This is a three-part series on the ongoing public debate on diversity in publishing. I will keep updating these as necessary.
Part 2: A Current State Summary of the ‘Diversity in Publishing’ Discussion
In Part 1, I gave a brief introduction to the ongoing debate around the lack of diversity in publishing. This is not a new issue and the current debate is not highlighting new causes. That said, it is certainly providing more evidence — both statistical and anecdotal — from different stakeholder groups across the publishing industry. So, now, in Part 2, I would like to summarize the gist of the many articles/posts/comments that I’ve read so far, including the ones I had linked to earlier.
1) The publishing industry is biased and not as diverse as we’d like it to be. This holds true for women writers, writers of color, LGBTQ writers, and so on. There are plenty of evidentiary statistics and statements that are hard to ignore. Revisit Part 1 if you would like to see some of them.
2) Many agents/editors/publishers, particularly those within the Big Five publisher circles, have a typical average reader in mind when they accept books. This “typical average reader” happens to be a mythical/archetypal white woman reader. Well, at least, white.
3) Given the above, emerging/new writers in those minority groups mentioned in point 1 find it difficult to get their work accepted without giving in to advice/requests/demands to conform/fit in certain ways. They see this as not being allowed to tell their stories in ways they consider true and right. Furthermore, when some of these stories of minority groups are getting out there, sometimes, they’re being told by white writers who don’t always represent them truthfully or accurately (for a variety of reasons from lack of understanding to lack of talent to needing to conform to agent/publisher requirements). A point of clarification here because this gets contentious — as Paula Young Lee has pointed out:
And let it be said that nobody wants white writers to stop writing, not even about cultures which are not their own. Hey, some of my best friends are white! All of this talk of “diversity” is not about policing whiteness — it’s about the fury of marginalized writers who want to stop their stories from being stolen, distorted and mutilated in the name of cultural imperialism. As hopeful YA author Kara Stewart says, she writes because she is determined “to get a Native perspective out there. To tell about my tribe, my people. To set the record straight.”
4) Watkins’ essay and rallying cry stirred up a lot of good debate and dialogue across North America. In the UK, Kamila Shamsie and Joanne Harris had already stirred up this particular issue regarding bias against women writers last year. And, again in the UK last year, Nikesh Shukla had begun stirring things up for writers of color (BAME). Just as Marlon James has done in North America. All of these together have finally created what we might call a “tipping point” with this longstanding issue. Yes, there are also ongoing sidebar debates like: “are women not as good writers as men?” or “are book awards truly representative of talent?” or “why aren’t there more talented writers of color?” and so on. The latter types of questions, for the most part, keep placing the burden on minority writers.
5) As a direct result of point 4 above, many minority group writers are again speaking up on social media, blog posts, articles, etc. Quite a few of them are using the Watkins essay as a starting point or hook but going on to speak about their particular issues. I don’t see them, for the most part, critiquing Watkins for not speaking on their behalf. Just that the reaction to Watkins’ essay was favorable when some of these minority writers have been saying a lot of this stuff before she did. And, they were not being heard as she was. Or, worse, they were seen as airing grievances or grinding personal axes. I agree with this because I’ve been following some of these minority writers for a few years now and I have seen them mention these things. I don’t think Watkins should have done anything differently unless she herself wanted to. I would not want to put words into any writer’s pen/keyboard. If there are others out there who would like to do so, I do not stand with them.
6) Now, a good number of the minority writers who are speaking up to re-energize this diversity-in-publishing debate are also proposing certain options to make things better — whether it is what readers should demand, what minority writers should push back against, what agents/editors/publishers should change about their approaches, or what awards and MFA programs should do to further support. All of these are valid and will likely need to be addressed systematically. And, for me, this is the part of the debate that is most crucial. Not simply because it’s about looking forward and understanding how to fix the problems. But, also because it is not being discussed in concrete and substantial ways yet.
7) Likely, the reason that we’re not seeing public dialogue/debate focus more on fixes rather than restatements of the problem is that we are still processing the many articles/posts being generated as responses and responses-to-responses. And, some are still genuinely trying to understand the nature of a problem that they did not think was that big a deal. So, there has to be a necessary period of time for people to just think out loud, talk amongst themselves, and settle on their final positions.
8) Here’s how I see it. The entire industry value-chain, in a very simplified form, is as follows, at least for the traditional publishing route:
writer -> agent -> editor -> publisher & marketer -> distributor or dealer -> retailer or seller – > reviewer & critic -> reader
It’s not always as linear as this, I know, and often, roles are combined. But, for the sake of this point, it will suffice. My thinking is that there are so many links in this chain before a book can get from the writer to the reader. Some of these links carry more of the responsibility than others for how the book is packaged, presented, and sold to the reader. So, given that so many brains are involved in the process, how much control does the average reader really have on being able to truly comprehend and articulate his/her tastes? Yes, there are exceptions but they are not the majority. So, I don’t know that we can say that change has to be more at the level of the reader, any more than it’s fair to say that change has to be at the level of the writer (i.e. pandering). It is the entire industry that has to change — every link within that value-chain. And, the ones that carry the most weight need to evolve first. Easier said than done.
9) So, eventually, we need the gatekeepers (agents, editors, publishers, and reviewers/critics) to change their rules for who’s allowed in and who’s not. And, while we’re starting to hear some small noises from their direction, there is nothing of solid evidence yet. Of course, this is because any substantive changes will impact profits, which are not exactly growing in the publishing industry.
10) And, of course, we need writers as well as readers continue to speak out where and when they see these biases.
In Part 3, I will share some of my thoughts related to points 9 and 10.