It’s Martin Luther King Day, 2017. Yesterday I happened to pick up my copy of Poets & Writers magazine and came across a terrific piece by the novelist Elizabeth Nunez.
Her theme is this: “How to get motivated to do one’s best work if one is … ignored by the gatekeepers of awards and reviews, not to mention the big publishers?”
In a startlingly honest essay, she talks about how her writing career has been blocked by publishers’ erroneous perceptions of her work due to her race. Her books, which are literary, have been lumped in with the type of genre fiction that publishers think Black readers like. In other words, we are ghettoized.
Examples of this ghettoization: Her fourth novel was published under an imprint for colored writers (called One World – oh the irony!). The cover of one of her most literary works is a dreadlocked girl gazing into the distance. Her editor explained, “Let them think this is another girlfriend book and see how they respond to the challenge of reading literary fiction.”
In the 1990s, Nunez saw the emergence into the mainstream of several Black writers. She hoped the literary landscape was changing, but now concludes that the renaissance was a passing fad, like chick-lit or misery memoir.
Nunez’s most pressing question is this:
“What chance does a writer of color have when the publishing industry is a white industry, when choices are … made based on the staff’s comfort and familiarity with the worlds in those books, when, for literary fiction to reach a wide audience, the writer must be anointed by a white critic or white writer?”
What chance indeed?
Nunez is a tremendous role model. She holds a PhD in literature; is a distinguished professor at Hunter College; has published nine novels and a memoir; and was one of the founders of the National Black Writers Conference. She recognizes she has been fortunate, but knows also, as a mid-list author of a certain age and color, she won’t publish with a major press again.
She concludes that “Black writers of literary fiction are confronted by an impassable wall,” but “many … remain undaunted, buoyed by the number of independent publishers who actively seek and promote books by black writers. As their work expands, so will the path toward a better world.”