Publishing and power

Check out this piece by Daniel José Older, about the lack of diversity in the publishing industry. The topics he engages here speak to some of the reasons I’ve considered launching an independent publishing house myself.

From the piece:

In the New York Times last month, children’s book illustrator Christopher Myerswrote about “The apartheid of literature — in which characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth.”

Myers’ father, author Walter Dean Myers, wrote about growing up a bibliophile in Harlem, falling out of love with books when they offered up no characters he could relate to, and the revelation of reading Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin: “I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.”

These two essays perfectly frame the emotional and social debacle of publishing and diversity today. They begin with this stat: “Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people,” according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin. The wide world of literature in general, and by no coincidence, the publishing industry itself, suffer from similarly disastrous numbers.

He goes on to critique the industry’s history of victim-blaming, wherein gatekeepers are somehow blameless and those who seek entry are denied, in large part, because they are too different from the establishment. A bit too diverse, it seems.

Writers are encouraged to white-wash characters and make them more recognizable to gatekeepers. Moreover, they are shaded as being poor writers who are too lazy to improve their craft. Funny how that works – legions of writers representing alternative points of view are simply less talented than all the “traditional” storytellers.

And really, what can agents and publishers do when The Market says folks won’t buy literature featuring underrepresented characters? Hands thrown up in despair, they are free to march ever onward into the Land of Sameness.

Daniel calls on industry insiders to examine their privilege, and consider concrete ways to expand publishing to look more like the world actually is. This is quite a deal more difficult than simply maintaining the status quo. And yet, he says, diversity isn’t enough:

We’re right to push for diversity, we have to, but it is only step one of a long journey. Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism. It walks hand in hand with sexism, cissexism, homophobia, and classism. To go beyond this same conversation we keep having, again and again, beyond tokens and quick fixes, requires us to look the illness in the face and destroy it. This is work for white people and people of color to do, sometimes together, sometimes apart. It’s work for writers, agents, editors, artists, fans, executives, interns, directors, and publicists. It’s work for reviewers, educators, administrators. It means taking courageous, real-world steps, not just changing mission statements or submissions guidelines.

It’s a thought-provoking piece. Read the rest (and see Julie Dillon’s gorgeous art) here.