Actors have an amazing profession: on stage or in a movie they become a character, someone else than their own personality. The sky seems the limit on the roles you can play as an actor: rich or poor, introvert or extrovert, young or old, anything goes. But there are limits: White actors cannot play Black roles, male actors cannot become women on stage. But what about dimensions of diversity which are not so obvious? Can gay actors play straight roles, or the other way around? Not long ago the generally accepted answer would have been: absolutely. But today there is a diversity of opinion here.
Let’s look at the case of a gay (today you would say queer) iconic movie Brokeback Mountain. I cannot think of a more impressive short story and an outstanding movie. But one might raise the issue here of authenticity: this story of gay love and violent homophobia was written by a straight woman, Annie Proulx, and both the lead actors, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and the director Ang Lee were also straight. Still the end result was iconic and personally, as a gay man, I have no hesitations about this movie and I found the acting (and directing) completely convincing. If the actors of queer roles happen to be queer in real life, like the talented young actors in the Netflix series Heartstopper, it is a nice bonus, but not more than that.
Another argument is also used, e.g., for the movie The Danish Girl about a transgender character. Here the lead actor was a cisgender man who played the role very convincingly. But as there are so few transgender acting roles, would it not have been better to give this role to a transgender actor? Eddie Redmayne, who starred in the lead, recently stated that he would have refused this role if offered today as it would have been the perfect opportunity for a transgender actor.
Now moving on to the world of fiction. Here authors can create any character they like, it can be from the past, present or future. Female authors can write about their male characters, queer writers about straight people, adults about kids, etc. etc. And that is how it should be. Why should I as a queer man only expected to write about other queer men? But also here things are not as easy as they seem. If a White privileged author would write about Black minorities, would that be acceptable? The argument here is that such a writer could not author a story with authenticity. Possibly the author would be accused of cultural, ethnic or racial appropriation. And as there are already so few minority authors, why should authors ‘form the majority’ seize the opportunities such that Black or Hispanic writers no longer have a chance to get published and read?
At the recent Book 2.0 conference in Lisbon I was delighted to share the stage with Jeanine Cummins, bestselling author who started her career in trade publishing and made her biggest splash in the world of literature with the novel American Dirt: millions of copies sold, made it to the number 1 on the New York Times top10 list, recommended by Oprah Winfrey. American Dirt is the story of a bookstore owner in Acapulco, Mexico, who after a violent crime, is forced to flee and becomes an immigrant on her way north towards the US. Not long after its publication this book and its author also received intense and sustained criticism: how can someone who is not Mexican herself and who has not experienced immigration write authentically about these issues? The fact that Jeanine is in fact part Puerto Rican was dismissed in these allegations of cultural appropriation. Recently Pamela Paul published an insightful opinion piece titled “The Long Shadow of ‘American Dirt’” which in my opinion puts this novel and the backlash it and the author received as well as the lessons for the literary and publishing world in a well-balanced perspective.
I was happy to represent the IPA on stage at Books 2.0 and bring forward our position on Freedom to Publish, the fight against censorship in general and book bans in particular. I made the point that we fight book bans as we know them today, mostly coming from right-wing, populist politicians. Books they want banned are usually around topics such as racism, gender identity and sexual orientation. Their narrative is that certain books do harm and that especially young adults and children have to be protected from these harmful publications. But we also see similar arguments being used on the other side of the political spectrum, also within our own industry. A good example is the biography of former US VP Mike Pence, where employees of the publisher involved campaigned against the book being published. Also here the argument was made that the book would do harm. This is of course also a form of (self) censorship and we at the IPA feel that books should be published, even, and maybe especially, controversial books. Let’s have the public debate on a specific book after its publication. It is almost ‘the sacred mission’ of all in publishing to publish books, whether we agree with the author or the content of the book, or not (this is a separate discussion from the role of curation that publishers play: of course we select the best titles that will lead to a broad readership and commercial success). This argument seemed to resonate in Lisbon as the Portuguese Minister of Culture, who spoke right after Jeanine Cummins and I were on stage, referred to the Mike Pence example.
Any reflections for the publishing industry beyond the self censorship mentioned above? Jeanine and I felt that a further discussion on the diversity and inclusion of our industry was warranted. Starting with gender, Jeanine made the valid point that if she had been a man, it would have been very unlikely that the attacks would have been as vicious and personal as she experienced after American Dirt was published, if attacked at all.
I shared the data from our industry, especially in the US and UK, which shows that the publishing houses are predominantly female and White. In fact the share of White employees in the US is 75% as Lee & Low data showed, which is much less racially and ethnically diverse than the large American cities where most publishers are based. Also in the UK it turned out to be quite difficult to attract Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff, let alone retain them. Dedicated internship programs have shown that Black recruits don’t stay in publishing which is very likely due to the fact that they don’t feel part of a working culture that is not racially inclusive enough. And how can a White workforce effectively support non-White authors and readers? If we want more Latinx authors and readers in the US (as was one of the criticisms after American Dirt was published), we’d better make sure we hire and retain Latinx editors and publishers.
Here there is room for improvement, to say the least, and I think the IPA members and their members, the individual publishing houses, have their work cut out for them to up their game around diversity and inclusion, certainly around race and ethnicity. Is there an easy way to start towards more inclusion, as Jeanine asked me on stage in Lisbon? While there are no short cuts and D&I requires sustained multi-year support, there is one key aspect that has to be in place in order to make inclusion possible at all: psychological (or social) safety. And this can be measured easily and also addressed relatively simply. A good start for any organization serious about diversity and inclusion!
In summary the fight for freedom to publish and thus against censorship, from the right, from the left and from within, is today as important as ever before. And this fight goes hand in hand with a push for a more diverse, equitable and inclusive publishing industry.