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Barnes & Noble cancels its Diverse Editions series after accusations of “literary blackface”

And the rest of the week’s best writing on books and related subjects.

Barnes & Noble’s Diverse Editions projects featured classic books with characters depicted as people of color on the cover.
TBWA Chiat Day
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.

Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of February 2, 2020.

The most common take on the American Dirt fiasco is that it resulted from Flatiron’s hubristic failure in what the industry refers to as “positioning” — that is, communicating the genre a house considers a new book to fit into. “From what I’ve heard,” said one senior editor, “it’s a really quick, pacey, dramatic read, and there’s a whole coterie of people who will say that to their friends, and word of mouth will move across the country like wildfire.” In other words, the novel is a work of commercial fiction, much like Where the Crawdads Sing and other titles that sell in large numbers while generally flying under the radar of cultural critics and political commentators.

Most books about migration are heavy because the experiences are heavy. They are not thrillers, because how could we, after actually living through the pain and fear, find any thrill in it? If we include violence, it is there because we have weighed the risk of spectacle against the importance of not looking away.

  • In the wake of the American Dirt scandal, the lit world turned its attention last weekend to the forthcoming novel My Dark Vanessa (by Kate Elizabeth Russell), which deals with a relationship between a teenage girl and her older male teacher. Author Wendy Ortiz alleged My Dark Vanessa had “eerie” similarities to her 2014 memoir, Excavation, which launched a discussion of whether the novel was appropriating Ortiz’s experiences — up until Russell revealed that it was based on her own experiences as a teenager. At Slate, Rachelle Hampton has a full overview of the controversy.
  • Meanwhile, at LitHub, Red Newsom considers My Dark Vanessa and the line between fiction and memoir:

Is statutory rape an intellectual property? Does one person have the rights to a story that happens to kids from all walks of life, everywhere? Whilst a novel isn’t a call to action, a raising of awareness, in the same way a memoir can achieve, My Dark Vanessa will help people process their own similar or adjacent experiences. Russell isn’t obligated to defend herself by saying “This happened to me,” but I worry she will be forced to out herself as a victim as more people flood to criticize the similarities between the two books.

  • And because 2020 is truly just shaping up to be a banner year for diversity in publishing, Barnes & Noble and Penguin Random House briefly collaborated on a collection of “diverse” editions of classic children’s novels like The Secret Garden and Peter Pan, with the characters reimagined as people of color on the covers. After widespread outcry and accusations that the covers were “literary blackface,” they have canceled the editions, Publishers Weekly reports.
  • At the New Republic, Alex Shephard looks at how the “diversity editions” even came to be a thing:

The brainchild of Doug Melville, the chief diversity officer of TBWA, the project was inspired by the casting of a black actress as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter sequel The Cursed Child. But the people close to the project seem to have been unaware that J.K. Rowling’s late-in-the-game embrace of diversity was criticized by others for being an “afterthought” that did little to change the otherwise largely lily-white YA fantasy series. Melville and Cal Hunter, of Barnes & Noble’s flagship Fifth Avenue location, were also inspired by the controversy over rumors that Idris Elba was being considered to play James Bond. (TBWA and Barnes & Noble’s Fifth Avenue store have had a relationship going back several years.)

In spite of the intensity of the whirlwind — or perhaps because of it — Adeyemi wants to be perfectly frank. “A lot of authenticity comes from laziness, where I don’t have the energy to pretend,” she explains. Naturally, a slew of young writers are now looking to Adeyemi for tips on the creative process, and here, she makes a point of being equally candid about the most crucial step: revision. “The number one thing I tell people is, ‘Yo, my books are bad for a long-ass time.’ But my theory is, no matter what you do, you have a lot of shit to wade through, so you might as well be doing something you love.”

In December 1973, Carl and I were at the St. Regis. Alice would come over during the day and we’d write at night. The book was coming out in April and at that time, it was normally a year or 18 months before a book was released, so we were thinking, “My God, it’s coming out in April, that’s going to be so fast.” I remember vividly: She came over with this 90-page section, an account of our reporting efforts that led nowhere, leads that didn’t pan out, and she said, “You need to cut it.” I said “O.K., by how much?” And she said, “Cut it to two pages.” She was right.

The climate crisis, Offill shows, is reshaping not just our world but also our minds. “Weather” joins other new fiction in transforming the novel of consciousness into a record of climate grief. “Sometimes I think that people today must be the saddest people ever, because we know we ruined everything,” the heroine of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport thinks. One of Deborah Eisenberg’s insomniac narrators frets: “I was exhausted, though still wide awake, as I was so often — wide awake, and thinking about things I couldn’t do anything about. Couldn’t do anything about. Couldn’t do anything about.”

Read suggests that, in the U.S., a high point for limitations on acceptable words came in the first half of the nineteenth century. Compiling his dictionary in 1834, for example, Noah Webster rejected “teat,” “dung,” and “stink,” in favor of the more acceptable “breast,” “excrement,” and “ill smell.”

Another bad word around that time was … “pants.” Read points to numerous newspaper articles referring to trousers with words like “unmentionables” or “inexpressables.” In one 1848 account, “Mr. B. dressed himself in a new bright blue coat and a pair of large and showy unwhisperables.” (It apparently wasn’t until the early twentieth century that similar euphemisms came to refer to underwear.)

In the study of lesbian history, the desire for proof is generally one the researcher doesn’t expect or even want to have satisfied. Queer research can feel like a secret club, where evidence is stored only within the blood that rushes from our bellies to our cheeks and is exchanged via intuition and rumor. When Shapland finds her proof, several years into researching McCullers, she’s overwhelmed by the verification of that which she’d known all along. Her girlfriend doesn’t share in her sense of shock. “‘Isn’t this what you were looking for?’” she asks. “‘Well,’” responds Shapland, “‘I didn’t think I’d actually find it.’”

And here’s the week in books at Vox:

As always, you can keep up with all our books coverage by visiting Happy reading!