The History of Publishing Is a History of Racial Inequality

The History of Publishing Is a History of Racial Inequality

The History of Publishing Is a History of Racial Inequality

A conversation with Richard Jean So about combining data and literary analysis to understand how the publishing industry came to be dominated by white writers. 


Late last year, The New York Times published an opinion piece that illustrated an uncomfortable fact: The vast majority of American authors published after World War II have been white. This should not be a surprise to most people who pay any attention to contemporary literature, but the voluminous data included in the piece proved shocking even to the worst of pessimists. Between the years 1950 and 2018, the authors found, 95 percent of books published with major firms like Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster were written by white people. That gap hadn’t narrowed at all in 2018—white people wrote 89 percent of books published that year. And in 2020, only 10 percent of the New York Times best-seller list were written by people of color. The New York Times piece promptly went viral.

The main researcher behind the piece is Richard Jean So, an assistant professor of English and cultural analytics at McGill University whose research has culminated in Redlining Culture: A Data History of Racial Inequality and Postwar Fiction. Employing computational analysis and close reading, the book argues that the history of postwar American publishing is one of white stasis, where only a select few people of color are given opportunities to be published and promoted as whiteness shifts and reinforces its hegemony over the literary sphere. So only examined literary fiction from this period, but the numbers are bleak. Between 1950 and 2000, 97 percent of the novels published by Random House were written by white people, 90 percent of the novels reviewed in major periodicals were by white people, and 91 percent of major book prizes were awarded to white authors.

But the book goes one step further, arguing that this inertia is measurable through computational analysis of the form and content of these novels. At every level of publishing, So charges, you can find the unmistakable domination of whiteness, and this ought to make everyone, especially literary scholars, question received narratives about the success of multiculturalism in American arts and letters. Earlier this year we talked to So about Redlining Culture. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

—Rosemarie Ho

Rosemarie Ho: One of the findings in your book that I found really interesting was that postwar US fiction written by white authors is generally “a reflexive…narration of what it’s like to be a white person writing novels in the time of a growing racial diversity,” preferring “adverbs and modal verbs, indicating a version of reality defined by qualification and conditionality.” You also compare this to the corpus of Black literature written in the same period, and found that the latter is more distinguished by lexical diversity and dialogue. Can you talk more about your methodological approach? Can we really measure literary whiteness?

Richard Jean So: One thing I really wanted to do is try to get an account of cultural or literary whiteness: What does that really look like? I think sociologists have done this more through case studies—through interviews, they’ve noticed some traits—but I want to do this more at scale. I quantify that in different ways. I’m using two methods: one that looks at the way that white versus Black writers tend to describe white people, and I find a set of collocations or terms that tend to be used to describe people in stories. The second, slightly different method compares novels written by white authors, primarily best sellers and prize winners, versus novels written by Black writers. The two analyses converge on the same thing, which is: There’s a kind of recursiveness inherent to white texts. Which is to say whiteness is very interested in itself.

The major takeaway is that we can use machines to identify a white cultural voice. I think that’s important because people might believe one doesn’t exist or might think that’s too abstract. Whereas I want to say like, no, it’s real; whiteness is a kind of culture. It has a relationship to blackness. Sara Ahmed argues that a big part of whiteness is narcissism. I think that the data really bears that out—that white narcissism is really a thing that has certain qualities and a historical trajectory. And when we think about the cultural field, like best sellers, prizewinners—they also have a distinct white voice that’s very different from Blackness. And what really defines both of those categories is their whiteness, and how they, in some ways, are anti-Black in terms of their style, or their form, or the things that they care about. That’s something that we might have intuited before, but we weren’t quite clear about that.

RH: How broad can we take these claims to be?

RJS: All we can really know is based on the data that I have. So I would say [the book] has a pretty good account of Random House after the war, which is super similar to other publishing houses, but it’s super different from small publishers, like Grove or Graywolf, that stress diversity. But people need to do more research, build different kinds of models, use different methods. The one thing I am confident about is the amount of racism and the dominance of whiteness, and I’d be surprised if someone found something really different. I think it’s more like nuancing the results; if someone found two thousand novels of Black sci-fi, you know, it might be different. I’m not trying to get the last word—this is a foundation for more research.

RH: The book invokes economic language and measurement to think through the problem of the literary publishing industry as being extremely white. Writers of color, and Black writers in particular, are culturally redlined from opportunities and resources that their white counterparts have in abundance. What I thought was interesting is that the book doesn’t really look at the economics of publishing—how much money is spent on an average ad campaign or book advance at Random House, for example, for a white best-selling author versus a writer of color in the 1970s. Is there a reason why this is, other than the fact that it’s hard to collate all those contracts?

RJS: That data is super hard to get, though we’re working on some stuff right now—we’re trying to get all that advance information. This question of capitalism and how does it interact with questions of diversity are very interesting to me. I mean, publishers didn’t really give me any data, and they definitely were not going to give me sales data. I didn’t want to ignore the world of commerce so I just had proxies in my book. Best sellers are kind of a proxy for making money; book reviews are kind of a proxy, since you want to get prizes and reviews in The New York Times and stuff. I just have these proxies for being successful because I think writers also don’t just write to make money. They want to be recognized, right?

This kind of cuts to another question about publishing, which is the fact that houses are so secretive about sales information, and they themselves don’t keep very good records. There’s always this mythology around publishing, which is most publishers don’t do it for money. But it’s important because writers need to make a living! I couldn’t resolve that for the book. I didn’t know how to talk about commerce in publishing, and then diversity. But someone else should do it. That’d be really good.

I do speculate that more conglomeration seems to hurt minority writers, because what really sells books for publishers is the mid-list, like genre fiction, romance, and so on. That’s where it’s really hard for minority writers to break in. In literary fiction you’ll have about one super famous literary writer [of color], but then romance will be like 100 percent white. The latter’s actually the engine of what makes them money. I just couldn’t include that in the book.

RH: Switching track a little bit—there’s a bit of scholarly debate in the book right over whether academia has become much more sensitive to issues of race. Part of the argument that might prove to be more incendiary to scholars who read this book is the claim that the language of critical theory, and more specifically the overt focus on rhetorical moves and language, obscures the fact that racial inequality is still a burning trash can fire in American history. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true for specifically Asian American studies or scholars that don’t work overtly in literary studies, but who are reading and writing about minority literatures nonetheless.

RJS: I tried to frame it in a way that was not incendiary! I’m trying to build bridges, you know, not to antagonize people. But you’re right. Just to reiterate the argument: I end the book after showing this, like, insane, pervasive racial inequality, by pointing out this puzzle: When you look at Norton anthologies, which are proxies for what’s being taught, anthologies became 60 percent white, compared to 89 percent previously. Something was happening in the university, syllabi were being diversified, people were really getting interested in talking about race. And yet when I look at a huge corpus of 60,000 academic articles in this period that discuss race, there’s a real disconnect between how people are not really talking about the structural inequality in the literary field as it’s happening at the time, and the attention paid to race. I do some analysis—even this keyword “inequality” is not really one of the words we really use.

I think you’re right. People in ethnic studies are using “inequality”; they do care about this. But I still believe, through my analysis, that the attention is much more toward rhetorical, discursive type things, not necessarily material conditions. Certainly disciplines like cultural sociology are looking at material production. But because no one’s grinding the numbers, people just did not realize how insane it was, because we focus so much on individual success examples. People actually thought things were really changing because Toni Morrison was super successful in the late ’80s. I think it’s an oversight. It’s not a real damning critique of scholars who do this work; I just think that no one ran the numbers, which actually are surprising.

There was a massive change in the university in the ’80s and ’90s, but I do think we might have overstated its impact—that suddenly you look around and everyone’s teaching Black literature in your department and across the nation. That created to a certain degree this illusion of a broader success of multiculturalist society. The publishing industry itself didn’t really change that much in terms of racial representation in the kinds of stories it was publishing. I don’t talk about this much in the book, but my final comment about this is, this explosion of white nationalism that we’re dealing with now should not be surprising, if you always knew how supposedly (white) liberals actually think about rightwing cultural forms.

RH: A critical theory scholar might push back on your engagement of Stuart Hall and say, well, he or other scholars might not be using the word “inequality,” or these different keywords, but they might be still talking about racial inequity on a larger scale. Instead of “inequality,” it’d be “hegemony,” right?

RJS: It’s a great critique. I thought about this a lot because I love Stuart Hall. I would say that it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. You know, I love critical theory; terms like “hegemony” and Foucauldian paradigms are extremely powerful. I just don’t think that they can do everything. In some ways, what I’m trying to do is something super simple: Inequality is specific, it’s measurable, we can really see it over time.

Every critical model has a limitation. Take hegemony: It’s expansive and allows us to think really richly about the different kinds of oppression that can happen, that can’t be measured by inequality. But it’s not often specific or precise or concrete enough. The difference between, say, 1 percent and 49 percent—technically they’re both inequalities, but they’re hugely different, you know; but they would all be kind of the same within hegemony. My work really is just to supplement the critique of hegemony—putting some numbers on it allow us to specify moments of intensity, change over time. All the critiques that they would have of this work I agree with. Inequality is a limited rubric; hegemony allows us to think about oppression many different ways. But I don’t think it cancels out the value of empirical forms of evidence. The two work really well together actually.

RH: What would equality actually look like in the publishing world for you?

RJS: That’s the most interesting question I’ve gotten about this. Scholars, we just don’t think like that, you know, we’re like Foucauldian—it’s like, justice will never be attained; even trying to imagine that is problematic. But I like that, because people who do quantitative stuff actually believe that we try to fix the problem. Adorno and the like believe that any attempt to fix a problem is itself like a kind of problem. Another problem I really noticed that came up with some response to this work is that there’s lots of different overlapping forms of inequality. I find education to be a huge problem—you have to be pretty well educated to even be able to write a book, so the class problem is really significant. More people from different class backgrounds should have the opportunity to become writers; it shouldn’t be people who graduated from elite colleges and have MFAs.

I think there is no end to fixing the inequality problem. It’s just trying to, like, distribute the opportunities better. Here, I’m kind of inspired by Thomas Piketty’s work on the 1 percent. He doesn’t have a kind of ideal moment of inequality; I think my work is similar in that I’m interested in moments when inequalities become out of control. If the results show me 60 percent white, I’d be like, this is maybe not the most pressing inequality problem; but when I see 97 percent, 98 percent, that inequality has become too extreme, and so this has to be addressed. Attenuate that inequality problem, which is not to reach some perfect 50-50 thing, and then work on the next one that’s out of control. I don’t have a definition of equality in the arts. I think it’s more, I do know what inequality looks like. And when it’s out of control, I think we really need to address it.

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