In 2003, before my first book came out, friends in the literary community warned me about how dire review coverage had become.
But no one I worked with at St. Martin’s Press on We Should Never Meet, a collection of short stories that involve “Operation Babylift” in Vietnam and its aftermath, ever mentioned that my ethnicity might play a role. Even now, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the publishing industry trying to explain the political murkiness and cold marketing statistics of landing book reviews to an elated debut author like me.
Few people read literary fiction, and those who do typically turn to critics to discover which books deserve their time. But if those critics are to be believed, few writers of color make the cut. According to rough counts for 2011 to 2012 compiled by writer and teacher Roxane Gay and a graduate assistant, 90 percent of the books reviewed by the New York Times during that time period were by white writers, leaving a 10 percent sliver for writers of color.
These depressing estimates, first published in the Rumpus in 2012, confirm what many writers of color like me have always feared: that the words over which we’ve labored and sacrificed ourselves for years—the books we’ve written, revised, edited, and finally published in order to contribute to the literary landscape that’s inspired us—don’t matter to the influential gatekeepers of the reading population.
If mainstream critics, who are supposedly curating and recommending the most notable works of contemporary literature, aren’t paying attention to us, then who will know how to read us? While some readers may bristle at the idea of critics telling them how to read, authors of color know all too well the amount of interpretation required for their work to become accepted by mainstream audiences.
For some writers of color, the uniqueness of their background can result in better coverage. Cristina Henriquez, whose novel The Book of Unknown Americans will be published by Knopf this summer, told me in a recent phone conversation that she received generous reviews for her two previous books. Those critics, she added, seemed sincerely interested in her Panamanian subject matter.
Yet, writers who share an ethnicity with other well-known authors (Chinese American writers will always have the Amy Tan question to contend with), often end up competing with each other. I’ve heard writers complain about editors passing on certain manuscripts because “they already have a Korean book on their list.” If this kind of bean counting is occurring—and I think it is—the same attitude carries over to many of the elite literary magazines, which rarely publish more than one or two authors of color an issue.
We writers are not supposed to gripe about the number of reviews we get. We’re simply supposed to appear grateful for any attention in this glutted market. But after seeing Gay’s alarming numbers, I couldn’t help wondering if my subject matter—the Vietnamese diaspora—could have affected the coverage I received.
For We Should Never Meet, that coverage was modest but respectable, especially for a debut work, with reviews in several major newspapers and trade publications. By 2012, when my second book The Reeducation of Cherry Truong was published, most of the coverage appeared in trade publications, book blogs, and online magazines—a sign of the changing terrain for book reviews.
Still, I’m curious about what book review editors were thinking as they considered my galleys. Did the editors assume my appeal would only be limited to my community or those who already had an interest in Vietnam? That possibility disheartened me. Like most writers, I hope that readers will still want to invest in a good story, engaging characters, and beautiful prose regardless of subject matter.
What’s preventing books by authors of color from being picked up and assigned to a reviewer? While it would be easy to assume editors are lazy or uninterested, the answer probably has much more to do with fear. As a creative writing teacher at an arts college in San Francisco, one of my most challenging and rewarding classes is Asian American literature.
My students of color often relish the readings, but some White students say they feel anxious about discussing unfamiliar cultures. They don’t know how to speak about the topics with any depth, they tell me, and are afraid of saying something politically incorrect.
In short, they’re scared to talk about race.