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PEN America Town Hall: Do Publishers Have a Moral Obligation to Diversify American Literature?

PEN America’s landmark October 2022 report, Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and Book Publishing, detailed a Gordian knot of preconceptions, business practices, and perceptions that have conspired to keep book publishing overwhelmingly white both in terms of staff and leadership as well as books published. Decades of efforts including hiring pushes, new imprints and hefty investments have seemed to come and go, with limited lasting progress to show. This conversation probed a level deeper, asking how some of the most entrenched commercial, cultural and organizational habits and beliefs can be challenged and transformed to bring about a publishing industry and literary canon that better reflects American society in all of its complexity.


Questions that were raised included:

  • Do publishers have a moral and social obligation to steward the making of an “American Archive” and literary canon that represent the pluralism of the society we live in?
  • Does publishing as an industry have an economic imperative to racial equity and diversity?
  • Can the publishing industry move beyond and evolve from the long-standing assumption the target reader is “white?”

PEN America President Ayad Akhtar gave opening remarks. Writer, editor, and publisher Roxane Gay, author Min Jin Lee, publishing veteran Erroll McDonald, and writer and editor Chris Beha anchored the discussion, with PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel moderating. The audience had the opportunity to join in the discussion and continue the conversation in a post-event reception.

This Town Hall took place as part of PEN America’s statutory Annual General Meeting (AGM) and attendance was limited to PEN America Members in good standing. New and members could attend by joining today, using the discount code AGM2022 for 20% off Professional Membership. Please direct any questions regarding membership to [email protected].

Current Members can view the highlights of past AGMs on the Member Benefits page.

Additional accommodations could be made available upon request.


Roxane Gay headshot. Credit to the New York Times.

Photo Credit: The New York Times

Roxane Gay is an author and cultural critic whose writing is unmatched and widely revered. Her work garners international acclaim for its reflective, no-holds-barred exploration of feminism and social criticism. With a deft eye on modern culture, she brilliantly critiques its ebb and flow with both wit and ferocity. Words like “courage,” “humor,” and “smart” are frequently deployed when describing Roxane. Her collection of essays, Bad Feminist, is universally considered the quintessential exploration of modern feminism. NPR named it one of the best books of the year and Salon declared the book “trailblazing.” Her powerful debut novel, An Untamed State, was long listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Her latest book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body is a painstaking examination of body image. Roxane is a contributing op-ed writer for The New York Times, co-editor of PANK and was the non-fiction editor at The Rumpus

Min Jin Lee headshotMin Jin Lee is the author of the novels Free Food for Millionaires and Pachinko, a finalist for the National Book Award and runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Lee is the recipient of the 2022 Manhae Grand Prize for Literature, Bucheon Diaspora Literary Prize, and the Samsung Happiness for Tomorrow Prize for Creativity from South Korea and fellowships in Fiction from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She is an inductee of the New York Foundation for the Arts Hall of Fame and the New York State Writers Hall of Fame. She is a Writer-in-Residence at Amherst College and serves as a trustee of PEN America and a director of the Authors Guild. She is at work on her third novel, American Hagwon and a nonfiction work, Name Recognition.

Erroll McDonald headshotErroll McDonald is a Vice President and Executive Editor at Alfred A. Knopf. In his decades-long career in the industry, he has published, among other writers, Toni Morrison, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Italo Calvino, Wole Soyinka, Sandra Cisneros, Ngugi wa Thiongo, John Edgar Wideman, Harold Bloom, Fran Lebowitz, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Lucy Sante, Margo Jefferson, Richard Posner, Nina Simone and Richard Pryor. A former PEN America trustee, he is Chair of the Board of Directors of The Center for Fiction and a board member of The Brooklyn Rail. He is a professor at Columbia and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Of Caribbean heritage, Erroll was born in Limon, Costa Rica, and raised in Brooklyn, New York. A graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) from Yale College. He studied Comparative Literature in the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and holds an MBA from Columbia University Graduate School of Business.

Chris Beha headshot

Christopher Beha is the author of a memoir, The Whole Five Feet, and the novels Arts & Entertainments and What Happened to Sophie Wilder. His latest novel, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, was nominated for the 2020 National Book Award. He is the editor of Harper’s Magazine. He is currently writing an intellectual history of atheism for Penguin Press.


Ayad Akhtar headshot

Ayad Akhtar is a novelist and playwright. His work has been published and performed in over two dozen languages. He is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Akhtar is the author of Homeland Elegies (Little, Brown & Co.), which The Washington Post called “a tour de force” and The New York Times called “a beautiful novel…that had echoes of The Great Gatsby and that circles, with pointed intellect, the possibilities and limitations of American life.” His first novel, American Dervish (Little, Brown & Co.), was published in over 20 languages. As a playwright, he has written Junk (Lincoln Center, Broadway; Kennedy Prize for American Drama, Tony nomination); Disgraced (Lincoln Center, Broadway; Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Tony nomination); The Who & The What (Lincoln Center); and The Invisible Hand (NYTW; Obie Award, Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award, Olivier, and Evening Standard nominations). 

Among other honors, Akhtar is the recipient of the Steinberg Playwrighting Award, the Nestroy Award, the Erwin Piscator Award, as well as fellowships from the American Academy in Rome, MacDowell, the Sundance Institute, and Yaddo, where he serves as a Board Director. Additionally, Ayad is a Board Trustee at New York Theatre Workshop, and PEN America, where he serves as President. In 2021, Akhtar was named the New York State Author, succeeding Colson Whitehead, by the New York State Writers Institute.


Suzanne Nossel headshotSuzanne Nossel is Chief Executive Officer at PEN America and author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All. Prior to joining PEN America, she served as the Chief Operating Officer of Human Rights Watch and as Executive Director of Amnesty International USA. She has served in the Obama Administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, leading US engagement in the UN and multilateral institutions on human right issues, and in the Clinton Administration as Deputy to the US Ambassador for UN Management and Reform. Nossel coined the term “Smart Power,” which was the title of a 2004 article she published in Foreign Affairs Magazine and later became the theme of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tenure in office. She is a featured columnist for Foreign Policy magazine and has published op-eds in The New York Times, Washington Post, and LA Times, as well as scholarly articles in Foreign Affairs, Dissent, and Democracy, among others. Nossel serves on the Board of Directors of the Tides Foundation. She is a former senior fellow at the Century Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Nossel is a magna cum laude graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Law School.