Let’s Join the Right Literary Conversations

This week, writer Roxane Gay published this piece in The Nation. It’s a sobering look at the number of writers in color whose books have been reviewed in four of the more popular book review venues today. The numbers confirm what we have all suspected to be true: writers of color are vastly underrepresented in book reviews, period.

These numbers shouldn’t surprise anybody, especially after what we’ve learned from looking at VIDA’s statistics year after year. These numbers are disgraceful, but I’m going to throw my hat in the proverbial ring and say that the way that we as a reading community are dealing with them is not much better. 

There are venues that are doing a far better, far more conscientious job with parity than the venues listed here. I’m going to bring up The Los Angeles Review–which is an entirely separate entity from the Los Angeles Review of Books, I’d like to state for the record–as a case in point (not because it’s the best journal in this area, but because I got pretty familiar with our reviews list after years of managing the journal). We published a huge, featured dossier of reviews on young black poets. We did a gay and lesbian writers’ roundtable feature. We did an omnibus feature on chicano writers and borderlands issues (this one will be in the next issue to hit print). We either achieved or came very close to a 50/50 split between self-identified male and female authors. I could keep going, but you get the idea. We consciously and purposefully focused on the areas that no one else was focusing on. Now, why isn’t anybody tabulating that work? Well, we’re not part of the establishment. A 1,000-copy circulation doesn’t a cultural phenomenon make. We don’t count when it comes to counting.

Yet here’s the thing: the establishment has no interest in changing. The establishment has no reason to change. Waiting for the big boys to change their stance on gender or racial parity is about as effective as waiting for Tea Party Republicans to come around to the need for reproductive rights. We don’t simply present those politicians with evidence and hope for a change of heart–we vote them out. When it comes to literary venues, we vote with our dollars. Those may be our own dollars when it comes to our subscription habits, or those may be advertising dollars that publications receive when we click on a story. The more we fund and give attention to those venues that are doing poor jobs with parity, the less incentive we give them to ever do better.

A few years ago, I heard one of the directors of Hedgebrook explain the philosophy behind starting the woman-focused writers’ colony: if you’re not invited to the party everybody else is throwing, then throw a better party. Hedgebrook throws a darned good party, I’d say. Maybe we can learn from that model. If we’re not invited to the dominant conversation, let’s start a better conversation. Let’s put our dollars and votes in the places that welcome, foster, and care about that conversation instead of waiting endlessly for change.

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2 thoughts on “Let’s Join the Right Literary Conversations

  1. A wonderful wish, but it’s hard to battle the buckets of marketing dollars the big boys throw around, even among erudite readers. But having been part of that LAR effort at field leveling, I will say I’m proud of our record. It wasn’t any one person’s doing, but instead included the entire organization, from the editorial staff through to the volunteer reviewers who chose to review those books. No one had to be cajoled into including more women or writers of color on our lists–we simply went with what we believed was most interesting. (And even had room for an essay on going too far in literature, when women editors precluded men from an anthology, if you recall.) I believe this illustrates what readers actually choose when freed from the blather of corporate marketing. Too bad the mainstream doesn’t get it.

  2. Joe, you’re absolutely right; we had the chance to do what was interesting, not what was expected by those who always assume that the same few books by the same few people are inherently the most interesting. There have got to be quite a few other journals who are doing things like LAR did; what I’d love to see in response to these counts is a listing of journals that are getting it right–places that readers who really care about this issue can go instead of to the old standbys.

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