2 New Efforts In Publishing Diversity: ‘Learning From Each Other’s Narratives’

iStockphoto / statu-nascendi
iStockphoto / statu-nascendi

‘There Are So Many Reasons To Write’

We’ve joined the global conversation on the intersection of race and writing.

But is it enough?

Therese Walsh
Therese Walsh

Well, no, it’s not enough, according to the leadership of two major writing communities speaking to the issue.

These viewpoints echo that of Zed Books’ Crystal Mahey-Morgan, who told me in an interview for The Bookseller less than a year ago: “We need to move beyond rhetoric and good will.”

This week, we have announcements of newly devised point-of-view initiatives from:

Eve Bridburg
Eve Bridburg

The programs have no formal connections, but are familiar to each other. Writer Unboxed contributors have presented panel sessions at GrubStreet’s The Muse and The Marketplace conference, for example, as a group of eight of them will do on August 1 at Writer’s Digest’s Annual Conference in New York City.

In these programs’ day-to-day operations, authors engage both in matters of writerly craft and of the business of writing. At GrubStreet, the emphasis is on teaching, with more than 600 courses offered annually in an extensive curriculum. At Writer Unboxed, the stress is on concerns of working writers, played out primarily in articles, commentary, and a large Facebook group.

‘Not All Looking For The Same Experiences’

At Writer Unboxed, on Sunday (19 July), Walsh introduced a new series of viewpoint essays, “Diverse Voices: Why Diversity in Publishing Matters.”

In setting up the genesis of the effort, Walsh wrote that a survey of the Writer Unboxed Facebook group had revealed that issues of diversity were among the most requested focal topics. She wrote:

Maybe it was inspired by the recent Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriages, but many of the pitches were tied to diversity. We don’t talk about these issues as much as we should, do we? But we’re all very different, and those differences go beyond age and race and sexual orientation. We do not all have the same emotional experiences or voices or passions or fears. We are not all looking for the same experiences as writers–or as readers–and that’s ultimately a great thing. So let’s start talking.

Walsh tells me that the specific issues flagged by those she heard from did not fall primarily into the gender-ratio area, as some might have expected.

“We’re all very different, and those differences go beyond age and race and sexual orientation…We are not all looking for the same experiences as writers–or as readers–and that’s ultimately a great thing.”
Therese Walsh

Frequently, it can seem that the word “diversity” is pocketed by folks for whom the term has come to mean women’s issues. In fact, much of traditional publishing tends to have a far better ratio of women to men in its employ than many other industries can claim — in the UK, some 80 percent of the traditional workforce is said to be female. Managerial and executive-level positions, however, remain less available to women than many feel they should be. And questions of who gets published are so vexing to some that the author Kamila Shamsie in June issued a call for a “A Year of Publishing [only] Women.

Emma Barnes
Emma Barnes

This week, writing at The FutureBook, The Bookseller’s sister site that I manage in London, Bibliocloud’s and Snowbooks’ Emma Barnes lays out her conviction that botched hiring and training practices are making it particularly hard for women to get traction:

How are we stopping women from being successful in later management roles? Our junior roles, from which future managers develop, don’t provide testing and difficult opportunities to think critically…I’m talking about rehearsing any sort of difficult, logically-minded activity. We still celebrate “gut feel” in our company cultures. We rarely train our juniors in influencing skills or project management techniques, or provide them with the practice to develop the mental apparatus to logically unpack a problem.

But, like many speakers to these problems today, Penguin Random House’s (PRH) Ebury managing director Rebecca Smart in London tells Roger Tagholm for Publishing Perspectives that women’s progress in the industry isn’t necessarily the key focus. 

I think gender is not our only, or even our biggest, diversity issue. The prevalence of the white middle classes in publishing remains a huge problem. We complain that fewer people are reading, but it’s not surprising when publishing represents only a small proportion of our population. I think that the “The Scheme,” PRH’s program aimed at recruiting a more diverse group of people, is a great start, but it’s not enough. We need more ethnic and demographic diversity at the top of our organizations.

And Joanna Prior, who has been named to head the UK’s Publishers Association and is managing director of Penguin General in London, concurs, telling Tagholm:

I worry about lots of things to do with diversity—the ethnic mix, the socio-economic make-up of our work force—but I do not worry about women getting senior roles.

‘The Road Is Long And Narrow’

Grace Wynter
Grace Wynter

At Writer Unboxed, Walsh’s introduction of the Diverse Voices Series leads directly into its first installment, an essay from the Atlanta-based romance author and blogger Grace Wynter. She writes of her formative years as a reader:

As a teenager and later as a new adult, I devoured romance novels. But as much as I enjoyed those stories, something was missing. I read about blondes and brunettes, blue and green-eyed girls who, in the end, always found love, but there were no stories about girls who looked anything like me or my friends. In my school library and at my local book store, there were no stories about nerdy, fat, black, skinny, Latina, Caribbean, or Asian girls getting the guy. There were no stories where girls like me got to be the heroes.

South Carolina State University literature professor Angela Shaw-Thornburg’s comments on To Kill A Mockingbird, as reviewed by Laura Marsh at The New Republic, come immediately to mind:

Shaw-Thornburg describes teaching the novel at a “minority majority institution” where students are “trying to figure out why they feel unvoiced by the literature they are reading” and she diagnoses…“how little we see of [the accused African American] Tom Robinson, whose life and death would presumably be at the center of this story.”

For her part, Wynter opens the Writer Unboxed series with an unblinking gaze at what typical industry categorization can mean, both in publishing imprints and in bookselling:

When I write a novel with a black female protagonist, it’s a good bet that my novel will end up shelved in an area designated as African American or multi-cultural, and not general romance or themed romance. This designation immediately limits my potential audience and my earning potential.

Narrowly shelving books with black female protagonists says, “Black women, this book is for you, but the rest of you probably won’t be interested in this title because the protagonist doesn’t look or act like you.”…Never mind that the novel might be a western, might be historical, or might feature a multi-cultural cast of characters.

She adds that independent bookstores “are much better at featuring diverse authors and stories than big-box bookstores and retailers.”

And in a particularly generous comment, Wynter raises one of the trickier elements of the diversity dialogue: She turns to her own racial community to note that expectations don’t always match up on either “side,” when diverse storytelling is put into place:

I remember a friend once complaining that the black male character in a television dramedy about three men, was the one with daddy issues. I reminded her that the other two characters were equally flawed – one a gambling addict, the other a womanizer unable to hold down a steady job. Which flaw would we rather? We must be willing to see flawed, multi-dimensional characters of color on TV and in our books.

Regina Brooks leads GrubStreet's Marketplace Keynote panel event in May in Boston. Image: Porter Anderson
Regina Brooks, standing, leads GrubStreet’s Marketplace Keynote panel event in May in Boston. Image: Porter Anderson

No One-Way Street

Wynter’s insightful comment about how creative people of color “must be willing to see flawed, multi-dimensional characters of color” if the conversation is to be complete might remind GrubStreet conference-goers of the Marketplace Keynote event led in May by the literary agent Regina Brooks (who will be with us at Writer’s Digest’s Annual Conference).

The event in Boston is recalled by GrubStreet’s Sarah Colwill-Brown and Alison Murphy in the organization’s announcement of its own new diversity initiative, “a blog series dedicated to reviewing books by authors of color and other authors often overlooked by the literary industry.”

During that evening with an audience of hundreds of mostly white authors, Brooks and a panel of accomplished writers and editors of color spoke of how important it is for white authors to consider including in their books characters of color and representatives of other non-majority parts of our society. There was a great deal of support for such an effort, both in the house and on the stage, but writers confessed to wondering how to find research assistance when they needed it, to accurately depict cultural perspectives unfamiliar to them.

The discussion of these issues can always be enhanced with a sense of shared responsibility and an open admission that we all can’t possibly know the details of “the other’s” experience. The more authors are willing to help each other with specific cross-cultural contexts when needed, the richer the work may be and the deeper the dialogue can become. “Just ask us,” as Regina Brooks put it.

And this is evidently in Colwill’s and Murphy’s minds as they write in their GrubStreet announcement about getting beyond the diversity debate itself:

The message is clear: the conversation is not enough. Especially not when it’s been going on for so long that it has become, as [Roxane] Gay puts it, “the worst kind of Groundhog Day.” Any good writer will tell you: dialogue is important, but it’s empty unless it’s accompanied by action.

Roxane Gay. Image: SlowKing, GFDL
Roxane Gay. Image: SlowKing, GFDL

The reference is to Roxane Gay’s editorial for NPR in late May on The New York Times‘ summer reading list of books — all by white authors.

Janet Maslin’s selection, wrote Gay, was only the latest in a series of such selections:

It is worth noting that the Times’ recommended summer readings lists in 2012, 2013, and 2014 were similarly lacking in diversity. To be sure, they’re not alone. NPR also published a monochromatic reading list recently…No list can be comprehensive, but when we see alabaster roundups year after year, it warrants some scrutiny.

Learning new levels of awareness and perspective can take time, persistence, and most of all awareness.

At GrubStreet and at Writer Unboxed, these moves are being made to cultivate insight, with level-headed understandings of what’s at stake and settings for frank, supportive, informative exchanges.

Colwill and Murphy in Boston:

So what does action look like? For starters, we want to go back to where we, as writers, began: with what we read….Every month for the next year, a member of the Grub community will recommend a book they’ve loved, beginning with Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man at the end of this month and followed by a selection of work from this year’s Muse and the Marketplace presenters. We hope that by doing this we can contribute in our own small way to broadening the definition of what an author looks like. Why?…Because by listening to and learning from each other’s narratives, we become better writers and humans.

Aminatta Forna. Image: Jonathan Ring
Aminatta Forna. Image: Jonathan Ring

It was the author Aminatta Forna who gave the final closing keynote address at The Muse conference in May. You can see her talk on aesthetics and politics on video here.

She spoke of how tempting it is for many writers to want to duck these difficult realities that form what we call “political,” whether in the publishing industry or another. Designating herself as a political novelist, she said, has sensitized her to the fact that we live and work among the realities of these dynamics, regardless of the many other values of literature.

Forna told the conference:

There are so many reasons to write. And to read. For the humor, the thrill, the opportunity to escape. All have their value. Write what you want, I say. But “Big P” politics is standing right outside the door. TC mark

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