Bring Your Mirror With You
This must be the decade our icons disappoint. Stephen King caused an uproar last week when he said, “I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality.”
In other words, diversity cannot be the hill upon which our creativity dies. Rather, even a staunch liberal should give an unbiased critique of the craft without the messy work of asking, “Who doesn’t this represent?”
What the world-famous horror genius fumbled to the light is a popular “truth” defended in various internet spaces. Indeed, it is an especially attractive idea to writers who prefer not to feel beholden to a market newly clamoring for that fad, #DiverseLit.
It just seems like common sense. If we dismiss a thing because of its lack of diversity, then we run the risk of stifling honest creativity in favor of performative social justice, right? Of course, it takes a thick pair of rose-colored glasses to avoid seeing the inevitable conclusion of this line of thinking. It follows that capitalizing on diversity must lead to a sacrifice in quality.
Now, reflect on imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is an anxiety disorder characterized by the fear that, at any moment, people will realize you are a fraud. It is the pervasive belief your accolades are undeserved, your ascent is a set-up, and your downfall will surely be the result of your incompetence.
Consider Game of Thrones. I recently saw a tweet that pointed out how the ground-breaking HBO series kept us collectively enthralled for nearly a decade, only to cannibalize itself with a terrible season finale. In a facepalm of an interview at San Diego Comic-Con, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the show’s creators, admitted ‘they had no idea what they were doing.’ Imposter syndrome? More like imposters.
I sometimes wonder if people like them get reassuring pep talks their success is well-deserved, despite evidence to the contrary.
Benioff and Weiss were allowed to fail spectacularly without much impact on their careers. Damon Suede, the former president-elect of the Romance Writers Association, was not so lucky. Still, he had a good run while it lasted.
Following the recent implosion of the RWA, Suede’s alleged dark history of lies and unethical maneuverings to make himself look more important were uncovered. This, combined with the backlash from him punishing author of color Courtney Milan for speaking out against racism, led to his resignation.
What can his rise and fall teach us about elevating quality at the expense of diversity? I think it teaches us that women and people of color are critiqued with a different rubric than the one used for mediocre white men. And, while it bothers my sense of decorum to toss around demeaning sobriquets like ‘mediocre white men,’ I struggle to find a better descriptor.
(If it must be said: not all white men.)
This is merely an observation of the inadequacies present in our discourse surrounding matters of art and culture. A surprising number of people seem convinced their rejection of diversity as a qualifier is purely academic. I beg to differ—although it is elitist. For all the talk of universities being bastions of progressivism, this conversation starts at the ivory tower and trickles down to the dinner table. It goes so far as to make its way into the hearts and minds of the marginalized.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, and we work doubly hard to prove our mastery over sometimes foreign concepts. Yes, this is what quality looks like. No, this does not speak to me, but I get it. I can do it. We are not allowed room for mediocrity, as our accomplishments are not judged on merit but on what cannot be demerited.
Regardless of the fact this generation abhors a try-hard, the alternative is to invite discussions of how our work may add to the cannon of diversity yet brings down the overall artistic curve. We must be brilliant while accepting, “Pretty good for [insert demeaning sobriquet].” And we must be happy with that.
Westerners have been the gatekeepers to the halls of success and the lexicographers defining its parameters for centuries. It is no wonder inclusiveness is not a top priority when we discuss quality. That would require a Mirror Moment in which the hero examines his own flaws.
He might see he is an imposter, benefiting from a set of self-serving rules that elevate the banal over the unique. Worse, he might discover that what he considers art is not universal. That he is not, in actuality, a gatekeeper or a lexicographer of anything other than his own subjective experience. His masterpiece is a forgery of familiar tropes when—who knew?—there is an entire globe of perspectives he can only examine second-hand.
His point of view is myopic. It is not a small world, after all. His awards show is a little local thing. He is little. There is art that exists irrespective of his limited understanding of its quality.
Stephen King returned a statement to clarify his earlier comment, declaring, “The most important thing we can do as artists and creative people is make sure everyone has the same fair shot, regardless of sex, color, or orientation.”
Again, he is wrong. The creative community does not need the same fair shot at mediocrity couched in success. Marginalized people do not need to hear out those who don’t consider us in matters of art. We need to recognize that they cannot define quality at our expense. Because every time we create and consume that which resonates with us, we bring a mirror to the table where they once refused to let us sit.
And they see themselves for what they really are.