Recently I was in a Zoom meeting of Connecticut-based memoir writers. Our level of experience varies. A few, like myself, are published, while others are still figuring out their writing and the writing world. The leader of the group is a friend and a force to be reckoned with when it comes to supporting writers. She’s provided space for writers to work, classes to improve their craft (she’s been a student in one of mine), and conversations like the one we were having on that Zoom meeting.
Somehow the conversation turned to American Dirt, the novel that has garnered a lot of controversy in the literary world about a Mexican woman fleeing with her son to the United States after the rest of her family is killed in a massacre. I mentioned the huge advance the author, a White woman, had received and how I’d heard a Latina writer on the radio discussing how it had hurt to hear about the advance, that she's been told so many times that her story, the same story, has no value in the marketplace and isn’t worthy of such an advance.
My friend asked, "But was it as well-written as the book that got the huge advance?" I stared at her. I knew she was trying to make this a teaching-moment to the group: about putting in the work to make sure your book is good, and who is allowed to write what kinds of stories, but I responded: "That is not the right question to ask, and certainly not a question to ask this week of all weeks."
The week, in addition to being the week of George Floyd’s funeral and of ongoing global protests, was the week the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag was trending on Twitter. Authors used it to share what advances they had received for their books and, in doing so, highlighted the disheartening disparity between the pay for White writers and writers of color. In one of the most notable exchanges, author Mandy Len Catron tweeted, “I, a totally unknown white woman with one viral article, got an advance that was more than double what @rgay [Roxane Gay] got for her highest advance. #publishingpaidme $400,000 for How to Fall in Love with Anyone.”
I wanted to hit “Leave Meeting” at the bottom of the screen. I can’t tell you how badly I wanted to hit that button. My fingers already had settled on my computer’s mouse.
My friend didn’t understand what she had said, and she definitely didn’t understand how much it hurt. She does know me well enough, though, to know by the look on my face that she had said something terribly wrong. She wanted very much for me to help her understand. I told her she was asking a lot of me. In fact, she had no idea of the enormity of what she was asking of me.
I didn’t want to continue the conversation because it’s one I try hard not to have with myself. If I think too much about the racial inequalities in the publishing industry, it might push me to the point where I stop writing.
But my friend wanted to listen, to hear me. I couldn’t leave. I had to talk. I realized if I didn’t say something, no one in that virtual room would learn anything from this exchange. So I told her about how writers of color don't get the same advances as White writers. I talked about how I worked hard to improve my craft and even earned my MFA in writing, all while silencing the thought that it wouldn’t matter in the marketplace how well I wrote.
When our conversation was over, she said I could now write an essay about having to school my White friend, but I demurred. I don’t usually write essays about my experience as a Black writer—it’s my way of not talking about the pain. I soldier on, determined to write what I love and love what I write. But during our Zoom discussion, I had to fight back tears. And days later, while I weeded my flower beds, I was in tears thinking about #PublishingPaidMe and about our talk. I’m in tears as I write this. I’ve told my students when something makes you cry you must pay attention. Where there are tears there must be words. I believe that, heart and soul. So here we are. Let’s keep talking.
I’m considered a straightforward, tell-it-like-it-is kind of writer. People have used words like “gorgeous” and “elegant” for my work, and they connect to what I write because I write about love and faith and hope and joy in a way that resonates to the point where they can think about such light-filled elements for their own lives. My readers may be surprised to know that in order to write clear-sighted, I have to deceive myself every day, closing my eyes to the signs that say my work in the marketplace doesn’t have the value I perceive it has.
For example, last year when my agent was again receiving rejections for one of my projects, I gathered all the courage and positive energy I could muster so I could ask her the question, “Do you think it’s because I’m Black?” I was afraid because I wasn’t sure what I would have done if she had answered, “Yes.”
Was she being truthful?
I don’t know, and I can’t even consider it because I really need to feed on her “no.” I want to keep writing.
Here’s another sign I ignore: There’s a bookcase in my local library with shelves holding the books reserved for members of area book clubs. I always scan it when I go in because I’m curious about what’s being read. Starting in late 2017, I had three books published in less than a year: a historical fiction, a collection of memoir essays, and a spiritual memoir. These books were announced prominently in the local newspaper and received a lot of press nationally—radio, magazines, social media. There was a full-page color photo of me in the Sunday Arts section of a major area newspaper. To this date, I have never seen my books on the book club shelves of my library despite the library purchasing multiple copies of my novel for this very purpose. The only book club in my neighborhood I know that has read my books, aside from the church groups I’ve been invited to in other cities, is the one in which I’m a member.
I notice but I don’t dwell on the obstacles. Instead, I think about the people who do read my work. A White woman in Michigan told me last month that I don’t realize how many of her friends’ marriages I’ve saved because of what I wrote about sleep in my essay collection. And how she re-reads that same essay herself because it gives her the encouragement she needs to be a strong mother. I’m thinking of the priest who said he was used to seeing “themes of hopelessness expressed more and more frequently with almost each passing day.” But then he read my essay about hope, published this spring in Yankee Magazine, and wrote to the magazine’s editor that my piece was filled with hope and “has actually helped to change the way (he is) looking at our world right now.”
If the publishing marketplace wanted to assign a value to such responses, I would argue they are priceless. And I am a wealthy woman. I know my writing has value. My voice matters. I keep writing.
I know all writers, regardless of race, struggle with believing in themselves and their work. I want them all to keep writing too. Otherwise, the dialogue stops, just as it would have done if I had left that Zoom meeting. Or if I had decided to stay silent and not write this. It’s time to talk. It’s time to write. The Nobel-Prize winning author Toni Morrison said, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
I believe in Morrison’s words so deeply that I’ve recently agreed to become the director of a new low-residency MFA in Creative Writing program—I want to create a community where all writers can gain confidence in their voices and learn how to write and wield their stories, fiction and nonfiction, in ways that will change the world. A lofty ideal, I know. But this is not a time for thinking small. I envision this program at the forefront of a new landscape where everyone will have a favorable shot at the marketplace with equitable pay. Granted, one MFA program can’t change the publishing industry. But if it can help us get to a place where the obstacles writers see have more to do with their work than with the color of their skin, then this program’s community will have done a great and valuable thing indeed.
Until then, the self-deception must continue. My latest book went to production this week. As the marketing copy describes, I’m mining the extensive, private journals of the monk Thomas Merton, “one of the most influential contemplative thinkers of the past for guidance on how to live in fraught times” and “dwell more deeply within—and even love—this despairing and radiant world.” My editor loves this book. I love this book—I believe it will ring true for a lot of people. I have to believe this because otherwise, a familiar thought will take over: The literature about Merton is overwhelmingly White and male. Will anyone value what I, a Black woman, have to say about him? But I can’t think about that. All I can do is write the book. Write the book, close my eyes, and keep going.
Sophfronia Scott is author of the forthcoming book The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Merton as well as the novels All I Need to Get By and Unforgivable Love, the essay collection Love's Long Line, and the memoir This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World. A recipient of an Artist Fellowship Grant from the Connecticut Office of the Arts, Sophfronia holds a BA in English from Harvard and an MFA in writing, fiction and creative nonfiction, from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Currently she is working on her next novel. Her website is https://sophfronia.com/.
Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash.
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