Writer Tracy M. Lewis-Giggetts asked three acclaimed authors if they felt forced to write about race or social issues because they are black; and about diversity in publishing.
Gathering of Waters author Bernice McFadden said “not once did I have an editor tell me what I should or should not write”. However, she cited the case of Millennia Black, “who had written a multiracial novel and was told by her editor that she had to make all of the characters black? This simply because she was a black author? Millenia sued the publisher and won.” Ghost Summer author Tananarive Due said she felt liberated when she realized she din’t have to write a particular kind of “black” story. “I could write books about black characters who reflected my own experiences, or otherworldly experiences – not just stories of history, poverty and oppression.” Song of the Shank author Jeffery Renard Allen told Lewis-Giggetts the issue goes beyond what black authors decide to write about:
Although a number of African American fiction writers have achieved acclaim, the fact remains that our society by and large views the work of black writers as insignificant, of less importance than the work of white authors. With that mindset, too few works of deserving fiction by black authors get published. Of the books that do get published, too few get reviewed. And often book reviewers only talk about black authors in relation to other authors, as if what we write plays no part in shaping the intellectual, political and cultural conversation in our country and abroad.
African American fiction writers almost never get nominated for the major awards, and too few of us win them. Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award, still our country’s most prestigious literary prize, for his novel Invisible Man in 1952. It was almost 40 years before another African American fiction writer won (Charles Johnson for his 1990 novel Middle Passage). Then it was more than 20 years before Jesymn Ward won for her 2012 novel Salvage the Bones.
The facts speak for themselves. Writers of international importance such as Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, Paule Marshall, Ishmael Reed and Percival Everett never received the award. The history of the Pulitzer prize is just as tainted: only three black fiction writers have received it.
The unfortunate reality is that for publishing to be democratic, African Americans need to have a major presence in the publishing world – as publishers, agents, editors and publicists, and as reviewers for books and jurors for prizes.
I agree with Allen’s assessment, but believe even a major presence of black publishing industry personnel will not remedy the problem of poor representation of black writers and other writers of color, or the disparity in acclaim that exists between straight white male writers and all other writers. While we are seeing an exciting explosion of attention directed toward African writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; more and more longlists / shortlists alike are reflecting refreshing diversity in the backgrounds of writers; and a new crop of literary prizes like the FT/Oppenheimer and Miles Morland Scholarship specifically focused on unearthing talent of color, the issue goes deeper than hiring and promoting more blacks to power positions — though that would undoubtedly help.
For writers of diverse backgrounds to get a fair shake when it comes to pick up by agents and editors, promotion by publishers, reviews by critics, and reception by readers, there needs to be a fundamental cultural shift in the value we place on / the way we treat people who aren’t rich, white, and male. Racism, sexism, and cultural chauvinism are so entrenched in our culture that we often perpetuate them subconsciously.
Lauren A. Rivera recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times examining how “cultural fit” factors into job interviews, specifically: “To judge fit, interviewers commonly relied on chemistry. …Discovering shared experiences was one of the most powerful sources of chemistry, but interviewers were primarily interested in new hires whose hobbies, hometowns and biographies matched their own.” As a result, of course, “Selection based on personal fit can keep demographic and cultural diversity low.”
Conversely, many members of discriminated classes either unconsciously or deliberately adapt their behavior to thrive in environments where they are in the minority to protect their position. As a result, they may not represent the interests of their classes or other minorities for fear of being (further) branded as “not one of us”, and ultimately punished in subtle ways like exclusion from invitation to certain social outings that offer opportunities to network with higher-ups — or because their own privileged status makes it difficult for them to relate to the majority experience of their minority group.
The other thing to consider is, even if more blacks are hired, they must be in positions of power to effect lasting institutional change. You can hire all the black publishers, agents, editors, and publicists you want, but if the big bosses don’t co-sign their recommendations or initiatives, it’s business as usual. And this is all assuming that all people of the same gender/race/class/sexual orientation have the same taste in literature, which we know isn’t true (thankfully).
Obviously, it’s a complex and layered issue that requires a scalpel approach to amelioration. A true and accountable commitment to diversity in hiring is a necessary start, but it’s just the beginning of the work required to enable black writers, and other minorities, equal access to publication, promotion, review, and reader reception.