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.  

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Cover for Intermezzo (1936) with Ingrid Bergman from the Criterion CollectionAh infidelity, that age-old device.

So of course it’s no surprise in Intermezzo (1936), when the older famous violinist, Holger – happily married with children he adores, something that is established in the first few minutes of the film or so it felt – falls in love with Anita, his daughter’s youthful piano teacher. It’s the “second spring” trajectory that has been rehashed again and again before and since this film, and yet!

I found that the portrayal of both parties was rather sensitive and well done: although it does adhere to the good ol’ “Older Man Falls For Young Woman & Rediscovers His Love of Life/Living, Leaving His Wife & Children For His Second Spring” trajectory (… spoiler alert?), if there’s one word I can use to describe the way the affair and the characters are portrayed in this film, it’s that it’s incredibly generous. Holger, a famous violinist and quite absent father (due to his tours) returns home and promptly falls in love with his daughter’s piano teacher (while she’s playing the piano, of course). It’s not particularly inventive, but Gustaf Molander did a pretty fine job with character development as the relationship progressed in the film, especially with Anita’s character (Ingrid Bergman). Gösta Ekman (Holger) is spectacularly expressive, cementing straightaway that Holger loves his family, adoring especially his daughter, and I enjoyed this expressiveness quite a bit throughout the film. I’ve read a couple reviews saying it was a bit on the slow side overall, but I never felt it was a drag to watch.

OK, actual spoiler alert coming up ahead, so if you have yet to watch the film (it’s from 1936, so there’s been plenty of chance to watch it since its release) and would like to watch it without knowing what happens (even if it’s painfully obvious with multiple foreshadowing elements spoken by the characters – mostly by Margit, actually), skip the following paragraph below the cut.

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The First Part Last

Bobby is a sixteen-year-old father who has taken on the responsibility of caring for his infant daughter all on his own. He doesn’t get any help from his mom, his brothers have moved away, and his dad lives on the other side of town. Told in sparse, feeling first-person, the book interchanges between ‘then’ and ‘now’ (‘now’ being when Bobby has an infant daughter to take care of and ‘then’ being mostly in the year prior). I was hooked right from the first page.

Every time I passed The First Part Last in the library, I had the strong impression that it wanted to be read, and when I saw that it was the winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award, that sealed the deal—Coretta Scott King, of course, was married to Martin Luther King Junior, and I highly recommend the book Stride Toward Freedom (about the Montgomery bus boycott of December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956) for a revitalized glimpse into the sort of courageous, loving, and incredible people that they were (that, however, is for another post). I could have devoured The First Part Last in one sitting—as it was, I devoured it all in one day, and this despite repeated efforts to close the book and attend to other things. No matter what, it always ended up back in my hands (at one point I was holding the book in one hand and stirring a bubbling pot of pasta with the other—I couldn’t put it down). Not knowing much about it going in had a real effect on how the bits and pieces of the story came together, and I want to leave that option open for prospective readers—but I do want to say that reading about a teenage father taking care of his baby, staying up with her all night, changing diapers, getting up three hours before school to bus her to the sitter, and just loving her so much was absolutely something else; “…then I know I’m being a man, not just some kid who’s upset and wants his way. I’m being a man” (this line comes right at the moment in the story when he decides to keep her). So many things about this book stayed with me long after reading it.

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