Tuesday, February 24, 2009

what is a black book?

Carleen Brice asks a very good question (one that has frustrated me more than once before) over here on her blog. What is a black novel, exactly? What is it that gets a book shelved (umm, separately but equally??) in the African American Literature section?

She makes the point that it all doesn't quite make sense consistently--is it that a book has a black author? Black characters? Something else? (To spoil it all for you, the answer is "none of the above"--there is no consistency). Check out her article; I'd love to open discussion here.

9 comments:

Justus M. Bowman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justus M. Bowman said...

I'm afraid there are many inconsistencies concerning "separate but equal."

I_am_Tulsa said...

This is a subject I've been wondering about too. I worked in an all English book store (in Japan) for several years and still help out occasionally....
I have never made a "black/African American/British section". It doesn't make any sense, especially here where they don't care what color you are, it has more to do with what language you are writing in.
I imported "chick lit" from black authors, and stuck it in the chick lit section, but every other book, be it "Invisible Man", "Beloved", "Color Purple" or something by Zadie Smith was on the shelves just like any other author. We have several customers that are of African descent and NOBODY has said or seemed to have expected their should be a "black book shelf". There is a small section in the non-fiction section for social studies, b ut there's one for gender issues as well...
I am part Asian and part "white" and I am trying to write a book(s). So, if I write a fantasy book, does that mean someone will want to put my book in the "Asian" section instead of the fantasy section? I was born in Oklahoma for crying out loud, what happens if I want to write an homage to The Grapes of Wrath ? I should do that just to confuse people LOL! Sorry for the long rant.

Merry Monteleone said...

You know, this is a good question. Whose idea was this, anyway? The bookseller? The buyers?

Thanks for the link, moonie. I just caught her excerpt over at book roast a few days ago, and it sounds amazing. I'm going to stop over and check out the discussion.

moonrat said...

Tulsa, I have a couple of writers who are in your position--launching their careers and being criticized (or fearing criticism) for not writing "right" for a perceived racial group. Frustrating and stupid. No one will ever persecute me for not writing "white." At least, not in the near future. Which makes ME frustrated to be living in a system so boring and one-sided as to need to pigeon-hole everything (and, of course, on behalf of my friends).

So... let's do what we can to break it all down. Which for now is... I guess... talking about it more. Carleen has been a really wonderful, upbeat, positive voice of awareness; I'd like to help where I can.

moonrat said...

Merry, I'm not sure where it started. It is maintained because of "targeted marketing," and although I know that every so often there are little rallies at the national accounts around the idea of getting rid of the literary subsets (there's another one for gay literature... which is why Somerset Maugham ends up next to gay erotica; they have so much in common, and clearly appeal to the same audience). But these efforts are summarily dismissed on the grounds that the section is targeting black READERS, who will come in looking for authors writing for them.

My problem is that I don't believe that at all--I've seen black people shopping in the, um, not black (?) section a lot. How dare they!!! (Sigh. I hope it's obvious I'm being sarcastic here.) But clearly good literature appeals to PEOPLE, not people of a certain RACE. And in fact the separate shelving (I believe) does more damage in preventing "mainstream" readers, who wouldn't think to look in the African American section, from easily browsing these books than it does help the "target market" from getting it quickly.

writtenwyrdd said...

If you are interested in a 'black book' there's really no way to find one easily. I've noticed a 'black literature' section, a grouping of black romance novels with the romances, and that's all the breakdown I've found. The problem is that just having a black author or a black main character doesn't make it a black book, and vice versa.

Requiem For the Devil has a black main character. Octavia Butler's Lilith's Children series has a black main character in Lilith in the first book. Tananarive Due has black characters and she's black. Ged in the LeGuin Earthsea trilogy is black, too. It's shelved as YA these days.

But these are all shelved in with the science fiction/fantasy books. If they weren't, they wouldn't sell as well.

What a confusing decision to make for the bookstore managers!

pacatrue said...

Many years ago I worked at Square Books in Oxford, MS, which at least then was one of the top indie book stores in the nation. At the time I was there, we had an African-American lit section, but then got rid of it for the obvious reasons and moved everything straight into General Literature. Later however, the section was recreated due to complaints mostly from African-American customers who found it harder to find the things they were looking for.

We also had a gigantic Southern lit section, and, naturally, defining who was in there wasn't obvious either -- southern setting or southern authors, and how do you define either? But apparently, flawed as it likely was, people enjoyed coming to browse the Southern section individually and the African-American section individually.

BuffySquirrel said...

I was thinking about Ged while I was reading the article and the comments here. Maybe a black book is one where the white reader can't convince themselves the protag is really white? Or at least white-ish.

Eh. A friend of mine told me a few years back that if I insisted on a particular title for my Fantasy gambling novel, it'd end up in the GLBT section of the bookshop. I'm keeping the title.

(which is easy to say, given I haven't sold the thing yet! lol)