On Curation and Diversity

Roxane Gay, well known for her provocative and insightful writing, walked the walk last week when she pulled her next book from Simon & Schuster in protest of that publisher’s book deal with Milo Yiannopoulos. Was this “censorship” as some claim?

Of course not. For right now at least anyone in the U.S. is welcome to publish pretty much whatever they want. But publishers, like booksellers, are gatekeepers and curators. In a country where literally well over a million books are published every year, anyone can find a platform to be heard. Bookstores and publishers gain credibility to the degree that they offer a “quality filter” for readers looking to educate and entertain themselves. The bookstores I love best do the heavy lifting of getting great writing and thinking in front of me.

I expect publishers and bookstores to find ideas that will challenge me–not just reinforce my bubble. Increasingly, I understand that I need to read a variety of well-argued viewpoints if I’m to play my part in healing America’s divides. So I look for bookstores to find the very best writing on a range of opinions.

What Gay is saying is that writers also curate in the way they choose to be aligned—with other writers, with ideas, with publishers. While honoring freedom of speech, she doesn’t have to align herself with Yiannopoulos, what he says and what he stands for. She decided it’s is a bridge to far. Good for her.

What made me think of this was reading PW’s coverage of Gay’s opening remarks at Winter Institute. While she didn’t specifically mention her decision to pull her book from S&S, she did say, “Language matters, and sometimes, like diversity, it becomes an empty container.” She invited booksellers to “get uncomfortable” around building bridges. She pointed out that it isn’t the job of minorities—racial, sexual and economic—to school the largely liberal, largely white gatekeepers of bookselling and publishing. It’s up to booksellers and publishers to seek out diverse audiences and invite them in.

I think of that often when I’m selling a book with an African-American theme and a buyer says, “You know, we just don’t have that audience. I wish we did.” I don’t doubt that. But I do wonder the degree to which one’s curation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In her speech Gay pointed out “Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, where owner Daniel Goldin reached out to the black community when she made an appearance there so that every face in the audience was not white.” I’d be willing to bet Daniel’s inventory collection reflects that welcome.

This isn’t a beat-down of booksellers. I can flip through Harper’s catalogs and show you the ways in which what we publish still appeals in large part to a pretty narrow audience of middle and upper-middle class white readers. But we’re trying. We’re all trying. Now it’s time to try harder. Negotiating the line between commerce and ideas has always been tricky. Our livelihoods depend on giving people things they want. Now it’s time to help them—to help all of us—want better.

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