think selecting from the queue is the only truly fair policy when a journal primarily charges a submission fee. We do hold fee-free submission days for every issue.

(Illustration by Josh Quick)

“But honestly, reading blind often drives me crazy.” (Illustration by Josh Quick)

We also read blind so as not to be dazzled by impressive bios. It’s very difficult for many readers and editors (despite their public claims) to say no to pieces written by someone who’s racked up the credits and awards. Submittable has levels of blindness. A Level 5 user on Submittable is akin to an editor-in-chief and a Level 1 would be a reader. We are blind at Level 5.

But honestly, reading blind often drives me crazy. When fiction writers adopt points of view, it can be difficult to accept a piece without knowing who wrote it, especially when you’re committed to publishing fiction that presents the diversity within our world, and fiction written by the many diverse voices inhabiting our world.

So when I’m looking for fiction that isn’t just about being a middle-class white person in America and I seem to find it, I get nervous. If the story is written from the POV of an African-American male, for example, and seems to show the reader what it is like to be an African-American man in a particular locale and its associated culture, I cannot discern whether or not the writer is being accurate, authentic, and sincere in their portrayal. And though it falls under the genre label of fiction, one of the reasons we read fiction is to wear someone else’s shoes for a change. Even in fantasy and science fiction, we expect the author to give us the truth about the world of the story.

And what if the author got it wrong? Are you familiar with the story of Forrest Carter, the man who wrote The Education of Little Tree, a novel about growing up as a Cherokee boy? Not only was Forrest Carter not Cherokee (and worse, he was affiliated with the KKK), he did not accurately portray Cherokee customs, beliefs, mannerisms, rituals, etc.

This brings me to another problem with stories written about indigenous people. For years, white Europeans have been lifting stories from Native Americans and using the stories in their creative work. Often whites do this to create readily publishable work. This is especially prevalent in children’s literature and for specific examples and the reasons why not to do this, I refer you to Debbie Reese’s excellent blog American Indians in Children’s Literature.

So the greatest challenge in my mind becomes one of discerning whether or not the fiction is an authentic portrayal of a segment of our society. Why? Shouldn’t a good story just be considered a good story? Aren’t we supposed to only concern ourselves with publishing a well-crafted story? I don’t think so. I think editors should concern themselves with whether or not the fiction uses its language to promote bigoted, sexist, and/or homophobic views.

One of the main reasons I may end up rejecting a submission that presents the diversity in our world is if the characters are stereotypes. A significant number of fiction submissions that we receive at TTR contain racial and gender stereotyping. A stereotype is a flat character. Flat characters never make for good fiction.

But when the story is well-crafted and the characters are well-rounded and the characters are also people of color or people of other faiths or sexual orientations or other cultures then I get out the magnifying glass. I check for phrasing that rings false; for example, referring to a Native American character not by their name, but only as “the Indian.”

If the story passes through this filter for me, and I’m very imperfect at being aware of all of the ways we insult people with language, then I have to accept it or decline it. If my gut instinct is to doubt its authenticity, I will decline with a request for revisions. If the author is interested in working with us on the piece, I ask about their background and what they bring to the story that lends the story its authenticity. You cannot discern this information from a photograph of the author.

Of course, you’re probably seeing the muck I’m standing in with this. Can’t a writer imagine what it’s like to be a homosexual and portray it accurately without being homosexual? I think so. Can’t a male writer write from a female POV and get it right? Yes, I think so. Can’t a white writer write from an American Indian POV and get it right? Yes, I do think they can. That’s why I would accept a well-crafted story with diverse voices in which the author worked hard to be authentic.

I think white writers should ask themselves about their motive if they choose to write from a voice of diversity. Are they doing this to get published more readily? All I can say to this is—I really hope not.

When Submittable came out last fall with labels that can be posted on a submission by the author for the editors to see (even on blind submissions), I wondered to my staff if this were my answer. Can’t I have a “Voice of Diversity” label, I asked. Well, they said, what about that story written by a white homosexual author in which all of the African-American males living in a very specific community are violent or engage in criminal behaviors? They could have used one of those labels and you would have assumed they were African-American.
I realized that I didn’t want to go to the land of labels. Writers want to be known for their writing and their writing judged solely on its merits. Labels are and have been used to oppress certain segments of our society.

On the other hand, I’ve seen on social media writers declaring that the act of “reading blind” is racist. When an editor has a sexist or racist agenda, they will read every submission with prejudice, no matter if they’re reading blind or not. If they’re reading the cover letter first, they may not even read a submission that doesn’t fit their agenda. Racism and sexism exist within our society and the literary journal world reflects this truth.

Our staff at TTR is primarily composed of people we knew or contributors who offered to help after publication. We have several staff members who identify themselves as a voice of diversity. Though I have American Indian ancestors, I identify myself as white, female, and middle-class. My ancestors left their tribes and adopted the white culture.

I’d like to say that we actively seek out voices of diversity to be on our staff, but the truth is, we must be open to whoever volunteers and is willing to honor our policies and respect our mission. Otherwise, we’d not have enough staff to produce the issues.

Our spoken and conscious agenda is to refuse to publish sexist, racist, homophobic literature and to select pieces that reflect humanity’s diversity. Everyone on the staff reads submissions in light of this agenda. It is important that people who consider themselves a diverse voice get involved with literary journals. The Tishman Review needs additional volunteers as our journal continues to grow.

So far, reading blind is working for TTR. We publish as many women as men. Every issue, we’ve had work by diverse voices and work about being someone we might label diverse. We still publish white male authors, and we’ve published young authors and older authors. Our goal is to try and treat every person who comes our way with respect and fairness, even those writers we don’t publish. And we believe that by giving authors space for their words, the existential function of literature is honored and our readers’ lives are enhanced.

Jennifer Porter
Jennifer Porter (Guest Writer)

Jennifer Porter lives in metro-Detroit. Her writing has recently appeared in The Writing DisorderOld Northwest Review, and drafthorse and is forthcoming in Fifth Wednesday Journal. She’s the prose editor at The Tishman Review and earned her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.