S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: In the early days, there were all kinds of things that would be said. One being when President Obama’s book came in. We don’t really publish people with non-traditional names. The sad part about all of that in these years in publishing are the books that never got through.
S3: We don’t even know what we’re missing. Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, Isaac Butler, and I’m your other host, Ramona Lum Reman.
S4: We are going to be talking about your incredible interview with Tracy Charade, the editorial director of Amistad Press. And we also have a fascinating ethical quandary from one of our listeners who wrote in with a question about the writing process. But before we get to any of that, you’re in the home stretch of the book prepublication process, that moment when you’re bringing the horse to market. I know a lot of artists, you know, probably me included. We could get a bit shy and conflicted about marketing our work, about getting it out there, about asking people to buy it, about essentially saying, I believe in this. I want you to give me some money because I believe you’ll like it, too. This is your third time around with that. What’s it been like for you this time?
S1: I mean, I think the funny thing is that when you talk to when I talk to anyway artists I really admire, they all acknowledge that that hustle that you’re talking about is really an important part of the thing. You know, there’s no point in doing something if no one’s going to see it. There’s no point in making something. If no one can sort of engage with it. And you kind of have to just learn to do that tap dance, you know? And really, I can’t complain. I mean, it’s a great gift to be a writer who’s paid to write books and then ask to talk about them in order to sell them. And there’s plenty of anxiety and there’s plenty of fear mixed in with all of that gratitude and joy. But, you know, I have to pace myself because I still have a couple of months until October when this thing arrives in the stores.
S4: Right. Yes, of course. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Exotic publication presence. And, you know, speaking of the business of publication, you know, we have a guest this week, Tracy Charade, who is deeply involved in the business of publishing as the editorial director of Amistad Press. What can you tell us about Tracy and why you wanted to speak with her?
S1: You know, I lurk on book and publishing adjacent Twitter, so I’ve been watching a lot of the bigger conversations about race in this country play out as discussions of race inside the book business. In my conversation with Tracy. I refer to an article by Lauren Michel Jackson that was published in Vulture about the purpose of the anti-racist reading list, those curated syllabi of books to read whenever there’s a big galvanizing cultural moment that is about race. And then there was a trending topic on Twitter that really caught my attention under the hashtag publishing paid me, in which a host of writers disclosed how much they had made for their books. It was just a way of kind of freeing up some data and showing that maybe one of the businesses systemic problems is it’s economics, that maybe white writers are making more money than black writers. And we did see some white writers talking about pretty big advances and some sort of well-known black writers talking about comparatively smaller advance advances. It’s a very confusing business and it’s hard to extrapolate a lot from this information. But I do think that that trending topic and the conversation around it showed that people are really interested right now in looking at systemic racism. And I thought it would be very useful and illuminating to talk to one of the handful of black gatekeepers in the publishing business. And that’s why I went to Tracy Sherrod in your conversation.
S4: The name Sister Soldier comes up. You know, I think it’s been a while probably for some of our listeners since they remember the sister soldier moment and Bill Clinton’s, you know, brief use of her as kind of a political prop. So could you, you know, rewind the clock to the early 90s and tell us a bit about who sister soldier was in our culture in that moment?
S1: It’s a very specific blast from the past. And so just as a refresher, she is a writer and activist. And during the run up to the presidential election, she said something about violence in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict and the riots that ensued in Los Angeles. Bill Clinton, who was then campaigning for the presidency, denounced this. And that act of denunciation has become known as a Sister Souljah moment. Maybe unfairly so, but it’s that particular inflection point where a political movement has to disavow something as too extreme. And we saw this when candidate Obama broke ties very publicly with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. So it’s a funny thing to hear her name in the context of her as a human being, as a writer and an artist. And to hear a little bit about this sort of unlikely pivotal role that Sister Souljah played in the career that Tracy charade has made for herself.
S4: Well, Reman, I can’t wait to hear about that and all sorts of other things in your interview with Tracy Sharod, so let’s take a listen.
S5: OK. I’m someone who publishes books for a living. So I feel like I have a little bit of insight into what an editor does. But I think TV and movies give us this idea that the editorial director would be sitting in a really fancy office lined with books and they’d have a pencil in their hand and be working quietly and maybe having a scotch at the end of the day. Is that what your days actually look like?
S6: Now, that’s the fantasy.
S2: So the bulk of your hours are spent doing meetings and preparing paperwork to make offers chasing.
S7: Well, how did you begin your career?
S2: You know, I’ll tell you this. So it was time to graduate from college and, you know, so entered into books and just reading and all that stuff. So it came time to graduate from college. And my college roommate, who is a judge now, she said, what are you going to do? You know what kind of job you’re going to have? What are you gonna do with your life? And I said, you know, I hadn’t even thought about that yet. And so she’s like, well, you’re really late, so why don’t you call up those people and ask them for a job? And I’m like, what people? She goes, You always have a book in your hand. Like, now just call them up and ask them for a job. And I did. And it was the feminist press and they said yes. And so I moved from Michigan to New York. And when I was on the phone with the Feminist Press, you know, I didn’t want to ask how much I would be paid. I didn’t want to ask all of these questions that one should ask because, you know, I wanted to make sure I had the job. But when I got there, I found out that it was a fifty dollar a week internship, but I would not be deterred. And so I got a job at Doubleday Bookstore at night and worked at the Feminist Press during the day after six weeks. I was hired permanent full time, so which was really wonderful. And then Marie Brown was on the board there and she helped me to get a job and more mainstream publishing. I, I ended up at Henry Holt and Co.. Wonderful experience, but I left. Henry Holt, when I went to my publisher and I asked her to read Sister Soldiers The Coldest Winter Ever, which was on submission, and she told me, no, she wouldn’t read it because someone in the house, it said that sister soldier was racist. And so I told her, I said, you know, in the past 10 years, the only people that had been called racist. Are people of color. And I’m really concerned about that. And I’m going to resign today. And so I did. Emily Bessler at Simon and Schuster had also been talking to me. And so I called her up after my discussion with my publisher to see if the job was still available. And she said yes. And so then I went over to Simon and Schuster worked there for 40 years, about three months after I arrived. Charles Harris reached out to me and asked me to come over to be the editorial director. Working for Amistad had always been a dream of mine, but I didn’t feel like I could I could just quit after being somewhere for three months. So I feel very grateful and thankful to people like Jonathan Burnham, who hired me at Amistad to be the editorial director. It’s a dream of mine. It had been a dream of mine and it’s materialized. And I love it. Beyond belief, before I even started working there years and years before. You know, I envisioned the kind of books that I would publish. Because we we’re interested in a variety of things. And it’s not just about race that we want to talk about. And that’s not all that’s going on in our lives, although unfortunately, you know, it definitely nags at us all day long, keeps chasing us and running us down.
S5: I’m really struck by a couple of things that you’ve just said. One is that Charles Harris, the founder of Amistad, had actually thought of you for this job years before you ended up taking it. So what year did Jonathan Burnham hire you to take over?
S2: I was told April 28, 2013. OK. So you never forget.
S5: So it’s been about seven years. That’s incredible. And the other thing that is so striking to me is this conflict you describe with your former publisher when you were an editor at Holtze, declining to read a submission that an editor had brought in. That seems to me and I think maybe people who are listening to this conversation and don’t know about publishing, that seems to me. Extraordinary. Out of the ordinary for a publisher to decline to even look at the work, because that just doesn’t seem to me like it’s the way that this business runs. And the fact that you I mean, we talk about microaggression a lot when you talk about race inside of the workplace. But that seems like a regular aggression to me.
S2: And in your early days, there were all kinds of things that would be said, you know, in the early days that the 80s and 90s, one being when President Obama’s book came in, we don’t really, you know, publish people with non-traditional names.
S5: I mean, you’re talking about Dreams from my father. A memoir that he wrote when he was a senator.
S2: Yes. And he came in before he was well known the first time it was published. Yeah. Right. The sad part about all of that and these years in publishing are the books that never got through. We don’t even know what we’re missing. I know a few very important books that were missing that would contribute to the dialogue. But those are books that no one wanted to buy at the time. And that’s the real loss to publishing.
S5: Amistad began life as a anthology of black writing. It was founded by an editor named Charles Harris. It had sort of many different iterations. Eventually, it sort of spun off into an independent imprint. Publishing works by black writers. In 1999, HarperCollins, which is one of the big mega corporations in that control publishing in this country, acquired that imprint and its whole list. And I’m gonna name some writers on that list. Walter Dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson, Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, Edward P. Jones and Tazaki Ashanti. These are the literary names. But the point of view is black. It’s a plus for black, right. I wonder if you think that that’s fair to say. That’s a fair statement. And then if you can talk about what that endeavor means inside a big corporation like HarperCollins.
S6: Yes, we published for the black audience specifically, but mostly what we’re offering is a chance for writers of color and black waiters, in particular, a platform in which to publish their work. We don’t try to make them say one thing or another. We believe that these books live, you know, 100 percent in their truth. And so, yes. And Charles started the press, you know, a long time ago in 1986. And he worked for double day as an editor. And before he left and he left to start his start to go to Howard and to begin building Amistad Press. And and some of the books that he left were actually edited by Toni Morrison, including the greatest guy, Muhammad Ali. So Charles was an extraordinary man and a visionary. When he started this press. And so we did begin with some anthologies collecting important black writers and their thoughts from John Oliver Killens to Toni Morrison to to a whole whole bunch of people where there wasn’t exactly a platform for that back then. And the 1980s seems so recent, you know, to a lot of people. But, you know, black publishing is still very, very new. And and the market, I believe we’re only tapping like maybe point one percent. There’s more stories to be told. There’s a large audience for them. And publishing as an industry needs to recognize that they’re seeing it a little bit now. When the bestseller list, you know, like paperback nonfiction this week, all of the books are about race or racism. And the majority of them are written by African-American authors and they’re saying, you know, the purchasing power also believing that there’s there’s a large white audience that are coming to the books at this at this moment, which I do believe that is the case. But I also think that all of us are coming to these books.
S5: So the culture right now, as you have intimated and as the bestseller list reflects, is having this sort of big conversation about race. And it didn’t begin in this moment, you know. And I think a black grandparent, for example, would laugh at us if they heard anyone suggest that this just started. But I do think and I think a lot of people feel this way, that the unjust death of George Floyd fuels like a specific moment, like a specific galvanizing moment. People are looking for some kind of insight sort of answer. What do you feel that this moment offers for almost Todd as a publisher? And do you feel a particular responsibility to rise to that moment?
S2: Well, we’ve been doing the work, you know, for many years, and I believe in the next year, actually in 2021, people will be able to see the results of that work. We have a lot of important writers on the list. Important people we need to hear from, such as Marcus Hunter, on reparations, because there are many ways to provide reparations in addition to money. And yes, we want to keep the money on the list. But there are other are other means. You know, there’s Julianne Malveaux, who is doing a huge discussion on the power of black money and how we use it to advance ourselves instead of a door on ourselves. And so there’s lots of important work that’s going to feed into this discussion.
S5: You’re speaking specifically about forthcoming books on the list that are political in their nature. But he almost had also published his memoir. It also publishes know commercial fiction. Do you think that those endeavors are also political by virtue of being at almost totter, by virtue of being black voices in a marketplace that’s largely controlled by white forces?
S6: Well, yes, as I believe, first of all, they’re in a place, a house, an imprint of freedom and a freedom fighters.
S2: And so we’ve done a lot of literary fiction and some commercial fiction. And all of the messages in those books are about liberation in one form or another.
S5: There is a writer named Lauren Michel Jackson, and she recently wrote a really a piece that I found really interesting for Vulture, where she was looking at lists of black texts that pop up whenever there’s a whenever there’s a galvanizing incident of racial violence, a lot of the magazines and websites will publish a list of like, here’s what to read to think about race. And this is what Jackson wrote, quote, Aside from the contemporary teaching texts, genre appears indiscriminantly essays slight against memoir and folklore, poetry squeezed on either side by sociological tomes. This may be ironically, but maybe not reinforces an already pernicious literary divide that books written by or about minorities are, for educational purposes, racism and homophobia and stuff wholly segregated from matters of form and grammar, lyric and scene. I’d really like to hear your perspective on this, because, as you just said, you published books about race, but you publish books about everything. Do you think readers should be looking at books as curative or as medicine for toxicity and racism in this culture?
S2: Well, in the 1970s, you know, that’s the first period in which, you know, black books and black authors were really making entry ways into the business. And this is because they realized that the Board of Education that, you know, in all of these books with all this American history in it is not right. What should we do about it? Well, they didn’t want to correct it because that would have, I guess, been a big job. So what they decided to do was have, you know, supplemental materials about African-American history, about, you know, Indian history, et cetera, et cetera. And that’s actually how Toni Morrison got into the business of working on those kind of text. And then so initially, people of color literature was was for the purpose of educating others and and ourselves to about about history and things. So I think that has continued. But no, I think, you know, definitely the purpose of all books should be to educate someone about something. But no, I think books should be for escape. But still learning books should be for for pleasure. Because, you know, think about what you’re saying. If all black books were about racism, you know, where would we be able to escape it and get away from it? And I think we need those kind of books as well. So I. A beautiful world would be where everybody read everything, as I do believe that black people do everything. Yeah. So it should be definitely educational. But that is not where it should stop. And that is not all it should be.
S5: Do you think there’s a generational change here? Because also, if you are a 17 year old reader, if you’re a 22 year old reader. You may never have heard of the salt eaters. You may never have. You may never have heard of Jesmyn Ward. If you’re a young person like a book that is only six years old. Came that would have come up when you were a teenager and it might suddenly seem new and relevant to you. Look, do you think that younger readers are under looked resource for commercial publishing today?
S2: Actually, no, I. I think I’m paying very close attention to young people and what their interests are and and their reading habits. And I would say that this generation of young people, the ones who are just entering the workforce, the ones that are in colleges right now and even younger, they’re reading much more diverse literature. And I believe that their buying habits will reflect this as they get older. And so I think that’s also going to be a contributor to to enlargening the black book buying audience.
S5: And there are huge sets of contemporary readers, young and old, who don’t look at The New York Times, who don’t look at the lists and BuzzFeed. They look at Instagram. They read the comments and they get excited and they say, oh, I’ve never heard of this book. I’m excited about it. I want to read it now.
S2: You know, yeah, I know exactly what you mean, because in my younger early days in publishing, one of my books was on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. And everybody was super, super excited. And I was like, oh, no, that means it’s never going to reach my audience, you know, because at the time, you know, black people just were not invested in the times in any way. And I believe that’s changed significantly, especially with people like Nicole Hannah. So marketing is really key.
S7: And we have to let the word out more about books.
S4: We’ll be back with more of Ruman Alarm’s conversation with Ed Tracey charade in a moment.
S1: One of the things we’d love to do with this show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a specific challenge about your work or big question about inspiration or discipline. You can send them to us at working at Slate Seacom if and when we can. We’ll even put those questions to our esteemed guests.
S4: Welcome back to working. I’m Isaac Butler. We now return to Remands conversation with Tracy Sharad.
S5: What percentage of your work is managerial? Is wrestling with, you know, you’re publishing people wrestling for like the bigger budgets, the marketing power or whatever? And then what percentage of your work is creative and sitting down with an author or making a phone call to an author and saying, like, think about doing this. Think about doing that. I want you to push this book in this direction or that direction. Like, what is that split look like to you?
S2: I’ve been fighting for a lot of that time during quarantine, and so I have been doing that with my authors and and particularly a great conversation with Ursula Burns, who is the CEO of Xerox and her forthcoming book, which I am, you know, thoroughly enjoying. But I would say that every day from nine to five is managerial, administrative and then maybe two hours beyond the nine to five on a given day. Still doing administrative things and an administrative is like, you know, at the moment, like writing jacket, copy, getting blurbs, trafficking books through production, covering permissions still, you know, getting the photos, getting, you know, all of those types of things. And then, you know, then maybe one hour a night, Monday through Friday of, say, you know, reading submissions and deciding what I will, people pursuing or not. And then Saturday and Sunday, full blow out, you know, six a.m. to nine p.m., you know, with breaks for some food or some or so exercise or something. That’s when we’re editing and writing our editorial letters. And this is a very, very, you know, time consuming process. And we really want to be in it. We really want to be in it. Because when something goes wrong with your books or something’s not quite right in them, your stomach hurts. Every time that book is mentioned, your stomach hurts, you know, so you don’t want that. So we worked really, really hard. It’s why people don’t see editors out and about much unless it’s an author event that they need to go to. I don’t think that it’s the case for all editors, but it’s particularly true for Amistad because we’re trying to build on a stock and we’re 35 next year. But it seems and examining its history and going over it really super carefully, the growth will happen after the results, you know, after as a result. I’m not sure it’s going to happen before the results. You know, I don’t think anybody’s gonna come along and say, let’s give this imprint everything it needs in publishing when they’re setting up other imprints. They give them everything they need from the start. Then you prove the results. But for black and black people in publishing, it’s the reverse. You’ve got to do the work maybe to now just but being noticed is not what any of us are in it about. It’s all about the books. As long as we can do the books, we will survive. We will move forward no matter what.
S5: I just want to walk back for a second to clarify what an editorial letter is for the listener. So. You’ll spend a Saturday or Sunday going over a book, making notes, figuring out what you think about how the book has put together, how it’s structured, how it’s written. And the first time I heard the phrase editorial letter, I thought like, oh, it’s going to be like an email, like a nice e-mail from somebody. An editorial letter is an exhaustive, very long document in which, you know, and it’s it’s it’s a subjective thing. Every editor has their own way of doing it. The editorial letters I have received have been, I mean, exhausting and long and thoughtful. And it’s an editor’s thing on this page. You use this word, but I don’t think that’s right. But it’s also an editor saying, please think back structurally to the very foundations of this book and reconsider how X and Y work and all of this very close analysis of a thing that’s still in process. Is that what kind of editorial or do you like to write?
S2: Yes, mine are very detailed, very, very detailed, you know. Last one was like twelve single spaced pages. So there are that track changes in the manuscript calling out this and that. The other thing content here. Move this there. Why is it here? What are the answers to this? You know, all of that are in the track changes and then I write a corresponding letter to put the track changes in context for a little of. And then we go over each and then we go over each one about why I want this done, why I want that and everything. Because once you break it down, explain it that way. The majority of people are like, I am so ready. Go. You know, they’re motivated. They see, you know, clarity. And they see the path in which they can take to really bring them back home.
S5: As a writer, like speaking as somebody who occupies the other side of that equation, when you get those letters and you open them up and you see that it’s 12 pages, like you kind of have like a heart attack and euphoria at the same time because you’re like, oh, my God, I have so much work to do. But also you’re like, wow, somebody paid this much attention to me and is trying to save this book. Like they it’s a leap of faith on the part of the editor that she cares this much about this book and is going to like, tell me how to fix it.
S2: And you shouldn’t think save it. Shouldn’t think she’s saving the day. Just because that letter is long and detailed does not mean there’s something really wrong with it. Yeah, yeah. It’s just how to enhance the book and so much of an editor’s work.
S5: I mean, that is where the creativity comes in. But also, even though you’re very visible and a presence inside of the office, the editor is kind of an invisible figure, like the nature of the job is that you you’re not there. Your writer is the person who is doing this work. You’re just helping get them there. Sort of like a like a personal trainer might try and get you ready for a triathlon. But like, you’re they’re the one who is running the triathlon. You’re the one who’s going back to the office. And it’s not about glory or fame. There are very few I mean, people inside book publishing know who editors are, but there are very few people who become sort of famous for being an editor. Do you think there’s a certain kind of personality that’s drawn to that were the ideal person to be an editor?
S2: I think it’s still the person who doesn’t want to be the center of the room, the person who wants to be an observer, a strong reader, someone who who can read anything. Does it matter if it’s something they’re interested in or not? They can still enjoy it and enjoy the content to make it. You have to be social, quite social, going out, being out, communing with with authors. And I think people who really enjoy the creative process, who are willing to have those conversations with writers and find them fascinating, listening to things about like how they plan on structuring a book, you know, who find that fascinating and who, when they’re reading a book, can see the different literary techniques and devices that an author has used and appreciate those so close reader, someone who’s who could be interested in almost anything, I think make good editors because they have lots of questions, are very curious people. And I think having curiosity. But if you want to be famous, if you want to be. You know, the life of the party, I don’t really think, you know, editorial is the way to go.
S5: Another thing that we saw on social media in the last couple of months is this hashtag publishing paid me in which writers inside of the publishing business were speaking very candidly about how much money they had made. And one of the revelations that I must confess that even I found very surprising was how little really, really successful writers like and Kay Jamison or Jesmyn Ward had been paid. Jesmyn Ward had made I think we’ve got to five doesn’t in advance after already having won the National Book Award. And there was a lot of surprise, I think, on Twitter about this from people who are not themselves black. Look, I think a lot of my black colleagues were like, oh, yes, that makes it. That computes to me because you always have to sort of go through that extra turtle.
S2: I was really surprised by that. You know, for black authors, that publishing paid me hashtag was very, very interesting on a lot of levels. But it’s super competitive to get a black author. The advances are going, you know, through the roof. And I can’t say always that that’s a good thing. You know, maybe I’m sure some people would like a larger money upfront. And there are people who have received large advances upfront. And one thing I would have to say is this. If I have to give an off a message to authors, if you’re shopping a black book and at the end of that auction, none of the black people have come to that amount of money for it to give you for that advance. You’re probably in trouble already. You’re going to have some are not problems because I believe the black publishing professionals are the experts.
S5: What we should do is we should just back up for a second and explain the economics of book publishing. So a writer comes in to an imprint with a book and say that I have this book. It’s here it as it’s done here. Here’s the proposal for what I want to do. And the publishing company comes back and says, we will give you this advance, which is an investment in the future of this book. And let’s say the advances. Fifty thousand dollars that will carry you through the process of publishing the book or writing the book if it’s a proposal. And then you’ll get a check for twenty five thousand dollars when you sign a contract or 10000 easements on account. You know, it’ll come to you in a couple of payments and then the book will go on sale and it will start earning money. And once those royalties top fifty thousand dollars, they start going right into your pocket. And that’s how you start earning money. So if you get paid a million dollars for a book, that book has to sell a lot of copies in order for the royalties to start showing up in order for the publisher who took that gamble on you to start making any money on that gamble. And so what you’re saying is that it’s more responsible for you to think about the advance and calibrated against what the book is actually going to perform in the market that you understand when it comes to advances.
S8: It’s important to earn out your advance or come close to it. Then you’re perceived as a successful author and then more money will come and more opportunities will come. But once you’re over paid for a book, I’m not sure where your career is after that because going to be difficult to sell another book. And I think it’s really important for people to listen when the authors are going around and they’re having the meetings, they really need to listen to what’s going on, you know, and they need to understand things like, you know, if you’re using a ghostwriter. No, you do not have to go with your agent’s friend’s wife, you know. You know, you do not. And things like that. And I want, you know, authors to know that you’re paying your agent. They are not paying you. And so you need to take an active lead in that relationship and ask the important questions, OK, if I’m getting this advance. How many copies do I need to earn out to make this work? And who else has sold that number of copies, you know? And then they’ll know what’s realistic or unrealistic in their situation. Then they’ll also know what their advance is, fair or not. At Amistad, I try to be as fiscally responsible as possible because I can’t overpay for authors because that’s counted on my inference, paying out, you know, and and I want to be around tomorrow and publishing that one person and not being around tomorrow is not worth it to me.
S5: How do you feel like heading into this is like a big culture moment. Your imprint is turning 35 next year. How do you feel? You feel optimistic. You feel pessimistic. You feel good about the direction of almost hard of the literary culture generally.
S2: I’m feeling really good and I feel very confident that Amistad is going to receive the resources that it needs in order to to be become the premier African-American publisher. We are that in name right now. But there are huge things I want to do to solidify that so that the next jarana generation is in place to take it over. We have to build a company that lives. And so we need that.
S4: Reman, it is always a breath of fresh air when a major gatekeeper in an industry is actually honest about their work. And it also seems like due to our mustard’s position as a publisher of black authors for a largely black audience, she gets to also be a real champion as well. I was particularly interested in what she said about the lost great African-American books, the ones that were never published or perhaps published, but ignored by readers or even their own publishing house. These works that could have gone on to have great impact today in the theater world, there is a whole canon of black plays that are widely ignored unless you’re taking an undergraduate class in African-American theater. But I think at least in theater, that’s just beginning to change with some of the season announcements for next season, although we obviously have a long way to go.
S1: I, too, thought that that was an extraordinary point. You know, Tracy is an optimist about the future, but she’s candid about the past and about those missed opportunities. You know, our black citizens have suffered. Absolutely. But, you know, there’s another way of looking at it and saying, look, the whole culture has suffered. Systemic racism robs the culture of masterpieces that we never even learn about. And this is one of a million reasons to address these persistent problems.
S4: Yeah. You know, one thing I was really struck by was that point that you brought up and you brought it up in the introduction to this episode to that black art is about more than educating white audiences about black pain. And black art is more than just discussing racism. And often it can very quickly get kind of shoved into those pigeonholes, particularly in these kinds of moments of national crisis, which are ironically drumming up a big audience for the work at the same time. Tracy said this really great thing about all Mustard’s books being about liberation in one form or another. And it seems to me that one of the forms of liberation is liberating the individual artist from racialized expectations of the work they’re going to create.
S1: I love that way of thinking about it. You know, the onus on black writers to illuminate the black experience, it’s very silly. The artists need freedom. And there are, of course, many black writers who are engaged in that endeavor who are really thinking about the black experience, civilians of race. But there are just as many who don’t give a hoot about it, who have some whole other projects. Black books are not medicine for white readers. They’re not a corrective. They are art worth engaging with on its own terms. You know, this is something that drove me absolutely bananas after Toni Morrison died is the way that people talked about Toni Morrison’s accomplishment as a as a racialized accomplishment, which, of course, it was. You know, it’s the absolute pinnacle of black literature. On the one hand, you know, she was a genius, but she was not engaged in a project of educating a bunch of people who didn’t actually care about race, about race. Her project was much more complex and much more. It’s akin to Faulkner’s, you know, writing. Lawson was a genius. And to talk about her as someone that you should pick up to help you learn empathy in moments of political crisis is absolutely baffling to me. It is absolutely baffling to me and robs Morrison of her great artistic accomplishment, you know, which is just it’s impossible to overstate, actually what she accomplished as a novelist. And so it’s just so baffling that in so reductive the way that we talk about black art.
S4: Yes, absolutely. And I think, though, you know, something you just mentioned there. It intersects with another pet peeve of mine. So while we’re airing our pet peeves, which has to do with the insistence that Art’s value lies in its ability to generate empathy. Yes. Which is like a thing that art can do. That’s wonderful. Do not get me wrong. That is a wonderful thing about art. But it is not the only thing that art does that that sometimes art does the exact opposite. And so I think there’s a way in which that fallacy and, you know, really particular racialized fallacies intersect in very dangerous ways.
S5: The notion that art must, like, perform some function for you must efficiently help you accomplish something. It strikes me as a very American and very sadly capitalist, like the idea that it’s only worth sitting down and spending, you know, 17 hours reading the bluest eye. If you’re going to get something out of it, well, you’re going to get transcendent. It’s like, great.
S1: Is that not worth it? Like, is that not enough? You also need to learn to feel something about strangers. And also, if you don’t already know how to feel something about strangers, you have much bigger problems.
S4: Yes. Yes, of course. One of the remarkable things about. All of this is that all of this also has to exist, as you said, within capitalism and book publishing, as much as we’d like to talk about it, like it’s not a business or like it’s a bad business or like no one understands it. It’s a business. It is still a business. Amistad is a for profit company. And as Tracy Sharon put it, you know, she has to make money or as she won’t have a job anymore to champion these books. And I think for a lot of people, the actual business practices of the publishing industry are extremely opaque by a lot of people. I am including myself, and I’m guessing, you know. Yeah. You know what what is your feeling about that dude? Is it still opaque to you? Do you feel like you’ve learned stuff? Does it make any sense?
S5: I mean, I definitely in this conversation with Tracy, tried to kind of show off what little knowledge I have. And I’m just anticipating the emails from the literary agents and other business folks who might be listening, saying, oh, no, you’re totally wrong.
S1: There’s a lot of confusing language about what an advance is or what you know. But a profit and loss statement shows about the list inside of a house. There’s all this language that you have to learn. And if you’re very lucky, as I have been, you have an agent who is smart and helps you guide you through all of this confusing language, all of these sort of complex financial arrangements. Yeah, art and capital are inextricably intertwined, at least in the system in which we operate currently. And, you know, it’s maybe neither good nor bad. It’s just the fact and it’s something that you need to look at directly.
S4: Yes, absolutely. This week, I’m very excited because we have a listener question.
S5: I feel like I feel like I think you have like a secret desire to really advise our listeners. And it’s very sweet. I hope that everyone who is listening will take this to heart. Isaac really does want us to be able to provide some insight for you so that, you know, I want to be in conversation with our listeners.
S4: And this is a fun way to do it, I think. Yeah. So this letter comes to us from Emily, who has a bit of an ethical quandary, dear, working. I wrote a novel that remains in the proverbial drawer because it started out as a nugget that happened to a friend in the family. It’s based on seem to identifiable. The situation happened 15 years ago. The husband in the family has since died. What do you think? Try to get it published. Knowing the chances are low for an unpublished writer anyway, or keep it in the computer and move on to something else. What do you think?
S1: I’m not sure really how morality relates to art making. And I think it’s an open question or I think it’s an endless debates because there’s no experts, there’s no authority, there’s no governing body. You know, you can’t, like, go to the rabbi and say, like, is this OK or is this not okay? And, you know, only the individual writer knows the purity of their motives and the fairness of what they’re doing. You know, I’ll say this. I steal all the time. I eavesdrop when I’m out in public. I’m a horrible eavesdropper and I fictionalize things that do not belong to me. By rights, I use circumstances and details from the lives of people I know or have met them, turn them into anecdotes or dressing inside of a larger hole. I’ve used names that I like. I mean, I’m really like a merciless thief. And the one thing I’ll say is that no one who I’ve actually stolen from has ever identified that maybe because they’ve never read my work. So that’s one thing. And the other thing I’ll say is that it seems fair to me. But then I’m not the one who is being fictionalized.
S5: Like, I don’t know how I would feel if. Isaac, you wrote a novel about me, you know.
S4: Yes. Yes. Well, I don’t imagine that I could ever contain the multitudes of monologue in fiction. You know, it’s interesting because my writing is primarily nonfiction. So I am primarily telling other people’s stories very overtly, not without any disguise. And they have to trust me when I call them up and say, tell me your story, that I’m going to do it in a way that is at the very least honest, even if they don’t like how they come across. And I take that obligation extremely seriously. I think when you move to fiction, the obligations are different. And there’s a lot of writers who have written a lot of very pithy one liners about this. Like Joan Didion’s writers are always selling someone out writer. There’s an episode of Girls where Lena Dunham’s character says, Everything is my business before going to spy on. I’m one of her friends, you know, so. So I think it is the kind of thing that it’s very difficult to make generalizations about. All you can really do is put yourself in the friends shoes and be like, if they did this to me, would I be hurt by it? That is not, though, the end of the process. That’s the beginning of the process. If the answer to that question is yes, that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to give up on the project. You could talk to them about it. You could try to disguise it and fictionalize it further so that they wouldn’t figure it out. You could decide that getting the work out there is more important than that relationship, which is a completely fair decision to make. It’s just that those questions lead to other questions that will eventually lead you to what you want to do with this particular work. But there is no shame in borrowing from the lives of those around you to create fiction. I don’t know of really any work of fiction that doesn’t contain at least a bit stolen from real life.
S5: I think that’s right. I think it’s very hard to answer. But I liked I, too, really enjoy getting a question. So please, I hope that our listeners will send us more.
S3: And Emily, if you’re listening, let us know what you think. And to all of our listeners, if you’ve enjoyed this show, please consider signing up for Slate plus Slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only thirty five dollars for the first year and you can get a free two week trial now at Slocomb Slash Working Plus. Thank you to Tracy Sharod for being our guest this week. An enormous thanks as always to our producer, Cameron Drewes. We’ll be back next week for a conversation between Isaac Butler. Oh, wait, that’s me and writer Taffy Burdette’s or actor. Until then, get back to work.