One way into the heart of longing is through envy

Yesterday I was walking through Zurich’s Aaldstadt, the old city (yes, I’m still on my honeymoon), and it was sunny and the cobblestoned streets were full of young, beautiful, carefree people who were sitting at cafes and wandering the parks (just like me), and I was like…sigh. I want to be like them. I want to feel the way that I imagine they feel. I want to project the image that they project.

And I was thinking, as I walked, that there are so many people in the world that I envy, and that this might be a way to get into the heart of longing, so I got back home and I made a list of people I envy. I’m not gonna share it here, because it’s private, but the entries aren’t specific names, they’re actually very general (i.e. esteemed poets; rock stars; people who live with their best friends). But in each of the entries I saw a possible story.

I want to get good at something meaningful

I’ve been playing computer games recently, and it’s been really fun. There’s this service I signed up for: Nvidia GeForce NOW. It lets you play games on your crappy mac! Mine has no graphics card or anything, and I can play the best games at the best graphics settings. Basically the game is installed on some virtual machine someplace, and they just stream it to you. The whole thing is game-changing. Oh yeah, and you can also play PC games on a Mac, no problem.

Anyway I’ve been playing this Lord of the Rings game: Shadow of Mordor. It’s an open world game, sort of Grand Theft Auto style, where you’re a ranger trapped in Mordor, trying to assemble an army to take down Sauron. The game has a really steep learning curve. Basic combat is difficult to master, especially in the beginning, when you have no powers. Anyway before leaving on my honeymoon I played a bunch of this game, and it was really satisfying to get better at it! By the end, I’d finally gained the skills to be able to just hop into combat, no sneaking around or gathering resources necessary, and kill forty or fifty orcs.

But at the same time, the whole thing is a bit stupid. It’s not meaningful in the least. Playing games is blowing off steam, but it’s qualitatively quite different from reading books or watching TV. The latter are pretty passive, they don’t require much from you. You’re a receptacle. But when you play games, you’re gaining mastery. You’re improving yourself.

I feel like maybe that’s something which is missing from my life. I want to get good at something meaningful. Please no suggestions! I know you’ll just tell me to meditate or learn a language or some crap. No thank you. I’d like it to be something meaningful FOR ME, and I think I have a different definition of meaningful from other people.

We’ll see though. I’m gonna ponder it.

When you find the heart of longing, things begin coming up

I’m writing a book now about a guy who drinks very heavily; I don’t think I’ve ever had a hard-drinking character (though I’ve had sober characters), because when you write somebody who drinks a lot, you also need to convey the upside of drinking. It can’t all be vomiting and sadness! There’s a majesty (at least on the inside) to real drunkenness and real alcoholism, and if you can’t get into that, then all you’ve done is pathologized your character and stripped them of their individuality.

Anyway, so this character drinks very heavily, and I feel like I’m starting to get into their heart of longing, because when I write, things come up. I’ll be writing something, and suddenly I’ll be able to feel things from my drinking days that I’d forgotten up until this moment. Little bits of sense impression, fragments of feelings, and other detritus.

I don’t think that our brain stores memories haphazardly. I think it only stores things that are connected to deep emotions, and when things start coming back to you, then you know you’re beginning to touch on those emotions.

(Yes I am doing a little writing on my honeymoon. What, am I supposed to quite entirely for two weeks?)

Gonna be afk for awhile

I started my honeymoon a few days ago, but I joked on Facebook that I wasn’t gonna bother setting a vacation reply on my email because, who was I kidding, of course I was gonna check my email while I was gone! However now I’m learning that the villa we booked on Lake Como (I know, it’s like the setting of a Henry James novel) doesn’t have internet, so I guess I will be out of touch for awhile!!!

Talk to y’all later!

I guess it’s not really surprising that young adult fiction might have an ageism problem


Been thinking a lot about ageism within the writing community. More specifically, about younger writers shutting out or belittling older writers. Ageism to me is fascinating, because it’s the only form of prejudice where you go from oppressed to oppressor and then back to oppressed, and in most cases this happens without you even realizing.

Like, when you’re a kid it makes sense to hate on older people, because you’re establishing your independence. But at some point, without even realizing it, you become a person in the prime of your life—somebody who has real power within your local sphere—but, in most cases, you continue to perceive yourself as a Young Turk who’s doing battle with your elders.

You see this so much in the tech sector, here in San Francisco, where you have people in their mid-to-late twenties who are working in positions of power, and they’re still talking about older people as if they’re old fogies who’re set in their ways, without realizing…this is gross. These people you’re talking about aren’t your teachers, and they’re not your parents. They’re not people who’re using their age as a way of controlling you. Instead they’re coming to you, asking for collaboration and for jobs, and you’re dismissing them because of their age.

But the young’uns don’t realize it, because they never adjusted to thinking of themselves as powerful people.

In most fields, of course, the effect is muted, because, at least up until retirement age, older people continue to have most of the power. For instance, in academia (and I’m including creative writing academia here), younger academics might have age-prejudice, but I wouldn’t call them ageist, because the older professors in the department, even when they’ve ceased to publish or contribute, oftentimes still have an outsized amount of power.

In traditional fields, you see ageism manifest at the outskirts, whenever younger people with middling status have to interact with older people who have low or declining status. For instance, older lecturers in departments get treated even worse than younger lecturers, because younger lecturers, it’s assuming, might be on their way someplace. Older middle managers are treated worse than younger middle managers, and it’s for the same reason. Whenever older people have the same status as younger people, it’s assumed that the older person is less innovative and intelligent, even though both might have the same productivity.


As I said, in literary fiction, academia is a countervailing force, creating an institutional environment in which older people can hold onto power. And in science fiction and fantasy, fandom serves much the same function. Because fan activities are grounded and controlled by older people (so far as I can tell) and Hugo voting also skews older, there remains a place for older people (which you can see in the case of older writers who get nominated for awards even after younger ones have begun to dismiss them).

But I’ve found that the young adult field is rank with ageism. It’s probably the worst environment for it that I’ve ever seen, because there’s no countervailing force that gives older people an advantage. First of all, the field is new. There was no young adult publishing, at least as we know it, twenty years ago. Secondly, it has no memory. Careers don’t even last for five years. There’s at least fifty percent attrition (if not more!) between book one and book two. The number of people who put out a book three is probably less than ten percent. This field chews up people and spits them out. Afterwards, I have no idea where they (we?) go. I’m pretty sure they (we?) just quite writing. In YA, an “older” writer who’s successful might be someone like Stephanie Meyer or Gayle Forman (who’re both only in their forties!) Even our “Old Guard” is barely into middle age.

Finally, this is a field that is about the magical primacy of teenagerhood, and it’s dedicated to the notion that there is nothing teenagers can’t do, and that there’s no feeling or thought that they’re not capable of. And when you’re surrounded by those sorts of semiotics, it’s sort of unavoidable that you would slowly begin to discount the value of age.

As a result, at YA writer events, you usually see cliques form by age. The twentysomethings hang out together, the thirtysomethings hang out together, and the fortysomethings hang out together. I don’t know where the fifty- and sixtysomethings go. They get shunted aside fully. As I said, I don’t think the YA field even has a place in its cultural imagination for people who’re over fifty, so most of what I’m talking about here is ‘age discrimination’ against people who’re, like, forty-seven.

Now I don’t necessarily think this is the worst thing in the world. America today, at least amongst the sorts of middle- and upper-class people who write YA books, is a pretty age-segregated place. There are entire neighborhoods and towns where only young people live, or where all the homes are “starter” homes. I’m thirty-one, and I go to parties here in San Francisco, and I almost never see somebody who’s older than forty (this is not the case, I’ll note, in other places, especially rural areas, or in ethnic and religious enclaves, in rural Oregon, in Salt Lake City, and at certain Indian events, I’ve been shocked at times to see people of all ages getting drunk together). I think all of this makes us really unused to socializing with older people, which, after all, is something different from socializing with younger people. You’re gonna talk about different shit. Have different concerns. Maybe have different political opinions. So if people gravitate to others of their own age, I totally get it.

Where it becomes a problem is when one of the ages is more powerful than the other ages. And in YA writing, I think it’s true, the perception exists that the younger you are, the more likely you are to get buzz and to succeed as a writer.

Now I don’t know how true this perception this. It could be entirely false. As I said, I don’t think New York publishing necessarily cares a lot about the age of a debut author.

But because the perception exists amongst authors, I think it leads to a lot of resentment when younger people hang out together. Because in that case it’s not just like cleaving to like, it’s actually the Hot Young Things all getting together and hording their success.

Furthermore, it can lead to some desperate social maneuvers that (somewhat comically) oftentimes resemble an inverted high school, with older writers doing their best to speak and dress in a younger fashion so as to ingratiate themselves with younger authors. None of which is something I think is particularly necessary, by the way! I don’t think popularity with other authors correlates with your book’s success. These are all just neurotic games that we play. But the fact is that while we’re waiting to succeed or fail, we still have to live in this social environment, and I think these sorts of social dynamics make it into a more unpleasant place for everybody.

Some advice to aspiring writers on how to search for the heart of longing

tolkien-biopic.jpgIn earlier posts I’ve written somewhat about the heart of longing, and I believe I might even have said that there’s no point in writing anything unless you begin with the heart of longing. This is the sort of thing that people often say: “There’s no point in writing unless you are (pure of heart / care only about the work / find that you can’t do anything else / etc / etc).” And people say this stuff even though they know it’s complete bullshit.

People don’t write because they’ve found some mystical, transcendent reason for writing. No, they usually begin writing because of vanity. It’s the same reason kids aspire to be actors or rock stars. Writing is a romantic occupation. People admire writers. Bookish kids, especially, tend to admire writers. And if you’re a bookish kid, you often want, more than anything, to be like the hero of a book. And since bookish kids are unlikely to grow up and slay dragons, they oftentimes decide that they want to be artistic heroes. They’d like to be Ray Bradbury slaving away at a rented typewriter in his library. They’d like to be a thin, ascetic J.R.R. Tolkien smoking a pipe and dreaming up entire languages. They want to Auntie Jane Austen, who sits at her escritoire in the parlor like all the other old maids, but who, unbeknownst even to her kin, is producing works that’ll last for two hundred years.

That is where the impulse to write comes from.

So given that you’re beginning totally backwards, not with any idea in mind or anything in particular to say, but only with the vague, unformed desire to live a bold and interesting life, how do you go about writing a book?

This is where so much writing advice breaks down, since much of it is given out by freaks. Yes, some minority of writers do blaze with a singular and unique vision even at an early age, and it’s these writers who tend to reap a disproportionate amount of success in the field and, hence, position themselves later as dispensers of advice.

And as for the rest of the advice-givers, I think the long years of failure in this field will often alter you in ways that it’s difficult to see and understand. We began, at age 14 or 18 or 22 or 25 or 45 with these romantic notions, but those ideas fade after awhile, because: a) we never achieve any success; b) whatever success we do achieve tends to be so unsatisfying that we find it difficult to believe we ever lusted after it; and c) we eventually discover our voices and, as the joys of success fade, we find that the joy we take in the writing tends to increase.

Thus we end up, in middle age, saying things like, “It’s not worth writing unless you start out with the heart of longing.” Because this is something that we, after twelve or fifteen years of striving, have learned on such an intuitive level that we’ve forgotten we ever felt differently.


So much nonsense has been written about finding your creativity. The real, honest truth is that everybody has to come by their creativity in their own way. There are some people who call up the muse with a snap of the fingers; they know exactly what they want to write, and they sit down and do it on command. And it’s these people who perpetuate the notion that writing is a craft. They’re the ones who say stuff like, “Writer’s block is a ridiculous notion. Writing is a job, just like being a plumber, and have you ever heard of plumbers getting plumber’s block?”

But the truth is, writing is not like being a plumber. Plumbers aren’t presented with a blank space and told, “Hey, do something with this! Maybe it ought to involve water and shitting? I don’t know. Be creative! But also make me feel something. Oh yeah, and it should preferably appeal to enough people that a major multinational corporation can make money off of it.”

Writing is about creation something from nothing. It’s a creative profession. And in every creative profession, people are at the mercy of their own imaginations. Sometimes that thing you need—the idea or the character or the setting or whatever—simply does not come.

Not being able to find the heart of longing is simply one possible way that a writer’s imagination can fail them. There are others, and many of these other failure states are much harder to remedy.

But right now I’m talking about the heart of longing. And I think that as writers, especially writers of genre fiction, we’re often a little bit scared to write from a place that’s very personal. For one thing, we might be afraid that our ‘very personal’ place is trite and that nobody will care about it. If you’re a white woman in your late twenties or early thirties who’s afraid of never finding love, for instance, then you might think, oh the world has enough of this, and nobody will want to read it. Nothing new can come from this. I ought to write a story about a soldier returning home from Iraq to a nation that’s forgotten him.

Or if you’re a geeky kid who grew up playing video games and watching sci-fi movies, then maybe you’re so accustomed to reading and watching narratives about people who’re very different from you (gun-toting space marines, for instance) that you’ve lost sight of the connection between that space marine, who seems to never feel any pain or misery, and your own longing to be a hero. When we read or watch something in order to be transported to somewhere new, we often purposefully obscure or turn away from the things within ourselves that are driving this desire to escape.

But I don’t think you can write a decent Star Wars or a Lord of the Rings or a Dune unless you’re in touch with exactly those things. Paradoxically, it’s only by delving deep within ourselves that we will be able to create works that allow other people to transcend their own fears.

Which is to say that in some ways finding the heart of longing isn’t an imaginative act at all. It’s the opposite. I think it’s about looking inside yourself and finding the places where longing stirs within you. What do you want? What are you afraid of losing?

And I don’t mean that you should articulate these desires. Anything that can be plainly explicated is useless as a source for fiction, because fiction is about those feelings that can’t be conveyed except through actions and images. What I’m saying is that if you want to find the heart of longing, you should observe yourself as you move through the world. Where do you experience longing? And not just desire: I’m talking about that bone-deep, painful longing. Where do you experience the feelings that you’re afraid to admit even to yourself?

Every writer has at least one longing, which is the desire to write a great book. But the longings I am talking about go so much deeper than that. The longing to write a great book is almost a paltry one, because it’s something that’s within your power. You can sit down, day after day, and try to write a book. But in your life, you contain desires that are already lost to you. I will never be a secret agent. I will never walk on Mars. I will never be Casanova. These things are not possible for me. And yet the desires remain inside me. If you can find those scarred places, then that’s where you’ll find the heart of longing.

Initially, these desires will only reveal themselves in the briefest glimpses. I mean you’ll feel a pang and then, quicker than you catch hold of it, the pang will be gone, and while you’ll be left with the memory of its passing, you won’t remember the feeling of it.

The effort to pin down these desires is a tough one. The temptation is to take the memory of the desire and try to write something immediately. But that won’t work; you’ll produce something that’s nothing more than a pastiche of other things you once loved.

What you need is to work to reproduce the desire itself. When you write, think about that desire, and whenever you write something that makes the desire flicker to life, then you should follow that trail until the desire dies down. Finally, after some time, it’s possible that you’ll hit upon a voice—not a first-person voice, necessarily, but a certain cadence and rhythm and set of words and images—that make this desire come to life more fully than it ever has before. And once you have that voice, you can begin to write your book.

In my experience the search for the heart of longing is never something that happens entirely behind the keyboard or computer screen. You can’t sit alone in a room and conjure up the heart of longing. If your hunt for the heart of longing takes place entirely behind the computer screen, you’ll end up producing a whisper of something that feels sort of right, and then saying to yourself, “Well that’s it. That’s the real thing.”

But if you occasionally go out into the world and experience the desire in its natural habitat, you’ll see that what you’ve made doesn’t really capture the real thing at all, and you’ll go back to work and produce something better.

And yet…most of the work does need to take place while you’re alone, struggling with the words. Because finding the heart of longing is only the start of the journey; the real work comes when we try to create something, on the page, that can arouse that longing within other people.

The most difficult and important part of writing is finding the heart of longing

Sometimes I think it’s a shame that I’m not a professor of writing, because I have so many lessons to impart that were never taught to me. The biggest amongst these is that a work of fiction (particularly a novel) cannot stand unless you’ve discovered the heart of longing.

In most cases, this longing will be the character’s longing: the desire that animates their action in the novel. But not always. Sometimes the longing suffuses the novel’s narration. In any case, I think each writer has to find their own path to the heart of longing. Moreover, it’s not something you capture once and then possess for all eternity; it’s something you need to find again and again.

The way I’m writing this advice, it probably sounds obvious to you, but I would say that most unpublished and apprentice works tend to lack the heart of longing. That’s because it’s very easy to write something that resembles a novel–something with a lot of verve and action–which is not propelled forward by the character’s own longing. For instance, if you write a book about someone being chased by a wolf, it’s very easy to write a book in which the character runs and fights and runs again, but never really exhibits that desperate desire to survive that would, in this context, constitute the heart of longing.

The heart of longing isn’t necessarily something you explain, though. It’s something that suffuses the work. I’m thinking of the movie Dunkirk, for instance, where none of the characters have any backstory, but they all exhibit such an immense desire to live, and this desire pushes them to do and attempt things that are unexpected and unusual.

Another example is the movie Gravity, which could very easily have been a “man is chased by wolf” story, except that Sandra Bullock’s performance was so magnificent: at each stage she dramatized the decision to fight onwards vs. give up.

Which is to say that it’s extremely difficult to point to any part of a book or film or story and say, “Here is where you need to add the heart of longing.” Instead it’s something that needs to suffuse the entire work. In fact, you probably shouldn’t even begin to write unless you’ve got the heart of longing. (Conversely, if you do have the heart of longing, then you should keep revising, even if the novel seems otherwise hopeless, because having the heart of longing is fifty percent of the battle).

Note that grasping the heart of longing isn’t enough by itself to get your work published. You need other stuff too. In fact, if all you have is longing, then people tend to be turned off. They feel like your character is too desperate. They need to not just have longing, but also to be in some way larger than life and heroic. It’s a tough thing to manage…



Since completing Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South on August 1st, I’ve read all four of her other novels (Ruth, Mary Barton, Wives and Daughters, Sylvia’s Lovers) as well as her novella collection (Cranford) and one story collection (Cousin Phillis And Other Stories). I’m currently reading her biography of Charlotte Bronte, which should finish me out on Gaskell, although I am seriously considering chasing down a few of her other short stories, just for completeness’s sake.

Aside from Sylvia’s Lovers, which is her second to last book and a rare misfire (I found the plot to be way too out-sized and Romantic), I’d say all of the above books were excellent and thoroughly worth your time! If I had to recommend one, I’d probably say Cranford, because it’s the shortest, lightest, and has the best humor.

I don’t know if I’m just crazy in thinking that Gaskell is far superior to many other Victorian authors that are generally esteemed more highly, or if it’s simply that my familiarity with those other authors has given a charm to Gaskell, precisely because she does things so many of them do not (I wondered the same thing a few years ago about George Gissing). Namely, would a person enjoy Elizabeth Gaskell if they hadn’t already gone through the work of Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, Trollope, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Ann Bronte, and Jane Austen (not a Victorian, but definitely the mother of them all).

And the answer is…I don’t know. I think too that my newfound love for Gaskell might be a result for my love of 19th century Continental literature, which generally tends to be much more realist than Victorian literature. Balzac and Zola, in particular, were far just as concerned with depicting the nature of things as they were with eliciting strong emotions, and I love that about them! But I also love English literature’s ability to be sort of fuddly and warm and good-humored! Gaskell, at her best, combines both tendencies! For instance, there is no writer I’ve seen who is more concerned with precise amounts. I’ve learned more, from Gaskell, about the impact of the penny post on daily life than I did from reading nineteen Trollope novels, and Trollope actually worked for the postal service for most of his life!

Gaskell seems to have this insane ability to write about anyone, from any walk of life. North and South is about the relations between the family of a curate and the family of a manufacturer. Mary Barton is about mill workers. Ruth is about an orphan who goes to work in a dress shop. Wives and Daughters is about the gradations of rank between the children of a local lord; a country squire; and the nearby town doctor. Several of her stories concern laborers, servants, tenant farmers, and yeomen. Nobody else in the Victorian era is writing novels that cover the whole breadth of the economic spectrum.

Even today, almost nobody tries it! I mean the other day I was overhearing the conversation of two girls at a café, and these two girls were in town to begin college at SF State. One was going to study communications, and the other was going to study fashion design. Now you can go to the bookstore and you can search through shelf after shelf, and you won’t find a literary novel that’s about lower-middle class people. People write about themselves, and authors tend not to be lower middle class. And even when they are, they, like DH Lawrence, become so rapidly acculturated to upper- and upper-middle class mores that it seems never to occur to them to write about the people they left behind.

It’s an incredible achievement, in a time even more class-bound than today, to write novels of manners that are about lower middle class, working class, or poor people. Some of Gaskell’s protagonists are illiterate, or barely-literate, and yet she still effortlessly maps out their emotional life. It’s incredible! Even Zola has a hard time doing that–he views poor people as being too thoroughly marked by their class. Every character, for him, represents an archetype, and someone like Gervaise Macquart–a laundress who achieves brief prosperity before being toppled by alcoholism and economic insecurity–doesn’t get credit for her indomitable will to survive: even her virtues are nothing more than the sorts of virtues that a person would demonstrate in her situation. They don’t feel specific to her.

I think the best Gaskell story I read was “The Crooked Branch,” which is about a farm laborer who comes into money late in life, buys a farm, and marries his childhood sweetheart (herself now working as a maid). He has one child, a son, who he sends off to school, but the school educates his son to want better things, and the son develops dissipated habits. The father and mother have an inkling of what’s going wrong, but he’s still their only son! The child of their old age! And so they alternately rage against and enable him. It’s not a by-the-numbers situation. It’s a situation that could only occur to people of a certain class, but their fate doesn’t feel fore-ordained. They could have reacted, and the world could have responded, in so many different ways. And the brilliance of the story comes in the specific details of how these people respond to their trials.

Anyways now this blog post is perhaps too long, so I’ll leave off saying more, but she’s a good one! Definitely worth your time (I think).

I’ve never been too interested in “writing from within the body…”

One of those things that MFA instructors will tell you is that you should write from within the body. This means, capture the feeling of what it is to be a person living inside a body. Stay in the concrete, the real, the specific. Don’t allow yourself to zoom out or to speed through your scenes.

I think this is often pretty good advice, and I’ve read some great books that were written from deep within the body. But at the same time, I don’t really care to do it with my own writing. To be honest, I don’t think we’re really living our lives within our bodies. We get up every day, we eat, we walk to the bus, and our knees creak when we sit down, and none of it really makes any sense. To me, fiction isn’t about that. It’s about the drama of life. Why do we do what we do? What are we expecting? What is our view of ourselves and our place in the world?

And, most importantly, fiction is about the role of other people. What do I want from them, and what do they want from me? At least fifty percent of this, by the way, is psycho-drama. It’s not something you could film; it’s a drama that takes place entirely inside your own mind. Like with the white men I mention yesterday who are sure they’re oppressed, they’ve taken a few points of information and they’ve used them to create an entire world, and then they act as if that world is true. Fiction allows you to see that world! And that’s what I’m interested in: the stuff about life that’s not real and not of the body.

I understand why most white men believe, on some level, that they’re disadvantaged (but I don’t agree)

clip_image002-4.jpgWas reading the Harper’s article on the women of the alt-right, and I was like, wow, you know, I wouldn’t be surprised if this fascism stuff catches on in a bigger way. I don’t mean the outright Nazi stuff. I think most people will ignore that bitter core to the belief, but I do think that more and more the alt right is gonna learn (maybe with female influence?) to wrap that bitter core in a sweet, chocolate coating of racial resentment.

The reason they’ll be successful is that most white men believe, all else equal, that they are at a disadvantage when compared to women and people of color. I think this is a common belief in red states and rural areas and amongst less-educated people and Republicans and Fox News watchers, but, honestly, it’s scarcely less common in blue states and cities and amongst people with graduate degrees who listen to NPR. Here in San Francisco, I am fairly certain that if I were to sidle up to most white men and say, “You know what? The pendulum has swung too far, and it’s gotten to the point where it’s hard for a white guy to get a promotion,” they’d be like, “You know what? You’ve got a point.”

And the thing is, many of them would be cool with this state of affairs! They’d be like, “You know what? It’s fine. We’ve benefited from so many hundred years of oppression. It’s time for other people to catch up. So white guys will tread water, or even fall behind, for a little while, and women and ethnic minorities will have their time in the sun.”


There is this idea out there that, all else equal, non-white people have an advantage when it comes to hiring. Even liberal white people will be like, well, because of racial disparities and unequal distribution of wealth, not all people have the same opportunities, so at any given level it’s hard to find black people who meet the qualifications of a job, BUT if a black person reaches that level, then he or she will have an advantage over an equally qualified white person. Many men also believe something similar is true for a woman.

And I totally understand where this idea comes from. It’s what you hear on the news all the time. And it’s not just Fox News. If you listen to NPR, you’ll hear all about how there’s a need for diversity. You’ll hear CEOs and other decision makers and leaders telling you how desperately they want to hire diverse candidates. People will constantly be telling you that what they want is diversity, diversity, diversity.

So I don’t think you’re racist if you think (all else equal) non-white people have an advantage. I think this is a totally rational belief that is a reasonable response to the information you have been given. And I think it’s easier to have this belief when you’re not particularly successful.

For instance, I do think that men have an advantage over women in YA publishing. And yet I am certain that some men in YA believe the opposite: they think that because YA is a field dominated by women and by female readers, women have the advantage over men.

That too is a rational belief: if I look at bestseller lists, it’s all women. And my own career hasn’t taken off. Given that, it’d be sort of galling if somebody came up to me, as more than one person has, and said, “You’ll do fine in YA, you’re a man.”

And sometimes, when I read articles where best-selling authors complain about the sexism or racism they’ve experienced, I’m still like, welp, but it didn’t stop you from topping the charts, did it? I know it’s wrong, but it IS annoying to hear successful people complain about how tough they’ve had it (on the other hand, if they don’t complain, then who will? Because when unsuccessful people complain, it just gets chalked up to sour grapes).

So I get it. I totally get it. White guys, don’t worry, I’m not saying you’re racist just because you think you’re not gonna get the job simply because you’re a white guy.

These are two diametrically opposed beliefs: the belief that prejudice is still empowering traditionally-empowered groups; and the belief that affirmative action has leveled the playing field such that, all else equal, minorities now have the advantage. And yet it is very difficult, through one’s own experience, particularly if somebody is from a traditionally-empowered group, to tell which one is true.

But…I tend to come down on the side that traditional mechanisms of prejudice ARE still in ascendance, and that decision makers’ verbal commitment to diversity tends to break down precisely at the moment when they might actually need to make decisions to support it.

For instance, I first encountered these opinions in my MFA program. Our faculty was entirely white. Not a single non-white person on the permanent staff (this is still true, so far as I know), and yet whenever the white students discussed nonwhite students they’d be like, “Oh yeah, she’s certain to get a teaching job, because she’s black.”

Meanwhile, during the following three years, the program hired FIVE new professors. All were white, four were white men. Each time, the hiring committee was like, “We made an effort to find the best candidates. We really wanted a diverse hire. But the best person turned out to be so-and-so.”

And I realized something: the idea of affirmative action is itself a tool of racial oppression. The notion that nonwhite people find it easy to get jobs and get promoted means, paradoxically, that it’s seen as an act of moral courage to hire a white person. Because there is so much “pressure” to hire non-white people, hiring committees find themselves being like, “Welp, he’s a white guy, but I guess we can overlook that because he made such a good impression!”

In this way, the feeling of beleaguerment that white guys seem to have is itself turned into a tool for oppressing other people. And the thing is…that feeling seems to me to be so unnecessary. I mean I know some people are reading this blog post, and their hackles are going up, and they’re being like, “Here’s another person blaming white guys for the world’s troubles.”

And I mean in some sense I am, but I’m also not blaming any one specific white guy. It’s really not about specific white guys. It’s about systems. Like, even those guys with the tiki torches in Charlottesville: they’re not responsible for this system. They’re merely cogs within it, just the same as all the rest of us.

Even the word ‘system’ is maybe the wrong one, because I also don’t believe it’s in any sense mechanical or intelligent or organized. All we have here is a bunch of free-floating ideas that evolve and are perpetuated through something akin to evolution. And the ideas that tend to survive are the ones which modify individual behavior in a manner that perpetuates themselves. And this idea–the notion that white guys are, all else equal, at a disadvantage (which is a slightly different idea, I’ll note, than the idea that white guys are not in charge, overall, or that they’re not the most powerful group)–has perpetuated itself precisely because it gives white guys a reason for hiring more white guys! It has perpetuated itself because at the moment when you’re considering hiring a non-white person, you can tell yourself, well, actually, out of this slate of candidates, it’s the white guy who’s going to have the most trouble finding a job–the others are fine, they’ll land on their feet–so I’m going to hire Eric or Andrew or James or David. And as a result of this notion, more white guys land in positions of power and, thus, are able to spread this idea to their students, colleagues, and employees.

Now I’m sure that after reading my take, lots of people will be like, but…a white guy really DOES have to be twice as good as a non-white or female candidate in order to succeed. To which I’m like…okay, again, I don’t think that is a per se unreasonable belief to have. (I define a “per se unreasonable belief” as something so self-evidently false that I refuse to even argue about it, like the notion that black people are genetically inferior).

But maybe just look around? Is that really true? Because people talk so much shit about affirmative action, and yet I’ve noticed the opposite: non-white people and women who’re in positions of power tend to be way more organized and competent than white colleagues who hold equivalent positions. Furthermore, when hiring committees are offered a choice between a white guy and someone else, they will usually pick the white guy.

And that’s the end of the blog post.