September 12, 2013

Roxane Gay aims to broaden literary conversation


Roxane Gay

With the yearly VIDA counts and the general outrage they occasion, it’s easy to talk about the way women are—or aren’t—represented in the literary world. There are always numbers at hand. But it’s harder to talk about race, something the novelist, essayist, and editor Roxane Gay has set out to correct. This week she started a stint at The Nation where she’ll be blogging about writers of color. And on Tuesday she announced the creation of a new Salon series featuring feminists of color.

Last year Gay produced a count of her own, looking at books reviewed by The New York Times in 2011. Out of the 742 books reviewed, 655 were written by Caucasian writers. Only 12% were written by writers of color. “Nearly 90% of the books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white writers. That is not even remotely reflective of the racial makeup of this country, where 72% of the population, according to the 2010 census, is white,” she wrote on The Rumpus.

This gap doesn’t signify any actual lack of writers of color. “One of the most frequent derailments during any conversation about this topic is the belief that because of historical, institutional racism and the socioeconomic consequences thereof, there simply aren’t as many writers of color,” Gay wrote later. She compiled a crowd-sourced list of several hundred writers of color, challenging readers to expand their literary intake.

In her opening post at The Nation, Gay went over the numbers again and wrote:

These numbers suggest, quite plainly, that the people shaping the literary conversation are not reading diversely. If they are reading diversely, it’s a well-kept secret. Editors are not expanding their editorial missions. They are explicitly and directly responsible for the narrowness and whiteness of the literary conversation. They are responsible for the misguided notion that there simply aren’t that many writers of color or books written by writers of color. Of course people make that assumption. There’s no evidence to the contrary in most mainstream publications.

Describing Gay’s project in The LA Times, Emily Keeler wrote, “The idea is to engage critically with the actual work of underrepresented writers.” In her first post at The Nation, Gay explained:

I was recently reading Men We Reaped, a new memoir from National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward. It’s a book about race and grief and how inextricably linked race and grief often are. What you need to know right now is that The Men We Reaped is beautifully written…I’m going to discuss several other books from writers of color because there are several exciting new books worth talking about. There will be an interview with the immensely talented Kiese Laymon and hopefully some other surprises. I hope to do more to broaden the literary conversation and maybe, in turn, others will too.

Hopefully others will too. The responsibility to broaden the literary conversation lies not with editors alone but also with readers. Pre-ordering The Men We Reaped is a good place to start—then pick up and read.


Abigail Grace Murdy is a former Melville House intern.