The Vital Penguin Vitae Collection

By: Noelle Muni

When Penguin Random House partnered with Barnes & Noble and the ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day in the creation of its “Diverse Editions” project, it is safe to assume that the team didn’t expect to suspend—then cancel—the project before the novels even hit the shelves. The project consisted of outfitting twelve  classic novels (including The Secret GardenMoby DickFrankenstein, and others) with new book jackets to “promote diversity.” The books were set to hit store shelves on Feb. 5, 2020, a nod to the start of Black History Month and the companies’ support of diversity in literature. Online critics were quick to point out, however, the irony in the Black History Month promotion of literature almost exclusively written by white people (with the exception of Alexandre Dumas, who was of mixed race).

TBWA claimed that an Artificial Intelligence program selected the books  and scanned a list of the “100 of the most classic titles” (already a problematic list) for omission of descriptions regarding the race of its characters. The blunder of Diverse Editions received near-universal criticism. Author Rod T. Faulkner called the initiative paramount to “literary blackface,” as “none of the novels selected are about the lives, experiences, culture, and traditions of, you know, Black people.” Author Patrice Cadwell similarly remarked that people should “spotlight books by actual black people if you want to honor black history month.” Another author, Justina Ireland, commented on the implications of a project like this, saying, “what it says is that at the end of the day people of color want to be white.” The consensus is clear: not explicitly stating the race of its characters does not eliminate the racialized perspective of a novel and that the identity of both the author of a work and its characters (whether explicitly stated or implied) matters.
Such widespread criticism resulted in Barnes & Noble as the first to announce the cancellation of the program in a statement, which remarked,  

“We acknowledge the voices who have expressed concerns about the Diverse Editions project at our Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue store and have decided to suspend the initiative. Diverse Editions presented new covers of classic books through a series of limited-edition jackets, designed by artists hailing from different ethnicities and backgrounds. The covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard.” 

Penguin Random House publicly supported this decision in a statement of their own, saying, “During [Black History Month], but more importantly throughout the year, our priority is to promote authors of color and a publishing culture that supports diverse voices.” If readers are to truly believe that promoting authors of color is the goal, then it is safe to say that this project was a complete failure. It wasn’t enough to simply change the appearance of the “classics” that already existed and call it diversity. Promoting authors of color and other marginalized people requires actually amplifying those voices, not speaking for them.

The Diverse Editions’ failure to properly promote diversity in the book publishing  industry is not unique; it is a symptom of a larger blight. In an interview with podcast host Doree Shafrir, Angela Flournoy, woman of color and author of The Turner House, discussed the current state of (as NPR put it) “the extent to which writers of color are asked in interviews about publishing’s diversity gap, and challenging the notion that they hold the key to solving the industry’s historic and systemic whiteness.” Flournoy told Shafrir, “I think it’s an undue burden for the writer of color that’s just trying to get people to care about their book as much as other people’s books, to then also be the one to have the answers.”  Flournoy is criticizing an industry where the standard for diversity has often consisted of surface-level projects, like Diverse Editions, and where the onus has been for marginalized people to do the work of providing representation for themselves. Her comments get at the heart of the issue. It does not  seem to be motivated by hatred, or even purposeful silencing. The issue is simpler than that: it is indifference. Take for example the selection process for the titles included as part of the Diverse Editions project. Instead of taking time to consider what works or authors would truly embody the sentiments of Black History Month, they simply placed a list into an algorithm and chose the titles the computer spit out. No one took the time to select the titles or consider what they meant as part of the project, instead they seemingly put in the minimum amount of effort required to cash in on diversity. It’s not just anecdotal evidence that demonstrates this problem. 

The lack of industry push to promote authors of color, and diversity generally, has put the pressure on marginalized people to fight for their place in the literary canon, and there’s research that suggests it may be due to the lack of representation of these people in the publishing industryIn 2015, Lee & Low Books undertook a major study of staff diversity in publishing, with over forty  publishers and review journals participating. According to the survey, just under eighty  percent of publishing and review journal staff self-identified as white while only four percent self-identified as Black/African American. Similar results were found in the Marketing and Publicity departments specifically, with an average of seventy-seven  percent of respondents self-identifying as white compared to three  percent identifying as Black/African American. While all racial and ethnic minorities were underrepresented on every level within these companies (Executive, Sales, Marketing, Editorial, etc.) when compared to the general American population, the data reflected that certain demographics, such as Black/African Americans, were more severely underrepresented. When discussing what readers should take away from the study, Lee & Low Books encouraged everyone to take part in the solution to this problem, asserting that, “The diversity problem is not the responsibility of diverse people to solve. It is a problem for everyone to solve.” Penguin Random House announced a new initiative that seems to have made strides in that direction. 

Penguin Classics announced a new collection, Penguin Vitae, with an inaugural 5 titles including Passing by Nella Larson, Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas, Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, The Awakening and Selected Stories by Kate Chopin, and The Yellow Wall-paper and Selected Writings by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman. In a possibly surprising development for a project in this industry, it seems as though this collection really has thought put behind its inclusions. In February 2020, Penguin Classics posted on their Instagram about the collection. In the statement, they set forth its mission, “Our inaugural five titles represent a diverse world of storytellers—from writers of color, to women writers, to LGBTQ+ writers—with contributions by essential contemporary voices like [Mahogany L. Browne], [Kate Bolick], [Claire Vaye Watkins], [Jaime Manrique], and [Emily Bernard].” Since then, Penguin Vitae has expanded as a collection, currently containing twenty-five  titles spanning across seventy-five  years, with new titles including The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois, In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, amongst others. 

According to Penguin Classics, Penguin Vitae, loosely translated as “Penguin of one’s life”, seeks to answer the question “what classic books would you place together on a shelf to represent the course of your life?” The “you” present in this question is at the heart of this collection, as Penguin Classics uses the initiative as an opportunity to individualize the meaning of the “canon.” Expanding on their intentions, Penguin Classics said in a post on their Instagram, “A diverse world of storytellers from the past speaks to us at pivotal chapters of our lives and connects a community of readers across time and generations. Penguin Vitae invites readers to curate their own personal Penguin Classics canon… to discover other groundbreaking works of timeless inspiration, intellectual engagement and creative originality.” Penguin Vitae seems to be a true attempt to capture the experience of intersectionality, to embrace the many facets of individual human experiences. 

The collection’s inaugural titles follow through on these promises, as they are written by a group of writers of many different racial, ethnic, and gendered backgrounds and touch on various themes regarding identity, life experience, and even the manner of storytelling utilized by their authors. 

Passing is a fictional novel by Nella Larsen, a woman writer of mixed race, born in 1891 Chicago to her Danish mother and Black west Indian father. The novel follows two childhood friends in 1920s Harlem, centering on themes of friendship and family but also on aspects of identity such as sexuality, gender, socioeconomic status, and especially race as the title refers to the ability to “pass” for another race and the complicated implications of doing so. 

Before Night Falls is a story told quite differently, as the autobiography of its author Reinaldo Arenas. Initially written in Spanish, the story chronicles Arenas’s life in Cuba, from his childhood and time in prison, to his eventual escape to America. Arenas’s story touches on themes of sexuality and persecution but is unique in its perspective on what it looked like to be Cuban and, eventually, an immigrant.

Another title, Sister Outsider, is a collection of essays and speeches written by Audre Lorde, a self-described Black woman, lesbian, poet, activist, cancer survivor, mother, and feminist. The book tackles a vast variety of topics, especially in their intersectionality or oppression, such as her experiences with sexism, homophobia, racism, and classism. Much of the subject matter is particularly topical in our current moment, with discussions of police brutality, Black feminism, and violence against women featuring prominently. 

On their website, Penguin Classics describes the next title, The Yellow Wall-paper and Selected Writings by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman, as Gilman’s “response to her frustrations with the gender-based double standard that prevailed in America as the twentieth century began.” Gillman touches on themes of sexism, disbelief of women, and on perceptions of gender disparities in mental health awareness as well, which can still feel particularly poignant in our modern society in the wake of the #MeToo Movement. The last of the initial titles, The Awakening and Selected Stories by Kate Chopin, touches on similar themes as it tells the fictional story of a disillusioned middle-aged wife and mother as she grapples with the weight of the unrealistic expectations placed on women of her time, what she wants from her life, and how the patriarchal society she lives in prevents her from pursuing it. 

The disparate experiences across these works are brought together in the Penguin Vitae collection, their themes true to those of many people. Whether readers enter into the world of literature for the first or the hundredth time, there are always more aspects of ourselves and of others to discover; Penguin Vitae offers us a collection that invites us to engage with these aspects at the forefront of the reading experience. 

The publishing industry has undoubtedly and obviously faltered in its attempts to increase diversity, with Diverse Editions failing to empower—or really even mention—Black voices, but Penguin Vitae seems to have learned and taken the lesson of Diverse Editions to heart. Highlighting diversity across each of the big eight identities (race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion, nationality, and socioeconomic status) in just their first five  titles and authors, the Penguin Vitae series seems like a promising glimpse into a more genuinely diverse classical canon. In addition, it seems to promise the possibility of more diversity in the publication of contemporary literature and authorship as well. The inclusion of new forewords and introductions provided by contemporary authors gives voice to a new, upcoming cast of diverse writers to engage with the experiences and voices of our past. 

The sentiment behind the collection can best be summarized, I believe, in Jaime Manrique’s foreword to Before Night Falls where he says, 

“When the English translation was published in the United States in 1993, the gay community, which had survived the horrifying desolation of AIDS, embraced Reinaldo’s posthumous work as if it were our anthem of survival. Gays felt (and many heterosexuals too) that Before Night Falls epitomized E. M. Forster’s dictum in Howards End: ‘Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.’” 

Live in fragments no longer. Manrique’s words, to me, speak not only to the LGBTQ+ community but to all of Penguin Vitae’s readership. Through this collection, these stories no longer exist in fragments but are drawn into the “canon” of our lives, of our experience. While the Penguin Vitae collection does not solve all of the issues plaguing the industry’s relationship with diversity, it seems to be a project that underwent thoughtful creation at every stage from the selection of which authors would write the forwards, to which titles were included, to how they were marketed; should this thoughtful engagement with diversity prove to pave the way for more, I think readers can be just a little more optimistic about the future of representation in classics.

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