In the last few years, black writers have been speaking out about double standards in the world of publishing. Among these are Martha Southgate's NYT essay, "Writers Like Me" and more recently, Bernice McFadden's Black Writers in A Ghetto of the Publishing Industry's Making. In these articles, both writers (who also are novelists) put into a public conversation the issues that black writers have been complaining about for years-- like why is that stories about black folks that are written by white folks get so much traction. (The Help, The Secret Lives of Bees, Little Bee, etc.) How come books about us by us are not thought to be "universal"? Why are black faces on the cover of a book thought to be so alienating? At this point in the gripe session, I break out my favorite oh-no-he-didn't moment-- when someone asked me what percentage of my work is "black" and what percentage is "human."
I have no quarrel with Southgate's and McFadden's insightful observations and strident calls to action. These issues are very important and must be discussed. What I am starting to wonder is whether or not this is a battle that writers can win.
I read an interview years ago with Alice Walker. The Color Purple was being banned at a library somewhere and concerned members of the community called Walker, expecting her to lead the effort to reverse the ban. She ultimately told them that she had done the hard, soul-searching work of writing the book. It was their library, their community. If they wanted to keep the book, THEY were going to have to fight for it.
I've been thinking a lot about this interview, especially as there is a lot of talk among black writers on the internet about what we can do to be considered American authors as well as Black American authors. Maybe this isn't the author's fight. I know it may sound crazy at first. In this DIY age, everyone has a story of some really pro-active writer who turned the tide on her career. Be it the self-published guy who sold a zillion copies out of his trunk, or the legendary stories of Terry McMillan writing letters to independent bookstores encouraging them carry her debut, Mama. But this may be a moment when it is best for authors to stand down.
It is going to be up to readers.
Take this example from my own publishing past. In 2005, when I was on book tour in Arizona, none of the big chains carried my book. I called my publisher and was told this was because there wasn't much of an African American population there. I was hurt and angry. I complained, but it went nowhere and I was even seen as being unreasonable.
Imagine, on the other hand, if Arizona readers were to gather up a petition and give it to the big bookstores saying that A) they are offended to be assumed to be too racist to enjoy books by black authors and B) they want to BUY these books. Every black writer has received an email from a white reader who is dismayed at not being aware of the work of writers of color. When we receive these messages, authors should urge these readers to take some action on a local level. Tell them to talk to a librarian, or make a request at Barnes and Noble, or use the internet. After that, authors, we just have to trust and believe.
I know this probably sounds counter-intuitive, because anyone who is an author is used to working very hard and struggling against the odds. You don't get published by sitting on your hands and waiting for things to happen. But for now, we may have to just chill.
Unfortunately, when the writer speaks up--even though she is right, so often she is written off as being self-interested, and not taken seriously as a social critic. Do you remember the letters to the editor after Martha Southgate's piece was published in the NYT? Although her point was that it's very hard to black writers to publish a third book, the letters and comments attacked her personally, accusing her of vanity and unchecked ambition. Bernice MacFadden has posted in her blog some of the vitriol directed at her as a result of the Washington Post piece. As a writer, it's almost impossible to avoid this criticism. A reader-focused initiative reminds everyone that depriving the broad marketplace of books by black authors is a crime against society, not just an offense against the careers of a few folks who happen to write books.
Literature is for everyone, and everyone should demand it. Let's make this about the write to read, not the right to be read.