Writers Like Me
I am a 46-year-old writer of “literary” fiction. I’ve had three novels published — the first for young people, the last two for adults. All have won minor prizes, been respectfully reviewed and sold modestly. I’ve been awarded a few fairly competitive fellowships and grants. The business is full of fiction writers like me. With one difference: I’m black, born and raised in the United States. At the parties and conferences I attend, and in the book reviews I read, I rarely encounter other African-American “literary” writers, particularly in my age bracket. There just don’t seem to be that many of us out there, and that’s something I’ve come to wonder about a great deal. And so I got on the phone with some editors and African-American writers to talk about it.
For many writers, middle age is when they hit their stride. Robert Gottlieb of Knopf, who has been Toni Morrison’s editor for many years, said, “Many very fine writers take time to get there.” Looking at the white American fiction writers who have the most cultural prominence, one quickly sees a large group in their 40s or 50s (Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody, Jane Smiley, Michael Cunningham et al.) who have generally had four or more major works of fiction published. Gottlieb points out that Morrison’s first two books sold adequately, but it wasn’t until her third novel, “Song of Solomon,” published the year she turned 46, that she had a commercial breakthrough. “It was larger and more ambitious, demonstrating a new power and authority, and the world noticed,” he said. “Some careers start with a bang — ‘Invisible Man,’ ‘Catch-22.’ Others take time to find a significant readership — Anne Tyler, Toni. And sometimes I feel that those are the healthiest ones.”
But when you look at the careers of African-American writers, you don’t always see that healthy arc. Ralph Ellison, for example, seemed to lose his way completely after “Invisible Man.” These days, there are only a few names of black authors born in the United States, beyond Morrison’s, that the average reader of serious fiction might easily drop — Colson Whitehead, ZZ Packer, Edward P. Jones. Of these three, only Jones is over 40.
In some ways, the American literary scene is more racially and culturally diverse than ever. A few examples: Of the 21 writers on Granta’s recent Best of Young American Novelists list, six (including Packer and Uzodinma Iweala) are people of color (many colors: black, South and East Asian, Hispanic), and seven were born or raised outside the United States. Indian writers born or educated here, like Jhumpa Lahiri, Vikram Chandra and Kiran Desai, win critical acclaim and big sales. “Girlfriend,” “urban-lit” and other branches of commercial genre fiction by African-Americans have continued to enjoy a boom since the door-busting success of Terry McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale” in 1992. But black authors writing in an ambitious, thoughtful way about American subjects are harder to find — even when they do get published. Malaika Adero, a senior editor at Atria Books, said: “Literary African-American writers have difficulty getting publicity. The retailers then don’t order great quantities of the books. Readers don’t know what books are available and therefore don’t ask for them. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Though the publishing industry remains overwhelmingly white, editors say they are always looking for good, marketable work by writers of any background. Morgan Entrekin, publisher of Grove/Atlantic, which recently published Michael Thomas’s first novel, “Man Gone Down” — one of the few novels by an African-American to grace the cover of this publication of late — said: “I don’t tend to approach the black writers we publish as African-American. I see them as writers first.”
But there’s colorblindness, and then there’s blindness. Christopher Jackson, executive editor at Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, tells a story about being mistaken for Iweala at the launch party for Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists issue — even though Iweala is more than 10 years Jackson’s junior, had just left the stage as an honoree and, frankly, doesn’t look much like Jackson. Let’s face it, something like that is awfully unlikely to happen to a white editor or writer. It’s hard to say whether this obtuseness translates into a lack of interest in African-American work, but some black writers think it might. The novelist Tayari Jones, author of “The Untelling,” said: “I know that there are very few black authors who publish the fourth novel. Hardly any of us are considered prestige authors, so no one is going to sign us up for our names alone.” Calvin Reid, a senior news editor at Publishers Weekly, who often covers African-American publishing, agrees that black writers stuck in the midlist face an uphill battle, but he sees it as a business reality, not a racial thing: “If you have two or three books out and you’ve never sold more than 3,000 copies, people make decisions based on that.”
Things are tough all over, but arguably tougher for some. For many black writers, a writing life very rarely unfolds the way it does for so many white writers you could name: know you want to be a writer from the age of 10, get your first book published at 26, go on to produce slowly but steadily over a lengthy career. Even Morrison didn’t follow that timeline: her first novel wasn’t published until she was nearly 40 and had worked for a number of years as a teacher and then an editor at Random House. And she didn’t quit that day job until urged to do so by Gottlieb in the mid-1970s, after “Sula” was published.
So what’s holding us up? Sometimes it’s just the ordinary difficulty of juggling family, writing and earning a living. But African-American writers also speak of a larger problem of what I’d call internal or cultural permission. It’s just plain harder to decide to be a writer if you don’t have a financial cushion or a long cultural tradition of people going out on that bohemian limb. Consider the case of Edward P. Jones. He published his first book, “Lost in the City,” in 1992 (he was 41 at the time) to much critical acclaim and a number of significant honors, if not huge sales. He returned to his day job at Tax Notes magazine, where he remained until he was laid off 10 years later. He then wrote “The Known World” in about six months — though he told me he’d been thinking about it nearly those whole 10 years. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize.
When asked why he didn’t make the leap to full-time writing sooner, Jones spoke firmly: “If you’re born poor or you’re born working-class, a job is important. People who are born with silver spoons in their mouths never have to worry. They know someone will take care of them. Worrying about not having a job would have put a damper on any creativity that I would have had. So I’m glad I had that job.”
The problem isn’t just money, says Randall Kenan, a 1994 Whiting Award winner who published two critically acclaimed books of fiction in 1989 and 1992, and two nonfiction books since 1999: “I think among middle-class black folk, it’s still a struggle to validate literature as a worthy way to spend your time.” ZZ Packer, the author of the story collection “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” who is currently at work on a novel, said the situation is somewhat different for those who are younger. (She is 34.) “People who came half a generation before us were the first ones to begin to go to elite colleges in larger numbers,” she said. “They were beholden to a lot of their parents’ expectations, namely, that if you go to a prestigious school, you’re going to become a doctor or a lawyer, you’re not going to ‘waste your time’ writing. People who are around my age have seen blacks in the Northeastern establishment for a while. … They don’t always feel the same obligation to ditch their dream for something more practical.”
It saddens me to think of the dreams that have been ditched, the stories that haven’t been told because of racism, because of fear and economic insecurity, because that first novel didn’t move enough copies. I hope to see the day when there are more of us at the party (and the parties), when the work of African-Americans who tell our part of the American story well receives the celebration, and the sales, it deserves.