New Essay: Against Publishing

Here's a draft for a short essay I've been working on over the past few weeks. I wanted to write critically about publishing and how the logic of meritocracy, which is at its core, comes from and reinforces racial capitalism. The idea was to speak to other trans women writers about the pitfalls of embracing publishing (or being embraced by those circles) and to try to point a way out of what I call a publishing "culture of death" for the way it intentionally functions through the creation of hierarchies of worth and relegates so many people to a subhuman status, unworthy of writing or support or being heard. But this is also just a first attempt at working with these ideas in essay form and I'm okay with being corrected if others want to respond or expand where this piece failed.

Here's the full text, in case you want to skip the PDF: 

Against Publishing:
A Letter to Trans Women Writers

Jamie Berrout
May 2019

All of us understand that this world is out to destroy trans women. It’s the reality we face not just every time we leave the house but also in our homes, on the internet, in just about every text and image we are bombarded with. We understand that the world around us is built on a culture of death, that order is imposed through violences seen and unseen, and it isn’t just politicians or the police or the people at the DMV who would show you the door if you tried to update your ID without jumping through their hoops. It’s damn near everyone, because most everyone finds it advantageous to treat trans women badly - every stare, every slur, every single rule that makes it harder for us to live makes it easier for them to maintain those arbitrary (but clearly colonial in origin) lines known as the gender binary. For them to feel disgust at the presence of a trans woman or the thought of their kids being trans must also mean that they feel relief at our absence, a sense of sureness, normalcy, security in their actions. That’s not to mention the meanings that gender has in the broader social and legal system, how it functions to hold the ongoing settler colonial project together in this country.

I think in general we can all agree on that. We would say to everyone who is invested in the gender binary to get their shit together and fight alongside us to tear it out of the law and the collective imagination. It’s the only thing that makes sense - we need an immediate, wholesale disavowal of the gender binary on everyone’s part so that trans women can live.

But, let’s face it, these demands seem outlandish to the general public. The colonial project has burrowed its way into all our hearts. What, are they not supposed flip a coin to assign their kids a gender and a name at birth anymore? And how is anyone going to know what to wear, how to speak, or gesture, or look at anyone else without the gender binary mediating all those countless social interactions? Absolutely everything around us is gendered, has been subjected to gender.

What we’re demanding is for others to turn their world upside down. Granted, we’re asking them to do so to keep trans women (and others) alive and to keep themselves from being complicit in mass murder. Still, it’s a big fucking leap. But I think we need to ask ourselves whether it’s possible for the cisgender public to divest from binary gender outside of or without a broader movement against colonization which reimagines our relationships with people and the land. 

What I want to say to trans women writers is that we’re no different. Because we lose sight of the ways that our work is formed out of and furthers colonization. We forget the ways all of this is bound together: how trans womanhood (the picture of a trans woman; who is seen and allowed to be one) is constructed out of race/racism, which itself also constructs colonial gender; how Trans Literature has been and continues to be a white supremacist project, which is also colonization, also gender; how publishing is built on the same capitalist logic of merit, hierarchies of worth, and superiority, which is also of constitutive of the colony, of gender.   

Publishing after all is a culture of death. It is rooted in the fascist notion that there are people who deserve to write and those who don’t; that it is good and well for editors to determine who gets to write and be published based on a writer’s proximity to whiteness, their social class and level of education, their ability (in contrast to disability; ableism too is fundamental to publishing) to overwork themselves and create a nice product that fits into their capitalist model, and their willingness to perform literariness and craft, all of which are arbitrary, racist ways of determining what is proper and what is improper, human and less than human. Where tech culture presumes a right to use the land and sees it as a resource to be exploited, publishing culture presumes a right to filter through people and their narratives, it sees every person as a resource to be exploited, whether as a source of books, book purchases, or book material. (I’ll leave the matter of how publishing also presumes a right to use the land and exploits it in an endless, disastrous expansion of the printed word for another essay.) 

When we publish we join ourselves to a machine that reproduces racism and transmisogyny; that since its model is based on the creation of hierarchies of humanity and worth cannot help but reproduce those hierarchies even when marginalized people are in charge. Whether we publish through the Big 5 publishing companies or their imprints or through small presses, the exclusionary, meritocratic policies and racist book catalogs we fit ourselves into are the same, the only difference is in the degree of harm that’s done. It’s easy to see the fault with a publisher like HarperCollins, which doesn’t give writers a shot of contorting themselves into their ranks unless they have an agent (and having agent representation is a function of race and class), which continues to publish an overwhelmingly white catalog of books that sustains the dominant neoliberal ideology while also denying jobs and equal publishing opportunities to marginalized people. 

Small presses themselves are just as exclusionary and supportive of the status quo in their own ways. Rather than a team of editors, it may be a single editor which selects a book’s racist cover art, which publishes and pays only their white MFA friends, which gleefully attends the notoriously racist writer’s conference and poses no critique of it all. To be published even in a small press that barely pays its writers almost has as a requirement for the writer to have a writing degree. To be published through a small press, a writer doesn’t only need to have written a book but also needs to have had time to have written that book and then spent months searching for presses at which to publish (often having to pay to enter contests for a chance to earn mere consideration), all without sharing the book online or, god forbid, trying to sell it independently to earn a little cash. The same goes for publishing in literary magazines - these are inhuman presses, inhuman policies which cannot be survived except by those with profound structural advantages and/or profound luck. 

The fantasy that justifies it all goes like this: the publishing houses and presses perform the function of safeguarding literature and the reading public by selecting the very best manuscripts for publication out of so many mediocre submissions. 

But every part of that is false. There is no such thing as the best manuscripts, there is only taste - and if taste dictates that books by comfortable white MFA’s with liberal politics and their vacillating peers are what deserves to be read then... yikes. And doesn’t it sound familiar, this idea that if a writer works hard, does everything right, and waits long enough that opportunities will open up, that through competition the best among us will rise to the top? It should, because that’s the fiction of meritocracy that every neoliberal politician, every Republican and Democrat, has been selling to us for the past half century in the face of growing inequality and the increasingly obvious incompatibility of settler colonial capitalism with human life. Even as climate change destroys the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable around the world we hear the Obamas and Trumps tell us that the system is fundamentally fair, that if you’re being ground to dust at this moment it is your own fault. 

Publishing at every level reinforces the fiction of meritocracy, which “has become the key means of cultural legitimation for contemporary capitalist culture” (Jo Littler), which “is one of the foundational and erroneous ideals of white supremacy” (Brittany Cooper). You must have heard this before too, that if your manuscript gets rejected by a publisher you just need to make more revisions and submit to more places, that you need to go back and work on your craft if your poems aren’t being picked up by literary magazines, that the reason Poetry and The Paris Review are so well respected and exclusive is  that they publish only best work (and not because they’re run by white racists who enjoy racist poems and keeping Poetry white). Which is to say there is another option for struggling writers: to end publishing and capitalism, to begin to build our own alternatives. 

We see the limits of what is possible in publishing through the project of Bettering American Poetry (BAP), where the impulse is to diversify, broaden the net, on a search for those of us deserving of recognition yet deemed inhuman/improper by publishing. It’s the same murderous, meritocratic project of publishing but with a brown face. But see, this is what the most brilliant minds of the small press world come up with: a who’s who of exceptional gays and POC guided by that same filtering logic in the way it limited submissions of Bettering American Poetry (volumes 1 & 2) to writers who had been already published, presumably by a literary magazine or small press, in the previous year. Or rather, there were no actual submissions; the editors of BAP only considered published poetry which was nominated for inclusion. It should go without saying that those were impossible barriers for the vast majority of poor and marginalized writers to overcome. 

And looking at a list of writers who were published in the two volumes of BAP, we can see that having an MFA and numerous previous publications, including full length books, was essentially a requirement for being included. In a 2015 statement, the editors of BAP wrote, “We wish to challenge the idea that a few gatekeepers should oversee the publishing order each year...”; but that’s what they did at a small scale, they kept everyone who couldn’t afford (or survive) a graduate degree out, they left out everyone who couldn’t afford to write a book or read literary magazines. They claimed to be against hierarchies, but only acted to build a new hierarchy where they were no longer losing out to whites and cis people who by their own measure (craft, inventiveness, etc) were, well, less capable. 

I didn’t mean to write more than a passing sentence on BAP, and my intention is not to single them out, because they have done no worse than any other publication and they do deserve some credit for having gotten together so many of those POC poet of color names. The problem is that they stopped right at that point. BAP gathers all of these exceptional marginalized writers (and I say “exceptional” in the strictly pejorative sense) but it never looks to the masses from which they were plucked; and the same meritocratic move they pull in order to assemble the ranks of BAP volumes 1 & 2 is what tokenized them in the first place and what they were reacting against in creating their project. 

But I’m not dwelling in these contradictions in order to apply reason and resolve them. The point is to show the need to organize and build systems towards accountability and start taking collective action to reject meritocracy, end publishing, and destroy this pillar of capitalism and settler colonialism.

To this end, I’ll wrap up by laying out some actions that the writers and editors of BAP might have taken in working to carry out their mission statement. The first is that they should have worked against the de facto requirement of an MFA to being published by, if not outright barring submissions from graduate degree holders, at least having expressly prioritized first publishing non-MFA writers before considering those with the degree. Such a move would have made it impossible to limit submissions/nominations to poems that had been published in presses or lit mags, but that’s for the better and specifically so for writers as marginalized as trans women of color who can’t afford to read lit mags or small press books, much less submit to them and push their work through despite the racism and transmisogyny of editors. And it is profoundly difficult for trans women of color to be able to find the time to write and to even see themselves as the kind of writer who can have a place in lit mags and presses. 

BAP could have done something similar to what I’ve been doing as editor of a booklet series that publishes only trans women writers, which is at the first sign that only a certain kind of whiter, ultra-educated, exceptional writer was fitting into their policies and submissions process, their editors should have reached out to writers working at the margins of the margins, writers who are sharing their work on blogs and social media and self published books, who face a double rejection not just from institutional white editors but also from the queer/POC indie literary scene which aspires to institutional power through merit, and worked with them.

Having undermined the logic of publishing through radically inclusive revisions to their policies BAP might have made a series of credible demands: against literary awards and contests as naked meritocracy and a rigged game of lottery; against the MFA as a requirement to publication; against barring previously blogged/posted or self-published writing from being considered for publication; and for all presses and publications to provide free digital copies of their texts to readers who couldn’t afford access otherwise; for paying publications to prioritize publishing groups as marginalized and neglected as black trans women writers and for black trans women specifically to be published and reviewed far more widely than they currently are; for presses to seek out poor/marginalized writers who lack access to publishing or even writing and to create the conditions necessary for them to write and be heard, such as by advance payment or paying them higher amounts by slightly increasing the price of texts which are only accessible by relatively well-off readers anyway ; for sustained, material support of alternative forms of publication expressly against competition, which unlike lit mags, will not be burdened with inhuman policies and vague goals but will be created by writers at the margins of the margins and double as mutual aid projects with the goal of improving the life chances of both its readers and writers (a print arts quarterly by/for trans women of color; a monthly black trans poetry newsletter/booklet series/critical journal); and for the necessity and legitimacy of groups to continue pressing for fundamental change like, say, a Union of Trans Readers Who Cannot Afford to Read Any of These Trans Books (which might demand that presses attach free PDFs of their books to their sites so poor trans women can access them) or a Union of Trans Women Writers (which might demand increased and quicker payment to freelance trans women writers from media publications and facilitate the transfer of funds from white trans women, given access to work and higher pay by white supremacist institutions, to trans women of color who suffer instead.) 

But it is not for me to say what specific actions should end publishing or what will be the shape of things after it. That’s for the coming unions and collectives and decentralized networks to decide - ask your friends, find your comrades, list your demands - they should be here any time. 

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