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How to publish classic books that aren’t just by dead white men

Two new classic book series showcase forgotten books by marginalized authors.

Left, Younghill Kang’s East Goes West. Right, Francis Stevens’s The Heads of Cerberus. Penguin Classics; Modern Library
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

As the canon of English literature slowly, gradually opens itself up to books by women and authors of color, Modern Library and Penguin Classics have just launched two new series aimed at rediscovering forgotten books by marginalized people.

It’s an on-trend choice. Over the past few years, more and more people have been announcing their intention to read more books by authors who aren’t straight white men, to focus their reading on people whose voices have traditionally been pushed to the margins. If you’re mostly reading contemporary fiction, that’s not too difficult to do: While publishing continues to skew white and male, especially for literary fiction, there are lots of great writers and publishing houses out there devoted to celebrating voices from the margins.

But if you’re interested in older books, things get harder. Historically, the books written by straight white men have been preserved and made part of what’s thought of as “the canon” of English literature, the important books that everyone reads in school and that are readily accessible to us all — the classics. Books by other people of different identities, meanwhile, tend to get forgotten and ignored.

Part of how we determine the canon comes from what is available to us as readers, which means what publishers have made available to us.

“A chief enforcer of the canon appears in middlebrow anthologies, those hangers on of high culture that in the Victorian period took the form of pop anthologies like Golden Treasury and today that of major college anthologies in America,” Brown University English professor George P. Landow wrote on the scholarly website Victorian Web.

“To appear in the Norton or Oxford anthology is to have achieved,” he wrote, “not exactly greatness but what is more important, certainly — status and accessibility to a reading public. And that is why, of course, it matters that so few women writers have managed to gain entrance to such anthologies” — and, we might add, so few writers of color.

That’s why it’s so exciting that Penguin Classics and Modern Library — two publishers who specialize in the classics and whose books are often used in classrooms — are now promoting books by authors from marginalized identities.

“We chose the books that sparked the most delight and outrage,” explains Mika Kasuga, the editor of Modern Library’s Torchbearer series of classics by women. “Delight because they are wonderful stories; outrage because they aren’t more widely known.”

“Penguin Classics is an institution,” says John Siciliano, the editor of Penguin Classics’ new Asian American Masterpieces series. “So when we publish something, it’s greeted with tremendous excitement among readers. To see a favorite work of theirs in our classic design and presented along with the apparatus and enhancements that we bring in the form of introductions and scholarship, it reinforces the importance of a work of literature.”

Both series combine comparatively well-established titles with books that are lesser known. In the Asian American Masterpieces series, the World War II draft resistance novel No-No Boy by John Okada and Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, about a Filipino migrant worker in the 1930s, are both “very well established in the academic market,” Siciliano says. The two satires The Hanging on Union Square by H.T. Tsiang and East Goes West by Younghill Kang, on the other hand, have much less cachet.

The Torchbearers include perennial English class favorite The Awakening by Kate Chopin and cult favorite Villette by Charlotte Brontë, along with books like American Indian Stories by the writer and activist Zitkála-Sá, who co-founded the National Council of American Indians and also played the violin at the New England Conservatory of Music. “It’s genuinely shocking how few people know about her,” Kasuga says. “I truly believe that her life and her many accomplishments should be taught as part of US history.”

Both series were developed as a direct response to our current political moment.

“It’s our job as publishers to make literature part of the conversation,” Siciliano says. Before the 2016 election, he’d been mostly focused on publishing classics from outside the US. Afterwards, “I decided I wanted to turn inward, to highlight the diversity of American literature in response to the assault on immigration.”

This cultural moment feels like a tipping point, or perhaps a stress test, for women,” Kasuga says. “More women are stepping forward to tell their stories, yes, and they are more often believed — but not always. It’s important to acknowledge not only the triumphs but the contradictions of this moment, and to understand how we got here.”

“What a publisher can do is provide a spotlight,” she adds. “In an age defined by a deluge of content, the classics publisher can say: This is someone worth honoring, this is a story that speaks to our current moment, this book matters. We can start the conversation — and that is an immense honor — but the rest is up to you.”

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