Better, Broader Literary Conversations

By Roxane Gay

Who is represented and who participates in literary conversations have been an ongoing concern. All too often, literary white men dominate the conversation. Fifty years ago, that could be explained away. In this day and age, it's absurd; it is frustrating. In 2012, I did a rough count of how many books by writers of color were reviewed in the New York Times in 2011. The numbers were grim but unsurprising. White writers wrote nearly 90 percent of the books covered by the paper of record.

In reality, literary coverage comes at a premium for all writers, regardless of their identities. Book coverage shrinks every year and no writer, with the exception of an elite few, are guaranteed any kind of attention for their books. Writers have to hustle to get their books in front of readers. They have to hustle hard, but unfortunately, when we look at the numbers, it is plain that some writers have to hustle much harder than others. The real problem though is that the harder hustle still might not get these writers anywhere.

There's no satisfaction that comes from pointing out these kinds of imbalances, none at all. Underrepresented writers shouldn't even be put in a position where we have to count, where we have to worry that race or gender or sexuality will be one more barrier to a highly coveted piece of book coverage. Don't we deserve to suffer the same banal "will anyone notice my book" neuroses as the white men instead of clawing for a fraction of a seat at the ever-shrinking table?

I decided to do another count in 2013, looking at more publications and their review coverage in 2012. As I began looking at the numbers, I wondered what doing all that work might accomplish. In so many ways, the numbers tell us what we already know. Below is a rough look at what I found; it was too dispiriting to spend time on elaborate pie charts stating the obvious.

Table

The Los Angeles Review of Books is most diverse, with 12.9 percent of their review coverage going to books written by writers of color. Bookforum brings in the rear at 8.7 percent and NPR and the New York Review of Books are tied with 10.7 percent of their coverage going to books written by writers of color.

After these results were initially released, though, editor Tom Lutz took issue with the unscientific methodology and my conclusions in two very long responses. He claimed that the LARB published between "17 percent and 35 percent  (depending on who gets counted) by and about underrepresented writers." He also felt that initiating this discussion was "disingenuous grandstanding." I considered his criticisms but I found the tone of his response telling, particularly in this pervasive demand, among people who resent such counts, for more statistical complexity and more analysis of the underlying reasons for why these imbalances exist. We already know the underlying reasons, and those reasons do bear some relevance. At the same time, how many decades will we have to point to these underlying reasons, instead of assigning some culpability. The year is now 2014.

These numbers suggest, quite plainly, that the people shaping the literary conversation are not reading diversely. If they are reading diversely, it's a well-kept secret. Editors are not expanding their editorial missions. They are explicitly and directly responsible for the narrowness and whiteness of the literary conversation. They are responsible for the misguided notion that there simply aren't that many writers of color or books written by writers of color. Of course people make that assumption. There's no evidence to the contrary in most mainstream publications.

I have written reviews for two of these four publications and the New York Times and only one of those reviews was for a book by a writer of color. Part of my disappointment lies in recognizing that perhaps I haven't done enough to diversify the literary conversation. At the same time, I have a range of critical interests, and it would be a troubling precedent to suggest that writers of color have more responsibility than anyone else to review books by writers of color.

We need broader, better literary conversations—conversations that represent the diversity of work being published. More diverse critical coverage is but one step in the right direction. We need to get to a place where we no longer feel compelled to count because equal consideration is a given and because excuses or explanations for unnecessary imbalances are no longer needed.