After the VIDA counts in 2010 and 2011, as well as Jennifer Weiner’s count she released on her blog in January 2012, I wanted to see where things stood for writers of color. Race often gets lost in the gender conversation as if it’s an issue we’ll get to later. I’ve wondered about where race fits into the conversation and who will take up that issue with the same zeal VIDA has approached gender.
If women are underrepresented in certain echelons of publishing, writers of color are likely to face similar issues. As I considered this problem, I had no proof, though, and when it comes to confronting inequities in representation, people want proof. They won’t just take your word that the sky is falling. They need to see the sky shattered, on the ground. And even when you do have proof, people will try to discount your findings. We’ve seen this with birthers and global warming deniers and the like. When I set out to see where things stand in terms of race, I decided I wasn’t going to try to prove anything to anyone. I simply went on a fact-finding mission and found some facts.
These counts are really difficult to execute. A lot of the data compilation requires painstaking work and there are few guarantees of accuracy. There is no centralized database tracking the gender or race of the writers who are published or reviewed in major publications. Most of the data compilation, particularly when it comes to race, is comprised of best approximations.
I tasked my amazing, incredibly thorough graduate assistant, Philip Gallagher, with looking at every book review published in the New York Times in 2011, identifying the race and gender of the reviewed titles’ authors. The project took fourteen weeks, with Philip going at it for about sixteen hours each week because the only way to find out the race of each writer was to research them. Information for some authors was more readily available than others. Some information was simply ambiguous. Some information could not be found. We originally set out to look at several major publications but without an army of volunteers, it will never be possible to compile a dataset on race similar to VIDA’s. It is simply too difficult to identify race without a great deal of effort and even then, it’s hard to know just how accurate that data is.
We looked at 742 books reviewed, across all genres. Of those 742, 655 were written by Caucasian authors (1 transgender writer, 437 men, and 217 women). Thirty-one were written by Africans or African Americans (21 men, 10 women), 9 were written by Hispanic authors (8 men, 1 woman), 33 by Asian, Asian-American or South Asian writers (19 men, 14 women), 8 by Middle Eastern writers (5 men, 3 women) and 6 were books written by writers whose racial background we were simply unable to identify.
The numbers are depressing but I cannot say I am shocked. The numbers reflect the overall trend in publishing where the majority of books published are written by white writers.
There’s a lot that’s incomplete about the data. Writers were grouped into rather broad racial and ethnic categories. The New York Times is only one publication, though certainly, it is one of the preeminent book review outlets. We only looked at one year. Without data about how many books were published by writers, across race, it’s hard to know if the numbers are proportionate or not.
The numbers are grim. 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. We know that far more than 81 books were published by writers of color in 2011. You don’t really need other datasets to see this rather glaring imbalance.
These days, it is difficult for any writer to get a book published. We’re all clawing. However, 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. It shouldn’t be this way. Writers deserve that same fighting chance regardless of who they are but here we are, talking about the same old thing—these institutional biases that even by a count of 2011 data, remain deeply ingrained.
I don’t know how to solve this problem or what to do with this information. I’m not riled up. I’m informed. I like seeing some numbers, having some sense of the scope of a problem. I like knowing where things stand. Hopefully these numbers will encourage review outlets to be more inclusive in reviewing books—considering race, gender and let us not forget sexuality or other brands of difference—rather than treating diversity as a compartmentalized issue where we can only focus on one kind of inequity at a time. Such mindfulness is important. If we want to encourage people to be better, broader readers, that effort starts by giving readers a better, broader selection of books to choose from.
[Editor’s Note: We’ve published this article by Roxane Gay because we think it is important information. We do this knowing that the topics she covers are ones in which The Rumpus has vast room for improvement as well. We strive to better ourselves every day.]