Another day, another all-white list of recommended reading. This year’s New York Times summer reading list, compiled annually by Times literary critic Janet Maslin, offered up zero books by non-white authors. Gawker’s Jason Parham marveled that the list has achieved “peak caucasity” while Divya Guha and staff at Quartz offered an alternate reading list comprised of Indian writers.
And that’s what’s so frustrating about this list; this summer brings so many excellent books from writers of color, many of whom are very well known and have enthusiastic audiences — Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Loving Day by Mat Johnson, In the Country by Mia Alvar, Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet, The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson, Only the Strong by Jabari Asim, Lovers on All Saint’s Day by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Re: Jane by Patricia Park, Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh, and others — that it requires magical thinking to avoid an uncharitable reading of the NYT‘s picks.
It is worth noting that the Times’s recommended summer readings lists in 2012, 2013, and 2014 were similarly lacking in diversity. To be sure, they’re not alone. NPR also published a monochromatic reading list recently. “We are not implying that this list is comprehensive,” says Cara Tallo, senior supervising producer for Morning Edition, which ran a story featuring that list. In a response emailed to NPR, the New York Times also stressed that their list was not meant to be comprehensive. “While our selection reflects the summer releases offered by book publishers, we will be more alert to diversity among authors in the future,” says communications director Danielle Rhodes Ha.
No list can be comprehensive, but when we see alabaster roundups year after year, it warrants some scrutiny.
It’s one thing if a media brand deliberately targets segmented audiences. The Root publishes reading lists of all, or mostly, African-American writers. Jezebel does the same with female ones. But those sites make it clear that they’re not trying to talk to everyone. Big, national, general interest news brands like NPR and the NYT say they are. If these sites truly want — and, increasingly, need — readers of all colors and all backgrounds to tune in, monochromatic content is working against them. The message we get is, “We don’t see you. We don’t need you.”
This isn’t a logistical issue, a problem of critics not including diverse authors because they simply don’t know about them. I put together the above list of books in five minutes in a hotel room. Had I been home with the collection of galleys I’ve recently received, the list would have been twice as long and composed in half that time. And I assure you, I’m not the only one getting these galleys. The arts, entertainment, and books desks at every major publication and outlet are flooded with them, and an entire ecosystem of critics, producers, and editors is involved in compiling and signing off on these lists. Narrow reading is a less passive activity than some will claim.
As a writer and critic, I am not just bored with this conversation. I am sick of it. I have written these sentences before. I will write them again. Discussing diversity in publishing is the worst kind of Groundhog Day. What’s more, these lists put writers and readers of color in a deeply awkward position. We don’t want to take anything away from the writers who have been included on the list. I am currently reading Don Winslow’s The Cartel and I never want to put the book down. It is thoroughly immersive, finely detailed and the action has me breathless.
The problem is and has always been the exclusion of writers of color and other marginalized writers who have to push aside their own work and fight for inclusion, over and over and over again. We beg for scraps from a table we’re not invited to sit at. We are forced to defend our excellence because no one else will.
In the meantime, we’re still here, writing our fingers to the bone, hoping against hope that we can finally step off this hamster wheel of a conversation, and reroute that energy into the reading and writing that our own work requires.
See you next Groundhog Day.
Roxane Gay’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, West Branch, Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Time, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Rumpus, Salon, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK. She is also the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, Bad Feminist, and Hunger, forthcoming from Harper in 2016.