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A Universal Literature

Forgive me if none of the following makes much sense, but I've never written for a blog before and I'm just back from my book tour for Strivers Row, and still a little logy from the trip. Most writers have great book-tour stories, and we like nothing so much as to complain. Get enough of us into the same room, and it will soon turn into a hilarious bitch-fest, with all of us trying to outdo each other with tales of spending a Saturday afternoon in Blytheville, Arkansas, or the Friday night when one person showed up to that lonely bookstore in Winetka, Illinois, or the store in Albany that scheduled a reading even though it didn't have a space for a reading, just one, slightly wider aisle???

It's an exquisite torture, the tour. We're chauffeured in limos to airports, taken everywhere by a solicitous media escort, put up in some of the best hotels in the world, and showered with all sorts of other perks that writers don't usually experience. My suite in Denver this time around even featured a live goldfish. Then, you go out to the bookstore to do your reading???and five people show up.

There are those of us who believe the whole concept of the book tour was devised by a nefarious sect of monks to teach us humility. The trouble is that neither the publisher nor the bookseller has yet to hit upon any surefire way to turn out people for a reading, so attendance is haphazard, to say the least. Last week, for instance, I found myself in a large college town that looked as if it had been hit by a neutron bomb. There was scarcely a soul on the streets, never mind the bookstore. The store manager explained apologetically that I had arrived in the middle of spring break, something that made me want to scream at him like the title character in Dr. Strangelove, "Vy didn't you tell the publicist?!!" Instead, I confined myself to a few minutes of frothing and writhing on the floor before getting up and doing my reading. Because I'm a pro, goddammit.

What this book tour did include was also something very welcome: Black people. Let me back up for a moment. My book, Strivers Row, is a historical novel set in Harlem, in 1943. One of its two leading characters is a young Malcolm Little, later to become Malcolm X, and it also contains some frank flashbacks about the founding of the Nation of Islam, better known as "the Black Muslims."

This, combined with the fact that I am a white man, caused all sorts of consternation among my white friends and acquaintances. In the weeks and months leading up to publication, I was bombarded with comments such as "Aren't you worried about what the reaction will be from black readers?" Their concerns grew so urgent that I realized they were picturing mobs of angry African-Americans showing up at my readings, and issuing fatwas until I was forced into a Salman Rushdie-like existence.

I took to replying to them with brave, pithy lines such as, "A writer never fears controversy. What he fears is being ignored," or "Isn't all literature an act of audacity?" But in truth, I wasn't all that worried, mostly because what I was writing was pretty sympathetic to the young Malcolm, and because my black friends didn't seem to have any trouble with the whole idea.

I assumed that what made my white friends wary — still — was the reaction William Styron received to his 1970 historical novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner. At the time, some black critics had expressed outrage that a white author would dare to write in the voice of the leader of the most famous slave rebellion in the first place, and above all that he would have his hero develop feelings of love for the young, white daughter of his master. I happen to think that this was a brilliant device in a brilliant book, but whatever one thinks of Nat Turner, shouldn't it be obvious that some things have changed over the past 36 years? That now that we are past the immediate aftermath of the modern civil rights movement, with all of the passions it unleashed, it should be possible to sit down and have a more reasoned discussion about our common, American past?

On the first stop on my tour, I got my answer at a great event at the Dekalb County Public Library, organized by Bill Starr. It was a good turnout, and moreover, maybe sixty percent of the audience was African-American. The black men and women in the audience gave me a nice reception, and afterwards asked probing, incisive, but generally friendly questions.

In fact, they asked all the questions. When the reading was over, I realized anew just how great the racial gap remains in this country. It's something any observant person understands intellectually, of course, but it takes certain moments to really bring it home. That night in Georgia it occurred to me just how lily-white so many of the audiences for readings of my past books had been. Outside of my friends and colleagues, I had rarely seen more than a couple of black faces at any of them.

And it saddened me even more to see the reticence of white audience members to ask questions in front of a large, black presence. It struck me that whether or not they remember the flap over Styron's book, most whites still think of blacks as crazily oversensitive individuals, quick to take affront and incapable of engaging in any frank, constructive dialogue about race in this country. This is not true, of course, but it's a self-propagating belief. Thinking of African-Americans as essentially different people — even, somehow, a different species — whites come to unconsciously embrace the idea that it is illegitimate for a white person to be writing about black people.

Hence the composition of my previous reading audiences. This whole concept of "niche-marketing" — i.e., racial profiling — is one that publishers have bit into, hook, line, and sinker. Not so many years ago, as industry insiders will tell you, the dirty little whispers in the halls of our major publishers were that "Black people don't buy books." Proved wrong by any number of outstanding black authors, publishers have now reacted forcing everyone into their respective cubbyholes. Whole genres of literature now pander blatantly to women, to men, to young people, to whatever separate, discrete group. Almost always, these sorts of books simply reinforce the worst sorts of stereotypes regarding the people they are aimed at. Lately, for instance — as a prominent black writer complained in the New York Times — publishers have taken to filling up the shelves of bookstores' African-American sections with a bizarre, new genre of soft-core, urban erotica.

Where all this Jim Crow publishing will lead to is anybody's guess, but it would be nice to see those of us who care stand together for a universal literature, one that recognizes our common humanity. Just getting to talk to faces of all colors felt like a nice start in that direction.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Strivers Row
    Used Hardcover $6.50
  2. Strivers Row
    Used Hardcover $6.50

Kevin Baker is the author of Strivers Row

4 Responses to "A Universal Literature"

    miriam March 6th, 2006 at 10:26 am

    I read your prior book, Paradise Alley, not because I am from New York or have an Irish background but because of my desire to learn about others. Thanks for reminding us that the joy of reading is discovering the universality of experience and at the same time its unique diversity. Can't wait to read this one. It's in the pile next to my bed and is moving rapidly to the top after reading this essay.

    aaron March 6th, 2006 at 11:28 am

    it is wonderful to have read these thoughtful remarks on the same day as discovering that the most superficial film of the year won hollywood's top prize.

    i am looking forward to reading your book.

    Vladmir March 6th, 2006 at 4:59 pm

    Thanks for a great blog posting -- very refreshing.

    hayley March 7th, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    On book tours- I wish I had such a torturous existence. Touring around in support of my work. Sounds like such a drag.

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