On diversity, criticism, and Seattle: City of Literature

As a co-founder of the Seattle Review of Books, I am proud to publish Donna Miscolta’s piece about minority representation in the Seattle: City of Literature anthology. This piece is a perfect example of why my partner Martin McClellan and I created this site: to engage in conversation with books and with the city, and to help bring compelling pieces of writing to an audience that cares passionately about books.

I wish I could just conclude with that statement of pride and be done with it. But the truth is, I’m writing this Note because I’m a contributor to Seattle: City of Literature, and I have to acknowledge my part in the book’s failure to represent minorities.

Last year, when I was still books editor at The Stranger, Seattle: City of Literature editor Ryan Boudinot approached me to contribute a piece to the anthology. Ryan’s idea was that I would publish a review of the book as an afterword to the book. It was, and is, a very clever idea, one that I’ve never seen done before. So Ryan sent along a mostly-assembled PDF proof copy of the book shortly before the publication deadline. I read the proof and wrote a review of the book, which you can now find at the end of Seattle: City of Literature.

In my review, I didn’t acknowledge the anthology’s nearly 90 percent whiteness that Miscolta pointed out in her review this morning. The truth is, though it's glaringly apparent to me now, I didn’t even notice the whiteness at the time. And I absolutely should have. It’s an important part of any critic’s job to keep representation in mind, by which I mean representation both in which books they choose to review and in the content of the books they review. In particular, a book claiming to represent the history and flavor of an entire literary scene should be intensely scrutinized to ensure that those claims are accurate. As Nicola Griffith told me a couple months ago, it’s vitally important to count voices, every time.

As Martin and I wrote on our About page, the Seattle Review of Books is “actively dedicated to diversity in the books that we cover, and in the reviewers who cover them.” It’s important to us that this is a part of our site’s mission statement because the thing about failures of representation is that they’re almost never made out of malicious intent. Usually, failures of representation happen because people get lazy and fall back on the default societal settings, which, in America favor straight white males. People get lazy when they’re not held accountable for their actions. And what is a critic’s role, after all, if not holding people accountable for their actions? The point is this: I should have counted, and I should have questioned, and I should have advocated for minority writers.

But of course, it’s easy to come forward and talk about what I would’ve done had I known then what I know now. What will I do to make sure I don’t wind up in this situation again? Well, institutionally, Martin and I have already announced our intention to hire an ombudsperson for the Seattle Review of Books once or twice a year to write reports cataloguing the diversity of both the books we cover and the freelancers we hire to write about books. On a personal level, this incident has taught me to count and catalog the diversity of contributors to anthologies I review in the future. And when I make mistakes — because mistakes will always happen — I promise to be transparent in my failures and explain how they came to be. There’s always something to learn by examining your mistakes

Seattle’s literary scene would be nothing without its diversity. Homogeneity does not produce meaningful culture. Members of this community who enjoy great privilege must continually remind themselves that they need to practice tireless vigilance and allyship. Every voice is valuable, and too many voices have been left out of the conversation due to inattentiveness. I’m so grateful for brave people like Donna who are willing to stand up and demand those voices be heard, because the voices that she’s advocating for are the ones that we most need to hear.