Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sign Of The Times

Since I wrote in last year about why we should use the "L" word when describing black literary works, I've been thinking more about the need to name things. Do we really need to be so overt? No one ever sees signs that say, "literary white fiction", after all.

Yet, when I'm driving upstate with my family along a familiar highway, I often see those bright orange detour signs that let you know the road is under construction, that changes are going on, and that you have to turn here to get where you want to go.

That's how I think of black literary works these days -- under construction. It's not like it was, back in the day when the very fact that a black writer was published meant that a vetting process had occurred and the work was of a certain ambition and quality. Morrison, Walker, Baldwin, Bambara, et al,, had to be good or their books wouldn't be in print. Not so true now. All kinds of black books are getting published -- literary, yes, but also pulp fiction, genre fiction, popular and street. Some of that work is ambitious and some of it's not. So how does a reader inch through the pile up?

Road signs.

Labeling something as "black literary fiction/non-fiction" is a corrective, a temporary measure for the particular times that we're in. Just like on a highway, at some point the signs will be removed when the new thing is in place. Meanwhile signage helps. It helps the reader navigate a bookstore; it helps the bookstore promote certain kinds of work; it helps young African American writers aspire to have their own books in that section of the bookstore; it helps professors of AA lit discover new books they can add to their syllabi; and it helps publishers clarify what it is they're publishing. Voila! Everyone's expectations get managed.

I think of labeling as a navigational device, a GPS of black literary works.

RingShout itself is a road sign. We want to identify ambitious work by black writers so there's no mystery about what it is, no claim that it doesn't exist or can't be found, no excuse to let it linger on the shadowy back roads of our culture.

I certainly wish, as an emerging writer, I'd had some kind of tool to help me navigate my way -- nothing like a good road sign to get you where you want to go. Or need to be.

Bridgett M. Davis


Conseula said...

But surely we aren't suggest that there is no literary merit to be found in pulp fiction, genre fiction, romance, street fiction, etc.? Does the aspiring black writer only deserve our attention and support if they aspire to the the next Toni Morrison?

As a professor of African American literature, I spend all of my teaching time and most of personal reading time on literary fiction, so I fully appreciate the desire to create a larger market for this work. But as a professor of AA lit, it is not my job to read "road signs," it's my job to help create them. I would be remiss if I only read Morrison and Baldwin and Bambara (who, if we are going by your definition and reading only those who have been 'vetted,' would have had an incredibly difficult time finding an audience during the 60s and 70s). Octavia Butler's work is amazing, but decidedly genre fiction. Butler was perfectly content to a genre writer. The same can be said for Nalo Hopkinson and Tananarive Due. The work of these writers exhibit tremendous "ambition and quality" without aspiring to be "literary" in the sense that you seem to mean here. The only way to know this, though, is by reading them, engaging their work. A "road sign," like the one you're suggesting might keep these books out the hands of the very people you are trying to reach.

I am incredibly sympathetic to ringshout's project. I think it is a fantastic idea. I don't think it's productive, however, to draw needless lines in the sand.

susan said...

Conseula, I hear you but I agree with the intent here and as someone who is trying to help non-readers and reluctant readers read, the signage not only helps, it is needed. Our library is labeled by interest and not the standard Dewey system. Why, because I learned the hard way that I had to start with where my girls were not where I wanted them to be, and if they couldn't find what they knew, they were not interested in hearing me talk about broadening their reading habits. So yes, I need a neon sign that says urban black fiction. I need a sign that says science fiction, mystery, women's lit and multicultural. Let my UBF girl pick up Morrison and ask me how long it takes me to get her back in the library.

When a girl comes in the library she usually has no clue or is very clear about what she wants. We need signs to help us quickly get her to something she will read.If I'm lucky, I'm actually working when she comes in and I can ask a few questions or point out sections and tell her what she'll find there. Often visitors have just a few minutes and little patience to browse.

I had a staff member who read a lot of AA and science fiction and little literary work. I pointed out what she wanted and over time she asked me for my recommendations. A little more than a year later, she has read almost everything in our womens' lit and multicultural sections. She says when she comes in the library now this is the area she goes to first.

And when others see her reading they want to know what it is. They often ask to read her book when she's done.

I don't think the aim here is to label one genre superior. The aim is to have readers broaden their habits by giving them a heads up what to expect. Who says a urban black reader won't read something literary? I know they do because I'm the one who spends all her waking hours outside of her day job scouring bookstores and book trading sites and reading reviews on blogs trying to bring in literature our community will read.

As a professor, maybe it not your job to read road signs. But I'm not an academic. I'm a blue collar gal with a little education working in the inner city trying to inform young minds. I'm trying to positively impact young women who can be more if someone gave them something to feed their minds.

Call me Cora the construction worker. Don't mind my neon vest. If you'll excuse me, I've got a few signs to put up.

By the way, I have every author you've listed in our library and I've read almost every one. My tbr is huge.

Claudia said...

Excellent conversation, Consuela and Susan. And so important. I'd love to weigh in:

Book categories, like canons, are by their nature limiting - and so it seems to me that the label "literary" will exclude a range of valuable works even as it celebrates quality writing. I think I'm actually okay with that, because I also don't think that literary fiction is inherently better than genre fiction, pulp, or even graphic novels.

But perhaps what can be useful about Bridgett's notion of "road signs" is the idea that WE - black writers, readers, academics, librarians - are taking back the power to make the distinctions within black writing traditions. Otherwise, publishers and book stores will inevitably use the same outdated, lazy or misinformed road signs that fail to recognize the depth and diversity of black writing.

With this in mind, it seems perfectly reasonable to argue that Octavia Butler - known for genre fiction - also qualifies as "black literary writer" in the same way that someone like Ishmael Reed would. But the 600-page black vampire novel that my cousin self-published online may not qualify (kidding!) - so I guess what I'm saying is that if we don't draw some lines in the sand, I'm afraid that we might just be allowing others to do it for us.

Bridgett said...

Thank you all for your feedback. I feel strongly that we need to have a spirited conversation about defining our literature, and I'm glad to see it happening.