I’ve applied for a few Stegner Fellowships in my time, and inevitably found myself looking at the biographies for the current Stegner Fellows. Supposedly the fellowship takes people from all walks of life, with different educational backgrounds. The website for the Stegner Fellowship states that a degree is not a prerequisite for the program. And yet, fellow after fellow had matriculated in an MFA program, and published in all the “right” prestigious literary magazines, and was neither terrifically young, nor that old — probably most in their thirties. Most were white. I would also bet that the vast majority were straight and cisgender, and hadn’t dealt with PTSD or mental illness.
I wish it wasn’t so, but most creative writing graduate programs suffer from the same lack of diversity the Stegner Fellowship does. It’s no wonder the fellowship is populated with the same people.
This is a problem which has been commented on a great deal, so I won’t bore you with the standard “but we must have more diversity and it begins with changing our gatekeeping practices” shtick. We know that. Of greater concern to me (and to the literary community of the U.S.) is the impoverishment of literature under these conditions.
What do these white, straight, cis writers have to contribute? It’s a question not often poised to those who are “mainstream” in some way. Their authority, their right to be there, where ever that “there” is, is unquestioned. They are not asked to justify their writing, their presence, or their place in contemporary literary culture. But that is exactly what should be questioned.
What do they have to contribute? What do they have to say which hasn’t already been said? What do they have to say which is somehow more “important” than people who lie outside of that very narrow cluster of (white, straight, cisgender, neurotypical) identities?
From a personal perspective, I honestly wonder what straight cisgender writers have to say about sex, sexuality, or gender. From personal experience I know the vast richness and complexity of sex, sexuality, and gender and identity. I know it in a deep, carnal and primal way that no straight cisgender person ever will. I can (and do) write about sex, sexuality, and gender. Not as a Hallmark special where everyone comes away glowing and triumphant, nor as a terrible Boys Don’t Cry level tragedy, nor as something grotesque and strange. I write it in much more complex and nuanced ways than this, ways that bring readers, most often, to the unexpected. To a place where gender, sex, and sexuality are actually examined and interrogated, and not in a banal, watered down manner which is the feature of so many straight cisgender writers trying to “interrogate” or say something about sex, sexuality, or gender. Because, by and far, most of them have nothing to say.
The same holds true for any number of identities outside of that narrow cluster I mentioned at the beginning. There is nothing that the narrow cluster of identities could say that wouldn’t be stated better by people outside of the existing power structure, by people who will never enter MFAs or fellowships, people living in the margins in some way.
Secondly: what have the people in the narrow cluster of identities people had to overcome? How many of them are parents, or deal with mental illness and/or a disability, or something else which presents a similar challenge? I bet not as much as many marginal writers I’ve known.
One of the most brilliant writers I know is former military, suffers from PTSD, is bipolar, is a wife and a parent. She goes to school for homeland security because it will make her family necessary money; she doesn’t have the luxury of enrolling in an MFA program.
And still she is brilliant. Not in spite of the myriad of things she must juggle, but because of.
For years I was incapable of writing consistently and finishing longer works. It turns out it wasn’t from a lack of trying on my part; it was part and parcel of a mental illness. Now that I have the medical help I need, I can write consistently and finish longer works. Believe me, I do not take for granted my ability to finally write novel-length work. I am incredibly grateful. But this ability is something a neurotypical person might take for granted and believe is a given.
It’s true that each person has their own unique set of circumstances and stories. And I’m sure some of the writers in MFA programs and in fellowships are faced with unusual and extraordinary challenges.
But I think the vast majority have not. The fact they can even matriculate as full time students in a traditional degree program says much about their privileges in this regard.
And the fact that such a narrow cluster of identities predominates in MFAs and fellowships impoverishes us all. It impoverishes our literature when there is an established “mold” one must fit to be included in the literary establishment. It impoverishes our way of thinking, our way of life, and our appreciation of difference and human experience.