Earlier this summer, seven of the activists featured in my new book, Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, gathered with me for a three-day retreat. The aims were to relax, discuss their diverse social justice work, and prepare for the publishing process ahead.
As they began mingling—discussing everything from asthma rates in the inner city and burnout to '90s R&B—I was both thrilled and nervous. It was as if seven planets that had orbited in my head for over a year suddenly came crashing into one another—the "universe" of my book, folding in on itself.
Meanwhile, an old journalism professor's voice barked in my head: "This is not a good idea, Courtney." We are still taught that narrative nonfiction requires detachment. We ask people to open their lives to us, talk about their most interesting challenges and harrowing experiences, and then let us take that precious material away and form it into a likeness of them that serves our purposes.
In the traditional publishing world, this sense of entitled detachment is reinforced. Most editors advise their authors against sharing any of the book's material with the subjects until it is no longer possible to alter it. "Too messy," they argue. "You're the authority here." But is it really that simple, or is that our fear talking? Are we wedded to supposed objectivity because it's right, or because it's easier?
For Do It Anyway, I showed each subject his or her profile well in advance of publication. Sometimes we agreed to disagree. Sometimes, I changed a detail that felt too damaging, but only if it didn't compromise the integrity of the profile as a whole. In one case, I decided not to include a profile in which the subject and I could not find a shared interpretation of the "truth." Overall, the activists asked for very few alterations to the text, grateful to be included in the process and respectful that I wanted to explore the complexities of activism, not write fluffy PR pieces.
The author is also traditionally the centerpiece of the promotion. Publishers are afraid that focusing too much on the subjects during the book's launch won't lead to book sales. But what about The Blind Side? A movie entirely focused on the subjects of Michael Lewis's bestselling book catalyzed an explosion of sales. Is putting subjects on the morning shows or featuring them in magazine coverage of the book really so different?
Filmmaker friends of mine attended the retreat and shot videos of the activists featured in Do It Anyway. My publisher, Beacon Press, was thrilled that there was even more content to push out to media outlets. Hopefully, these dynamic little glimpses will inspire people to check out the activists' organizations and buy the book. It doesn't have to be a zero sum game.
If we stretch ourselves as authors and publishers, there are all sorts of surprises. The retreat has already led to multiple collaborations: Nia Robinson, an environmental justice advocate from Detroit, and Tyrone Boucher, a radical philanthropist from Philadelphia, met up at the U.S. Social Forum after first meeting at the retreat; Maricela Guzman, a veteran advocate, and Rosario Dawson, an actor and activist, helped Raul Diaz with a fund-raiser at his gang intervention organization, Homeboy Industries; and Emily Abt, a social issues filmmaker, is currently discussing involving Raul in a project she's working on.
As publishing falls apart and reconstitutes itself in all sorts of interesting ways, it's time that we also reconsider the involvement of the subjects of our books. They are not merely fodder for BookScan numbers or characters in the novelistic sense. They are real, living, breathing human beings who deserve to be a part of the process.
Books have the potential to become communities. That's good news for both the bottom line and our souls, but we authors and publishers have to be willing to cede some authority and reclaim some responsibility. It might be messy, but it's worth it.
Courtney E. Martin is an author, teacher, and speaker in Brooklyn. You can read more about her latest book at DoItAnywayBook.org.