A few months ago, drafting my response to a questionnaire in advance of an upcoming interview in connection with Caroline, I wrote the phrase “fiction’s ghetto.” Here’s the question and my original answer:
Q: Do you have a target reader?
A: Yes: mainstream readers. This is crucial for me. It’s time to bring disabled people out of fiction’s ghetto.
My publicist objected, arguing that “ghetto” could offend some people.
I hadn’t used the word casually. I knew about its painful history. It goes back to the early seventeenth century, when Venice designated a section of the city where all its Jews were required to reside. In the United States, the word evolved to encompass urban areas where African-Americans congregate. It connotes a group that is isolated because of discrimination.
As I’ve explained in essays on this website and elsewhere, while mainstream publishers readily release memoirs written by successful blind people, there is almost no mainstream fiction with blind characters written by blind authors. I suspect it’s because publishers want feel-good stories free of the complexity that fiction is better suited to address. Ordinary disabled people have few, if any, voices in mainstream fiction. Hence my phrase, “fiction’s ghetto.”
But the publicist had a point. While I was focused on one set of connotations around “ghetto,” there are others: poverty, futility, frustration, crime. Whether or not these latter associations are fair, they’ve come into the language. Besides, a family in New York’s Harlem or Los Angeles’s Watts could take offense that I’d appropriate such a complicated concept about their lives for a group, disabled people, whose experiences are different, even if there might be some overlap. Some Jews, too, might be offended that I’d use their distinct history for my own purposes.
The trouble was that I could find no exact synonym for “ghetto” in the sense of isolation due to discrimination. The publicist suggested “background,” which was constructive and better than any of the alternatives I found, but it’s neutral and lacks attitude.
Without an exact synonym, I had to rewrite the sentence and think through all over again what I actually meant to say. It was a good thing. As has happened before when I’ve needed to reconsider my original idea, the result was a much more accurate statement. Here again is the question, and after it the answer we sent the podcast’s people:
Q: Do you have a target reader?
A: Yes: mainstream readers. This is crucial for me. Disabled authors should no longer be banished with their disabled characters to literature’s sidelines. I sense the reading public has a much greater interest in such fiction than publishers seem to assume.
Why is this answer better? First, it doesn’t accuse. I may be justified in believing disabled novelists have been sidelined, but is that a conscious judgment? Conscious or not, is my inference correct? Maybe there are no good blind authors other than memoirists, except for—let’s see—James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, James Thurber, possibly Homer. Milton doesn’t count because he was a poet.
More important is the last sentence. To the extent publishers have assessed mainstream reader interest in fiction by disabled writers, I believe they’re mistaken. I’m confident there’s an audience for fiction in which such authors portray the lives of disabled people navigating mainstream society. I’m also confident that if such fiction could reach the mainstream, it would lead to a more welcoming attitude toward disabled people, and it would just as surely help disabled people figure out how best to fit in.
All this because I conceded the harm in the word “ghetto.”