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  • What Anatole Broyard's Secret Says About Diversity in Publishing
What Anatole Broyard's Secret Says About Diversity in Publishing
Written by
Dee Connell
December 2014
Written by
Dee Connell
December 2014

You may not have heard of Anatole Broyard--but when I first read his story while researching for a college class years ago, it struck a chord with me that has resonated since. And his story may change the way you look at publishing.

Broyard was a highly regarded figure in the publishing industry. He wrote daily book reviews for The New York Times for fifteen years. (Can you imagine that task?) The editor of the paper said, “A good book review is an act of seduction and when [Broyard] did it, there was no one better.” He stood as one of the gatekeepers of publishing, prominently voicing his thoughts and opinions because they mattered greatly to those who read his work. 

But there was something that few people knew: Anatole Broyard's ancestors were free people of color before the Civil War. He was--as we would label his race today--black.

For years, his wife pleaded with him to reveal his secret to his children, but he refused. Even on his deathbed, he refused.

What was more important to him than the truth? So important that he denied his own children knowledge of their heritage?

“Anatole Broyard wanted to be a writer--and not just a ‘Negro writer’ consigned to the back of the literary bus.” --Brent Staples

“In his terms, he did not want to write about black love, black passion, black suffering, black joy; he wanted to write about love and passion and suffering and joy.” --Henry Louis Gates, Jr.



You may think that these days Anatole Broyard’s fear of being segregated as a writer is no longer valid.

In 2011, writer Roxane Gay examined the proportion of white-authored books reviewed by The New York Times. Of the 742 books reviewed, 655 were written by white authors; 31 by black authors; 9 by Hispanic authors; 33 by Asian, Asian American, or South Asian authors; 8 by Middle Eastern authors; and 6 by authors with unidentified racial backgrounds.

This proportion does not at all represent the demographics of our society. It instead makes a statement as to what is considered “mainstream”: novels written by white authors. 

Gay writes: These days, it is difficult for any writer to get a book published. We’re all clawing. However, if you are a writer of color, not only do you face a steeper climb getting your book published, you face an even more arduous journey if you want that book to receive critical attention. It shouldn’t be this way. Writers deserve that same fighting chance regardless of who they are but here we are, talking about the same old thing--these institutional biases that even by a count of 2011 data, remain deeply ingrained.

So ingrained, in fact, that traditional publishers often “whitewash” book covers by using white models for books with black protagonists. This is what happened to the US cover of Justine Larbalestier's novel, Liar. (See her blog post on the topic here.) Sadly, as Larbalestier notes, authors who publish traditionally don’t have control over how their novels are represented on the covers.



The issue of diversity in publishing appeared on my radar when I found a few black authors who wrote exclusively white characters. Then when I looked at Amazon’s romance bestsellers, I found that there was not a single book with a person of color on the cover. The reason for creating all white characters was clear. 

Like Broyard, many writers today don't want to be boxed in a dark corner of the virtual library labeled “ethnic” or “African American,” a place where people go when the want to be accosted by themes of racial oppression and strife.

As one member on Goodreads writes: I don’t necessarily want to be known as a “black author.” I just want to be an “author who is black."



Read the full, original version of this blog post on Dee Connell's blog.


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  • Dee Connell

    Hi Vivienne, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I definitely don't thinks authors need to be explicit about the race and ethnicity of every character. Often, the character's background can be understood through the text. I appreciate your comments.

  • Vivienne Diane Neal

    Dee, what an excellent article, which touches on a subject matter that many author's of color face. I am an independent author and have never allowed myself to be boxed into a corner when it comes to writing. My stories center on men and women who are blinded sided  by love and romance, and end up being betrayed by ruthless people. When it comes to my stories, I don't make direct references to the characters' color or ethnicity, and believe that an author's color should not determine whether the book gets published. The issues that my characters face are a mirror of the world. I am a writer first, who is of African descent. I don't want anyone to judge any author's book based on their color.

  • Dee Connell

    Thanks for commenting, Pamela! I really appreciate everything you said. I'm glad that shows like Grey's have been successful. It's evidence that diversifying your cast of characters doesn't have to be detrimental to your success. An engaging story is the foundation. I hope you have a speedy recovery from surgery...and do enjoy the drama on Grey's. I haven't watched that in a few years and I actually miss it now that you mention it. Good luck with your writing! :)

  • Pamela Olson

    Excellent post, Dee, and great responses in the comments section. I noticed in my own first novel (which I'm currently working on) that not only did I tend to "default" my new characters to white -- I also defaulted them to male! (I guess this comes from a lifetime of reading "serious" novels and books of science and philosophy that are mostly about the exploits of men.)

    When I noticed myself doing this, I took a big step back and made a lot of new choices. And I think my novel is much stronger and more interesting (and more representative of my actual life) because of it. I also like the fact that my characters aren't black or female or Middle Eastern or whatever to *represent* those things or be stand-ins for "issues". They just happen to be human beings (thoughtful and interesting ones) who have those characteristics (just like my black, female, Middle Eastern, etc. friends do). We're all human, after all. Writers of all people should try to open spaces where we can realize that.

    Even though I'm white, I get really sick of white people all over everything, when the world is simply not like that. I'm recovering from surgery at the moment and watching a lot of Grey's Anatomy (my brain is too mushy to do much else), which I had never watched before. And while it can be a bit silly and melodramatic at times, I'm really digging the diversity in it (both racial and gender-wise), which isn't "diversity for the sake of diversity" or relegating anyone to token status. It's incredibly refreshing just to see... reality. Men and women, black, white, and Asian, working together as human beings. What a concept, right?

    More execs, producers, and publishers need to step up, be brave, and worry more about writing compelling characters than what color their skin is!

    “In his terms, he did not want to write about black love, black passion, black suffering, black joy; he wanted to write about love and passion and suffering and joy.” --Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

    This quote is beautiful and speaks of so much pain and alienation. As if black love and black passion were some different category, and "real" love and passion has to be Anglo-Saxon. It's crazy and sad that we're still wrestling with this today. But the first step is just realizing it is still a very real issue, as your post so aptly points out.

  • Dee Connell

    Hi Olga, I appreciate your comments. I did read your blog post and I disagree with it--as you'd probably expect. I do agree with the person who commented on it--that unless it's otherwise stated, we usually assume a character is the "default" or most predominant race. In the publishing industry, white is the default.

    One example of this is what occurred when The Hunger Games movie was released. One character, Rue, was described in the book as having "dark skin". Yet when the movie came out, there were tweets like "why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie." (Visit this post to see that this was not a rare sentiment.) Why did these readers miss that description of Rue in the book? Because they were expecting something else. 

    You made a really good point about the demographics of published writers. But who are the gatekeepers (in traditional publishing, of course) that determine who gets published? The same people who are afraid to use black models on books in fear of losing sales. (See the example of Justine Larbalestier's book.) So saying there aren't a lot of black books because there aren't a lot of black writers is missing the issue, I think.

    I encourage you to read the Good Reads thread that I linked to to get an understanding of the reality that many black readers/writers face. I also encourage you to read the section of my original blog post under "We need more than a single story." It might give you a different perspective.

    Lastly, I don't think it's reasonable to tell readers to pretend the characters are not as the author describes them. When I'm reading a book about an English girl with curly blond hair, I'm not going to pretend she's black--I wouldn't be reading the same book if so. I think it's up to writers to write the books that they want readers to read, not expect them to imagine what's clearly not intended. That's the problem with the readers of The Hunger Games who were disappointed with a black Rue--they had imagined what wasn't there.

    As with all things related to race, there are many varying opinions, and I truly appreciate you sharing yours.

  • Olga Godim

    I'm not sure I agree with this post. For example, you say: "This proportion does not at all represent the demographics of our society." Perhaps not, but maybe it represents the demographics of published writers? In my city, Vancouver, Canada, the musicians of our symphony orchestra are 95% white. It doesn't represent the city demographics - we are almost 50-50 white and Chinese. But it might represent the demographics of professional musicians.

    Furthermore, aside from the cover models and their skin colors, in many cases you don't know who the book characters are regarding their skin color. Some writers don't describe their characters, or alternatively use a a couple lines of descriptions in a 300 plus pages of a novel. Do you know whether Aragorn, the hero of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, is white or black? Sure he was portrayed by a white actor in the movie, but that was the casting director's decision, not the author's. You can easily imagine Aragorn any color you choose. He won't change his behavior or his heroic actions, no matter what color his skin is in your eyes. Tolkien wouldn't care either.

    I think this 'problem' is for a reader to solve, not the writers. Just use your imagination and visualize the characters from your favorite books as what you wish them to be. Do you wish to see Princess Aurora from the Sleeping Beauty as black? Why not? She could be. In fact, many ballerinas dancing the title role in the ballet Sleeping Beauty all over the world are black. Charles Perrault didn't write her as black - it wasn't feasible in his lifetime - but it's different now. It's up to the readers. Whatever they see in their minds is the heroes' true appearance, the writer's description on page 3 notwithstanding.

    I wrote a post on my blog a few months ago about this very topic: http://olgagodim.wordpress.com/2014/06/12/black-or-white-is-in-the-eyes-of-the-readers/      

  • Dee Connell

    Thanks, Lianne! I wholly agree with that statement.We Need Diverse Books is a great campaign. (I discussed it in the full-length post on my site.) I wish it had been around when I was growing up.

  • Lianne Simon

    And yet, the very things that make you unique give you an edge in authenticity when writing about them.

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