Why Does Publishing Have Such a Race Problem?

Image result for american dirt coverHere 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 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 wireSo 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:


About Alyssia

Alyssia is an Information Assistant at the Vaughan Public Libraries. Nothing makes her happier than a great book and a great cup of coffee. She loves fiction in all formats - books, movies, television, you name it - and is always on the lookout for awesome new music.

6 thoughts on “Why Does Publishing Have Such a Race Problem?

  1. Oof. Thank you so much for linking all these together into this post. All these news stories from the publishing world also made their way onto my radar, but I never actually put them all together into the pattern they are (and how is this happening so much in such a short period of time, IN THE SAME INDUSTRY? Does no one learn from each other’s mistakes?).

    The Barnes & Noble fiasco of a Black History Month effort made itself known to me via Lithub, and because I didn’t know what the article was about, I at first assumed the idea was to reissue Classics (and modern classics) written by Black authors and redesign their book covers to feature Black characters on them, in order to highlight these books which might generally be overlooked in favour of the classics written by dead white men – and then I read the article and realized that that was NOT AT ALL the angle Barnes & Noble was aiming for! And of course, I immediately jumped to the original conclusion I did regarding what they must’ve meant (… right?? Right?? What else could one mean when they say make new covers for books so they depict “ethnically diverse characters”?), which then turned into the reaction you also had in response: “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?!”

    The white saviour complex has clearly been bought into fully, which is absolutely ridiculous in this day and age – I was actually about to write a review of a novel that explores the concept of the white saviour very head-on, and then stopped because I was like “everyone already knows about white saviour syndrome, right? It’s a trope at this point, even!”, but CLEARLY NOT?! Obviously this isn’t even a question in this case given what the reviewers have had to say, but I feel like every time when a (white) author writes about another culture or an ethnic minority (that has a history of being oppressed (by white people)), there’s always the question of: who is benefiting from this venture, and is anyone being harmed by it?

    1. It’s funny that your first reaction is thinking that you were misunderstanding the situation, because surely their mistakes couldn’t be THAT BAD. So disappointing to realize that nope, it fully is that bad. I also don’t understand how they didn’t learn from previous mistakes? Maybe they happened so closely together that they didn’t have time to stop it, like the Titanic careening into the iceberg??

      Anyway, in the wake of these scandals it looks like the big publishers are now opening up dialogues with minority writers (finally) to prevent this from happening again. We’ll see if there is any improvement in the future.

      I also cannot believe that we are still doing the white savior thing in this year 2020, like it’s just unbelievable to me! I thought we were done with this old pattern (at least in such an obvious sense) but apparently not! We all know public shame is basically the only way to push industry change so hopefully all of this embarrassment leads to more opportunities for minority authors.

  2. I’ve read about some/all of these controversies in past months, so I appreciate you tackling them. On an optimistic note, books still have the power to provoke intense reactions. Change happens in light of such moments. I hope the voices who authentically explore these issues continue to make great art and are not marginalized—nor placed in a literary ghetto of “ethnic stories”. It all feels like such a 1990s narrative. But “the more things change,” and all that.

    All authors have the right (and duty) to write characters who are outside their own selves—as long as there is authenticity to the writing. I don’t know if “American Dirt” accomplished this (I haven’t read it), but I can understand the anger when people are writing authentic work for years without the recognition (or reward) that an apparently clichéd work gets.

    That’s why I don’t think it’s a question of “letting” someone else write the story—other people already are writing their stories, and don’t need permission to do so. But publishers and media aren’t marketing those stories (properly). Publishers buy up shelf space at bookstores to push certain types of stories. That “upmarket” fiction sometimes sensationalizes violence, torture, human trafficking, rape, murder, abduction, abuse, etc. Post-9/11, it was routine for upmarket fiction about Muslims (even by Western Muslim authors) to be centred around fundamentalism, terrorism, honour killing, war, etc. It’s the “trauma-porn melodrama” you mentioned via a quote. This is the subject matter some publishers and booksellers want to market, because it grabs people’s attention and sells books. It’s as if the publishers here didn’t see how pairing such a story with a Mexican context would become problematic, because they’re so used to publishing this kind of material that they no longer see how sensational it is.

    We might see another form of this controversy happen when the HBO adaptation of Matt Ruff’s “Lovecraft Country” (produced by J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele) is released in the near future. Matt Ruff is a white author, and the novel is about black characters during the Jim Crow era in the US, with a strong “Get Out” vibe (hence why I think Jordan Peele became attached to the project). It’s also complicated by the fact that Ruff is writing black characters in a story heavily influenced by H.P. Lovecraft’s work, while simultaneously subverting the racist subtext of that work. Kij Johnson also tackled Lovecraft’s legacy albeit from a feminist perspective in “The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe” a few years ago. The fantasy genre in recent years has seen N.K. Jemisin and Ken Liu (among many others) attain major success. So there are multiple narratives happening in an industry as broad as publishing.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply! I agree that the main concern with writing outside oneself is the matter of authenticity and respect. And the REAL problem, as far as the publishing industry goes, is not giving equal opportunities to non-white authors, as well as only valuing certain non-white narratives (as in your example of Muslim stories). I’m also reminded of the criticisms about the recent movie Harriet, which received some Academy Award attention. The criticisms being that Harriet was a mediocre movie and there were tons of other black performances worthy of awards attention (Lupita Nyong’o comes to mind) but the Academy only cares about black people if it’s a slave narrative–more “trauma porn.” These sorts of unconscious biases will continue unless things change behind the scenes, i.e. employing (and listening to) non-white people. To your point about NK Jemisin, I’m reminded of the Hugo Awards and all of the drama associated with them a few years ago when a bunch of men got salty about women being nominated–and now, because of their idiocy, women dominate the awards. But we didn’t get to that point without a little shake-up! So maybe the American Dirt scandal CAN lead to growth. I hope so, anyway.

      I’ve heard a little about the HBO adaptation of Lovecraft Country, but I admit I know basically nothing about it (besides Jordan Peele being attached, which is what caught my attention). I think they’ll have to be VERY careful with this material, because I assume people (the Internet) have their eye on them! The idea of taking the racism out of Lovecraft’s work is interesting, although as you said it’s a bit complicated coming from a white author. However, since I’m unfamiliar with the work, I can’t speak to whether or not he did it well (perhaps you have more insight?). I guess we’ll see how it goes!

  3. I think it’s definitely worth reading “Lovecraft Country”! I knew nothing about it other than the broadest strokes, and I enjoyed it as the great story it was. The characters are all fully realized. Possibly others had different reactions to it based on their perspective or seeing things that I didn’t. But it’s definitely a postmodern work of remixing, re-appropriating, re-contextualizing stories that people grew up with and now see problems with—in this case, a lot of pulpy, “genre” stories. I think Quentin Tarantino does some of this too in his films (that’s a whole other discussion). But if you liked “Get Out”, I think you’ll enjoy “Lovecraft Country”, as it hits similar notes. I don’t know how faithful the HBO adaptation will be, but maybe Jordan Peele’s involvement given his past work adds some authority to it?

    I’m personally more looking forward to Ms Marvel eventually appearing in the Marvel movies/TV shows, as that was one of my favourite books of the past decade. A white American Muslim writes a Pakistani-American teen hero, and the writing felt so *right* on all fronts, and Kamala Khan became an iconic character (at least within comics audiences, and brought new people to that audience). Based on my super tiny sample size, it feels like a lot of great work is being produced by some of these fantasy, scifi, comics, animation creators that increasingly reflects and inspires the multi-identity, multi-awesome world we live in.

    1. You’ve convinced me! I looked more into Lovecraft Country and it does sound like something I would like. Adding it to my “Read Before Watching the TV Show/Movie” list! Funny that you mentioned Tarantino, because that was the exact vibe I got reading the synopsis. Definitely would be in his wheelhouse.

      I loved Ms Marvel! And I’m someone who generally doesn’t read superhero comics. I’m behind on it though so I should catch up. I think you’re right about the great work being done in the fantasy/sci-fi/animation spheres; those genres lend themselves much more to experimentation so publishers/creators might be a bit less rigidly “conservative”? (Conservative in the sense that they’re afraid to try out something “new”). Even outside these circles, I also find YA books (whether fantastical or realistic) to offer a MUCH wider variety of voices than General Adult fiction–I wonder if this factors into why so many adults are drawn to them? And why fantasy/sci-fi has really taken off in pop culture? Anyway, I’m just thinking out loud now. Thanks again for your recommendations!

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