Blinded by the White

It's tough to see past the publishing world's serious lack of pigment.

Blinded by the White

As America becomes more diverse, the publishing world looks a lot like the Republican Party: fiercely and proudly white and male.

When Book Expo America announced the initial lineup for this year’s BookCon, the only diversity to an otherwise all-white guest roster was represented by a mixed-breed cat. Further controversy ensued when the panel “Blockbuster Reads: Meet the Kids’ Authors That Dazzle” consisted exclusively of four white male authors. Immediately, a campaign was organized to highlight what people had been pointing out for a long time, that diversity is sorely lacking in children’s books.

(Following an uproar, BookCon has since added a slew of diverse guests to its lineup; included African-American Rachel Renee Russell to the kid’s lit panel; and tacked on an event called “The World Agrees: #WENEEDDIVERSEBOOKS.”)

BookCon’s original scheduling was remarkably tone deaf, as the drumbeat for diversity in children’s books has been growing steadily louder. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been tracking diversity in children’s books since 1985. Their tally for 2013 counted only 67 books by African Americans out of 3,200 published that year. Representation of Native-American, Asian, and Latino authors was even lower.

Another disturbing trend that has come under scrutiny is “whitewashing,” putting white people, silhouettes, or ethnically ambiguous illustrations on the covers of young adult (YA) books when the protagonist is a person of color.

And yet the lack of diversity in literature is not limited to juvenile genres. The acclaimed author Junot Díaz has written about his unhappy experience with his MFA program. As he succinctly puts it, from the faculty to the other students to the avoidance of topics of race, “That shit was too white.”

And, of course, there is the annual VIDA count, which tracks the gender of book reviewers, authors of books reviewed, and bylines in major literary publications. In 2013, men continue to dominate, especially at the most influential and prestigious journals.

It seems to me that people are tiptoeing around who bears the most responsibility for the issues of under- and misrepresentation of people of color in the literary world. [Editor’s note: Click here to read about the Independent’s near perfect gender parity.]

I was unable to find any VIDA-like report on minorities in U.S. publishing (a report from the UK some years ago found a “shocking lack of diversity”), but in scouring literary-fiction editor profiles (and those of the dozens of editors who have received my manuscripts), I have found only one: Sonny Mehta, editor-in-chief at Knopf.

When all the gatekeepers are the same race, no matter how open-minded they believe themselves to be, that homogeneity will bleed through into the books they are willing to champion. From the outset, a book submitted by a person of color is a “marketing challenge.” It is outside the editors’ scope of experience, and the scope of experience of their colleagues. Therefore, they conclude, it is outside the scope of experience of the wider reading public.

And, lo, a self-fulfilling prophecy: Books by minorities make up a small percentage of the books published; minorities do not see themselves represented in books and so read less or don’t write because they think it is not for them. Or else they understand that their writing must fall into a genre, such as African-American literature or Asian-American literature, and in order to get published, they must write to the strictures of the genre, instead of writing the story that resides within them.

I’m currently reading Max Perkins: Editor of Genius about the legendary Scribner editor. The book makes it clear that in order for an author to be successful, she must have the entire publishing house behind her. Author A. Scott Berg details the long, hard hours Perkins put in, not just editing books, but getting his authors through personal and professional crises, lending them money, and giving them ideas on what to write next. In Thomas Wolfe’s case, Perkins forged the writer’s massive output of words into two finely crafted novels.

In many cases, an author’s talent needs coaxing and shaping from a dedicated individual. A reflection of the times and the man, all of Perkins’ authors were white, and most, like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ring Lardner, were men who espoused a very 20th-century idea of maleness.

But that was then (Perkins died in 1947), and I think today’s literati like to believe that racism is over. After all, we voted for Obama, twice, and People magazine named Lupita Nyong’o the most beautiful woman of 2014. Youth culture is saturated with hip-hop, rap, and black sports stars.

It is true that overt racism — such as that spewed by Cliven Bundy — is no longer tolerated as it was in Perkins’ time. But bias still abides, even if those who hold those biases think they believe in equality for all. It is apparent in the achievement gap in our high schools, the statistics of our prison population, and, yes, something as innocuous as a panel of children’s lit authors.


comments powered by Disqus