In theory, everyone has access to higher education and the materials it uses and produces. There are thousands of institutions to choose from, millions of people pursue a postsecondary degree every year, and President Obama just proposed a plan to eliminate the cost of community college entirely. In practice, however, there are still many hurdles to clear in order to successfully obtain a degree. Even without taking tuition into consideration, higher education is still incredibly time-consuming and often prohibitively expensive, making it difficult for people with demanding jobs or family responsibilities to complete. And getting in the door isn’t the end of the question of accessibility; once you’re in, what do you see?
We can all point to the ways old-school academia can be an exclusive club. Enlightenment thinking is taught in freshman seminars across the country as the core of the liberal arts, but Women’s or Gender Studies are considered electives, which many students never explore. Even inside these programs there is often a noticeable lack of diversity in the required reading. These experiences (or missed opportunities) inform our opinions early on in our educational careers, and affect how we think about “good” writing.
The experiences that affect how readers read also affect how writers write. Anyone who’s ever been within a stone’s throw of an MFA curriculum knows that certain types of stories are valued over others; family conflict based in a New England college town will be more well-received than one out of Neverland. Of course, the times, they are a-changin’, but there is still a manner of speaking and an authorial voice that taps into that early understanding of “good” that was needled into our brains in American Lit; it’s dissatisfied, mostly white, and distinctly masculine. In The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a touchstone of diversity in contemporary literary fiction, Junot Diaz (whose essay “MFA vs. POC” is linked above) addresses both points. Oscar Wao validates and celebrates diverse experiences and genre fiction, was met with great critical acclaim, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008. Why can’t we name ten other books just like it? Four of the five Pulitzers awarded since then have gone to authors who write about white protagonists, two of whom are from New England.
So, what do we do? Well, dear reader, as the esteemed heads of our beloved program love to remind every former, current, and prospective Oolie: We are the future of publishing. We will graduate trained in every aspect of publishing, prepared for professional careers at every level, from the unicorn “indie” press to the Big Six (Five, Four, Three, Two, One), and the best possible contribution we could make to the industry is to go forth with our eyes open. Through this and various other well-regarded academic programs, we have developed the skills to be consistently and constructively critical. We are aware of the problem, and we are in a position to help.
Speaking personally, my advice is to read. Read for fun, read what you’re assigned to read, and then look up the contemporaries of those authors and read them too. Read outside your comfort zone, read about people whose lives look different than yours, read things you find unrelatable. Read enough that when someone sends an unconventional manuscript across your desk, you’re prepared to recognize greatness outside the bounds of what we’ve been taught is “good.”
As part of Ooligan’s mission we “recognize the importance of diversity, particularly within the publishing industry, and are committed to building a literary community that includes traditionally underrepresented voices.” The great Pacific Northwest is an area with a multitude of rich cultural traditions, home to dozens of indigenous, migrant, and immigrant populations all with profoundly different—but familiar—experiences. We must continue to challenge ourselves to consider how these might differ from the arbitrary standards of the bestseller lists, so that we can be the ones to publish the books that will change the face of those freshman seminars. By consciously choosing to pursue marginalized voices, we can help diversify academia at an institutional level. Every student who has worked so hard to get their foot in the door deserves to see their lives represented in the core curriculums, and we have the resources to make that a reality.