On Race and Writing: The Editor’s Obligation to Audience

It was a hot, sticky, summer-won’t-let-go kind of September Sunday afternoon. Just the kind of day to mull over two topics I am passionate about: the politics of race and the politics of writing.

I didn’t just read something about these two confluent issues in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Nor was there anything in this week’s New Yorker. But I did just get off the phone with an African-American editor I know; we talked about this for close to an hour.

It’s been a little over a year since I established Tiny Satchel Press, an independent publisher of young adult books. The primary focus of our press is to publish books by and for youth of color and LGBT youth. Our two most recent books were Dreaming in Color by Jamaican-American lesbian writer Fiona Lewis (known to most readers by her pen name, Fiona Zedde) and a collection of short stories I edited, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth, which includes pieces from African-American lesbian icon, Jewelle Gomez, as well as Lambda Award-winner Craig L. Gidney and black romance publisher Leslie Thompson.

It was Thompson who gave me the idea that I could publish books, not just write and edit them, and publish books that would resonate for a readership that was desperate for books that reflected them and their lives.

Thompson was on a panel on women and publishing that I chaired inPhiladelphiain December 2009. She told the audience how she kept writing romance novels–some of them historical–with black characters. Editors kept turning down her books with the caveat that if she could just make her books more white–and turn her black historical characters into slaves–they would sell.

Thompson decided to found Freedom of Love Press instead; a devotee of romance novels herself, she wanted to write romances specifically for readers of color.

I spent years editing romance novels for several major houses. I never saw one book with a central character of color. Yet I would see black women on the subway reading romances all the time. But the books they were reading were by white authors.

When I started editing anthologies in the 1990s, my good friend, the late photographer Tee Corinne, told me, “A third of every book must be women of color.”

I said okay. She paused and asked, “You aren’t going to fight with me about this?” I said no, I appreciated her advice. She told me I was the first person she’d ever said that to who hadn’t argued with her that people of color don’t read and white people wouldn’t read books with people of color in them.

A decade later, as an acquisitions editor for young adult books, I heard it all again: people of color didn’t buy books and white readers wouldn’t read books with people of color in them.

In his book, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, noted Princeton professor and African-American philosopher Cornel West states, “Aesthetics have substantial political consequences. How one views oneself as beautiful or not beautiful or desirable or not desirable has deep consequences in terms of one’s feelings of self-worth and one’s capacity to be a political agent.”

In other words, Dan Savage and Oprah can tell you till the cows come home that “it gets better,” but if there are no accurate cultural representations of who you are, how will you ever feel better? How will you ever know who you really are, or believe in who you are?

Those of us who are queer, female and/or of color grew up without books about us. We were invisible. Unreflected in literature or anywhere else in a white patriarchy.

Yet, how do we learn to be visible if we can’t see ourselves?

That would seem to be the most compelling argument conceivable for books by and about everyone: Visibility. Learning how to be.

About 15 years ago, one of the major editors in New York publishing told me in an interview that the “trend” of gay and lesbian books was fading, just as the “trend” of African-American books had faded. More than a few dozen books by queer or African-American authors was enough, apparently.

Except the “trend” of people’s existence hasn’t faded. We are all still here. In fact, one could say there are more queers (at least out of the closet) than ever and demographics show that there are more people of color than ever.

As a consequence there should be more books for us, not fewer. Yet the “trend” in publishing remains as static as ever with huge gaps that need to be filled.

Where are the artful, literary books about now? laments one black editor.

When it comes to black literature–called African-American literature, which is a limiting sub-genre within a sub-genre, since not all black writing is American or even African (one thinks immediately, for example, of Zadie Smith)–we are all still reading the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. But where is today’s renaissance of black literature?

Constriction by editors is apparent everywhere. The majority of queer writing being published is genre fiction–romance, mystery, sci-fi/fantasy. And not to slam genre fiction, because it is dear to my heart and I write it myself, but can’t we have the erstwhile serious literary fiction as well?

Meanwhile, black fiction has been restricted to the pimp/ho “urban” stories or the ultra-intellectualized and inaccessible fiction of Toni Morrison and her acolytes. Queer publishers are not seeking work by writers of color and anthologies are overwhelmingly white.

So where are the editors who can recognize that we need–and deserve–more?

Gate-keeping is both an exquisite art and a bullying tactic. The reality is, however, that editors can create writing sensations–and trends–whenever they want to. Is the Harry Potter series really better than any fantasy fiction since Tolkien? Are the “Girl Who” books really amazing recovered novels from a dead author–or just frankly tedious and provocatively well-hyped?

Sapphire has just published her first book in 15 years, The Kid. It was a best-seller before it actually hit the shelves. Why? Hype. Sapphire’s previous novel, Push, became the object of a publishing bidding war which garnered Sapphire a million dollar advance for the trade-paperback original. It has since sold several hundred thousand copies and been turned into an Oscar-nominated film–“Precious.”

Push and The Kid both exemplify exactly how much power white editors have over black writing. They also beg the question of what those editors will accept from black writers. Sapphire is a millionaire and grew up middle class, yet her two books are about poor urban black life.

Did she write about these things because she wants to or because she knows this is what the culture–and gate-keeper editors–want: Books by black authors that show just how corrupt and empty and violent black life in America is.

We have to ask ourselves as readers, writers and editors what our roles are when it comes to minority representation–be it queer or of color–in books. Do we want to maintain the fiction that all gay men are sex-crazed and/or closet pedophiles and all black men are pimps and/or murderers, or do we want to broaden the discourse on race and sexuality to include strong, artful, literary representations of the range of our lives in our individual minority cultures?

We need the mirror of literature to see ourselves reflected. The question is, then, who is responsible for holding up that mirror–the market or ourselves?