Race, Class, Gender & Sexuality in Indie Publishing

We invited editors and writers to participate in a series on issues and representations of race, class, gender, and sexuality in independent publishing. We asked them how these issues affected them as editors interested in publishing underrepresented communities, or writers who want to challenge dominant notions of identity.

Tag Poc 50/50, or The Complexities and Effects of Categorization

by Posted on August 9th, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground), 1989

If you asked me about the general ratio of female and male authors included in BluePrintReview—the online literary magazine I founded in 2005, and that is now up to 24 issues—I would be able to give you the answer without going through pages: it’s about 50/50. Same goes for the answer to the question: “What’s the ratio of poetry versus prose?” Again, the answer would be: about 50/50.

These ratios developed during the first months of editing, combined with the plan to create issues that offer a balance of voices and cover a wide array of styles, approaches, and originating countries. This concept has continued since the start, with one exception: the current issue (“micro cosmos”), which is dedicated to flash fiction.

Even though I try for a balance of poetry and prose, those categories don’t appear anywhere. The starting page of each issue includes only the titles of the texts, without telling if it is poetry or fiction or non-fiction. Added to that, up to issue 22 all texts were centered, which blurred the lines between prose and poetry. In 2007, when one of the stories in BluePrintReview was selected by Sundress for their “Best of Net” list, the Sundress editor wrote and asked me to confirm that the text they had selected is a story.

Same goes for the images: there are photographs, digital art, and paintings included. Some photos look like paintings, which again blurs the lines of definition.

Up to summer 2009, there also weren’t any author names included on the on the issue starting page. Altogether, BluePrintReview is very much about not categorizing, about exploring the range of different formats, and the way they overlap.

Then came 2010, and a whole set of questions I hadn’t expected.

The first was: “How many poc (persons of color) writers are included in BluePrintReview?” I arrived at this topic through a Big Other blog post on the role of editors. The blog post itself opened with a quote of an editor about the disproportional submission quality from women and poc, and the quoted follow-up suggestion:

When you go through your back issues/backlist for the big names to list on your website, be sure to put the names of women writers and poc front and center. A publisher/magazine that has a lot of recognizable “minority” names on its website is basically putting out the welcome mat for “minority” writers.

Which lead to another question, put in words by post-author Roxane Gay (editor of PANK): “How on earth can you know someone’s race from their submission?”

I started to look through BluePrintReview from that angle, which lead to more questions: If the author is living in his home country (Africa, Asia, Middle East), would he or she still be counted as poc/“minority”? Or does that only go for authors living outside their home country, where they are in fact belonging to the minority of the citizens?

Which brought me back to the gender theme, and made me wonder whether this theme sometimes is the focus of discussions because it is more visible than other characteristics of authors. At the same time, it’s interesting to see that the internet tends to level certain factors: the place where an author lives, both on a country/continent perspective, and the more local dimension of “part of town.” The social group an author belongs to, their age and appearance, their ethnic background, religion, etc.—all these factors aren’t visible in submissions if they aren’t explicitly stated in the bio. And even the gender aspect can be removed, either by using initials, or by creating an abstract.

One of the reasons why this topic kept churning in my mind was a companion project of BluePrintReview that had launched in March 2010: Daily s-Press, a book blog that features books from small presses. The concept of it: to explore the landscape of small and indie publishers, at the pace of one book per weekday. There were some initial search functions up already, mainly about the book type and format (fiction/poetry, paperback/e-book, etc.). Next to follow were geographical search functions (authors/editors by continents, maybe even countries), and also, a gender tag.

While listing other options that might be interesting, I arrived at age and ethnicity/nationality. Tags like these also would allow to group the books from different angles, and search for authors who have some characteristics in common, for example: authors in the same age-range, authors living in the some country, or authors with a similar ethnic background.

But to get there, I would need to ask questions of the awkward kind: What’s your age? Where do you live? What’s your home country? Do you belong to a minority? (Or: Are you a poc?)

Unsure how to best proceed, I mailed with some author friends. One of the replies I received was about the lingering problems that were connected with ethnicity/race and all the sub-categories this might involve, leading to the suggesting that I rather might use nationality as a context info in the book features, yet avoid search options that reinforce ethnic/racial categorizations.

Another friend pointed me towards an article on politically correct ways of describing ethnic races as suggested by The Guardian:

“Do not use ethnic to mean black or Asian people. In a British sense, they are an ethnic minority; in a world sense, of course, white people are an ethnic minority…

Avoid the world ‘immigrant’, which is very offensive to many black and Asian people, not only because it is often incorrectly used to describe people who were born in Britain, but also because it has been used negatively for so many years that it carries imagery of ‘flooding’, ‘swamping’, ‘bogus’, ‘scroungers’, etc.

The words black and Asian should not be used as nouns, but as adjectives: black people rather than ‘blacks’, an Asian woman rather than ‘an Asian’, etc”

Going through the different viewpoints again, I felt that there are two currents: on the one side, there is more awareness of the racial/ethnic/minority theme, while on the other side the internet tends to move those personal characteristics to the background. Online literary magazine are accessible from all places of the world, and in return, are frequented by writers from different nations—and looking through magazines, if you wanted to “group” or “classify” authors, it would be easier to approach this from the formats they work in; yes, there are some magazines that focus on nationality and gender (Lantern Review: A Journal of Asian-American Poetry, Melusine, or Woman in the 21stCentury), but there are far more magazines that focus on micro fiction, or poetry, or short stories, or multimedia works—or on theme angles like fantasy, metaphysics, or horror. Following this thought, a poet who lives in the countryside probably has more in common with a rural poet in another country than with a horror author who lives in the same country, but in a large city.

Translated to Daily s-Press, this lead to the decision to focus on the writing, and let the authors speak through their books. The categories now start with format (short stories/poetry/novels), then move to ‘technical’ categories (anthologies, e-books, press with e-zine) and also to thematic groups (east/west, about a place, time and space). Here, I again tried to avoid the usual genre classification (romance, SF, crime).

Categories influence the viewpoint—I was reminded of this again when The New Yorker launched their fiction issue in June. Instead of just calling it “Summer Reads,” they titled it: “20 under 40.” And that’s exactly what the reviews and discussions then picked up on: instead of focusing on the stories and authors, the focus moved to the age categorization, and the whole topic of “youth” vs” “aging”. What almost went unnoticed was the fact that the issue came in a fine balance of 10 male and 10 female authors, and with more than 30% non-native writers included. That’s another effect of categories: they define the directly accessible statistics.

NO GENDER: Reflections on the Life & Work of kari edwards

Which now brings me back to Daily s-Press: I didn’t keep track of the number of books and the gender of authors. But this morning, I took the time and did a count. There are 82 books featured in Daily s-Press so far. The gender ratio is almost even: 27 male authors to 25 female authors (the other 30 books are combined works, anthologies, first issues, etc.). I also set up a new search tag: “race + gender + age.” 12 books fit into this group; that’s 14%. And as numbers only give part of the picture, here some of the books, as doorstep to further reading: NO GENDER:NO GENDER: Reflections on the Life & Work of kari edwards (anthology), The Asian-American Literary Review (first issue, with a 20-page introduction on author identity and writing), Traveling with Virginia Woolf by Kristina Marie Darling (e-book), Gaze by Marthe Reed (poetry collection). The  category also includes a feature on the New Yorker “20 under 40” issue.

After going through the Daily s-Press books, I revisited the list of books I read recently. The theme also reflects in quiet a number of titles, not on first glance, but on second: there is anthology of writers from Cuba—some of them live in Cuba, some in exile. Another anthology is from South Africa, with both poc and non-poc writers included. And inspired by a call for revisioned myth and fairy tale (The Velvet Chamber), I returned to my copy of Women who run with Wolves—which I read parallel to Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.

“How have these issues and books affected you as an editor?”  Maybe the choice of theme for the next issue of BluePrintReview gives a direct answer to this question—it will be about identity.