Penguin: Mostly White, It Turns Out

Michael at Lit Saloon links to this Observer article about Penguin’s plans to celebrate its 70th anniversary by issuing 70 short titles–but only two of the authors are non-whites.

Although Penguin has published two of the most important figures in modern black literature, James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe, neither is included on a list that finds room for popular modern names such as Jamie Oliver, Marian Keyes, Gervase Phinn and India Knight, as well as paying tribute to significant white landmarks of world literature such as Gustave Flaubert, Albert Camus, Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Theroux, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vladimir Nabokov, Sigmund Freud and even Homer, a segment of whose Odyssey gets a look in.

The only two black authors included are Zadie Smith, the young Briton who made her name with the award-winning novel White Teeth, and Hari Kunzru, who is best known for The Impressionist and Transmission, and has a worldwide following.

If this is a list meant to represent the best of Penguin’s work, then the exclusion of Achebe makes no sense. And if it is meant to represent their best selling authors, then Achebe–who is routinely assigned in high school and college classes–should certainly have fit the criteria. The publisher’s response is that they weren’t going to do “quotas,” that they were looking at “sales only.” In that case, what about Salman Rushdie? Isn’t he published by Penguin (through Viking)? The sales from The Satanic Verses alone probably surpass those of any writer on that list. And he’s not included either. Next time I hear someone moaning about a minority-only prize, I’ll have to remind them of things like this, which are far more common than people think.

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