This is a three-part series on the ongoing public debate on diversity in publishing. I will keep updating these as necessary.
Part 1: What “Diversity in Publishing” Is About and Why We Need to Discuss It
The US is facing, at the time of writing, one of the most interesting presidential elections in our history. A few days ago, Pew Research released an analysis that the 2016 electorate will be the most diverse ever. Nearly one-in-three eligible voters (31%) on Election Day will be Hispanic, Black, Asian, or another racial or ethnic minority. This is up from 29% in 2012. And, compared to 2012, there are 10.7 million more eligible voters today. These trends are projected to continue into the next decade. Whether voter turnout will reflect these demographics is a different discussion for another time. What cannot be disputed, with this growth of minority groups, is that their diverse voices must be represented in various media/fields so that our society can continue to progress with the best that everyone can offer. And, no, we’re not there today. Take a look at this article that shows how many people of color are in positions of power across the country in different fields (scroll to the section where they show those who influence which books we read).
[Note: The UK and mainland Europe are also seeing similar demographic trends.]
For the past few years, there’s been a fair amount of talk on social media, blogs, and online media sites about the lack of diversity in publishing. VIDA began this dialogue back in 2009-2010 to bring attention to women writers in a publishing industry dominated by men. WeNeedDiverseBooks, which focuses on children’s and Young Adult literature, started their movement in 2014.
While writers of color have been speaking out for some time now about their challenges getting books accepted, reviewed, and so on, it wasn’t until Roxane Gay’s 2012 article about how writers of color are reviewed and presented in media that the conversation got further underway. In 2014, Junot Diaz wrote about how MFA programs are too white and contributing to the negligence towards writers of color and stories about people of color. Last year, Nikesh Shukla also stirred things further in the UK for BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) writers.
Since then, many have been speaking up. Of note, Claire Vaye Watkins wrote about having to pander to the white male gaze as a white woman writer; Marlon James responded with having to pander to a mythical white woman reader as a writer of color; both of them clarified further because they were critiqued for either saying too much or not enough. Social media (which I cannot link to because of the sheer volume of posts/comments) has been very active on this topic now too.
And, in the US, Lee and Low Books, a publisher, did a survey of the publishing industry that showed that the majority of people in it are white women.
People from across the book world in the UK and the US have now chimed in to support the need for diversity. VIDA has also been publishing articles in their ‘Report from the Field‘ column from women writers of color that speak to real-life challenges they’ve faced.
In case you think it is just the agents and publishers getting blamed, here’s some fun-poking at readers who refuse to read books by women. I have no doubt that a similar hashtag and set of responses could also be put together for why readers don’t read more books by writers of color.
One other thing that has certainly shined a brighter light on the lack of diversity in publishing is that Hollywood’s lack of diversity is currently being widely discussed too. Take a look at the #OscarSoWhite twitterstorm. And, this recent New York Times article on what it’s like to work in Hollywood if you’re not a straight white man. [Side-note: With the 2015 Oscars, five out of the eight Best Picture nominees are book adaptations. Sadly, given that the Oscars are not diverse, none of these books are either.]
There is so much conversation that it was getting tricky to unpack and understand the issues. Here’s a partial list of ongoing articles and another set of ongoing online resources if you’d really like to dive deep. I did. So, this three-part series is my overall response to date for those interested.
First, let’s define diversity in publishing. I’ll borrow from WeNeedDiverseBooks:
How we define diversity:
We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.
*We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization.
Now, why do we need such diversity in our reading? This should be self-explanatory and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made the best case I’ve come across in recent times in her TED Talk: ‘The Danger of a Single Story‘.
It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.
Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.
I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.
And, to be clear, when we say “publishing”, we are talking about books, news, and magazines; print and online media.
If you’ve got this far and you’re wondering why you should care enough about this entire issue to go further, especially if you’re not a minority person or even a writer, let me use an example that many may be familiar with. In the book/movie, ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, there’s a scene where Anne Hathaway’s character smirks about the fuss over belts/accessories and Meryl Streep’s character explains to her how runway fashion inspires main street fashion and, therefore, her unremarkable, average blue sweater.
In much the same way, stories inspire other stories. Stories even inspire real life: life does, often, imitate art. Would there even be a ‘Twilight’ without a ‘Dracula’? Or, would there be a ‘Midnight’s Children’ without ‘Arabian Nights’? Or ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ without ‘1984’ or ‘Brave New World’? You see where I’m going with this, right? Today’s books inspire not just today’s but also tomorrow’s culture and media. And, if we believe that life sometimes imitates art, then today’s books will also impact how some of us see our worlds and live our lives — now and in the future.
So, if you agree so far, go on to Part 2 for a current state summary of the ongoing public discussion regarding the lack of diversity in publishing.