Sunday, February 16, 2020

Introducing Malcolm Gladwell

Review a black American author’s work that you think a white person would love.

Brenda Chapman here.

This week's question first proved a challenge for me. I can't say that I consider an author's ethnicity when I select a book and I don't slot the novels in my memory by the author's colour. However, in a happy confluence of events, I'm currently reading Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell, an author of some renown with Jamaican heritage. My neighbour and fellow book club member passed the book along to me at our last meeting.

First, about the author: Malcolm Gladwell was born in England but grew up in rural Ontario, graduating from the University of Toronto with a history degree. He now lives in New York. Currently a staff writer at The New Yorker, he was a reporter with The Washington Post, rising to its New York City bureau chief. Time magazine named him one of the top 100 influential people and Foreign Policy called him one of the 'top global thinkers'. In addition to writing several New York Times best-selling novels, he also hosts the podcast Revisionist History.

Talking to Strangers explores the way we size up strangers, the judgments we make based on initial interactions and our belief that we can judge a person's honesty and character by looking into their eyes and speaking with them. We also judge people by their appearance, bringing our own preconceptions and beliefs into the equation. The question is: why do these interactions with strangers often go so terribly wrong?

The book opens with the tragic police incident in 2015 in Texas, involving Sandra Bland, a black American woman who was pulled over for not using her turn signal. The encounter between these two strangers quickly escalated when Sandra refused to get out of the car. She was arrested and three days later took her own life in the jail cell. Was her arrest an act of racism or a police officer's incompetence? 

Gladwell goes on to show how various people have relied on their assumed ability to assess a stranger and how this has backfired. For example, the politicians such as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who met with Hitler just before WWII and came to believe that Hitler had no intention of invading other countries. Hitler convinced them that he was opposed to war even as he was plotting to invade Czechoslovakia ... for starters.

Fidel Castro also bamboozled the American CIA in a similar fashion in the 1990s. The CIA agents working covertly in Cuba had been secretly turned into double agents by the Cubans and they managed to convince their American handlers that they were loyal CIA agents despite failing regular polygraph tests. The handlers believed in their own instincts and ability to discern character over the scientific evidence. They were ultimately humiliated when the truth came to light.

Gladwell links moments and events in history to show "strangers are not easy". He wants us to rethink our interactions with people we don't know; to question why we believe what a stranger tells us while ignoring evidence that tells us the opposite. His writing is clear and concise, the historical narrative unfolds as a cohesive story that is entirely engaging and challenges one's thinking. His book is also well researched, the facts meticulously checked.

I've yet to read the finale of the story, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book based on the opening chapters. As the New York Times Book Review says, "Gladwell is as close to a singular talent as exists today." He certainly has me looking at events in a different light -  perhaps this book should be mandatory reading given today's dangerous political climate with an American president whom one might argue has learned from other dictators' playbooks the art of hiding his true motivations. On the other hand, he's also capable of being fooled, as demonstrated by his friendship with North Korea's and Russia's dictators and his belief in their assurances that their intentions are benign.

Finally, I'd like to pass along this link to the Crime Writers of Color website, and to quote from their main page, this is "an association of authors seeking to present a strong and united voice for members who self-identify as crime/mystery writers from traditionally underrepresented racial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds."

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Friday, February 14, 2020

Easy Does It

Discuss a source of inspiration you’ve derived from a black American author. How has their work affected yours?

by Paul D. Marks

Many things and many people inspire me one way or another. But as a mystery/crime writer, I really enjoy Walter Mosley and his character Easy Rawlins. And as much as I like Easy, I might even like his sidekick Mouse more.

Pretty much anyone who knows me knows I have a thing for L.A., past and present. LA history. LA culture. And novels and movies set in the City of the Angels. Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), the first Easy Rawlins novel, hits all those bullet points and I was blown away when I first read it when it came out. And, much as I Iike Easy, I really like his psychopath friend, Mouse. Not someone you want to get on the wrong side of but certainly someone you’d want to have your back when the you-know-what hits the fan.

I like how Mosley weaves in the history of the times he’s writing in. He has the ability to drop you into the time period so you really get a feel for what it was like to live in that time and society. His keen observations on society and race are peppered throughout his stories. I also like that he focuses on the social issues of the times, while still keeping the fast pace and intrigue of a hard-boiled crime novel.

Here in the opening lines of Devil in a Blue Dress you have a great example of voice. We get a taste of the narrator’s (Easy Rawlins’) personality and we want to know more about him. Yes, we’re intrigued by the white man who walks into the room, but the real grabber is Easy’s reaction and the little tidbit of his history that we learn about. His character draws us in:

I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy's bar. It's not just that he was white but he wore an off-white linen suit and shirt with a Panama straw hat and bone shoes over flashing white silk socks. His skin was smooth and pale with just a few freckles. One lick of strawberry-blond hair escaped the band of his hat. He stopped in the doorway, filling it with his large frame, and surveyed the room with pale eyes.

I had spent five years with white men, and women, from Africa to Italy, through Paris, and into the Fatherland itself. I ate with them and slept with them, and I killed enough blue-eyed young men to know that they were just as afraid to die as I was.

In White Butterfly, set in 1956 Los Angeles, Mosley and Easy deal with a series of murders of black women that go unsolved until a white woman is murdered and then the LAPD comes to Easy for help. Mosley comments on a well-meaning white librarian and provides us with insight into the complex relationships and racial tensions of that time:

…I was unhappy because even though Stella was nice, she was still a white woman. A white woman from a place where there were only white Christians. To her Shakespeare was a god. I didn’t mind that, but what did she know about the folk tales and riddles and stories colored folks had been telling for centuries? What did she know about the language we spoke? I always heard her correcting children’s speech. “Not ‘I is,’ she’d say. “It’s ‘I am.’” And, of course, she was right. It’s just that little colored children listening to that proper white woman would never hear their own cadence in her words. They’d come to believe that they would have to abandon their own language and stories to become a part of her educated world. They would have to forfeit Waller for Mozart and Remus for Puck. They would enter a world where only white people spoke. And no matter how articulate Dickens and Voltaire were, those children wouldn’t have their own examples in the house of learning—the library.

In my writing, I write all kinds of characters, including, black men and women. Howard Hamm in Ghosts of Bunker Hill is a black P.I. There are several black characters in the Duke Rogers series (White Heat and Broken Windows), and also in my upcoming novel The Blues Don’t Care, set on the L.A. homefront during World War II. And you could say that at least in part they were inspired by Walter Mosley, Easy Rawlins and Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander.


And now for a little BSP:  I’m running a free promotion for people who subscribe to my newsletter. You can get a FREE e-copy of my novel Vortex. Just subscribe. And if you’re already a subscriber and want the novel contact me via my website or e-mail and I’ll send you the link for the download.

I'm also excited to announce that I've got a new book coming out in 2020: The Blues Don't Care. It's a little different for me. It's set in 1940s Los Angeles jazz scene during World War II. I hope you'll keep checking in for more news on this exciting new release.


Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Typin' and Dreamin' (and getting merry like Christmas), by Catriona

Discuss a source of inspiration you’ve derived from a black American author. How has their work affected yours? 

I grew up a voracious reader before YA was a thing. Consequently I went straight from Enid Blyton’s school stories to bonkbusters, bodice rippers and – thank God – Virago modern classics and the Women’s Press. It was these last two imprints that threw Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison in my path and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, The Bluest Eye and The Color Purple each captivated me and broke my heart.

From those books and – sorry, but it’s true – from Roots, I “learned” about Black America. It’s in the south, it’s relentlessly grim, it’s inextricably bound up with feminism. (It was decades before I read a book by an African American man.)

Thinking all Black Americans lived in the south and were grindingly poor was a misconception that had no value, but thinking Black struggles were feminist struggles was a . . . misconception? Kinda . . . that did a lot of good. I managed to swerve the dead-end of cluelessly white feminism that caught and held so many of my sisters, through no particular fault of their own and certainly through no particular virtue on my part.

So I’m going to say that Celie, Pecola and little silent baby Maya were amongst the heroines that made me the woman I am, interested in telling the stories I’m interested in telling, of women with no measure of power in the world who nevertheless have enough grit and wit to find a gap in the hedge of the labyrinth, a slack loop in the ties that bind them, and a reason – justice, honour, survival, redemption, revenge – to stamp a foot and say NO.

When it came to how to write, these weren’t the books that showed me. I couldn’t have imagined doing what Alice, Toni and . . . ah, Prof. Angelou (I can’t call her by her first name, even in writing, even now she’s gone) . . . did in their work. For that I needed to step down out of the clouds to more workman-like authors not so far beyond my ability as to be irrelevant. (Like how you don’t buy a kid her first keyboard and some Bach to listen to.)

All these years later, when feminism is going through the wave after the wave after that wave, when the Women’s Press and Virago put the right books on the shelf at the right moment for me, I’m delighted that the African American women I’m reading are writing sweet funny books – Kellye Garrett, savage funny books – Rachel Howzell Hall, and bonkers classical-music-themed, whisky-drenched, paranormal Irish cozies – Alexia Gordon.

But I wouldn’t be who I am today, in writing or in life, without the experience of sitting with Pecola while she thinks about “blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned dolls” and her own denied beauty (imagine the bombshell that was to a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned girl in a country whiter than milk); sitting with little Maya and trying to follow along when she said “Without willing it, I had gone from being ignorant of being ignorant to being aware of being aware. And the worst part of my awareness was that I didn't know what I was aware of. I knew I knew very little”; sitting with Celie and nodding when Shug said so simply “Everything want to be loved.”


Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Tipping my hat to Mr. Mosley by Cathy Ace

Discuss a source of inspiration you’ve derived from a black American author. How has their work affected yours?

I only had to think about my answer to this question for a millisecond – the answer is:

WHO? Walter Mosley

WHAT? Well, quite a lot, actually!

Walter Mosley

I think the first Mosley book I ever read was Devil in a Blue Dress…though I might have come to that one later, via a route I set off on because of another of his Easy Rawlins books. 

The most recent was Down the River Unto the Sea. In between I have a read not all of his books, but quite a few (he’s written dozens, as well as short fiction, non-fiction, plays etc. etc. talented!). 

He’s recognized as a master of his craft, and a voice that speaks for many who cannot speak for themselves…at least, they can speak, but might not be heard as readily as he is.

I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop organised by Sisters in Crime at Bouchercon 2016, in New Orleans, where he spoke as one of a number of authors tackling the topic of “Writing Our Differences--Doing Diversity Right”. He did a great job – laconic, informative, laser-sharp, and offering truly practical tips, as well as sharing his views in a more general way. It was an honor to meet him. (Yes, I was all tongue-tied and flapping about…and a bit jet-lagged 😉 )

If you haven’t read his work, dive in! Even though I’m no purist when it comes to reading the first in a series first, I do generally enjoy reading authors’ works in order because I can see them develop as a writer (which I believe we all hope we do/will). In the case of Mr. Mosley, the development is evident, and (to me) is expressed in the way in which his writing becomes more layered, and tackles ever-more-challenging and complex topics, as the years pass...yet he seems to make it look easier to do with each volume. Incredible.

That being said, this week’s question is direct – how has his work affected me? Well, overall it made me realize that I need to work at my writing (because he’s very good, and I have a long way to go!) which is a critical inspiration for any author. 

But, beyond that, my response to today’s question can be distilled into one thing: I recognized in his writing that it’s important to write relatable characters, rather than likeable ones, and that relatability doesn’t rely on race or ethnicity…it exists beyond those markers, because we are all human beings, with the same basic needs and desires. The way those play out differs dramatically in his work, of course, but they are at the core of who we all are, and that’s where the focus should be to allow a reader into a character’s mind, rather than building barriers to the reader’s understanding. Walter Mosley is a great writer, regardless of the color of his skin. 

I tried to learn from him - I continue to try to do that – and I try to create relatable characters. If I manage to achieve that, I have to thank Mr. Mosley, in part, for the inspiration to do so. Thank you, Mr. Mosley. 

To reach my website where you can find out more about my work, click here. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Pulling Weeds

Discuss a source of inspiration you’ve derived from a black American author. How has their work affected yours?

- From Frank

If you don't know me, then you might not know this - I'm a white, middle-aged male who grew up in a city that was easily 90% white. Moreover, I'd have to go back to double check demographics, but I believe a good chunk of that remaining ten percent was eastern Europeans, mostly from the states of the former Soviet Union. Thus, same basic shade as the ninety-plus.

It was very white. Maybe two percent black, at best.

To be completely honest, I didn't even grow up in that very white city. I grew up in a small town twenty minutes north of it that was even whiter. There was literally two - two! - black kids in my school. Lisa was a nice girl and I liked her. She was friendly and cool, and I was sad when she moved away sophomore year. I was oblivious to the fact that her family essentially got run out of town (something my wife informed me of decades later). 

The other black person in our school was my neighbor, Jeff. As neighboring kids often do, we alternated between good pals and enemies. Then he moved to the other side of town around the start of high school, and ended up running in different crowds (he was more of a jock and hung with the popular kids, I was more eclectic in my associations), so we drifted apart. 

What does this have to do with the question of the week? Bear with me. A couple of things to start.

First, until I joined the Army right after high school, I was largely ignorant of black culture beyond the surface level stuff. 

Two, you'd think that'd make me a little racist, wouldn't you? Not explicit racism - the kind that joins hates groups and pronounces white pride. Or even casual but open racism. No, that belief system has always boggled my mind and pissed me off. 

I'm talking instead about implicit bias/racism - the kind that lurks underneath, often unrecognized by ourselves as we firmly believe we espouse different, progressive sentiments. We're all a product of our environment and experiences, and that can plant some seeds that grow into weeds... weeds we may be ignorant of until one pops up through the crack in the sidewalk and we notice it and say, "Now, why would I think that?" or "Why did I react that way?" or "Why does this behavior exist?"

How we respond to those weeds when we notice them (or have them pointed out to us) is a true test of character.

I certainly didn't harbor any explicit racism growing up. I noticed that Lisa and Jeff were black, but in the same way I noticed the hair color of the little red-headed girl two houses down (I married her thirty years later, but that's another story). Skin color was just another feature to me. So imagine the shock I was in for as I journeyed into adulthood and learned the reality was far different than my naive perception.

Still wondering what this has to do with the question? I'm getting there. Just hang with me for a little longer.

We all have heroes growing up. Who were some of mine? I read a lot of history, and even though the books for middle schoolers were quite literally white-washed, I found some of mine in people like Abe Lincon (yeah, how very unique of me, I know), Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, and Osceola. Of course, I was just as enthusiastic about Davy Crockett and Wild Bill Hickock, so I wouldn't say I was necessarily "woke." But I definitely dug the stories of Frederick Douglass and especially Harriet Tubman right in there with those I already mentioned. 

On TV, Captain Kirk reigned supreme. In sports, it was Muhuammed Ali. As I got older, my respect for both the fictional space captain and the real boxer and hero (there really is no better word to describe Ali) grew, since I understood some of the deeper issues surrounding each. To this day, I have a framed picture of Ali on my wall, and a ten-inch figurine (post-Liston KO) of him on my bookshelf (oddly, no Kirk, but he stayed in my heart, too).

Okay, so you've been patient enough. What's the point? Here it is.

I'm still way too ignorant of the many contributions of black men and women to our country. I'm not explicitly racist, far from it. But very fact I have to say that (or that I take the time to do so) indicates the problem, right? And one of the ways the weed of implicit bias has cropped up in my sidewalk over the years is one of egocentrism when it comes to my reading habits (far less so in music or TV/film). 

Simply put, I haven't read a ton of authors that I know to be black.

Now, truth be told, I'm guessing I have read several and not known it. For example, I wasn't aware that Walter Mosely was black when I picked up my first Easy Rawlins book. I just knew whoever wrote that book could write

That'd be ideal, wouldn't it? If I just discovered writers because of their books and their color or ethnicity was secondary or an interesting background fact? Like me recognizing that Jeff's skin color was a few shades darker than mine, but the things I most remember about Jeff was how we hung out, riding and taking care of his pony, Scotch, or how when we were warring, we stood in our respective yards across the street from each other trying to be intimidating with macho poses (he won). The only reason I'm thinking of him as black right now is because I'm writing this post.

Or is it? Hell, can I even really say? I told you my background at the beginning of this post. I wonder sometimes if I should be more proactive in seeking out writers of color (and women, for that matter). Then I think that I should just seek out good books, period. Then I'm ultimately faced with the fact that when implemented, this strategy leads me to reading books by people who look a lot like me:  more men than women, more white than not.

I know. I sound like I'm doing some of that white guilt hand-wringing that Abir strongly alluded to last Friday.

I found Abir's article very compelling. Yes, it was a little cynical, but it seems to me far less cynical than the state of things probably merits. His points focused on the industry, and this week's question is focused more on the individual reader, but the two are so entangled with each other that it is really the same conversation, isn't it? Just macro v. micro, is all.

So here on the micro end of the scale, what am I saying after all this "sharing?"

You got me. I don't have all the answers. Show me a good book and I'll read it. I just recently read the newest Mosley (with the lyrical title of Down the River Unto the Sea) and thought it rocked. Read Danny Gardner's first Eliot Caprice a couple of years ago and loved it. S.A. Cosby's My Darkest Prayer is in my TBR pile. I count myself fortunate to have met the latter two men, and hope to say the same of the first, too (hello, writer's conferences!).

If I take a close look at that admittedly tall pile of TBR books, I'm sure I'll find writers of color sprinkled in there. I'm sure I'll add a few more as I read this week's entries on this blog. I'll tell myself (and I'll mean it) that I'm adding a hopefully good book on a trusted recommendation. I'll read it for a good story and good characters, and it'll be good (or not) based on that. If it's good, I'll recommend it to others. 

Is that enough? I don't know. Maybe it isn't. Maybe it doesn't exacerbate the very real issues others have pointed out, but it doesn't exactly make me a crusader, either, does it?

So if you didn't know all of this about me before, now you do. I'm flawed, certainly. My influence is limited. I wouldn't presume to make the ridiculous, utopian statement that I don't see color. Of course I do. We all do. And while I can say it doesn't matter to me, I also can't completely escape whatever implicit biases exist under the surface, thanks to my background and experiences. All I can do is pluck those weeds when I notice them pushing through the cracks in the sidewalk (or, as I said, when someone is kind enough to point them out to me), take some time to examine them, and toss it away, hopefully better for it.

It's a process. As a people, I get that it's been way too slow of one, and this rightly causes frustration and anger. All I can do is keep at it.

And read good books. 


No blatant self-promotion this week. Instead, I urge you to read a good book. If it is by a black author, so much the better.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Black Writers Who Inspired Me

Q in honor of Black History Month: Discuss a source of inspiration you’ve derived from a black American author. How has their work affected yours?

-from Susan

I’m going to mention two, in part because one is direct and obvious and I could not choose otherwise, and the other is like a wispy memory of something precious unless I dig it out especially and polish it. The writers, events, and experiences that affect my work tend to be like that – scattered, subconscious, called on at odd times, blessed.

The first is Barbara Neely, author of four delightful, delicious, unexpected, and truly wonderful mysteries about Blanche White (get it?) an unabashedly honest, self-respecting black domestic whose take on white people is breathtakingly, wincingly funny. What’s special about the series is the originality of the voice and the perspective – I still remember reading the first twenty pages of BLANCHE ON THE LAM and realizing I was not going to cook dinner for the family that night because I would be busy! The mysteries are good but it’s the characters Neely creates who are a gift to all of us. Read all four and be prepared to understand a bit about being white in America through Blanche’s eyes. Her mysteries convinced me of the importance of creating a distinctive voice and a character with consistent perspectives and a sense of humor. 

Neely is being honored by Mystery Writers of America in 2020. 

I am not up to speed about poets generally and it wasn’t until I was browsing through my copy of THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE (edited by Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay) before my first book was published that I came across Pulitzer Prize winning poet Rita Dove, specifically selections from poems about motherhood. I’m a mother too, and I stopped in my tracks to read lines like 

She dreams the baby’s so small she keeps 
misplacing it – it rolls from the hutch
 and the mouse carries it home…

The light, disturbed sleep of the mother of a newborn, that fragile, beloved thing we can’t leave alone for fear it will stop breathing, but we’re too tired and so we nap, and the fear slips right into our dreams. 

Rita Dove’s poetry is specific, the images exactly as they might be in life but with the heightened clarity of a first rate poet for whom every word has to matter. Finding her work in the pages of that thick anthology reminded me that specificity is important in telling stories well. For a year, I had a few lines of another of her poems, “Demeter Mourning” on my corkboard. I’m not sure copyright law lets me post it here, but do check out Dove's beautiful work.  

Rita Dove was the first African American poet to be Poet Laureate of the United States, in 1993.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Well this is depressing...

By Abir

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?


Where to start? I suppose with honesty.

My first reaction to seeing this week’s topic was to roll my eyes. It seems every so often there’s a burst of handwringing in the publishing industry and the wider media about the lack of diversity, and good white people ask ‘What can we do? How do we fix this?’ and we get a bunch of well-meaning and often wrong-headed gestures (Black Frankenstein for f*!@’s sake – seriously?), and then people get scared by the backlash or just bored and go back to whatever it is they were championing or publishing before. So please forgive me if I’m slightly sceptical about the topic. What’s more, I have a problem with the question itself, but bare with me, I’ll get to that.

Let’s deal with the easy part of the question first:
Discuss diversity in the sense of the market

I’m going to talk about the UK market, because that’s the one I know best, but I fear the same holds in North America too.

As far as I can tell, on both sides of the Atlantic, the publishing industry at almost all levels appears to be staffed and run by white, upper-middle class people, drawn from a very narrow strata of society. And the same goes for authors that are published.

From the youngest interns at the literary agents responsible for sifting through the slush piles, to the agents themselves who act as gatekeepers to the industry, on to the ranks of the publishers – from the nice people in marketing, to the lovely ones in design, to the editors and the bosses – the vast majority of these people are great, good-natured, upper-middle class white people, who are well-meaning but tend to live in a bubble and often haven’t much of a clue how to deal with working-class white issues and books, let alone those written by ethnic minorities.

I spent twenty years of my life working in high finance in the city of London, a place not particularly known for its ethical standards and certainly not short of sociopaths in positions of power, but I’ll tell you something – the degree of diversity you’ll see there (and have done since the late 1980s) puts the supposedly liberal and progressive publishing industry to shame.

Why? I don’t have an answer, but it strikes me that until the advent of Amazon and e-books, the publishing industry was quite safe and cosy, with a stable market of older white, middle-aged readers and saw no real reason to change or to appeal to other groups.

Are things changing? I think (and hope) that they are, and I think the crime and mystery genre is in the vanguard of that change. When I was first published five years ago, there were no British Asians being published in the genre. Since then, it seems we are up to about ten authors, with a few more published each year. The numbers are still a drop in the ocean but it feels like a sustainable change is occurring. 

I’ve read the posts by my fellow bloggers on this topic, and one of the recurring themes was a desire to read more about different cultures and heritages. That is most laudable, but with respect, I’m going to take issue with this point – not in terms of the individuals who express it, but with the general theme and tone. That’s because I’ve heard it before. I’ve been hearing it for years, from individual writers, readers, agents, editors and CEOs of the odd publishing house or two. And yet, nothing really changes. Why? Because I think, when it comes down to it, you either don’t really mean it, or as an industry you don’t have the guts to take a risk and follow through on your good intentions. The industry is extremely conservative For years, non-white, non-middle class writers have been told by agents and editors – ‘we’re looking for the next new thing’, when what they actually mean is ‘we’re looking for the next new thing which is pretty much the same as the last thing that worked for us.’

And that’s why we have a deluge of psychological thrillers, each with interchangeable covers and many of which have a title with the word ‘girl’ in it. 

And you know why? Because that’s what the paying punters want. Publishing is a business. They need to sell books. The problem is, no one from their narrow middle class white background has figured out how to widen the market to cater to the wider public. When they do try, they often do it so cack-handedly (American Dirt, anyone?) that they then take fright and go back into their shells. It’s often one step forward, one step back.

Right, so that’s my view on the subject. You may disagree, but I owe you my honest opinion.

As for the second part of the question: What do I want to see on bookshelves from black authors?

I’m sorry. I have a problem with the question. The absurdity of it can be seen by changing ‘black’ to ‘white’ in the question.

Black authors can write about whatever they want to write about. If it’s good, I’ll read it.


So I've slept on yesterday's post and have woken up a bit less frustrated by the world. Yesterday was a bit of a rant, and in the interests of fairness, I feel I should point out some of the positive developments, as well as making suggestions about how things might improve. Otherwise, I'm not really helping the situation.

Firstly, I have to say that things in the industry, at least on this side of the pond, seem to changing for the better, though slowly. One thing that stunned me this week was the remarkable own goal of the books released for Black History Month with 'black' characters such as black Romeo and Juliet, black Frankenstein's monster etc. What shocks me most is that a room full of people must have sat down and, with the best of intentions, decided that was a good idea Then the machinery of a whole industry went into operation and a lot of money was spent to create these books. I can't help thinking that maybe if there were even two people of colour involved in those meetings that they would have piped up and pointed out what a monumentally ill-thought out idea it was. So the first thing the industry needs to do is recruit people who can point these things out. If a few people of colour had been involved in that decision process, the publishers could have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and a tonne of bad publicity.

In fairness, some of the large publishing houses have amended their recruitment policies, doing away with unpaid internships (which effectively priced out most people without a rich daddy or mummy from entering the industry), and some, like Penguin Random House have instigated 'blind' application processes. This is a good start. For the publishing industry to flourish, it needs to reflect the society it purports to serve.

The second issue is that of who  is actually published. I have to acknowledge the strides being made by publishers in the UK to publish more 'non-traditional' voices. In 2017/18 Penguin Random House started their Write Now programme, offering mentorships and publishing contracts to writers from ethnic minorities, working class and LGBTQ+ backgrounds. I've been lucky enough to be involved with this programme and the first fruits of it are coming through now. Other publishers are also creating similar schemes.

My fear though, and I hope that I'm proved wrong, is that these initiatives remain niche endeavours rather than reaching mainstream audiences...which brings me to my third point - Readership

Part of the issue, in the UK at least, is increasing the levels of reading among non middle class people. I saw a statistic a few years a go that said that one in two British Asians had never entered a bookshop, I don't know how such things are measured, but anecdotally, that feels true to me. What's more surprising is that British Asian kids use libraries in greater numbers than any other youth demographic. But something happens that means these youngsters don't become adult readers. That is as much an issue for British Asian communities as it is for the publishing industry, but I feel that until we can increase the number of ethnic minorities and working class people who feel comfortable going into bookshops and libraries, and reading the sort of books that reflect their experiences, non-white, non-middle class writers will always be at risk of being niche.

So there you go. And you thought I didn't do nuance.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

What Does America Look Like? by James W. Ziskin

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?

From Jim

I don’t believe this should be about what I, a white man of a certain age, want to see on bookshelves. Yes, I’m interested in other cultures and people who are different from me. How sad and dull the world would be if we were all the same. But the way I’d like to frame this issue in my head is in the form of a question:

What does America look like?

Publishing should resemble that.

It doesn’t.

And this is not the way to remedy the issue.

See the results of the Lee and Low Diversity Baseline Study on publishing.

The publishing industry, as any business enterprise, should serve us all, fairly and joyfully. African-Americans make up about thirteen percent of the US population. Yet, according to the recently released Diversity Baseline Study, only 5% of the industry’s employees identify as African-American. I can only assume if there were better representation in the industry, there would be more published books by African-American authors.

We have to do better.

The good news is that there are (though not nearly enough) African-American authors we should be reading already. Here are some you should know in the crime fiction genre. Apologies to those I’ve missed.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Scott Adlerberg
Frankie Y. Bailey
Eleanor Taylor Bland
Valerie Burns
Austin Camacho
S. A. Cosby
Tracy Clark
Nikki Dolson
Danny Gardner
Kellye Garrett
Alexia Gordon
Gar Anthony Haywood
Cheryl Head
Chester Himes
Cate Holahan
Rachel Howsell Hall
Stephen Mack Jones
Attica Locke
Mia P. Manansala
Walter Mosley
Barbara Neely
Gary Phillips
Kwei Quartey

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Guess who dropped in?

This time around on Criminal Minds, I asked my friend and CM alumnus, author and founder of Bronzeville Books, Danny Gardner to tackle this week’s question. And having already had a look at his post, I’m sure glad that I did. — Dietrich
by Danny 

My dear friend, the author Susan Shea, drew the February questions for the group, and she reached me on the Bat phone (blackphone? haha.) As my blackness is preinstalled, she asked for access to the Danny Gardner Woke-API. Susan is my gurl, and the answer is always "of course," because I know she wants it done with heart. She sees the need. I included this business question: Discuss diversity in the sense of the market. What do you want to see on bookshelves from black authors in 2020?
Good question, huh? See, it puts the burden of the answer on the writer asking, so I'm safely out of there. So then Dietrich says, "Take my week, Danny." 
I did it to myself. I know.
Former criminal mind that I am—I say former, but my criminal spirit seethes wanting his day of the week back—I went and founded my very own publishing house, led by the illustrious Renee Asher Pickup, and Renee went and did what she does, which is build coalitions and foster great art. And so, whaddya know, from amongst the cries, "Oh, where are the black books??" Bronzeville has a few, and we found them low-key, with love and caution, and determination.
Here are three selections from our 2020 front list which will give you a feel for our sense of blackness. We are stacked with a depth of talent and projects that will help us grow to be a trusted diverse publishing brand. We are distributed by Ingram, and represented by Dana Kaye and Associates for marketing, and PR. Bronzeville lives.
In Love and Other Criminal Behavior, crime fiction powerhouse Nikki Dolson drops thirteen stories exploring the many different ways to love—and just as many ways to end up dead. Love and Other Criminal Behavior will keep your heart pumping fast, right up until it's broken. Nikki is featured currently in Three Rooms Press's follow-up to the Obama Inheritance, The Faking of the President, as am I, but this is about Nikki. We have high hopes for this book starting a new rhythm in short fiction. I've made the Hollywood rounds with ARCs. The buzz here is starting. She's a fine author, in any right, but what she does with the black voice is instructive. Renee saw to the work as her editor and co-conspirator, and I feel we've started something.
Destinee Schriner's debut novel, When Bluebell Blooms, has been acquired for publication in 2020. When Bluebell meets a great guy an unexpected kiss from her best friend compels her to question her sexuality and what happily ever after means to her. She is a fantastic talent, writing from a region and a perspective unique to the American experience. It's the sort of book having diversity in your DNA helps you find. Everyone here is bullish on Destinee's work. Lots of folks wanted that book. She trusts us with it. I'm crazy excited, personally.
Somewhere this year, you'll be able to enjoy The Tales of Elliot Caprice: Ace Boon Coon. Set within the immediate aftermath of A Negro and an Ofay, Elliot is called back into action when a real estate investment scam leads to the murder of a civil rights activist and brings Elliot nose to nose with each faction of Chicago's ethnic underworld, including his old friends and enemies amongst Chitown's black power elite. I put it all on the line with this one, and I hope you find it and make it a part of your bookshelf. 
So, please check for the B, and go beyond these recommendations to find the Black American voices that will help you inform your own personal experience. Thanks for having me back to guest, and keep it criminal, y'all.


You can find out about more about what Danny’s up to and about Bronzeville Books here.

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.