Diversity in publishing: who can tell which stories? | Arts

When Toni Morrison left Random House in 1983, their black fatherhood dropped by 99.2%.

Even when Morrison was actively working in publishing, only 3.3% of books published by Random House were written by black authors.

This, of course, should not devalue Morrison’s commitment to publishing black voices. While Random House’s first black editor, Morrison frequently published radical and militant works by Huey Newton, Muhammad Ali and Angela Davis. Rather, it illustrates how hiring diverse editors is not enough to break down the nuanced and inherently violent forces that keep black voices out of bookstores and publishing houses. The homogeneity of literature is rooted in much more than the identity of publishers.

The publishing industry, like most iterations of corporate life, has made lofty statements about the necessity and possibility of achieving vague goals like “diversity and inclusion” for decades. Unlike other areas of professional life, tracking progress towards inclusivity in publishing is accessible and very important. The proof is (or rather isn’t) in the pudding: people of color are simply not adequately represented in the literary world.

In recent years, however, the severity of black exclusion from the literary world has been masked by a surge of a very specific category of works that often focuses on black oppression and trauma. The category includes memoirs, social commentaries, historical studies, or any combination of these, with prime examples like Ibram. “How to be an anti-racist” by X Kendi or “Caste: the origins of our discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson. No disrespect intended for these authors and their vast catalog of works; the intellect, talent and investment they put into their projects is immense, and the products serve essential educational purposes. But it is precisely this emotional work and the use of their works for education that pose a problem.

As violence against black people has moved to the forefront of national media in recent years, a disturbing fascination has grown within educated white communities about what blackness is, means and looks like. Nonfiction of this nature tends to satiate feelings of intrigue surrounding Blackness without readers having to engage in meaningful, fully human capacity. Nonfiction that centers black trauma is a blatant example of intellectual and emotional exploitation: black intellectuals sift through massive amounts of data, personal experiences, and generational traumatic material in order to produce work that white readers consume greedily – under the cloak of education – as a means of alleviating their own feelings of guilt and discomfort over the legacy of slavery.

And while this web of nonfiction slightly obscures narrative and data, the troubling reality of publishing fiction is still crystal clear: Fiction is almost as white as it ever was.

In 2020 the UK Research and Innovation, Arts and Humanities Research Council conducted a study on fiction and the publishing industry. After surveying hundreds of professions across all major UK publishing houses, the study revealed some troubling assumptions held by those in the publishing industry. When asked why writers of color are not sought out and discovered, the responses were socially and economically charged:

“If you’re not from a family that’s already going to support you in some way, you probably won’t be motivated to sit down and write books,” says a white editor.

“For all the underrepresented voices, the idea of ​​writing a book and getting it published probably seems very far removed from your day-to-day experience,” says another editor. “If you are middle-class and/or upper-class white[ ]…you know it’s a possibility because you probably know someone who knows someone who has. So if you’re not connected to that world at all, how do you get a book published? »

Besides being generally loaded and offensive in their assumptions about non-white families, these statements reveal an outrageous assumption: publishers believe that non-white people are not socially, economically, or culturally prepared to write successful fiction. Not only are we not considered writers, but we are also not considered readers.

All things considered, the publication of diverse fiction becomes the ultimate step towards fairness. Only by openly debunking myths about non-white readership, decolonizing our collective understanding of what good literature is, and distancing black writers from the role of education and emotional labor, can the world of publishing can begin to achieve its goal of “diversity”. and inclusion.

But, of course, publishers already know that. The power of fiction as a tool for shaping cultural understandings of art and personality is not lost on these companies. It was never about how to bring diversity into the literary world in a non-exploitative and non-abusive way. The question is simply: Will they choose to do so?