Daniel Handler onstage in San Francisco in 2012. Photo by Robert Gray, via Creative Commons.
After Jacqueline Woodson graciously accepted the National Book Award in young people’s literature for Brown Girl Dreaming on Wednesday night, the prestigious event’s host took the stage. The appointed master of ceremonies, Daniel Handler, is best known as the mastermind behind Lemony Snicket, the mysterious narrator born from the best-selling books A Series of Unfortunate Events. Rather than praise Woodson, a three-time National Book Award finalist whose memoir recounts how her adolescence unfurled amid the South’s Jim Crow policies and the seeds of the Civil Rights Movement, Handler decided to dampen the celebratory mood with a joke. He said:
“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.”
Yikes. Handler’s comment was embarrassingly obtuse, showcasing a lack of self-awareness paired with a lack of respect for Woodson as a writer beyond her racial identity. His humor that evening seemed to be tinged with micro-aggressions, as he also referred to the nominations of the two black poets in the poetry category as “probable cause.”
Curiously enough, major media outlets did not initially mention Handler’s glaring breach of racial etiquette. Publisher’s Weekly glossed over Handler’s misstep and focused on Ursula K. Le Guin’s acceptance speech for receiving the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In fact, the New York Times gave Handler’s hosting duties a positive review and called him “edgy” and “entertaining.” Who knew that racism could be oh-so edgy? The way media ignored the bad joke felt like an endorsement of Handler’s mishap and rightly ignited a flurry of critical discussion on Twitter. Thus, it seems only fitting that Handler cleaned up his PR nightmare and issued an apology via Twitter. He then quickly pledged to try and make good by donating $10,000 to the We Need Diverse Books campaign.
This incident reinforces the fact that when you are a female writer, especially a female writer of color, you will never be seen as just a writer. It feels similar to the way that brick and mortar bookstores have a separate section for African-American literature or Wikipedia once separated out “women novelists” from “American novelists.” For someone whose profession relies on the crafting of coherent and compelling sentences in addition to the fine-tuning of precise language, Handler lazily relied on images forged in the violence of oppression. It’s hard to pinpoint when fried chicken and watermelon were pegged as inseparable cultural markers of black people, but NPR’s Codeswitch notes that it’s probably rooted in D.W. Griffith’s film A Birth of a Nation. This is not to say that Handler is a raging racist that refuses to take responsibility for his actions. But it would be an exercise in denial—an ill-fated belief in the goodness of a “post-racial” American landscape—to say that his remarks do not coincide with the lack of diversity in the publishing industry.
The exclusivity of the industry’s elitist, creaky business model has been pointed out time and time again. In September of this year, Publisher’s Weekly revealed through their annual survey that 89 percent of publishing insiders identified as white, while three percent are Asian, three percent are Hispanic, and only one percent are African-American. If the gatekeepers are overwhelmingly white, the industry becomes an echo chamber. It encourages a monolithic platform where the idea of “universal themes” is universally white. If Handler had not been the speaker for that night and say, the MC were a woman of color who made a joke about the whiteness of the event, would the headlines have lit up with admonishments of the speaker’s “rant” or “tirade” or similar inflammatory language? The LA Times notes that in a video from the event, Handler seems to be reading from notes. This denotes that Handler had ample time to think about his joke but failed to see how it could be viewed as inappropriate. He did not stop to consider the historical baggage attached to such a stereotype, sacrificing professionalism for a punch line, for a chance to snatch back the crowd’s attention. Some may argue that Handler’s joke is not indicative of a poisonous cultural legacy, but simply an honest mistake. But Handler is part of that overwhelming 89 percent. It’s not just him—he’s part of an entire industry that discourages writers of color. Currently, it’s an industry that inadvertently encourages the continued and further marginalization of writers of color.
The night after the National Book Awards, Toni Morrison went on The Colbert Report. On the show, she said that she wanted to be viewed as “an American writer” rather than an African-American writer. If the publishing industry wants to champion diversity, perhaps their gatekeepers and key representatives should stop thinking of writers of color as niche markets but rather as vital, important members of the same community.
Related Reading: Fed Up With a Lack of Diverse Books, Queer Parents Write Their Own.
Vanessa Willoughby is a writer and Prose Editor for Winter Tangerine Review.