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Monday, July 02, 2007

The Struggle of Black Literary Writers

The blogosphere is buzzing about Martha Southgate's essay in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Titled, "Writers Like Me" the novelist explores the reasons why there aren't more writers like her. She defines herself as:

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.
There are a few reasons that she lists as to why there aren't more black literary writers. She cites racism, low sales of literary fiction (by black writers), and fear of economic security (many blacks with higher educations don't seek a career in writing).

But in reading her piece, I wondered, well, what can be done? What can be done to 1) combat the racism in publishing 2) increase the exposure of black literary writers and 3) and promote the literary arts as a viable (okay, not always viable) career option? I definitely agree about these problems, but I guess I wanted to hear some possible actions that can be taken.

Well I don't have enough time in this blog to try to tackle #1. But for #2 I think readers hold more power than they realize. Publishers respond to sales. Lovers of literary fiction, lovers of Southgate and "writers like her" need to make their love known through the almighty dollar. Fans of street lit have made their love known, what about fans of literary fiction? Why aren't (we) they representing as strongly?

Granted, I know for a fact that publishers really don't know what to do with a writer like Martha Southgate. They have no idea who her audience is. Many times they want to crossover this type of writer, but forget about the African American audience in the process. Or they hold onto the monolithic African American audience concept (we all want to read the same thing) and don't know how to reach the different segments of this community. Thus the people who love writers like Martha Southgate may never know about her.

Still, I think the marketing methods reserved for the literary writer (book reviews and award submissions) may need to be remixed/updated. I have to say that Southgate's Third Girl From the Left was one of my favorite books of 2006. And I believe there's a huge audience for it because I found it to be both smart and accessible. I think the audience is out there, but what are the best ways to reach it? I wonder what would happen if the marketing plans for literary authors incorporated the hustling, can't-stop-won't-stop-selling-this-book-going-direct-to-the-community-that-this-book-is-for attitude of street lit and many self-published authors? Just a thought.

I don't really know what to say about #3. Most of my friends went after the high-paying careers (MBA, JD, and MD) tracks and I, with creative impulses decided I wanted to write and be artsy. But part of my comfort with my decision is having a supportive Momma. Many of my friends chose those paths because their family would not accept anything less. Therein lies one of the problems. How seriously does the African American community take the need to develop and sustain writers? How supportive are we of the literary arts field? How much do we respect and support our writers, especially those career ones like Southgate?

I feel like I'm ranting, so I'll stop here. Click here to read an interview that BackList conducted with Southgate. You'll have to register for the site to read it.


At 5:23 PM, Blogger Christopher Chambers said...

We soldier on, and our efforts will be remembered and appreciated long after "Baby Mama Drama" and "Thug Luva" stuff is long, long gone. It just won't be appreciated by the bulk of our people. I think this "at least we're reading something" cop-out has now been shown to be a fraud...

At 6:56 PM, Anonymous trydelt said...

Real artists in most disciplines don't reach their peaks until well into their sixties, as quiet as it's kept. I hope Ms. Southgate is patient, and content to develop her own style. Her reward could very well be a ticket into the canon and immortality.

Hey Felicia, I'm dying to know how the lecture in D.C. went!?!

At 7:04 PM, Blogger Felicia Pride said...

Oh the dc event went nicely. We had a small group, but I read from my book, The Message for the first time. That felt good. Both Ferentz and I forgot to take pictures, but I still want to post about it.

At 7:44 PM, Blogger said...

{Martha] writes with heroic concern about the fact that writers such as Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison (who I don't believe fits well into this because of his writer's block and self doubt was so devastating) for all their greatness, published sporadically and were in their forties before true success arrived. As I enter my mid-forties with hopes of writing I did take some offense at the thought that 40 was somewhat late in life. But I'll leave that for another post.

Martha, who I met once and seemed lovely, is doomed. Sorry, Martha. On one level there's an assumption that being published is a right and not a privilege. She buys into the myth of the traditional publishing dynamic that's dangled in front of her every time a White writer is published.

The old publishing world: I write, you publish. Success!
The new publishing world: I write, you, my German-owned-conglomerate publisher, find a niche that's comfortable for you, I work that niche until there's no hair left on it, all the while looking for traditional and new media options to help synergize and commodify my talent to help lift the marketing burden off you. Oprah, please call. Success!?

for the complete entry visit

At 5:49 PM, Blogger Felicia Pride said...

Hey Ron--

You bring up a lot of great points. I had to do a separate blog entry based on your piece!

At 6:02 PM, Anonymous Martha Southgate said...

Oh, I'm gonna keep writing--I'm fine with peaking in my sixties and beyond. I'm just eager to see more of us work at the top of our abilities and to receive recognition for it.

At 4:49 PM, Blogger 4465 PReSS said...

Thank yo so much for your blog, Ms. Pride!

We believe that great writing transcends race -- and implojre you to read the works of one of our writers, LiNCOLN PARK.

Her first novel, SCULPTURED NAILS AND NAPPY HAIR was not well received by; because they did not understand her figurative, dark style of literary fiction. RAWSISTAZ said that she is a 'gifted writer'.

We thought so, too; and have just put out her second work, entitled, THE BREVITY OF THE SELVES. We think Park has the same classification dilemma that you mention here. We believe that the more African-Americans visualize themselves as a multi-dimensional conscience; mainstream will ascribe to the concept, as well; eventually.


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