Book Beat: Diversity in U.S. Publishing Languishes and Arisia (Finally) Fires President

Hello lovely readers! Welcome to another weekly installment of Book Beat, brought to you by your Bookmarked editor Paige. It might be a bit unnecessary to say, but the publishing industry is a unique, concentrated microcosm of our society. When the industry and the books it releases into the world succeed in embodying the diversity, complexities, and compassion of humanity, it absolutely deserves all the accolades and support we as readers provide. And when this industry mimics many of our societal failings, the effect feels frustratingly inevitable, worryingly intense, and colossally disappointing. And for some reason, last week saw several societal concerns prove themselves to still be prevalent in the book world-at-large.

Children’s Lit Still Struggles to Diversify in the U.S.

Over the last few years, there have been dozens of passionate campaigns to increase the representation of marginalized identities in the book world. These campaigns don’t just focus on the number of characters of colors in our literature, however. They also advocate for more people of color behind the scenes writing, illustrating, and producing these books. These efforts have particularly targeted children’s literature to help expose them to the rich realities of their world and other people’s experiences.

How have these efforts panned out thus far? According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), an organization that has been tracking literary and professional representation in the publishing industry since 1985, the numbers still, unfortunately, leave a lot to be desired.

Take CCBC’s recent statistics on black representation in children’s literature. In 2017, only 9% of children’s books published in the U.S. featured African or African American characters. The stories that do appear usually fall into three categories: books about slavery, the civil rights movement, or “gritty, contemporary” stories about struggling families and violent situations.

While CCBC director Kathleen Horning notes these stories are important in their own right, she also states that “young readers want more variety… [such as] fantasies with African American characters, or books showing a middle-class black family.” The lack of variety might have to do with another serious statistic: out of all the children’s books with black characters, only 3% are written and/or illustrated by black authors. Black authors are prevented from entering the publishing industry due to severe systemic obstacles, and when they do break in their books are not published as frequently as books by white authors. Even though marginalized representation has seen a steady curve upwards since 1985, it is apparent that real progress remains a slowly improving and wholly concerning issue.

PBS’ Great American Read Reveals The Continued Whiteness of Western Canon

And this issue of representation has more far-reaching consequences beyond the immediate present. For example, let’s look at PBS’s Great American Read. The eight-part multimedia series was created by PBS in order “to spark a national conversation about reading and the books that have inspired, moved, and shaped us.” Through a series of viewer polls, PBS asked Americans to name their most-loved book and then compiled a Top 100 book list. From this voting process, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was determined to be “America’s Favorite Novel.”

The multicultural children’s lit publisher Lee & Low Books further analyzed the Great American Read results as compared to the demographics of the country, and the results they found were “a bit disheartening, if not surprising.” According to their analysis:

* Only one book written by an author of color made it into the Top 10 of the Great American Read list: the Outlander series by Mexican-English author Diana Gabaldon.

* Only three books written by authors of color made it into the Top 50, along with Gabaldon, including The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan and The Color Purple by Alice Walker.

* Including these aforementioned books and authors, only 19 books by authors of color were included in the Top 100 list in total.

While these results could just be the unintentional consequence of the demographic pool that took PBS’s survey, Lee & Low argue that there are still some important lessons to be gleaned from the list. The majority of books recommended by this pool adhered to white Western standards of “classical” literature, to the exclusion of other diverse literary classics that do exist in the U.S. Further, while some black and brown literature was represented on this list, Native literature is an important part of our true national canon that was noticeably missing.

Americans are just not branching out to diverse books, and the reasons range from individual ignorance (misguided or otherwise) to the systemic obstacles that our education system, libraries, bookstores, and the publishing industry pose in diversifying their literary recommendations to readers.

Sexual Assault Survivors and the Sci-Fi Community Take Arisia to Task

(TW for mentions of sexual assault in this summary and in associated links)

As children’s lit grapples with the aforementioned findings, another corner of the book world rumbled at the same time around a very different issue. The point of contention here was Arisia, a Boston-based multimedia sci-fi con named after a planet in the Lensman novels by E. E. Smith. While it might seem small scale compared to its comic con neighbors, like NYCC and FanExpo, Arisia has held an influential presence in the national sci-fi scene since 1990. And yet, as so many other institutions have shown us this past year alone, this high regard has apparently not influenced this organization to take the necessary measures to protect its attendees and staff from sexual harassment.

A week ago, science fiction editor and activist Crystal Huff announced that she would no longer be attending or volunteering with Arisia after almost a decade of service due to the recent reappointment of her rapist Noel Rosenberg as the organization’s new president. The 2017 and 2018 appointments of Rosenberg came despite the numerous instances of harassment and stalking that he has engaged in against Huff at Arisia and other local cons, which Huff has brought to Arisia’s attention multiple times since around 2016.

In the last few days, the outpouring of support for Huff and criticism of Arisia has been overwhelming. Authors such as Daniel José Older, Malka Older, and Nalo Hopkinson turned down future guest appearance invitations to the con, while former staff and attendees revealed other instances of sexual misconduct that Arisia has failed to address.

In response, the Arisia Executive Board has swiftly announced that Rosenberg’s resignation as President and his permanent ban from attending the con.

Effective immediately, Noel Rosenberg is no longer President of Arisia, Inc. On October 26th, at an emergency meeting…

Posted by Arisia, Inc. on Friday, October 26, 2018

Conventions Chairperson Daniel Eareckson also released a statement promising refunds to anyone who no longer plans to attend Arisia 2019, and next year’s artist Guest of Honor Elizabeth Leggett will donate all her con exclusive sales to the Boston Rape Crisis Center. This long-awaited reckoning is heartening to see, but it is beyond disappointing that it took so much public scrutiny and individual pain to get us here.

Out This Week

This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story by Kheryn Callender
Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves by Glory Edim
Family Trust by Kathy Wang
The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory
I Might Regret This by Abbi Jacobson

Happy Thursday!

Paige Allen

Paige Allen

Adult-in-training by day, queer geek of color by night.