Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Show Me Your Face

From Terry Shames:
Here’s our topic for this week: Discuss diversity in the sense of the market. What do you want to see on bookshelves from black authors in 2020?

The first thing that came to mind when I saw this question was that  it seemed a little presumptuous. I can’t imagine black writers being asked what they’d like to see on the shelves from white people. But then, of course, white authors have never had to worry about whether they were writing to the market. The market has always embraced us. As a woman, I know that it embraced mostly men for a long, long time. And that in general men are still taken more seriously than women as writers. How would I have reacted if I had seen a man answer the question, "What would you like to see on the shelves from women authors? I would think it presumptuous.

Second, lumping “black authors” together is another way of segregating them into a group all their own. Are we talking about young black authors? Old ones? Ones who grew up middle class? Ones who grew up poor? Black authors with only one parent…or with two parents…or no parents? Are we talking about black authors who write police procedurals? Cozies? Humorous? Historical? Thrillers? Are we talking about black authors who have had a run-in with the law, been in jail, belong to a church, have had fantasies of becoming president, have climbed Mt. Fuji, has worked on a ranch, driven a limo for a wealthy person, hitchhiked all over the country, whose 
sister/brother/father/mother/best friend have been murdered, who works in a law office, who is in college, who has her own business, who used to be a spy, who spent twenty years in the army and has PTSD, who…who knows what?

The biggest hurdle, though, is that I have absolutely no idea what the market wants. Who knew “the market” demanded a thousand books with “Girl” in the title. Who knew the market was panting for Fifty Shades of Gray? And then who knew it would be jumping up and down for The Martian? Who knew someone who writes like a certain famous romance writer would sell somewhere in the vicinity of one jillion books? To predict a sense of the market, it would be just as easy to write a whole bunch of words on pieces of paper, close your eyes and choose one. 

This is not to confuse “the market” with readers. The market has traditionally been determined by what publishers will buy and what they will put their promotional dollars into. That is changing with writers who take their publishing careers into their own hands. But it still requires marketing and promotional savvy. And even then readers may not flock to perfectly good books.

My college Brenda Chapman wrote a wonderful post yesterday and what she’d like to see on the shelves from black writers, and I heartily second it. I want to see books that reflect life experiences that I haven’t had. From cultures I have never been part of, and will never be a part of in person. Cultures that bring new images to my imagination, that tell me things about the world I don't know, and about people I may never have a chance to meet.

In short, What I want to see on the shelves from black writers is the same thing I want from white writers—imaginative, descriptive, character-rich fiction. Period. If it’s historical or current, set in the U.S. or set in another country; if it’s rural or urban, philosophical or breezy, cozy or thrilling, or thoughtful, I want the same thing from everyone. A good book. And so much the better if I learn something from the book about how to live in the world with a diverse group of people.


Brenda Chapman said...

I agree with the points you make, Terry. I have to say that I don't normally consider the author's race, colour or sexual orientation when selecting a book except for those books that can only be told by someone living the experience. I am a fan of opportunity for all though, something often lacking in our society and in publishing. Books can help to build understanding and help us to embrace our differences as well as see that we all have the same hopes and fears.

Terry said...

I loved your post more than I liked mine. :)

Susan C Shea said...

I don't agree that it's presumptuous and I will say the question was proposed by a black crime fiction author and editor. If we see each other as allies, we can wish good things for each other, right?

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