Sunday, November 22, 2009

An Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey (From Virginia DeBerry)

Dear Oprah:

We don't sing karaoke or dance with the stars. We have been contributing to the cultural landscape long before Jon & Kate, Britney,Rhianna and Chris or Stephanie Meyer and most of America, including you have probably never even heard of us.

We have railed against Kanye's proud pronouncement upon the publication of his 52 page book: Thank You and You're Welcome, that "I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book's autograph." Huh?

We are writers and we are in trouble. Big trouble.

I would never have imagined myself writing this with the hundreds of thousands of emails and letters the show receives, I know the chances of this one actually getting through are somewhere between slim and non-existent. But one of the mantras my best friend/business partner and I lived by in the early days, was “It’s only postage.” Now it’s not even that. So I could not find a reason not to write and hit ‘send’. Like I said--we are in trouble.

Everyone knows that Oprah is a champion of reading, that books are one of her favorite things and it is precisely because of that passion that I send this note. I’m sure you are aware that publishing, like so many industries today—especially those centered around the arts, is struggling to keep up and figure their way through the maze of new media. What I’m not sure you know is how that struggle is affecting, or more accurately disaffecting an entire segment of writers--black novelists. Not the few who live in the rarefied literary echelons—Toni Morrison, Stephen Carter, Edwidge Dandicat etc. are doing fine—they enjoy the support of the media and the "wider" (whiter) population. These struggling authors also don’t include those who now make up the largest growing segment of Af-Am writers—urban/erotica authors whose books are acquired by publishers at little expense and sold at great profit. A quick look at the Af-Am displays in bookstores will make this trend abundantly clear.

The literary marginalization that is taking place largely affects those of us in the middle-much like the economy today. There are many of us who have/had careers courtesy of Terry McMillan, we came along right after the success of Waiting to Exhale and found a warm welcome and an open door for a career we had longed for but so often found beyond our reach. Terry proved, what we had always known, that black folks read, and would buy books featuring characters they personally identify with. Not that we would stop reading all the non-black authors we supported, we would just enjoy a wider choice.

Members of our ‘class’ include among others, Tina McElroy Ansa, Bernice McFadden and Connie Briscoe. Carleen Brice, a newcomer to writing fiction-though she has written non-fiction, last year started “December is National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Someone Not Black Month.” She also created a blog and pretty funny video welcoming white people to the AA section of the book store.

For the past 20 years, Donna Grant, my writing partner, and I have been writing novels,7 in total. No Pulitzer or Nobel winners, but well crafted stories that have enlightened and entertained tens of thousands of readers. Our first “big book” Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made was published in 1997, has never been out of print, is in its fifth edition and sold over 750,000 copies, without any major advertising or endorsements.

But that was then. This is now.

And we, along with many of our “classmates” find our careers in jeopardy. (After 20 years, and at the age of 60, I personally am on the verge of throwing in towel and looking for a "real" job.) This precarious position is not because we write bad books, but because we all fall in the came category “African American Fiction” and we just aren’t selling as well as our “street-lit” sisters and brothers. What we write is women's fiction with Af-Am characters--stories of struggle and triumph, loss, coping, love, and life, learning. But we are labeled, handicapped, before we're out of the gate. Those who are expecting urban lit are disappointed, and those (white folks) who might enjoy our work because the theme might be relevant to their life (like What Doesn't Kill You, our last book about a woman who loses her job after 25 yrs), don't ever see it because it's in "that" section and they aren't going "there." We wrote a blog about this subject a few years ago and repost it every year--because, sadly, it's still relevant. (Nov 20 entry-Writing White.

We do our best with our craft, but get “editorial” requests to add “more grit” or “more sex” and when we don’t, can find ourselves without a publisher. This tactic has already cost us the final payment of a very lucrative contract---and a publisher. And despite exuberant praise from our editor about our new book (March 2010) “I kissed the manuscript when I finished...” we find ourselves wondering if we will get a deal for another book. We certainly know that if we were starting out in today’s climate, it is unlikely we would have ever been given a chance.

I am going to resist the urge to be pejorative about urban fiction, but it is well known that most of these books are “under-written and under-edited” and are viewed strictly as profit centers. I do question what it means when books about pimps, hos and thugs, are fast becoming the predominant image we have on display in bookstores—a kind of anti-Obama if you will. What will happen when our young people find their choices limited like they were only a couple of decades ago?

I will not ask that Oprah select a book by one of us mid-list AA authors for her book club. I will not ask her to condemn the proliferation of badly written urban lit which would likely instigate another rap/hip-hop debacle. (While I do liken it to the crack epidemic in our communities in the '80's.) But I will ask for her attention. A word or two on this subject from Oprah, Champion of Things Literary, would I believe, make a world of difference in our plight. It might even mean that we keep encouraging young writers and continue to get emails like this one we received 2 weeks ago:

My name is Carlie and I am a writer. I have loved books my entire life but have never been as inspired to write a full novel myself, until I met you when I was in high school. Up until then, I had dreams of becoming a published author, but was afraid to step put and do more than just a collection of short stories and poetry. Not that writing those don't require equal talent, but I have found that there is something about the dedication it takes to write a full length novel that I admire. I believe it was my sophomore year when you two came to my high school (Lanier High School in Austin, TX). You did a reading of Trying... and then handed out copies that you autographed for us. I have read my copy over and over again over the years and I fall in love with the characters every time as if for the first time. I was so excited when the second book came out because it felt like a chance for me to catch up with old friends lol. I have been working on a novel and have almost completed the first manuscript. I know I still have a lot of revision ahead of me but I thought it would be nice to get some advice from someone who has inspired me on how to begin my journey into the world of publishing. I would really appreciate it if you have a few minutes to share some of your words of wisdom and advice. Thank you so much for continuing to do what you do because you give women like me hope for my own future success. Love, Carlie Dempsey

Thanks for letting me rant,
Virginia DeBerry

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posted by DeBerry and Grant at 5:07 PM 7 comments
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