The picture above is from my book signing at Borders in Louisville, Kentucky. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Recently there have been a couple articles and blogs that I believe have expertly explored the inequities found in publishing as it relates to the perception and treatment of writers of color (African Americans, Latino, etc) and the question of whether readers prefer to read books that reflect their own cultural experiences or who have characters that are of the same race. Bernice Mcfadden, a favorite writer of mine, wrote THIS piece in the Washington Post on the former while Laina Dawes explores the latter over HERE at BlogHer.
Take a few minutes to read both…but make sure that you come back now ya’ hear! 🙂
In one of the comments to Laina Dawes’ post, MochaDad of http://www.mochadad.com says the following:
I was at a Barnes & Noble and I noticed a table where a black author had set up her books for autographs. Many people walked to the table, but no one walked away with a book. I overheard a couple of white women say, “The book looks interesting. Too bad it’s only for blacks.”
While I don’t necessarily have a problem with there being an African American book section at the bookstore (as I understand the psychology in branding, marketing, and delivering products), I do take issue with what I see when I go there; a significant percentage of books whose themes are generally related to drugs, sexual promiscuity, and violence, or if not, have covers depicting this. The implication that this is the totality of African American culture versus a very small albeit troublesome outgrowth of systemic and generational breakdowns, is devastating for me as a writer who already finds herself struggling to balance telling the truth of my characters with managing the perceived value of the images I present. Borrowing from Carleen Brice’s hilarious video short (see it HERE), I do want white people…and anyone else for that matter…to feel comfortable in the “black” section of the bookstore, but how can I encourage their comfort when in many cases I’m not?
Hmmm. I’m admittedly challenged by this. My hard-earned MBA degree tells me that some of this is an issue of supply and demand. If you demand better…better will be supplied. Especially if you are willing to pay for it. At the same, I can’t help to believe that some of the consumer “demand” is created by publishing companies who choose not to look for another…possibly even more profitable…consumer. (I know…the chicken and the egg thingy)
And I get the whole I relate better to people who look like me perspective. There is certainly validity to this. Seeing or reading about someone who looks like me and is from where I’m from definitely helps fortify that need for identity in me…as long as it is accurate…or at least diverse…in its portrayal.
However, at the same time, I don’t know if I experience the most growth this way. I’ve found that the people who we call great read all kinds of books, by all kinds of writers, with all kinds of characters. We respect their minds for this very reason…they’ve seen and explored more…even if it was only thru the eyes of a character in a book.
But please don’t mistake this as some kum-bay-yah via literature post (although a little hand-holding and sing-a-long never hurt nobody – LOL!)
I have readily admitted this before: it is true that people want to read fiction with characters that they can relate to. However, what most publishing companies fail to realize is #1) No culture is monolithic. The multiplicity of a particular culture should be reflected in the types of books published and the marketing of these books must also reflect that diversity. That, I believe, is the ticket to the elusive and misunderstood “crossover” success. It’s not rocket science. It’s the same thing that’s done in any business that wants to introduce a product to a new market. Consequently #2) the notion of what is “relatable” often (though sorrowfully not always) transcends race or gender. Humans (those of us who are willing) connect at the soul level. So themes like love, fear, relationships, childhood, etc., can successfully coexist with any character or cultural descriptors if written well.
Oh…and the picture up top? Who knew that an 80 year-old, white woman from Kentucky would want to read a story about a thirty-something African-American woman from Chicago?
I do now. 😉