A few months ago when I was first contacted by Amazon Encore, I did an online search to find out more about the venture. This article came up; I read it with interest, and never forgot the (anonymous) author’s equation: “publishing = expensive curation.”
Publishers have controlled the direction and profits in the books market for so long, and the market has changed so little, that they are especially inclined to feel that the world of books revolves around them. Well, does it?
If we look at the core value that publishers provide, it’s Curation – they decide what books are good enough to print for book lovers.
Yes, there is value provided in other ways i.e. polishing a book, marketing it, etc. However, if we had to name the single, most critical role that publishers fulfill it would be ’Deciding what Books to Publish’.
Publishers separate the wheat from the chaff, and they are far from perfect.
Amen to that! This afternoon I helped an artist friend move her performance props from a downtown gallery back to Brooklyn. I asked her what she felt curation was; she replied, “The selection and arrangement of materials, sometimes according to a particular theme or guiding principle.” I then asked her if she felt curators were the same as gatekeepers, and she felt there was some overlap but that the two jobs were essentially distinct. I made a similar comment on my earlier post re: editor feedback; unlike journal or anthology editors, children’s book editors aren’t (supposed to be) selecting books according to a theme or guiding principle. Aren’t they supposed to be looking for engaging, original, diverse stories? I’m trying to develop a better appreciation for just what it is that editors DO. And I have to say, reading some editors’ blogs only makes me feel more frustrated. Brooklyn Arden has a new post in which she draws parallels between homogeneity in children’s publishing and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ explanation for the lack of black television writers. Coates reminds dissatisfied television viewers that the legacy of white supremacy and institutional racism can’t be undone in just a few decades. I recently read a Variety article, “Little Diversity Progress Among Writers,” that gives disheartening statistics on the lack of progress being made in television and film, two fields still dominated by white men. Of course, only the delusional think we’re living in a “post-racial” moment; most reasonable folks won’t deny the ongoing reality AND legacy of institutional racism, and how many barriers are still in place to prevent people of color from getting a foot in the door and/or rising to positions of authority. When it comes to the arts/entertainment industry, most of us are still banging on the closed door, hoping America will live up to its promise of equal opportunity. Now, Coates suggests in the Comments section of his blog that it’s unrealistic for anyone to expect to find more black writers in arts/entertainment because it takes time and money to learn how to write, and most black folks don’t have those luxuries:
Again, speaking only for magazines, it takes a particular person who can write, and then a particular person who can write in that format. This isn’t simply a talent question, it takes a particular endurance, and it takes time to develop that endurance. How do you get that time? Money–or a willingness to live without it. Take color out the equation–there are very few people who can do the job. Finding good writers–of any color–is extremely difficult.
Now, just speaking for a black people, look at a group that’s only 13 percent of the pop, and isn’t as well educated. Then take the fact that the group’s families tend to be less wealthy, thus making it hard to get the time to get good. Take into account that, often, when someone from this group “makes it” they have brothers/sisters/mothers/grandmothers/grandfathers who they have to also worry about. I think a lot of us say, “Man, I [got] kids to feed” and go for the sure thing. The point is that you’re already talking about a small pool, and for black people it’s almost certainly even smaller.
Does this mean media should say, “Oh well, we tried.” Nope. But it means media should get smarter. If you really are concerned about diversity then you need to start with high school kids. You can’t start looking for fully formed adults. You need to set aside fellowships for people from particular economic backgrounds to help them learn the craft. You have to think broader and bigger.
I don’t disagree with the core goal, I just suspect that it may require more than we think.
As I’ve said before on this blog, I think the way forward requires us to develop multiple strategies; it’s a complex situation, and an either/or mentality really doesn’t help. So I agree with most of what Coates says, EXCEPT for the bit where he says publishers (or film/TV producers) shouldn’t expect to find “fully formed adult” writers in the black community. I guess because we’ve all been stunted by centuries of racism and its attendant economic oppression? As writer/educator Cathie Wright-Lewis pointed out on my Facebook page, what about the hundreds of amazing writers who make up the African American literary tradition? For hundreds of years, black writers have persisted in spite of the conditions designed to crush their creative impulses. There isn’t one way to become a writer, and while there may be certain optimal conditions for producing great literature, African Americans have mostly had to do without. I agree with commenters like Cocolamala who writes:
but why assume that qualified writers of color don’t already exist and have been attempting to enter the industry since it began? the excuses put out by the old boys network speak to those writers (your perspective is not marketable, blah blah blah), but that writers of color don’t exist or lack equal skills isn’t the problem…lack of access to opportunity, resistance at entry points into professional networks — that’s a problem.
S/he writes in again to leave this comment:
i don’t think that phenomenon can be solely attributed to a lack of professional-level talent on the part of hollywood writers of color – can we not also talk about disinterest in the stories that writers of color tell, or the lack of industry outreach when achieving “diversity” is not the goal.
There were 92 comments altogether; I’m going back now to read the rest. Could we produce MORE great writers if we transformed conditions in the black community and the US in general? Of course. But we can’t only focus on the future; if we do, we risk neglecting the *current* battle to give TODAY’s artists a fair shake.
PS Check out Neesha Meminger‘s take on this bizarre idea that writers of color are “too damaged” to produce great books.