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

Clockwise from top left: Min Jin Lee, Ayad Akhtar, Roxane Gay, Suzanne Nossel, Erroll McDonald with the words, "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 will probe 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.

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(Can’t attend in-person? Livestream will be available on this page on the day of the event.)

Questions that will be raised include:

  • 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, writer, editor, and publisher Roxane Gay, author Min Jin Lee, and publishing veteran Erroll McDonald will anchor the discussion, with PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel moderating, and more panelists to be announced. The audience will have the opportunity to join in the discussion and continue the conversation in a post-event reception.

This Town Hall will take place as part of PEN America’s statutory Annual General Meeting (AGM) and attendance is limited to PEN America Members in good standing. New and members can 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 can be made available upon request.


Participants

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’s debut novel Free Food for Millionaires was a No. 1 Book Sense Pick, a New York Times Editor’s Choice, a Wall Street Journal Juggle Book Club selection, and a national best seller; it was one of the Top 10 Novels of the Year for The Times of London, NPR’s Fresh Air, and USA Today. She has received the NYFA Fellowship for Fiction, the Peden Prize from The Missouri Review for Best Story, and the Narrative Prize for New and Emerging Writer. Her fiction has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts and has appeared most recently in One Story. Min Jin went to Yale College where she was awarded both the Henry Wright Prize for Nonfiction and the James Ashmun Veech Prize for Fiction. She attended law school at Georgetown University and worked as a lawyer for several years in New York prior to writing full-time. From 2007 to 2011, Min Jin lived in Tokyo, Japan where she wrote Pachinko (February 7, 2017). She lives in New York City with her family.

Erroll McDonald headshotErroll McDonald is the Vice President and Executive Editor in the Knopf Doubleday division of Penguin Random House, where he has worked in various editorial capacities for more than three decades. Among the distinguished authors he has published are Jack Henry Abbott, James Baldwin, Count Basie, Italo Calvino, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Kazuo Ishiguro, Fran Lebowitz, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Wole Soyinka. Of Caribbean heritage, McDonald was born in Limon, Costa Rica. After attending the Bronx High School of Science—where he received the school’s first Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for Scholarship and Citizenship—he graduated from Yale College summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and membership in Phi Beta Kappa. He was for two years a Fellow in the Department of Comparative Literature of the Yale Graduate School. He holds an Executive Master of Business Administration from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. He is a former trustee of the Brearley School and member of the Century Association. He has been a Lecturer in Yale College and an adjunct professor at Columbia. McDonald joined the PEN America Board in 2012.

Ayad Akhtar headshotAyad 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.

MODERATOR

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.