Why Can’t Publishers Handle the Truth?

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From Publishers Weekly:

When Carmen recounted waking up to the prodding batons of U.S. border guards after fainting from exhaustion during her third attempt to enter the United States from Mexico via the Rio Grande River, I remained speechless.

By 2012, I’d spent seven years and hundreds of hours interviewing women like Carmen who survived unimaginable horrors, followed by another two years helping flesh out, fact-check, and proofread their perseverance narratives for the 50 Women anthology series, two books of testimonies told by 50 women from 30 countries, who mostly survived inconceivable acts: female genital mutilation, assault, genocides, armed conflict, and fleeing dangerous regions on foot, to name a few.

Despite the series’ impressive endorsement list and the breadth of world issues it brings to life, agents and publishers repeatedly told me the books had “no market” and relegated them to “ethnic” categories.

Their responses baffled me then and they baffle me now, especially after witnessing the bidding war, film option, and Oprah Winfrey support Jeanine Cummins received for American Dirt. Her “privilege” is common in publishing. The characters of American Dirt have experiences like those of real people I have interviewed and whose stories of treacherous migrations fill the daily news cycle. Yet the story receiving accolades, money, and attention is a work of fiction, written by a woman lacking personal experience with these issues or the Latinx diaspora.

This is partially because publishing industry leaders do not reflect the people and the consumers that they serve. Earlier this year, independent children’s book publisher Lee & Low Books released its 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey, which revealed that 76% of respondent publishing staff, review journal staff, and literary agents are white.

And even with the advent of the #MeToo movement, we still focus about how women have sex, their beauty products, and their wardrobes, but we’re still not willing to listen to survivor narratives unless they’re through a polished filter. Unless women are a sellable, sensationalized package, we will still be shooed away, ridiculed, or picked apart for speaking out. It is discouraging that, as the case of American Dirt illustrates, people care more about a fictional story or a white savior narrative than about real stories of parent-child border separations and draconian orders against those attempting to migrate. No one to my knowledge offered the immigrant women I interviewed from Mexico and Central America who underwent treacherous migrations a seven-figure advance to tell their stories. As migrants, they don’t represent our familiar privileged lenses. They are an inconvenient truth.

We relate to privileged women or fictional characters more than immigrant women because survivor narratives are uncomfortable. They are more evidence that pervasive inequality persists. Their stories are not entertaining or sensual but painful and shocking, and that is why privileged narratives prevail in our culture. With fictional characters, we can similarly avoid digesting reality’s discomforts, but in doing so our perspectives of controversial issues are shaped by either privilege or fabrication, and, sadly, real women’s voices at the heart of crucial matters are extinguished.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Don’t be evil. Self-publish.

1 thought on “Why Can’t Publishers Handle the Truth?”

  1. This is partially because publishing industry leaders do not reflect the people and the consumers that they serve.

    Of course they don’t. Why should they? They are not targeting an audience of industry leaders.

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