Marlon James Says Writers of Color Are Often Forced to Pander to White Women

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A Brief History of Seven Killings author Marlon James has criticized publishers for pushing non-white authors to make their fiction more relatable for white women, publishing’s establishment audience.Speaking at an event hosted by The Guardian on Friday, the Man Booker winner said publishers frequently look to reshape books by writers of color into stories that pander “to that archetype of the white woman, that long-suffering, astringent prose set in suburbia. You know, ‘older mother or wife sits down and thinks about her horrible life’.”

James’ insight echoes a Facebook post he wrote on Wednesday responding to Claire Vaye Watkins’ notable essay, “On Pandering,” which explained how publishers force women to write for a white, male audience:

” I’ve mentioned this before, how there is such a thing as ‘the critically acclaimed story.’ You see it occasionally in certain highbrow magazines and journals. Astringent, observed, clipped, wallowing in its own middle-style prose and private ennui, porn for certain publications. And I knew from early on how to write the kind of story that would get published. Honestly, had I followed that formula (or style?) if I pandered to a cultural tone set by white women, particular older white female critics, I would have had 10 stories published by now.”

James expanded on that comment Friday, explaining that the “white woman” he referred to was a trope, rather than a specific person. He said he’s discussed the problem with other authors, such as Roxane Gay, who have supported his claim.

“I am not drawing wild conclusions, it is something I have noticed,” he said. “Sometimes we have to stop ourselves and say ‘This is the story I want to write and this is how I am going to tell it, publication be damned.’”

James has had a rocky relationship with publishers: his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected by publishers 78 times. James tied that struggle to his unwillingness to indulge publishers’ requests for material “palatable” to a white sensibility. He specifically called out publishers’ thirst for stories about non-white cultures written by white authors, a phenomenon he described as “cultural ventriloquism.”

“It is a literary gold mine, this idea of a white adventurer in a black hell,” James said. “That voice will never go away, because it makes a lot of money… We don’t have a scene where a well-meaning and emotionally bloodied white dude decides to have a drink with the jokey black dude and they watch the sunset. I was not going to do that and I think that is why a lot of people passed on it.”