Here at the library we like to keep a close eye on the publishing industry. We like to be informed of any upcoming “big ticket titles”, the newest Reese Witherspoon book club pick, the most recent big purchase by film or television studios. For the most part, it’s pretty smooth sailing. But lately it seems like every month or so the publishing world becomes embroiled in another scandal. Even ignoring the ridiculous high school drama that breeds on Book Twitter, there’s a surprising amount of self-inflicted drama from the big publishing houses that should be easily avoidable. So what’s the problem? Well, to put it bluntly: the industry—like so many others in the West—has a problem handling race.
My colleague Karen wrote a brilliant piece in 2018 about the troubling statistics of race in the romance publishing industry, and two years later it looks like not much has changed. This particular segment of the industry has descended lately into full-on scandal with the whole Romance Writers of America drama that erupted over Christmas in 2019. It’s far too long and convoluted to get into here (if you want the whole scoop, enjoy Pajiba’s cohesive summary), but I’ll give a rundown of the basics. In August of 2019, Courtney Milan (a Chinese American romance author) called out Glenfinnan Publishing for employing a woman named Sue Grimshaw (whose support for Trump, ICE, and history of racism can be traced through her Twitter likes). Soon after, Milan discovered that one of Glenfinnan’s editors Kathryn Lynn Davis had some questionable content in her past, and called out Davis’s 1999 work Somewhere Lies the Moon as racist against Chinese people. Now, I don’t know how helpful it is to be calling out works from 20 years ago (there are a whole host of things from the 90s that would be unacceptable today—that’s how progress works), but the fact is Milan is not wrong and can frankly discuss whatever she wants on her own Twitter. What followed was a deranged, out-of-proportion response from the white members of the Romance Writers of America, an organization to which Milan belonged.
The original founder of Glenfinnan filed an ethics complaint against Milan, making claims about hurt business (with no receipts) and Milan was asked to resign from her position as chairperson of the ethics committee in the RWA. Then, in September, Davis also filed a complaint, claiming something similar: a lost three-book deal (again, with no receipts). The complaints were taken to a hearing by the ethics committee—or so they claimed. What they actually did was form a secret subset ethics committee, without the knowledge of the author or other committee members. This small group was the one who decided that Milan be suspended from the association, and that she be disqualified from ever holding a leadership position again. The fallout from this sentence was a significant resignation of RWA members. After president Carolyn Jewel stepped down, a man by the name of Damon Suede stepped in. This is where things get extra nuts. Turns out Mr. Suede lives up to his Bond villain name, having orchestrated a sinister plot to “change the date of the committee chair selection so they’d be able to get in a new head who wasn’t [Milan], and gave Suede the ability to hand-pick said chairman and ‘select and present to the Board for approval a slate of candidates for membership on the committee and appointment to a two-year term.’” On top of this, Kathryn Lynn Davis outed herself as a political pawn to The Guardian: “Davis said she was “encouraged” by the administration of Romance Writers of America (RWA), a trade association for romance writers, to file a formal complaint against Milan … Davis clarified that she did not have and lose a written book contract, but that a publisher had delayed further discussion of a potential contract in the wake of the controversy.” I would call all this Machiavellian if it weren’t so sloppy. For his part, surprise surprise, Damon Suede has some questionable race rhetoric in his work as well (language NSFW in that link). The Bookseller reports that all members of the RWA have stepped down in disillusionment, leaving the vote open for an entirely new board, in the hopes that “RWA can and will be a place of inclusion and respect. We tender our resignations in support of the organisation and its mission.”
Though it might be the most dramatic, the problem is by no means confined to the romance community. One of the more recent controversies surrounds American Dirt, the much-hyped novel about the dangerous lives of Mexican refugees. The biggest issue is not that the author, Jeanine Cummins, is white and has no connection at all to the Mexican border. It’s that publishers threw a seven-figure deal at her to write this book, despite being hesitant to offer any sort of similar publishing deal to Mexican or Latinx authors themselves. Yes, Cummins did her research. Yes, I do believe her intentions were pure. But why her? As related in a Medium article, “[Cummins] admits to Alexandra Alter of the New York Times: “I don’t know if I’m the right person to tell this story.” And in the afterword of her book, she worries that “privilege would make [her] blind to certain truths,” wishing that someone “slightly browner than [her] would write it.”” Okay, so…why did she write it, then? Why not just let “someone browner” do it? The whole thing smacks of white saviour complex, and it is so embarrassing that this is even still a thing. In the same Medium article, Mexican-American novelist David Bowles calls American Dirt a “harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama … They live in a flattened pastiche version of Mexico, a dark hellhole of the sort Trump rails against, geographically and culturally indistinct.” All the research in the world can’t fill in for nuanced understanding.
But the worst part of all this is the circus around the launch of the novel, which incorporated the book design into a lot of the marketing. The book cover is quite dainty—almost like a pattern you’d find on an old teacup. It’s so pretty that I didn’t notice at first that the black running through it is actually barbed wire (in my defense, I never bothered to look closely). I understand the thought of using the book design as a brand. But here’s the thing: it’s barbed wire. So when Cummins posts a tweet showing off a manicure with the design, and the centerpieces at the book launch mimic the cover, it is barbed wire being used as an aesthetic prop. For a book about refugees. By a white woman. As one response tweet reads, “The fetish here, the vulgar pleasure of proudly wearing this exact symbol of oppression as a fashion statement and claiming it’s “pretty,” is literally making me nauseous.” And let’s throw some salt in that wound, why don’t we: in a statement explaining why this book tour was canceled (as if it wasn’t obvious), Flatiron Books decided to cite “concerns about [Cummins’s] safety” rather than just say sorry and be done with it. Because you know. The scary Mexicans. (For what it’s worth, there have been no threats against Cummins) It’s just…it’s such a bad look for them. As comedian Chelsea Peretti asked, “Are you intentionally trolling for bad press or just legit this dumb or like actually cruel?”
Which brings me to the most recent of these shenanigans, which happened just this past month in what was supposed to be in honour of Black History Month but was, once again, wholly misguided. You may have seen the marketing put out by Barnes & Noble for their new race-swapped covers of classics, called Diverse Editions. The New York Times tells us “Each book received five different covers depicting ethnically diverse characters. The covers for “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” for instance, included one featuring an Asian Dorothy with a pink dress, as well as black and Native American versions of the character.” Right off the bat, this is confusing. They’re using people of colour…to sell books…about white people? And this is supposed to honour Black History Month how? In an appropriately matter-of-fact blog post, Rod T. Faulkner calls this move “deeply offensive, tone deaf, and exploitative” and “a form of literary blackface.” He goes on to explain: “Black people are not centered in these books. They are not of any consequence in these books. And if Black characters are even present, their place in the story is relegated to the farthest of margins.” The furor immediately raised upon the announcement of these editions led to their swift cancellation—a responsible decision, for sure, but one that leads me to wonder how these absolutely absurd ideas get anywhere past the pitch meeting. I just have so many questions. Who thought this was a good idea? How did so many people sign off on this? Does Barnes and Noble not have, I don’t know, anyone in their PR department who could flag this as, at the very least, bad publicity?! Only a room full of white people could come up with an idea this bad and not realize it (and I say that as a white person).
And that’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it? There still isn’t enough diversity behind the scenes. There is a tendency, however well-intentioned, for white-dominated fields to patronizingly take on the role of representing other races—the white saviour trope rearing its ugly head again—rather than let other races represent themselves. Everyone pats themselves on the back for sparing a thought for “the Other”, without having to actually engage with them. It’s drive-by empathy: you don’t actually have to get out of the car. So how about instead of handing out crumbs, we switch to promoting things actually written by authors of colour? It’s been mentioned in our blog before, but the #OwnVoices initiative (which started in kidlit) is a great way to promote and find works written by authors of colour (side note: this initiative has taken on a bit of a dark side, because we can’t have nice things, but it’s still fundamentally a good idea). As Book Riot puts it, “the best people to represent a marginalized group are those who experience that marginalization.” We at the library might not have a say in who gets published, but we can at least do our part to support all voices! Check out some helpful links below: