Monday News: Equity in publishing, Chris Jackson, and Beyoncé
Equity in Publishing: What Should Editors Be Doing? – I’ve been holding on to this story for a while, and with RWA’s recent “open letter” on diversity, it seems like a good time to post it. The roundtable, organized by Antonio Aiello following the Best American Poetry scandal, includes Alexander Chee, Anna deVries, Hafizah Geter, Amy Hundley, Amy King, Greg Pardlo, Morgan Parker, Camille Rankine, Danniel Schoonebeek, and Jeff Shotts and includes a number of different but related viewpoints on the roles publishing “gatekeepers” play in moving books into the literary and cultural mainstream. Editors have seen their roles change as the market changes, as this recent NPR article chronicles. The same goes for agents, some of whom have actually set up publishing arms to work with authors who don’t end up in traditional publishing deals (sidetone: why is it again that literary agents do not have to be licensed like other fiduciaries?).
The week that news broke about Michael Derrick Hudson’s poem appearing in the Best American Poetry anthology under the appropriated pen name Yi Fen-Chou, again writers of all backgrounds voiced their anger and frustration about an editorial process that was broken. But missing from that conversation were the voices of editors and publishers, the very ones responsible for sourcing the work we read and that we hope will become reviewed and celebrated—the gatekeepers. Yes, Sherman Alexie did write a much commented on and broken down response to the editorial decisions he made while putting together the year’s Best American Poetry. But we didn’t hear from the anthology’s editor, David Lehman, or the publishing house, Simon & Schuster. Very few editors were willing to talk about race, how selections are made, and what kind of responsibility they have to read broadly and to care about and publish great writing that doesn’t always reflect the values associated with whiteness.
I wanted to hear from them and to examine the “gatekeeper’s” role. So I began reaching out to people I work with on a regular basis to see how they define their editorial responsibility, to talk about what they look for in the work they select, what they think about white privilege, and about creating a larger, more inclusive space for writers of color in the publishing industry. I wasn’t just thinking about what it takes to get published or to increase one’s chances of being published. I was thinking about the entire life cycle of a writer: from the stories that inspire them as children first learning to read to the literature that encourages them as young adults to dive deep into the craft of narrative to the educational paths available to students who want to pursue a life of writing, to getting published, getting reviewed, promoted, and hitting the book tour. I was thinking about this both professionally as an editor and as the father of a creative fifth-grader who devours books but who, because she is not white, rarely sees herself in the stories she reads at school. – PEN
How Chris Jackson Is Building a Black Literary Movement – A very interesting and in-depth portrait of Jackson, executive editor at Spiegel & Grau, and the evolution of his career from publishing reference books at Wiley to his breakthrough editing project, Step Into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature, published at the beginning of the new millennium. Similarly, Jackson’s career focus shifted. Reading this piece in tandem with the PEN roundtable also provides a good reminder that individual writers and editors are not substitutable ‘figureheads’ for the art of any group, even as they are often called on to “represent” an entire racial or cultural perspective (also an impossibility, but one reflected in sideways, awful distortion via Jackson’s recollections of being mistaken for other black literary figures).
‘‘I’ll never forget a reading we did for that book,’’ he told me. ‘‘It was at the Schomburg’’ — the Harlem library that is a repository of black literature and history — ‘‘and there were so many people there, not just publishing people, as we usually think of them, but people from the neighborhood, and they were picking up this book.’’ He paused here, after uttering the word book, and his abiding wonder at the power of the object was almost tangible. ‘‘This book, containing all these ideas that were so important to me. They were picking it up and leaving with it, and it was such a wonderful literalization of the transmission of ideas.’’
Compilations like ‘‘Step Into a World’’ have tended to play an outsize role in the history of black artistic and intellectual achievement — maybe because of their emphasis on collectivity, on ‘‘movements,’’ a canny response to the difficulty of individual advancement in the literary arena. The most prominent example of the genre is perhaps ‘‘The New Negro,’’ published in 1925, which heralded the arrival of the Harlem Renaissance. Edited by the Howard University philosophy professor Alain Locke and dedicated, rather grandly, to ‘‘the Younger Generation,’’ the volume included contributions from Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes. It also contained a short treatise on black comedy in the theater by Jessie Fauset, who served for eight years as literary editor of the N.A.A.C.P.’s magazine, The Crisis, and whom Hughes credited as one of the people who ‘‘midwifed’’ the movement. Fauset corresponded widely with Renaissance figures, and her letters reveal a deft, coaxing way with writers. She folds criticism seamlessly into flattery, identifying the writer’s most consequential gift and encouraging its cultivation. Jackson fills a similarly multifaceted role today — gatekeeper, encourager, cool-but-kind appraiser of talent — and might be the first 21st-century example of a 20th-century type: the black editor as not only acquirer, tweaker and disseminator but also as movement-shaper. – New York Times
Beyoncé in ‘Formation’: Entertainer, Activist, Both? – If you read the Jackson profile, you may have noted the reference to a photo of Jackson with Jay Z and Beyoncé, a reference that echoes even more loudly given Beyoncé’s new video for “Formation.” With its overt political imagery, combined with an irresistibly catchy sound and almost hypnotic choreography, the video captivated the Internet this weekend, and managed to get the restaurant “Red Lobster” trending within minutes of its release. If you haven’t yet seen it, I recommend the original (aka not “clean”) version, which you can find embedded in this article from Essence, which also includes a lot of information about the making of the video. One reason the video became so big so fast (beyond the brilliant pre-Superbowl timing and the fact that it’s Beyoncé’s first original music since 2014) may be the way in which it inextricably links political commentary with pop cultural symbols and flat-out entertainment, a combination the roundtable discussion linked above discusses. One of the most unfair criticisms of art produced outside the white, male tradition is that it’s inevitably about a “message” (as if a movie like, say, The Natural, isn’t) and not just “entertainment.” No art is value-free or even value-neutral, but I think the Beyoncé video and all of the discussions it is provoking (even the “boycotting” discussions) are a great example of how creativity is always political – it’s just that people are conditioned not to notice the politics as readily when they reflect the reality of one’s daily life or belief system. As to the video (and song) itself, one of the interesting discussions it has opened up is about the complex relationships between race, gender, fame and power. The final shot in the video, for example, is stunningly ambiguous, and punctuates so many questions about how race mediates power and gender mediates fame, etc.
JENNA WORTHAM This video feels like the ultimate declaration from Beyoncé that the tinted windows are down, the earrings are off and someone’s wig might get snatched, judging by the scene in the hair store about 1:22 minutes in.
She wants us to know — more than ever — that she’s still grounded, she’s paying attention and still a little hood. I think she wants us to know that even though she’s headlining a mainstream event like the Super Bowl, she has opinions and isn’t afraid to share them, nor is she afraid to do it on a national and global scale.
It’s easy to think that releasing a video is a soft way to make such a strong statement, but Bey has always been about using striking visuals, clever lyrics and high-impact narratives to express her point of view.
As always, a Beyoncé surprise drop operates across multiple vectors, and “Formation” isn’t just about police brutality — it’s about the entirety of the black experience in America in 2016, which includes standards of beauty, (dis)empowerment, culture and the shared parts of our history. – Essence & New York Times