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Dana Canedy Is 1st Black Person To Head Major Publishing Imprint

Dana Canedy announces 2019 Pulitzer winners at a ceremony in New York.
Dana Canedy announces 2019 Pulitzer winners at a ceremony in New York.

Dana Canedy has spent her career working with the written word.

"My son calls me 'word nerd,' because I'm obsessed with words and books," she says. "I've been writing since I was 12 years old. And my mother asked me in high school, 'If you don't become a writer, what's your Plan B?' And I said 'There is no Plan B.'"

Plan A worked.

... we have an opportunity to bring about meaningful understanding and change in the country with the voices we highlight, be they well-known authors or emerging voices. And I will be paying a lot of attention to that.

Canedy spent twenty years as a reporter and editor — and was responsible for diversity and inclusion in the New York Times' newsroom. She's the author of a memoir about her late partner who died fighting in Iraq, and for the last few years she's been the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes.

Now, she will become senior vice president and publisher of Simon and Schuster, the namesake imprint of one of the largest publishers in the country. And she does so at a time when the publishing world — like so many industries in this country — is reckoning with its own deficiencies with diversity.

Canedy is the first Black person to hold this job, and she says this moment of reckoning isn't the same kind of moment for her. "When I say that I've lived with this a long time, remember that it was, I think, 2001 that I, along with some colleagues, won a Pulitzer Prize for a series literally entitled ' How Race Is Lived in America,'" she says. "And we're revisiting this again. So it's an issue that's sort of hard to get at. We have it's two steps forward, one step back. But I think as it relates to publishing, book publishing, we have an opportunity to bring about meaningful understanding and change in the country with the voices we highlight, be they well-known authors or emerging voices. And I will be paying a lot of attention to that."


Interview Highlights

On what books can do that journalism can't

Well, some of the best journalism actually is long form and takes a while. If you think about the best investigative reporting, much of it is cumulative and then is repackaged as books later. So there is an immediacy to journalism for sure, but some of the most impactful journalism has taken months or even years to put together and to publish. If you think about the #MeToo movement, there had to be a lot of gathering of string before that story came to the fore.

I think the reason books exist alongside journalism is that readers want thoughtful narratives that take a while to pull together in an authoritative way. And that's where books have an advantage.

In this case, I think it is actually to the advantage of authors and book publishing to take a step back, breathe, really not be reactionary, take time to be thoughtful and to dig deep with sources. Race is one of the hardest things to cover, for example, and it takes a while to get people to to warm up and to trust you. But even as it relates to politics, taking race out of it for a second, cultivating sources, you know, pulling threads together to notice the themes that are emerging. Those things are not immediate. And I think the reason books exist alongside journalism is that readers want thoughtful narratives that take a while to pull together in an authoritative way. And that's where books have an advantage.

On the debate about appropriation sparked by American Dirt (which was not a S&S book) and who gets to tell what story

Generally speaking, I would say my view on that is that everybody has a voice and you have to speak your truth. And so I would not be opposed at all to someone, you know, white writing about issues that have to do with Hispanics, or someone who — I mean, Black reporters and and authors have been writing about subjects that don't have anything to do with race, that have to do with white people forever. And so I think the job of an editor is to make sure that when you do a book like that — or in the case of journalism, a story — that the voice is authentic. It's not necessarily a failing of of the author so much as it is a collective failing of the editor and author to not know when something isn't authentic. If there is an authenticity to a story, readers will know it. And if there isn't, they will.

I do think, you know, in recent years in particular, there has been a lot more diversity of voice in publishing. A lot more to do, though. No question about it.

And that doesn't just have to do with race, that that has to do with anything. You know, my book, A Journal for Jordan, a memoir, had a lot to do with the military. And I wasn't an expert on military, I had to quickly become one. And so I had to be authentic in that book about the military. And so this is where, you know, journalists have an opportunity because we're used to very quickly becoming experts in subject matters that we're not. And so I think that's required more than anything.

On whether publishing has been slow to recognize the importance of elevating non-white voices

Absolutely not. In fact, if you go to pulitzer.org and look at the Pulitzers that won this year in books, you will see that that that certainly is not the case. Many, many of the books speak to just what you're describing. I just think that there can always be more. And to your point earlier, we are at a particular moment where there's a focus, rightly so, on this issue. And there's more to say, we have a lot more work to do. But I do think, you know, in recent years in particular, there has been a lot more diversity of voice in publishing. A lot more to do, though. No question about it.

This story was edited for radio by Milton Guevara and Dalia Mortada, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

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