Literature for True Hipsters (aka The Literary Web)

Earlier this year, I ranted on Twitter. For about an hour, I bemoaned the state of the online literary magazine or, to quote Roxane Gay’s recent tweet, “the literary web,” and wondered why it all seemed the same to me. The same quirkiness; the same insular, inside jokes which inadvertently made people like me feel stupid. Literature for true hipsters, I suppose. Pardon my bitterness.

Anyway, I didn’t see a slot for me in these little worlds–important literary cyber-planets, but small nonetheless–so I suppose I did the logical thing. I started my own literary magazine. But that’s not the point here; my shameless plugs can be found at www.twitter.com/thomasdemary.

Look, I understand my place. I’m a black male literary fiction writer–I have to wait for Mat Johnson and Colson Whitehead to disappear before I get a shot at the top spots. I consider myself a black writer–I own such a label–even if my stories aren’t necessarily about black people.

What makes me a black writer is the same collection of historical and cultural kernels which run through much of the Diaspora–in other words, what makes me black beyond my tightly-packed melanin.

I guess what I’m saying is as a black person, I am well-versed in Exclusion, deliberate or otherwise. I’m used to it, even. I don’t fit the mold of the stereotypical black male, which makes the situation more precarious amongst my own people. But–that is a whole separate topic.

I look around for online magazines and blogs which speak to me. It’s not that hard: I’m a two-time college dropout who listens to J-Dilla and reads Bolaño; surely, there must be a place for me. I wonder if other writers of color, independent of their race or nationality, feel the same way.

Literature, at least here in America, was and remains dominated by white people. I should say, writers of color have a difficult time finding equal footing with their white contemporaries; one group of varied voices bellow over the multitudes. Again, I get it.

That this fact translates into the digital domain doesn’t surprise me, though it should. I thought the Internet did away with barriers, divisions. We’re all a global community now: blogging, commenting, tweeting, posting, sharing, loving. Of course that’s not the case.

Indeed, I feel like a whiner. A website, even an online lit mag or blog, can’t cater to every visitor. Which is why I’m not naming names or posting links. Conventional wisdom suggests I keep it moving. Go find a lit mag or blog which “speaks to me,” but they’re hard to find. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. Or maybe they don’t exist–well, not enough of them, anyway.

It’s vital for a writer to see his/her reflection among the hordes; kindred spirits, or mere like-minded folk, help dissuade the nagging notion that a writer is so odd, so specific in his/her proclivities and habits, likes and dislikes, that no reader (or editor) will dig his/her work. I’m talking about community, here: the healing factor found and activated between artists.

It’s fucking lonely being a black literary writer–or a black writer in general, I suppose. Community–artistic kinship–fosters creative growth and improves overall well-being; it helps to not feel like an outsider all the time.

That’s the whole point, that’s the entire reason writers–singular, lonesome creatures–bother to fraternize with each other: to get something worthwhile out of it, something which can be applied to individual art. Without this, the writer can still succeed and grow–it just makes it that much harder, and perhaps less fulfilling.

I know how I feel, but I doubt I’m articulating it clearly. I’m reaching here, stretching my arm through the literary web to grab onto a truth. Maybe it’s as simple as you don’t like the site? Bounce! Cool.

All I’m saying is, for me–and maybe for other writers of color–all I do is bounce around. Looking for home. Looking to be understood. Looking to be respected as something other than a creator of black literature, as if the category is a foreign land ripe for occasional excursion or exploration. I’m not exotic–just different.

I want the literary web to look like me, selfish as that might seem. Just a little bit of the web. Even a tiny thread. A speck of dust.  A mangled housefly’s wing ensnared. Something. Anything. Anything besides this literary homelessness.

15 thoughts on “Literature for True Hipsters (aka The Literary Web)

  1. Thomas, funnily enough you describe exactly how I feel, except I can’t say anything about the colour issue. I never mention such things in my bio details, and it’s never crossed my mind that anyone would say no because of skin colour.
    I’ve always assumed that I was being rejected because either people don’t like my writing (crushing…) or because they did, but they already had enough for the current issue. That said, I agree about the internet carrying on with old prejudices. My main problem with discrimination is to do with age and education. It annoys the hell out of me to be excluded because I’m past a certain age, or haven’t studied literature at degree level etc. I got my literary education by reading, reading and reading, then writing, writing etc etc. I’ll put up a lifetime of doing this against a 3 or 4 year degree any day of the week (and add in my journalism qualifications and 20 years of being a professional writer/editor).
    I definitely share you feelings about the massive wall of indifference I continually run into, and the fact that some online mags seem very cliquey. Sometimes I feel like screaming at the world (and I think you are not whining, you’re expressing yourself very well and clearly). I’ve been writing poetry and fiction for 20+ years now, and waited at least 18 years before considering my work good enough to start trying to get it published. Now that I’ve done that, and started a rejection collection, it nearly kills me that no one else recognises my work as being good enough to publish.
    That said, I do try not to take it personally because I think it’s all about taste and getting into the mentality of the writer, something that often takes a while. And at least you’ve gotten something published in Pank – which is more than I’ve managed so far! :)
    See you on Twitter.

    • Thanks for replying, Mick (thanks for the follow on Twitter, too).

      I’m happy to hear that you’re (finally) sending work out into the world. Believe it or not, I can relate to your experience. I consider myself a self-taught writer; I didn’t attend an English program or MFA. To be clear, I have no problem with these programs at all…but sometimes, not having that experience makes it tougher to get into journals or participate on blogs. That’s not the case for every publication, but it happens.

      Cliques happen…it’s a fact of life. My issue is, with respect to literature and the Internet, it doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way. My favorite journals and websites understand this fact, and do what they can to foster openness, but there are others who are happy in their walled-off gardens.

      I can’t really blame them; it’s their right to do what they want with their projects. This specific column, though, is from the outsider viewpoint, hopefully to make editors and sitemasters something to think about.

      • Thomas, you’re welcome. I too am self-taught: I don’t decry eduction, I believe everyone should get some, but if all writing only came from being taught, then we’d all lose out as there would be very little from people who can’t spell but they’re imaginations are on fire.
        I often thought of starting an online literary mag aimed at people who have no higher education, aren’t emerging, haven’t worked in publishing or for a literary agent, have never been published, get up at 0500 to spend 2 hours writing before going to work, or spend the rest of the day being a single parent, or… (the list goes on) – but perhaps that’s a little too exclusive for a mission statement. :)
        As for sending a photo of myself with any submissions, well, I want to be judged on the quality of my writing, not my good looks, so I shan’t ever be doing that.
        And maybe it is ok to live in walled-off gardens, but I was rather hoping that, with each succeeding generation, people would be more open and inclusive. But then my whole philosophy of life is based on what I learnt from watching the 1st series of Star Trek.
        Cheers,

        • Star Trek will never lead you astray lol.

          I’d be interested to see a lit mag like the one you outlined. If for no other reason, to see the differences in voice, in craft (even if the writer knows little about craft) and imagination. If you do it, let me know (FYI, I think you should).

  2. God, thank you for writing this post. My thoughts exactly. I’m grateful that someone else is saying that the online literary “commmunity” often feels extremely alienating for people of color, particularly for POC who aren’t passing for middle-class-hipster-white. My weary response has mostly been to bounce, too–but then I think: what does that mean for writers who look like me, live like me.

    I love your last line. It’s often insanely irritating to me when I see people who don’t recognize their own race/class/sexuality/gender privilege fetishize literary homelessness or marginality for supposed “transgressive” reasons, without thinking about how certain people are regularly marginalized, made homeless, and why. It’s also refreshing to read someone be affirmative, demand recognition and respect of difference. Real difference.

    It’s not selfish. You’re not alone. Take more than a tiny thread or a speck of dust.

    (Recently someone told me that she thought all the writers of color online she knew who actually wrote about people of color, were all writing for PANK. I think that’s an exaggeration, but her impression sticks with me.)

    • Huh…that’s a hell of a statement with respect to PANK. I agree it’s an exaggeration. But damn, I never even thought of that before. I’m chewing on it as I type.

      Anyway, thank you for replying (and the Twitter follow…and I love your PANK essays, btw). You’re bolder than me, because your phrase “passing for middle-class-hipster-white” is almost verbatim to the characterization in my head; I just pulled back on my words.

      But yes, it’s irritating. Sometimes, bouncing from a site is the only recourse. And I’d be fine with that if, you know, sites just put up a page saying “we want X type of people only.” Fair enough.

      God, i wish I thought of your line regarding fetishizing literary homelessness. There are some sites (I’m thinking of them now) who are notorious for this, who do it so often and think nothing of it.

      I ranted to my wife about this. There’s a clear demarcation, to me, between writers who feel ostracized because they write “experimental” fiction or subscribe to a particular literary aesthetic–and writers (black, Asian, gay, straight, whatever) who are legitimately left out in the cold. One group screams “foul” louder than the other…I’m hoping to change the volume with this column.

      Thank you so much for this reply. We should talk more. You’re awesome.

      • Yeah, it’s a giant exaggeration, it was very easy to point her to plenty of other writers of color online. But then she pointed out that nearly all of the writers I suggested actually write mostly for their own personal blogs, not for a magazine or communal blog. Which is to say, that it seemed to her that most writers of color (I’m focusing on POC here b/c it’s what she was focusing on, but this applies to class/gender/sexuality, too, of course) who make their “identity politics” an issue were still largely isolated from each other, unless they were part of a community/magazine/blog expressly dedicated to addressing those issues. And then I was like… mrm.

        lol, I was holding back too; what I really feel would probably end with me head-butting my computer screen.

        I like the phrase, “changing the volume.” That’s inspiring.

        We should definitely talk more; I’m sorry that I haven’t commented on your other PANK essays (and thanks for the comment re: mine), which are wonderful; I’m usually still too shy to leave comments online most of the time!

        • I feel you on the shyness…it took me a year to send a tweet to Roxane. What can I say? lol

          Also, check your email. Like I said, we should talk more ;)

  3. I want the literary web to look like me, selfish as that might seem.

    I don’t think that’s a selfish desire at all. Oodles of people feel exactly the same way, including me. It’s natural to look for familiar aesthetics, because then you feel more at home. Everyone wants to feel welcome.

    As a black woman who’s routinely mistaken for white and routinely the butt of every “you look/act white” joke, this subject is complex for me. People always, always assume I’m biracial in “real life,” and online they always, always assume I’m white. Because of the way people have treated me my entire life, like I’m a question mark to be solved, I identify more with biracial people than “my own” people, because often enough, black people were/are making the cruel jokes and ostracizing me. White people also make plenty of cruel jokes and commit many of those well-intentioned but crazyracist acts (i.e. “But you should be happy–your skin is so much prettier!”) Ugh. Talking about race is still like walking through a minefield.

    I still don’t want my picture to appear anywhere but Facebook. I still want to avoid an author photo when the time comes (*knock on wood*). 23 years of questions/jokes is getting really tiring, plus I don’t want to be ghettoized as a “black writer,” just like I don’t want to be ghettoized as a “queer writer” or a “woman writer.” I’m proud of all of those labels, for sure, but I can’t be defined by those tidy little adjectives and their corresponding boxes. No one can, really.

    Thank you for this, Thomas. Very interesting. And I’ve bookmarked your new lit mag. Can’t wait to read the debut issue. :)

    • Thank you for your response, Dawn. We’ve already talked and you know where I’m coming from (vice versa, I think). Long story short, and not to repeat myself, I feel you 100%

  4. Thomas it is so very lonely.

    I’ve written a little about it myself but it can be infuriating. There are so many seemingly small things that people in the lit world have said to me, the assumptions that I am not a Black woman, the assumption that since I am a Black woman I must want to write like Maya Angelou and when it turns out that I don’t, the side eye glances and questions.

    Finding home has been difficult for me too. It’s difficult when my social justice sensibilities and my desire not to be an asshole to people who might publish my work at some point clash. These are things people tend not to think about if they have the privilege not to. And talking about it is difficult.

    So no you’re not the only one. Not at all.

    • Thank you for replying, Shannon.

      You know, lit mags are ubiquitous: they come and go. And the best mags want the best work, no matter the opinions of the writer. Sometimes, you got to speak your peace and leave it to the editor to judge you fairly or not; hell, it’ll give you a glimpse into his/her character, helping you to decide whether to submit or not.

      As far as being a Black writer is concerned, all you can do is be yourself. Apparently, we still have to validate our own diversity, which is nonsense but anyway…screw people who believe such things about Black writers. All that tells me, most likely, is they don’t read Black writers. As I said to Elaine, sometimes the only recourse is to bounce.

      • Sometimes I will talk to people sometimes I won’t. It really depends on how burnt out I am explaining why things are not cool you know what I mean?

        It can be so easy to get disillusioned and too tired. And then I get pissed off.

        I will say thought that a few editors I had to explain why some things aren’t what one should say to Black authors did actually turn out well.

        And you are very right. I’ve learned to hone my ability to know when it’s time to get the hell out of dodge before I either blow up or start screaming at people on the internets.

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