Toward the Next Literary Mafia

From Public Books:

Imagine a US literary culture—perhaps in the year 2030—in which African Americans are the editors of the New Yorker and the Atlantic MonthlyPoetry, the Paris Review, and n+1; the editors in chief of Random House and Simon & Schuster and W. W. Norton and Graywolf; the editors of the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books; as well as the founders and editors in chief of a handful of new, thriving, and critically acclaimed publications and publishing houses (whether independent or bought out by the conglomerates), and upwards of 30 or 40 percent of all employees throughout the industry as a whole. Or imagine the same scenario, with the people in those positions all being instead, say, Cuban Americans or Vietnamese Americans.

We’re hardly on track for such a transformation of the field. But if something like this were to come to pass, it wouldn’t be without precedent.

In the first decade of the 20th century, it was both virtually impossible and virtually unheard of for a Jewish person, irrespective of their individual talents, to be hired for any job at a major American publishing company—even if they were Ivy League graduates, heirs to family fortunes, and had brilliant literary minds. They couldn’t get hired on the editorial staff of a widely circulated American magazine, or be granted a professorship in an English department at a prestigious university, either. But all that started to change in the decades after the 1910s, when Jews entered the industry en masse. In addition to founding many of the today’s largest publishing companies, Jews became so influential throughout the industry that by the 1960s American writers as different as Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac, Katherine Anne Porter, and Mario Puzo began to complain about a “Jewish literary mafia.” In short, a minority group went from almost complete exclusion to full literary enfranchisement in a matter of decades.

Understanding that history can help us to understand what will be necessary if we’re serious about finally having a more diverse, less exclusionary publishing industry.

If you read articles about publishing in the US, you’re already aware that a lack of diversity is a pressing problem right now. You may have seen the hashtags #publishingsowhite and #publishingpaidme; read the many essays, perused the surveys, and cringed admiringly through recent novels, like Zakiya Dalila Harris’ The Other Black Girl and Uwem Akpan’s New York, My Village, which serve up publishing’s unbearable whiteness for our edification and horror. You may also have noticed recent efforts to bring some long-overdue diversity into the companies that produce the books we read, like the hiring of Lisa Lucas to lead Pantheon/Schocken. And, as an extensive, wildly important PEN America report by James Tager and Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, published last October documents, as well intentioned as these recent efforts to address the problem may be, those of us who want to see a more diverse publishing industry have reasons to be skeptical.

We’ve been here before. More than thirty years ago, the Association of American Publishers surveyed its members and found that “out of a total of 69,550 employees, 9.3% were African Americans, and 20.8% could be considered minorities,” mostly “in clerical categories.” An extensive 1994 report in Publishers Weekly remarked that “no one … dispute[s] the fact that the book publishing industry lacks representative numbers of African American, Asian and Hispanic employees.” Two years later, a New York Times article reported that even while African American consumers bought hundreds of millions of books each year, only “3.4 percent of the managers, editors and professionals who choose the nation’s popular literature” were African American. The article also noted that “there are so few Hispanic employees … that it’s not unusual that a major publishing house like HarperCollins … runs its new Libros line of Hispanic literature without a Hispanic editor involved in the project.”

By the 1990s, then, at least according to those articles, increased diversity in publishing was already a widely shared goal. And, at that time, a variety of initiatives, including new imprints and companies, were created to pursue this goal. As Publishers Weekly phrased it at the time: “Everyone agrees that there should be more minorities in the business.”

Why then, some thirty years later, haven’t those efforts made much of a difference? Why did it feel, in the mid-2010s, like the conversation was starting from scratch—and why, as the PEN America report phrased it, has “the debate over the lack of diversity in publishing … seemed to stagnate, or to progress only in fits and starts”? Most importantly, how can we make sure that the efforts being made right now to increase the diversity of publishing will actually increase the diversity of publishing?

To answer those questions, we have to understand not just the fact that American Jews overcame prejudice to thrive in the publishing industry, but how that happened.

First, it’s important to acknowledge just how drastic the transformation was. Publishing, and US literary culture in general, was, once upon a time, viciously and openly antisemitic. While a few Jews had already succeeded as writers and in other culture industries, it is 1912—when Alfred Knopf got a job with the accounting department of Doubleday, Page, & Company—that is generally recognized as the first time an American Jew was offered employment by a major US publishing house.

Anti-Jewish discrimination didn’t disappear then. But, over the half century that followed, American Jews flourished in the book business. They founded Random House (later Penguin Random House) and Simon & Schuster, the two mammoth companies whose merger was recently stymied by the government. They also founded Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; Boni & Liveright; Viking; Pantheon; Farrar, Straus and Company; Basic Books; Grove Press; and many others.

Along with founding their own firms, around midcentury Jews also began to be hired, and began rising to leadership positions, at the major US publishing houses founded by non-Jews in the 19th century, like Doubleday, Harper, and Wiley. Jews were instrumental in innovations like the Book-of-the-Month Club and the popularization of mass-market and trade paperbacks. In the postwar decades, elite English departments finally began to hire them, and by the 1970s one estimate suggested that 13 percent of all English professors at the leading American universities were Jewish. Jews were even more conspicuous among the editors and critics whose reviews helped books get attention. There wasn’t ever an actual “Jewish literary mafia,” but it’s true that by the 1970s discrimination against Jews in US literary culture had become a thing of the past. 

. . . .

How can we explain this wholesale eradication of antisemitic prejudice in the publishing industry, when other forms of exclusion, like structural racism and patriarchy, have been so resilient in so many areas of American life?

There are several ways to answer that question, but one of the most compelling explanations has to do with the way that a minority group enters an industry. When minorities join a field gradually, in small numbers, they tend to suffer from what the sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter famously described as “tokenism,” on the basis of her study of an American corporation in the 1970s. Here’s how she describes tokenism:

Women who were few in number among male peers [in their departments] … sometimes … had the advantages of those who are “different” and thus were highly visible in a system where success is tied to becoming known … [but more often] they faced the loneliness of the outsider, of the stranger who intrudes upon an alien culture and may become self-estranged in the process of assimilation [and so] their turnover and “failure rate” were known to be much higher than those of men in entry and early grade positions.

In Kanter’s view, at least, this experience was not primarily the effect of gender or misogyny, per se, but of minority status. She argues that “any situation where proportions of significant types of people are highly skewed can produce similar themes and processes.”

But that’s not inevitable: a minority group can enter an industry in a different way. Economists have shown that if they enter a field together—and establish themselves as a significant cohort within it—members of a minority group can derive substantial benefits: better information sharing, tools for building and strengthening trust, more effective sanctions, and so on. The structural advantages that accrue to members of ethnic niches explain the many surprising concentrations of minority groups in contemporary American industries and fields—the fact that, for example, “one-third of all U.S. motels are owned by Gujarati Indians” and that “the concentration of Korean self-employment in dry cleaners is 34 times greater than other immigrant groups.” While discrimination clearly contributes to minority employment patterns, too, this vein of economic argument suggests that concentrations allow members of an ethnic niche to prosper within a field.

The Jews who entered publishing beginning in the 1910s did so, emphatically, not as tokens, but as a niche. Alfred Knopf worked only briefly at Doubleday, where he would have been the token Jew, but he quickly left that position to found a company with his Jewish wife and father and other Jewish employees, where he was part of a niche. Within a decade, this Jewish niche in publishing expanded, with many of the personnel across the different firms related through family or social ties. Thomas Seltzer, who published books first on his own and then at Viking, was Alfred Boni’s uncle; the founders of Random House and Simon & Schuster were young Jewish men who had previously worked at Boni and Liveright; and on and on. Even when they were hired at historically antisemitic and majority non-Jewish firms, departments, and publications, Jews could rely on their connections to their Jewish relatives, professors, and contacts elsewhere in the literary world for support. The Jewish ethnic niche that emerged allowed individual Jews in publishing not to suffer from tokenism but, on the contrary, to benefit from their minority status. And, as they flourished, they transformed the field, introducing or popularizing many elements of literary culture that now seem quintessentially American.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Yet another reason to avoid Big Publishing, it’s run by racists.

6 thoughts on “Toward the Next Literary Mafia”

  1. Also importantly, Judaism values the written word and education. When your religion’s coming of age ritual involves reading, that’s going to influence your thinking.

  2. While I find the whining of the above article an irritation, antisemitism in businesses and more broadly in the period is indeed true. I grew up in Kansas City, in comfortable circumstances. The lovely suburban neighborhoods (Russell Stover’s widow lived across the street) that were put in place by developer J. C. Nichols in the early 1900s (including the famous Country Club Plaza, the first outdoor shopping center, circa 1922) were a model of real estate development, both pleasantly varied and subtly unified for mile after square mile. But there was a cost.

    “J.C. Nichols relied on restrictive covenants to control the uses of the lands in the neighborhoods he developed. Most of the covenants restricted the lands to residential uses, and contained other features such as setback and free space requirements. However, homes in the Country Club District were restricted with covenants that prohibited blacks from owning or occupying the homes; and likewise in his Johnson County, Kansas developments and against Jews also. Nichols did not invent the practice, but he used it to effectively bar ethnic minorities from living in his properties during the first half of the century. His restrictive covenant model was later adopted by the federal government to help implement similar policies in other regions of the United States. Ultimately, the 1948 Supreme Court decision Shelley v. Kraemer made such covenants unenforceable. Nevertheless, language referencing these covenants remained on the multitude of deed documents for decades after the Supreme Court decision because the relative difficulty of revising them one by one could be used covertly to continue existence of the covenants. The deed restrictions in most neighborhoods renew automatically every twenty to twenty-five years unless a majority of the homeowners agree to change them with notarized votes, about which fact publicity is assiduously avoided. In 2005, Missouri passed a law allowing (but not requiring) the governing bodies of homeowner’s associations to delete restrictive covenants from deed restrictions without a vote of the members. The Country Club District is predominantly white, and it is among the wealthiest, most sought-after neighborhoods in the United States.”

    I grew up there in the 1950s-1960s, and none of this had much changed. A few Jews (including my father’s father) managed to sneak into the Country Club district, and he and his children attended the one-time exclusive private schools (several Jews, but only token blacks). I remember my father asking if I wanted to join my classmates as a debutante (because there was an extra fee for Jews (in my case a nominal Catholic of Jewish descent)) — this in 1972. (I declined.) The Kansas City Country Club notoriously blackballed Harold Bloch (of H & R Block) for membership in 1990 (!).

    I went into this discussion at length not because I particularly cared or resented it at the time (the water one swims in), and all the kids of my generation were scornful of the whole thing, but to demonstrate how thorough a social reality this can be. As the debutante example illustrates, this carried over into all the significant civic social activities, with parallel Jewish / Gentile versions of hospitals & hospital boards, favored museums and galleries, country and city clubs, Debutante and equivalent events, and so forth. Some things were more or less integrated (the private schools, but with quotas – wouldn’t want to encourage mixed marriages), and others (the society civic boards that absorbed the time and money of wealthy housewives) hardly at all.

    Even some of the businesses were concerned in this (some gentile owned businesses had management exclusions), and the Jewish owned businesses looked after their own. That part blew up in their face in KCMO when there was a competition to serve as a site for an underground nuclear science research facility, which KCMO failed as a finalist because the search committee wondered how they could locate a distinguished new scientific community in a place where they would be excluded from the downtown business club (the Kansas City Club finally went bankrupt recently — karma).

    • K. – Thanks for your detailed post.

      To the best of my knowledge, prior to going to college, I had never met anyone who was Jewish. Living outside of small and very small rural towns and attending school in such locales will have that result.

      I attended small and very small primary and secondary schools that included Native Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos. I made friends with members of each of these ethnic groups. My parents had taught me to treat people who were of an ethnic descent different than my own with respect, courtesy and friendliness and I had friends in each of those ethnic groups, including good friends.

      I didn’t meet any Jews until I went to college. I immediately felt welcomed by them and reciprocated that feeling. I had a Jewish roommate my freshman year, dated Jewish girls (women in today’s terms) and almost chose to become the only-non-Jewish member of a Jewish fraternity. A group of my Jewish friends declared me to be an honorary Jew.

      I was astounded when I heard my first anti-semetic remark from an older member of my extended family. It just made no sense to me at all and still doesn’t.

      • When I graduated college in 1975, with the intent of going into a business career, the notion of returning home where I would have ready-made family & friends recommendations at elite levels did of course come to mind. But the combination of elite-ish women in conventional businesses being unheard of (and therefore never to be taken seriously), and the notion of being tracked one way or the other into the Jewish/not-Jewish divide which was clearly not going to change in my lifetime [and in retrospect, my prediction was right] decided me against it, and I started the whole commute-to-NYC job life, followed by a tech career, and did reasonably well on my own.

        Some of my male friends did get involved in family firms successfully, and many of the women married or inherited family money or the promise of it, just as you might expect. Many more, of course, came to bad ends (drugs, suicide, accidents) or simply moved away into obscure fates, just like the lurid period novels might lead you to expect. The ones who stayed, Jewish or not, simply came to terms with the prevailing social mores, understanding exactly how they worked via their families and friends, and adjusting accordingly. They didn’t particularly rock the boat institutionally, whatever they thought on their own. The boat-rockers (like me) went elsewhere.

        All the midwestern cities of significant size seem to have had this sort of social thing going on, between the established successful families and the insolent newcomers (of which the Jews were most prominent).

  3. you read articles about publishing in the US, you’re already aware that a lack of diversity is a pressing problem right now.

    Pressing problem? For whom? Publishers are producing products for consumers, not suppliers. Show them how their total profit will increase by forcing color diversity and they will hire a corps of chameleons.

    • The theory is that by adding “diverse voices” they can appeal to their communities and thus expand the market for their products. Theory. Practice is that only works if the result *also* appeals to the pre-existing market and that is not trivial.
      Particularly when the “diverse voices” make no effort to appeal to the other communities and end up with a niche product that “speaks” to their community…and nobody else.

      It hasn’t worked for Disney, but they’re an extreme case that not only overcommitted to “diverse voices” but also committed too much money to inexperienced (and mostly incompetent) writers. The output was not only niche, but trite, incoherent, and boring.
      Exhibit A is the ongoing bomb that is THE MARVELS, which cost $270M exclusive of marketing, needs a $750M box to break even, and stands at $167M after 15 days. (Since the studio averages 50% net they are looking at a $300M bloodbath.)

      Not all “diverse” product is disastrous: BLACK PANTHER raked in 1.3B from a $200M budget and maybe $500M net profit but the sequel that cost $250M only brought in $900M and maybe $150M profit. Which should not have been a surprise: Hollywood rule of thumb is to expect (good) sequels to bring in 75% of the original.

      Diversity does not make the product immune to the core economics of their specific business.
      And in trade books, that includes the neglected reality that reading for entertainment is not universally prevalent across communities. Asca result, supply does not guarantee demand, which is the most *pressing problem* that corporate publishing refuses to acknowledge.

      The days of “stock it and they will come” are long gone.
      And that is true regardless of whose voice they are publishing.

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