If you can’t say something nice…
Why do we still confuse Diversity and Inclusion with Tokenism?
I’m new to the Medium community, so please forgive me if I don’t quite know the Rules of Block Parties or the consequences of returning unwashed Tupperware. I’m new enough that I didn’t even know about the Medium Writers Challenge until four days before the deadline. Still, hope springs eternal, so I pulled together a few things I had in hand and composed a new one to submit.
When the winners were announced this week, I was disappointed — but hardly shocked — that my name was not among them. Still, I was sure I could learn from them and looked forward to reading them.
The bigger disappointment came in the following days, in the reactions from other Medium members-in-good-standing. An email showed up yesterday from a writer I had found energetic and pithy and was therefore following. She said, essentially, “I didn’t actually read more than two paragraphs of the grand prize winner’s entry, but I found it boring and long-winded. Who’s with me?” (I note, as an aside, that this email writer includes in her profile the declaration “ …believes benevolence is a survival mechanism.”) This invitation to hop on the Surly Bus has so far garnered eighty-four claps and a handful of comments, including a few that indicated they were ‘not fans of creative non-fiction,’ although the author of the winning story has said it is a “short story” which I interpret to mean fiction.
A bit more wandering on Medium turned up more huffy reactions, both suggesting Nefarious Goings-On in the Smoky Backrooms of Medium. Boxes ticked. Under-represented “groups” suddenly and conveniently represented. Quality of writing clearly not a factor in the decisions (although presumably it would have been the only factor had a piece of their work been crowned). Both of these articles included a backhanded “Congratulations to the winners!”
I was reminded of an incident in my previous life when I was a research scientist at a large agriculture company. At one meeting, I was the only woman in a room of perhaps thirty scientists. The manager of this group announced that the company was launching an initiative to hire more women into scientist positions. There was a brief silence, and then one of the men in the room said, “The important thing is to hire qualified people.” As though that were not obvious. As though “qualified” and “women” were mutually exclusive.
I suspect most readers have had the experience of feeling appalled that a particular book was even published, never mind that it won any sort of prize. Writers probably feel that way more often than they might like to admit. I have read perhaps ten recent Pulitzer Prize winners and can only think of two or three that left me thinking, “Yes! Absolutely a prize winner!” Most of the others I gave the traditional “meh” response. I didn’t feel obliged to write a sternly-worded letter to the Pulitzer committee, registering my objections. It didn’t mean that those books weren’t worthy. It just means they “weren’t for me” to paraphrase Seth Godin. Not every piece of art can please everyone.
What astonishes me is the mean-spirited nature of the analyses of the contest and the winners. I can’t begin to imagine the whiplash feeling of learning you’ve been selected a winner…and then learning how many other writers are happy to declare you Unworthy. In print. In the same community where you had just hours before felt so welcomed and happy. I suddenly found myself very glad that I was not a winner. (Yes. I can hear you chortling: “Don’t worry. That was never gonna happen!”)
I understand that negative reviews are an unavoidable part of putting one’s work out in public and that a writer would be wise to toughen up. Still. I had rather hoped that Medium would be a place to learn and grow in a more supportive community.