Penguin Classics and Others Work to Diversify Offerings From the Canon

By Concepción de León

When the playwright and filmmaker Kathleen Collins’s short stories were published in 2016, nearly 30 years after her death in 1988, they were called a “revelation.” The stories, deeply moving and autobiographical, had been locked in a trunk untouched for decades, along with a trove of other work, until Collins’s daughter, Nina Lorez Collins, took on the task of bringing them to light.

At first, Ms. Collins said, she thought no one would publish these “literary short stories by an unknown dead black woman.” But in 2016, Ecco released them in a collection titled “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?,” which was met with widespread acclaim. Elizabeth Alexander, in the book’s introduction, compared finding Collins’s stories to discovering Atlantis.

The revival of Collins’s work is part of a larger trend of recently released titles by authors who were previously marginalized or entirely lost to history. Some of these books are being published for the first time ever (like “Romance in Marseille,” by Claude McKay, and “Barracoon,” by Zora Neale Hurston), while others are being resurfaced for new generations, such as “The Street,” by Ann Petry.

The critical and commercial success of these titles is a result of a combination of factors: initiative on the part of writers’ families or estates; changing leadership within the publishing industry; and a willingness among modern readers to engage with unknown texts.

Hurston’s “Baracoon” has sold nearly 150,000 copies since 2018, and “The Street” has sold 32,000 copies since January, according to NPD Bookscan, which tracks print book sales.

The trend is apparent across the publishing industry, and it has a firm champion in Penguin Classics, the imprint at Penguin Random House responsible for publishing some of history’s most canonical authors, from Homer and Marcus Aurelius to James Joyce and George Eliot. Elda Rotor, who has helmed the imprint for 14 years, said the shift to diversify the imprint’s vast catalog has been intentional.

“I’m very interested in voices that have been marginalized,” Ms. Rotor said, “because there are very essential works that a wider readership should learn about.”

This sensibility is present in projects that extend beyond race. In February, for instance, Ms. Rotor started the Penguin Vitae series with five lavishly produced editions, including “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by the pioneering American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Ms. Rotor intends to keep adding to the series, encouraging readers to build a collection of classics that reflects their own lives.

“It might not be just Dickens, Brontë and Austen all the time first. In many, many people’s minds, it’ll be Audre Lorde. Or it’ll be ‘Passing.’ Or it’ll be ‘The Awakening,’” she said, referring to some of the books that launched the Penguin Vitae series.

William J. Maxwell, a professor of English and of African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, coedited “Romance in Marseille,” which Penguin Classics published. He said Ms. Rotor has a more “post-Eurocentric sense of what a classic can be,” and has “consciously tried to widen that definition.” While running the imprint, Ms. Rotor has broadened the number of its books by Asian-American, Caribbean and African writers. She wants to work on adding more Latinx and Native American writers, as well. Ms. Rotor’s expansive definition of classics applies to genre, too — she has brought more horror, science fiction and fantasy under the Penguin Classics mantle.

In the past, the inclusion of these books in discussions about classics, or their use in college classes, was a matter of sometimes heated debate, but Mr. Maxwell has seen those arguments quieting down in recent years. “We now understand that there are multiple canons, that they’ve shifted over time,” he said. “Canons don’t come down from God. They’re shaped by sociology.”

The books being added to lists of classics, Mr. Maxwell said, are broadening and complicating our understanding of history. “Writers themselves haven’t respected the narrowing of the canon in many cases,” he said, citing as an example how scholars now have a deeper understanding of the Harlem Renaissance as a more geographically and culturally expansive period than was once believed. “Canons are not just about finding new stuff,” he said. “They’re about finding space for old stuff that didn’t seem economically and culturally commodifiable.” Ms. Rotor agrees, though she also revels in unearthing new work. “There’s just so much more crate-digging,” she said. “It’s endless. You never know what you can find.”

Though there is growing consensus across the book industry about the need to diversify its offerings, including titles from its backlists, there have been moments of controversy about the best way to go about it. In February, for instance, Barnes & Noble came under fire for promoting classic books with new covers portraying characters whose race hadn’t been specified, but were long presumed to be white, as people of color. The initiative was canceled after a barrage of criticism from those who thought promoting books by black writers during Black History Month would have been just one of many better, more appropriate possible strategies.

Still, Mr. Maxwell notes the significance of publishing under the Penguin Classics banner, with the books’ instantly recognizable black spines and penguin logo. “You can sort of think about these books as one unit, and you can start to see the cross pressures in the way that they’re put together,” he said.

A significant portion of Penguin Classics sales are from course adoptions by high schools or colleges, where students increasingly expect a more inclusive selection of texts. Ms. Rotor said her team focuses on giving readers opportunities to “intellectually and culturally gather around a book,” often in a classroom.

Ms. Rotor said she and her team are “listening to communities” when it comes to deciding which books to tackle next. “It’s nothing to do with our editors saying, ‘We have just deemed this a canonical text,’” she said. Instead: “We’re seeing what people are expecting from us, and we want to bring those stories, and a more diverse and inclusive program of stories, into our series.”

For Ms. Collins, one of the most gratifying moments came when she visited a meeting of the popular Well-Read Black Girl book club to discuss her mother’s fiction. “To be in a room full of black women for whom the stories represent something and bring to light something they’ve never really experienced, or that really rings true but they don’t usually see in the culture, was a very, very rewarding experience,” she said, adding that books like her mother’s are “very simply filling the holes of history.”

The present political climate is inspiring publishers to resurface work that could illuminate conversations around civic engagement. Amistad will re-release Dick Gregory’s “Political Primer,” a breakdown of the American electoral process originally published in 1972, in September. Penguin Classics will launch Penguin Liberty this fall — six small anthologies featuring historical, political and legal texts focused on constitutional rights — starting with a collection of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court decisions and dissents.

As part of her commitment to keep readers actively engaged with classics, Ms. Rotor is also starting Penguin Classics Voyages, which will allow readers to sign up for trips inspired by literary classics, starting next year with Greece, to discuss the “Odyssey.”