Books, News

The Thursday Book Beat: On White Privilege and Publishing’s Role

Readers, much of the publishing industry was consumed last week by J.K. Rowling’s tone-deaf miniseries on the history of the North American wizarding community. It’s a conversation that’s continued this week, as Native American writers have maintained their vocal protests against Rowling’s cultural appropriation.

Simon Moya-Smith joined Dr. Debbie Reese and Dr. Adrienne Keene in speaking out about the poorly written pieces. His piece on Indian Country Today reflects the exhaustion and anger of Native voices fighting back against stereotypes like those in Rowling’s work:

“I’m saying American society hasn’t evolved. Its conception of us and our spiritualities remains seriously antiquated. People all across this fading country still believe Native Americans cast curses, heal with magic potions…I’m saying there’s very little difference between what a 3rd Grade teacher will fleece to students in November about Native American spirituality, and what J.K. Rowling scribbled about Native Americans and magic.”

It is genuinely disturbing to me that these are still things that need to be reaffirmed in 2016, that such blatant disrespect can still be displayed against groups of people that have been victims of colonization for hundreds of years. Rowling has yet to address any Native writers or activists who have called her out on this poor representation of their peoples, though Dr. Reese did notice that images used for the miniseries were switched out on Pottermore. I’m deeply bothered by this lack of response, yes, but I can also say that I’m not very surprised.

Publishers Weekly released a report on March 11 titled “Why Publishing Is So White,” and the results are, again, sobering but not surprising. It’s part response to the Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey, and includes interview excerpts with HR executives from some of the Big 5 publishers. The overall industry is 79% white, according to Lee & Low, and the answers given by these HR execs hint at the mindsets and perspectives that have brought publishing to this point.

One executive believed that the coverage thus far of publishing’s very white ranks was not a fair assessment, while another mentions worries about setting quotas for hiring candidates of diverse backgrounds. It isn’t a topic that’s being ignored, but the responses do read (at least to me) like there is still hesitation, possibly a lack of knowledge/experience in how to create and maintain opportunities for diverse writers and employees. And perhaps it isn’t a comfortable subject to breach, but financial situations play a huge part in who gets their foot into the door.

If you’re not able to drop everything during university and take unpaid internships for three to six months, you lose an opportunity. If you can’t survive on $30k a year in Manhattan, you lose an opportunity. If you aren’t able to pay for publishing classes to get a chance to network, you lose an opportunity. More often than not, it’s people of marginalized groups that are losing these opportunities. The result is the set of demographics collected by Lee & Low. The result is a publishing industry that has (unintentionally, maybe) maintained a mostly white status quo, and the effects ripple out to agents, aspiring writers, and readers.

Some of us might not be very affected by it. Some of us will be able to go about our lives without really seeing the ways this status quo touches the books we find on the shelves and the writers we hear about in the media or from other readers. But is that enough for us to settle?

Author Corinne Duyvis wrote about the influence literature can have on people and the way they see others, focusing on the representation of disabled people in books.

I’ve often seen disabled readers or viewers ask about the potential for disabled characters in their favorite genre or series, only to be disparagingly told that it wouldn’t be realistic for them to survive.

It’s an assumption made from a position of privilege. We think that if someone just “can’t hack it” that that position or that opportunity just wasn’t made for them. We hear it in the response to campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite and #BlackLivesMatter. We hear that people of marginalized groups just need to try harder, be more, do more to be accepted without realizing that we can be enough as we are. Duyvis recognizes this, and she claims it for herself.

We decide.

If we want to write about the horrors of the apocalypse, we can. And if we want to write about tiny kindnesses, about what and who we value, about sacrifices, about hope, about family, about how we cope, about the end of one world and the ways we choose to start a new world …

Well.

We can do that, too.

But this doesn’t remove the responsibility publishing has towards its readers, without whom the industry could not survive. There needs to be editors of different racial backgrounds. There needs to be editors with different gender identities. There needs to be disabled authors who have the chance to write about their experiences. There needs to be agents who can recognize and speak to the myriad experiences they see from aspiring writers. There needs to be marketing teams who can respectfully promote stories that they may or may not relate to from their own experiences. There needs to be people in place who can raise the flag when things like “History of Magic in North America” inevitably happen as we work through them at every step of the way.

I could go on for the rest of the day, but it would simply be an echo of the calls to action we are already hearing in publishing. It’s hard to be patient, as an aspiring writer and woman of colour myself, with changes that feel glacial in pace. All we can do is work, and hope, and try to trust that the next ten years will bring a new landscape for the books we love.

  1. DMaster

    March 18, 2016 at 1:18 am

    “There needs to be marketing teams who can respectfully promote stories that they may or may not relate to from their own experiences.”

    This is true…but of all the above statements, this is the likely to happen. Not just in our lifetimes, but ever. I have less than zero faith in marketers ever coming within a galaxy’s breadth of basic humanity.

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