The Unbearable Whiteness of Meg Rosoff: A Dissection

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Image from blavity.com

They say you should never have heroes. I hesitate to give that accolade to author Meg Rosoff, but she was always a writer whose work I admired, and who I had had a brief but very pleasant encounter with a few years ago. I’ve read most of her work and recommended it to friends and fellow readers. I can’t say I’ll be able to do so in the future.

For a full summary of Rosoff’s recent foray into privileged idiocy, check out this blog here, but I would also like to offer a point by point dissection of her flawed, dismissive and often downright upsetting response to a Huffington Post piece by Myles E. Johnson. This is for a number of reasons. One, because it is always necessary to refute such ignorance, particularly in the realm of children’s publishing, which we should strive to make as inclusive and safe a space as possible. Two, because she is undoubtedly not the only one in this industry that possesses such opinions, and a forceful opposition and strident commitment to a more diverse publishing world is the progressive route to take. And three, because Rosoff’s points are so incredibly easy to refute. They verge on Franzen-esque in terms of lack of self-awareness and arrogance, they’re entirely rooted in falsehoods and personal prejudices, and when they’re not being offensive they’re just being hopeless. Bigotry often comes in a clown-like form, and we dismiss it rather than combat it (or at least those of us with a lot of privilege often have the luxury to do so). Even if it makes you roll your eyes, your response should be loud and frequent.

“There are not too few books for marginalised young people. There are hundreds of them, thousands of them.”

Statistically speaking, this is false. According to recent figures regarding the British publishing industry at employee & managerial level, only 7.7% of people working there were from non-white backgrounds. A 2013 study showed that only 10% of children’s books in the past 21 years contain any kind of multicultural content, far lower than the 37% of people of colour who make up the US population. 21 years of publishing and that number has barely risen. LGBTQ representation in YA has improved, but in 2014, as noted in research by Malinda Lo, mainstream publishers still only published 47 LGBT YA books. And only a third of so of those books feature LGBTQ characters of colour. So is Rosoff truly believes there are thousands of books out there for such kids, I’d love to see where she’s hiding them.

“You don’t have to read about a queer black boy to read a book about a marginalised child. The children’s book world is getting far too literal about what ‘needs’ to be represented.”

Let’s take a moment to remember that this book that has her so outraged over ‘literal’ representation is a self-published children’s picture book. Meg Rosoff, Printz award winner with a movie adaptation and best-sellers to her name, is indignant over a self-published picture book. Can you say ‘unbalance dynamics of power’?

To get to her non-point, what is so particularly striking about her first claim is the implication that all marginalisation is the same, and that all books with some kind of representation of a marginalised character are equal in terms of intent. By this reasoning, a queer black boy looking for representation should just read The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian because it also features a marginalised character. Only someone with a staggering amount of privilege can make this assumption. The various intersections of living overlap and as such create experiences, challenges and oppositions that cannot be directly compared to anything else. Being black and gay is entirely different from being white and gay (and we have the statistics related to workplace harassment, unemployment, homelessness, rape, murder, etc, to prove it).

Rosoff laments how ‘literal’ publishing has become, creating a division between what is most often represented (cishet white people) and everything else. It harkens back to hackneyed metaphors of fantasy worlds where all the humans are white people, and then there are elves, orcs, etc, to stand in for “everyone else”. Representation is a necessity in our world. Queer black boys do need their own stories. We cannot be what we cannot see, and to tell any child hungry for stories full of people like them that their desires are unnecessary is to tell them that they are unnecessary.

“Read a newspaper. Read a magazine. Go see a movie. There are zillions of places kids can see mirrors. Books do not have a ‘job’.”

Putting aside the fact that Rosoff immediately lectures us on what books’ jobs are after telling us they don’t have one, let’s focus on what she sees books’ function as, and who they function for. If books are not mirrors, then why is that task given to other forms of media instead?

Given the past few years of news related to unarmed black people being shot by the police, the President of the USA being forced to show his birth certificate, and the myriad of daily stories that work to systematically devalue people of colour, particularly black people, it’s astounding that Rosoff dismisses a call for more inclusive stories in such a manner. Why should a black child only see themselves in a newspaper where they’re being told they’re worth less than a gun? This callousness isn’t just sad; it’s racist.

There’s not much more of a chance of seeing more inclusive stories at the cinema either. A USC study from 2013 revealed “Across 100 top-grossing films of 2012, only 10.8 percent of speaking characters are Black, 4.2 percent are Hispanic, 5 percent are Asian, and 3.6 percent are from other (or mixed race) ethnicities”. Even in 2015, with hits like Straight Outta Compton and Viola Davis finally winning an Emmy, you’re more likely to see a white dude named Chris leading your film than a black actor. LGBT people are ‘virtually non-existent’ in film, with only 14 of the top 100 films of 2014 featuring any LGBT characters. Magazines don’t fare any better. For instance, only 14% of major fashion magazine covers featured a woman of colour last year.

“Books are to teach kids about the world, about being different or being brave. I really hate this idea that we need agendas in books. A great book has a philosophical, spiritual, intellectual agenda that speaks to many people – not just gay black boys. I’m sorry, but write a pamphlet about it. That’s not what books are for.”

This, is the literary equivalent of ‘All Lives Matter’.

Rosoff posits a definition of a book’s aim, and directly opposes that aim with the notion of fair and inclusive representation. The message is clear – cishet white stories are ‘universal’; everything else is an ‘agenda’. A picture book about a queer black boy cannot possess the ‘philosophical, spiritual, intellectual’ capacity needed to speak to ‘many people’. This is the crooked reasoning that sees Roland Emmerich whitewash Stonewall to appeal to a wider audience (and fail). It’s a false view of the world, one steeped in privilege, that sees the very existence of someone unlike yourself as being inherently agenda driven, and one you never need to understand. A queer black boy doesn’t get to have the same fantastical escape through literature that a straight white boy does because the industry still sees him as a niche interest more akin to a political ping-pong ball than a worthy demographic. This insidious train of thought is racist, ignorant and rooted in ignorant lies about our world and the people who populate it. There’s no place for it in publishing, and the Rosoffs of the industry would do well to listen to those actively trying to change it.

If you’re interested in helping change come quicker, check out We Need Diverse Books!

4 COMMENTS

  1. I’m disappointed with the author, to say the least: she was one of the few YA authors whose books I kept into adulthood. Sometimes I think authors would be better off if they delayed posting anything to social media until they’d thought on what they had to say for a day.
    ~Litha Nelle

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