In the Ring: White Mediocrity vs Non-White Mediocrity

It seems that, within the boxing ring of White Mediocrity vs Non-White Mediocrity, Non-White Mediocrity does not stand a chance. It has always been, and will continue to be, if we don’t keep challenging the status-quo, complete Knock-Outs, round after round.  Hey, sometimes, White Mediocrity even wins against Non-White Excellence. There are even White Lousiness knocking out Non-White Mediocrity at Round ZERO.  (Think of all the unpublished manuscripts by “mediocre” non-white authors vs all the published not-so-good ones by white authors.)

This Boxing Ring imagery popped into my head this morning when I started following the recent facebook/twitter/blogsphere face-offs between YA author, Meg Rosoff, and many others, and especially after reading the words from Camryn Garrett on her blog.  The relevant quoted words are at the end of this post, but I want to first go back and track my own journey from being a harsh harsh critic of “diversity books” to one who considers them very differently on this day in October, 2015.

Recently, in Beijing, I encountered so many outstanding Chinese children’s books and I couldn’t help but ponder: why don’t American children have the opportunities to see these books? Why aren’t these books (many of them short picture books) translated and are made readily available in the United States?

Manager Li, who invited me to review the children’s book output in China, said to me one day, “Our best children’s books are as good as the best American books.” And he is right!  But, there is simply not room for these books on the American market.

Why aren’t there more foreign books available in English to American Children?

To answer this bluntly: because much of the U.S. Children’s Book Market exists to support the livelihood of Proper American Authors. Which is completely reasonable and understandable. American Children’s publishers are American. They should take care of their/our own first.  They should definitely put priority on publishing American authors: outstanding, mediocre, or even not that good.

Scouring major children’s book review publications, one can easily see how many children’s books are considered “unworthy” by critics, but are nevertheless published and promoted by the American Children’s Publishers.  (As to what effects this “taking care of our own talents” has on the worldview of the young readers, that’s a totally different, full length blog post coming your way soon!)

But who are the Proper American Authors and Illustrators?

Whom do American Publishers believe deserving priority and support?  Whom do I believe deserving my priority and support — as a reader, as a reviewer, and as an educator?

I have been a harsh judge of books written by non-white authors, especially Asian American authors. Perhaps because I am Chinese and want to feel, oh, so proud of my Chinese & Asian heritage, that I see mediocrity (or pretty much anything below stellar) as a personal disappointment.  I often point out the issues of in-authenticity or pedestrian literary quality of an OK (or more than OK) book that is actually a much needed addition to the diversity pool.  I absolutely believed that diversity topics needed to be packaged within outstanding, excellent books, otherwise, hmm…they kind of reek of hidden or overt agenda and to me, that was a no-no.

This harsh critic mentality is akin to the wisdom passed down from black parents to their black sons and daughters to “behave 200% more politely, talk 200% more eloquently, and dress 200% better” just to have a chance to be treated equally as their white counterparts.  I wanted every single book by Asian American authors to have not only solid character development, not only well-crafted passages, and not only a great plotline: I NEEDED them to be stellar in every possible way and all aspects! Because, how else could we convince the world of our worth?

Recently, I began to wonder, to doubt my former convictions.

I have noticed that any flaw belonging to an underrepresented group is often enlarged ten folds and is seen as evidence of the shortcomings of the entire group; while the flaws found among the protective multiplicity of the dominant/majority group are often made less significant and almost never viewed as the weaknesses of the entire group.  Perhaps this was why I thought that it’s totally all right for the many pedestrian, mediocre, and sometimes even downright bad “majority books” to take up precious space of the marketplace?

But not any more.  And especially not after reading these words from Camryn Garrett on her blog: For All the Girls Who Are Half Monster:

White mediocrity: This is more of a concept, but I’m happy to explain. While there are white authors who are amazing and fantastic and produce great works, there are also white authors who…are just okay. Or even bad. But they’re celebrated and given awards and praise for being mediocre.

Meanwhile, people of color are held to actual standards (that sounds rude, but whatever.) They have to work to be good, and sometimes that isn’t enough. Basically, white authors can get on the NYT Bestseller List for being “okay.” A Hispanic author has to be “fantastic” to get the same thing. White authors have to be “fantastic” to win a National Book Award. Black authors have to be “outstanding” to be considered.

I didn’t want to start any fight – not in the Boxing Ring, literal or metaphorical.  But, at the same time, things must be said, and concepts must be challenged. Let the conversation continue!

13 Comments

Filed under Views, WIWWAK

13 responses to “In the Ring: White Mediocrity vs Non-White Mediocrity

  1. Oh so true. And have you read a Defence of Rubbish? http://peterdickinson.com/a-defence-of-rubbish/ Not quite the same thing, but related. The idea that writers of color (and other marginalized backgrounds) have to be unbelievably stellar is ridiculous because of all the reasons you mention, and also because what would be so wrong with Korean Gossip Girl anyway? Or a Baby-sitters Club that happens to be all Latina? Or or or…

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  2. rosanneparry

    I’ve noticed that my older children who had highly diverse books assigned in high school are much more inclined to seek out adult works in translation. So I wonder if a school made a point of reading diverse picture books and chapter books aloud in the K-6 years if the students would then be more inclined to pick up YA works in translation. It would take some planning and intentionality to arrange a cultural shift like that but it seems possible to me.

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    • fairrosa

      That’s such a great idea! For such a shift to happen, teachers will all have to follow and read new offerings from the current market — and that’s part of my job as a school librarian: to continue introducing new and diverse titles to my faculty.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Andrea Immel

    One possible explanation why exciting works for children in Chinese aren’t available in English–the traditionally weak English-language market for literature in translation. There are lots of wonderful books published around the world that never make it here, unless they catch the notice of niche publishers like Enchanted Lion in Brooklyn.

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    • fairrosa

      The underlying question remains: why is the translation market weak in the U.S.? I am familiar with all the answers that have been offered. But what is the fundamental reluctance and perhaps even a sense of superiority that makes it so tough to push for translated work in the States?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Somewhat related point from a book distributor I interviewed: the Canadian government pays for translations so that publishers can even CONSIDER picking up a work currently available in a language they don’t speak. My conclusion: just like English-language books by marginalized voices, American editors are especially resistant to the idea of publishing anything even somewhat foreign to their life experience or perspective.

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  4. “I have noticed that any flaw belonging to an underrepresented group is often enlarged ten folds and is seen as evidence of the shortcomings of the entire group; while the flaws found among the protective multiplicity of the dominant/majority group are often made less significant and almost never viewed as the weaknesses of the entire group.” This is an excellent point, and I’ve noticed it as well in reviews I’ve read, not only of books by authors of color but also of books by authors with disabilities and LGBTQIA authors. There’s the assumption that these books are driven primarily by an agenda (as shown by the unfortunate remarks that prompted this blog post) and are expected to be written in a certain style or have a certain content.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fairrosa

      I am absolutely guilty of this kind of criticism. Trained in the art for art’s sake school of children’s lit field, my reflexes have been to rigorously challenge and question the quality of the writing when encountering a book that has an overt agenda. But I am unsure that this strategy works if I am also trying to embrace a young readership that accepts and loves many different kinds of books, with or without agendas.

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  5. A couple of weeks ago I saw an email on the ALSC listserv asking for recommendations for books to be considered by the Caldecott committee. I took this as an opportunity to go through a bunch of the picture books I had purchased in the past year, but hadn’t read yet. I picked out 17 books that looked like they may have interesting illustrations. After choosing 10 to recommend, I looked again at the Caldecott award requirements. I had no idea that the award was only given to American illustrators. I ended up only being able to recommend 4 of the books. Not all the non-American ones were translated (there were Canadian and British illustrators), but some were, ones that I had really thought represented the best of what children’s publishing had put out this past year. The ALA does give the Batchelder award for translated books, but I’m guessing that not a lot of people in book purchasing give that award as much weight as the Caldecott.

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    • fairrosa

      Both Caldecott & Newbery were set up to encourage American publishers to produce high quality children’s books and I have no problem with that charge being the same in 2015 and onward. What we need is to educate ourselves and seek further than just these two awards for a broader representation of great books each year. And don’t forget the great old backlist books, too! :)

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  6. I don’t buy your premise, Roxanne–American publishers don’t support American authors out of patriotism but out of greed. (Or, to be less inflammatory, business!) It is difficult to make as much money out of translated books as it is home-grown ones, and, again, that’s not because readers are ‘buying American” out of nationalist zeal but because they want things that are safe and familiar.

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