By Peter VAN BUREN
When sociologists look back on how Woke Theology helped turn earth into a world of talking apes, they will discover the #MSWL. Hidden away on Twitter, this is one of the actual headwaters of all things woke, the way the mighty Mississippi begins as a shallow stream.
#MSWL is a hashtag on Twitter meaning “manuscript wish list.” For anyone interested in publishing fiction, the road to a book deal is complex. Publishers aren’t interested in reading manuscripts sent directly to them because most are truly horrible. They will only consider reading manuscripts from agents, who are forced to root in mountains of garbage to find something “good” so they can sell it to a publisher and claim a commission. The agents don’t want to read whole books submitted because they are mostly awful, so they ask instead for a query, a short summary in a prescribed format. But even these are so uniformly awful most agents want to be pitched with a tweet (it’s called #PitMad, pitch madness.) So for Harry Potter, the author might have written “Boy wizard and friends learn life lessons defeating evil with owls and a big fat guy helping.” The actual Harry Potter query was rejected by nearly ever publisher in the UK, so the system needs some work. It is a poor way to evaluate anything more complex than directions to 7-11.
So the agents now simply tell writers what to write about via the manuscript wish list. That way they would hopefully never see anything too original to fit into a tweet and they could shape the world of literature. That’s where we get to wakey-wakey time.
Big time agents do not need to troll Twitter like pedophiles offering candy in the park. Instead, if you are a recent or maybe not so recent AmLit grad who can’t work at the New Yorker because they stopped hiring Caucasians, you can be an agent. On Twitter, the mass of these agents are white, straight female or gay male, with a tendency toward pink or blue hair, and liberal to the point where it physically hurts. Their bios (here’s a typical one) seem to describe the same person, just switching Sarah Lawrence for Oberlin and favorite TV show from The Office or Friends to “anything with queer representation.” They love cats. They love coffee. They love pronouns. They just hate racism, you guys.
Just because their dreams were crushed when the trumpet player in high school band turned out to be just weird, not gay, they want to take it out on your kids. Through the #MSWL they demand only books with BIPOC characters, or LGBTQIA+ stories. They beg for marginal representation in tales, and often combine themes so the actual request is for a fantasy magical realism story featuring queer vampires who also excel on the school lacrosse team. Here’s one actual list: “anything set on an HBCU campus, all of the magical realism, mythological retellings, romance/love stories, all the millennial joy and adulting hardships.” They don’t like things, they “celebrate” them. They don’t promote women, they “champion” them. Oddly, often their comps — comparisons, things that they want to see more of — are based on TV shows and movies instead of actual books. So it is “send me the new Avatar” not “send me drama like Hamlet.” If they do list Hamlet as a comp, it’s only because some modern version appeared on Netflix with Lady Gaga playing the prince. One asks for books that will remind her of Nancy Drew computer games, seemingly unaware of the iconic book series.
Some agents don’t even get around to the actual subject for a couple of subtweets, instead leading with “First and foremost, I’m looking to partner with folks from traditionally marginalized groups to help elevate their voices.” Others call for books that no one would possibly want to read, based on this week’s buzzwords: “I’d love to see more urban fantasy/paranormal romance that doesn’t rely on traditional government bureaucracy or law enforcement structures!” Sometimes wanna-be writers will tweet from their mom’s basement at the agents seeking more details, as in “How do you feel about the unseelie taking the form of conservative Christian preachers to start the apocalypse?” The agent responded “I’m really, really picky about apocalypse stories to be quite honest” to which another would-be writer replied “Honestly, this was an element in an urban fantasy setting idea I was fleshing out. Vampires had just gotten out of a civil war where the old vampire patriarchs were toppled and a crop of women vampires were in charge now and trying to both figure out how to survive ethically.” Better to write to this prompt: “I want a story with this vibe: Three women discovered they were dating the same man. They dumped him and went on a months-long road trip together.” Just lean hard into sisterhood and you’ll hit most of the #MSWL requests.
They have no idea how shallow it is the say they “only want books that are compelling, with great characters and plotting” like they discovered that insight. They know nothing about hypocrisy, how demanding a narrow list of subjects is supposed to be supporting diversity, or how marginalizing white writers is a poor start toward championing others. Straight was boring until gay was scary and now that gay is dull it has to be trans.
So when you wonder how we got from Clifford the Big Red Dog to drag queens reading children’s books about anal sex out loud in public libraries, it starts with the #MSWL and its over-schooled and under-educated agents imaging their role is to be the shock troops of social justice. Never mind that most of what they do contributes little to social justice, that’s not even the point. The point is to win feel good points and prove you were sincere in that winter semester same-sex fling, not just experimenting. And make no mistake, yep, they’re coming for your kids.