Millenia Black weighs in on dissention among black authors that’s being caused by publishers she describes as being insistant that the writing of black authors should be relegated to African-American niche markets rather than mainstream fiction.
She makes this interesting comment in her post, “Publishing Suppression ~ Suffer in Silence?:”
“I still maintain that most white authors don’t realize the advantage they have simply because they’re white. Many are too busy yapping about supporting their fellow authors….But how often does that support extend to fellow authors who happen to be of color? I wonder. Maybe many white authors choose not to notice their unjust advantage. I wonder.”
There are three important points in that single paragraph that I’ll take one at a time.
First, the advantage issue. Okay, I admit it: I don’t realize the advantage I have just because I’m white. I can honestly report that I never even thought about it. When I eventually come to the table with finished manuscript in hand, if my race is an advantage, there’s not a lot that I can do about that, even though it’s unquestionably wrong. Frankly, I don’t want my work accepted for publication because I’m white; I want to know that my work is being bought because of the quality of my writing, and I hope that when a potential publisher has my manuscript in hand, that publisher is able to find quality within it.
We live in a world where white people are treated differently, and very often a lot better, than black people. But I’ve never felt singled out because of my race for anything. That’s not to say that I haven’t been, but if it did happen, there was nothing to indicate to me, before or after the fact, that it had happened. I therefore don’t think about the fact that I’m white. To me, being white is the same thing as having hazel eyes…it just is.
But then, it’s easy for me to say that.
Years ago, my best friend and I were visiting the home of his girlfriend at the time. She happened to be of another race, and the subject of race came up during a casual conversation on her backyard patio, and her cousin said something I’ve never forgotten:
“You’re lucky you’re white. You feel like America is your country, right? I was born in this country just like you, but I don’t feel like I have a country.”
He didn’t go into great detail about specific incidents in which he was certain he had been a target of discrimination. Instead, he said that black people in America are victims of it in subtle ways that to them are about as subtle as that proverbial runaway locomotive. I can’t imagine it if I haven’t lived it, he told me, and I’m sure to some degree he’s right about that. Even if he read more into certain situations than was ever intended or warranted, there’s no better conditioner to make people begin looking for examples of discrimination than to make them a repeated target of it.
Recently, I read about a television personality who was moving from somewhere in the midwest to somewhere in the southwest. With the move apparently came a change in his last name, from something more Anglo-Saxon to something more ethnic. The assumption the account tried to put forth was that either this person changed his name before going to his old market, fearful that an ethnic-sounding name would hurt his chances of getting the job or establishing an audience, or that he was now changing it because he thought in a different market, an ethnic-sounding name would be all-the-more helpful.
Since I’ve never felt the need to worry about such things, it’s easy for me to be out of touch with any “advantages” that come to me just because I am of one race, or more specifically, because I am not of another.
There’s a big difference, however, between being unaware of any such advantage because of my own experience and being a participant in any discrimination that results from it. More on that later.
Second, the support issue. A lot of people have written about supporting fellow writers lately. I don’t have a problem with that. When I choose to support a fellow author, I make no effort to first scan for white authors to support. In other words, if you’re a writer, you’re a writer. If you can tell a good story that keeps me turning pages, I don’t care if you’re violet, vermillion or chartreuse.
I’ve read plenty of books that don’t have author photos. So it’s entirely possible that I’ve read the work of black authors in mainstream fiction without realizing it. I don’t mean that as a cop-out: If black authors are being intentionally shut out of most genres, then it’s certainly likely that I haven’t read something in those genres written by a black writer, but I give every book on the shelves of that section the same chance to wow me.
The majority of what I read tends to be suspense and horror, and, admittedly, I don’t recall noticing an author of color among any of the horror/suspense title’s I’ve read recently; that’s not because I avoid such books.
If I pick up a book that looks interesting, has an interesting title, interesting tease copy and interesting first pages, I’ll buy the book based on those things alone. I rarely, if ever, look for the author photo, anyway. When I do, the main thing that I look for is some estimation as to the author’s age: I particularly enjoy seeing that younger authors have finally gotten their book in print: that gives me a boost in the hope department. If I saw that a book I was considering had been penned by a black person, I wouldn’t put the book back on the shelf and walk away in disgust.
Why would anyone??
Third, the “choice” point. I’m not sure about this one. The suggestion that some authors “choose” not to notice implies that they’re part of the discrimination, and that leaves me with a very important question:
How would one tell the difference?
If I sell a book and I feel that they like the book for the writing, not for my appearance, (which isn’t likely to win me a contract, anyway!), what must I do before signing on the dotted line so that I’m not accused of “choosing” to ignore my advantage? And what to what test can I subject a would-be publisher in order to make sure they’re not publishing me just because I’m white, regardless of what I’ve put on paper?
Must I stipulate in my contract that for every dollar the publisher spends on promotion of my book, it must spend an equal amount in promoting or recruiting mainstream black authors? How can one know my motivation anyway?
As the saying goes, I didn’t start the fire. So if I sell a book one day, am I any more to blame than a black author is who signs a contract and puts them in the AA section? I’m not trying to be facetious here: it seems a fair question. Where is the line that, once crossed, takes a white author from being unaware of his advantage to “choosing” to be unaware?
What can a white writer do about the problem? Maybe, as Millenia suggests in a response to the comment I left after reading her post for the first time, it’s about dialog:
“Discussion on this issue is long overdue and lacking…and far too taboo.”
What about consumers? Let’s say the consumer is looking for a story in a specific genre, and finds no title that he suspects is written by a black author? If he buys the first book that catches his eye in the genre he likes, and that book’s author happens to be white, is he confirming the publisher’s suspicion that black writers don’t — or shouldn’t — belong in that category?
What if he decides, for whatever reason, that he only wants a book written by a black author? If he buys one from the AA section, isn’t that confirming for the booksellers (and possibly the publishers as well) that the way to get sales for black authors is to keep them segregated in that one section?
In fairness, I’m not sure that the majority of publishers set out to discriminate when they place a title into a race-based genre. I don’t think that’s their motivation, although it seems to be one of the end results.
I think that there are many publishers who are trying to do their best to make sure that they will get the most return on their investment, and have decided over time that the best way to sell the work of certain writers is to group them into specific categories. Because my preferred genre is horror, I know that there are limitations with this: Dean Koontz has complained for years that he had been pigeonholed in the horror section when he felt that he belonged in more mainstream circles as a suspense writer. More recently, I’ve seen Koontz’s titles appear in the mainstream fiction section, even if some of his titles are double-stocked in the horror section, too. But Koontz has been on the best-selling charts for a long time. Less familiar horror authors often end up only in the horror section.
When it comes to genre labelling, I think it’s done more to help potential readers who are looking for a work more quickly identify what they’re looking for, not as an effort to discriminate. Everything is about marketing and targeting your audience these days. Just look at cable television: the old days of three major networks, either watch what’s there or go read a book, are long gone. Now there are hundreds of cable channels designed to reach people with specific interests.
When race itself becomes a genre, that can mean something very different, particularly those who have experienced race discrimination and are therefore more sensitive to it than I’ll likely ever be. If AA authors need their own category because it is assumed that some readers only want to read the work of black authors, isn’t there an implication that books in other categories are either written by white authors or contains subject matter that is “whites only?”
The same applies to the women’s section: are books outside of this category “safe” for those who don’t want to read about anything that affects women or that is told from a woman’s point of view? And is it true that if you’re browsing outside of the gay/lesbian section, you’ll never find a novel that features homosexual characters or storylines?
Of course not. So then what does it take for publishers to stop putting certain books only in niche markets? And where is the real leverage — for a consumer or a non-ethnic writer — to give them the motivation to do so? Other than discussion, I don’t have anything in the way of a reasonable answer as yet.