Reading While Black or White: Do Readers Prefer Books Written by their Own?

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I wrote a post on my blog last month about a disturbing book review I read a few months ago. The reviewer dismissed Heidi W. Durrow's novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky because he couldn't relate to the biracial protagonist:

Durrow herself is biracial, and she writes capably on this subject. Still, she doesn’t always succeed in making you feel for her characters or believe her plot. Or perhaps I failed to more completely identify because I’m a white man. Other readers may be more powerfully moved, feeling to the bone the slights, grievances and complications that escape me.

I wrote that perhaps the reviewer shouldn't have reviewed the book -- or the magazine in which it was published shouldn't have published the review. Or perhaps the reviewer should have passed it on to someone who had a bit more objectivity. The reviewer gave the book 63 out of 100, and I wondered if the mark reflected the reviewer's inability to look outside his own navel. Just sayin.'

The review really bothered me, in part because I have lived in a world where the majority of books I was required to read in public school, high school, and university were written by white people. I have also reviewed books and music composed by white and non-black folks, and it never occurred to me to turn down a gig because I did not "comprehend" their life experiences. I can't afford to do that. If I did, I wouldn't have anything to write.

As a writer who just completed a non-fiction book, it worries me that, while I am confident in my subject matter, my book could be immediately dismissed because the reviewer does not know or care about the experiences of black women in the metal and hardcore music scene. It's a possibility, and one that I will eventually have to face.

Thea Lim, the deputy editor at Racialicious, recently responded to a writer who wondered if writers automatically write for "their own" -- that is to say, whether Black, Latino, White and Asian writers write for their ethno-cultural communities, assuming that the readers will look like they do. Do the characters in the book automatically come from the same ethno-cultural background as the writer? Says the questioner:

.... when I write fiction, I write white characters. When I read fiction I read them as white characters unless/until I am expressly told otherwise. This feels like an ignorant move on my part but at the same time, I feel that that’s what I do because I am white, and that people of other ethnicities read fiction as their ethnicity (or perhaps not, since the field is dominated a lot by dead white guys, but that’s another issue), and they write characters as their ethnicity.

Lim responds that she doesn't believe that white writers are consciously writing for "their own;" but that white writers' idea of what constitutes the "general public" means that essentially, they are writing for people they feel share their background and experiences. The thought that they have to write to an audience who does not share their cultural background is not even a consideration. Those who, because of economical, ethno-cultural or socio-economical differences, have lived lives completely opposite to the writer's (lives often not positively acknowledged in the public sphere) are invisible. These white writers assume that their "general public" MUST have these commonalities. These writers do not have to alter their narrative ... but POC writers do. From Lim's response:

Sidebar: I tend to have very little patience with white readers who tell me they didn’t like a piece of lit of color because they felt it “didn’t speak to them” or “it made them feel bad.” Readers of color learn the contortions necessary to be able to take part in Great Literature which may, in its whiteness, act as if we do not exist. Considering the amount of daily work this requires, I don’t think it is too much to ask of white readers that they twist their heads around every now and then to try and meet literature of color where it is.

I believe it is possible that people -- who want to -- can read, understand and learn about other cultures through books. In school, it seems to me, that is why we read the books we did. I certainly could not relate to Huckleberry Finn, and wondered why my teacher freely used the word "Nigger" when reading it out loud to the class. The "N-Word," to me, was the ultimate insult against my kind, yet the teacher seemed to use it with flourish. And I couldn't understand Lord of the Flies, as I was not a young white, over-privileged teenage boy. I lacked a knowledge of the social-economic background that perhaps led the to the boys' sense of entitlement -- which perhaps led to ultimate savagery at the end of the book. But there was an expectation that I learn and comprehend the books, otherwise I would get a failing grade.

As an adult, I read the works of Lester Bangs, Hunter S. Thompson and Augusten Burroughs -- writers whom I personally have nothing in common with, but I understand who they are and enjoy their writing. Yet the opposite is resisted, as there are non-POCs who write only with themselves and those of their kind in mind. It is too tiresome (and to be fair, as mentioned above, not even a thought) to understand and write stories that are inclusionary of those who do not share the writer's background.

From All Lit Up:

I personally think it’s fairly clear that the reading and writing of literature is not free from questions of race (or other political issues); creativity does not happen within a social and cultural vacuum, and expectations and assumptions inform the activities of both writers and those responding to their work.

I think it is safe to say that all writers who hope to make money from their writing, or who want to make a name for themselves, would be happy if anyone read their work. There is also a feeling of satisfaction when someone whom you might have initially thought would not find anything interesting in your work does -- as it means that, despite our initial thoughts about others who do not look like we do, we actually have more in common than might have thought.

And that is great for book sales, as it means more money to line our pockets. But it only seems to go one way: white writers to a culturally diverse audience. For non-white writers, their cultural ethnicity alters their legitimacy as a credible writer outside of their supposed target audience. From Um-ephemera:

So why are white readers so deterred from reading the writing of people of color, when people of color will read tons of books by white authors in their lifetime, whether it’s for academic or personal reasons, and they will be expected to understand them? And why is white literature just literature, but literature by any other person is defined by their ethnicity?

Now, there is a flip side to this: While the book Push by Sapphire flew under the radar until the movie, Precious was released last year, people from all ethno-cultural backgrounds loved the movie and the book. Same with Alice Walker's The Color Purple and to a slightly lesser extent, Toni Morrison's Beloved. Despite the criticisms of both Precious and The Color Purple as perpetrating negative stereotypes, specifically targeting black men, both were nominated for both Emmy and Oscar awards. From Ishmael Reed via the New York Times:

The blacks who are enraged by “Precious” have probably figured out that this film wasn’t meant for them. It was the enthusiastic response from white audiences and critics that culminated in the film being nominated for six Oscars by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an outfit whose 43 governors are all white and whose membership in terms of diversity is about 40 years behind Mississippi. In fact, the director, Lee Daniels, said that the honor would bring even more “middle-class white Americans” to his film.

But movies like the critically acclaimed Akeelah and the Bee, a rather family-friendly movie (also based on a book) about a young black woman's challenge to win a spelling bee, won critical acclaim -- but was a commercial disappointment.

Unfortunately, outside of Oprah's Book Club and required texts in high school and university curriculums, it is very difficult for black and other ethno-cultural novelists to get mainstream attention for their books unless someone decides to buy the rights to make it into a mainstream movie. This got me thinking: Are books and movies that, while real and raw, emphasize negative racial stereotypes more popular with non-black audiences than books and movies depicting blacks as average, everyday people? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting: www.lainad.typepad.com

Writer: Hellbound: www.hellbound.ca

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