Equity in Publishing: What Should Editors Be Doing?
“[The] book is more likely to be a symptom of our tension than an examination of it. The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.” —James Baldwin
The state of diversity and equity in publishing is grim and has been for a long time—since the industry’s founding back in the day. There’s no shortage of insightful writing that unpacks just how diverse it is—89 percent white—with nuanced and often eye-popping statistics and infuriating stories, like when Roxane Gay wrote about Janet Maslin’s New York Times summer reading list that contained zero titles by non-white writers, a moment that Jason Parham summed up as having achieved “peak caucasity.” Or when Christopher Myers wrote about the dismal number of children’s books written by writers of color (7 percent in 2014). Or more recently when Mira Jacob wrote about her experience trying to engage with an uninterested and deaf publishing industry. Taiye Selasi, Jenny Zhang, Cathy Park Hong—writers of color are writing about inequity, as they’ve been doing for decades. They are shouting it from the rooftops.
The week that news broke about Michael Derrick Hudson’s poem appearing in the Best American Poetry anthology under the appropriated pen name Yi Fen-Chou, again writers of all backgrounds voiced their anger and frustration about an editorial process that was broken. But missing from that conversation were the voices of editors and publishers, the very ones responsible for sourcing the work we read and that we hope will become reviewed and celebrated—the gatekeepers. Yes, Sherman Alexie did write a much commented on and broken down response to the editorial decisions he made while putting together the year’s Best American Poetry. But we didn’t hear from the anthology’s editor, David Lehman, or the publishing house, Simon & Schuster. Very few editors were willing to talk about race, how selections are made, and what kind of responsibility they have to read broadly and to care about and publish great writing that doesn’t always reflect the values associated with whiteness.
I wanted to hear from them and to examine the “gatekeeper’s” role. So I began reaching out to people I work with on a regular basis to see how they define their editorial responsibility, to talk about what they look for in the work they select, what they think about white privilege, and about creating a larger, more inclusive space for writers of color in the publishing industry. I wasn’t just thinking about what it takes to get published or to increase one’s chances of being published. I was thinking about the entire life cycle of a writer: from the stories that inspire them as children first learning to read to the literature that encourages them as young adults to dive deep into the craft of narrative to the educational paths available to students who want to pursue a life of writing, to getting published, getting reviewed, promoted, and hitting the book tour. I was thinking about this both professionally as an editor and as the father of a creative fifth-grader who devours books but who, because she is not white, rarely sees herself in the stories she reads at school.
My conversations began with Catherine Chung, Nicole Sealey, Alexander Chee, Hafizah Geter, Andrea Davis Pinkney of Scholastic, Fiona McCrae of Graywolf, and Ken Chen of Asian American Writers Workshop. I emailed editors at Grove Atlantic, Little A, and Picador, and I asked them all if they would be willing to tackle some of these issues in an online roundtable discussion. Participating in this discussion are Alexander Chee, Anna deVries, Hafizah Geter, Amy Hundley, Amy King, Greg Pardlo, Morgan Parker, Camille Rankine, Danniel Schoonebeek, and Jeff Shotts.The people who signed on do not by any means reflect the entirety of the publishing industry or all the amazing editors continually doing great work. But the door is open and we invite everyone to join in and help mark out a new path forward.
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GREGORY PARDLO: My favorite version of this conversation is the one where I get to spend hours debating the ethics of Led Zeppelin quoting (excluding for now the legalities of copyright infringement) Robert Johnson and other blues musicians. I’m a huge fan of Robert Johnson. I’m a huge fan of Led Zeppelin. Since college, I’ve had this conversation so many times that, in the end, it’s just an excuse to listen to great music. The debate most often divides participants along questions of propriety. Or property. Who “owns” these blues? The argument never turns on the question of nationality. I think it would be less heated if we were to debate what right a British band has imitating American musicians. Or what right a male band has quoting a female band; a straight band… This is just what musicians, poets, artists, etc. do: synthesize various styles and traditions. It’s a little silly to argue over who owns a style or form of expression. Yet, we want an indestructible wall demarcating territories of racial imagination and ethnic identity because we value—measured in cultural currency—the history that members of racial and ethnic groups inherit, their heritage, in their group identification. That’s why it seems like theft when someone like an artist, activist, politician or businessperson attempts to cash in on a heritage they have not earned through the hard work of being born into a particular group. This is a problem. If we are talking about literature and art, this is a problem because I claim the right—if only as a U.S. American poet, considering poets are jailed, if not worse, in other countries for exercising this kind of liberty—I must claim the right to explore expression in whatever tradition, form, or style I find most provocative and/or rewarding if I want to make the most of my craft. But I don’t think we’re talking about literature and art. I think we’re having something like a dispute over assets in grandpa’s estate. It is a dispute over who is and is not a legitimate heir, and to whom. This debate has its roots in patriarchal logic, so the whole thing stinks, as far as I’m concerned.
Why are there so few people of color in influential gatekeeping positions in the publishing industry? Well, why do we ask? If we want to make amends for the historical exclusion of women and minorities from executive ranks, then that’s a job I’d rather leave for policymakers. If we want aesthetic diversity in the books that come to define our culture, then I don’t buy the argument that diversifying the shape, configuration, and hue of the faces of editors and agents will get the job done. There is no reason to expect people with different phenotypes to have different cultural tastes and allegiances if they all have similar educational backgrounds. My sense is the problem is in the education. How bizarre, for example, that some professors can teach Modernism, and make no reference to Hurston or Toomer. Odd that Younghill Kang’s East Goes West is not mentioned in the same breath as Native Son and Grapes of Wrath. Maybe someone will explain to me how Luis Valdez and LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka]—and this is a genuine question—developed El Teatro Campesino and the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School respectively, in 1965, and yet we study each as if it were an isolated occurrence? I once asked a Blake scholar about Blake’s abolitionist ethos, and she dismissed my question—as if abolitionists only existed in the U.S., and only in the nineteenth century. She was so certain that my question had no basis in reality that for years I could not read Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” as an abolitionist poem despite my common sense telling me that it was. I suspect we all have experiences like these, whether we are aware of them or not, working their insidious logic deep into our psyches so that we have to stop and ask how we got to a place in our culture where an accomplished poet, having had a poem rejected however many dozen times, would believe his poem was finally accepted by a journal not because of his perseverance, but because he had begun submitting it under a name other than his own. Which reminds me: what do we make of the poet Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto [Pablo Neruda] taking his pen name from the Czech poet, Jan Neruda? Neruda’s case is different, yes, but how?
JEFF SHOTTS: One of the privileges of whiteness is that white persons more often than not do not have to engage with questions of race, diversity, and equity, or at the very least, white persons get to pick and choose when they engage with these questions. As we have seen, for instance, with the responses to the recent Best American Poetry, other persons very often have no such choice. Hence we have heard from Sherman Alexie to Jenny Zhang, as it were, but have heard nothing from Michael Derrick Hudson or David Lehman. This silence, this white noise, I keep wanting it to be a listening. I keep wanting it to signal that, perhaps, and even if only for a little while, we are turned together toward new songs and their singers. Maybe that is so. But then I hear myself humming along with the silence.
I am an editor. I am white. So is 89 percent of the publishing industry, according to the most recent Publisher’s Weekly annual survey. (That same survey also lays out the industry’s salary inequity, even when women make up 74 percent of the industry.) There’s very often, then, a whole chorus of silence when it comes to engaging with diversity in publishing. One sees this silence palpably in Mira Jacob’s essential piece, recently published, “I Gave a Speech about Race to the Publishing Industry and No One Heard Me.” Reading her essay, you can imagine just how withering it must have been to shout from a chair toward a room full of publishers, editors, and other industry representatives, “So I am telling you: It is your job. Get in here. Be a part of this. You will ignore us at your own peril—to the industry’s peril,” only to see the audience members’ backs turned and the horror on the faces of the attentive minorities in the room. Again, it is the repeated scene where white people get to decide if they (no, we) even want to listen, and others are left not only to listen but also to react, engage, and smolder because they are time and time again ignored. “We are DYING to see ourselves anywhere,” Jacob writes.
Given such scenes, and the overwhelming whiteness of the industry as a whole, it often feels that the knowledge and understanding gaps between white industry “gatekeepers” and more diverse writers and readers will not adequately narrow and close until we have a more diverse publishing industry, top to bottom. As it is, the publishing industry is white, and is mechanized to self-perpetuate. Magazines, publishers, online outlets, literary agencies, arts funders, foundations, booksellers—and for that matter, the wider culture—need to recognize and examine the monumental hurdles very much in place for people of color to find their way into the literary and publishing culture, stay, and succeed. That begins with looking seriously and critically at hiring practices, unfair networks, internship programs, and the “apprenticeship system” that traditionally brings up new publishers, editors, literary agents, publicists, art designers, printers, online curators, and on and on.
ALEXANDER CHEE: I guess I’m still stuck on this “white nepotism,” “brown nepotism” idea Sherman Alexie has left us with—in which he mistakes white supremacy for nepotism, and the work to undo it for another kind of nepotism. I am still trying to see the good in what Alexie has done, but I can only think that while he has indeed defended his choices, and perhaps, the way those choices were made, he has done so at the cost of approximately 100 years of writing and activism by Asian American writers, who have, at sometimes considerable social and professional cost, worked to pry open even a little of the white Potemkin village that is contemporary American publishing.
We now enter a climate, after Alexie’s decision, in which claims by writers of color of being discriminated against in publishing decisions may be treated as akin to false rape claims, and we will be forced to prove the discrimination against us is real yet again—all while Hudson did not once ever have to show his receipts to be included.
This is not insignificant. Certainly, statistically, Hudson’s alleged results don’t prove what he says they do, but also: No one has verified his claims. No reporter got him to show his “detailed submission records,” and certainly Alexie, if he did this, has not said so, and this is galling. And the only reason I can think no one has made him prove it is that he is a white man, and when white men in America say they are discriminated against, people just say “oh, ok”, and do not ask them to prove it. Meanwhile, this case will be thrust at us as the sign that we are lying whenever we claim we’re discriminated against. It may well be the Best American Poetry 2015, but this is easily the worst thing to happen to writers of color as a group in a very long time because the mainstream media immediately treated Hudson like a white man who needed to do this in order to be published at all—and not as a well-published white poet who did this to be published more.
Alexie, by including Hudson, has ennobled not just the poem but this hate project, which feels even worse. And it is a hate project Hudson was taking part in, make no mistake—he had been published quite a bit. He did this to be published more and to undermine editorial efforts at diversity, driven by data. The recent news that it is the name of a fellow student from his high school makes it even worse—it makes it both racist and personal, to the woman whose name he stole.
Now. To the prompt. I was recently asked by a magazine to do some curation for them. When they approached me, and they talked to me about what they wanted, and how diversity was a concern for them, they said, “We have the sense you are in rooms, in conversations that we’re not in.” That quote, that said a lot to me.
That’s because diversity as an editor begins with your friends, your teachers, and your books. What rooms are you in? What conversations? Who are the people in your social media feeds? When you go home, is your family all white? When you go to a party, are your friends all white? When you look down your bookshelf, are all your books by white authors? Those are some tests. What people call diversity has always been, to me, my life. And so if your tastes are not diverse, your life may also not be. And if you find a result you don’t like in all of this, then you work on it.
Racism in America is a part of structural white supremacy. We’re all trained to put white people first and to act like that’s just normal, whatever color we are. So I don’t consider it “brown nepotism” to go over a list I’ve made when I’m jurying a prize or reading applications for an MFA class or selecting a series of writers—I consider it checking my prejudices—checking myself for signs that I’ve bought in an idea that I don’t want working in my head. I’ve written about training myself to deal with male privilege. I did much the same with racism. I still do it. We live in a racist culture and you have to stay woke, as the expression goes. You can’t just imagine dealing with racism is a one-time purge of the system—checking yourself for racism should be a regular thing.
Diverse reading is bigger than any one season of choosing writers, then. It’s a lifelong commitment. It begins, in my experience, in the relationships you make to communities—do you know, then, about your local writers’ organizations? Local independent presses and zines, and arts funding? What events do these magazines and organizations have coming up? How can you attend, and if you like what you see, how can you be more involved? If you don’t know answers to these, in our current age, it’s never been easier to find out more—and what’s more, it’s exciting. What I dislike about so much of the way people deal with diversity is that they treat these explorations as hygiene, when it is about finding new and exciting work that blows down the doors of your mind.
As a writer and editor in New York City, I have no excuse for not knowing about other writers of color. Yes, I’ve been involved with the Asian American Writers Workshop since 1997, but that’s just a bare minimum for me as an Asian American writer and a gay man—that’s not special effort. If I’m interested in a writer, I want to know who they are as writers, and I want to know the communities they came out of. I’m not ticking off boxes. I’m making relationships, between myself and the writing I love, and the organizations that support that writing, so that I know who their newcomers are, their ancestors and their heroes. And so if I choose a writer for something, it comes out of that long relationship. It is coming out of the conversations, and those rooms. If your life and reading are not diverse, I feel sorry for you. You’re living in a tiny tiny corridor inside of an enormous world. You’re on what amounts to a restricted diet while a feast goes on around you. Get out of that corridor and live.
AMY HUNDLEY: I think it’s important to talk about money—about the fact that being able to be in publishing is a privilege, because starting salaries are low compared to other white-collar industries, and there’s also tremendous competition for jobs, so there’s not much pressure on companies to raise them. I may be naïve but I do think that people in publishing are largely well-intentioned when it comes to workplace diversity. But if salaries are self-selecting for people who can support themselves in New York on very little money then all the good intentions in the world can only do so much.
Grove Atlantic does pay interns, which I hope is a small thing that may get some people into publishing for the longer term who couldn’t have afforded to do an unpaid internship. There’s also the City College publishing program, founded by Walter Mosley, which was meant to provide people from communities underrepresented in publishing (so far) with training, connections, and a little bit of funding support to get their feet in the door.
I also think it’s worth considering what kind of workplace cultures we have, because retention is at least as important. I went to a Poets & Writers panel on diversity during the #WeNeedDiverseBooks conversation earlier this year, and I was impressed by what publishers like Lee & Low and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers are doing to recruit and retain people of color.
So moving from who’s working in publishing to what we do, I was struck by Mira Jacobs and Jenny Zhang both bringing up the tendency to equate a writer’s race with their subject matter—if you are this, then you will write this. Aminatta Forna wrote a really great piece about this, “Don’t Judge a Book by Its Author,” inspired by her experience being an African woman with several African-set novels and a memoir under her belt, whose next book was set in Croatia and narrated by a male sniper. I think this is important because of the marketing concerns that go into any acquisition—will this other book about George Washington cannibalize my new Washington bio? And these concerns aren’t unfounded in part—I remember in the mid-1990s there was a huge boom in gay and lesbian publishing because we’re a market with supposedly a lot of disposable income, etc., and what happened was the category became really over-published and a lot of books lost money. And when I got started in publishing, it was after the pendulum had swung the other way and it went back to being more niche. I’m talking about it like it was simply a market correction but the reality is it was painful to realize, oh, right, we have further to go, and middle America isn’t yet ready to empathize or identify with a queer character. So I think part of our jobs as editors is to think beyond that subject matter equation when we’re acquiring, and then when we think about how to publish the book, to strike the right balance between communicating a book’s core audience and the unique voice that gives it its character, and its grasp at the universal.
ANNA DEVRIES: In my 15 years working in publishing, I’ve only worked with two people of color in editorial positions. If I included those in non-editorial positions (marketing, publicity, sales, etc.) the number doesn’t go up by much. Publishing tends to eat its young, especially in editorial, making it difficult for many to advance beyond assistant level. Salaries start low and can remain low for years. Add to that the hiring process can be opaque, with entry-level positions often being filled through personal recommendations or from publishing programs that cater to those who can afford the expensive fees those programs charge and which are also very white. Without a willingness to throw yourself at the process, and to do so while living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, these challenges become insurmountable. It’s not enough for publishing to do more to hire people of color, they also need to work harder on keeping them, by offering real opportunity for advancement rather than a war of attrition where survivors come out the other side many years later by the skin of their teeth.
On the other side of the desk, it’s been heartening to see more of a focus put on publishing diverse authors, and the #WeNeedDiverseBooks conversation has been crucial in putting a spotlight on both the lack of diverse editorial lists, while also highlighting the very talented writers currently being published (and often being overlooked). Amy Hundley’s point about gay and lesbian publishing is a good one in that it serves as an example of how publishing needs to see this push towards diverse writers not as a current trend but a new reality—one which carries with it the challenge to publish authors smartly and successfully, rather than leaping in and expecting an audience to materialize on its own. Editors need to be at the forefront of this push, and I do know there is a hunger for more material from diverse writers from many editors in the industry. However, only a small fraction of submissions I saw last year were from writers of color. What this says to me is that the entire system needs to change so that young writers of color have the opportunity and the access that ensures their work is cultivated and published. This means writing programs, literary journals, literary prizes, agents, and editors all need to be better about opening up their lists to diverse talent.
MORGAN PARKER: More than once, editors have asked me to guest-curate issues of their magazines, and more than once, these editors have cited my connection to “communities” as their reason for approaching me. “We’re trying to be more diverse,” they’ve said. “You seem to be more plugged in than us,” they’ve said. “We don’t know where to start.” “Only white writers submit to us.” I’m a bit tired of hearing the word “trying.” It’s one of those words you hear so much it loses its meaning. I’m not at all surprised that Alexander’s been asked the same kind of questions, but I don’t applaud these editors in the way they, I think, expect to be applauded for this “effort” of outsourcing editorial responsibility. They’ve identified a problem, which is great, but it isn’t nearly enough. They want to be validated (“I’m doing the right thing, right Morgan?” “You know I’m a white person who means well, right?” “I’m trying.”), which, while understandable in the current climate of call-out culture wherein the very basis and structure of the publishing world is finally being loudly shaken, isn’t my job.
My job as an editor is to publish the best writing—wait for it—by a variety of writers. With regards to Best American Poetry, we’re correct to call out the clear conflation of “best” and “white”—too often “We just published the best writing we could find” is a terrifying excuse for not publishing diversely. And this diversity—no, this equity, because I don’t just acquire a writer of color and call it a day, returning to white business as usual—does require work. If I’m not seeing diversity in my submissions for Day One, I reach out to organizations like those listed below and ask them to signal boost our call for submissions. If agents aren’t sending me manuscripts from a diverse pool of writers, I buy them lunch and explain my intentions as an editor. I’m not shy about reaching out to writers myself—this, yes, requires reading and research—or letting agents know up front what I’m looking for and why. And yes, okay, I’m a black woman writer. And yes, many of my colleagues and peers and friends are POC writers. But I’ve never considered that enough.
As everyone here has already lamented, the state of diversity in the publishing industry—both across writers and editors—is bleak. It’s almost as if we’re starting well below zero. This is, after all, a world where a Boston Public Radio producer recommended Mira Jacob use a word other than “East Indian” to make it more comfortable and palatable for white consciousness. This is a world where writers of color are damned if they do and damned if they don’t—we often find ourselves either being asked to “emphasize” (read: exoticize) our identities (“I love your writing about race,” one editor told me. “Do you have anything else like that?”) or pretend our difference doesn’t exist, to pretend our trauma doesn’t exist, to pretend that the audience we’re looking back at isn’t 90 percent made of white men. We’re pulled in so many directions, it’s a wonder we still have the energy to produce creative work. “Indict us!” the white audience shouts. “Comfort us! Teach us!” It’s an enormous amount of pressure. Sometimes, it can be embarrassing. In the words of Jay Z, “Can I live?”
Last week I had lunch with an agent I’d never met. I’d emailed her out of the blue after her name came up in a disheartening Google search for “black literary agents nyc.” The search had yielded the names of merely three active literary agents, mostly brought up in articles about the lack of black representation in publishing, rather than in connection with the work they’d done. When I sat down at the table to shake her hand, she squealed. “You’re black!” she exclaimed. “I can’t believe it! I thought I was meeting just another editor but here you are—young, and black!” It was as if we’d been separated at birth. That’s how few of us there are. When I told her that our editorial staff at Little A is a whopping 60 percent women of color, she almost spat out her tea. That’s how few of us there are. That we’re surprised when we see each other.
I include these personal stories because it is absolutely important that we remember that behind these numbers, behind these stalled conversations and abstract arguments, there are people. It’s hard to tell what came first: my undying dedication to equity and inclusivity as an editor, or the unfairness and lack of understanding I’ve felt as a writer. To me, this isn’t just a problem to bring up in an editorial meeting—it’s truly my livelihood. I worry often that we do too much talking, thinking, philosophizing, “trying,” expecting that to create and inspire change on its own. We don’t want to do the work; we don’t have the resources to do the work; the writers aren’t coming to us; the black writer I asked to do the work for me wrote and said he was too busy. I don’t mean to be a high school math teacher about it, but we’ve identified the problem, so what’s next? Where’s the revolution, so to speak?
My question is in the vein of my old therapist: What is the fear? What is stopping us? Are there simply too few of us in positions of power to prioritize diversity and equality? Can we seriously just not imagine a more colorful catalogue? What are we afraid of? Why not change the conversation from “It would be nice if…” to “It is essential that…”? What would happen if we valued stories by writers of color as much as we valued the stories of white American males? What if we paid interns more or created programs to hire more low-income applicants, leaving the door open for those with a variety of backgrounds? What if we read only women for a year? What if we published only queer POCs for a year? I’m serious: would the world explode?
DANNIEL SCHOONEBEEK: Part of what’s so terrible about this act of Michael Derrick Hudson deliberately and falsely assuming the identity of a person of color is the fact that it’s a whiting-out whose endgame is silence. We speak the white name 500 times and can’t tell you who else is in the book. So I think the first thing I’ll say is essentially the most important: writing by people of color, both the essential writing on this embarrassing and depressing Best American Poetry garbage and the essential writing that has nothing to do with this topic, is more essential than any of my thoughts on this topic, so if you’re reading this, please stop reading this and read a writer of color. Powerfully and beautifully, writers of color are taking apart the pain and trauma of this event and theirs is the writing that needs to be read.
I will talk briefly about one aspect of this conversation that I haven’t seen come up a lot: we don’t really need Best American Poetry. In fact we don’t need any anthology that foists a superlative upon poets and their work in a way that still primarily points back to the stature and “taste” of the anthology’s white series editor—whose stature and privilege have allowed him to disengage from the conversation surrounding the book—nor the 89 percent white industry that publishes the anthology.
Best American Poetry is a deliberate piece of flagship branding for its series editor; it’s a product and a name, and successive years of publishing the anthology have helped sell that product and sell that name in tandem. I’d never fault any writer, ever, for appearing in the anthology or wanting to be in the anthology, but I often ask myself what kind of anthologies we need—I’m talking writers, teachers, students, book-buyers and booksellers—and the answer to me is never “the best” of anything.
We need what’s essential, by which I mean we need work by writers without whom our countries and our arts would cease to exist. Like we already know that white people are everywhere. But what about more anthologies of work only by writers of color? What about more anthologies of protest writing? What about more writers within the prison system? What about all the writing generated outside of academia, the MFA economy, or written by writers from lower-income backgrounds? Among the many harrowing things for me in Alexie’s response was the fact that 99 percent of the writers he chose were professors—what does that say about the economics of this anthology? Do we even need “American” anthologies, do we need anthologies at all? Part of what I can’t reconcile is the language of the title: the best, the American, the poetry. I think it’s very possible we don’t need any of those distinctions in an anthology, and I think the argument can be made that we don’t need anthologies at all, as each act of anthologizing bears with it the potential to be read as a typecasting, a cordoning, a colonization.
I ask myself these questions all the time when it comes to the PEN Poetry Series, which I’ve edited for the past two years. Early on I wanted to eliminate myself from the picture in such a way that the series would never be “branded” by the work toward which I’d find myself compelled editorially and aesthetically. This is essential because I’m white, I’m a man, and it’s therefore impossible that my eyes and ears can even come close to representing the tremendous range of work being written all over this country and the world today.
Some of this also boils down to PEN’s mission statement, which I try to keep in the foreground of my mind: “Advancing literature. Defending free expression.” It’s a joke to think that one white guy might be able to accomplish either of those tasks by himself. And once again this sends me back to Best American Poetry: it’s a joke to suggest any book or editor can determine what those words mean on a yearly basis.
So the model the PEN Poetry Series developed was this: three guest editors will annually edit the series for a full calendar year, publishing 75 percent of the work that appears in the series. Our past guest editors have included Ben Mirov, Ana Božičević, Amy King, Shane McCrae, Maggie Nelson, C.D. Wright, Robert Fernandez, Cathy Park Hong, Heather Christle, and our three new guest editors, TC Tolbert, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Brian Blanchfield. None of these poets were invited to edit the series because we thought, the best, the best. That thinking holds no water here. Each of these poets was invited to edit the series because their work is essential and the eyes and ears with which they see and hear are each incredibly distinct and will, if we’re doing our job, help PEN America fulfill the difficult mission it charged itself with 90 years ago.
CAMILLE RANKINE: I’d like to go ahead and second everything Alexander Chee said. There are many sad things about this Best American Poetry debacle we’ve gathered here to discuss, but, for me, perhaps the saddest consequence is the potential damage done to writers of color and the slow progress toward equity in publishing.
To speak about “racial nepotism” to my mind creates a false equivalence between the position of a white writer and a writer of color: No, they don’t face the same challenges. No, it isn’t a level playing field. And as Alexander pointed out, nepotism is hardly the issue. It’s not nepotism that painted the canon white. It’s not nepotism that compiled syllabus after syllabus of all white authors. That’s white supremacy. And working to counter that system isn’t nepotism, either. But it is work—hard work. If you want to change the landscape, you have a lot to unlearn. I know that’s been true for me.
I’ve found that if you want to work toward creating an inclusive literary culture, it’s not enough to just be a person of color and let the rest fall into place. I grew up in a society that values white lives, white work, white ideas, and white stories above all others—a culture in which white is the norm and everything else is an aberration. So I’m not immune to the kind of biases that produces. But I’ve done the work it takes to recognize that, to acknowledge that I read through that lens, and to question the values I’ve internalized. It’s not magic. And it’s not a given, just because I’m a person of color. I understand Morgan’s weariness of “trying,” of being told “we don’t know where to start,” or that a person of color has access to knowledge that white people don’t. I work for that knowledge. I’ve been working for it all my life. And when I’m in a position to curate, to evaluate, to include, to invite, I’m doing that work. I’m learning and unlearning. I’m facing my biases down. And I’m nowhere near done.
I do think that fear gets in the way. What are we afraid of? I’m not sure. Of getting it wrong. Of change. Of this massive mess we’re in. Of our own complicity. But who said this was going to be easy? It’s not easy for me. I don’t think it’s easy for anyone here. I guess what I’m saying is, there’s work to be done—so let’s stop trying and do it. No excuses.
AMY KING: Danniel hit one of the most problematic nails directly on the head here with his explication of the “best” in Best American Poetry. Publishing carries on as if it is solely premised on merit and that everyone is simply out to publish the best work going. This presentation—this oft-cited guise—parallels the notion that everyone in this country was born with the same rights, accesses and means across the board. It’s delusional to pretend the cards haven’t long been stacked, that we aren’t living in a country that has yet to fully address and rectify a holocaust that ravaged and destroyed many people of color, starting with Native Americans to Africans to African Americans to Japanese and Japanese Americans, etc. The game has always been rigged: who gets to speak, whose voices get the platforms to amplify their truths, propositions, and realities has always been determined by a violent hierarchical ranking. To pretend that somehow publishing is built on simply locating and advancing the “best voices” is to pretend that the literary world is somehow removed from a country that ranks and others and decimates entire populations—so too does the literary world, which is made up of this same country’s citizens.
When one group’s voices—white people’s—ride roughshod as the predominantly “best” work to publish, read, teach, and sell as a complete history, that is a violence that editors must meet directly, head on and actively—even aggressively—in order to counter the force of history that denies voices and positions their words as less than, even untrue, in the face of other stories privileged as the “best.” What shameful bullshit. White editors especially need to work harder than ever to combat the unexamined compulsions and behaviors we’ve been conditioned to that many of my students bare and remind me of daily with the response, “I can relate to it.” By clinging to and perpetuating this “comfort” zone of publishing, however knowingly or not, we are maintaining a biased system that is at once discriminatory and anemic.
It is discriminatory to avoid admitting the game is rigged, that it is full of nepotism and people seeking to give voices visibility in the world that reflect their own values and experiences—while sending “other” voices to be published in niche markets. The silences of white editors like Lehman in the face of overtly racist acts, literary or otherwise, hang heaviest because it means no one in the room is willing to say what we all know: value is placed on specific voices and to attempt to address that inequity is to either pull the curtain back and reveal the wizard with his levers and pulleys at risk of being ostracized or further marginalized in a literary world where careers and books and access hang in the balance.
And it is anemic to maintain the publishing world as it has carried on historically—on the pretense that it is solely a meritorious one—because it is to deny ourselves, white people, as yet-unrealized ways of thinking, existing, and relating with people of color because we are cultivating the divide with ignorance. That is, by giving white voices primacy and publishing and teaching our lives, thoughts, ideas, and perspectives as the dominant order, we are continuously digging the chasms that keep us apart and distant and fearful. Early on in college, I found lacking the literary canon as traditionally taught. The mostly white male voices and tokenized and reductively framed white women felt limited and even confining. I was lucky to be able to take numerous Women’s Studies courses that focused on a range of voices belonging to women of color. But that was a happy coincidence, thanks to the program being one of the first Women’s Studies programs in the country that served as a model for more to come—and far from the norm.
When editors cite that they have trouble locating writers of color whose voices are worthy of publication and note that those writers aren’t submitting, I cringe. This commonplace dismissal puts the publishing onus on writers of color—see, it’s their fault—and disregards many factors such as that editor’s publishing history and the editor’s own lack of imagination and efforts. Would you submit to a publication, as a writer of color, if you saw very little work by writers of color in the pages? I wouldn’t feel welcome and would not want my story or poem or novel sitting under consideration somewhere for months on end in a place that doesn’t seem to publish work by writers of color very often. Also, pretending that everything is published from the slush pile is simply silly. Most publications, including the ones that do read submissions, nearly always solicit work. I have edited a variety of publications and I ran a reading series; throughout those years, I had no trouble ever locating interesting, dynamic, and rich work by writers of color whose words filled pages and the Brooklyn stage I curated. Finally, I’ll simply offer a few words from my fellow VIDA cohort above, Camille Rankine, for those editors who like to recuse themselves and shirk editorial responsibility by saying they don’t want to think in terms of quotas. Her entire essay, “What’s in a Number?”, is enlightening, but I’ll offer this snippet to pique your curiosity:
As I said, nobody likes quotas. But the obvious distaste coiled within the word here unsettles me. In that distaste, I see the idea that any consideration of gender balance or racial diversity is demeaning. As if to curate with an eye toward inclusivity would result in a lesser product, something sullied, something diluted and dumbed down. What this argument fails to account for is the fact that our very idea of which work qualifies as good and worthy is influenced by our culture’s notion of who is worthy, and who is worth listening to.
HAFIZAH GETER: I’m thinking of something Michele Martin said in an interview on Krista Tippett’s podcast “On Being.” Martin says our real charge is to look around the room and to see who is missing and to invite them in. She says, “Look around. Who’s not here? Who’s not here?” That, I think, is the work we must do as editors and curators.
I’d also like to emphasize Camille’s point that diversity, and more so the creation of equity, is hard work for everyone, regardless of color. As an editor and curator, representation is always at the forefront of my mind—as a writer of color, it has to be. But still, to Camille’s point, I am always having to check myself. I too fall into that trap of privileging white voices and white spaces. Whiteness as #1, whiteness as default is the first lesson we learn in America.
As gatekeepers it is easy for us to focus on what other people should or shouldn’t be doing. It is easy to say “the industry” or “editors,” but much harder to say “I.” To say, here is what I am not doing and here is what I should be doing better. So let me start the charge: I do not read enough Hispanic or Middle Eastern writers. And because I am not reading and actively engaging with their work, I am not soliciting them enough, nor am I inviting them into the spaces I curate enough. When I insert the “I” into the problem statement, I can insert the “I” into the solutions. This is the work that I must do, the work we all must do.
I always find myself cringing when I hear people say that writers of color aren’t submitting. Reasoning like this is wishful thinking—something we hold onto to absolve us of responsibility. Let’s take for example Rattle. I know for a fact that people of color are submitting to Rattle (also evidenced by the tense interchange between Rattle editor Tim Greene and poet Joey de Jesus), yet they still managed to publish an all-white New York-themed issue. In a city as diverse as NYC I can’t help but see such a myopic approach to diversity as lazy and dismissive. And, you know what, I do take it personally. The ways in which white privilege, supremacy—and yes, even white guilt—impact me are incredibly personal and have damaging effects on me psychically and economically. It attacks not only my personhood but also my community—a community that POC work hard to create for each other.
Also as incredibly frustrating, if not more, than the mountains writers of color must traverse to be seen in these white spaces is the amount of room we are allowed to take when we arrive. I think Jenny Zhang says it best in her article “They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist”:
What I want is to not have to be made aware that because most publications only ever make room for one or two writers of color when those publications publish me it means another excellent writer of color does not get to have that spot, and yes, we internalize that scarcity and it makes us act wild and violent toward each other sometimes instead of kind.
I have seen white editors mistake diversity for tokenization. I have seen editors, in their attempts to throw some “color” in a situation, rely on the work that’s already been done—and so the names of the same writers of color come up again and again, creating the false impression that quality work from writers of color is a scarcity. And so we inhabit this tenuous space of trying to be champions of each other, while being hyper aware that there is a limit to the representation we are allowed.
And I’ve heard white editors/curators discuss the problem of “finding” writers of color, which begs the question, what does it take to be “found?” Moreover, as a writer of color, what does it take to be found when the “seeing” eye is whiteness?
CAMILLE RANKINE: The point Hafizah brings up about the space that writers of color take up is one that’s been on my mind, as well—the space that we’re allowed, or not allowed; the space that the literary establishment is comfortable giving us. Regarding the question of terminology, of diversity versus equity, I do often use the word diversity, but increasingly it seems that this space is what the word alludes to: maybe diversity is the chair in the corner of a vast, white room, in which a small number of us are at times invited to sit. Maybe within that word is the presumption that the room is not ours and we’re being let in.
That excerpt from Jenny Zhang’s excellent article particularly struck me, because it seems to me that one of the injurious effects of tokenism is the resentment it can create between writers of color. Which is tragic, because we’re hardly the ones who’ve decided there’s only room for a handful of us in the spotlight.
Considering the small amount of space we’ve historically been given, the small amount of space we continue to be given, it’s almost laughable that there exists this notion that we’re taking over, that by existing and being published and heard, we’re stealing something away from white writers. But it does exist. On the train to work a few months ago, I overheard two white women discussing the current publishing climate in poetry, and one of them said to the other (who, I’m fairly certain, was the publisher of a well-respected poetry press), “It’s like if I’m not black or Asian or gay, nobody’s interested right now.” I’ve found myself explaining to white writers that just because writers of color are being recognized more now than we were 20 years ago, it doesn’t mean we’re taking opportunities away from white people. That attitude not only dismisses the talent and worth of writers of color, it presumes that we’re intruding into territory that’s not ours, that those opportunities were the property of white writers to begin with.
MORGAN PARKER: Oh, great! Good to hear that being colored is finally trendy after all of these centuries. Seriously, though, this touches on something I’ve seen time and again that saddens me deeply on many levels. I wish I had the time here to unpack the levels of complexity this holds, but here are a few thoughts that come to mind in response to the above quote:
- For the record, discrimination, in relation to systemic racism, against white people, isn’t a thing. Because of history, and because of all the societal systems and biases we’ve been discussing. This seems continually misunderstood, especially in cases such as these.
- To this woman’s point, perhaps editors aren’t so interested in her work lately, perhaps because it already exists, in plentitude. This is not the fault of writers of color, and as Camille said, they have stolen nothing from her.
- It’s entirely possible that this woman is correct, and editors have selected writers of color because they’re #trending, because the editor wants to be progressive, and that instinct, should it be disingenuous, is painful tokenism. As discussed above, we aren’t numbers, we’re people, and we aren’t asking to be placed under glass or on pedestals, we’re merely asking for the same opportunities afforded our white counterparts (feeling like a broken record here, speaking through Douglass and MLK and Baldwin…)
- This is fear.
- Are we afraid of coexistence? Is she afraid to feel what we’ve continually felt? Is she afraid because she knows what we have felt is injustice, is trauma?
- This fear and hatred is rooted even more deeply than we think.
HAFIZAH GETER: I’m laughing, but yeah, it does feel like in some ways being a POC is trending. Which is just weirdly fetishizing. It’s yet another way to not see writers of color as people. To address your fifth point, I think we are afraid. I think we are very very afraid. John Powell describes whiteness as being “like the invisible presence of the narrator in a story told from the third person point of view.” Well, yeah. Just imagine what would happen to the popular narrative of America if other voices were given as much authority in telling it. First off, it wouldn’t start with whiteness.
AMY KING: I think this point Camille makes about tokenism is so important: This is something white editors and curators are doing. We are creating this climate of limited vision in terms of a) finally recognizing a lack but then b) thinking the way to address this is to just add a person of color or two, perhaps not even having read their work! I have heard people I respect say things like, “Oh, we need a person of color on the panel; it’s all white.” This nightmare of an unexamined “solution” or quick fix speaks also to Alex’s earlier point about asking who is in the room, at your party, in your reading circles, etc. If you’re not reading widely, you’re going to keep asking the same person of color to the table. It takes some effort, as Morgan points out—actual work—to go beyond one’s usual conditioned milieu and read around. Ask for suggestions, go to readings where you don’t know the writers, research user-end sites like Goodreads to see what readers are actually saying about books, use the categories there to search around, etc. Once editors read beyond the usual prescriptive reading list , inviting a wide variety of writers to submit becomes a pleasure because you like their work and want more! But it requires, again as Alex points out, paying attention and training yourself to recognize your own biases and limitations on an ongoing basis.
Trying out different modes of editing is another step towards addressing the current literary landscape. I am currently co-editing an anthology that echoes the Best American Poetry series simply by default as part of our premise: We are selecting poems published in 2015 to feature. But we have intentionally attempted to shift the balance by modeling a co-editing collaborative endeavor, revealing who we are so that our poetry tastes might be clarified, issuing an editorial statement about the work we are looking for, calling for nominations from any kind of publication, including small presses, not requiring poems be written by Americans, etc. We have tentatively called this endeavor Bettering American Poetry. Our primary desire is to showcase and give an additional boost to work that might be deemed too controversial, too this or that, etc.—see the editorial statement. In essence, we are introducing a collaboratively created reading list that we hope will lead readers to writers they may not have encountered yet. Ours is just a different model—an experimental one—that emphasizes editors working in a cooperative fashion, each with differing tastes, in order to showcase work that loosely fits our call for nominations in an attempt to critique the gatekeeping model and otherwise envision something else. We want to challenge the current mode that declares our selections “the best.” No, we are selecting work that speaks to us in a variety of ways, and this is who we are, by the way. We value transparency and are enjoying reading work we may have missed in 2015. We have also been discussing our varying aesthetics and our desire, or lack of, to engage politically. Of note, the editors range in age, ethnic backgrounds, modes of poetic engagement from spoken word to lyricism for the page—and we don’t seem to have any unifying aesthetic or homogenous identifying factor that categorizes or binds us. I think this last point may be one of the most important factors in our editing endeavor: This room is not filled with editors who read the same books, go to the same parties, know the same writers, etc. Our collaborative efforts are equitable in terms of how many poems we will each select, each editor writing part of the introduction, reading what others have selected as we proceed, discussing those selections as we like and proceed, etc. I am excited to see the range of work we bring together, discover new writers and poems because of these shared efforts and to learn from each editor why this work excites or engages them.
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Alexander Chee is an editor at large at VQR and a contributing editor at Literary Hub. His newest novel, The Queen of the Night, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2016.
Anna deVries is a senior editor at Picador. Books she has edited include Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine by Damon Tweedy, MD; Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: 16 Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum; The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd, The Birth of Korean Cool by Euny Hong, and Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt.
Hafizah Geter is a poetry editor for Phantom Books and co-curates, along with Ryann Stevenson, the reading series EMPIRE, a branch of Phantom Books. She serves on the Board of Directors for VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts.
Amy Hundley is a senior editor and rights director of Grove Atlantic. She has worked with Jim Harrison, Roxane Gay, Malcolm Brooks, G. Willow Wilson, and Aminatta Forna. Her forthcoming titles include histories of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet,” and of “sharp” women writers from Dorothy Parker to Joan Didion.
Amy King serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is currently co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology, Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. Her forthcoming book, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the WNBA Award (Women’s National Book Association).
Gregory Pardlo is the author of Digest (2014), winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; and Totem (2007), winner of the APR/Honickman First Book Prize. He is an associate editor for the literary journal Callaloo and teaches creative writing at Columbia University.
Morgan Parker is an editor for Little A and Day One, as well as poetry editor for The Offing. She is the author of Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books, 2015) and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce (Tin House Books, 2017).
Camille Rankine is assistant director of the MFA program in creative writing at Manhattanville College and editorial director of The Manhattanville Review. Her first book of poetry, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, is forthcoming in November from Copper Canyon Press.
Danniel Schoonebeek is editor of the PEN Poetry Series and host of the Hatchet Job reading series in Manhattan and Brooklyn. He is the author of American Barricade (YesYes Books, 2014) and the forthcoming travelogue C’est la guerre (Poor Claudia, 2015).
Jeff Shotts is executive editor at Graywolf Press, where he edits poetry, essays, nonfiction, literary criticism, and translations. He has worked with many writers, including Elizabeth Alexander, Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, Claudia Rankine, Vijay Seshadri, Tracy K. Smith, and Mary Szybist.
Below is a list of resources and links that were brought up over the course of the discussion. We’re working on a more extensive resources page, but in the meantime, if there’s any articles on the subject of equity in publishing, or lit mags, organizations, fellowships, and workshops that serve writers of color or other communities marginalized from the literary conversation that are missing from this list, email us at editorial[at]pen.org. We’re learning every day, and we want to hear from you.
“From the Editors: The Politics of Blind Submissions Policies” by Apogee Staff
“Children’s Books by and about People of Color and First/Native Nations Published in the United States” by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison
“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Author” by Aminatta Forna
“The Worst Kind Of Groundhog Day: Let’s Talk (Again) About Diversity In Publishing” by Roxane Gay
“There’s A New Movement in American Poetry and It’s not Kenneth Goldsmith” by Cathy Park Hong
“When White Poets Pretend to be Asian” by Hua Hsu
“I Gave a Speech about Race to the Publishing Industry and No One Heard Me” by Mira Jacob
“Self-Portrait of the Artist as Ungrateful Black Writer” by Saeed Jones
“What Is Literary Activism?” curated by Amy King
“Why Hasn’t the Number of Multicultural Books Increased in Eighteen Years?” Lee & Low Books
“The PW Publishing Industry Salary Survey 2015: A Younger Workforce, Still Predominantly White” by Jim Milliot
“The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” by Christopher Myers
“Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing” by Daniel Older
“Why the Submission Numbers Don’t Count” by Danielle Pafunda
“The Limits of Diversity” by Jennifer Pan
“Hatred of Publishing: A Conversation Between Industry Dropouts” by Jennifer Pan and Sarah McCarry
“Dr. Craig’s 12-Step Program for White Poets Contemplating Ethnic Fraud” by Craig Santos Perez
“What’s in a Number?” by Camille Rankine
“We need Diverse Diverse Books” by Matthew Salesses
“Stop Pigeonholing African Writers” by Taiye Selasi
“The Unbearable (White) Maleness of US Poetry” by Purvi Shah
“The 2014 Women of Color VIDA Count” by VIDA
“They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” by Jenny Zhang
African American Literature Book Club
Bettering American Poetry
Linden Ave Lit
Union Station Mag
ORGANIZATIONS, FELLOWSHIPS, WORKSHOPS
Asian American Writers Workshop
BuzzFeed Emerging Writers Fellowship
Cave Canem Foundation
City College publishing program
We Need Diverse Books Mentorship Program