The Literary Redline

June 17, 2021   •   By Emanuela Kucik

Redlining Culture: A Data History of Racial Inequality and Postwar Fiction

Richard Jean So

THE NOTION THAT the publishing industry historically favored white authors but became increasingly inclusive following World War II has been circulated for decades. In his new book, Redlining Culture: A Data History of Racial Inequality and Postwar Fiction (2021), Richard Jean So interrogates and dismantles that claim. Deploying tools from economics, cultural analytics, data analysis, and more conventional close-reading, he shows us just how racially stagnant the mainstream publishing industry has been, and continues to be, despite its proclamations of improvement. “[T]hrough every phase of the literary field,” he explains, “from production (publishing) to reception (book reviews) to distinction (book sales and prizes), white authors exercise a distinct racial command” over authors from underrepresented groups. In this gift of a book, So challenges racial hegemony and discrimination in the publishing industry — and, by extension, in the country at large. Given the resilience of “[r]acial inequality, as a main feature of postwar literary production and reception,” he argues that we can, and must, do better.

The concept of redlining, the discriminatory practice through which people in certain communities — typically those with high numbers of low-income Black and Brown residents — are denied access to financial services such as bank loans, is often discussed as one of the most devastatingly effective forms of racial discrimination in the United States. So coins the term “cultural redlining” and links it to the literary publishing market and to Toni Morrison’s experience as an editor at Random House. So tells us that he believes Morrison felt she was not successful as an editor because

all of [her] individual achievements were still not enough to offset a larger structural problem. That structure was the real problem, and she felt it all around her. But it was hard to see: it was no single publisher, editor, marketer, reviewer, prize committee, or reader. It was a pattern, a thick line that walled off nonwhite writers from the coveted resources of not only lucrative book contracts but also book reviews, literary awards, and bestsellerdom.

We know about much of the racism inherent in the publishing industry, such as the ways that “book reviewers at elite magazines like the New Yorker prefer to talk about white male authors […] and rarely review” authors from underrepresented groups. We are aware that “[b]ook prizes might recognize a breakout star like Toni Morrison but almost no one else.” However, we don’t actually know what shape these exclusions take in terms of data points. As So writes:

We know all that as a kind of talk, as a series of historical anecdotes or stories. But what does all of that look like as a type of empirical structure or map? If we could draw the American literary field like a midcentury [Home Owners’ Loan Corporation] map [which was used for redlining], what red lines could we see? What patterns of enclosure, domination, and isolation would we find?

Throughout Redlining Culture, So draws this map, providing facts and figures that bear out the truths Morrison knew firsthand. So notes that many might expect Random House to “present the least amount of racial inequality between white and black authors” because it is the publishing house that hired Morrison (“the industry’s most prominent black editor”), “published [Ralph] Ellison, Stokely Carmichael, and Toni Cade Bambara,” and “brought out The Black Book.” However, So challenges this perception by surveying publishing data from 1950 to 2000; he finds that 97 percent of authors published by Random House during that period were white.

So does not rely solely on data about which authors are published through mainstream publishing houses. Instead, he constructs his map of cultural redlining through a robust, multifaceted consideration of the publishing industry. Who wins the major prizes? Who gets coverage in major magazines? So shows that “91 percent of novelists who win major awards, such as the Pulitzer,” and “90 percent of the most reviewed novelists” are white. He points out that “white authors receive 90 percent of book attention, while black and POC ([…] Asian American, Latinx, and Native American) authors respectively get 6 percent and 4 percent.” The impact of these discrepancies is felt at the bookstore checkout counter, too, as best-seller lists are 98 percent white.

So also addresses questions that the reader might ask after reading his data analysis about mainstream publishing:

[W]hat about the nonmainstream literary marketplace — black publishers like Broadside Press or minority-focused literary awards such as Premio Quinto Sol? Didn’t they do something to weaken the forms of racial inequality we see in the mainstream? Doesn’t a literary history that only focuses on mainstream examples of racial inequality and thus neglects marginal, nonwhite forms of literary production and reception potentially just reinscribe all of those cultural redlines?

While he does not go into depth about the answers to these questions, So’s arguments make it clear that he does believe in the importance of the non-mainstream literary marketplace and the work of Black publishing houses. His point is that mainstream publishing still has considerable influence in the publishing world, and it has not made the racial progress its representatives often claim it has made.

So also takes great care to provide context for the data he includes and to address the potential issues with foregrounding numbers in a study of race. As So points out, the world of literature — particularly the parts of that world geared toward foregrounding racially marginalized voices — often focuses on how studying language can provide insight into the nuances within conversations of race, representation, and racism. So states that this affinity for the intricacy of words and storytelling is sometimes positioned as a remedy to the problems of data collection, as analyzing race primarily through numbers can sometimes remove detail and context and/or reify racist structures.

This concern is crucial, and the close readings he provides in the latter half of the book open up some of these nuances. He brilliantly intertwines literary analysis with data analysis to provide entirely new ways of interpreting language and word choice. For example, So uses computational analysis to show that Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) avoids “explicitly marked racialized diction.” He finds that Butler uses “terms such as ‘white’ or ‘colored’ at a frequency significantly less, on average, than [other] novels by black writers.” Instead, in Butler’s novel, racial “signifiers are replaced by more basic markers of social difference,” such as “killer [and] killed,” among others. In So’s view, this replacement means that the text does not so much “erase racial signification” as “reconstitut[e] it.” Since Butler did not win “one of the major mainstream book prizes that confer total prestige, such as the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize,” So notes that this reconstitution did not “break the system” of literary redlining. However, it still constitutes a “broader strategy of subversion” that illuminates just how hard it is to successfully break through the cultural redline. This analysis of Butler’s work and career is also worth noting here due to the structure So employs to perform that analysis. His analytical foundation is neither solely close-reading nor solely data analysis — it is a combination of the two, and it is that combination that provides us with innovative, expansive ways of thinking about Butler’s novel.

While this illuminating analysis is an essential part of his book, So ultimately shows how useful data can be in countering claims that individual anecdotes are anomalies rather than evidence of systemic racism. In the case of So’s text, the tools of the digital humanities counter attempts to render invisible racism within the publishing world, and they work in collaboration with the tools of literary analysis to put forth an anti-racist argument. We cannot fix a problem we refuse to see, and traditional ways of discussing literature have tended to obscure the extent of the problem. As So writes, “literary scholars have missed the story of cultural redlining because our available methods, such as close reading and historicism, are not well equipped to discern such patterns. Cultural redlining […] happens at a cognitive scale well beyond what a single person can observe or read.” While careful literary interpretation is valuable for a multitude of reasons, including providing us with the ability to inhabit the lives, minds, and thoughts of characters — an ability that, ideally, can produce the empathy our society needs — So’s data collection allows us to see the numbers surrounding inequity and discrimination in the literary world. This data adds expansive levels of nuance to our conversations around literature and empathy, as we are forced to grapple with the inequities of the contemporary literary marketplace and its failure to support texts that present us with characters from underrepresented backgrounds.

The implications of using the tools of the digital humanities to retell the story of a “multicultural turn” in post-1945 American literature are far-reaching, and the corrective narrative is urgently necessary. So’s argument about the literary marketplace reflects the deeper, disturbing story of America’s affinity for falsifying its relationship to racial progress, particularly in the post–World War II era. As the United States declared itself a proponent of racial equality following the Holocaust, the country continued to allow white lynch mobs to murder and mutilate Black people. The nation interned its own citizens of Japanese descent during World War II and then subsumed that narrative within one in which the country painted itself as an international champion of human rights. In the decades since World War II, mainstream conversations have revealed a continued refusal to grapple with the racist crimes of the country’s past, which has led to the continuation of those crimes in the present. To create a present and future where Black civilians are no longer executed with impunity in the middle of the street, we must challenge the sanitized historical narratives we have been taught about anti-Blackness in the United States and commit to learning and teaching about the brutal realities. In discussing the Civil Rights movement, for instance, we must emphasize that overturning segregation legislation was only one aspect of the movement; the movement's leaders and members fought tirelessly to save Black lives by maintaining a deep, enduring commitment to ending the anti-Black violence — including the murders of Black individuals, families, and communities — that continued to occur across the country long after World War II. To create a country where Asian Americans are not attacked and murdered in the wake of anti-Asian propaganda following a global pandemic, we must address the centuries of anti-Asian racism and violence that led to internment, continued after it, and were largely swept under the racist rug.

While So’s text might not seem immediately related to these high-stakes conversations, it is intimately connected to many aspects of them. By using the tools of the digital humanities to force us to grapple with the reality of the pervasiveness of racism in the literary world, So also urges us to grapple with that reality in every other realm, as a literary industry that blocks marginalized voices both reflects and shapes a national culture that tries to silence people from racially marginalized groups. Although, as So notes, some might feel his argument is a pessimistic one that removes stories of racial progress from our post-1945 landscape, it is, in fact, an optimistic argument in its belief that if we know the truth about the persistent centering of whiteness in the publishing industry, we will do the work necessary to change that truth to one that is genuinely rooted in equity. So’s text convincingly supports all of his explicit arguments, but it also makes a powerful implicit claim: literature is intertwined with every other aspect of our world, and the publishing industry does not exist in a vacuum. Recognizing the significance of So’s work means recognizing the impact of words, language, and storytelling on who we have been as a country, who we are as a country, and who we could be as a country if we valued, amplified, and embraced the stories of those from historically marginalized groups — an embrace that, ultimately, would shape a world built upon celebrating not only their stories and voices, but their lives.


Emanuela Kucik is an assistant professor of English and Africana Studies and the co-director of the Africana Studies Program at Muhlenberg College. Her interdisciplinary research explores the intersections of literature, race, genocide, and human rights violations, and her forthcoming book explores how Black populations have used the concept of genocide to write about anti-Black violence.