Friday, October 12, 2007

Why Did I Get Married?

I'm one of the lucky ones. I had all my marital doubt immediately after getting married. Once I got through the first year, the rest has been easy. I know why I got married and I'm very glad I did.

Tyler Perry's movie, Why Did I Get Married?, opens today, and I'm looking forward to it. I really enjoyed Daddy's Little Girls, and I like a lot of these actors, so I have high hopes. But here's something to think about: In the "mainstream media" (and I get a lot of it: NY Times, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, New York magazine, The New Yorker, O Magazine, Vanity Fair), I've seen not one review, not one article. (Though I did see a review on E! Online today, where I swiped this photo from.) The movie has been all over African American media, and black folks, I'm sure, will support it. But couldn't white people and Latinos and others enjoy a movie about four couples working out their marital issues? If the characters are black, does that mean only blacks can relate?

I bring this up as a black writer (whose debut novel has a black protagonist) who hopes for a wide readership (Let's say it straight: I want white folks to buy my book. I want Latinas and Asians and anybody and everybody.). But how will they buy it if they don't hear about it? And even if they hear about it, will they read it? There's plenty of opinions out there about the idea that, unless its "literary" whites don't read books about blacks. Call me naive (you won't be the first), but I'm hoping to hit the spot that Terry McMillan, Pearl Cleage and Bebe Moore Campbell hit. These are black women writers of "commercial" fiction that reached a wider audience. A very rare breed, let me tell you.

Oh, one more thing the movie and Orange Mint and Honey have in common: both are set in Colorado.


iyan and egusi soup: said...


a relevant post, indeed. of course this is the issue that black writers (of literary and other types of fiction) continue to work through. books by white writers are regarded as just "books". most books by black writers and other writers of color become 'books by a [fill in race or ethnicity] writer.'

i feel no qualms about mostly reading writers of color--after all, most readers (literary or otherwise) aren't supporting these writers with their time or wallets. when i write, i have to push this sort of 'marketplace' issue out of my mind--otherwise, i wouldn't create the kind of work i want.

Lisa said...

As you know, this subject gnaws at me, not only as it relates to African American fiction, but as it relates to all Women's fiction as well. Non-genre fiction written by men (and not just white men) is just fiction. Unless you're Toni Morrison, Annie Proulx or Joyce Carol Oates (or a few others), fiction written by women is categorized.

I think authors recognize this is a dual edged sword and that categorization does have its upside because readers who seek fiction written in a specific category do know where to find it. I'm a reader who represents the downside. I would read fiction that is shelved in other places, but I typically shop the "just released" tables and the fiction sections. I never venture out into the rest of the bookstore and into the shelves with labels on them.

It's not because I wouldn't read many of the other books. I would and I do and I have, but only if someone recommends the book to me.

There was a comment made in the post you linked to that I really relate to. The author said she'd heard from a white reader who said she didn't know if she was "supposed" to read the book.

I can't articulate why this is, but I feel exactly the same way most times. It is as if by marketing a book as African American fiction, there is an invisible message that I realize does not exist that says "this was not written for you". It's as if I feel like I wouldn't want a black person to see me reading a book marketed as AA in public because I'd feel like I'd somehow trespassed into territory where I'm not invited or taken something that doesn't belong to me.

Oddly, as the author of the post you linked to mentioned, this does not apply to fiction written about other ethnicities. I've read Asian, Middle Eastern, African and Jewish writers where the ethnicity of the characters is a major part of the story. AA fiction is American fiction (as are many of the books by Jewish writers) but somehow it does not seem to feel the same way. God knows I am probably displaying some horrible form of cultural ignorance by sharing this, but I believe it is the truth.

One large benefit to having spent many years in the military is that I also comfortably worked, lived and socialized with people from all ethnicities and all parts of the country. Granted, we were all living within the same cultural context and so we were not at all representative of American culture. My point is that I have been very close to many more individual black and hispanic friends than the average white American, traveled a good deal of the world and have less fears and phobias about cultures outside my own, and yet I still have this weird reaction to fiction marketed as AA.

I want to be included, I want to know about the books, I'm just not sure I'm welcome.

Do you think the people who decide how to market AA fiction understand this bizarre apprehension?

Movies are completely different. Since we get to see a preview of a movie and have an understanding for what the story will be, I don't think a lot of movie watchers hesitate to see films based on the racial composition of the cast. "Why Did I Get Married" will be stereotyped as a chick flick before it gets called anything else.

Sorry to go on for so long, but this a really good post and a good chance to have a discussion.

Sherry said...

Your point is valid and well made. Is it the visual aspect? That people "see" it is about black couples and think they can't relate? Is it in the marketing of the film(s) by the people in charge of that? I'm not sure. I long for the day when it is just "a story" and not a story "about" where it is relevant the the couples are white, black, mixed, asian...etc.
I'm reading your book "Walk Tall" and loving it...and while it is written from the perspective (I can assume this from the title "affirmations for people of color") of being proud of who you are as "fill in the blank"...I'm taking it in my own interpretation to mean any, white, red, yellow...but even further...I'm just looking at these affirmations that we should all, no matter who we are, whatever our heritage and background live up to.
If this book is any indication, you should have no difficulty at all as being seen in the same company as the Terry McMillans et al.

Carleen Brice said...

I'm so glad I have such thoughtful readers willing to share their opinions and feelings!

I&E, yes, please don't think about the market as you write. Cross that bridge when you come to it. Just so happens I'm there.

Lisa, thanks for being brave enough to say how you feel about this. It brings up all kinds of things. Like, what is AA fiction in the first place? Is it a book by a black author with black characters or is the subject matter somehow different--dealing with issues that a white writer and white characters wouldn't be dealing with?

What about those books makes you feel unwelcome or makes you feel like you'd be reading something you're not "supposed" to read? I kind of understand your feeling and I kind of don't. I read books by all kinds of writers and I've never had the sensation that I'm not welcome to read them. However, I've been around my Latina sister-in-law and her sisters when they're all speaking Spanish (when they also speak English and me and my family are sitting at the same table) and that makes me feel unwelcome--it feels designed to leave us out, and it sounds like that's how you feel. So do you think AA books speak a different language? Do they?

This is one of the many ways that history warps things that should be so simple. Thanks again for sharing!

Sherry, Thanks for your email and for reading Walk Tall. That book, that book. So many people over the years asked me if it was OK if they could read it. I'm glad you are. Yes, it speaks specifically to issues that people of color have, but it also speaks to the human condition. Pink people are welcome!

The reason for "limiting" the audience in that instance was to get published. At the time I was shopping the book, there was no other book like it (Acts of Faith and Black Pearls came out later). It was a way of carving out a niche for myself and the book, and it was a way of addressing issues about how race has affected people of color that were/are really important to me.

The Walk Tall book specifies "for people of color," but while the Age Ain't Nothing but a Number anthology is all black women's experience with midlife, no where on the book does it say non-AA women aren't welcome, and I've known a lot of non-AA women have read it and enjoyed it. Why not just have an anthology of women writing about midlife? It had been done. This was a way of bringing new voices to the table.

This whole topic is larger than my little blog, so I'm very grateful to you all for reading and trying to distill such large issues into bits small enough for the comments field.

You all help illustrate the bind that publishers have: How do publishers market a book by an AA author to other AA people AND make other readers feel invited to the party?

The bigger question, of course, is why is that even an issue?

Shauna Roberts said...

I feel somewhat as Lisa does. I feel awkward and guilty when I'm in the African-American section of the bookstore, as if I'm intruding. Most of the AA books I read that are marketed as AA are by people I know or have some connection to, as if that personal link somehow legitimizes my buying the book.

I don't feel the same way about books starring black characters if they're placed outside the AA section. (For example, Octavia Butler's books are shelved under science fiction or sometimes general fiction.)

The gossip I hear from romance writers is that romance publishers want to market black writers as "black romance writers" rather than as just "romance writers" and discourage authors from writing books whose main characters are of other ethnic groups.

I can understand that black romance readers probably get tired of reading love stories starring white heroines and appreciate having lines like Kimani available that allow them to quickly find a book with a black heroine (just as I am glad publishers now publish science fiction and fantasy with female heroines and strong female characters, who rarely appeared in classic sf/f).

It just seems to me that publishers would do better marketing AA books both to the black community and to a wider audience. I think what attracts people to books are their themes or plots or locales or other universals. If someone enjoys reading about cowboys and the Wild West, for example, they would probably be interested in all kind of cowboy books, not just Hispanic cowboys (if they're Hispanic) or white cowboys (if they're white) or women cowboys (if they're women).

Carleen, have you ever had a publisher or agent steer you away from an idea or suggest changes to a book because it wasn't AA enough?

Shauna Roberts said...

Carleen, you asked:
"Like, what is AA fiction in the first place? Is it a book by a black author with black characters or is the subject matter somehow different--dealing with issues that a white writer and white characters wouldn't be dealing with?"

An interesting anecdote: One day I asked a friend (in the company of other friends who had all read the book) what made her book an AA romance instead of just a plain old romance. She didn't know; that was just how the publisher chose to market it. The rest of us discussed whether we would have guessed the characters were black if there hadn't been a description of them, and some of us wouldn't have.

In that case, the AA label seems to have been for marketing purposes only. On the other hand, a book like The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter was marketed as general fiction as I recall, yet racial identity was a major theme of the book and the main character's race affected the plot at many points.

Lafreya said...

As and African American writer I am so happy when I see someone white reading a book by an African American author. To me it means that on some level there's now a two way conversation going on. It means that the person reading the book looked pass their discomfort and took the chance to step out into a wider world.

In my critique group my fellow white writers ( I'm the only AA) thought I would be thrilled when they told me that my WIP was the first time they had ever encountered African American characters. They were surprise when I told them that I found that really sad because as writers they should be reading as widely as possible and that my WIP is not where they should be starting.

I make an effort to read as widely as I have time. I feel that it is important to experience as many views of our world as possible. I feel that it is my responsibility as a writer to do so.

Lisa said...

You know I think I would only identify fiction as "AA" fiction if it was in that special section. I wouldn't hesitate to pick up a book if it was just laying on a table with all of the other releases. I'm glad Shauna mirrored that weird, awkward feeling of intruding I described. I don't think I can explain it. It's not because anybody has ever made me feel that way. To beat a cliche to death, it has something to do with white liberal guilt that I don't even understand myself. The more I talk myself through this, the more irrational it is. It's like, I cannot pretend to understand what it's like to be someone else and therefore, I shouldn't venture into the AA section of the bookstore because then maybe I look like I think "I get it". Now that sounds even dumber yet (forgive me world for going public with all of this, but I am being 100% truthful). As I work through this I realize one of the best ways to gain understanding would be to -- read fiction written by black writers -- duh.

Carleen Brice said...

Well, I'm happy we're having this conversation because so often black folks feel we "get" white folks better than white folks "get" us and this is one time when I don't "get" it.

It sounds like equating reading a AA book to dating an AA man (something I'm not against, btw, but I know a whole lot of sisters are) or like "stealing" our culture, as a lot of us feel some blues, rock & jazz musicians did. But to me, it's so not the same thing. I'm with Lafreya on this one. I'd be delighted to see a white person browsing books by authors of color.

Lisa, don't freak out. You're being honest and that's always a good thing. Keep it up. I think race discussions would happen a lot more if more people were willing to tell their scary secrets about it.

Shauna, No, I've never had that experience. However, I think race had something to do with how my novel sold. I think more than a few editors didn't see it as "black" enough and/or didn't buy that it would make it as a "mainstream" novel. I received two offers, both for book-club programs, and the first editor (who's offer I didn't accept) did speak to me about wanting to market the book to a wider audience, and my current publisher is on board with that. So somebody (at least a few somebodies) get it. And I have to say my agent really saw the book the same way I did and pitched it that way, something I'm really grateful for.

We could go around for eons about the pros and cons of having an AA section in the first place. There are definitely benefits and limitations. Does one side outweigh the other? I don't think anybody's figured that out yet. I suspect it's just like with most things: a lot of publishers care about their books and authors and are trying to do the best they can by them (targeting them to an audience guaranteed to be interested) and a lot of publishers are being short-sighted and biased (not even considering that their AA books could have a wider audience). Nothing new there.

Thanks again for all your comments!

Sherry said...

What an excellent conversation. We write what we feel, we write from our hearts...we express what we know. The human condition is just that..human. Somewhere, somehow barriers were put in place and it is up to use to knock down those barriers.
And Carleen, however you had to market "Walk Tall" to have it published (and lets be realistic here, there are a number of AA women who need to hear this be proud, to walk tall..and amen to that), I'm just glad that it was published. It's an affirmation, pure and true.

The Writers' Group said...

Carleen, thanks for pointing out the elephant in the room.

When I lived in Washington, DC, I saw Boomerang with Eddie Murphy, Halle Berry & Robin Givens. It's still one of my favorite movies, but none of my non-AA friends were interested. Why not?

Why do bookstores have AA sections?

In my book, one of the main characters is an AA man. Several people -- none in my writers' group -- were uncomfortable that a white woman was writing from the POV of an African-American man. Why?

We are all working our way through this life, each of us with different experiences to be certain. But the fact remains that we all share some universal truths as well: our loves, our triumphs, our pains, our devastating losses.


Sassy Sistah said...

Hi Carleen & all,

This is a great discussion and one I think people need to have more often.

When I first started seeing books by AA authors labeled as such and separated from other books, both at the book stores and the library, it really bothered me. It just seemed like more separation and I didn't think that was a good thing.

Eventually, I sort of got used to it and figured the labeling was done to make it easier for African Americans to find authors who were also African American. I still didn't think it was a great idea but if it sold more books...okay. Does it sell more books? I don't know.

I don't mind browsing through the AA section - although Lisa is right - it did feel "odd" at first. I do enjoy reading about the experiences of people of different races and cultures though. I usually learn something and that's always good. But to be honest about it - unless the AA section is right up front, where you can't miss it (and around here, it's usually stuck in the back of the store) - most white people probably won't think about finding it and browsing. And that's a cryin' shame - both for the writer and the reader.

But here's another thing...real life (at least MY life) is not made up of only one type (or color) of person. It is filled with people of all kinds of races, religions, cultures, backgrounds, economic and social circles. I have white, black, and native american kids who call me "mom." I have friends and co-workers and family of different religions and races, etc.

Not all books are meant to be a reflection of life, but those that are, seem more realistic to me if they have characters that are not all one race.

I realize though that for many books, the ethnicity of the main character(s) is central to the story. Let's say, a story about three friends, all of whom happen to be African American. Their AA heritage is important to the story. Would I read that book? Of course I would - if the story is good, if the characters are interesting. Just like I would if the main characters are Latino or white or whatever. Actually, I'd probably learn more if the characters are a different ethnicity.

I don't know...I just think we (as people) miss so much when we limit ourselves. And I don't think the publishing world is necessarily doing an author a favor by labeling a book AA. Sorry...I've rambled on too long...