Thursday, January 28, 2016

Who Runs the Publishing Industry?

UPDATE: Jonathon Sturgeon has just posted a piece on Flavorwire comparing the publishing industry to the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, and gives Counternarratives a shout-out in the process.

The semester has begun, Blizzard Jonas and all, and I can already see my blogging pace dwindling, so I am going to try to follow a plan I set out a few years ago but have never followed, which is to maintain my blogging activity by posting micro introductions to interesting things I find on the web, and just let the articles speak for themselves. (I also hope to do this with the stubs of pieces I've begun but not finished in the recent past.)
Marlon James at the Man Booker Prize ceremony
So here goes. Last year Marlon James, author of several novels, including the 2015 Man Booker Prize-winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead, 2014), stated at a Guardian-sponsored event in London that the publishing industry "panders to that archetype of the white woman, that long-suffering, astringent prose set in suburbia. You know, 'older mother or wife sits down and thinks about her horrible life'."

He went on to say:
[B]ecause white women readers dominate the market, “the male editors will only accept one type of story. Everyone knows what a New Yorker story will look like. I could have been published 10 times over – I knew that there was a certain kind of prose I could have written; intense scenes that hinted, rather than explored.”
In its report on James's remarks, linked above, the Guardian noted that "Women, particularly white women, make up the vast majority of regular fiction readers, purchasing two thirds of all books sold in the UK. Almost 50% of women classify themselves as avid readers, compared to 26% of men." He expanded a bit on these assertions in a highly entertaining and informative Guardian Books podcast.

James was responding, in fact, to a Tin House essay, "On Pandering," by Claire Vaye Watkins, who received multiple prizes for her 2010 collection Battleborn. Watkins' is a rich, exploratory attempt to make sense of her experiences as a white woman writing in a tradition that usually valorizes white men, abets sexism and racism, and consciously and unconsciously urges women, including white women, to write against their perspectives and themselves.

Claire Vaye Watkins
To quote her:
The stunning truth is that I am asking, deep down, as I write, What would Philip Roth think of this? What would Jonathan Franzen think of this? When the answer is probably: nothing. More staggering is the question of why I am trying to prove myself to writers whose work, in many cases, I don’t particularly admire? I recently finished Roth’s Indignation with nothing more lasting than a sincere curiosity as to whether Roth is aware that these days even nice girls give blow jobs.

I am trying to understand a phenomenon that happens in my head, and maybe in yours too, whereby the white supremacist patriarchy determines what I write.

I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them. The whole book’s a pander. Look, I said with my stories: I can write old men, I can write sex, I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental. I can write an old man getting a boner!
In The New Republic, Phoebe Maltz Bovy took issue with James's assessment, penning a response, "Don't Let Men Attack Pumpkins Spice Literature,"filled with links to others responding to Watkins' essay. In it she asserted that James was half-right, and was focusing on literary sexism. She contrasted his take with freelance writer Nicole Perkins' reading of "On Pandering" in the Los Angeles Times, and stressed the need for a more intersectional understanding of the literary marketplace, and for the voices of women of color to be heard (yes!). (NYRB critic, author, translator and blogger Tim Parks offered thoughts about conformity in literature that sidestepped any discussion of race or gender, but which I thought connected at certain points with what all these critics were saying.)

There have been many other essays and articles on the lack of diversity and need for equity in publishing, including in children's literature. There are even organizations, like We Need Diverse Books, dedicated to highlighting and transforming this situation. A few years ago, a former student and I attended a great workshop in Brooklyn on diversifying children's literature, especially in the speculative fiction and fantasy genres. Shortly before he passed away the late, highly acclaimed writer Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher--who used the term "apartheid"--published essays in the New York Times calling for diversity in children's literature. But the need across all genres remains, and not just in the US, but in other plural Western societies, like the UK.

Yesterday, Electronic Literature posted an article based on a new publishing diversity baseline survey by children's book publisher Lee and Low showing that the US and Canadian publishing industries are overwhelmingly white and dominated by cis-gender, abled heterosexual women. Moreover, executive level publishing jobs US and Canadian publishing executives are even more concentrated in the hands of straight, cis-gender, abled white women. Shades of Hollywood, though with a gender reversal. These are the decision-makers in the book biz.

These facts suggest that real diversity, beyond lip service, is necessary if the publishing even wants to begin to reflect the reality of the society around them; James' critique has a basis in the sheer facts of who runs the industry; and that Watkins' understanding of the internalization of male-centered values extends beyond writers, to the people and institutions that put books into readers' hands.

I'll conclude by saying that my own experience as an author has tended more towards what Marlon James says, though I have never let that stop me. In fact, I even encountered pushback from industry people--though not, thankfully, my publisher, New Directions, whose chairperson is the legendary editor Barbara Epler--concerning Counternarratives. In other ways, however, I have been fortunate to encounter people from all backgrounds--all races and ethnicities, genders and sexualities, national origins, class, religious affiliation, physical abledness--who have been supportive of my work, and whose work I could enthusiastically support.

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