Just attended the best literary event of my life, and, guess what? It was my f@&%!^& event! An evaluation from the world’s toughest critic reports that the inaugural Kimbilio retreat was a massive success. Which is to say that no one is harder on himself than me, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome.
The publishing numbers for younger readers are grim, but things have been A LOT worse. During my classroom years, you could line up the multicultural fiction on one shelf and still have room for several sets of encyclopedias. This was just before the emergence of Walter Dean Myers’ star, and if you wanted to do right in terms of reflecting the culture of the students, the pickins’ were pretty slim. In fact, the choices were two: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Sounder.
A challenge for you: Name five novels with multicultural casts of characters. Multi is the operative word: the books on your list must include characters from at least three clearly identified cultural groups. Go.
For some reason this spring I got into more than the usual number of “but it really happened that way” discussions in my fiction workshops. I’m always intrigued by the numbers of young writers who believe that the incidents recounted in short stories and novels are fundamentally autobiographical. Much of this is connected to how limited their reading experience is and the fact that some of their literature teachers in high school and college teach through an autobiographical lens. And we live in the age of the memoir, and the distinctions between genres are not of much interest to these readers.
Cyberland’s recent meltdown over an outrageous plot twist on everyone’s favorite high fantasy series got me thinking again about the speculative fiction class, in particular what they chose to write about. My worst nightmare had been that I might , in fact, walk into a room full of George R.R. Martin wannabees. Building a world the size of the multiple kingdoms in the Game of Thrones saga has defeated many an accomplished writer; with the young and inexperienced, the outcome would more than likely have been a… mess. A dog’s breakfast of half-baked and endless plot summaries interrupted every few pages by a not very well wrought battle scene.
- That loving, say, high fantasy doesn’t automatically shut down one’s critical faculties. My students were clear and precise about the pervasive problems with a lot of the books in their favorite genres: the flat characterization, implausible plotting, the overwriting. A bad book is a bad book, they repeatedly assured me, waving their hands at my shelves full of “literary” novels, daring me to defend one and all.
Several years back, my friend and fellow novelist Rosalyn Story (More Than You Know, Wading Home) visited the Uptown branch of Borders Books, not far from my house here in Dallas. In honor of Black History Month, a table of books in a prominent position in the store had been stacked high with titles that someone deemed appropriate for the celebration.
There were the standard titles, of course: your Morrison, your Wright, your Baldwin. There’s Zora, there’s Maya, there’s Alice; nothing surprising here—and your diligent K-12 teachers who want to celebrate the month in style can order the matching posters from their favorite educational supply warehouse.
What distressed Rosalyn was to find these titles rather randomly sprinkled among a collection of the trashiest romance and “street” novels she had ever seen. Glossily wrapped pulp fiction with covers featuring oiled brown skin and titles advising the reader how to satisfy a thug or win at being a diva. By all evidence “bitch” is popular word to use when titling such books.
Rosalyn called over the manager—that’s how she rolls—to express her extreme displeasure and to offer him a lecture about African American history and culture. The manager responded with her own standard lecture about how the list of SKU’s comes directly from Ann Arbor, directing them which books belong on which tables in the store and in what quantities. “These are the ones that the customers want. Sorry.”
I’d been in those offices in Ann Arbor, back when Live at Five was about to come out in hardcover. Publishers of two of my books arranged for me to meet with the staff and talk about the book and how we could work together to make it a success. More sheepishly than Rosalyn, I imagine, I asked them about Borders “African American” fiction shelving policy. They gave me the same answer: it’s what the customers want.
I’m looking at that star again, trying to imagine how it will fare next to ample and oily brown bosoms and pecs. Maybe back to the design studio for this one?
But, then again, Black History Month only comes once a year and Borders Books has gone the way of the dinosaur. Perhaps there is hope?
A while back, I was denizen of a policy office, and one of my coworkers was also an avid and serious reader. Frequently we’d share recommendations and every now and then actual books. I remember telling her about an Alan Hollinghurst novel I was reading, and I described for her the plot and tone.
“Oh, so it’s a gay novel,” she responded.
Yesterday, Cathy Day, my colleague (way, way) over at Ball State posted on Facebook about a lively and engaging discussion she had with her novel class concerning the identity labels we slap on books. She asked her students:
“Do you think of the book you’re writing as literary or commercial?” Only 3 out of 15 students said literary, but just as we started getting in a really good discussion about THAT, I realized that class had been over for five minutes and nobody’d noticed.