Two New Efforts In Publishing Diversity: ‘Learning From Each Other’s Narratives’

Image - iStockphoto: Statu Nascendi
Image – iStockphoto: Statu Nascendi

‘There Are So Many Reasons To Write’

 We’ve joined the global conversation on the intersection of race and writing.

But is it enough?


Therese Walsh
Therese Walsh

These viewpoints echo that of Zed Books’ Crystal Mahey-Morgan, who told me in an interview for The Bookseller less than a year ago: “We need to move beyond rhetoric and good will.”Well, no, it’s not enough, according to the leadership of two major writing communities speaking to the issue.

This week, we have announcements of newly devised point-of-view initiatives from:

Eve Bridburg
Eve Bridburg

The programs have no formal connections, but are familiar to each other. Writer Unboxed contributors have presented panel sessions at GrubStreet’s The Muse and The Marketplaceconference, for example, as a group of eight of them will do on August 1 at Writer’s Digest’s Annual Conference in New York City.

In these programs’ day-to-day operations, authors engage both in matters of writerly craft and of the business of writing. At GrubStreet, the emphasis is on teaching, with more than 600 courses offered annually in an extensive curriculum. At Writer Unboxed, the stress is on concerns of working writers, played out primarily in articles, commentary, and a large Facebook group.

‘Not All Looking For The Same Experiences’

At Writer Unboxed, on Sunday (19 July), Walsh introduced a new series of viewpoint essays, “Diverse Voices: Why Diversity in Publishing Matters.”

In setting up the genesis of the effort, Walsh wrote that a survey of the Writer Unboxed Facebook group had revealed that issues of diversity were among the most requested focal topics. She wrote:

Maybe it was inspired by the recent Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriages, but many of the pitches were tied to diversity. We don’t talk about these issues as much as we should, do we? But we’re all very different, and those differences go beyond age and race and sexual orientation. We do not all have the same emotional experiences or voices or passions or fears. We are not all looking for the same experiences as writers–or as readers–and that’s ultimately a great thing. So let’s start talking.

Walsh tells me that the specific issues flagged by those she heard from did not fall primarily into the gender-ratio area, as some might have expected.

“We’re all very different, and those differences go beyond age and race and sexual orientation…We are not all looking for the same experiences as writers–or as readers–and that’s ultimately a great thing.”
Therese Walsh

Frequently, it can seem that the word “diversity” is pocketed by folks for whom the term has come to mean women’s issues. In fact, much of traditional publishing tends to have a far better ratio of women to men in its employ than many other industries can claim — in the UK, some 80 percent of the traditional workforce is said to be female. Managerial and executive-level positions, however, remain less available to women than many feel they should be. And questions of who gets published are so vexing to some that the authorKamila Shamsie in June issued a call for a “A Year of Publishing [only] Women.

Emma Barnes
Emma Barnes

How are we stopping women from being successful in later management roles? Our junior roles, from which future managers develop, don’t provide testing and difficult opportunities to think critically…I’m talking about rehearsing any sort of difficult, logically-minded activity. We still celebrate “gut feel” in our company cultures. We rarely train our juniors in influencing skills or project management techniques, or provide them with the practice to develop the mental apparatus to logically unpack a problem.This week, writing at The FutureBook, The Bookseller’s sister site that I manage in London, Bibliocloud’s and Snowbooks’ Emma Barnes lays out her conviction that botched hiring and training practices are making it particularly hard for women to get traction:

But, like many speakers to these problems today, Penguin Random House’s (PRH) Ebury managing director Rebecca Smart in London tells Roger Tagholm for Publishing Perspectives that women’s progress in the industry isn’t necessarily the key focus. 

I think gender is not our only, or even our biggest, diversity issue. The prevalence of the white middle classes in publishing remains a huge problem. We complain that fewer people are reading, but it’s not surprising when publishing represents only a small proportion of our population. I think that the “The Scheme,” PRH’s program aimed at recruiting a more diverse group of people, is a great start, but it’s not enough. We need more ethnic and demographic diversity at the top of our organizations.

And Joanna Prior, who has been named to head the UK’s Publishers Association and is managing director of Penguin General in London, concurs, telling Tagholm:

I worry about lots of things to do with diversity—the ethnic mix, the socio-economic make-up of our work force—but I do not worry about women getting senior roles.

‘The Road Is Long And Narrow’

Grace Wynter
Grace Wynter

As a teenager and later as a new adult, I devoured romance novels. But as much as I enjoyed those stories, something was missing. I read about blondes and brunettes, blue and green-eyed girls who, in the end, always found love, but there were no stories about girls who looked anything like me or my friends. In my school library and at my local book store, there were no stories about nerdy, fat, black, skinny, Latina, Caribbean, or Asian girls getting the guy. There were no stories where girls like me got to be the heroes.At Writer Unboxed, Walsh’s introduction of the Diverse Voices Series leads directly into its first installment, an essay from the Atlanta-based romance author and blogger Grace Wynter. She writes of her formative years as a reader:

South Carolina State University literature professor Angela Shaw-Thornburg’s comments on To Kill A Mockingbird, as reviewed by Laura Marsh at The New Republic, come immediately to mind:

Shaw-Thornburg describes teaching the novel at a “minority majority institution” where students are “trying to figure out why they feel unvoiced by the literature they are reading” and she diagnoses…“how little we see of [the accused African American] Tom Robinson, whose life and death would presumably be at the center of this story.”

For her part, Wynter opens the Writer Unboxed series with an unblinking gaze at what typical industry categorization can mean, both in publishing imprints and in bookselling:

When I write a novel with a black female protagonist, it’s a good bet that my novel will end up shelved in an area designated as African American or multi-cultural, and not general romance or themed romance. This designation immediately limits my potential audience and my earning potential.

Narrowly shelving books with black female protagonists says, “Black women, this book is for you, but the rest of you probably won’t be interested in this title because the protagonist doesn’t look or act like you.”…Never mind that the novel might be a western, might be historical, or might feature a multi-cultural cast of characters.

She adds that independent bookstores “are much better at featuring diverse authors and stories than big-box bookstores and retailers.”

And in a particularly generous comment, Wynter raises one of the trickier elements of the diversity dialogue: She turns to her own racial community to note that expectations don’t always match up on either “side,” when diverse storytelling is put into place:

I remember a friend once complaining that the black male character in a television dramedy about three men, was the one with daddy issues. I reminded her that the other two characters were equally flawed – one a gambling addict, the other a womanizer unable to hold down a steady job. Which flaw would we rather? We must be willing to see flawed, multi-dimensional characters of color on TV and in our books.

Regina Brooks, standing, leads GrubStreet's Marketplace Keynote panel event in May in Boston. Image: Porter Anderson
Regina Brooks, standing, leads GrubStreet’s Marketplace Keynote panel event in May in Boston. Image: Porter Anderson

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There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether:  Two New Efforts In Publishing Diversity: ‘Learning From Each Other’s Narratives’

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