How Not to Defend Your Publication Against Diversity Complaints

On Monday, the writer Roxane Gay (who, full disclosure, is a friend of mine) contributed a piece to The Nation‘s blog about the low rate of coverage of writers of color in mainstream literary reviews. As any of you who follow the debates about gender politics in the literary world will know, most of the big literary publications — the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, Harper’s — have been taken to task for their lack of attention to women’s writing. Last month, many writers — among them me, who had written a piece here on Flavorwire praising the NYRB‘s proud tradition of female critics — received a not-particularly-effective rebuttal from its co-founder and longtime editor Bob Silvers. Much sturm und drang ensued. I must say I was not as bothered as some by the response, if only because the comedy of it was so readily apparent.

People have paid much less attention to race, where the picture tends to be bleak, too. It’s pretty undeniable that in literary conversation alone — publishing rates being another issue — writers of color simply don’t have the prominence they should, full-stop. Which is why I was so surprised to see Tom Lutz, the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books, becoming the new kid in the ill-advised-rebuttal department. The LARB was among the literary reviews Gay surveyed and found to have a low rate of coverage. But Lutz seems to disagree. He registered his objection in the comments to the piece. He did not do so particularly effectively, in my opinion. Possibly even offensively. Let’s annotate, to see why.

First, Lutz disputes the count Roxane made — which put LARB‘s coverage of writers of color overall at about 12%. She had said it was unscientific; perhaps his is better. Still, Lutz didn’t manage to bring any clear commentary to the matter other than his sense that LARB is doing better than Gay claimed:

… I’m glad you said that your data is very unscientific (or discarded science, like the ‘Caucasian’ label) — because it is off in our case. LARB has published not 12%, as your students found, but between between 17% and 35% (depending on who gets counted) by and about underrepresented writers — and that is if we are just talking about race and ethnicity… if we factor in other measures of diversity, then we at LARB run over 70% non-northern European-‘white’-straight male.

There is a wide and mysterious gap between 17, 35 and 70, isn’t there? What, for example, does “depending on who gets counted” mean? I refuse to touch that “Caucasian” remark, but also, what constitutes a “northern European,” in Lutz’s view? I am also wondering if his optimistic “70%” figure at the end there counts Italians — arguably “southern Europeans” — as people of color. If so, I think we can call bingo on bean-county defensiveness, here.

His very next line of attack, Lutz suddenly seems to think that counts are effective in gauging someone’s level of good faith in covering writers of color. Specifically, he decided to attack Gay’s own record:

(I did a little count of my own, and of the 67 pieces you published in HTML Giant and The Rumpus and LARB in 2012, for instance, only one, an interview, was devoted to a writer that wouldn’t be in the Caucasian category in your chart. I know you admit you haven’t done enough, and obviously you should be writing about whoever you want, but it does seem slightly disingenuous to cry foul at numbers that even at NYRB are considerably better than your own.)

Woof. This is what in professional rhetoric circles is called a tu quoque fallacy, objecting someone’s position by relying on their conduct rather than on the merits of their actual argument. Again, caveat emptor, I know her. But you don’t need to rely on me. There is plenty of other evidence that Roxane is not being disingenuous here: her very blog at The Nation has as its stated purpose the promotion of writers of color. The other day, Salon announced that she’ll curate a series of writings by feminists of color. The charge of disingenuousness is weak, and desperate.

Which weakness, by the way, is illustrated by the sheer desperation and insanity of his next point:

And a further problem: What ‘white’ critic would want to bash a writer of color? What writer of color would?

The presumption that “bashing” is the only option here, not to mention the one that race is the only lens through which the writing of people of color ought to be read, is a position Lutz — and whatever “‘white’ critics” might hold this view — might want to reconsider. I certainly can see issues of authority involved, in speaking to specific experiences. I don’t think a white woman from the Upper East Side would have much call to dispute the picture of Haiti presented in Edwidge Danticat’s novels, for instance. But that should be just one factor in assigning a review, and not the decisive one, as Lutz seems to suggest it is.

As I was writing this piece, Lutz again responded to Roxane, however, that he didn’t mean to suggest race was decisive in a decision to “bash”:

When I was talking about people not wanting to bash writers of color, I’m not talking about me — I’m perfectly happy to take you to task for this piece, for instance, which I think is disingenuous grandstanding.

Yikes. Is “bashing” what the editors of book reviews do, now? Then he goes on to list all the people of color he seems to feel Gay had an obligation to review because, you know, she’s a person of color. Then he says that he doesn’t believe any editor would turn her down if she proposed to write about writers of color. And finally, he leaves off with this grand invitation, in which he seems to suggest that it’s Gay’s unique obligation to resolve his periodical’s poor record on the issue:

And like I say, I’ll publish any review you write of any book written by a person of color. I look forward to them.

Woof, take two. No Franzen for you, critics of color! You need to fill in Lutz’s gaps for him. I will give Lutz props for honesty, of course; he clearly believes there’s nothing wrong with the LARB. He clearly isn’t interested in having a more diverse record than they currently do, and he’s not afraid of saying so. Writers of color are welcome to do their own jam in his wheelhouse, but he isn’t going to do anything but defend, defend, defend his record. One can’t help but wonder if that’s the general attitude over there. And if so, if that means that the LARB will continue to be, even by Lutz’s estimation, 83-to-65-percent white.