The Egregious Practice of Charging Reading Fees

(This article first appeared on the website of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America on March 26, 2018.)

I am a hybrid author, which means that I self-publish books and also publish short stories in traditional venues. Last night I was engaged in what I call marketing. Several of my stories had come back unsold from magazines and anthologies, and rather than having them sit around, I wanted to send them back out to other possible markets. Most, although not all, of what I write is science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, surrealism, and other types of otherworldly or genre fiction, and so I mainly market to genre publications. However, more and more literature of the fantastic also finds its way into literary and mainstream magazines, so I send stories to those publications as well. Last night I thought: There are a lot of literary magazines out there. Why not do a search and find more literary markets for my work? So I did. And as a result I encountered dismay and frustration. Why? The horrendous and creativity-killing practice of reading fees.

The best magazines do not charge reading fees; they don’t have to. People pay to buy individual copies or subscribe to the magazines because they have quality content. These include the genre magazines as well, such as science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. But middle-level literary magazines, faced with declining readership and financial difficulties, hit on the solution of obtaining their financing from writers instead of readers. When a writer sends a story to an editor or publisher, it’s like an audition. The editor evaluates the piece of writing to determine if it’s a good fit for the magazine. There are many reasons for rejection. Often it’s a lack of writing competence, but it can also be that the story doesn’t fit the theme of the magazine or anthology or the editor just bought a story with a similar idea from someone else. The writer shrugs and sends the story elsewhere. It’s a professional exchange. Making writers pay to submit their stories, though, is nothing less than a scam. It reminds me of Steve Martin in the movie Bowfinger gleefully taking checks from aspiring actresses who want to audition for his film, all the while knowing he has no intention of hiring them.

The sad state of affairs in the field of literary magazines is that a high percentage now charge reading fees. The amounts range from two dollars to five dollars or more, but the average is three dollars. They justify it in all sorts of ways. Some, to avoid the stigma of charging reading fees, call it a handling fee or a software fee. Evidently they haven’t heard that many email services are free. Some, even as they ask it of writers, say outright: This is not a reading fee. Yeah, right. As if calling it by another name makes it all better. Several sites explain that if you were to send the manuscripts by mail you would have to spend at least that much in postage, so send that postage money to them instead. Most modern magazines and anthologies are getting away from postal submissions anyway, both as a money saver and to protect the environment, so that argument doesn’t make any sense.

Unfortunately, some of the magazines I most respected and used to submit to have succumbed to this practice, and as a result, I have had to take them off my list of honest, viable markets. It’s become a trend, and a very unfortunate one. I wonder if they have ever considered alternatives to their gouging of writers. I would prefer that they slightly drop their payments for accepted stories if they can’t afford them. Or have they ever heard of crowdfunding, which is being used successfully by more and more editors of genre anthologies?

Charging reading fees also has a much more sinister effect on magazines and anthologies, but one that editors and publishers would never notice firsthand. It cuts off writers that can’t afford the fees. That would include poverty-stricken artists from the inner city, the disenfranchised, and single parents like myself who spend a large portion of their income on rent and bills. Between novels I write a lot of short stories, and sometimes I have as many as thirty to forty out to market at the same time. There’s no way I could afford to pay reading fees for all those submissions. I hearken back to when I was a young writer who set off on the road to encounter new experiences. I was homeless for years back then and often had no money in my pocket. Why should I not have had the opportunity to submit my work for publication? Do these editors and publishers who finance their magazines through reading fees really want to hear only the voices of the elite? Perhaps that’s why science fiction, fantasy, and other genre works are the most vital, diverse, lively, and attractive forms of fiction out there nowadays, because they welcome submissions from all types of people without charging elitist reading fees to cull out the disadvantaged.

I am reminded of one of my favorite rags-to-riches literary stories: that of Jack London, who returned from the Klondike brimming with ideas and fought to have his stories published despite countless rejections. Can you imagine if he would have had to pay for all those submissions? He never would have had a chance. The publishers who charge reading fees might point out that in those days he had to pay for postage. Sure he did, and it almost killed his literary ambitions because much of the time he couldn’t afford it and had to sacrifice decent clothes and food to be able to send out his work. Why close and lock your gates to struggling writers and demand money payments as the price of admission to the literary world? Some of the world’s greatest writers have produced masterpieces while grappling with extreme financial distress, but why make it harder on writers to achieve their dreams rather than easier? Editors and publishers should be in writers’ corners, encouraging them and helping them make it, not setting up fiscal barriers to oppose them. No wonder these magazines are failing. They attempt to stifle some of the voices who might have the most to say by charging admission to speak in their forums. Thank God for the genre magazines and anthologies as well as the best of the mainstream and literary publications, not to mention self-publishing venues, that have maintained their integrity by making submissions free to all writers.

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Book Review: Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis

I don’t know how many people remember Nikos Kazantzakis nowadays. He’s known mainly for two novels that became acclaimed and controversial movies: Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ. When I was a young man obsessed with becoming a writer, I read Zorba the Greek more than once. It was a germinal book for me. I identified with the withdrawn, cautious, timid writer who had to be lured out of his shell by the robust, tempestuous Zorba. I wanted to step out and live life so I could write about it, but it took a lot of effort to get me started. I read The Last Temptation of Christ too, but it didn’t make the same strong impression on me. I couldn’t figure what the fuss was all about. Maybe it was because I was already so fed up with the church at that point.

I hadn’t thought about Kazantzakis in decades, and then Report to Greco popped up on a table at a Seattle Public Library used book sale and I grabbed it on a whim. It’s purportedly his autobiography, but in reality it’s only his autobiography in the way that Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy are the autobiographical works of Henry Miller. In other words, kind of but not really. In fact, Henry Miller immediately came to mind as I began to read. Both Miller and Kazantzakis write from the gut and from the emotions. Both use extremely flamboyant and flowery language. Both are blunt in their honesty, and both suddenly go off on intellectual tangents, describing dreams, visions, and other emotional intricacies without warning. Their styles are similar, but there’s one big difference between them: Miller reacts to poverty and hard times with joy, dancing, and sexual liberality. Kazantzakis reacts with angst, despair, and celibacy. Personally, I’ll take Miller any day. I simply couldn’t understand what Kazantzakis was up to sometimes, and why he reacted the way he did.

The book begins with Kazantzakis’s childhood in Crete, goes through his teen years, his studies, and his travels on the Greek mainland and in Italy, Jerusalem, Mount Sinai, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and Moscow. His main concern is his spiritual odyssey, though, not the countries he is visiting. First he has a long love/hate relationship with the God Jehovah of the Old Testament and with Jesus. When he goes to Paris, he has a torrid infatuation with Nietzsche; he speaks about his discovery of the man’s philosophy as if he has fallen in love and is having an affair. He goes on and on, page after page, describing his feelings and sensations upon abandoning Christ and taking up Nietzsche. To be honest, this got extremely boring after awhile. I kept reading because I wanted to find out if he would eventually describe his beginnings as a writer. And he does, sort of, at the very end of the book when he recounts meeting the character who inspired Zorba. In Vienna, he leaps from Nietzsche to Buddha. In Berlin, he leaps from Buddha to Lenin. Again, it’s hard to understand his frame of mind in embracing Lenin’s dogmas so thoroughly, even though he spends many pages attempting to describe his reasoning. In the end, after numerous adventures, he returns to Crete, holes up alone in a cottage by the sea, and writes.

I don’t quite know how to react to this book. At one point, Kazantzakis is telling anecdotes of his encounters with common people that are so touching they move me to tears. At other points, he goes off into philosophical rants that are irrelevant and annoying. When I took up the book, I supposed that Kazantzakis was like Zorba, full of life and zest and enthusiasm, but as I read I realized that he was actually like the writer who meets Zorba: fearful and isolated and insecure. He writes a lot about fear, especially when he describes himself as a youth, but also on into adulthood. Only the translator does not merely use the word “fear.” The word “terror” comes up over and over, as if practically everything in life terrified Kazantzakis.

The translation, by the way, is a good one as far as I can tell. To really know for sure I’d have to compare it with the original Greek, but I’m not capable of that. I think that Kazantzakis’s mind and spirit come across as he intended.

As I said, I can’t really decide if I should recommend this book or not. It would be a much stronger read if the passages on Nietzsche and Lenin were omitted, but then of course it wouldn’t be complete in describing the writer’s individual journey. In the end, it is what it is, and all I can say is that parts are sublime and parts are very slow. It’s a mixed bag.

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“Dark Mirrors” in Alien Invasion: Short Stories

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I’m pleased to announce that one of my personal favorites among my short stories, “Dark Mirrors,” has just been reprinted in a hardcover anthology with a beautiful embossed cover called Alien Invasion: Short Stories. It’s part of the impressive Gothic Fantasy series by Flametree Publishing, although this particular volume leans heavily towards science fiction rather than fantasy. The book features a mix of classic and contemporary writers. Once again, because the listing is alphabetical, I find myself sandwiched in between literary greats, in this case Voltaire and H.G. Wells.

Here’s the blurb for “Dark Mirrors”:

The people of Earth are losing a war with aliens that they themselves provoked.  Every able-bodied person is being called up to fight, even prisoners; those who refuse are threatened with dismemberment to provide spare parts for wounded soldiers.  A battle-hardened general enters a prison to recruit a woman who refuses to fight, but who may have a most unusual special ability that can turn the tide of the war.

You can also find “Dark Mirrors” as the title story in my collection Dark Mirrors: Dystopian Tales.

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Book Review: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

I’ve come across Nisi Shawl’s short stories from time to time, including one set in the Everfair universe. This is her first novel. In it, she posits an alternate history in which Europeans and Americans purchase a tract of land in the midst of the Congo from King Leopold II of Belgium, intending to set up a new country, a safe haven for African Americans seeking freedom, disenchanted Europeans, Africans of various tribes fleeing King Leopold’s oppressive rule, and other wandering people in search of a homeland. To this, Shawl adds steampunk technology that enables creation of dirigibles that the locals call aircanoes and mechanical prosthetics to replace limbs severed by King Leopold’s mercenaries. The citizens of Everfair also benefit from the supernatural influence of local herbs, enchantments, and spirits. All of this makes for a very compelling and exciting story.

Shawl peoples her imaginary world with a diversity of characters such as African American missionaries, idealistic Europeans, nationalistic Africans, tech-minded East Asians, cunning assassins, and oppressive slaveholders. Rather than stick to the viewpoint of one character, she skips from character to character, at the same time moving forward from a month to a year at a time with each chapter scene. The technique works excellently to propel the story relentlessly onward through this alternate history; at the same time, it allows in-depth exploration of the main characters as they react to ever-changing events.

The novel is told in two parts. Part one deals with the founding of Everfair and increasing antagonism that builds up to a war with Belgium. This first half is by far more action-packed and faster-paced. Part two deals with the aftermath of the war and what happens to the various characters; although absorbing and fascinating, it almost comes across as a sort of extended epilog. However, because Shawl has created characters with so much depth, reader interest in their various fates is strong enough to accommodate the slower pace.

Overall, I find Everfair a great read: wonderfully original in its concept and very well executed. The rapidly evolving chronology of the style suits the material perfectly, allowing extensive character development while simultaneously giving the novel epic proportions by allowing it to cover two decades of history. Shawl takes full advantage of the situation of all these people of various nations and races put together by social and political circumstances to explore the complex relationships that would ensue. Additionally, although Everfair is presented as a utopia of sorts, Shawl acknowledges the cultural and political difficulties of creating and maintaining a utopia when confronted with the realities of pride, nationalism, religious intolerance, narrow-mindedness, greed, and selfishness.

All in all, this is a great novel that works on several levels: as an adventure story, character study, social commentary, and imaginative alternative to the much sadder reality that took place on the African continent. In a way, it’s too bad that we have to pin labels on things such as “science fiction,” “alternate history,” and “steampunk,” and just let a story be a story. All labels aside, this is an excellent story.

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A Second Look: Dark Mirrors: Dystopian Tales

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When it malfunctions, a teacher discovers a microchip implanted within her forehead which was designed to eradicate her free will.  She determines to rescue the orphaned children in her care from a similar fate.

In the aftermath of a conflict in which all adults were killed or driven away by their progeny, children and teens roam the streets of a ruined city.  When they near the age of 21 they must play the ultimate game, snuff sport, to prevent themselves from becoming hated adults.  A lone grown-up who re-enters the city on a mission of reconciliation is captured and put on trial for his life.

The people of Earth are losing a war with aliens that they themselves provoked.  Every able-bodied person is being called up to serve in combat, even prisoners.  A battle-hardened general enters a prison to recruit a woman who refuses to fight, but who may have a most unusual special ability that can turn the tide of the war.

These and other tales offer terrifying glimpses of Earth’s future gone wrong.

From the author’s afterword:  “When I postulate dark futures it is not to get you to despair.  When I hold up dark mirrors before your eyes it is not so that you will see the worst in yourself and do yourself in.  Far from it.  Some of our greatest illuminations come from deep dark prose.  Dark literature is not meant to overwhelm us.  It is meant to purge us, to provide catharsis.  It is a cleansing and purifying process.  We must be aware of the evil within before we can clean it out.”

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Book Review: I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai

This is a wonderful, exciting, amazing, and important book. It’s one of those world-changing special books that rarely comes along. It celebrates freedom, education for all, and women’s rights while at the same time telling a horrendous story of oppression, fear, and violent savagery.

Malala is a Muslim girl from the Swat Valley in Pakistan who became an activist for education for girls and was therefore targeted by the Taliban. When she was fifteen years old, she was riding a school vehicle home with some other students when she was shot in the head. After surgery and intensive care in Peshawar, Rawalpindi, and England, Malala recovered, and at seventeen won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to promote education for all the world’s children.

The book describes her early life in Swat Valley. Although it was a simple life, Swat was a beautiful place, and she was happy with her family, school, and schoolmates. Her father became a school owner and a strong advocate for education.

Swat Valley truly is, or was, a paradise. I traveled through Pakistan several times in the seventies, from Kabul, Afghanistan, over the Khyber Pass to Peshawar, then to Rawalpindi, Lahore, and on to India. On another journey I passed from Iran to southern Pakistan, across the desert to Quetta, and on up to Islamabad and Lahore. I came close to Swat Valley, and heard from others how idyllic it was, but never had a chance to visit. Hearing Malala’s description of it, I regret the lost opportunity.

In the early years, when Malala was a young child, her family struggled financially but they were happy. Then the Taliban invaded the valley, and things changed. The Pakistan army made sporadic attempts to drive them out but were unsuccessful. Among the Taliban’s strict rules was a ban on education or any other type of freedom for girls and women. They began to bomb schools and murder people who spoke out against them. Malala and her father feared for their lives, but at the same time didn’t want to leave Swat Valley, which was their beloved homeland. As the situation worsened, Malala became more outspoken and won numerous local and national awards for her stand on education. At the same time, the Taliban became more and more threatening.

The book opens with a prologue that describes the shooting, and then backtracks to Malala’s early life in the valley. As you read, you know with dread inevitability what’s coming. It’s heartrending to learn of the great love that the family has for their homeland and then read about how that land is turned into a fear-ridden wasteland by terrorists. The last part of the book describes Malala’s treatment after she is shot. The bullet had entered her face near her left eye and lodged in her shoulder. She was in a coma for a week, and when she awakened she had been transported to England. She had to undergo numerous surgeries to remove pressure from her brain, restore the facial nerves on the left side of her face, and restore hearing in her left ear. Through it all she continued to thank God for the miracle of life and maintained her resolve to fight for education for all.

Sometimes you don’t appreciate what comes easily to you until you hear about someone else who has had to fight for it. Reading this book makes you appreciate what a precious gift education is, and how vital it is that everyone has access to it. As I said: it’s a wonderful book, and I hope that many more people around the world have the opportunity to read it.

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Book Review: No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin was one of my instructors at Clarion West 1973. It’s a shame I don’t remember very much about my Clarion experience; but after all, that was about 45 years ago and I had just turned twenty. I was very naive, and the only thing I knew about writing was that I wanted to do it. No, I had to do it. Clarion West back then benefited me more by the fellowship of other writers than for the specific instruction on how to put together a story. It would be over twenty-five years before I managed to sell any of my fiction.

Back then I read a lot of fiction of what was termed the New Wave: stories that pushed the borders of what was generally accepted during the pulp era. Le Guin was a major voice in the science fiction field. I recall reading her novel The Dispossessed, her novella “The World for World is Forest,” which appeared in the groundbreaking anthology Dangerous Visions, and numerous short stories. Sometimes I didn’t always completely understand her fiction; it was too sophisticated and I wasn’t ready for it. Recently I’ve read several of her novelettes and short stories and have been quite impressed.

Le Guin died recently, which makes No Time to Spare her last book, unless more are released posthumously. It’s a very entertaining collection of essays, originally blog posts, gentle in tone and varying greatly in subject matter. I think the section that I enjoyed the most is the first, in which she talks about what it’s like to grow old. She was in her eighties when she wrote it, and I’m just about to turn 65, but I could identify with her words because in some ways, especially physically, I am beginning to feel my age. I am much more tired than when I was younger, and infirmities take longer to heal. My biggest problem, though, is the feeling that I haven’t really accomplished what I want to with my writing. I’ve done some good work, and editors are starting to buy my short stories more regularly, but though I have published over twenty books, I have few readers. In that, Le Guin and I differ, and I was acutely aware of the difference as I read her essays. She writes from the perspective of great success, multiple awards, and financial ease, while I am still struggling to break out and barely scrape up enough for the rent and bills at the end of each month. I bring all this up because it was going through my mind as I read this book.

The other section of No Time to Spare that was particularly relevant to me was the one on the literary business. In the other parts of the book Le Guin writes about odds and ends of her family and professional life and her relationship with her current cat. In all of it I felt a profoundly informal atmosphere, as if I were sitting with her and chatting about these various subjects over a cup of tea. I don’t know why a cup of tea comes to mind; I usually prefer coffee, but tea seems to fit the ambiance better. That’s the thing about writers: they age and die physically just like anyone else, but we have the ongoing legacy of their words, and when we read them, we can once again awaken the mind and spirit that was stilled. I enjoyed reading this book. It was relaxing, comforting, informative, pleasant, and satisfying.

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A Second Look: After the Rosy-Fingered Dawn: A Memoir of Greece

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Greece has always been regarded as the birthplace of western civilization and a Mediterranean paradise.  In The Iliad and The Odyssey Homer uses the magical epithet rosy-fingered dawn to describe the sunrise over a land of myth, fascination, and mystery.  But when preconceptions and illusions are swept aside, what is Greece really like?

 John Walters has lived in Greece for over fifteen years.  He has hitchhiked over many of its roads; traveled by camper; journeyed by plane, boat, bus, car, taxi, motorcycle, and on foot.  He has lived and worked and raised a family among Greeks.  He offers insight from an intimate perspective on aspects of Greek society and culture of which tourists are unaware.

 Many have visited Greece and afterwards acknowledged that the country has profoundly changed them.  This memoir is for those who feel something special when they think of Greece and Greeks, those for whom Greece holds a special thrall, those who have visited and have their own memories of the place, and those who would like to visit someday and know that when they do they will obtain new insight, new clarity, and will never be the same again.

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Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

It was a real one-two punch to read this novel right after reading the powerful collection of essays We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The novel brings to vivid life much of what Coates discussed. It’s a devastating social commentary. Much of its strength, though, comes from not seeming to be so, for at the same time it’s a finely wrought story with a clear simple style, nuanced language, believable characters, and a thrilling plot.

The main character, Cora, is an African-American slave in Georgia in the Deep South, and her life is hell, as is the life of every slave on the plantation on which she lives. Atrocities are commonplace, and Whitehead describes them in gruesome detail, although he does not dwell on them. What makes Cora different is the fact that when she was ten years old, her mother ran and was never caught, while most slave who try to escape are captured, brought back, and tortured to death.

Another slave, Caesar, persuades Cora to run away with him, and they embark on a journey on the famed Underground Railroad. Only the railroad in this novel is not metaphorical; it’s a real system of tunnels with real trains carrying runaways to supposedly safer places in the north. This deviation from historical fact turns the novel into alternate history, a subgenre of science fiction, and it has even won a major science fiction award along with the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and other honors. However, this venture into the realm of fantasy does not rob the story of any of its realism. Cora advances from state to state, and each place she goes has a different way of dealing with free blacks, runaways, and white sympathizers. It’s an excruciatingly difficult journey and a long road to freedom. Reading it, especially, as I said, on the coattails of Coates’s book, makes me question the history on which I was raised and my own moral attitudes about the people with whom I share this country and this world.

But one of the great strengths of this book is that it doesn’t lapse into preaching or self-righteousness. It doesn’t have to. The story speaks for itself. As Cora flees and those who attempt to help her are captured or murdered one after the other, the reader is right there with her in profound empathy. The horrifying thing is that this is not fantasy, not really. Whitehead based his background in research on the accounts of real slaves. It’s almost unbelievable to comprehend that people really endured these things and that other people felt justified in inflicting such horrors upon them.

All in all, it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in recent times. It’s well written, exciting, and also important. It throws you into another world, a world in which you would be tempted to drown without hope. Even a modicum of hope is hard to come by, but Cora keeps going in spite of her travails, learning and growing as she journeys from one bizarre situation to another. She turns into a hero due to her perseverance and grit. That’s the human spirit. We need books like this.

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Book Review: We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I acquired this book, knowing nothing about it at the time, because I saw the title on a list of finalists for a major literary award. Now, having read it, I recognize it as an important work from an important writer. I find myself in the position of not wanting to review it in the traditional sense, that is, giving a summary of it and saying whether I think it’s a good or bad book. Why not? Well, I don’t want to summarize it because I don’t want to present the author’s ideas in a manner different from and inferior to that which he has adopted in this book. And I don’t want to say whether it’s good or bad because that’s not the point. This is a book of reportage – facts and hypotheses that need to be assimilated on their own terms. It is told from a singular viewpoint that I appreciate but can’t, from experience, emulate.

The author is an African American who writes for The Atlantic, and this is a collection of essays previously published in The Atlantic with additional short introductory essays that explain their backgrounds. They deal with Obama’s presidency in the context of the overall history of blacks in America and attempt to deal with why, in the author’s opinion, Obama’s presidency failed and brought on such a bizarre backlash in the 2016 election. Coates discusses white privilege, the breakup of black families, the powerful positive example of Obama’s wife, the real meaning of the Civil War from a black perspective, Malcolm X as a black role model, right-wing backlash to the Obama presidency, the case for reparations to African Americans, and the incarceration of black Americans as a method of control. There is also a fascinating summary of a long interview Coates had with Obama late in his second term.

Coates is an excellent researcher and writer and presents his arguments well. His voice has the ring of honesty backed up by hard facts. It’s a voice I need to hear, because, as I said, I cannot experience what he experiences first hand because I’m not black. Although I have lived much of my life in countries where I have been a minority of one, surrounded by people of other nationalities, most of those people were white. Even when I was traveling in India and my traveling companions were black Asian Indians and I would sometimes go days without seeing another white person, the situation is not the same, because I never in all that time, either from my friends or from strangers, received any intimation of a stigma of inferiority. No, I can’t really relate to being belittled, ostracized, and oppressed because of my race or skin color. That’s why I need people like Coates to set me straight. And that’s why I won’t attempt to summarize what he has to say. You need to hear it from him, not from me.

One point in his biography, though, I could relate to and empathize with, and that is his account of himself as a struggling writer. I’ve been there; I’m still there. Coates broke out into mainstream publishing due to a blog he started in which he poured out what he wanted to say and acquired a following of people who appreciated his words. The Atlantic took notice of the blog and hired him. In fact, then, he got his start as a self-published writer. In this I caught a ray of hope. Self-publishing, either through blogs or self-publishing book platforms, allows writers to express themselves without having to be screened by traditional gatekeepers. This gives an opportunity to anyone, regardless of race, gender, or other considerations, to speak freely without censure in the hope of acquiring a sympathetic audience. If, as in the case of Coates, you have something important to say and you can say it well, you have the possibility of readership through word-of-mouth. As I have said before, I see self-publishing as an important tool for writers from all backgrounds.

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