Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What is a "black novel"?

Let's play the old Sesame Street game: "One of these things is not like the others."

Which of these books is labled as a black novel as opposed to just a novel? I’m guessing that the prolific Donna Hill’s Wicked Ways is the book that most would associate with a predominately black audience. My question is why?

When it comes to nonfiction, the answer is obvious: a book about doing black hair or addressing health issues in the black community, etc. should be targeted to black readers. That makes sense. But what about novels? What makes a novel a black book?

It’s written by a black writer?
It’s got “black subject matter” (slavery, buppies (black yuppies), Tuskegee Airmen, the black church, the Civil Rights Movement, ghetto life, hip hop, BAPs (black American Princesses))?
The characters are black?

By those definitions, On Beauty, A Mercy, Run, and James Patterson’s Alex Cross mysteries would be considered black books, which they aren't. So maybe it’s a combination of the above factors. Say, if the author is black, the characters are black and the story is about black life, then it’s a black book.

But if that was the case, The Joy Luck Club would be a Chinese book. The Kite Runner would be an Afghani book. But I don’t think anybody thinks of them that way. Jennifer Weiner’s books aren’t written for and read by only a Jewish audience. I’m sure The Dirty Girls Social Club was marketed to Latinas, but also was promoted to a wider audience.

So what makes a novel a black book? Are there novels only black people would want to read? Street lit or urban lit, maybe? Again, I reject that argument because first, I’m not a reader of street lit and I’m black. And second, certainly more than Italian-Americans dig The Godfather, the ultimate gangsta story.

The Godfather is considered by many as literary fiction, as are Zadie Smith’s and Toni Morrison’s books. So then does literary merit decide what audience the book is marketed to? If it’s literary, white people will like it too? If so, who’s reading all those “trashy” books by white authors?

I’m at a loss for how it’s determined which books will be promoted to a wide audience and which books will (at least at first) be marketed only to black readers. The only criteria I can figure is that a so-called black book is one that will be read primarily by black people. But who decides that? How does anybody know which books will even find a large black audience?

This is the definition of black literature I’m going with. It’s from AALBC.com:
“The Black voice is distinctive and powerful. African American books explore the place of Black people in society, in their families, in their faith, and in their own minds. Books by Black authors share the commonality of all human experience while also outlining the uniqueness of being a person of color.”

This definition doesn’t deny that there may be differences between books written by blacks and books written by other ethnic groups. And it acknowledges that black books are books that anyone can read and enjoy.


Shauna Roberts said...

So by this definition, I could write an African American book?

Carleen Brice said...

Hell if I know.

Yasmin said...

Good question...not sure anyone has a good answer...but generally when you put black folks on a cover...and ONLY stock the book in the Af-Am Lit section it's considered a BLACK book...I've yet to see Patterson or Ann Patchett's book in the 'black' section...and Zadie and Toni are literary writers with strong followings...so even if there books are in the 'black section' you will still see them on display at the FRONT OF THE STORE and also in the 'other' section(s).
Unfortunately, a 'black' book seems to be definited by what 'white' folks want it to be.

Angelia Vernon Menchan said...

Yes indeed,
A black novel is what the majority has deemed it...much like American History...hmmm


merc3069 said...

Here I go, thinking crazy again, but I do wish we could just get to the point where we could discuss books on their merit, rather than the race angle

Angelia Vernon Menchan said...

you aren't thinking crazy at all, however, that is the whole point of the post, until all books are considered just books, their is no basing it on it's merit, when there are people who are unwilling to pick up a book with a Black person on the cover...how does one get to the merit, when many can not get past the cover?


susan said...

I don't see why we can't discuss merit and race/ethnicity. I majored in English. I want quality writing. I won't read a book based solely on the race of the author nor do I have different standards for literature based on race.

I read mostly books by women of color and do note I did not say African American or black. I drawn to common themes, styles and issues addressed in these works. I do not give a work a pass because it's written by a woman of color and there's is plenty of trash or pop fiction that I won't read either. I don't care if the author is a person of color.

susan said...

I'd like white readers to explain to me that if race is a non-issue why do white readers look perplexed when I ask them if they are familiar with writers who are black? I asked a community for recommendations and I was looking for black writers and more than one reader told me, "But, I'm not black, why would I know black writers? WTF. I read across genres and race/ethnicity. If I say I am well-read, I am expected to know many white writers so why is it unreasonable for me to think a white reader would know black authors.

I spoke with a good friend, teacher in the public schools (Detroit). I made some comment about Virginia Hamilton and she matter-of-factly said she didn't know who the author was. Huh? Okay, you don't know emerging writers, but you don't know Hamilton? As this is a person who has the power to impact our children. I was sad and surprised to learn she didn't know the author.

susan said...

Arggg, pardon my obvious errors. This happens often when I'm typing off-the-cuff.

Lisa said...

I don't think there is any such thing as a black novel. I think the question has much in common with the question of whether or not we still need Black History Month. As long as there is a separate section in the book store and a separate month for Black history, those books, events and historical figures are going to continue to be viewed as different/other by non-blacks as opposed to part of our body of American literature/fiction and our common American history.

I read a wide variety of literary fiction, but by virtue of the fact that I seek out works by black authors, immigrants and works in translation, I'm also not a typical reader.

Integrating novels by black authors into the overall body of fiction (including works in translation and by Asians, Jews, etc.) introduces the same type of risk that folding Black history into all of American history does.

Will those who specifically seek out books by black authors still be able to find them if they're incorporated? How will all Americans still gain exposure to important figures in Black history if the separate observance is no longer there? Can we shift our focus to the American struggle for equal rights? Can we teach children about significant advances in science, the arts and politics in a way that includes the people and events that have historically been considered Black history, but in a way that conveys to every American, no matter what ethnicity that this is our history?

Linda Chavis said...

Oh we sure the hail do need Black History Month until the world comes to an end. In fact let's have a "White People Get To Learn Not only about Black History but about Black People PERIOD" Month. Until that happens, we will ALWAYS have black books about black people written by black authors. Now dont get it twisted because some white authors have written about black folks and written some stories I like but the MAJORITY of works I enjoy about black people have been written by black authors. I love Susan's comments

Conseula said...

First, I think a "black novel" has very little to do with its audience and everything to do with its contents and the place from which it comes. It doesn't have to be marketed to me (a black woman) to be a black novel and it certainly won't always speak to me because I'm a black woman.

As to the question of whether or not we are doing some disservice to black lit by identifying it as such, I say no. I teach African American lit as well as American lit at my university. Teaching Frederick Douglass in American lit class alongside Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Dickinson is very different from teaching him in an African American lit course alongside David Walker, Harriet Jacobs, and Henry Highland Garnett. These are two traditions that certainly overlap a great deal, yet the African American lit tradition (like other subculture traditions in the US) has particular distinctions that make it worthwhile for study on its own. There seems to me no contradiction at all in arguing for inclusion of African American lit in the canon or on the bookshelves with everyone else at the very same time as we acknowledge that there is a distinct African American literary tradition worthy of study.

Doret said...

When I show non black readers books by black authors I try to bring the books to them, because I am more then slightly embrassed by all the urban and street lit in the section. Also I am afraid they won't give the book a chance if they see what its next to. I do think having Black Lit shelved separately is costing many black author sales. With all that urban and street lit I barely want to shop it. Each year I think its only about 5 novels by Black authors that get marketed to a wider audience. The powers that be think thats enough. And some non black readers fill there black reading quota with these titles but I don't put all the blame on them because section seperation also means these books are not for you which is so far from the truth.

Lisa said...

Consuela said: "There seems to me no contradiction at all in arguing for inclusion of African American lit in the canon or on the bookshelves with everyone else at the very same time as we acknowledge that there is a distinct African American literary tradition worthy of study."

I completely agree that a focus on African American Literary studies within an academic setting is completely appropriate.

My earlier comment was geared toward book sales only, but you bring up an excellent point. From my own perspective, if you lump all books written by black authors into one section in a bookstore it puts every work of literary fiction, or poetry, or any book that has a larger general category at a disadvantage and denies it exposure to a larger readership.

Chris Eldin said...

First time over here....

From your question, I picked out the Patterson book because it had an ugly cover (the only one, imo!). I don't see from the cover that the one you talk about is a book written by a black author.

Chris Eldin said...

Hi, It's me again...
Just looking at the cover of Orange Mint and Honey, and I commented on its beauty on the Book Roast.
But in regards to your question, doesn't a label like "Essence" target a specific audience? Just like an "Oprah Book of Month" label would attract other followings, or a book with a Cosmo label... I'm very curious about marketing.

Anyway, just rambling...

Carleen Brice said...

Chris, Thanks for stopping in! We're doing double duty on the blogs today, aren't we? (I'm over on Chris' blog, Book Roast today.)

Really, you don't see a cover with a black woman's legs and think black author? Usually if a black person is on the cover the author is black. Dave Eggers' book about the African guy is the only book by a white author that comes immediately to mind with a prominant display of a black person on the cover. Readers, you know of any others?

Regarding the Essence tag, yes, it does tell black women this is a book you will enjoy. But I hope that same targeting doesn't also say, white women skip this book. It doesn't mean the reverse when it's a Cosmo pick, for example.

susan said...

I agree with Conseula,

I have another friend who teaches at a university. She's black and she's an academic. Want to make her mad? Assume that because she's black that you know what she reads.

Personally, I'd like to slap the spit of out Zane's mouth (I'd do the same to Stephenie Meyer). You couldn't pay me to read what I deem as trash.

I run a library, I segregate books into categories I think make it easier for my audience to find what they want. However, just because a book is put in one area doesn't mean it wouldn't fit elsewhere. Reader and marketers have to be a little more proactive, think outside of the box (love the worn out cliche).

Our library is 95% books by women about women. Probably 85% books by women of color. I'm huge on multiculturalism and diversity issues. This is what you'll find in our library. The loser is the white guy. I do like a few, but hey, I'm working with mostly black teen girls. They need to know we do more than have babies.

At the same time, I'm preaching that they explore a world beyond their own. The world is bigger than the city and their own people so we have an impressive multicultural lit section.

I think we have to promote and read what we think is quality literature.

Frankly, I'm tired of black readers complaining we aren't being read but their own reading habits aren't all that diverse. And I am tired of black readers failing to promote people of color writers through publishing reviews or more actively supporting venues that do support black writers. I stopped visiting a few online communities because black folks weren't showing up. And while I'm at it someone tell me why more non-black contributors are currently submitting to my Black History Month Contest than Black readers? What is up with that?

susan said...

I should more like 75% by women of color. A lot of our children books are not by woc.

I don't think books have to be by poc, what I want is to have is greater diversity, greater representation. I'm tired of being marginalized, invisible, ignored. And I mean that for all people of color.

Chris Eldin said...

Hi Carleen,

You're challenging me to think about new things!

Okay, I will say that I really did not associate that book as being written by a black author, or a black book....
After looking at this again, I tried to think of why. First is the author's name. I don't know why, but I associate the name "Donna" with a white person.
And the color of the legs is on the lighter side. Could be so many other ethnicities... But I will say I'm married to a dark-skinned Egyptian man, so perhaps I see this differently.
But, the strongest factor for me was the author's name. It sounds white. Not that it makes a difference.

On a separate note, those are some gorgeous legs.... {sigh}

Monique said...

I think books by Zadie Smith and Toni Morrison aren't considered black books b/c they work at Ivy League universites (I don't know what they call Cambridge in the UK but it would be considered Ivy League in America) and they have been embraced by the white NPR type audience. I also think its the cover. If you put a black face on the cover it gets put into the AA category. I also think its the title, if you use some black phrase like "good hair" or "mama", it will be considered a black book. I think some black authors sell the book itself as a black book to make the marketing easier b/c they will have a built in audience. You know how Tyler Perry never steers to far away from his movie/play formulas to get that church audience.
I am not a writer or anything just a fan of books. I will even admit although I am black I have developed a biased against that "typical black books" that have come out in the past few years, whether it be street lit or that typical BW story of -I have all this money and a great career but no man. They just played this do death and thats why I started reading non fiction books. I admit by biases drove me to Orange, Mint and Honey and my sister recommended it to be saying how good it was and that it wasn't the "typical black book"

susan said...

"I am black I have developed a biased against that "typical black books" that have come out in the past few years"


You are not alone. I make no apologies either. Being black means a lot of things. I don't have to fit anyone's criteria to be black enough and I for damn sure am not going to read something just because someone markets it as a black novel.

Carleen Brice said...

Hey everybody, I'm loving this conversation!

Please don't write off a whole group of authors. You don't have to buy, read or enjoy the baby-mama-drama books, but please keep an open mind. What I'm finding is that sometimes publishers position a book that way to sell to the masses and inside is actually some good writing. Also, books like mine get shelved w/the baby-mama-drama books and if you skip the whole section you miss out. That's the point of this blog: to get all readers, black, brown, white, all the colors of the reading rainbow, to please, please keep an open mind and try new things.

We shouldn't buy a book just because it's marketed as a "black book." We shouldn't ignore it for that reason either.

An example: the paperback of Third Girl on the Left has a naked woman on the cover-sort of erotica looking. But it's so not a Zane sex book!

Wilhelmina said...

Of course, in an ideal world, we would never judge a book by its cover. But when time and energy are limited and experience has taught you that 19 out of 20 books with sexual images of Black folks on the cover and a title taken from an R&B song are books that you won't enjoy, you do skip over them. Your book does stand out from the others by cover and by title. I know that publishers choose covers for marketing purposes, but I hope that Black authors who don't write Urban
Lit will push for more creative, less stereotypic covers.

Color Online said...

I think many of us are willing to try new things. There is a huge disadvantage of how publishers market black authors. I am guilty of skipping the section teeming with Triple Crowne productions. Anything sitting in the same area with Zane, gets a pass. However, I do cruise and I do listen so while your book might unfortunately be lumped with the drama, I read wide enough to hear about it.

We need to do a better job of educating the reader about the diversity among black authors. And I don't know we expect anyone else to do more of that and do a better job of doing that they we ourselves.

Color Online said...

And speaking of urban lit, I have a good friend who has written urban lit and it is not the typical, flat, predictable nonsense I pass by. It took meeting her first and then reading what the books were actually about. I not only learned a lot about the hip hop culture and enjoyed the book, but I also discovered that there is diversity in this sub-genre as well. Oh, the book is Burn by Black Artemis.

Anonymous said...

Carleen Brice,

My name is Ozakie Knotts, and thanks to insomnia, I found your blog and I must say that you now have a new follower...;-) Im going to tell all of my friends who are avid bibliophiles to visit this blog.

I often wondered about the very theme of your blog. It always used to puzzle me as an African-American male who reads such a wide variety of books from authors of very diverse race, gender, culture, etc that whenever I recommended or talk effusively about an African-American writer or African writer, non-blacks are clueless as if reading those workers are totally out of the comfort zone but I can read a non-black writer with ease.

You are doing black authors such a great and wonderful service. Keep up the great work bc you definitely have a new follower of your blog in me.

TheWriterStuff said...

I have always been offended by the separation in libraries and bookstores of African American books. Do they think we can't find our own authors or are they warning those who might (to their horror) inadvertently pick up a black book? I have to admit I actually avoid books with the African American label just to show that, gee, we read other books too. I think it's a completely unnecessary distinction.

Backfence said...

I'm so glad to see this discussion. The “African American” section in books stores has rubbed me wrong for years (just ask my husband who sometimes gets tired of my rants), with its tacit suggestion that their interests would be limited only to books written by or about other African Americans." I am not black but have read many of the books from the “Black Interests” section without anyone telling me I seem to have strayed from my assigned “section.” I would have read the same books had they been in the “White Interests” section, but I’ve never seen such a thing (and hope I never do). I suspect whoever came up with the idea of an “African American Interests” section probably had good intentions, but it has always struck me as a step backward in our efforts to become an truly integrated, multicultural nation. I’m sure there are occasions when a person might be looking specifically for an African American author or subject. Why not have a handout or bookmark available listing “African American” as a genre and leave the “interests” to our own choosing?

I do feel differently about Black History or Black History Month. When I was a child in the 50's, being raised on a steady diet of Dick, Jane and Sally, the only black American of distinction of which I was aware was - you guessed it - George Washington Carver. I didn't even know who Frederick Douglas was, or Harriet Tubman, Crispus Attucks, Langston Hughes ... And, frankly, I have to wonder how many African American children in the 50's could relate to the lily white, suburban Dick and Jane (tho’ they seemed like very nice kids). So, I think Black History has served honorably in the cause of generating awareness in our kids, black, white or otherwise, of the "other" heroes who have contributed to this country's heritage and growth.

Carleen Brice said...

I'm going to start a poll on this blog next week about the topic of the AfAm fiction section. Please stop back next Tuesday and give me your answers.

Claudia said...

Dag, I am sooo late to this conversation! And it is such an important topic.

I remember being overjoyed when bookstores started to shelve black-authored books in their own section, but now it feels like it's time for another Brown v. Board of Education because these sections have become such a lopsided representation of black life, culture, and history.

I want to blame everybody - the writers, the readers, the publishers, the bookstores...

But I think ultimately that wdjenkins hits the nail right on the head:

Of course, in an ideal world, we would never judge a book by its cover. But when time and energy are limited and experience has taught you that 19 out of 20 books with sexual images of Black folks on the cover and a title taken from an R&B song are books that you won't enjoy, you do skip over them.

It begins with the cover and the marketing. When you pick up a novel by Colson Whitehead, Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Martha Southgate, Walter Mosley, or CARLEEN BRICE, you see more abstract designs and patterns that pique your interest, not another Waiting to Exhale knock-off (Oh, Terry McMillain, why can't we quit you!) or soft porn spread.

Anyway...I'll stop now. I kinda feel like I'm talking to an empty room...since this post is over a week old! But still, great topic.

Carleen Brice said...

Claudia, People are still leaving comments on my first posts, so don't worry about it. The conversation continues!

I agree with you: just like with everything, this is a situation we all contribute to. I'm like some of the other posters and have been biased against books that I'm sure publishers were trying to sell to me because the way they tried to sell them offended me. But now I'm spending more time looking past the cover & title and cracking open the spine to read a few lines.

A. Jarrell Hayes said...

According to the definition of black literature from the AALBC.com I don't write black literature. Interesting. I personally tend to go with the definition of the book being written by a black writer. I also give it subcategories, just like you can do with literature in general. American literature is a subcategory of English language literature. For me there is black literature broken down into mainstream, street/urban lit, romance, fantasy, etc. I think genre and subject is more important to categorizing than race.

*Side note: This blog is amazing.

storm indigo said...

I have yet to find Octavia Butler or bell hooks in the Afr-Am Lit section. Don't black people read Sci-Fi? Aren't we feminists or able to understand feminist theory?

It actually makes me angry to see that after all this time, now books are segregated? I rarely read books pushed as Afr-Amer Lit., as if only certain subject matter is going to appeal to me because of my melanin. I find it insulting.