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Broader, Better Literary Conversations | The Nation

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Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay

New words from writers of color.

Broader, Better Literary Conversations


(AP Photo/Montgomery Advertiser, Amanda Sowards)

Representation and participation in the literary conversation have been an ongoing concern. All too often, literary white men dominate the conversation. Fifty years ago, that could be explained away. In this day and age, it’s absurd. Last year, I did a rough count of how many books by writers of color were reviewed in The New York Times in 2011. The numbers were grim but unsurprising. White writers wrote nearly 90 percent of the books covered by the paper of record.

In reality, literary coverage comes at a premium for all writers, regardless of their identities. Book coverage shrinks every year and no writer, with the exception of an elite few, are guaranteed any kind of attention for their books. Writers have to hustle to get their books in front of readers. They have to hustle hard, but unfortunately, when we look at the numbers, it is plain that some writers have to hustle much harder than others. The real problem though is that the harder hustle still might not get these writers anywhere.

There’s no satisfaction that comes from pointing out these kinds of imbalances, none at all. Underrepresented writers shouldn’t even be put in a position, not in 2013, where we have to count, where we have to worry that race or gender or sexuality will be one more barrier to a highly coveted piece of book coverage. Don’t we deserve to suffer the same banal “will anyone notice my book” neuroses as all the white men instead of clawing for a fraction of a seat at the ever-shrinking table?

I counted again this year, looking at more publications. This wasn’t highly scientific work—with the help of two graduate assistants, Gretchen Schaible and Doug Urbanski, we simply found all the 2012 reviews we could for several publications and looked at the race/ethnicity of the writers whose books were covered. The approach, however inelegant, does begin to tell a familiar story. Below is a rough look at what I found; it was too dispiriting to spend time on pie charts stating the obvious.

Publication

Selection of Reviews

African-American/African Descent

Asian/South Asian

Latino

 

Middle Eastern

Native American

Caucasian

Bookforum

126

4

3

1

3

0

115

Los Angeles Review of Books

483

13

24

18

6

2

420

NPR

186

2

9

4

5

1

165

New York Review of Books

420

5

23

10

6

0

376

 

The Los Angeles Review of Books is most diverse, with 12.9 percent of their review coverage going to books written by writers of color. Bookforum brings in the rear at 8.7 percent and NPR and The New York Review of Books are tied, with 10.7 percent of their coverage going to books written by writers of color. In the selection of 2012 reviews I looked at from the LARB, only one book written by a black woman received coverage. It was the Highlander of reviews. There can be only one.

These numbers suggest, quite plainly, that the people shaping the literary conversation are not reading diversely. If they are reading diversely, it’s a well-kept secret. Editors are not expanding their editorial missions. They are explicitly and directly responsible for the narrowness and whiteness of the literary conversation. They are responsible for the misguided notion that there simply aren’t that many writers of color or books written by writers of color. Of course people make that assumption. There’s no evidence to the contrary in most mainstream publications.

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I have written criticism for two of these four publications and The New York Times. These are publications, clearly, I read and respect. Only one of the reviews I’ve written for these publications, however, was for a book by a writer of color. Part of my disappointment lies in recognizing I, perhaps, haven’t done enough to diversify the literary conversation. I’ll be guest-blogging here at The Nation for two weeks, and I’m going to focus on reading and writing—my first and most enduring loves. I was recently reading Men We Reaped, a new memoir from National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward. It’s a book about race and grief and how inextricably linked race and grief often are. What you need to know right now is that The Men We Reaped is beautifully written. It is raw and ugly, a lamentation of sorrow seemingly without end. The heartbreak is so palpable, the pages practically tremble. You should know this book and the circumstances that made such a story possible. Over the next two weeks, I’m going to write about The Men We Reaped, and the ways the narrative both succeeds and fails. I’m going to discuss several other books from writers of color because there are several exciting new books worth talking about. There will be an interview with the immensely talented Kiese Laymon and hopefully some other surprises. I hope to do more to broaden the literary conversation and maybe, in turn, others will too.

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