LW: Oh, Hi! Let’s Talk about Black Fiction.

Hey there!

Well, it’s been more than a year since I’ve published a new blog post. Supposedly it’s VERY IMPORTANT to post regularly on a business website. But is that true if the reason you don’t post is because you’re so busy with, you know, business? I suspect that my clients would much prefer I finish their edits rather than write blog posts.

But now, in June of 2020, I’ve got something to say, and here it is:

Black Lives Matter.

In addition to posting regularly, I understand that it’s very important for a business website to avoid politics. But that’s okay, because the fact that black lives matter is not a political position, it’s a human one.

Now don’t worry, I’m not going to sit here and explain why black lives matter, why “all lives matter” is racist nonsense, why using the police to assault and potentially murder citizens whether one by one on random street corners or en masse at peaceful protests is antithetical to America’s best values. I’m not even going to write a lengthy performative mea culpa about how I’ve been racist or behaved in a racist manner or allowed my own privilege to blind me. Like a lot of white people, I have, I did, I will, and I feel like shit about it. I’m working on it, but I’m not going to make you listen to me talk about it.

Instead, I want to talk about books.

I can hear you groaning. There have been so many—so many—anti-racist reading lists published in the last two weeks. And now here’s another one?

Nope.

The blind spot in most of those lists is a focus on nonfiction. Nonfiction is important. Reading memoirs, sociology, and history is a great way to understand our world. But it’s not the only way, and I’m not even convinced it’s the best way, especially for people like me who learn best through stories.

I think the best way to get a glimpse into “a life you have not time to live yourself” and “a world you have not time to travel in literal time,” as John Ciardi wrote, is to read fiction.

So we should read fiction written by black authors, yes? But where? Which? How do I find them?

Well, the research is actually pretty easy. Just google your favorite genre and “black authors,” and I promise you’ll find some.

But I’m also a sucker for a good list. I spend most of December and January every year skimming best-of lists for the year just past and the year to come. And then there are the Grandaddy lists, the lists that claim to be the end-all, be-all, like Time‘s list of the (supposedly) 100 greatest novels.

One of those lists comes from the Great American Read program. Remember that show on PBS two years ago?

Okay, so a business blog is also supposed to be current. Shoot me.

But that show has stuck with me—or rather the list of books has stuck with me. The show itself was pretty cheesy. I wanted it to be a Ken Burns–style documentary and instead we got a fourth-grade educational video.

But the point is the books. The list of 100 “great American books” was initially chosen through professional opinion polling (which I’m pretty sure was legitimate because it included Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight, among other horrors*) and then viewers were invited to vote for their favorite. As I recall, you could vote online once a day, and I voted at least once for several favorites, including Charlotte’s Web, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. None of my favorites won. The winner, predictably, was To Kill a Mockingbird. Mockingbird was groundbreaking for its time but it is, shall we say, problematic for the contemporary era and its win was disappointing given that it was up against novels like Beloved and Their Eyes Were Watching God. It says a lot about the US psyche that we collectively picked a book that told the story of racism through the eyes of a little white child who observed but had no power to act. “Racism is just terrible,” we tell each other, “but what can do?”

Lots of things, actually. A really easy thing to do is read some books written by actual African-American adults.

So here’s a question: Out of those 100 “great American books” chosen by average Americans, how many were written by authors of color? The answer is 15 percent:

  • The Color Purple, Walker
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marquez
  • Beloved, Morrison
  • Invisible Man, Ellison
  • Things Fall Apart, Achebe
  • Americanah, Adiche
  • Another Country, Baldwin
  • Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya
  • The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Diaz
  • White Teeth, Smith
  • Ghost, Reynolds
  • The Coldest Winter Ever, Sister Souljah
  • The Intuitionist, Whitehead
  • Doña Barbara, Gallegos

How many were written specifically by black authors? Eleven percent:

  • The Color Purple, Walker
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston
  • Beloved, Morrison
  • Invisible Man, Ellison
  • Things Fall Apart, Achebe
  • Americanah, Adiche
  • Another Country, Baldwin
  • White Teeth, Smith
  • Ghost, Reynolds
  • The Coldest Winter Ever, Sister Souljah
  • The Intuitionist, Whitehead

How many were written specifically by African-American authors? Eight percent:

  • The Color Purple, Walker
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston
  • Beloved, Morrison
  • Invisible Man, Ellison
  • Another Country, Baldwin
  • Ghost, Reynolds
  • The Coldest Winter Ever, Sister Souljah
  • The Intuitionist, Whitehead

I’ve only read three on this list, so I’m going to start here, specifically with The Intuitionistfor no other reason than because I wanted The Color Purple but my local bookstore didn’t have it in stock. They did have Colson Whitehead’s debut novel, written before the accolades for The Underground Railroad and his most recent novel, The Nickel Boys. (If you’ve avoided Whitehead because magical realism isn’t your bag, grab The Nickel Boys. It’s entirely realistic historical fiction based on actual events but it has an incredible plot twist that you’ll never see coming. It’s short, too, and can easily be read in a weekend, even if you’re busy with other stuff.)

Sorry, I was talking about The Intuitionist. Or rather I will talk about it after I’ve read it. If you’re wondering what to read and don’t know where to start, read The Intuitionist with me. Or choose another title that appeals.

Whatever you choose, just don’t forget, Reading Is Fun! You should definitely read books like How to Be an Anti-RacistBetween the World and Me, and Eloquent Rage, among many, many others. But make sure you’re reading for fun, too. Read fiction not only because it’s good for you but because you completely lose track of time because you’re holding your breath while Janie Mae is trying to take care of Tea Cake as he becomes delusional and violent after he gets bitten by that rabid dog. Don’t just read to know, read to feel. 

 

*I’m not here to shame anyone for their reading choices, but the writing in both those books is objectively terrible. Devour them if those stories are your bag, but try to read some better writers, too, yeah?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s