When it comes to publishing minority voices and perspectives, there is no doubt that we have come a long way as a society.
One point from which we can mark our progress is the publication of “The Education of Little Tree” by Forrest Carter, originally published in 1976 and then a surprise bestseller in 1991 when reissued by the University of New Mexico Press . It was even the first winner of the American Booksellers Association’s Book of the Year award.
Written as a kind of fictional memoir of Carter’s life as a boy living with his Cherokee grandparents in the 1920s, the novel has been hailed as an authentic and charming rendering of Native American life, something of a reference for those who wanted to check out a sidebar on reading a book about indigenous people.
While the book alleged that Carter had Cherokee ancestry — a claim that may or may not be true — it’s chilling fact that Forrest Carter is an alias for Asa Earl Carter, a Ku Klux Klan member who showed up at the Governor of Alabama on an explicitly white supremacist platform in 1970.
There is a diminished acceptance of books about minority cultures written by people who do not make the effort to understand or accurately represent those cultures. An avowed white supremacist writing about Indigenous people is unlikely to fly away these days.
Louise Erdrich won a Pulitzer for writing as an Indigenous person about Indigenous peoples. Stephen Graham Jones weaves Native American culture into the slasher genre in “My Heart Is a Chainsaw” showing that minority perspectives can be part of the seasoning of the story rather than having to carry the full weight of representation.
Of course, there were some setbacks. James Patterson’s recent comment that white authors were somehow subject to reverse racism and denied employment opportunities was stupid, as Patterson later admitted in his apology.
And in Florida, following the passage of the “Don’t Say Gay” law, schools and libraries preemptively removed books with gay, lesbian and bisexual characters from shelves, suggesting that there are at least minus a few Americans who would like to reverse our progress on representation.
My hope is that these are just the last spasms of narrow-mindedness and fear.
Since these conversations often occur in the context of a commercial market, we assume that we are in the middle of a zero-sum game, where publishing more voices must crowd out the minority, but diversity of expression is not not the goal for in the interest of diversity itself, as greater diversity broadens the range and supply of excellence available to readers.
In the words of George W. Bush’s famous malaprop, increased diversity will help “increase the slice of the pie”.
It’s worth asking if this is progress, how will we know we’ve reached the goal? For that, I recommend a recent conversation between Jay Caspian Kang (“The Loneliest Americans”) and Roxane Gay (“An Untamed State”) on Jane Coaston’s podcast, “The Argument.”
After extensive discussion on representation, race and gender, panelists agreed that what they want as minority writers is simply what every writer wants, not to be judged by how he represents his particular identity group, but having his own work evaluated on his own terms.
This means both taking diversity more seriously in practice, filling the cultural space with books, while making it less central to how we discuss published works by diverse authors.
A good story is a good story, and we missed a lot of good stories. Don’t do that anymore.
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities”.
Biblioracle book recommendations
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you read
1. “Bittersweet: How Heartbreak and Longing Make Us Whole” by Susan Cain
2. “love” by Alice Oseman
3. “Evelina, or the story of a young woman’s entry into the world” by Frances Burney
4. “Open Water” by Caleb Azumah Nelson
5. “The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them” by Elif Batuman
—Darin K., Minneapolis
I’m excited to see a graphic novel out there (‘Heartstopper’), which means I can safely recommend another one, this one being Nick Drnaso’s masterful ‘Sabrina’, which is just as charming and heartbreaking. I look forward to Drnaso’s next book, “Acting Class”, which will be released in August.
1. “Emma” by Jane Austen
2. “The Woman” by Meg Wolitzer
3. “From the mixed records of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” by EL Konigsburg
4. “Writers and Lovers” by Lily King
5. “Crossroads” by Jonathan Franzen
— Melissa P., Taos, New Mexico
For Melissa, a novel (and novelist) whose classic storytelling feels like a throwback to an earlier era, but also isn’t stuffy or dated at all, Jane Gardam’s “Old Filth.”
1. “Better to die” by Lee Child and Andrew Child
2. “Billy Lynn’s Long Walk at Halftime” by Ben Fontaine
3. “Matterhorn” by Karl Marlantes
4. “The Executioner’s Song” by Norman Mailer
5. “Moonflower Killers” by David Grann
— John P., Chicago
Several books here deal with major points in history that have tried people’s souls. It’s reminiscent of a book by Jess Walter written in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that manages to capture the disorientation of that time with powerful acumen. It’s called “The Zero”.
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