Try taking this quick test: walk through a library or a bookstore, or go online to a web publication, and skim the selections. How many of those books or articles are written by men? How many by women? How many by writers of color? If you’re starting to notice some extreme imbalances, then you’re not the only one.
Organizations like VIDA have recently drawn attention to the fact that women are highly underrepresented in major publications today, either as writers for these publications, or as authors whose work is being reviewed. While the under-representation of women is publicized, there is less information circulating about the under-representation of writers of color. If you’ve ever wondered about the representation of writers of color in publishing (or been frustrated by the lack of it), then you should pay attention to author and critic Roxane Gay, whose new guest-blogging series at The Nation focuses on broadening and diversifying our literary conversations. It is an exciting and satisfying read for those of us yearning to read more writers of color, and an eye-opening one for those who want to widen their repertoire.
Gay’s series, which began last week, will run for two weeks, during which she will blog about writers of color and their work. Her first post, “Broader, Better Literary Conversations,” highlighted the extreme under-representation of writers of color in four literary outlets, Bookforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books, NPR, and the New York Review of Books. With the help of her graduate students, she initiated a rough count of the writers of color reviewed by these publications, to grim results. Coverage of writers of color in Bookforum stood at 8.7%, while even the most diverse of those publications, the Los Angeles Review of Books, was only at 12.9%. “These numbers suggest, quite plainly, that the people shaping the literary conversation are not reading diversely,” Gay wrote. “If they are reading diversely, it’s a well-kept secret.”
Gay pins the problem of under-representation on the editors of these publications, who she says have allowed white male writers to dominate our literary conversations. Without the financial imperative to publish more writers of color, this domination will remain the status quo. While this imbalance would have been understandable 50 years ago, she argues that today it is absurd. However, as Gay told the L.A. Times last week, pointing to the numbers of underrepresented writers is only the beginning of the conversation. Her goal is to “move beyond the numbers” and critically engage with writers of color and their work. In addition to her blog at The Nation, Gay is also editing a new Salon series on feminists of color.
While Gay’s series on both Salon and in The Nation are important steps towards broadening literary conversations in the U.S., admittedly they're not the first or the only of their kind. In a 2012 Rumpus post, “We Are Many, We Are Everywhere,” Gay pointed to a number of long-standing publications and groups focused on writers of color; among them The Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Color Lines, Cave Canem, and The African American Review.
This problem of under-representation isn’t only confined to literature. An August 2013 study conducted by the Writers Guild of America, West, reported that despite showing significant increases, women only represent 40% of staff in the TV industry, while minorities only comprise 15%.
Though Gay’s column will be just one voice in this conversation, it will be exciting to see what she does in the coming weeks — equally interesting will be tracking the response she gets. Her first blog post received both enthusiastic support as well as severe criticism. Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Tom Lutz, criticized the fact that Gay’s category of “Caucasian” writers is highly unspecific, and that Gay herself is implicated among the reviewers who have failed to represent writers of color in their work. Even if Gay can’t necessarily change who is being published and how, her column will spark debate and, hopefully, draw attention to all those writers of colors we could be reading, but just aren’t well-represented enough.