Just How Discriminatory is the Literary Community?

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Our reading by Erin Belieu suggest that the publishing industry is sexist.  Belieu does provide some statistics that seem to support this claim.  She includes tables of four different literary publications, two of which appear to show a great disparity between publications by men and women, one that is questionable, and one that seems to show relatively equal balance.  Belieu is a little gentle in her assertion; she makes it clear that her organization (VIDA) does not call for quotas, but for equality, and points to the statistics as correlation rather than causality.  However, I question the authenticity of her gentleness.


As mentioned before, Belieu claims VIDA does not call for quotas, but that they want to create equal opportunity for women in the publishing industry.  She says that diversity of authors makes for a more well-rounded literary community.  I agree to the extent that different perspectives come from different walks of life.  However, where I begin to hesitate is when she uses the phrase “straight white man.”

The reason I have a problem with this phrase is because it actually suggests that, contrary to her claim of equality, she actually has an agenda.  Yes, you can usually tell the sex of an author based on their name.  (There are some exceptions; there are also authors that abbreviate their name deliberately to make their sex unknown.)  However, to guess the race of an author based solely on their name is extremely difficult.  To guess their sexual orientation is impossible.  Now research can be done on authors to determine these things, research made ever easier by the internet.  However, by virtue of the fact that you would conduct such research tells me that you are driven less by curiosity and more by a determination to sow discord.

There is a premise, that can be debated, that authors will write about things to which they can relate.  However, this is far from a hard and fast rule.  Straight authors include gay characters and vice versa.  Women authors write male leads and vice versa.  As such, if the work were published anonymously, while speculation could be made on the author based on the work, it would remain speculation.  Since sexual orientation is something that is the most private of the traits of an author, and the most difficult to discern based upon reading a work, to rail against it seems less about trying to create a well-rounded literary community and more about a desire to maintain quotas, despite Belieu denying such.


Now, like I said, I question what Belieu has said; I don’t outright reject it.  I do think that publications from authors other than straight white men do offer different perspective.  However, one of the reason I read is for enjoyment.  And one can enjoy a variety of perspectives.  When a publisher goes to print a book, they print it based on what they think will sell, which is closely tied to how enjoyable the work is.  With hundreds, even thousands, of submissions, they don’t research every author, and then publish them based on what they find; they publish based on what they think will sell.  If the publications happen to be from a large amount of lesbian black women, then so be it.  If they happen to be from straight white men, then so be it.  Therefore, I find myself questioning Belieu’s suggestion that the publishing community is discriminatory since I find it very unlikely that publishers research every author and then go on to print only the works of the “straight white man.”

By: Mark Leo


One thought on “Just How Discriminatory is the Literary Community?

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  1. If we accept the premise of your post that the publishing industry is not discriminatory, but merely focused on “what will sell,” I’m curious about how you make sense of the numbers of men/women/minorities being published? If your response is that fewer women are interested in reading and writing… the facts of enrollment in writing programs across the country (including Oswego’s) refutes this. If it’s that more people in the US are white, that doesn’t account for why less than 3% of books in recent years focused on Black children, when 12.5% of the population is Black (see Older for these statistics). Based on popularity of recent movies like Hidden Figures or albums like Lemonade, the notion that art with Black characters doesn’t sell seems unlikely (see Imani’s post, too, for statistics on how “Hispanics, for example, were 27 percent more likely than the average American bookworm to take home a kids’ book”). In other words: it’s possible that publisher’s implicit biases are getting in the way of a full awareness of what will sell.

    I’m also concerned by the statement that “the fact that you would conduct such research tells me that you are driven less by curiosity and more by a determination to sow discord.” In the VIDA interview, we see that VIDA’s research is driven by *concern*, even frustration (based on that original email from the founder), over a system perceived to lack equity. That this perceived difference in publishing turned out to be provable with hard data (data showing far more men getting published and reviewed than women) shows that the concern was justified. Such a concern, I’d agree, is quite different than mere “curiosity” (I agree with you on that) but it’s also different than a “determination to sow discord” (which suggests there would be no discord if these pesky women didn’t bother looking into the lack of equality in publishing).


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