Feb. 24 2016 12:17 AM

Local author charges bias in Michigan Notable Books choices


Local author and MSU professor Lev Raphael took to his blog last week to level a charge against Michigan’s Notable Book awards: LGBT discrimination.

“No book with major LGBT content has ever been among the books annually celebrated and publicized statewide,” Raphael wrote on his blog, which is hosted by the Huffington Post. “That fact was confirmed to me by one of the judges, who had no explanation.”

Raphael, who is gay, has written a series of mysteries starring a gay character and his partner. A Notable Books committee member confirmed that Raphael’s books have been considered for the award, but he has never won.

The Michigan Notable Books program stretches back to the early ‘90s under various names. In addition to the prestige of the award, winners are also included in statewide book tours and other promotional events. Raphael pointed out that the benefits of such an award can give a big boost to lesser known authors. The increase in sales could push a title into a second printing, and the associated Notable Book events provide valuable publicity.

In an email exchange with City Pulse, Raphael, a prolific writer with 25 books under his belt, described the exclusion of books with LGBT content as “deliberate” discrimination “in a state that banned same-sex marriage.”

Randy Riley, state librarian and coordinator of the Notable Books program, said he was “saddened” by the accusation.

“We take diversity very seriously,” Riley said. “There is a desire to get as many types of books as possible.”

Indeed, 2016’s crop of Notable Books includes a wide variety of titles, including a memoir on a life in basketball by Detroit native Jalen Rose, a Lebanese cookbook by Maureen Abood and a novelization of Malcolm X’s formative years co-written by his daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz. But Raphael’s criticism stands. There are no books with significant LGBT content.

Riley admitted that the committee may have a blind spot for LGBT literature, but he argued that the exclusion is not deliberate. The 13-person committee includes members from a wide variety of backgrounds, including authors, historians, journalists and booksellers. For a book to be considered for a Notable Book award, publishers must submit review copies for the whole committee. Sometimes the publishers submit books on their own, other times committee members request review copies from the publishers.

He noted that LGBT authors have won Notable Book awards, but that these authors were writing in nonfiction or other categories where their sexual preference did not directly influence the book’s contents. He added that in many cases, he only knew this about the authors’ sexual orientation from personal relationships.

“We’re not in the business of outing people,” Riley said.

Raphael said he has raised the issue with the committee before but has not been contacted by anyone on the committee since the blog post was published. Raphael believes that the lack of LGBT content over the program’s history points to willful discrimination.

“Think about it: No notable LGBT books by talented queer Michigan authors in almost twenty-five years the judges of this program thought deserved being honored. Not one,” he writes in the blog post.

When pressed to name a significant LGBT title that was overlooked by the committee, Raphael did not offer one.

“The point isn't finding a book that they overlooked, the point is that in 25 years, it’s sad that the Michigan Notable Books has the kind of record it does,” he said.

Riley said that the blog post will likely spur discussion among the committee about how to better include LGBT literature. Committee member and City Pulse book reviewer Bill Castanier suggested that the committee, which is flexible in size, consider bringing on a committee member with expertise in the area of LGBT books. Riley is confident that the committee will take steps to create a more inclusive Notable Books program.

“There’s not a more open-minded group of people that I’ve worked with,” said Riley. “I’m sure it will be a topic we discuss.”