Welcome to the book blog of writer and creative writing tutor, Diane Paul.

Thanks to the publishers and kind PR people who send me books and releases about their clients' books for review. Press releases and review copies of fiction and non-fiction are always welcome. (No sci-fi, fantasy or erotica please.)

Due to the barrage of requests from self-published authors for reviews, I'm unable to deal with them all, although I'm sometimes drawn to non-fiction for the subject matter. And because I love print books, the smell, the touch of the paper and the sight of the words, I don't have an electronic reader or review e-books.

E-mail to: bookblogforbookworms@keywordeditorial.com for the postal address.

My writing website: http://www.keywordeditorial.com/

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Keeping Black Writers in Their Ethnic Places

African American writer Leonce Gaiter, proud Harvard Alum, is a prolific contributor to publications including the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Washington Post and the Huffington Post. His latest novel, 'In the Company of Educated Men', is a literary thriller with socio-economic, class and racial themes.

Leonce's articles often revolve around race issues and class inequality. I am delighted to welcome him as my guest blogger.

A Writer's Racialization and Keeping Black Writers in Their Ethnic Places

by Leonce Gaiter


I am black and in my latest novel, all the main characters are white.  I wrote the seeds of this book around 25 years ago, and at that time, the book’s racial makeup didn’t concern me.  It’s not as if white worlds were ever foreign; I’ve spent my entire life in them – in school, in church, through media, socially, and professionally.  In fact, any not-completely-insular black man or woman would be infinitely more qualified to write white characters than the average white person is to write black ones. Yet, you see plenty of the latter and little of the former.

Yes, decades ago, the racial aspect of writing white characters didn’t register. But back then, I hadn’t had dealings with the publishing industry.  

My previous novels portrayed black principals and almost all-white supporting casts.  They received admiration from publishing houses, but few takers.  Publishers told me that they could not see a route to commercial success for my books. I soon learned what that meant.

There remains in publishing a very Jim Crow notion of what black authors should write.  We are supposed to write about “The Black Experience.”  But we’re supposed to write about “The Black Experience” in ways the majority finds comfortable and familiar.  That means we can write about slavery and the civil rights movement; we can write protest fiction of one sort or another; we can write victimized characters who take the world’s abuse and turn it self-destructively inward.  These are the roles in which the mainstream is comfortable seeing us.
And black writers know this.  That’s why self-censorship enters the picture.  We know what kind of books will gain mainstream acceptance, and we know what kinds of books will receive the polite publishing industry ‘no thank you’ regardless of merit.

Partly due to the boundaries mainstream publishing erects around black letters, I wrote a book with white principal characters. Then I discovered a writer who had done the same over 50 years ago, and his example shows how little has changed when it comes to African-Americans and American mainstream publishing.

I learned about Frank Yerby from Troy Johnson of the African-American Literature Book Club (aalbc.com).  I contacted Troy about marketing my new white-charactered book to his mainly black audience. Troy mentioned how rare it is for black writers to ‘write white’ and mentioned Yerby as a one who had done so starting back in the 40s, and whose reputation suffered for it.  Per the New George Encyclopedia:

“Yerby was often criticized by blacks for the lack of focus on or stereotypical treatment of African American characters in his books. Thus, ironically, while Yerby held the distinction of being the first best-selling black novelist, he also became one of the most disparaged for his lack of racial consciousness.”

Yerby had written a novel about Southern racial injustice, but publishers rejected it.  It seems that subsequent to that, Yerby turned to white protagonists. 

Further research led me to an essay on Yerby by A.J. Aronstein [ http://www.bookslut.com/past_perfect/2012_05_018921.php  ] in Bookslut. In it, Aronstein discusses Yerby’s first and breakthrough novel, “The Foxes of Yarrow.”
“For the last forty years, defenders of Yerby have attempted to justify the fact that he wrote romance novels, suggesting that he dodged confrontations with racial issues in order to publish on his own terms. According to these readings, the value of Yerby's work arises mainly from his rejection of expectations imposed upon his generation of African-American writers. But a reading of The Foxes of Harrow presents an opportunity for rethinking Yerby's handling of racial themes, and suggests that we should reconsider the importance of his work among mid-century African-American writers like Wright, Hurston, and Ellison.”

Kudos to Aronstein for working to resurrect a writer he finds underrated; however, it’s interesting that the grounds on which he attempts to resurrect him are the very well-worn fields of the African-American race novel—a soil Yerby spent a great deal of his career purposefully sidestepping.  Discussing his indifference toward typical racial themes in a 1981 interview, Yerby called the ‘race novel’ “an artistic dead end,” from which he said, “I’m glad to have escaped.”  Nonetheless, Aronstein insists in stuffing him into a category the author himself minimized.  It’s as if Aronstein knows that publishing only admits black writers through a particular back door, so that’s the one through which he tries to slip Yerby.

Aronstein wrote, “Yerby did write romance novels. But genre snobbery risks brushing aside his significant accomplishments in the publishing industry, and ignores the way race actually operates in his books.”

Aronstein rests Yerby’s literary significance on his incorporation of race into his novels, as if that is the only standard by which a black author could or should be judged.  Perhaps, like Wilkie Collins or Marion Zimmer Bradley, he produced a genre masterpiece that deserves in-print status through eternity. But Yerby is black, so that cannot be the basis for his reconsideration.  He has to be made ‘a credit to his race’ instead. Yerby escaped the American publishing ghetto in the 50s and fled to Spain.  Little has changed since he felt compelled to do so.  He is still being ordered to sit in the black section. 

When it comes to depictions of African-Americans, the publishing industry lags far behind a medium like television, which depicts a far more expansive range of diverse ethnic characters. In addition, publishing seems desperate to keep ethnic writers neatly sealed in their racial Zip Lock bags.
There’s an old story of the racist white opera diva discussing Leontyne Price.  When asked what roles Price should sing, the diva replied, “Bess.  Just Bess.” 

It seems publishing learned a lot from her.

Details of 'In the Company of Educated Men' can be found on http://bit.ly/ZyqSuN
Leonce's latest article in the Huffington Post is at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/leonce-gaiter
Other book links:
Amazon http://amzn.to/1v411Kj
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/1Eq5da0
Apple: http://bit.ly/1CyF3jo