What Daniel Handler’s National Book Award Comments Say About Publishing

Last night, the National Book Awards (NBA) ceremony took place here in NYC. There were many things to celebrate at the event, including Jacqueline Woodson’s NBA win for her book Brown Girl Dreaming, First Book Founder Kyle Zimmer being honored for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, and Ursula K. LeGuinn’s terrific acceptance speech.

But the event took a bad turn when the MC for the night, Daniel Handler (better known as Lemony Snicket), followed up Woodson’s acceptance speech with these comments:

Handler: I told you! I told Jackie she was going to win. And I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned this summer, which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind.

And I said you have to put that in a book. And she said, you put that in a book.

And I said, I am only writing a book about a black girl who is allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornell West, Toni Morisson, and Barack Obama saying, “this guy’s ok! This guy’s fine!”

Video here (those comments start at about 39:00)

Author David Perry does a good job on his blog explaining why Handler’s comment is so problematic, so I won’t go into that too deeply. If you’re curious about the history of the watermelon stereotype and why it’s racist, this Atlantic article linked by Perry gives a good rundown. Suffice it to say,  it’s not a nice thing to make jokes about, and particularly not a nice thing to make jokes about in reference to a very talented author when you’re a white man hosting an award ceremony. In front of a huge audience.

But what I really want to talk about is not Handler himself (who, yes, has issued a short apology via Twitter, the first choice Apology Outlet for all those who have made tasteless jokes) but the larger publishing community. Because the joke may have been Handler’s, but the environment which made a joke like that permissible is everyone’s problem and responsibility. It’s well known and well documented that publishing is, to put it lightly, homogenous. According to Publisher Weekly’s most recent salary survey, around 89% of publishing staff identifies as white/caucasian. That means, in a country where nearly 40% of the general population is comprised of people of color, only 11% of publishing staff are—and, I’d venture a guess, probably even less when you start looking at management roles.

Publishing is also notorious for being totally out of touch with diversity and race issues. Take a look at the low numbers of books published by/about people of color over the last 18 years:

Diversity in Children's Books

Yet, in this year’s salary survey, almost 40% of respondents were neutral or actually disagreed with the statement, “The publishing industry suffers from a lack of racial diversity.” As my grandma likes to say, Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.

Publishing routinely treats people of color poorly in so many ways: limiting the number of diverse books they will acquire, giving those books meager marketing budgets, whitewashing covers, creating all-white lineups at major book events…the list goes on and on. So it’s really no surprise that Handler would feel that his joke might play well to the largely white and racially unaware audience sitting in that room. And he was right, because people laughed (and, hey, The New York Times even called him “edgy”! Thanks, New York Times!)

An apology from Handler is nice, but that won’t stop this kind of thing from happening again. What is required is a true commitment from publishing: to right wrongs, to make concrete and sustainable efforts to be inclusive, to educate staff on the nuances of racism and privilege and to move toward a state of deeper understanding. There are certainly many individuals within publishing who are already committed to these things. But whether the industry as a whole will ever commit, and what it will take for them to do so, is a question I just don’t know the answer to.

In the meantime, readers and authors aren’t willing to wait, and that’s one big reason why the We Need Diverse Books campaign has done so marvelously. As of today, the campaign has raised over $108,000 to fund various projects that will increase diversity in books. That money is proof that a lot of people care and won’t let the publishing status quo, which hurts so many, reign supreme. I hope publishers will be willing to work with them on many of the initiatives they’ve developed.

In a great speech on sexual abuse in the military, Army chief Lt. Gen. David Morrison said, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” I think that goes for all of us. Hey, publishing, we’ve all walked past a lot of things. Let’s not walk past this too.

17 thoughts on “What Daniel Handler’s National Book Award Comments Say About Publishing”

  1. I have considered this myself. One question is whether the African American community teaches reading as a value as much as they might? But more than that, the NY publishers are very focused on the bottom line and tend to marginalize what they don’t see as mainstream. I’ve been told by NY agents that with my platform as ‘An American Voice in Mexico’ (my blog title), that Mexico is a small platform and it has, after all, such bad press.
    In my newest book,Beyond Terrorism: Survival, I was both proud and challenged to make two of my four main characters African Americans, because in dealing with a bio-terror attack, the book really comes down to what realistically connects us as humans. That becomes the key to survival.

  2. “One question is whether the African American community teaches reading as a value as much as they might?”

    I can’t let the innate bigotry of this question pass. To ask this means you’re putting the blame on the Black community, that it’s their fault the publishing industry isn’t putting their muscle behind diverse books. Do you have any studies to back up your implication that the African American community doesn’t care if their kids read? I doubt it. You just throw out that insinuation, furthering a stereotype without any basis at all.

  3. Reblogged this on Tracey Baptiste and commented:
    The Daniel Handler gaffe at the National Book Awards ceremony is part of a bigger problem. Some don’t want to see it as a problem, but this kind of comment makes it pretty clear. Lee & Low’s blog post (below) does an excellent job of rounding up why the conversation is important.

  4. Thank you, Lee&Low from bringing attention to the children’s book industry that more needs to be done. We’re complacent if we continue and not raise the bar. We need to strive to do better. Geesh, what are we in this business for?

    John Scheber, why would you assume Afro-American teachers aren’t teaching reading as valuable skill? Seriously? That’s the whole problem right in your statement. That’s probably why most publishers don’t give the budget or the respect to diverse books, when they assume like the way you do.

  5. Did you see the Publisher’s Weekly article? “Handler Apologizes for Woodson Remarks.” What they should have said: “Daniel Handler, Author of Lemony Snicket, Makes Multiple Racist Remarks at NBA.”

  6. I believe totally in what you say about lack of diversity in the publishing industry, Hannah, but I’m not sure about the audience’s enjoyment of Handler at the awards ceremony. From the clip I saw of Handler’s remarks, the audio to me indicated shock, a drawing in of breath. It wasn’t hearty laughter. Maybe a few titters, but mostly and notably audible discomfort. Just my interpretation.

  7. From watching the video I feel there was a mix of shock and confused, nervous laughter, like should I be laughing at this tasteless joke, or not? To me, it seemed like Handler was even trying to keep himself from audibly saying the watermelon comment out loud, but just couldn’t help himself. Regardless it was in incredibly bad taste and I feel bad for Jackie for the simple fact that yes, we need to call Handler out on this one, but it detracts from Jackie’s moment to shine.

  8. To @johnscherber, your comment is sadly untrue. Teachers even at the preschool level in low income communities always emphasize literature and the importance of reading. However, many studies have shown that kids who don’t see themselves in their books lose interest in reading. At the same time, we are talking about schools and communities that are often severely underserved and with poor/outdated resources. Schools now are more segregated than they were when segregation was a law.

    Most publishers don’t see the “value” in publishing by and about People of Color, including African-Americans. In the past several years, there have been less People of Color in sitcoms than there were in the 90s!

    I wouldn’t say that the problem is that African Americans don’t value reading. That is untrue and a terrible stereotype.

  9. Daniel Handler’s comments were truly upsetting, and it still amazes me that things like this still happen. I think the fact that Handler has pledged to donate $10,000 to the We Need Diverse Books fundraising campaign is great, but like Hannah said, there needs to be a greater concerted effort to get diverse books to readers by publishers. The fact that Handler has taken action and not just left it at a Twitter apology is a step forward.

  10. I think he is the first white man EVER to apologize for racism by admitting, plain and simple, that it was just that – racism. While it doesn’t excuse or erase his remarks in any way, and I’m quite sure he knows that, I give him major points for not hiding behind liberalism or making a fake apology (in the “sorry you were offended” manner). It is (sadly) a remarkable thing to see someone own up like that.

  11. Publishing is a business after all that must make money to keep paying salaries to all the people working in publishing” agents, editors, book publishers, book stores ct.
    The challenge for diversity book is to show that at lest some of them can become bet sellers, hopefully mega-best sellers like Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight. Only when diversity books will be best seller, the publishing industry will embrace them because they will make good money. Hence, the challenge for those writing Diversity books is to write books that will sell well, not just telling a story of their community or having one of their members as the main character.

  12. What undergirds all of Handler’s comments – about Woodson, the poets and the CSK Award – is not just racism and white privilege, but also of an aspect of both that we see all too often in both books and publishing: white default. Whiteness is assumed; anyone deviating from that norm is identified not by the quality of their work or the height of their achievement but by their difference.

    And there’s the very problematic attempt, while playing white default, to identify as Not the Problem: I’m friends with people of color, so I’m a Good White Person and these comments can’t be racist.

    All of this, on through the apology and the WNDB donation, can be instructive and move us forward, as long as we are willing to notice these (often unconscious) patterns in ourselves and in our field. No defensiveness, no explanations of our intent, just “Oops!My bad!” (Comedian Jay Smooth has a wonderful video on how we should think of “You just said/did something racist” as the equivalent if “You’ve got spinach on your teeth.”)

    And then – as Handler has done – take action to make amends.

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