Barnes & Noble announced on Wednesday it would cancel plans to promote classic novels featuring people of color, after criticism from writers and others who posted it was a misguided attempt to diversify its shelves.
For the project, called Diverse Editions and intended to “raise awareness and discussion during Black History Month”, the bookseller worked with Penguin Random House and used artificial intelligence to browse 100 books – including “The Secret Garden ‘, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Moby-Dick’ – which he claimed made no reference to the race of their characters. The artists then created limited edition covers for 12, reimagining the characters as people of color.
Each book received five different covers depicting ethnically diverse characters. The covers for “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” for example, included one depicting an Asian Dorothy in a pink dress, as well as black and Native American versions of the character. Barnes & Noble planned to promote the redesigned books at one of its largest stores on New York’s Fifth Avenue and at a diversity roundtable on Wednesday night.
But the project soon met with criticism from writers who questioned why these books were being promoted over those written by or featuring African Americans. Writer Rod T. Faulkner called the project a “literary dark side” in a Medium essay. On Twitter, Angie Thomas, the author of the young adult novel “The Hate U Give”, wrote that the company should instead: “Promote books by authors of color. Just a thought.”
“We acknowledge the voices that have raised concerns about the Diverse Editions project at our Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue store and have decided to put the initiative on hold,” Barnes & Noble said. in a report. “The covers are no substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard.”
Penguin Random House did not respond to a request for comment, and Barnes & Noble canceled Wednesday’s panel session.
MK Asante, an author who was to be on the panel, said he was critical of the project. “What I was going to do was talk about the history of black voices in literature,” he said, “the importance of black voices in literature, the importance of not changing the cover, but to change the content, to change the way we think about a classic. What is a classic? Classic to whom?
The backlash from Barnes & Noble’s initiative has been the latest challenge the publishing and literary worlds have faced on their approach to race and diversity. The novel “American Dirt,” which came out last month, has been criticized for inaccurately portraying Mexican culture and immigrants and benefiting from an industry that doesn’t recognize Latinx writers.
Late last year, the Romance Writers of America, a trade organization, was troubled by disputes over how it handled a complaint of racism by one of its members and for what many writers romantics saw as the longstanding marginalization of writers of color within the genre.
Earlier this week, several Latinx writers — including Roberto Lovato, Myriam Gurba and David Bowles — met with executives from Flatiron Books, the publisher of “American Dirt,” and its parent company, Macmillan. Flatiron went on to say that it would “significantly increase Latinx representation in Macmillan, including authors, titles, staff, and our overall literary ecosystem.”
Barnes & Noble, in its statement, said its stores nationwide “will continue to feature a broad selection of books to celebrate black history and great literature by writers of color.”
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