Rejecting the Publishing Ghetto

The music critic Martin Bernheimer wrote:

The story may be apocryphal, but I doubt it. A great diva, basking in the twilight of a long career, was singing Tosca one night at the Met in 1961. Before the performance, her dresser asked if she had yet heard Leontyne Price, who had just made a sensational debut as Leonora in Il Trovatore. The great diva, herself a celebrated if fading exponent of the same role, quivered a few chins in lofty disapproval. 'Ah, yes', she purred. 'Price. A lovely voice. But the poor thing is singing the wrong repertory!' The dresser registered surprise. 'What repertory,' he asked, 'should Price be singing?' The great diva smiled a knowing smile. 'Bess', she purred. 'Just Bess.'

Publisher's Weekly's article "African-American Books in Today's Marketplace" makes clear that the "just Bess" attitude lives large in the American publishing industry. The article mimics the industry's tendency to believe that a) black writers write only for black audiences b) only black audiences could show interest in books by black authors, and c) books by black authors and/or with a black principal is inherently a "black book," and thus strangled in the market by the above limitations.

Today, there is a publishing ghetto. Mainstream white-owned houses have black imprints. Here, they publish books by, for and about black people. They publish under the assumption that none of our songs could be hummable outside of our own heads, that our experiences are more specialized, less "mainstream" and "universal" than those of any other ethnic group. In fact, they suggest that it's reasonable to believe that no one else gives a damn about our stories.

These entities segregate black letters from mainstream America--all in the guise of serving our needs. It's like defending segregated schools by insisting that it makes "us" more comfortable to be with "our own kind." It has the effect of censoring books that do not subscribe to a publishing house's idea of what a black audience wants.

It means that we should sing "just Bess."

The article does give passing voice to these failings. Bestselling author Zane is quoted as saying, "It's not necessary for every book to have all African-American characters," she says. "There are issues that all women deal with that have nothing to do with race."

There are issues that all humans deal with that have nothing to do with race. However, if I, as a black writer, address one of those issues with a black principal, I have written a "black book," to be marketed only to black audiences (unless the theme I have addressed is slavery, poverty or racism--the Holy Trinity of black literary themes deemed palatable to whites--again, "just Bess). And then if I dare people the rest of the book with white characters, then I have written something unpublishable: too black for white audiences and not black enough for black ones.

To wit:

"Carol Burrell, editorial director of Lerner Graphic Universe, faced this challenge with the graphic novels that her house publishes for middle-grade readers. "Some expect graphic novels to look a certain way," she says. "We have to be willing to represent [to the market] what's in the book," even if that means putting a black face on the cover--a move that could cut the book off from a non-black audience." But Burrell says, "I don't think that kids are so hung up about [race] as some catering to the market tend to think."

Yes. And how the "market" thinks is how the mainstream (read "white") ownership structures think--regardless of how many black faces people their black imprints.

Yes. I can already hear black editors at these houses screaming foul. Black imprints are a chance for them to shine--employment where there might not otherwise be any. However, the American descendants of African slaves have historically had our identities dictated by those who reviled us. While there is safety in "having our own," the veneer of freedom is very thin when you realize that you're working within structures designed by white-owned corporations. If these editors truly have the freedoms they claim, they would insist that their editorial ambitions equal those of their peers in other imprints. They would seek the widest possible audience of all colors and not constrict their black author's imaginations or potential by self-censorship, by settling for a small sliver.

Or would directly competing with their houses' mainstream imprints break the "grand bargain" of the black imprint's existence?

Remember? Keep it small... "... just Bess."