What Does an Author Look Like? On Race and Writing

At this year’s Muse and the Marketplace conference, we talked about the lack of racial diversity in the publishing industry, and how it shapes our ideas about what an author looks like. Between the manifesto for inclusion set out in the Marketplace Keynote with literary agent Regina Brooks, and Aminatta Forna’s rousing speech about the aesthetic/political dichotomy in art and how it falls across lines of race and national identity, we’ve joined the global conversation on the intersection of race and writing.


But is it enough?


Recently, in response to a summer reading list from The New York Times that featured all white authors, Roxane Gay wrote a powerful reminder of the entrenched whitewashing evident in literary journalism and the publishing industry. It was one of seemingly endless reminders, from the racist joke Daniel Handler made about Jacqueline Woodson at the National Book Awards to the all-white author line up at BEA’s BookCon last year; Junot Diaz’s essay on the problem with lack of diversity in MFA programs; and the We Need Diverse Books campaign, not to mention the voices of countless authors and journalists relaying their experiences as readers without access to books featuring non-white protagonists and as writers trying to find a place for their work. In every corner of the literary world, stories abound of writers and readers of color overlooked, disregarded, or otherwise excluded from the literary institution. Dominant conceptions of what an author looks like still privilege whiteness as the default and continue to other anybody who doesn’t appear to fit that definition.


“The problem is and has always been the exclusion of writers of color and other marginalized writers who have to push aside their own work and fight for inclusion, over and over and over again,” Gay says. “We beg for scraps from a table we're not invited to sit at. We are forced to defend our excellence because no one else will… the message we get is, ‘We don't see you. We don't need you.’”


The message is clear: the conversation is not enough. Especially not when it’s been going on for so long that it has become, as Gay puts it, “the worst kind of Groundhog Day.” Any good writer will tell you: dialogue is important, but it’s empty unless it’s accompanied by action.


So what does action look like? For starters, we want to go back to where we, as writers, began: with what we read. We’re launching a blog series dedicated to reviewing books by authors of color and other authors often overlooked by the literary industry. Every month for the next year, a member of the Grub community will recommend a book they’ve loved, beginning with Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man at the end of this month and followed by a selection of work from this year’s Muse and the Marketplace presenters. We hope that by doing this we can contribute in our own small way to broadening the definition of what an author looks like. Why? Because we believe in the danger of the single story. Because by listening to and learning from each other’s narratives, we become better writers and humans. And because, in case you haven’t noticed, we just love a good book.


Now we want to hear from you: What are you reading? What should we be reading? Let’s make the conversation loud, so loud it’s still ringing in our ears at next year’s conference. Tweet your recommendations to @GrubWriters with #WhatAnAuthorLooksLike and every month, we’ll choose an entry to receive a copy of the book we’re writing about. Send your book reviews to [email protected] for a chance to have it published on the blog or in our weekly newsletter.


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