Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Writers Like Her

Martha Southgate had a interesting essay in this week's New York Times Book Review called Writers Like Me. In it, she asserts that there aren't enough serious writers of fiction that are black anymore, and that the hardships of being a writer are especially difficult for the African American.

For many black writers, a writing life very rarely unfolds the way it does for so many white writers you could name: know you want to be a writer from the age of 10, get your first book published at 26, go on to produce slowly but steadily over a lengthy career.

This writing life is not typical for writers of any color. It is the fantasy ideal. Writers like Frank McCourt, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Norman Rush have all had wonderful careers that started late in life. The fact is, artists of all types in America will have a tough time. We do not have government support. There is very little support of any kind. We are on our own and until there is an sea change in the American attitude towards the arts this will remain how it is.

I am a 46-year-old writer of “literary” fiction. I’ve had three novels published — the first for young people, the last two for adults. All have won minor prizes, been respectfully reviewed and sold modestly. I’ve been awarded a few fairly competitive fellowships and grants. The business is full of fiction writers like me. With one difference: I’m black, born and raised in the United States.

I am truly glad that Ms. Southgate is enjoying this very privileged experience as a writer. Her assertion that this status is rare is accurate for any writer and not just for an African-American. Writers must "beware the sophomore book." If it doesn't sell well or at least better than the freshman book, they can look forward to getting a up close view of the door and the feel of a metaphorical boot on their backsides. The reasons for this are complex. It's not simply because black readers are reluctant to read sophisticated literature (although, I contend that this is a problem for all American readers.) The reasons also lie in the disappearance of independent bookstores.

Malaika Adero, a senior editor at Atria Books, said: “Literary African-American writers have difficulty getting publicity. The retailers then don’t order great quantities of the books. Readers don’t know what books are available and therefore don’t ask for them. It’s a vicious cycle.”

The loss of bookstores in black communities mean that there is a lack of the oh-so-needed alternative to the poor school system for advice on book reading. There are few bookstores out there where a book can be placed that does not have "popular" appeal. There was a time when a publisher could take a chance and publish a book that would be deemed risky — like, say Giovanni's Room, and there would be a number of stores to choose from where the book might find a home. Now, there is just Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, and Cosco. And Amazon cannot help a book with low publicity; the book will be there but with no help for readers to find it.

So while I am sympathetic to Ms. Southgate's assertions in her essay that there aren't "more of us at the party" the reasons are not just because "the publishing industry remains overwhelmingly white." It is because it remains overwhelmingly in the hands of big business. Large corporations are not conducive to taking risks. They are good at buying smaller companies and squeezing out their creative energy. The end result is a lack of vision on the part of publishers who may see black writers as incapable of grabbing popular appeal. It's creating a segregated reading public and pushing creative writers like Ms. Southgate and other "risky" writers to the margins. Like the saying goes, "when the rest of the country catches a cold, the black community catches pneumonia."


Eisa Nefertari Ulen said...

Jenn, I think your focus on bookstores is an important one. I really (really, really!) miss having Indigo in the neighborhood. The difficulty with independent bookstores is a real symptom of the disregard for art that has become mainstream America, as you state so well here.

I hope we can develop an asute readership. I try to encourage a hunger for literary work by teaching at Hunter College. As more schools encourage students to read qulaity books that speak to their lives, we might be able to restore a love of culture in everyday American life.

jenn said...

Hi Eisa,
Thanks so much for your kind words about the store. I'm glad your at Hunter. It's a great school. I trust that you will work to shape those young minds. To restore a love and respect for the arts has to begin with our schools. Especially in the primary and high schools. How did we allow it to get this bad?

iyan and egusi soup said...

check out a discussion regarding this article on tayari jone's blog:

(martha southgate joins in with additional commentary).

jenn said...

Thanks so very much for the link. This is getting interesting. As a bookseller this has been something that I wanted to talk about for years now. I am so glad that Martha Southgate began this conversation. It is an important one. Often in my store I felt pushed -- by authors and publishers alike -- to sell books that made me very uncomfortable. I would refuse and get all kinds of heat. Finally on the web I can sell what I like. The money aspect of this cannot be denied. Yet there is a higher cause here, the cause of bettering our people -- our minds and our souls. When we think of it this way making a buck begins to take a back seat.

iyan and egusi soup said...

you're right jenn. this conversation is critically needed. and yes, there is a higher purpose here.

like you, i believe each of us has a role/responsibility in these matters. as a lover of literature, it's the decision to buy and read the works of writers of color; as a young writer, the commitment to continue writing, sending out my work, and trusting that all will be well; and as a growing writer, the willingness to share my experiences with others, and offer support and encouragement when needed.

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