Rejecting Diversity

If you’re a creative venue that claims to support diversity, and if you specifically seek contributions from people with marginalized identities, I’m begging you to be nice when you reject submissions. Rejection is a part of the process, but please be kind to the people who trust you with their vulnerability.

I had a story rejected from a literary magazine two weeks ago. I get at least one rejection a week, so I’m used to it, but this one really hurt.

Specifically, this rejection was from a magazine for LGBTQ people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and it encourages contributors to share their stories and experiences of feeling “monstrous,” with a firm resistance against the kind of “overcoming hardships” and “suffering beautifully” narratives that both disabled and LGBTQ people are expected to conform to.

Although it’s not required, the magazine suggests that you send a cover letter explaining your positionality. Given that this is a magazine for LGBTQ people with disabilities, you can imagine that there’s a lot of vulnerability involved in writing such a thing.

I submitted a story to this magazine, and they got right back to me with an extremely positive and enthusiastic response about a story that, in my cover letter, I explained was very open and honest about a difficult and sensitive topic. The next morning, they followed up with the standard “Thank you for your submission, but we will not be moving forward with this story at this time” rejection email.

Like I said, receiving a form rejection email is a super common experience, but this is a venue that aggressively claims to support a specific type of diversity. To me, the practice of soliciting stories written about sensitive topics accompanied by statements of vulnerability from doubly marginalized people only to respond with a flat rejection feels not just cruel but almost predatory. Like, the people involved with the magazine look good because they’re supporting diversity, but they don’t care who they hurt in the process.

Moreover, the magazine makes a big deal out of evaluating submissions on a “blind” basis, meaning that the initial readers evaluating the story are not given any information about the writer. Putting aside the fact that “blind” probably isn’t the best word for a magazine focusing on disability to use, this policy makes no sense for a venue in which personal identity is so critical. If I’m submitting a story about how an aspect of my identity sometimes makes me feel strange and inhuman, I want the reader to know who I am and what I do and what my background is and what I’ve experienced that has caused me to feel this way.

An impersonal rejection of personal stories about marginalized identity sent in response to specific solicitation of work from people with marginalized identities is just… mean, you know? It’s cruel and unfeeling. How difficult would it be for the editors to be sympathetic, even if – especially if – they’re sending a rejection?

Just to be clear, I’m not upset that my story was rejected. Rather, I’m upset because the magazine so specifically claims to promote diverse stories, and because the manner of rejection was so callous.

I’m not sure what there is to be done about this, save to caution people in marginalized positions to be cautious of venues that seem to be trying to capitalize on your experience of marginalization.

In the meantime, it’s probably a good idea not to submit sensitive work anywhere where rejection is going to be so personal that it actually hurts.

Novel Writing with ADD

Having almost finished my third fanfic novel, I’m preparing to start my first original novel early next year. This is a project I’ve been planning for the past year, and I’m taking it very seriously as I consider the path my life will follow over the next few months.

I’m facing something of a problem, however.

I have ADD.

I’m making a (somewhat arbitrary) distinction between “ADD” and “ADHD” here, not in the least because I’m probably one of the most chill and least “hyperactive” people you could ever meet. If you talked to me for the first time, or even if you worked with me for years, you would probably never know that there’s anything “wrong” with me. To be honest, I don’t see ADD/ADHD as being in a different category of chronic condition than, say, diabetes. It’s genetic, and I handle it with a combination of medication, behavioral strategies, and social support structures. You know, as one does. It’s not a big deal.

Still, working with ADD can be difficult. The secondary conditions accompanying ADD, such as dyslexia and executive function disorder, can be difficult to work with as well. Although it’s only tangentially related, having anxiety is difficult too. All of this is difficult to begin with, and it’s made even more difficult by the fact that almost everyone born after 1980 – regardless of gender, race, or economic class – has been subject to intense neoliberal pressure to “optimize” their “performance” in order to succeed in absurdly competitive systems that only reward people with an abnormally high degree of preexisting advantages. It’s also unfortunate that these disorders are both poorly understood and ridiculously stigmatized, and that the American medical healthcare system is largely inefficient, ineffective, and intensely bigoted, even if you’re a straight white man (but most definitely going downhill from there).

In any case, having Attention Deficit Disorder is precisely that – my ability to concentrate and manage my attention is not neurotypical. I personally wouldn’t call it a “disorder,” necessarily, because it feels very normal to me, and I don’t think it’s actually a “deficit” compared to what other people experience. Rather, it’s a few steps closer to the end of a spectrum instead of being right smack in the middle. Sustaining focus and attention for long intervals with no physical movement or immediate reward is painfully difficult for me. That being said, I’d like to believe that I’m relatively skilled at lateral thinking, thinking quickly, processing multiple sources of input, and managing multiple tasks simultaneously in a way that many other people seem to find exhausting. To use an academic setting as an example, what this means is that I can finish a test quickly and with a perfect score but can’t for the life of me sit still and look at the desk while waiting for everyone else to finish (as opposed to drawing on the back of the test paper or checking my phone, for instance).

To give another example, although I can’t sit down and read one book for an entire hour, I can sit down for an hour and read ten books, and I can do this every day until all the books are read. As a result, I read more books than almost anyone else I know (I keep track of this on Goodreads, if you’re curious), usually with good retention and recall. A problem only arises if you give me a book and expect me to have read the whole thing by tomorrow – in which case I would say that’s your problem, not mine. In other words, the “problem” is often the arbitrary framework for a task, not my ability to handle it. To be blunt, the way I work only becomes a “disability” if someone deliberately goes out of their way to make it so by refusing to accommodate diversity.

This becomes tricky, however, when I have to set a task for myself.

Specifically, how am I supposed to maintain my attention and concentration for long enough to write the epic fantasy novel I’ve been outlining for the past year?

Based on my previous experiences with fanfiction and my academic monograph, I think that, in order to complete a significant writing project, I would need:

– the project to be of a manageable length,
– the project to occupy a manageable timeframe,
– the project to receive a manageable level of feedback,
– the project to have distinct and manageable milestones, and
– the project to have room for me to step away between milestones.

Instead of writing the story I’m envisioning in the form of a giant singular manuscript, perhaps it would make sense if:

– it were divided into a series of novellas
– of roughly 30k words each
– with roughly ten main chapters each
– and roughly 2,500 words per chapter.

I know this isn’t the traditional publishing model, but Tor recently started to put out novellas of approximately this length. (Silver in the Wood is a good example, I think.) Many of the Tor fantasy novellas I’ve read during the past year have been a lot of fun, and I’m given to understand, based on reviews and sales rankings, that a number of them are doing quite well in both digital and physical editions. What I’m envisioning might be possible, then.

In any case, I think it might be worth talking to an agent, but…

…I’m totally broke, I’m very shy, I only have a moderate following on social media, and I don’t have any useful connections in real life. If you combine my inexperience with the publishing world and the way my ADD workstyle functions best with external structure and feedback, I think it’s clear I would need a lot of guidance, and I don’t even know where to begin looking for help.

Maybe it’s still a bit early for all of that, though. For the time being, it would probably be best to start by cleaning up my outline and getting to work on a formal pitch. Once that’s taken care of, I can figure out where to go from there.

Tenure in a Time of Crisis

On Wednesday of this week (March 25), the city of Washington DC declared a month-long quarantine. The same day, George Mason University decided to send me a letter telling me that my tenure case has been denied.

I knew this would be the case since January, when I got a letter from the university tenure committee, but the timing of the formal notification could not have been worse. On the same day, the university sent out an email saying that all tenure-track faculty would have an extra year to apply for tenure. The university wants to be “accommodating” during these difficult times, apparently.

I was going to wait until the current academic year is over to publish my thoughts on what happened, but maybe saying something right now, when a lot of academics are paying attention to the tenure system, might be a good opportunity to make a difference.

There’s a lot going on in my particular case, but what basically happened is that I got very sick during the Spring 2019 semester. I was open about this with everyone and even went to HR and the CDE Office (the Office of Compliance, Diversity, and Ethics, which handles things like Title IX and ADA resources) to formally register a disability at the beginning of the Fall 2019 semester, but the process was prohibitively convoluted and took much longer than it should have. It also ultimately ended up backfiring by causing certain people, specifically my department chair, to become extremely upset with me. In fact, my department chair met with my tenure liaison immediately after meeting with the CDE Office. This was extremely unethical, and the resulting backlash was such that it didn’t surprise me at all when I learned that the university’s tenure committee unanimously voted to deny my case.

The letters from the committee and from the dean both consist of multiple pages saying “this person has done excellent work” leading to a final paragraph stating “but this is not true excellence.” The rationale for this decision seems to be that my book isn’t out yet, but this makes no sense, as its publication met with an unexpected delay but was still on track to come out in time for my field’s major international conference in March (although it’s been pushed back again due to the pandemic).

To me, then, this feels like discrimination on the basis of disability, especially given the acrimonious conversation my department apparently had during my tenure vote despite strong support from my departmental tenure committee. Apparently, although I look like an excellent candidate for tenure on paper, I am lazy and irresponsible. I was always friendly with everyone and never caused any trouble prior to getting sick, so this came as a huge shock. I have no way of knowing the details, unfortunately, since this process is completely opaque, but my department chair later had the only woman on my tenure committee sit down with me later to explain that sickness and disability are not “real,” and that people resent me for “not pulling my weight.”

It’s therefore extremely frustrating to have gotten so many emails from the university about “support” and “accommodations” and even “self-care” during the past two weeks. If the university really cared about these things, why wasn’t I granted a basic level of “support” and “accommodations” earlier this academic year when I asked openly and in good faith?

And this isn’t just me – there’s been a lot of talk on social media about how hypocritical the behavior of universities has been as they bend over backwards to try to appear supportive and accommodating. The following screencap, which comes from (this post on Tumblr), is a good example.

I’m hurt and scared, as many of us are right now, and now I’m also out of a job and have no health insurance. I was able to find a position at another university, but they’ve just put a hiring freeze into effect, so who knows what will happen. It’s strange for me to be in this situation while still devoting an extraordinary amount of energy to keep up with the work required by the online classes that I’m also having to build as quickly as I can.

This situation is awful, and it’s entirely unnecessary. The university could always have pushed back someone’s tenure application because of exceptional circumstances at any time, because the tenure system is completely arbitrary. Why did it take a global pandemic for universities to acknowledge that this is a reasonable and compassionate policy?

Anyone can become sick at any time, and a “disability” can happen to anyone, even to someone who has previously been (and perhaps still continues to seem) healthy and productive. We’re all currently dealing with exceptional circumstances, but I think this is a good opportunity for universities to set a precedent of accommodating diversity by understanding and respecting the fact that “difference” means that different people are working under different conditions, many of which may be entirely out of their control.

Although it no longer affects me, I am obviously in favor of giving faculty the option to push back their tenure applications by a year due to exceptional circumstances, and I hope this crisis can create an opportunity for universities to become more tolerant of diversity and more humane to the people whose work contributes to and supports their communities.