Barnes and Noble Did Nothing Wrong

How a dopey “diversity initiative” ignited another round of book-banning

When Barnes and Noble announced it would be displaying a Penguin Random House “Diversity Edition” series of book classics, I thought it might be cute and fun to feature those covers, grading them on how “diverse” they really were. It seemed like a clever way of making fun of a stodgy book corporation trying to get with the woke times. Sure enough, the covers featured some racially-suspect doozies, like a black Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz holding red Converse Hi-Tops and a Native American Alice in Wonderland with a headband and war paint and pigtails. We’d all have a lot of fun lightly mocking Afro Frankenstein.

But light mockery wasn’t was the Internet had in mind.  by the time I got around to thinking about asking for the covers, Barnes and Noble had already canceled them. “Voices” they said, had expressed “concerns”. “These covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose voices deserved to be heard,” they realized. So who were those voices? Writers online, of course. They accused Barnes and Noble of “blackface.”

“Marginalized communities don’t need you to retrofit classic literature,” tweeted “Ivy League homegirl” and author of six novels Sofia Quintero. Slate, often taking the wrong side on any debate, called The Secret Garden a “book about a child of British colonialists who considers Indians subhuman.”

My God. Was Barnes and Noble, a bookstore that, in order to stay in business needs to appeal to everyone, actually being racist? Well, not exactly. The Diversity Editions were the idea of a young man named Doug Melville, the chief Diversity Officer at TBWA, an ad agency that works with B&N. He said he wanted to create an opportunity to make classic literature accessible to people who might not otherwise see themselves in its pages.

“If you’re able to go on your iPhone and switch your emojis, if you’re able to go on Instagram and change your filters, why shouldn’t you be able to look at publishing and look at a book and be able to pick a cover where you can imagine yourself in it?” he told Fast Company.

Doug Melville.

Melville is a business-school guy who used to work for Magic Johnson, not a public intellectual. He’s also, if any one of the dozen You Tube videos in which he appears indicate this correctly, black, or at least part black. So was this really a racist plot against writers of color, as I saw spewed all over Twitter, or just a ham-handed attempt to sell some books?

Overnight, woke literary Twitter caused Barnes and Noble, Random House, and the ad agency to head for the hills. “The only thing you’re disrupting is #BlackHistoryMonth and the literary dignity of communities of color,” said David Bowles, who was also one of the prime movers behind the massive online American Dirt controversy.

TBWA issued a mea culpa that wouldn’t have been out of place during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

They intended the Diverse Editions project, they said, “to remove biases from our assumptions about literary characters.” And they used a custom-built AI to identify classic books that never explicitly stated the race or ethnicity of the protagonist. “Artists hailing from different ethnicities and backgrounds” designed the covers “to create a more inclusive and culturally diverse visual expression of these classic works.”

The apologia continued, “the booksellers who championed this initiative did so in an effort to raise awareness and discussion during Black History Month, in which Barnes & Noble stores nationally will continue to highlight a wide selection of books to celebrate black history and great literature from writers of color. We sincerely apologize for any offense this has caused.”

Random House also announced it was donating $10,000 to the Hurston Wright Foundation, which works to develop black authors. One could argue that they should be doing that anyway, but that’s not the point here.

A black ad executive hired a bunch of diverse artists to design covers for classic books to give young readers access to universally acknowledged masterpieces of literature. And what did the Internet give him for that? A little snark? No. Instead, a mob of woke writers on Twitter activated and ended up getting Moby Dick and Romeo and Juliet pulled from the front of the store at Barnes and Noble’s flagship outlet on 5th Avenue in New York.

What’s worse? Kids seeing a brown-skinned Long John Silver on a special edition of Treasure Island, or kids not reading Treasure Island at all? Sure, you can find an edition of Moby Dick in a dozen other places in the store. But this still smells like censorship to me. Meanwhile, stop by Barnes and Noble 5th Avenue. I’m sure they’d be happy to sell you a copy of American Dirt.


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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

3 thoughts on “Barnes and Noble Did Nothing Wrong

  • February 13, 2020 at 11:06 am

    So, here’s the thing. The authors are primarily white, their characters are primarily white. I wouldn’t call it blackface, but you’re doing a disservice to both the kids and the writers.

    You need to take race out of the equation, not as a colour-blind kind of thing but, this was their world, it was what it was, but these are still great books.

    Now, on the Long-John Silver thing, I actually would not be bothered if he were “brown”, or “black” or whatever, because that deals with 17th century piracy. That world was ethnically diverse and it would not be odd if Long John Silver were of Indian, African, or Asian descent.

    At any rate, if you want to make this about race – which, it really is – get American authors (of colour) up there who are up and coming, need an opportunity and are pumping out good works.

    This would cement home that the opportunities exist not only for characters of colour, but the actual content creators, which in turn will tell the kids that these opportunities are for them, too.

    So, is it wrong? Possible gray area. But it certainly was a pretty ignorant start.

    • February 13, 2020 at 12:36 pm

      Thanks for the reasonable response, Nathan. This initiative, dorky and mildly off-kilter as it was, doesn’t diminish up-and-coming writers (of color) at all. There are many many venues and opportunities these days for those writers, and the opportunities are growing. So why the censorial impulse?

  • June 11, 2022 at 9:36 pm

    This whole thing just sounds tremendously silly to me. The South Korea illustrator Obsidian (Huk Yo-suk) has done genuinely fantastic riffs on Western stories in a traditional Korean aesthetic-

    In general, I find South Korean illustrators superior to their American equivalents. They can even make low-tier writers like Douglass Kennedy look profound.

    I doubt it’s their fault. These kinds of editorial restrictions probably make it impossible for them to produce genuinely good art.


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