The other day, I was walking around Powell’s City of Books on Burnside. I had been given a gift card over the holidays and was finally putting it to good use. Weaving between the shelves, loitering far too long in front of the small press section, I slowly and steadily accumulated a modest pile of books. My arms started to feel heavy with the weight of words. I was a very happy nerd.
Until I brought the books to the register and laid them all out for the cashier. Norman Mailer, Nicholson Baker, Tim Kinsella, Truman Capote, and Colin Winnette all stared up at me: a bouquet of very white, very male, and (with the exception of Capote) very straight authors.
“Hi!” they said in unison.
“Oh,” I said back.
“What?” said the cashier.
I became very self-conscious about the whole situation. I wondered if the cashier was judging my reading choices. Did he think I was some college freshman buying novels off an antiquated literary criticism reading list? Did he think I was blind to the fact that
the publishing industry was stacked against anyone who did not fall into a very specific racial and sexual binary? Did he think I was the reason The New York Times 2015 Summer Reading List was 100 percent white?
Probably he was just wondering when I would decide to hand him my gift card and make room for the next customer.
The thing is, I’ll bet the cashier didn’t think anything of my reading choices. I know I wouldn’t have, before studying book publishing at Portland State University. Not many readers think about the publishing process. They don’t realize that it is just as susceptible to human error or bias as any other business or organization. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for example.
The fact is that before an author of any diverse or underrepresented background can get their book published, they need to get it past a probably white agent, a probably white acquisitions editor, and then get picked up by a probably predominantly white publishing house staff. Whether it is out of real prejudice or some honestly misguided belief that it wouldn’t sell, these books probably aren’t going to get very far.
Does this mean that we shouldn’t buy Nicholson Baker’s books? Of course not, Nicholson Baker is amazing. Seriously, have you read The Size of Thoughts? But it does mean that we should be actively supplementing our literary diets with alternative voices, different worldviews, and wider perspectives, not only for our own intellectual and emotional benefit, but to send a message to the gatekeepers of the publishing industry: We want more of this!
Let’s do a little exercise, just for fun. (Because I’m a grad student, spontaneous writing exercises are what I consider fun now.)
Get a piece of paper and a pen. List your ten most recent favorite reads … ready, set, go! Now, put a mark next to the books by white authors. Now put a mark next to the books by male authors. Now the ones by straight authors.
If you’ve got even a couple of books left unmarked, congratulations! You are the future of book publishing. Keep doing what you’re doing (and maybe comment and let everyone know where you’re finding these books)! If not, try reading some Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, some Sia Figiel, or some Allison Green.