the discourse

When ‘Representation Matters’ Becomes a Meaningless Rallying Cry

Penguin Random House and Barnes & Noble’s “Diverse Editions”: an initiative in which classic works of literature were “re-outfitted” with covers featuring non-white protagonists. Photo: Vulture and Penguin Random House

Either publishing is losing it or we are.

This week, Penguin Random House and Barnes & Noble announced their collaborative effort to, as they put it, “champion the need for diversity in literature.” Timed to Black History Month, the “Diverse Editions” initiative, would have sold a “reimagined collection” of classics “re-outfitted” with covers featuring non-white protagonists. The insides of these books, which includes titles such as Romeo and Juliet, Alice in Wonderland, Moby Dick, and Frankenstein (in which not Dr. Frankenstein, but his inhuman creature is rendered as a black masculine Neanderthal with a fade), were to remain as is. According to the press release, the works were selected with the assistance of an A.I. tasked with mining the text of “100 classic literature books” in order to pick out occasions in which a main character’s race is kept opaque — “assumed” rather than stated plainly. Diverse Editions was rightfully ridiculed for thinking canonical exclusion ought to be remedied cover-first. Days later, after a public backlash, the effort was scrapped.

The covers are pretty cool to my eye. Were they still set to be released, I can’t say this Americanist wouldn’t have leapt at the opportunity to own the sleek, sea-foam Moby Dick with black Ahab on the cover (those unable to walk into the lone Fifth Avenue store set to carry the editions were invited to download and print copies of the covers for free). It works well as an artistic initiative. As a political one, not so much. The genuinely bonkers explained impetus for Diverse Editions falls in lockstep with a shallow refrain bandied about frequently: Representation matters. A mighty yet modest observation — that the art and culture around us, consumed and therefore inside of us, which expands and contracts our capacity to imagine living in the world — has gone tinny in its rallying cry, hollowed by the market’s appropriative appetites. Yet its deserved death rattle still hasn’t arrived. Elsewhere with more fanfare, in film and television, appeals to representation are the go-to means to critique projects that replicate the social and political exclusions found in real life. However, as statements about the way things are (#SoWhite) move toward prescriptive measures — from observation to politics — the fandom-driven conversation begins to evade nuance. Somehow, any dislike or even ambivalence of works featuring people of color — as exhibited by debates over Insecure, 2016’s Ghostbusters, Crazy Rich Asians, and Queen & Slim — becomes tantamount to bad politics.

In the book world, a title like American Dirt finds a home (in Flatiron Books) and a cheerleader (in Oprah, et al.) off the strength of the same language that would ostensibly critique its existence. The publisher’s letter sent with a galley included the note that author Jeanine Cummins’s husband was once undocumented, encouraging potential reviewers to make positive assumptions about Cummins’s proximity to the real-life Mexican migrants fictionalized in her novel, omitting that the husband in question is Irish. In response to recent criticism, Cummins pulls from the playbook of her liberal critics: “I am also Puerto Rican,” she told NPR’s Rachel Martin, “And I — you know, that fact has been attacked and sidelined by people who, frankly, are attempting to police my identity.” It is a testament to the fickle flexibility of “representation” and the ways in which publishers can take it for a ride. As Vulture’s Lila Shapiro has reported, the popularity of hashtags like #weneeddiversebooks and #ownvoices have, indeed, inspired publishers to seek out “diverse” manuscripts, “But,” she writes, “the majority of these books were written by white people” — both succeeding and failing by the metric of representation. When visibility is the goal above all else, the litmus by which ethical publishing decisions are made is determined in tallies and totals. When representation is the only measure worth considering, only the surface matters. And while American Dirt did also earn granular critiques for its plot, characters, and diction, representation was still the shorthand that both critics and publishers used to their advantage.

More than any recent controversy, Diverse Editions was almost refreshing in how bluntly it exposed the tendency to use representation to utterly meaningless ends. It is fitting that Penguin latched onto the canon, a body of works not only representative of power but also no small amount of angst among the same people inclined to be critical about contemporary publishing habits. The canon is an easy punching bag, not undeservedly. There’s a certain sect of Prompt Twitter —the unaffiliated community of users who collect responses to inane questions on that platform — haunted by the books they were required to read in school. Answers to prompts like these trend toward the ethical-seeming imperative to uppercut the steely jaw of the literary canon. Unpopular opinion: James Joyce is a hack. Unpopular opinion: Moby Dick is too long. Unpopular opinion: Uncle Tom’s Cabin is hella racist. Huckleberry Finn isn’t even that good; Catcher in the Rye isn’t even that good; Native Son isn’t even that good; A Tale of Two Cities isn’t even that good. The Scarlet Letter: trash. It seems hell hath no vitriol like that inspired by the Advanced Placement English test.

Similar to the sentiment guiding #representationmatters, the one here is understandable, even admirable. The literature lauded and, more crucially, assigned as the best, most original, and aesthetically daring in America is very white, very male, and very straight (though not nearly as white, male, and straight as we’re inclined to believe). But in the language of the internet, aesthetic judgements so often serve as threadbare proxies for the political discussions we ought to have. The canon gets trashed not because it’s bad, but because it’s canon. Meanwhile, the patriarchy, whiteness, imperialism — all the bad things — escape attention. It feels like a win, though it’s not really. (The opponents are dead or at the very least not listening.)

Toni Morrison, the finest reader of American literature from whom we’ve ever had the profound gift of learning, took the canon seriously as a thing to behold. Not for purposes of “slaughter” or “reification,” as she cautions in the speech that acts as the precursor to her 1992 work of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark. Her search for the “ghost in the machine” of “so much American literature” meant going into the soul of Herman Melville, Willa Cather, her precious Faulkner, to explain how those texts tell on themselves, and the nation in turn, excavating what it means for representation to matter.

The canon is not a stable thing. There’s something disingenuous or at the very least uncomfortable about those who bemoan its whiteness and yet so rarely seem to sustain any curiosity about what historical works by people of color have been returned to print in the decades since graduation. Publishers both lead and follow suit in this regard. It is ultimately easier to paper over good books whose legacies are secure than to reexamine them, or to invest — financially, emotionally — in lesser discussed masterpieces. Only in a world where the logic goes that “more” representation is better would Diverse Editions seem like a good idea, solving literature’s existential crises by literally throwing brown faces at the problem.

When ‘Representation Matters’ Is a Meaningless Rallying Cry