Who knew that publishing could be so thrilling? Writing is a solitary activity—a lot of sitting around and typing quietly. Editing isn’t the stuff of great drama, either. But the business of books has increasingly become a hothouse, generating controversies, Twitter feuds and scrambles to save face as existing power structures are challenged.
Three new novels navigate the thorny interior of the industry. Two are driven more by plot than interrogating real-world problems, yet all are concerned with the motivations of the people behind the stories we read. In Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot, a teacher steals the idea for a book from his dead MFA student. Alexandra Andrews’ Who Is Maud Dixon? follows a protagonist, the assistant of a famous novelist, who will do just about anything to get ahead. And in Zakiya Dalila Harris’ The Other Black Girl, the sole Black employee at a publishing house finds herself unexpectedly isolated after the hiring of a new Black editorial assistant.
These books arrive at a critical moment for an industry whose gatekeeping function has repeatedly been called into question. The 2020 publication of American Dirt, a novel about Mexican migrants written by Jeanine Cummins, a non-Mexican author, created an uproar over who has the right to tell what story. The cancellation of Senator Josh Hawley’s book deal with Simon & Schuster sparked debate over the lucrative platforms given to people with potentially harmful ideas. And new calls for the same publisher to drop former Vice President Mike Pence’s forthcoming memoir cite the public claims the company made last year to standing against racism, which some say hardly aligns with Pence’s service to the Trump Administration.
Though these novels don’t attempt to provide answers, each in its own way grapples with the same timely theme: Who gets to control the narrative?
Korelitz knows how to spin a nail-biting plot—HBO’s recent hit The Undoing was adapted from her 2014 novel. In her May thriller, aptly titled The Plot, a creative-writing instructor named Jake writes a novel that revives his stale writing career. Amid his success, he begins receiving messages from someone who claims to know Jake stole the book’s plot. And he did—from a now dead former MFA student. The Plot is filled with the hallmark twists of a suspense narrative. But beneath all the fun, Korelitz poses a serious question: Does the identity of a writer matter, as long as the story is worth telling?
This question dominated the publishing industry for a time following the release of American Dirt. Debate erupted over why its publisher, Macmillan, shelled out seven figures to publish this particular novel about Mexican migration and billed it as authentic. The Plot is only subtly concerned with conversations about race, with Jake bearing a striking lack of self-awareness when it comes to his white and male privilege. Yet as with the American Dirt -controversy, The Plot explores whether fiction must be rooted in something real in order to be good. When Jake decries “the anxieties we have around appropriation,” or his agent chalks up criticism to cancel culture, they speak straight to a knowing reader.
Like Jake, the protagonist of Andrews’ twisty March debut Who Is Maud Dixon? suffers little remorse over taking what isn’t hers. The book, set to be adapted by The Post screenwriter Liz Hannah, follows Florence Darrow, a 26-year-old editorial assistant for whom the idea of success as a writer is not a matter of if, but when—a curious attitude given her utter lack of a story to tell. Through her, Andrews satirizes a certain personality common in literary circles: “Florence’s Bible was Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Andrews writes. “Admittedly, she spent more time scrolling through photos of Joan Didion in her sunglasses and Corvette Stingray than actually reading her, but the lesson stuck.”
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This is not a story about some scrappy, upbeat assistant attempting to climb her way up. Florence is outwardly confident, internally insecure and bitterly judgmental. But what she lacks in likability is more than made up for in her captivating thoughts, fueled by resentment and misplaced aspirations. When a job assisting a best-selling author who writes under the pen name Maud Dixon leads to an unexpected opportunity to assume power she hasn’t earned, Florence doesn’t hesitate.
Andrews enters darker territory here as she reveals Florence’s hunger to be the person telling the story. Both Florence and Jake have dubious moral compasses, and their authors render them with unsympathetic hands. The action that takes them on adventures far and wide is nowhere near as engaging as their self-destructive tendencies. The desperation for literary stardom is so acute in Maud Dixon it’s unsettling—Florence’s willingness to go to extremes has ramifications both stirring and unpredictable.
But authors are only one part of the equation. What about the people who control which voices get heard in the first place? In The Other Black Girl, coming June 1, Harris delivers searing commentary on racism in publishing through the eyes of Nella, the only Black employee at the fictional Wagner Books. Nella at first welcomes the hiring of another Black assistant, a cheery young woman named Hazel. Their rapport is casual, if a little forced. Then, slowly, she begins to feel a shift in power: Hazel starts reading manuscripts for Nella’s editor—the one meaningful part of Nella’s job—and before long she’s been anointed a star. Meanwhile, Nella’s been receiving hostile messages, like one that demands she “LEAVE WAGNER. NOW.”
Harris, herself a former assistant editor at Knopf, secured a seven-figure deal for the novel, her debut, in a heated auction. The author is uncompromising in her descriptions of the micro-aggressions Nella experiences at the office. When giving notes to a white author about his Black protagonist, an insulting caricature, Nella is accused of being racist and pressured to apologize. And she’s increasingly disturbed by Hazel’s participation in the toxic culture of their workplace. It would be easy to pit Nella and Hazel against each other in a clichéd narrative of women in competition, but Harris knows that there’s no satisfying conclusion to be reached in doing so. Both women are working in an industry where they are set up to lose.
The real-world commentary in The Plot and Who Is Maud Dixon? reads as mostly incidental. But where they both succeed more as read-in-one-sitting yarns than revealing critiques, The Other Black Girl, though occasionally overwhelmed by its ambition, locates greater power in its most realistic elements. The central mystery propels the narrative, but Harris’ most effective prose describes the moments when Nella is overlooked and dismissed. As Nella is slowly shut out of a homogeneous industry, Harris presents, in terms both humorous and horrific, the high price of gatekeeping. She asks: What difference does it make to have your foot in the door if everyone around you is set on closing it?
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