Monday, May 28, 2007
I have always thought that one of the liberating things about writing is that the book is judged on its own merits. I guess that was pretty naive, but as a reader I never knew anything about authors. I read every book I could get my hands on, over the course of ten years or so I read almost every fiction book in the public library and was working my way systematically through the non-fiction floor too. I read a lot of books in the genres I could get cheaply in mass market paperbacks and second hand, mainly romance and westerns. I had also worked around issues of wanting to write about people not like me, specifically gay men. Fiction should free the writer too. We should write would we are moved to write; what we can earn money from writing; what we can write well. So all was happy and free in the world of fiction.
Then, of course, I grew up and joined the real world. I have made mixed comments on the issue of gay-specific shelving. On one hand I said that if this kind of shelving sells more books, then I as a writer am content. But over time I am less and less convinced by this, that is is a good reason--or that it is true at all. Even as one of those readers specifically seeking gay fiction in my local stores I have a hard time finding this small section. I generally go there after browsing the romance and fantasy shelves and before picking up my favorite magazines from the 'Men's Interest' section. I visit my own meagre print publications in their own out of the way places. My poem, not in the poetry section but under 'Religious Writing' (I am an atheist), and my story in a romance anthology in the sex/recovery>erotica section. Why on earth am I giving this store and its odd shelving policies the benefit of the doubt?
Just yesterday I got a Borders gift card. I had recently been visiting Blogging in Black and Monica Jackson's blog and this made me think about how many romance books I had read with black main characters. I could bring to mind sci fi books (4), a memoir (1) and sagas (2) but not a single romance. And given how voriaciously I have read this genre over two decades that simply means I never came across one. How strange is that? They do exist. So, I had already ordered some but Amazon (shown above) and noticed that when you look at one AA romance all the other "suggested" books and reader's lists are AA romance (when you look at AA/inspirational all the suggested books are both AA and inspy) every single one. Where is the crossover readership? When I checked a few general fantasy and mainstream books the recommendations were defintiely more mixed.
So this seemed like a good opportunity to see what Borders had to offer. I knew where the African American literature section was entirely because it is just to the left of the gay and lesbian literature. It is almost three horizontal sections and I had a look at every book there. In proportion to fiction in general about 40% was romance. I noted most of it was contemporary and urban with no historical and very little speculative fiction. Other than that the range was very diverse. There were themes that were pretty uncommon on the main romance shelves, for example infidelity comes up across many books, both gay and lesbian works are present as well as inspirational.
A quick check confirms that someone like Laurinda D. Brown (author of "Walk Like a Man") is consider more black than she is lesbian as she appears in only the AA section. My other purchase "He's Fine... But is he Saved" by Kimberley Brooks is more black than it is inspirational/religious. Having books shelved by race and sexuality is interesting enough but the fact that race is often a 'trump' genre is fascinating. As are the exceptions. I could one of the black authors I recalled having previously read in sci fi, shelved with the other sci fi. Nor did there seem to be any fantasy or sci fi in the AA section with the exception of one high concept literary work that would have to be considered something like a sci fi equivalent of magical realism.
Damned if I really know what this all means but probably the most interesting part of it all was this. I stood in the AA section for a good 15 minutes picking my books. As I walked up to it there was a guy browing already in the first section. So I started with the second and worked over to the third. I became aware the guy was staring at me. He even leaned over to be able to see my face. Having been taught as a teen to clarify and be aware of potentially negative male attention I looked at him directly, to see if he would strike up harmless conversation or back off. He picked up a book near him on the shelf and pretended to ignore me until I looked away again. Then he went to a nearby music listening post and kept staring at me, then came back to the shelf on the other side. When I went to the magazine shelf he followed and then he drifted off at the register. So, either this is an unprecedented case of a guy who finally appreciated me as the exquisite Goddess that I am, or a white women browsing the AA section is a sight worth fifteen minutes of solid staring. And that's weird... isn't that weird? I got less reaction buying gay porn magazines!
So, anyway, I am inviting you all to send in recommendations or reviews specifically of romances with black main characters. And after that I will be on the hunt for romances with Asian, Polynesian, Maori, Aboriginal etc characters--and onwards from there to whatever else needs more attention (older characters, disabled characters, romances set somewhere other than US/Europe?). Because romance really shouldn't be so perfectly separated into arbitrary subsections according to race, sexuality (type or amount), age, or religion. If romance readers in general are happy for their genre area to include bondage, historical and blue-skinned aliens it should be possible to 'accidentally' come across books there about black people and gays rather then needing a free half hour and a good map to even find where they are shelved.