The power of collective action
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Two of the literary world's most anticipated new releases, "American Dirt" and "My Dark Vanessa," have garnered intense praise and harsh criticism. Here we dig into the implications for publishing, and the world, at large.
Reading between the lines of what goes viral—and what spawns its own outflow of thinkpieces—gives us an unvarnished view of the current and future state of the industry. Only a few weeks into the new decade, two such stories tore through said microcosm, igniting passionate responses, intense rebuttals, death threats, and calls for an industry reckoning.
I am, of course, talking about Kate Elizabeth Russell's My Dark Vanessa, and Jeanine Cummins' American Dirt.
The link between American Dirt and My Dark Vanessa isn't immediately clear. The first is about a woman and her young son’s exodus from Mexico to the United States, the second examines the borders between power and consent through a teacher/student relationship. Both, however, have undergone similar journeys regarding public reception: The authors, both of whom are white, were embraced by the mainstream publishing industry with seemingly little hurdles. On social media, however, the scrutiny they respectively received was equivalently harsh. Jeanine Cummins’ portrayal of immigrants in American Dirt has been deemed clichéd and insulting, with the book’s January 21 release drowned out by criticism in the form of #ImNotAmericanDirt and "Writing my Latino Novel" on Twitter.
My Dark Vanessa, authored by Kate Elizabeth Russell and slated for a March 10 release, has been increasingly compared to Wendy C. Ortiz’s 2014 Excavation—so much so that Russell had to step forward and reveal that her story was not plagiarized, but in fact based on personal experience with abuse.
Much of the pushback in favor of both novels misinterpreted the backlash against them: critics defended the quality of the writing and an author’s right to look outside their realm of experience, when, in truth, the ire felt by dissidents in both cases had little to do with the prose, and everything to do with the industry itself.
Visibility. Big endorsements. Seven-figure deals. Effusive advance praise. American Dirt and My Dark Vanessa share an eerily similar path to success, one seldom afforded to authors of color, and it is that fact which people are critiquing.
While the topics of representation and diversity have continued to sound through various industries (#OscarsSoWhite), the publishing world—dominated by the Big Five (Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan)—still struggles to come to terms with its own stagnation.
Earlier this year, the Diversity Baseline Survey once again surveyed publishing's key players and found that about 75 percent of the respondents were white, about 80 percent of them straight, about 90 percent of them non-disabled. Bea and Leah Kock (The Ripped Bodice)’s 2016 study on diversity in the romance genre revealed equally distressing numbers: despite general readership in college-educated people of color being as high, if not higher than that of white audiences, "50% of publishers surveyed had fewer than 5% of their books written by people of color." Prestigious awards still primarily go to white men, and even in children’s literature, writers of color are woefully underrepresented.
These statistics reflect something marginalized folks have known forever: if there is no heterogeneity in positions of power, it follows that there will be neither heterogeneity in, nor responsiveness for, what is published. For Mexican-American writer and translator David Bowles, some of this is evident in the kind of rejections received by writers:
"Dozens of agents and editors ‘passed’ on my work early on, citing the following: their inability to connect to the narrative voice (duh, it wasn't theirs); their inability to market the books (i.e., white folks wouldn't care); too much Spanish; not enough white characters (I live in a town with fewer than 1% white people); complicated references to Mexican folklore and Mesoamerican myth that ‘readers’ (white folks) wouldn't be familiar with; Hispanics don't read.”
Bowles had to go the indie/university press route until he won a significant award from the American Library Association.
Many feel demoralized about submitting work they know won’t be valued, creating, in the process, a catch-22 of sorts. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy," says Bowles. "We withdraw, and they can say, ‘Look! No POC are even submitting work to us. What are we supposed to do, huh?’"
The onus to be seen and heard, then, lies with writers of color, despite big publishers touting that they are eager for diverse voices. This is something Michael J. DeLuca, writer, editor and founder of the environmental justice journal Reckoning, admits is a serious matter. When asked whether people of color are better off staying away from traditional publishing, DeLuca, who is white, admits that he wishes we wouldn’t, but that he also recognizes how the industry adheres to a pattern of white supremacy, ableism, patriarchy, etc. “The burden should lie with the people in power, with privilege, to recognize what is a painfully glaring, pervasive, deep-rooted problem and use that privilege to work to dismantle it," he says.
This is a sentiment David Bowles echoes: "It is absolutely the responsibility of Big Publishing to effect the deep, broad, painful change required to ensure literary dignity for all communities of color in the US. And if they don't, we need to be on their case 24/7, pushing as hard as possible."
The demand for accountability has been amplifying over the decades. Writes Wendy C. Ortiz, author of Excavation, for Gay Mag: "Now is the time to call out the publishing industry […] for its racism and small-mindedness about who gets published and who does not; who gets massive advances and who does not." This is something Bowles feels strongly about as well. "Taking some metaphorical high road off the beaten path means abdicating our rightful place at the table of US letters,” he says, despite agreeing that most of the long-standing literary institutions were not built to make space for marginalized voices. “Literary dignity and equity can only be achieved by pushing past the gatekeepers, battering the gates."
For DeLuca "calling out" the industry starts with introspection: "my perspective is that of a straight, white man, and there's only a certain extent to which I can change that. So I've found it's been easier for me to feel like I'm making a dent in the problem of representation as an editor than as a writer, because […] it is part of the job to step aside and make room for another person's voice."
For others, it has meant filling in the gaps overlooked by bigger publishers. Jack Jones Literary Arts, founded in 2015 by publicist and writer Kima Jones, has prioritized creatives of color, as has the talent agency BEOTIS, founded by Tabia Yapp that same year. We Need Diverse Books has, as an organization, been an outspoken champion for representation in children’s literature, while the #OwnVoices campaign, created by author Corinne Duyvis, has helped push books by and for marginalized groups in libraries and bookstores.
Recent surveys from Publisher’s Weekly and The Guardian have demonstrated small presses' vertiginous growth in the last decade. Inversely, cracks are showing in literary behemoths: just last month, the Romance Writers of America announced it was canceling its 2020 awards amid concerns over discrimination and transparency.
These shifts highlight profound fatigue with an industry deemed inflexible; an industry that puts its full weight behind novels like American Dirt, but will discount a memoir like Ortiz’ because, as she was told by one editor, "it would be difficult to find a wide audience." If Book Twitter trends are an indicator of things to come, it doesn't bode well for mainstream publishing’s sovereignty. Creatives of color are not waiting for the industry’s validation to get their work out into the world. The work is already being done.
"As aware as I am that marginalized writers should not have to shout at me and everyone that their work deserves a place, it is incredibly valuable to me that some of them do,” continues DeLuca, when I ask him whether the arduous process of correcting the industry blindspots is more likely to be achieved by artists of color than by the literary gatekeepers. “I'm so glad Fiyah exists. I'm so grateful to Saladin Ahmed, Nora Jemisin, Mikki Kendall, Roxane Gay and others for being so vocal about this in their work and on twitter."
Let us hope that those in power start adhering to this ideology, lest they lose the readers, writers and editors they don’t even seem to know exist.