Here's the main take away: nearly 90% of the books reviewed in the NYTimes are written by so-called Caucasians.
What I find interesting is not that this may be evidence of how few books are published by POCs; rather, what's interesting is what these numbers say about books the NYTimes feels are important. As Ms. Gay writes in her Rumpus piece: "...if you are a writer of color, not only do you face a steeper climb getting your book published, you face an even more arduous journey if you want that book to receive critical attention."
I personally don't really care how many books are published by people of color. There are plenty of
houses and imprints out there only catering to certain ethnic groups (although no one caters to my ethnic group). Maybe there should be more books available by non-Caucasians, but I'm going to bet the best writing is still finding its way to houses of significance. What bothers me, though, is that the NYTimes clearly has an institutional bias about what it finds important in the world of letters.
More specifically, last year I learned that Ralph Ellison's unfinished novel was finally published in full and unexpurgated form as Three Days Before the Shooting. I felt absolutely stupid for not know this. Especially when I found out the book was published in 2011 -- more than a year before my discovery.
I read book reviews like some people smoke cigarettes. I track down the Times' book reviews weekly. I'm a subscriber to The New York Book Review, Harper's, The Atlantic, The New Yorker and more, all for the reviews. But I never saw a review about this book. It was published as a labor of love by two academic scholars with full access to all of Ellison's notes. The idea was to give us the fully loaded, mind-warping, gigantic whole in its full 1,000+ page glory.
It turns out none of these mainstream publications ran a review of Three Days.... Ellison is certainly one of the most important figures in 20th century modern American literature. Invisible Man says more about this country and the identity puzzle we're all trying to piece together than any book I know of. You'd think a review of the novel he never could finish would find its way into every major publication purporting to help lead the charge on good writing and literature for our culture. Instead, we got nothing. NOTHING!
I'm not complaining here. I'm not mad. But I have had a sneaking suspicion now for several years that the formal book review world is beginning to smell like its very own version of sock puppet. A lot of books get major hype (Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding come to mind) but it turns out they're really kind of duds. It usually takes 3-4 months for the people who tell us the Emperor isn't wearing any clothes to do their thing...and it's rare that that happens in the mainstream pubs since they hyped those books in the first place. But that kind of thing is happening more and more. I'm not quite sure who is in charge here anymore...certainly not committed intellectuals.
Like Roxane Gay, I'm not riled up by all of this. It is clear to me that there's a lot of great work out there that isn't getting reviewed. I appreciate what's going on just as an informed practitioner. I don't care what color people are or what their gender, what we need is more intelligent discussion of important books -- not just because they deal with important topics, but because they further the field of letters and the reach of literature into our lives. In a world full of digital smut and TV reality shows, that's rather important...at least for some of us.
For another take on things, check this related piece out too.
Hello Ello: Why Being a POC Author Sucks Sometimes
Thanks for reading.