It was a hot, sticky, summer-won’t-let-go kind of September Sunday afternoon. Just the kind of day to mull over two topics I am passionate about: the politics of race and the politics of writing.

I didn’t just read something about these two confluent issues in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Nor was there anything in this week’s New Yorker. But I did just get off the phone with an African-American editor I know; we talked about this for close to an hour.

It’s been a little over a year since I established Tiny Satchel Press, an independent publisher of young adult books. The primary focus of our press is to publish books by and for youth of color and LGBT youth. Our two most recent books were Dreaming in Color by Jamaican-American lesbian writer Fiona Lewis (known to most readers by her pen name, Fiona Zedde) and a collection of short stories I edited, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth, which includes pieces from African-American lesbian icon, Jewelle Gomez, as well as Lambda Award-winner Craig L. Gidney and black romance publisher Leslie Thompson.

It was Thompson who gave me the idea that I could publish books, not just write and edit them, and publish books that would resonate for a readership that was desperate for books that reflected them and their lives.

Thompson was on a panel on women and publishing that I chaired inPhiladelphiain December 2009. She told the audience how she kept writing romance novels–some of them historical–with black characters. Editors kept turning down her books with the caveat that if she could just make her books more white–and turn her black historical characters into slaves–they would sell.

Thompson decided to found Freedom of Love Press instead; a devotee of romance novels herself, she wanted to write romances specifically for readers of color.

I spent years editing romance novels for several major houses. I never saw one book with a central character of color. Yet I would see black women on the subway reading romances all the time. But the books they were reading were by white authors.

When I started editing anthologies in the 1990s, my good friend, the late photographer Tee Corinne, told me, “A third of every book must be women of color.”

I said okay. She paused and asked, “You aren’t going to fight with me about this?” I said no, I appreciated her advice. She told me I was the first person she’d ever said that to who hadn’t argued with her that people of color don’t read and white people wouldn’t read books with people of color in them.

A decade later, as an acquisitions editor for young adult books, I heard it all again: people of color didn’t buy books and white readers wouldn’t read books with people of color in them.

In his book, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, noted Princeton professor and African-American philosopher Cornel West states, “Aesthetics have substantial political consequences. How one views oneself as beautiful or not beautiful or desirable or not desirable has deep consequences in terms of one’s feelings of self-worth and one’s capacity to be a political agent.”

In other words, Dan Savage and Oprah can tell you till the cows come home that “it gets better,” but if there are no accurate cultural representations of who you are, how will you ever feel better? How will you ever know who you really are, or believe in who you are?

Those of us who are queer, female and/or of color grew up without books about us. We were invisible. Unreflected in literature or anywhere else in a white patriarchy.

Yet, how do we learn to be visible if we can’t see ourselves?

That would seem to be the most compelling argument conceivable for books by and about everyone: Visibility. Learning how to be.

About 15 years ago, one of the major editors in New York publishing told me in an interview that the “trend” of gay and lesbian books was fading, just as the “trend” of African-American books had faded. More than a few dozen books by queer or African-American authors was enough, apparently.

Except the “trend” of people’s existence hasn’t faded. We are all still here. In fact, one could say there are more queers (at least out of the closet) than ever and demographics show that there are more people of color than ever.

As a consequence there should be more books for us, not fewer. Yet the “trend” in publishing remains as static as ever with huge gaps that need to be filled.

Where are the artful, literary books about now? laments one black editor.

When it comes to black literature–called African-American literature, which is a limiting sub-genre within a sub-genre, since not all black writing is American or even African (one thinks immediately, for example, of Zadie Smith)–we are all still reading the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. But where is today’s renaissance of black literature?

Constriction by editors is apparent everywhere. The majority of queer writing being published is genre fiction–romance, mystery, sci-fi/fantasy. And not to slam genre fiction, because it is dear to my heart and I write it myself, but can’t we have the erstwhile serious literary fiction as well?

Meanwhile, black fiction has been restricted to the pimp/ho “urban” stories or the ultra-intellectualized and inaccessible fiction of Toni Morrison and her acolytes. Queer publishers are not seeking work by writers of color and anthologies are overwhelmingly white.

So where are the editors who can recognize that we need–and deserve–more?

Gate-keeping is both an exquisite art and a bullying tactic. The reality is, however, that editors can create writing sensations–and trends–whenever they want to. Is the Harry Potter series really better than any fantasy fiction since Tolkien? Are the “Girl Who” books really amazing recovered novels from a dead author–or just frankly tedious and provocatively well-hyped?

Sapphire has just published her first book in 15 years, The Kid. It was a best-seller before it actually hit the shelves. Why? Hype. Sapphire’s previous novel, Push, became the object of a publishing bidding war which garnered Sapphire a million dollar advance for the trade-paperback original. It has since sold several hundred thousand copies and been turned into an Oscar-nominated film–“Precious.”

Push and The Kid both exemplify exactly how much power white editors have over black writing. They also beg the question of what those editors will accept from black writers. Sapphire is a millionaire and grew up middle class, yet her two books are about poor urban black life.

Did she write about these things because she wants to or because she knows this is what the culture–and gate-keeper editors–want: Books by black authors that show just how corrupt and empty and violent black life in America is.

We have to ask ourselves as readers, writers and editors what our roles are when it comes to minority representation–be it queer or of color–in books. Do we want to maintain the fiction that all gay men are sex-crazed and/or closet pedophiles and all black men are pimps and/or murderers, or do we want to broaden the discourse on race and sexuality to include strong, artful, literary representations of the range of our lives in our individual minority cultures?

We need the mirror of literature to see ourselves reflected. The question is, then, who is responsible for holding up that mirror–the market or ourselves?



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  • Ron Fritsch

10 Responses to “On Race and Writing: The Editor’s Obligation to Audience”

  1. Gregory Henry 7 November 2011 at 12:19 PM #

    Fascinating!


    • Evette Porter 7 November 2011 at 3:11 PM #

      I am surprised that the author is completely unaware that there are African American romance novels written by African Americans and multicultural young adult novels written by African Americans and other writers of color.
      Arabesque is the oldest African American (multicultural) romance line and has been around for more than twenty years. It was acquired by Harlequin in late 2005; I have edited the line for more than eight years, which includes more than 500 African American romance novels published on Arabesque alone. Harlequin launched an African American category romance line in 2006–Kimani Romance. Among some of the most popular black authors of romance are NYT/USA Today bestsellers Brenda Jackson (Harlequin’s Desire, Kimani Romance, Arabesque imprints, and soon on Mira)and Francis Ray (St. Martin); Rochelle Alers, Gwynne Forster, Donna Hill, Adrianne Byrd, Sandra Kitt and the late Leslie Esdaile/L.A. Banks(Arabesque/St. Martin) among hundreds of others. Beverly Jenkins (Avon), who has a huge following writes African American historical as well as contemporary romances.

      I also edit an African American YA line, Kimani TRU, which is one of two multicultural YA lines (the other is published by Kensington, which publishes AfAm YA, AfAm romance, urban, AfAm women’s fiction and gay and lesbian romances, although I’m not sure if the G&L line includes multicultural characters).

      Apparently Ms. Thompson was unaware of the AfAm romance community, but it is quite large and hugely successful, and even attracts some white romance readers.


  2. Martha 7 November 2011 at 3:50 PM #

    “God Says No” by James Hannaham. Any one of my 4 novels, most recently “The Taste of Salt” Danielle Evans’ s “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.” “Big Machine” by Victor LaValle. Any one of Colson Whitehead’s jillion books, most recently “Zone One” currently on the NYT best seller list. “Silver Sparrow” by Tayari Jones. I could go on but really, why bother. This piece was clearly written by someone who long ago stopped paying attention to the work of serious African American writers in order to serve her argument. Unfortunate. Please check out http://www.ringshout.com


    • Bill 7 November 2011 at 4:24 PM #

      @Martha..But there is a huge gap between current AA lit and actually readership which is very problematic…other then Zadie..most Black readers, who are not Black MFA students or writers, have not even heard of any the writers you listed…This is very much an issue of who holds both the editorial and marketing reins.


  3. Viet Dinh 7 November 2011 at 4:00 PM #

    I would like to point your attention to some of the strongest (and in some cases, very successful) African-American writers of the last decade, neither of whom would fall into the “ultra-intellectualized and inaccessible fiction of Toni Morrison,” as you put it. This is not to contradict you, but to point out that literary fiction is still quite alive with people of color.

    Off the top of my head:

    ZZ Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.
    Danielle Evans, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self
    Edward P. Jones, The Known World, All Aunt Hagar’s Children
    Colson Whitehead, Sag Harbor
    Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
    Tayari Jones, The Silver Sparrow
    Marlon Jones, The Book of Night Women
    Tiphanie Yanique, How to Escape from a Leper Colony

    The last two, arguably, are more Caribbean than “strictly” African-American, but there’s certainly no lack of excellent African-American writers. Are there (and should there) be more? Absolutely.


  4. Evette Porter 7 November 2011 at 5:05 PM #

    I guess I have a bit of a bug up my a– on this one. I agree with some of the comments about publishing and race, but I would argue that African American fiction isn’t wholly dominated by street lit, and what is AfAm fiction isn’t always defined by the race of the author. Kathryn Stockett(The Help), Rebecca Skloot(…Henrietta Lacks) and James Patterson’s Alex Cross novels come to mind, titles that are listed as AfAm books on Amazon. Perhaps the gatekeepers have decided that white authors can better portray the black experience than African Americans, or that the AfAm experience they portray is more palatable to white readers. Whatever… However, I think the broad generalizations about black books doesn’t necessarily jibe with reality. AfAm writers such as Dolen Perkins-Valdez, James Hannaham, Kimberla Lawson Roby, Edward P. Jones, Bernice McFadden, James McBride, etc. fit somewhere in between Alice Walker and Teri Woods. What skews the perception of what kind of books are popular with AfAm readers has more to do with the affordability of a self-published, street lit e-book that sells for $.99 compared to a trade or hardcover title for $14.99 and 24.99, respectively. There are editors, black editors–although there are fewer and fewer these days–who are publishing a variety of AfAm books. Ultimately, the aesthetics Cornell West talks about, have to earn out.


  5. Troy Johnson 8 November 2011 at 10:23 AM #

    Victoria, your reaction, establishing your own press, is the most appropriate one based upon your observations, beliefs, and convictions. I applaud your effort.


  6. Renee Bess 12 November 2011 at 10:04 AM #

    While I agree with bits and pieces of every comment posted so far, I have to support Ms. Brownworth’s assertion that. “Queer publishers are not seeking work by writers of color and anthologies are overwhelmingly white.” I entered the writing and publishing world only six years ago. I’ve seen precious few other lesbian writers of color, genre-based or general fiction authors, find a home with a queer publisher. I’ve received more than a few communications from readers who have expressed how much they appreciate reading stories about themselves; stories that reflect the realities of the lives of ordinary Af-Am black lesbians. And of course, I am grateful to Cathy LeNoir and her company, Regal Crest Enterprises, for publishing three of my novels.


  7. riccardo 13 December 2014 at 5:46 PM #

    There are hundreds of American literary magazines and reviews but African American editors can be counted on one hand. This is a terrible reflection of a complete lack of diversity in the literary arts. Why is there not more discussion about this issue in the media and press, or the African American literary community?



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