In 2015, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings won the Man Booker Prize for fiction, an honor that enshrined it as one of the finest novels published in recent years. In interviews discussing the award, James revealed that his first book, John Crow’s Devil, has been rejected 78 times by publishers before it found a home with an independent press. In a Facebook post a month later, he expanded on his understanding of why this was, stating that the literary world tends to overwhelmingly favor stories written specifically with a white, female audience in mind. “Though we’ll never admit it,” he wrote, “every writer of color knows that they stand a higher chance of getting published if they write this kind of story.”
James’s frustrations speak to a larger problem that pervades virtually every cultural industry: The people who make the decisions, the “gatekeepers” who decide which stories get told, are overwhelmingly homogenous, which often limits their ability to appreciate narratives and artists who don’t share their own perspective. Publishing is the exception in that it’s predominantly female (a 2016 survey of 34 publishing houses and journals in the U.S. found that employees were 79 percent white and 78 percent women), but in film, television, theater, and museums, people in power are largely white and male. “There’s a very narrow doorway through which big ideas get to audiences,” said Chris Jackson, the editor-in-chief of Random House’s One World imprint. But as mainstream culture looks increasingly unlike America, there’s reason to hope cultural gatekeepers will soon be forced to expand their horizons.