Taking on the Old White Guard: Graywolf’s Citizen Literary Fellowship

By Cailin Potami

Illustration by Alexa Mauzy-Lewis

Any first-year literature student could tell you that the Western canon is white, cisgender, male, nondisabled, and straight, with few exceptions. But even as the canon has come under scrutiny, and some corners of academia have abandoned it altogether, the book industry has remained mostly homogenous. The doorway to publishing has become smaller and its gatekeepers have grown more scrupulous. A lack of regard for the material needs of workers within the publishing industry precludes many brilliant individuals who need to make a living. In an interview with Electric Literature, Saeed Jones explained, “When we expect young writers to get experience via unpaid internships, we’re actually saying we want only wealthy people writing about American culture in an influential way. That’s what we get, right?”  The same can be said for all segments of publishing—unpaid or underpaid internships stand guard at the gate, even for people who have had access to a college education.  

The publishing industry seems to be slowly opening its eyes to the issue. On March 9th, 2020, author Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere) announced that she would be partnering with the organization, We Need Diverse Books, to launch grants to support two interns in adult publishing each year with $2,500 and a transportation stipend. “ A job in publishing often requires experience like an internship–often unpaid or low-paid–before you can get hired,” Ng said in the grants’ Twitter announcement. “This shuts out many people who can’t afford that. But their voices are exactly what we need to acquire, publish, and champion stories that often go overlooked.”  Opening the door to publishing a bit wider is not only the socially just thing to do-it’s also a necessary move if presses want to stay relevant. 

“their voices are exactly what we need to acquire, publish, and champion stories that often go overlooked.”

One publisher, sensing the unsustainability of this elitism, has begun trying to address the problem from the inside. Each year since 2017, Graywolf Press, a nonprofit publisher located in Minneapolis, has awarded one person the Citizen Literary Fellowship, a paid, 10-month fellowship, “intended to attract candidates who otherwise would not have access to publishing, and to therefore increase the diversity and inclusivity of the industry.” The fellowship reflects the organization’s mission to “ensure that adventurous readers can find underrepresented and diverse voices in a crowded marketplace,” said Casey O’Neil, Graywolf’s sales director, who was integral in developing the fellowship. Graywolf hoped the fellowship would bring its labor practices in line with its reputation as a publisher. “We had become more conscious of representation. The books we were publishing had changed, but our staff hadn’t,” O’Neil said. They were publishing writers like Danez Smith and Carmen Maria Machado, but even as their catalogs reflected a growing diversity of literary voices, their staff remained uniformly straight, cisgender, white, and middle class. 

“79% of people working in all parts of the industry were white”

In 2015, a study by Lee & Low, a children’s multicultural literature publishing company, looked at the demographics of book publishing. The study showed that 79% of people working in all parts of the industry were white, 99% were cisgender, 86% were straight, and 96% were nondisabled (despite as many as 1 in 4 Americans having a disability). Class discrepancies can be more challenging to identify, but often underlie the other demographics. Like universities and other self-proclaimed liberal institutions, publishing pays lip service to “diversity” without acknowledging the systems keeping it homogenous. 

College degree requirements are one of the industry’s most powerful gatekeepers. Many publishers look for graduates from elite universities, or universities with which they have a relationship. By insisting on strict educational requirements, publishers inherit the same barriers that plague higher education. High tuition costs, high costs of living, and the expectation to manage both while maintaining good grades and finding internships are all predicated by the assumption of support from a family with money. Publishing has to make a lot of changes to shed its reputation as a country club for creatives with expensive degrees. This is why any attempt to truly diversify publishing needs to start with the lowest rung of the professional totem pole: the interns.

Chantz Erolin, the first recipient of the Graywolf fellowship, once appeared on-track for a career in publishing. He attended an audition-based, tuition-free public arts high school in Minneapolis, where he focused on creative writing and spoken word poetry. He and 2017 National Book Award finalist, Danez Smith, were in the same slam poetry cohort. “They were always winning, and I was always there,” Erolin laughed. After high school, he took a year off to focus on music before he was accepted to Sarah Lawrence College with a full scholarship. During his third semester, he took an internship at Akashic Books, figuring publishing or editing would give him a “means of access,” a way to “change [publishing] from the inside or burn it down.” 

But the internship was unpaid and meant cutting down his work hours and reducing his class time. The university offered him a work study grant, “but work study doesn’t fix $1100 a month rent.” He dropped out after his third semester and returned to Minneapolis. He kept making music, worked in teaching for a while (which he hated), and landed at a collective that operated a worker-owned cafe. People from the literary community sent him job listings, but they never worked out. “I don’t have the experience, I don’t have the bachelor’s. I can’t afford to do an unpaid internship. So there was always also this kind of defeatist attitude that I had at this lack of access,” Erolin told me. When someone sent him a link to a new fellowship for people who wanted a chance at publishing, he was skeptical. 

Ill Nippashi-Hoereth was at a different point in her career when she received the Graywolf Citizen Literary Fellowship. Fourteen years ago, she fudged her resume to hide that she didn’t complete high school, and she was hired at Pegasus Books in the Bay Area. She had always loved books and read voraciously; bookselling was a natural fit for her. (She’s great at it even when she’s not trying to be: by the end of our hour-long phone conversation, I had added three books to my own shopping list.) But bookselling, like publishing, is as competitive as it is underpaid. “When I started working there, I was making, like, a dollar fifty more than minimum wage, and there weren’t health or dental benefits, and this is a retail job, so there aren’t tips. Now, you can talk to people who have been there for three years who are still making minimum wage with no benefits of any kind,” she said. 

Now, Nippashi-Hoereth oversees operations at Pegasus Books, making a higher salary than nearly anyone else, but it’s still not a living wage. “It’s really unsustainable.” She was thirty-six when a friend sent her the application for the Graywolf Fellowship. Like Erolin, she had her doubts. “For me, it was a pretty big risk to apply. I wasn’t sure what exactly would happen with my housing in the Bay, with my job in the Bay, but it also felt like I couldn’t kind of keep plodding along.” She loved the books Graywolf releases, so she took the risk. 

“The application process for a job in publishing assumes so much access—it assumes access to education, to internships, to people,”

Casey O’Neil said the Graywolf Citizen Literary Fellowship was founded with situations like Erolin’s and Nippashi-Hoereth’s in mind. “The application process for a job in publishing assumes so much access—it assumes access to education, to internships, to people,” O’Neil said. “It assumes everything going exactly right. In this case, we’re looking for times that connection didn’t get made, asking ‘how might things have gone wrong?’” The application itself is intentionally uncomplicated and inviting—both fellows I spoke with noted that they likely could not have invested the time to apply otherwise. Its major components are a cover letter and one page on a book of the applicant’s choosing, no letters of recommendation that draw on college experience or industry connections. The application helps Graywolf make sure “their areas of interest overlap enough with what we publish that the experience will be helpful and engaging,” O’Neil said. 

Graywolf redirects applicants who have a publishing background to other opportunities in the literary community. They don’t fixate on technical skills, which a fellow could quickly learn. “We’re looking for people who seem like the publishing world could have just missed them,” O’Neil explains. Interviews help Graywolf identify just-missed connections and opportunities, moments when people with more access to resources would have had a different outcome, like Erolin and Nippashi-Hoereth. 

Even people who make it through the door to the publishing world often can’t afford to stay, or must make major sacrifices to do so. “The only people who have been able to make it work long term are people with a really wide safety net. They’re people who are married, who own a home—and, in the Bay Area, the only way you can possibly own a home is because your parents help you, and that’s even if you’re fifty.” Nippashi-Hoereth observed. Among other things, this disproportionately affects queer folks, who are less likely to have ongoing familial support than their straight, cisgender peers. 

“Organizations also need to scrutinize their internal biases, cultures, and procedures that push people out.”

 While minimizing arbitrary barriers to entry plays a critical role in democratizing publishing, it’s not enough to close the gap completely. Organizations also need to scrutinize their internal biases, cultures, and procedures that push people out. “That’s exactly, I think, the frustrating thing about seeing institutions get defensive and say ‘What? We said that people of any race, gender, or disability status could apply and nobody did. We tried, but nobody did,’” Erolin said. “And it’s like well, you’re not really trying. And that’s a deeper, kind of internal shift that editors should be able to do. [If you’re unwilling to do that] you’re just doing a bad job at what your job is.” 

Erolin and Nippashi-Hoereth had good reason to be skeptical of the fellowship. Similar initiatives have failed in ways that range from irritating to absolutely disastrous. “There are a lot of ‘diversity initiatives,’ for lack of a better term, from a lot of white nonprofits that are under-supported, disingenuous, or created in response to some already overwhelming internal problem,” Erolin said. “And instead of addressing it, the org is like ‘well let’s bring some POC in, and subject them to whatever bad shit is going on. That’ll fix it.’” A different Minneapolis press, Nippashi-Hoereth tells me, recently modeled a fellowship program after the Citizen Literary Fellowship, but with a major difference—they laid off a full-time staff member and replaced the position with a lower-paid fellow.  Nippashi-Hoereth points out that framing “diversity” efforts as selfless on the part of the publisher leaves their recipients vulnerable to exploitation. “A different point of view is going to benefit the employer more than it’s going to benefit the employee. I think that’s been weirdly PR-ed a different way, that it’s supposed to be helping people of color.”

The difference at Graywolf, Erolin and Nippashi-Hoereth said, has its roots in investment from across the organization and a willingness to speak frankly about issues of access and institutional elitism. “I think even in the interviews that I went through before we accepted, the kind of conversations that I was having, that the current staff was open to having with me, the kind of transparency and flexibility they showed was really singular,” Erolin said.  

 Fellows split their time between marketing and editorial departments at Graywolf, and receive focused mentorship in each department. Erolin had been concerned that fellows would be pushed into a “sensitivity reader” position, but that never happened. Fellows work directly with manuscripts, write and edit marketing copy, do bookseller outreach, participate in conversations with authors, and travel to different conferences and presses. However, over the course of the fellowship, they spend more time on the work that interests them the most. Because of Nippashi-Hoereth’s experience selling books, marketing and outreach came naturally to her. “I know how to talk about a book. I know how to think about it and kind of break it apart, so I excelled at the marketing stuff.  I like the idea of being able to sort of set the conversation and point out what the book is doing.” 

“If you don’t have people all the way down the line who are willing to really care about these books, then if they see the light of day at all, it will be in such a watered down, disinteresting form, why would anyone read it?”

“Expanding access to the literary world is a function of pushing toward excellence,” O’Neil said. “Plus,” Erolin adds, “it just makes better books happen.” Even when a press like Graywolf brings in manuscripts from diverse voices, they can’t reach their full potential as books without a publishing team that understands them. “If you don’t have people all the way down the line who are willing to really care about these books, then if they see the light of day at all, it will be in such a watered down, disinteresting form, why would anyone read it? If you don’t have people there who take it personally, then there’s a real danger of it getting lost,” Nippashi-Hoereth said. She said that Fiona McCrae, Graywolf’s director, once gave her a manuscript of acclaimed author Paul Lisicky’s upcoming book to make editorial notes. LaCrae told Nippashi-Hoereth, “I can work with this as much as I can work on this, but it’s so nice to have someone who really understands what he’s talking about and who is able to level with him. I can go as far as I can go, but this isn’t my world.” LaCrae admitted that she didn’t understand all of the gay culture references in Lisicky’s work, but Nippashi-Hoereth, who says she has “that outrageous queer thing going on,” explained what she could and made sure it wasn’t watered down. “I made a joke about bottoming with Fiona McCrae and Paul Lisicky,” she laughed. “Unreal.”

The cultural conversation surrounding Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, released by Graywolf Press in November 2019, is another example of the power of a representative, supportive team. Machado’s team at Graywolf, led in part by a queer woman of color, fought to make sure Machado’s story was never compromised. From the words on the page to the marketing and publicity, it’s a story about domestic abuse in a queer relationship. Nippashi-Hoereth, who was at Graywolf during the book’s publication, describes an environment of “unflinching queer support” for Machado. Now, press from the New Yorker to Entertainment Weekly invite conversation about the intricacies of abusive dynamics in gay relationships instead of floundering in euphemism. In order to foster the supportive environments that allow books like Machado’s to flourish, publishers need to provide institutional support to the people who create those environments. 

Another unusual aspect of the fellowship has to do with follow up. Graywolf connected Erolin with other publishers across the country toward the end of his fellowship, ultimately helping him secure a job at City Lights Press. “There was absolutely no ‘go fly little bird,’” Erolin said, pantomiming flapping wings. He stayed in close touch with Graywolf for a few months after the fellowship concluded. “Those kinds of ongoing relationships are really important. Looking back, that was so smooth. You can’t just give someone ten months, walk off, and then stop responding to emails and say you’ve done your job.” Nippashi-Hoereth, who completed her fellowship last summer, returned to Pegasus, where she was promoted to oversee operations. The day I spoke to her, she received a care package from Graywolf. She has decided to look for a job in publishing. “I know going forward, I have the complete support of Graywolf, which really means something,” she said.  “They’ve gone out of their way to make introductions and make sure I kind of have all the inroads that I need.” About a year after he left, Erolin returned to Graywolf, where he works as the editorial and production associate, managing poetry submissions. 

Furthermore, in the three years since launching the Citizen Literary Fellowship, Graywolf has continued to change their practices to make the fellowship as effective as possible. They’ve created a more consciously supportive atmosphere by formally adjusting senior staff’s job descriptions to include mentoring new staff. In the last year, they have completely removed educational requirements from their job applications. 

The publishing industry at large has almost nothing to lose by addressing its accessibility problem, and everything to gain. “Publishing is so fast-paced, it’s not surprising that people don’t want to stop, slow down, and reevaluate how the industry functions at the most basic level, to bring people in,” Erolin argues, “but at the same time, it’s going to have to, to be sustainable.” 

Nippashi-Hoereth echoed this sentiment. “It’s not like diversity is about bringing people out, Dickensian, from the gutters. The publishing industry absolutely needs to change to stay relevant. It’s actually not even just a social good, but it’s a shrewdly capitalist move to figure this out early. These are the books that are selling and making money, and not because white people necessarily want to read them, but because everybody wants to read them.”



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