Since I wrote a post last week about the double standard in publishing, I have been directed to a number of blog posts on the issue. By and large, people are offended by the separate sections in the bookstore reserved for black literature. As I have said before, I think it's probably problematic, but I don't think it's the biggest problem facing black authors. That said, I would like to post on what I see as a disturbing trend-- In order to protest the sections, literary writers and their supporters feel the need to demean other authors.
Over at the excellent Welcome White Folks blog, there is a post up called Segregation for Unicorns:
All of this bothers me not just as a writer but as a reader because it seems to suggest that these books would be of interest to no one else. Not only that, but the books in that section are so widely diverse in terms of content that the target demographic is not the same. Writers like Victor Lavalle and ZZ Packer and William Henry Lewis are shelved with books like Succulent: Chocolate Flava II by the ever-classy Zane. Obviously, the person looking for ZZ Packer’s forthcoming novel isn’t going to be the same as someone looking for Big Juicy Lips: Double Dippin’ 2 or Mama I’m in Love (…with a gangsta). To me, this is the equivalent of taking, say, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, or The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Banks, and shelving it next to Danielle Steel and Debbie Macomber books. (While you’re at it, put authors like Kevin Brockmeier and Judy Budnitz and Aimee Bender in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section.)
While I understand the point, I am uneasy with the way Zane and other writers are so often ridiculed in order to show some great contrast between the literary and the commercial. How is this helpful? If you want to protest being classified solely by ethnicity, just say that. Why does a conversation about racism in publishing always end by putting down other writers? I call it the Santa Claus Syndrome-- the constant need to separate the naughty from the nice.
If you follow Toni Morrison-- and you know I do-- you will see that she never talks bad about other authors. Being as she is the epitome of all things literary, you can imagine how often she is baited by interviewers to say that writers of today aren't as good, or that street lit is ruining the black American literary landscape. But ToMo is the one who is truly ever classy. She never takes the bait.
Although I am no Toni Morrison, I often find myself in the same position in interviews. I am frequently asked to say what I think of street lit or self-publishing. I know that, as a literary author who has an MFA, I am expected to distance myself from these others. Maybe I am meant to lament being shelved beside them-- oh noes! urban cooties! (No one ever mentions that out there in the "regular" section where the alphabet reigns supreme, Morrison could easily end up besides "Myers"-- oh noes! vampire cooties!)
My advice is this: other writers do not deserve your scorn. Always be careful when the only people you name-check are the least powerful people in the equation. As writers, we're all out here working hard and doing the best we can. When I was first starting out, I used to get all bent out of shape when I was paired with someone that didn't have the same writing style as me. I am ashamed now at the way I used to pout. Much of it stemmed from my own insecurity. Now, I would urge literary authors to give at least one reading with a commercial author and check your ego at the door. And I disagree with the idea that Zane and Z.Z. don't have readers in common. When I visit book clubs, I find that readers have a really wide variety of interests. They read a little ZZ, they read a little Zane. They love me, they love Omar Tyree and IT'S ALL GOOD.
And on the marketing tip, if a commercial writer will do a reading with you, jump on the opportunity. (Oh how I wish Stephanie Myers would read with me!) The commercial writer will bring a lot of new people in the door who may become your readers, too.