BOOKS

Can We Stop Pretending The Publishing Industry Is Fair Now?

Book publishing is an absolute meritocracy, if you disregard all the deeply ingrained misogyny and racism. Wait ...
The publishing industry is probably even more unfair to women who don't look like this. 
The publishing industry is probably even more unfair to women who don't look like this. 

At the beginning of this year, Michael Wolff, a middle-aged white man and journalist, wrote a fawning puff piece for a book of short stories called White Man’s Problems. The book, by powerful entertainment lawyer (and middle-aged white man) Kevin Morris, features successful white men of a certain age who, despite their worldly accomplishments, feel unappreciated and frustrated. “As it happens, fiction is now largely a form dominated by women readers and hence women's stories,” wrote Wolff. “Or [...] a form for exploring overlooked cultures -- leaving, arguably, that middle-aged, culturally undistinguished, American male as now the most overlooked.”

Arguably.

Wolff noted that Morris felt compelled to self-publish by the feminist stranglehold of the publishing industry, only rescued from this niche when “Grove's publisher, Morgan Entrekin, stopped in at a small book party his New York neighbor, Matt Stone -- the co-creator of 'South Park' and a Morris client -- was giving for Morris.” How fortunate for middle-aged white man Morris that this underdog network of middle-aged white men was able to launch his literary career, against all odds.

This was not an Onion article, though it easily could have been one. The backlash was proportionate, maybe even restrained. Simple knowledge of publishing industry statistics and historical trends would have rescued Wolff from writing such an embarrassing article. And a truly satisfying example of how much easier a white man finds it to publish a book, even in “diversity-conscious” 2015, would have been eminently helpful.

Well, now we have one. On Tuesday, Jezebel published an essay by writer Catherine Nichols describing a small experiment she conducted with a manuscript she’d been sending out to literary agents. Frustrated and curious, she sent a few out under another name: George. Nichols explains:

I sent the six queries I had planned to send that day. Within 24 hours George had five responses -- three manuscript requests and two warm rejections praising his exciting project. For contrast, under my own name, the same letter and pages sent 50 times had netted me a total of two manuscript requests. The responses gave me a little frisson of delight at being called “Mr.” and then I got mad. Three manuscript requests on a Saturday, not even during business hours! The judgments about my work that had seemed as solid as the walls of my house had turned out to be meaningless. My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me -- Catherine.

Ultimately, after querying 50 agents, Nichols found the abrupt change was no fluke: “Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25,” she wrote.

When the manuscript came under a name coded as “white man,” agents found the work “clever,” “well-constructed.” They were reportedly desperate to read more. When it came under a name coded as “white woman,” agents found it “beautifully written” but otherwise lacking. One told her that he found the pages in the query so ambitious he would simply have declined to read the full manuscript. He wouldn’t think it likely she could pull it off. These agents didn’t seem to have these fears about the abilities of her male alter ego, George.

Though Nichols is now represented by an agent who contacted her independently, her experience is staggering, even for many of us who believe we’re aware of the inequities in the industry. The difference in responses she received -- not just limited to whether a manuscript was requested, but also whether the solicitations were thoughtful and enthusiastic (much more so for “George”) -- was so dramatic it must force soul-searching on every level.

Imagine, then, as Nichols’ does, “changing other ethnic and class markers” in such an experiment. If even white women, who supposedly dominate the industry, experience such dramatic levels of discouragement, distrust and low expectations at even the very first step of publishing a book, how do writers of color fare when trying to set out on such a career?

As a book critic, I have a responsibility myself, highlighted each year by the VIDA count, to mindfully feature a diversity of writers, and that’s a responsibility my colleagues and I take seriously. We seek out novels, especially debuts or less-noticed works, by writers of color, by white women, and we strive to engage with them fairly and generously. We fail at this at times, and we never want to excuse ourselves for that. But at some point, we must also look at every part of the system, just as the college system can’t be handed the full responsibility for rectifying educational inequities that originated in preschool. We need more books by women -- not just the pink ghettos of so-called “women’s fiction” and “romance” they’ve been diverted into -- and more by men of color, as well. As Nichols’ essay shows, the winnowing out of these authors from mainstream literary consideration starts at the very beginning.

It turns out that, just as everyone but Michael Wolff sort of suspected, white men still hold all the cards in the literary world.

Whenever we, as members of a literary community, pat ourselves on the back for letting Toni Morrison and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ta-Nehisi Coates write and sell books, we’re eliding the huge obstacles we still fling in front of writers from marginalized groups at every turn. How many potential Morrisons and Adichies never published a single book because their queries were met with a particularly skeptical eye and brushed off with a cold dismissal?

Unlike Kevin Morris, such writers are unlikely to be rescued by a chance encounter with a powerful publisher at a book party thrown by a famous friend. Unlike "George," they’re unlikely to be given a generous, engaged reading and the opportunity to prove they have the chops to finish a great novel.

It turns out that, just as everyone but Michael Wolff sort of suspected, white men still hold all the cards in the literary world. Kevin Morris’ White Man’s Problems, for its part, will soon have an audio book voiced by stars such as Matthew McConaughey. Of course, there’s no more pleasant position than keeping all the advantages while claiming martyrdom and marginalization. But this time, white men of literature, we definitely see what you’re up to.  

Read the full details of Nichols' experiment at Jezebel.

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