national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

Notes on Diversity from the Nonfiction Editors

What is diversity and what role does it play in the selection process for a national anthology of undergraduate writing? The 2013 nonfiction editors often found ourselves asking those questions, and here, the four of us share our insights on this broad topic and how taking diversity into consideration influences our work at plain china.

Sasha Wiseman: The word diversity doesn’t have much in common with the word best. When I think of diversity I think of scope and range, inclusiveness and variety. Best, on the other hand, is a razor-sharp superlative: something is the best, or it isn’t.

This presented a challenge to the plain china editors. The first sentence of the “About” section of our website reads, “plain china is a national literary anthology that showcases the best undergraduate writing from across the country…” Sounds simple, right? We pore over scores of undergraduate journals, searching for that brilliant spark of “best”ness in the essays that we anthologize. But what happens when many of the best essays are about the same topic, or represent experiences common only to a narrow demographic? What if they are all written by women, or feature a specific structural choice or aspect of style that makes them read very similarly?

 During our selection process, we tried to keep in mind the different ways that “best” can manifest itself in an essay. There were a handful of pieces that we could all instantly and recognize as perfect for plain china. Beyond that, we worked to curate a collection of essays that embodied the assortment of strengths that we found in the nonfiction writing of undergraduates all over America. The selection process became not only about which individual authors were the finest; we were interested in “the best undergraduate writing” as a glorious, collective force. To do justice to the idea of best, the concept of diversity was essential.

Brooke Morrison: One dictionary defines nonfiction as “the branch of literature comprising works of narrative prose dealing with or offering opinions or conjectures upon facts and reality.” Authors of nonfiction are attempting to express their own mediated understandings of reality, and inevitable variation in each person’s perspective leads to an exciting diversity inherent in nonfiction.

Experience constructs reality. Because no two people share the exact same experiences, there is no ultimate, objective reality. The specifics of what we each deem to be “reality” is, in a large part, an ambiguous, subjective, and fluid creation of our minds. Two people could experience the same event, but their understands of it could differ greatly. The process of nonfiction writing entails a translation from experience to the written word. While, as it is said, something is always lost in the act of translation, the written word has the exciting advantage of being a shareable form of communication.

Language is a method of expressing meaning. Every word is metaphoric, representing and referring to something that exists in another form (object, idea, place, person). The same word can carry different connotations, weights, and associations depending on the person and his/her understanding of reality. If writing comes from the filter through which the writer sees reality, there is a possibility of sharing with readers a glimpse into the reality seen through his/her filter.

These windows of perspective—the basis of diversity in nonfiction writing—are what we have enjoyed looking through as we have read, and each selected piece has its own manner of meaning to communicate to the reader.

Alan Dupont: The word diversity instantly evokes associations with identity, both biological and social; it’s a word with an ethical imperative that demands a wide range of perspectives. When applied to writing, though—nonfiction especially—it gets even trickier. Barthes tells us that the author is dead, and that we should look at the text exclusively. Philosophically, I can’t disagree; but when exploring nonfiction it feels wrong to rob a writer of his connection to the text. So how do we have a diversity of identities when all we can look at is text?

Not every piece can be read sociologically; there are authors like Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood and Philip Roth who invite it, and it would do them an injustice to overlook the identity-laden aspects of their writing, but this type of reading just isn’t applicable to all pieces. Besides, I read very few pieces for plain china that were written in a specific dialect. That’s not the language of academia in America; it isn’t what colleges are teaching. Moreover, once we move diversity into the language and away from the author, we have to add more variables to the calculation: undergraduates, I learned, have a tendency to write about trauma, use compassion as the entryway for the reader, employ fragmented structures and have a fascination with the second person. I found myself digging for more male voices; objectively, we found many more strong pieces by women. As I just suggested, though, this can only be seen as one factor among many. Ultimately, I think the pieces we are drawn to are outliers because they successfully stray from convention one way or another and thus are inherently diverse.

Kelsey Greenwood: A great difficulty in measuring diversity is scale. One person can look at two stories and see deep distinctions, while another would group them into the same basic category. Batman and Iron Man are, for example, different stories. Batman lives in a desolate town overrun with villains; he is motivated by the death of his parents to fight crime and protect his fellow citizens. Iron Man has suffered fewer tragic losses and is an irresponsible partier whose inventions make him capable of being a hero, despite his personality flaws. At a distance, however, these stories are basically about rich white men who fight crime. They are different, but they are not diverse.

What, then, is different in regard to stories about queer women who fight crime? There can be a hundred variations (one is a warrior with a dark past who has turned from her evil ways, while another is fighting to avenge the death of her soul mate)—but really, like Batman and Iron Man, they’re just crime fighters. The difference is that the uniqueness, the variations among white men in stories, is honored, and more importantly, these various stories are frequently told. Marginalized people, like queer women, only have so many stories that center on them, and these stories tend to fall into a set number of patterns, many based on stereotypes. There is diversity in all stories on the micro level, but zoomed out, the pattern of stories in general reveals a painful lack of variation.

The challenge of finding real diversity in a group of stories is in viewing them as both individual and universal, personal and political. It’s like looking through a microscope and a telescope at once. We plain china editors have struggled to manage both of these ideas while selecting essays. This year’s selections are diverse in as many ways as possible, an achievement that involved careful consideration and difficult decisions.

Whether it is a theoretical question of how authors construct and communicate their realities or something as straightforward as prose style or subject matter, diversity takes many forms in undergraduate writing.  We have brought our array of individual understandings of the topic into our conversations about nonfiction essays throughout the term, and are pleased to have anthologized what we believe to be a diverse collection of excellent work.