Monday, May 28, 2007

You Are What You... Read?

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.


Anne D said...

You know, I don't think I've ever not read a book because it's been written by a black/gay/lesbian ... well, fill in your minority here.

A book's a book to me, it's either good or it's bad, it amuses/enthralls/excites/entertains me or it bores me. I don't see why the race or sexuality of the author should make any difference. If it's romance it should go in romance, scifi in scifi etc etc unless its history/science specific.

Actually, now that I think on it, I tell a lie. I did choose not to take a couple of AA books out of the library because they were written in 'the modern black womans vernacular'. I've read plenty of contemp AA stories that use colloquial language, but these couple I had no freaking clue what they were saying. So just like I don't go out of my way to read Shakespeare, I left these on the shelf, though I've read any number of stories with black characters, mainly because BBW women are frequent heroines.

But the bottomline is, I buy what I like to read - usually historicals (weird, huh, since I write contemp) - I don't give a flying fig if the authors gay, black or an alien with purple polkadots until they try shove it down my throat playing the minority author card.

I'm sorry, being a minority author doesn't make your book good, only your skill as an author will do that.

Write a good book and I'll read it.

On a side note, I would like to know if in the rest of the world, ie not America, authors strike these same problems. I don't remember seeing it NZ, though I'll admit I wasn't looking, but I've haunted my fair share of Auckland bookshops.

veinglory said...

I wasn't thinking about author identity here, only characters. I am curious if you have read a romance where the main character was black? Or generally not white?

I am reading my first now which seem seriously odd to me -- and finding very little difference in venacular. I deliberately didn't choose anything that's being all urban/ghetto. Which only seemed to be 10-15% of what was there.

In fact I would probably have bought many of these books if they had been in a shelving area I visit just as I have read Octavia Butler who is in general sci fi.

Anne D said...

Yup, Asian, Black Americans (if that's a term I dare use), I don't know I've read one with an African lead.

Though it seems historicals with coloured leads are usually early American set in New Orleans where mixed race courtesans seem to be all the range so I've not read many historicals that cross the skin colour divide.

Louisa Trent said...

Try Eric Jerome Dickey. I've read and enjoyed his work. All About Romance Reviews gave him two "A" reviews. He's quite popular. NY Times bestseller, etc.

I read my first "romancy" book with an AA male character when I was just a kid, A PATCH OF BLUE, which later went on to become a movie, with Sidney Poitier.

I write I/R and multi-cultural books, including historicals. Always have.

I've enjoyed reading your blog, Emily!

Louisa Trent

Mya said...

Ok, I'm not trying to be funny but as a minority, I've read lots of books by majority authors and while the male-dominated view points, cultural references and personal issues don't really apply to me, I got the desire to write from white Americans, British, French and Russian. Gay or straight what matters to me is the story and whether it can carry me away or stimulate me to dream.

Stacia said...

This is a great idea Emily. I'm going to be watching the recommendations so I can buy one from Amazon--I've never seen an AA section in any bookstore over here, at all.