Monday, 21 April 2014

Daniel José Older on Diversity in Publishing

The American writer Daniel José Older has a depressing and inspiring piece at Buzzfeed about race, power and publishing in the U.S. Read it. He writes about the hurdles authors of colour have to jump to get published in America's white, middle-class dominated industry, about agents and editors who "can't relate" to characters who look different to them, about how an amorphous entity called The Market is blamed for the homogeneity of what gets into print. There are a lot of paragraphs that got my blood pumping (as did Older's great stories about working as a paramedic), but this is the one that made me think the most about the situation here in Germany:
We’re right to push for diversity, we have to, but it is only step one of a long journey. Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism. It walks hand in hand with sexism, cissexism, homophobia, and classism. To go beyond this same conversation we keep having, again and again, beyond tokens and quick fixes, requires us to look the illness in the face and destroy it. This is work for white people and people of color to do, sometimes together, sometimes apart. It’s work for writers, agents, editors, artists, fans, executives, interns, directors, and publicists. It’s work for reviewers, educators, administrators. It means taking courageous, real-world steps, not just changing mission statements or submissions guidelines.
So I'm thinking about diversity in German publishing, and remembering an article I wrote a few years ago about how the portrayal of "ethnic" characters in German literature is left up to writers with first-hand experience and whether that matters or not (I'm still not sure but I'd write that article differently now), and remembering a panel discussion on "the problem with homosexuality" and a recent publishing party, at which a couple of friends and I tried and failed to come up with a list of successful gay writers in German (it was towards the end of the evening – and define "successful" – but still). And of course I'm remembering the recent debate about the class backgrounds of Germany's creative writing students, which I felt hugely missed the point, possibly because Germans are not as willing to utter the word "class" as the British, for example.

I know too little about America but here's the thing about Germany: it is a country with extremely poor social mobility. The education system and the way the working world is structured mean that if you're born disadvantaged in some way, you're likely to stay that way. That's why it was a no-brainer for me that the kids who study creative writing at university level are from wealthier backgrounds. But here's the thing about publishing: you don't need a qualification to write a good book. Now I'm aware that publishing as an industry is more interested in making a profit than in making the world a better place. And individual publishing gatekeepers probably do unconsciously follow that behavioural pattern, at least some of the time, that keeps women out of positions of power: this person is like me, so I will support them; this person is not like me, so I will not actively support them. Call it human nature, call it the old boys' network, call it discrimination. However you refer to it, it makes the books that end up on shelves less diverse and, yes, to me, more boring – how many books in one season can be about aging white men lusting after younger women? A lot.

I was pleased when Hanser's new head Jo Lendle said he wants to publish more women, and I hope he and other gatekeepers, and you and I, can try harder to make publishing not only fairer but also more interesting. There is room for improvement.

No comments: