Sunday, 29 January 2017

From your editors: this week in publishing

Co-editor Ellie Brough muses on the goings on in the publishing industry this week...


A phrase that keeps cropping up in the SCBWI online sphere at the moment is cultural appropriation. Every week, a new article discussing cultural appropriation crops up online and the comments flood in with clashing opinions: some nuanced; some ill-informed; some, unfortunately, just plain ignorant.
Just this week, The Bookseller published an article on a discussion had at the Westminster Media Forum, held on Tuesday 24th January, which led to some interesting discussion amongst SCBWI members on Facebook. The Bookseller reported that Nicola Soloman, chief executive for the Society of Authors, raised the issue of cultural appropriation with publishers asking, “please don’t troll our authors with cultural appropriation every time they put a black face in their book if they are not black.”

This statement was only the start of what turned out to be a very problematic article, one that failed to discuss cultural appropriation as the serious issue it is and instead presented it as an inconvenience, hindering the success of more privileged authors. In fact, this first statement assumes that ‘authors’ are white, completely ignoring those Soloman claimed authors were only trying to represent.

So what exactly is meant by ‘cultural appropriation’? It’s when writers write from a cultural perspective that is not their own. There is a wealth of different voices out there in the world, different voices that aren’t being fairly represented by publishers. This is an issue that needs to be addressed, doors need to be opened and opportunities need to be given. Those who see cultural appropriation as an issue feel that more privileged authors should not have the right to replace those voices with their own filtered representations. Publishers need to make the effort to publish stories from people of different backgrounds, something which they are afraid to do either for fear of being ‘controversial’, causing offence or, more likely, fear of a smaller profit.

On the other side of the argument is the perspective that it is reasonable that all authors, no matter their cultural roots, should make attempts to write stories that reflect the multicultural world in which we live. That they shouldn’t be scared to write from different perspectives, as long as they’ve researched these voices thoroughly and that these accounts are published alongside those of underrepresented authors and not instead of them. The whole industry of publishing needs to make larger efforts to shed its whitewashed image.

I find this subject fascinating as both a writer who wants to write about different people and different experiences and also as publishing professional. In my own work, I have never asked an author to remove a character of colour, as The Bookseller article claims editors do, for fear that they will misrepresent them or that their inclusion will make the book controversial. I do work predominately on picture books, however, so I feel my experience might be ever so slightly different. I do like to think that the books I work on present a multicultural world, so that all children, no matter what their colour or nationality, might see themselves represented in the pages of books. That is what is important and what we should be working towards without fear.

The only way to do that of course is to address the subject face on.  SCBWI members will be doing just this on Wednesday 8th February at the first Pulse event of 2017. The event, titled We Need to talk about Cultural Appropriation, sold out within 24 hours, proving how important this topic is to SCBWI members and since its announcement, the Facebook group has been full of interesting exchanges on the subject. If you have a ticket then I look forward to seeing you there, if you don’t, then fear not because Words & Pictures has you covered. We will be publishing a reading list on the topic prior to the event as well as full write up of the discussion afterwards. What is more, plans are afoot to bring the event to other regions later in the year so watch this space! I’m very much looking forward to a year full of interesting and topical events and this discussion is only the beginning of a very exciting year for SCBWI.

As with all divisive and complex issues, the best way to understand them is to discuss them so please share your thoughts in the comments!





2 comments:

  1. The quote in the Bookseller was indeed unfortunate - Nicola Solomon and the Society of Authors do SO much for published authors and illustrators - from fighting our corner with publishers to developing schemes to help authors who are carers (Disclosure: I am a member of the Children's Writers and Illustrators Group of the SOA).

    Later in the article, Nicola also says: "This is a difficult time for publishers. We all know the power of the brand is such that books with a brand will sell well and therefore it's very hard for publishers, and publishers are businesses, to take risks on small, diverse different voices. But it's terribly important we have a committment to that for all our sakes that we hear as many voices as possible."

    All this just goes to show that we in the industry MUST get to grips with the nuances of cultural appropriation and help raise awareness on an issue that may appear to be only now challenging publishing but has existed since the beginning of storytelling.

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  2. I can't go to the event so I'm really glad you're going to cover it here - it's possibly the most important subject ever addressed at a SCBWI gathering in the UK! I have a confession to make - I grew up colour blind.I always felt this was a safe place to be. And it kind of is. For me. But it's also a bit smug and ignores something hugely important. An awareness of other people's lack of privilege, of how culture impacts on shared history and current lives, how appropriating that without permission or understanding can be harmful and insulting. I understand all that but what I don't yet get, are the rules. This, I think, is what frightens liberal white thinkers away from the whole subject. On a really simple level, metaphorically and practically, can I, a white British woman, ever wear the beautiful sari given to me by an Indian/British friend? I so look forward to hearing the discussion, thanks Ellie.

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