5 Women In Publishing Talk About Why Books About Race And Gender Are So Popular Now


I feel lucky

Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News / Courtesy

Tell us who you are, what you do, and how long you’ve been in publishing.

TMM: I’m Terese Marie Mailhot from Seabird Island Band (rez). I’ve been publishing and editing for three years. I’d classify myself as a writer, but I got my first real start as Saturday editor at the Rumpus, and since then I’ve been able to include original voices into several different projects and collectives, and I’ve been able to publish a book with Counterpoint Press and Doubleday Canada.

MT: I’m Meredith Talusan, a first-generation immigrant Filipino trans writer, journalist, and editor who is also albino. I’m currently the executive editor of them., Condé Nast’s queer digital platform, and author of the forthcoming memoir Fairest from Viking Books at Penguin Random House. I’ve been publishing pieces on minority issues, especially trans and race, since 2014, including at BuzzFeed where I was a staff writer.

KB: My name is Kathryn Belden, and I’m an executive editor, working on fiction and nonfiction, at Scribner. I’ve been in the industry for 30 years, at companies of all sizes: small independent, midsize, and large corporations.

IO: I’m Ijeoma Oluo. I’m a writer, speaker, and editor-at-large at the Establishment. I’ve been in writing and publishing for about five years now and I work primarily on social issues — especially issues of race and gender. [Editor’s note: Her New York Times best-selling first book, So You Want to Talk About Race, was released January 2018 with Seal Press.]

KJ: Kima Jones here. Founder of Jack Jones Literary Arts, a Los Angeles–based book publicity company that works exclusively with black writers and writers of color and arts nonprofits serving marginalized communities.

Do you think it’s accurate to say that there has been a recent upswing in the selling and promotion of nonfiction books (memoir or essays) that are explicitly about race and gender identity?

TMM: I think there has been an upswing. I think some people knock the door down. I’m so grateful when I see it, and so are my students. We’re looking at writers like Joshua Whitehead and Alicia Elliott, and my students can see a space for themselves in the world. Whitehead’s work is lyrical fiction, but the discourse coming from that book (full-metal indigiqueer) is encouraging, and it expands what we can do with nonfiction. Elliott has been an essayist I’ve admired for some time, and the way she’s putting the pressure on the Canadian literary community to be more inclusive, more original, and more interesting by proxy — it’s wonderful for me to see.

Ben Kothe/BuzzFeed News

MT: I would say so. I’m sure different people would have different touchstones in terms of what has brought on this recent spate of nonfiction books related to race and gender, but the books that I think of as the ones that showed how personal writing by minorities can be big successes are Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. Among trans memoirs, Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness came out in February 2014 and it definitely influenced my own decision to write on trans issues.

KB: I have absolutely been seeing a lot more submission in these areas in the last decade. I noticed the increasing numbers on the topic of race first and gender identity more recently. (I’m now seeing a larger number of submissions on the issue of class and white poverty as well.) I have the sense there are more books being published — but minus any actual data, it could also be that the books are receiving more attention. Or both. There’s been great writing coming out of these communities for decades, including personal stories. Perhaps when the topics of the books relate to the national dialogue (or the topics of the books reflect the national dialogue), there’s a bigger pop in terms of attention and sales. And then other writers follow, and publishers see there’s more opportunity. I hope it’s a widening embrace. Whatever the reason, it’s exciting to witness.

IO: Yes, I would say that there has definitely been an increase in nonfiction work on race and gender. I think that there is finally more recognition of a market for broader representation of lived experiences in nonfiction and a lot more first-person portrayals of life that was once fictionalized by privileged writers who did not actually live it.

KJ: Certainly the viral first-person essay has influenced this upswing.

Do you think this has been beneficial overall for marginalized writers’ careers (in terms of visibility, size of book deal, etc.)? Are there any drawbacks to this trend?

TMM: Visibility is good because it’s saved my life, kind of. Being more visible keeps me safer. Tokenization, and the romanticization of people and our plights, is bad, and those are the types of things that occur when marginalized communities get attention.

MT: It can’t hurt, right? At least not economically. In the month or so since I’ve gotten my book deal, I feel like doors have opened for me in ways they didn’t prior to being granted a certain kind of institutional credibility by the mainstream publishing industry. I haven’t gone around and asked minority writers I know if the same has been true for them, but I have certainly observed them making strides careerwise, like Morgan Jerkins making the NYT best-seller list with This Will Be My Undoing and great buzz for books like Porochista Khakpour’s Sick, Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, and Sarah McBride’s Tomorrow Will Be Different. The media attention translates to other opportunities like speaking and media engagements, and just generally being more influential.

Do I see drawbacks? Yes, of course. For me, the main one as a writer, and again not having spoken to people directly about this so this is more me projecting and speaking from my own experience, is maintaining the strength of my perspective while writing for an increasingly wide audience. My origins as a writer come from challenging the establishment, which, in a lot of ways is actually less tricky than continuing to do that while increasingly being part of the establishment. It’s important to me to utilize the new resources I have while maintaining the integrity of my voice, since expressing my unique experience is so much of why I write in the first place.

KB: To my mind, the more the industry opens up to acquiring books from a wider array of voices and experiences, and the more the market responds positively to reading these works, the better for everyone: for book sales, for the world of literature, for cultural understanding. Within the industry we think about trends as we acquire books, but I prefer not to think of the expansion of the market in this way. That diminishes the work. That allows people to think, for example, when one of the major awards is dominated by writers of color, as it was one year in the recent past, that it’s a response to a trend, when it’s about the high quality of the work being produced.

Anecdotally, I have seen the very positive impact publishing books can have on individuals. While publishing can be a disappointing process when the sales and attention don’t meet expectations (this happens a lot), a book can have a significant impact on career opportunities, acknowledgment by peers, and financial stability.

IO: I definitely see the benefit to marginalized writers. Anything that has us telling our own stories is of benefit. I don’t necessarily see any drawbacks, but I do see real limitations that need to be addressed. These books are often not taken seriously by booksellers or reviewers. Often, memoirs or essay collections are hidden in the back of bookstores where they keep their “feminist studies,” “gender studies,” “women’s issues,” or “race and ethnicity” books — even when the books are selling well or are written by more popular writers, unless they are new releases by Ta-Nehisi Coates or Gloria Steinem, they don’t get any front-shelf placement.

I also do not see much of this increased demand for nonfiction work on race or gender translating into increased demand for other writing from writers of color, women writers, or trans and nonbinary writers. While there is increased demand for our work in this small field, rarely are publishers seeking out these different viewpoints and talent in fiction, poetry, mystery, and nonfiction subjects not based in memoir or identity. I find that many in the business think that this (writing on identity and social issues relating to identity) is all that we have to offer the literary world.

Finally, even with the increase in book deals, the upper management of most major publishers are still white, cis, abled men, and most editors are still straight, white, cis, abled women. This means that your book, even if geared toward a minority audience, has to appeal to gatekeepers from privileged communities who may not be your target audience or may not yet understand due to lived experience why your work is necessary. Every single person I worked with in the process of writing my book was white, which definitely added extra complexities and labor to publishing a book on race. There is a lot of translating and bargaining in order to keep your voice as a writer from a marginalized community that more privileged writers do not have to go through.

KJ: I always return to this Imani Perry essay where she calls the slave narrative the first black memoir. I think about that historical context, regarding the Black American memoir, in terms of how black writers have always written toward this tradition so what do we do when it’s considered a trend. I definitely see a drawback. Unfortunately, there are some memoirs and essay collections by minority writers that exploit and tokenize and lean into the white gaze. I also worry anytime one person is called on to be the single voice for any group or generation. It’s troublesome, and my hope is that nonfiction writers will push back against editors and publishers and media outlets that want to make them some kind of singular savior for the _______ community. A lot of it, most always, feels exceedingly classist. I’m not a fan of exceptionalism, so I’m generally suspicious anytime publishing or media are trying to explain how different or better or shinier the exceptional apple is when compared to the other apples. It usually looks like, “Yes, she’s an apple, but not like those apples. This apple went to that school. Or did this thing. Or won this award. Or speaks these languages.” That said, there are several memoirs and essay collections that continue to renew my hopes for publishing: Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, Jessica B. Harris’s My Soul Looks Back, Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries, Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.

Kima, as the founder of a publicity agency that predominantly represents women of color, how does each writer’s identity influence the way you promote their work? Do you try to avoid centering their identity or do you deliberately evoke it?

KJ: It really depends. I worked with a lesbian novelist who explicitly did not want to be THE LESBIAN NOVELIST. For other clients, right down to the blurbs, they only want to work with folks who identify the way that they do. It’s a discussion I have right up front before we talk contracts. I need to know if the writer is happy with her publishing journey so far. Is she being edited in a way that she feels respects her voice and intention? Is she happy with the communication between her and her in-house team? Like an agent, my advocacy is for the author. I don’t work for the publishing house (unless they hire me directly), so my allegiance is to how my client wants to represent herself and not what the marketing team thinks is best.

I think there’s a way to center identity and center the central themes of the narrative (if they aren’t race or gender or sexuality). For example, when talking about client Renee Simms’ forthcoming debut short story collection Meet Behind Mars, I describe it as a quintessential collection about the lives of displaced black women — a collection about the interior lives of black people — mostly from the Southwest and West, free from trauma or pathology. In that description you get literature outside of New York; black people in the Southwest!; ideas of uprooting and dislocation; the minutiae of the human experience. When talking about client Natalia Sylvester’s Everyone Knows You Go Home, we pushed down hard on the immigrant experience and the idea of borders. For Leesa Cross-Smith’s Whiskey and Ribbons, we had a conversation we hadn’t had before: This was an African American novel that was not an up-from-slavery story, it was not a multigenerational family story, and it was not an urban hardship story. Some outlets have trouble wading through the water when the conversation pockets don’t feel familiar. It’s my job to guide them.

Kathryn, how do you navigate editing with an eye toward clarity for a broader, often white readership, while honoring the work and specific language of a minority writer?

KB: I don’t intentionally edit for a broader white readership, but since I am a white reader, I know I end up looking for clarity from my reading perspective. Whether it’s intended or not, I understand that I am imposing my perspective on the work. I make efforts to minimize this. I view my role as one of service. It’s my job to help the writer realize what they want, not what I want. When I don’t understand something that relates to an experience different from my own (and this can relate to all manner of things: region, religion, class, race, gender, sexuality, age, disability) or language unfamiliar to me, I ask questions. I don’t insist on changes nor do I expect writers to agree with me all the time — and they don’t. I worked with John Edgar Wideman on his last two books. I remember asking a question about a word or an expression. He responded that it would be understood by black readers. That’s all I needed to hear. The language stands. Maybe a less experienced writer wouldn’t feel as empowered to say this. I don’t know. Ideally, there’s mutual trust in the editorial process; ideally, it’s a conversation. For example, when reading the first draft I had seen of Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped, I felt the structure was problematic and asked her to reconsider. This was our second book together, so I had some understanding of the artist and person. She said, please, no. This is how she had always envisioned the book and would I help her make it work. I said yes. There was no other answer. Naturally, she was right. There was power in her idea, and I can’t imagine it any other way now.

If there were more diversity within publishing (more than the few great editors I know or know of — several of whom work in my building), writers like John and Jesmyn could choose to work with editors who bring a different level of understanding, an understanding that comes through shared experience. (May we all be part of making those changes to the industry!) Ultimately, however, as a reader and an editor, I am drawn to voices, not of a particular style, but distinctive and artful voices, and most often to stories that reflect experiences different from my own. So I come to the work with a strong interest in the specific language and narrative that defines the individual writer and her experience. That’s often what I love most about a book — that specificity. I try to guide in the ways I can, but when it comes to voice, I do my best to stay out of the way.

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