Diversity Lip Service

First published on The Handy, Uncapped Pen.
August 20, 2021

Handy Uncapped Pen logo showing a drawing of a stylized pen with the green cap on the opposite end from the nib and a handicapped symbol on the barrel of the pen black on white on black

The literary community has always catered to white, abled, neurotypical, cis, straight, (mostly) male voices. The entire establishment is structured to privilege those who have money, which usually doesn’t include Black, Indigenous, Latino/a, neurodivergent, trans, disabled, and/or Queer writers.

Achieving success in the literary world requires access to funds for submission and contest entry fees; money to pay for rent, food, and transportation while serving unpaid internships; resources to cover large tuition payments plus travel, living expenses, and forfeiture of any day job paycheck to attend weeks-long workshops or Master’s of Fine Arts programs; etc.

Of late, there has been much discussion in literary circles about the need for diversity in what voices are published. But the entire conversation around submissions from disabled, neurodivergent, LGBTQI+, Black, Indigenous, etc. writers is meaningless when publications continue charging fees, or giving weight to expensive pedigrees, that make it cost-prohibitive for all of those marginalized writers to actually submit.

Declaring a desire for diversity, while charging reading and entry fees, is oxymoronic and hypocritical.

I write poetry and essays from the perspective of a queer, xgender, disabled former newspaper reporter published on three continents. For more than four decades publishers of every ilk have paid me to write articles, editorials, reviews, advertising copy, marketing materials, signs, poetry, fiction, personal essays, etc. I often submit my work on spec. I sometimes submit (especially poetry) to non-paying markets. But, I never pay for the privilege of having my work considered for publication.

Recently I learned of a non-fiction contest and, after reading over the guidelines, I realized that a piece I had just completed was a perfect essay for this particular contest. I didn’t enter it, however, because this contest required a submission fee.

As is often stated on guidelines pages, the entity claimed to want submissions from writers of color, writers with disabilities, writers who are LGBTQIA, and writers who belong to other marginalized groups.

But, it still charges fees which make the cost of submitting prohibitive, especially for those specific writers.

This particular entity offered a work around. Black and Indigenous writers could enter for free if they chose to self-identify. And a limited number of free entries were offered to low-income writers (which would include many disabled, neurodivergent, Queer, trans, etc. writers) if they were willing to beg for the favor of participating and identify themselves as “low-income”.

Rather demeaning.

The publication obviously was aware that its fees present a barrier to many. But it apparently still didn’t recognize that the options offered to avoid fees were also problematic.

Normally I just ignore calls for submission of this nature. This publication is hardly alone in charging entry fees while claiming to encourage submissions from marginalized writers, a point you will often find discussed in writers’ groups, on Twitter, in forums for people with disabilities, etc. This has become more common since publications started using paid services to manage their submissions. But, this trend ensures the continued centering and advancement of cis, straight, abled, white voices, no matter how much lip service is paid to promoting diversity.

But by providing work arounds, the publication acknowledged that their fees were problematic. That moved me to reach out and send an email to the editors. I wrote on behalf of all writers who, as a result of our society’s marginalization, can’t afford reading fees and do not choose to beg for the favor of an exception. I also voiced my protest about literary publications monetizing the writers who offer the content that makes their publications possible. And I wrote that email with full expectation of burning this particular bridge.

You cannot imagine my stunned surprise when four days later I received a response from one of the editors that included a list of action points on how they intend to address my concerns.

It’s taken me two weeks to recover from the shock enough to write about it.

Granted, this is a publication edited by queer, neurodivergent, activist multi-ethnic creatives. But, they listened. And they are discussing ways to make changes.

I have long advocated against writers submitting to publications that charge reading/entry fees. In 2020, I prepared 150 poetry, 21 non-fiction, and 34 fiction submissions. Each required a fair bit of time and effort: reading the guidelines, making sure each submission adhered to those requirements, formatting to the publisher’s/editor’s preferences, creating an entry that included whatever information the editor/publisher required. And this was always after reading samples of the publication and to determine whether any and which of my pieces might be appropriate to submit.

This is all a normal part of working as a professional writer. But, if I also had to pay fees for those 150 submissions, even if they only averaged $5 each, I would be out more than $1,000. In one year. And, there is very little correlation between the fees charged, rate of acceptance, and payments made (if any) for work published. For writers, unless they just want to pay to see their work in print, it’s a lose/lose game.

So, I have two requests of my fellow writers. First, do not pay reading fees, particularly if you are among those privileged enough for it not to be a problem. Second, write and tell the publications why, especially if it’s one that’s featured your work in the past. If it’s a publication that claims a desire to boost marginalized voices, point out the hypocrisy. If the editors make claims about the diversity of writing they offer or the voices that they uplift, call them out. Let them know that such assertions are specious because they don’t know how many writers have never submitted work for consideration to avoid paying their fees.

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