Opening the book
When will black fiction finally find the crossover audience it deserves?
By Carleen Brice Special to The Denver Post
Quick, name 10 black authors. If you got stuck after Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Walter Mosley and Terry McMillan, you're not alone, especially if you are not black.
One reason for this is that publishers tend to market books written by black authors solely to black readers. The conventional wisdom in the industry is that if books first become popular with a black audience then they will cross over. A writer friend of mine was told this with her first book. Ten books later, she has yet to cross over, despite respectable sales and favorable reviews. Without that crossover success, she's having a hard time finding a publisher for her latest novel.
While a handful of writers like the ones mentioned above have successfully crossed over, still far too many good writers go unknown.
It's not that black readers aren't buying books. In fact, according to the research firm Target Market News, which tracks African-American consumer spending, black readers spend $326 million annually on books.
But as the situations of my writer friend and many others illustrate, it's extremely hard to have a viable career in publishing without support from a wider (meaning not only black) audience.
It's difficult for black authors, especially of literary fiction, to develop the buzz that sells books. White readers don't hear about our books discussed generally, and without media exposure and water-cooler talk they don't know which of our books they may like.
To help change that, during Black History Month I'm calling on all readers to go to your favorite bookstore or library and try a book by one African-American writer.
My hope is to raise awareness about the many talented writers many Americans have never heard of. I want to hear more book- club members, bloggers and reviewers discussing writers such as Tayari Jones, Mat Johnson, Martha Southgate, Steven Barnes, Kim McLarin, Michael Thomas, ZZ Packer and Bettye Griffin.
In November, I started a blog to help black authors reach a broader readership. While the URL is welcomewhitefolks.blogspot.com
, the blog targets all readers. And people seem hungry for it. It has received thousands of hits, and people are e-mailing me and leaving me comments about how they're hearing about good books they otherwise would never hear about.
Perhaps more important, it's giving people an opportunity to realize that just because a book is written by a black person or features black characters, it doesn't mean it's only for black readers.
Recently, Donna Grant and Virginia DeBerry, authors of "What Doesn't Kill You," wrote on their blog about how white people sometimes question if it's OK to read their novels. "Not so long ago, a white reader (one of many who identify themselves that way) e-mailed to say how much she enjoyed one of our books but wondered if she was welcome to read our work since she wasn't black.
"We were stunned by the question, but it spoke to the segregated reading habits that are more the norm than we would like to admit on the subject."
This kind of segregation is especially maddening because it doesn't work both ways. Black people read books by whites, Latinos and Asians all the time. And nobody thinks anything about it.
But as Grant and DeBerry note, "When an African-American writer or entertainer achieves success with a wider (read: white) audience, a la Will Smith or Terry McMillan, they are said to have crossover appeal. Why isn't the reverse true? When blacks watch 'CSI,' 'Spider-Man 3' or pick up the latest John Grisham, no one attributes that to crossover."
Of course, one of the best-selling black authors right now happens to be our president. Black writers are hopeful that Barack Obama's election will help publishers "get a clue about our stories," as Lori Tharps, author of the memoir "Kinky Gazpacho," put it recently in an article on theroot.com
. "Obama has proved, after all, that readers of all races and backgrounds can take to non-mainstream literary portraits of the American experience," she said.
I'm hoping that in the age of Obama, we'll be able to agree that there's not white fiction and black fiction; there's just fiction.Carleen Brice is author of the novels "Orange Mint and Honey" and, coming in July, "Children of the Waters."
Labels: Alice Walker, Barack Obama, Carleen Brice, Denver Post, Martha Southgage, Steven Barnes, Tayari Jones, Terry McMillan, Toni Morrison, Walter Mosley, writers