Publishing’s Diversity Problem: The Response Scale

Josh Corman

Staff Writer

Josh Corman is a writer and English teacher in Central Kentucky and a Contributing Editor at Panels. He also writes for Kentucky Sports Radio’s pop culture blog, Funkhouser. If he’s not reading, he’s hanging out with his wife and two young children or cheering on his beloved Kentucky Wildcats.   Twitter: @JoshACorman

Have you ever wondered where responses to an evident lack of diversity in publishing fall on the spectrum between ‘sensible’ and ‘categorically delusional’?

Let’s use the Man Booker Prize as a test case, shall we? When the longlist for the prize was announced this summer, and you noticed (along with the rest of the internet) that of the fourteen books on the list, just three were written by women and only one by a person of color, did you wish there was someone here to pedantically point out to you just how willfully blind folks were being as they rationalized the (all-white, 2/3 male) judges’ selections?

Are you ever in luck! Let’s start with the sensible and work our way to the completely loony, shall we? (Note: if any of these responses seem too ridiculous, I invite you to peruse the Facebook comments on almost any of our posts advocating diversity in publishing or reading.)

Response #1: “I like a lot of the authors on the list, but it doesn’t seem very representative of the culture, especially since the Man Booker was open to any book originally published in English for the first time this year. The judges should be more intentional about balancing the nominees for these big prizes by including more women and people of color, especially since those authors often don’t receive the marketing pushes and publicity that a big prize nomination like this could bring, which only perpetuates the cycle of white male authors getting a disproportionate amount of notoriety and sales.”

Who said it: That one guy who’s always trying to get your signature for the Human Rights Campaign; The woman you sometimes talk to when you’re getting the mail who lets her daughter play with Transformers and wear Batman shoes; Your Women’s Studies Professor, for the thousandth time.

Rating – Sensible:  For a certain kind of reader, book prizes matter. When the authors longlisted for those prizes are almost entirely white and largely male, this sends a message to readers that important books are written mostly by those groups, which (A) ignores all the great stuff written by non-white or female or even – gasp! – non-white female authors and (B) essentially ensures that the sales statistics and critical attention for the longlisted books will inform future publication, marketing, and prize considerations. The cycle continues, and a bunch of good writers and books get pushed to the periphery.

Response #2: “Hear me out, OK? Maybe, just maybe the best books nominated for the prize just happened to be written by white guys.”

Who said it: Earnest English Majors who love Ernest Hemingway more than they’ve ever loved anyone; Someone who just happens to prefer white male authors, and if that makes him racist then guilty as charged, OK!

Rating – You’re Kidding, Right?: This position brings with it some interesting (read: absurd) assumptions. Namely, that of the 150+ books officially submitted for consideration, that the judges have (A) actually read and (B) selected the actual fourteen best books on the list, and that any attempt at diverse representation would somehow represent the unfair, token selection of books by women and people of color and the “watering down” of the list’s quality. That’s giving the (again, all-white, 2/3 male) judges more credit than they deserve. There are no doubt more than fourteen out of the more than 150 submitted books worthy of recognition. Selecting a representative longlist would not weaken the overall quality of the novels selected, but rather serve as an easy way to reinforce the value of diversity and acknowledge that good books come from a lot of different places.

Response #3: “I don’t think about the author’s race or gender when I read. I just read what I like or what looks interesting, so if that means that I read more white or male authors, then that’s just a coincidence. I don’t see why the readers who judge literary prizes should be artificially forced to pick books that just might not happen to reflect their genuine tastes. I know I wouldn’t want to.”

Who said it: A person who seems not to understand how judging a contest actually works; Someone who honestly thinks that there ought to be a channel called White Entertainment Television; Un-ironic users of the phrase “reverse racism.”

Rating – Willfully Blind for $200, Alex: For one, since an author’s race or gender is likely to influence their writing in meaningful ways (even when the book is not explicitly about those subjects), it seems a little strange for a reader to never think about it. For another, let’s take the claims of this kind of response at face value: if true, that means that readers of this type are engaged in a kind of fatalism, letting current publishing, marketing, and reviewing trends (read: most of the money behind mostly white male authors) dictate what they read, while they passively accept the status quo. For yet another, even if the average reader doesn’t feel the need to pay attention to the makeup of the authors of books they read, literary prize judges absolutely should. Their choices are imbued with tremendous power, so they should be even more aware of the existing trends in publishing and strive to make representative choices, rather than acting as Grand Marshals of the everlasting White Dude Parade.

Response #4: “I bet that a list like this just overjoys every liberal, race-card playing, so-called feminist who want white men to feel guilty about every success they have had or ever will have. It gives them the chance to make yet another discussion about race and gender, all while dragging the white men whose books made this list through the mud for being talented and successful.”

Who said it: Possibly Rush Limbaugh, posting as Man4Amurica1776; a person whose country club just hasn’t found the right person of color to admit yet; someone who suffers from a rare condition that makes them think they’re an ostrich.

Rating – Go Home Reader, You’re Drunk: Or, at least, I hope you are. Perhaps that would explain some things. Like, for example, how even though women publish more than 50% of all books, prize lists like the Man Booker’s are routinely dominated by men, and this seems totally fine and normal to you. Believe it or not, readers who value diversity don’t hate men or white people, but rather look to what is considered the upper echelon of the industry (publishing) that creates something they love (books) and, too often, fail to see the world around them represented there on a meaningful scale.

The issues that publishing has with diversity are, of course, not contained to a single literary prize or the world of literary fiction, but since both represent what a lot of people may see as the high water marks of the present state of books, it’s vital that they both be a consistent part of the dialogue on the subject.

Unfortunately, that dialogue isn’t always sensible. Feel free to print, laminate, and carry this scale for reference. I hope you never need it.