A friend sent me this essay from the New York Times the other day. She’d just finished reading my latest book of essays, A Staircase of Words, and she figured it would be of interest to me. It speaks to the challenges writers like myself face on a daily basis. Check it out.
By MARTHA SOUTHGATE
I am a 46-year-old writer of “literary” fiction. I’ve had three novels published – the first for young people, the last two for adults. All have won minor prizes, been respectfully reviewed and sold modestly. I’ve been awarded a few fairly competitive fellowships and grants. The business is full of fiction writers like me. With one difference: I’m black, born and raised in the United States. At the parties and conferences I attend, and in the book reviews I read, I rarely encounter other African-American “literary” writers, particularly in my age bracket. There just don’t seem to be that many of us out there, and that’s something I’ve come to wonder about a great deal. And so I got on the phone with some editors and African-American writers to talk about it.
For many writers, middle age is when they hit their stride. Robert Gottlieb of Knopf, who has been Toni Morrison’s editor for many years, said, “Many very fine writers take time to get there.” Looking at the white American fiction writers who have the most cultural prominence, one quickly sees a large group in their 40s or 50s (Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody, Jane Smiley, Michael Cunningham et al.) who have generally had four or more major works of fiction published. Gottlieb points out that Morrison’s first two books sold adequately, but it wasn’t until her third novel, “Song of Solomon,” published the year she turned 46, that she had a commercial breakthrough. “It was larger and more ambitious, demonstrating a new power and authority, and the world noticed,” he said. “Some careers start with a bang – ‘Invisible Man,’ ‘Catch-22.’ Others take time to find a significant readership – Anne Tyler, Toni. And sometimes I feel that those are the healthiest ones.”
But when you look at the careers of African- American writers, you don’t always see that healthy arc. Ralph Ellison, for example, seemed to lose his way completely after “Invisible Man.” These days, there are only a few names of black authors born in the United States, beyond Morrison’s, that the average reader of serious fiction might easily drop – Colson Whitehead, ZZ Packer, Edward P. Jones. Of these three, only Jones is over 40.
In some ways, the American literary scene is more racially and culturally diverse than ever. A few examples: Of the 21 writers on Granta’s recent Best of Young American Novelists list, six (including Packer and Uzodinma Iweala) are people of color (many colors: black, South and East Asian, Hispanic), and seven were born or raised outside the United States. Indian writers born or educated here, like Jhumpa Lahiri, Vikram Chandra and Kiran Desai, win critical acclaim and big sales. “Girlfriend,” “urban-lit” and other branches of commercial genre fiction by African-Americans have continued to enjoy a boom since the door-busting success of Terry McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale” in 1992. But black authors writing in an ambitious, thoughtful way about American subjects are harder to find – even when they do get published. Malaika Adero, a senior editor at Atria Books, said: “Literary African-American writers have difficulty getting publicity. The retailers then don’t order great quantities of the books. Readers don’t know what books are available and therefore don’t ask for them. It’s a vicious cycle.”
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