Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Case Against Book Segregation

I realize that in large part it’s nothing personal. It’s the nature of business to categorize. Had I used the word “segregate” a negative connotation probably would have come to mind, but it’s basically interchangeable with the benign “categorize”. There is a reason why the various arts are broken down into sections or genres wherever you go to buy units. It makes things easier, easier for the merchants and easier for the buying public. Imagine a large supermarket that did not have signs above each aisle giving a general rundown of what is to be found. I don’t go to Pathmark because I’m fond of scavenger hunts. My goal is to be quickly in and out, which means I have no interest in playing guessing games to figure out where the eggs are and where the bread is and where they store the meat. The easier it has been made for us to find what we want, the better, right?

Should the arts be treated like produce and other items to stick in the pantry or fridge? Business is business, shopping is shopping, so I suppose the answer to a certain degree must be yes. But this leads us to ask - where should the categorization and classification end? At what point does a store decide that they have been adequately clear about what can be found where, no more sub-division necessary?

I’d say that record stores manage reasonably well. It doesn’t matter whether I venture into Tower Records or f.y.e. or an independent shop. In either of those situations if I’m looking for a Miles Davis CD I know to head to the jazz section. I don’t need to find the Black Jazz section or else settle for Dave Brubeck. There is no such thing as the White Jazz section, or the White anything else shelf for that matter. When I want to pick up an Eminem CD, heading to the Rap/Hip Hop area is all I need to do because there is no “Category Where Being White is the Exception Rather than the Rule” section. Those looking for Charley Pride will find him on the Country music shelf next to his mostly white colleagues. Somehow it works out fine and music shoppers find what they're looking for.

But at many non-specialty bookstores, rather than employing a similar system to that of the record store, whiteness is assumed to be the standard. Black authors therefore become defined as Exceptions. The decision has been made to lump most titles by African American authors (Black authors really, since Black European, Black African and Black West Indian authors will be treated no differently from each other) together. If you’re a science fiction fan you’ll find a sign indicating where the Sci-Fi titles are. But if you’re a Black Sci-Fi fan, turn left and walk another five feet. What the heck is that all about? Why is the bookstore the lone remaining place where Jim Crow is still in effect? Black people marched and fought to eat in the same restaurants, go to the same public restrooms, take the same front row seats on the bus, attend the same schools, vote in the same elections. But when it comes to the bookstore suddenly we’re back to separate and unequal treatment. Why? And why are more people not complaining about and trying to change this state of affairs?

Well, if you strictly enjoy reading fiction by Black authors that feature black characters, the separation of such books certainly makes for easy shopping. Heaven forbid such a reader should be forced to linger awhile and wade through titles by multi-ethnic authors to find what they’re looking for. If this was the case, readers in exclusive search for “Black books” possibly would end up also grabbing a novel by a White or Latin or Asian author that caught their interest. The opposite scenario would become equally plausible. A fan of Mystery could end up grabbing one by a White author and one by a Black author because the cover copy on both books was equally intriguing. Everyone wants to find precisely what it is that they’re looking for, but there is also undeniable joy in finding what you didn’t know you were looking for until coming across it. Life is chock full of pleasant surprises to be unearthed, except for some reason at the bookstore.

I’ve heard it argued that there are authors in favor of book segregation. If one writes with an extremely narrow audience in mind then I suppose they want what they’ve written to appear where it is most likely to most quickly be found. The author of a Black Western may not want his book next to Louis L’Amour because he believes, perhaps correctly, that more sales will be made due to placement on the No Tanning Bed Necessary shelf. If my perspective was one of pure selfishness perhaps I could relate to such a stance, but I’m holding on to the quaint notion that legitimate authors of all races write books that they hope everybody will read. And “everybody” will not bother to peruse the Black Only shelf, especially because publishers have been somewhat narrow minded about the subject matter of fiction geared to African Americans that they’ve elected to put out. I won’t cast full blame on the publishing houses though because their main concern is making a profit. They print what they believe will sell based on what has been proven in the past. Readers are the true decision makers, deciding what will be published by deciding what they'll buy.

If 8 out of 10 books on the "Black Shelf" are about gangstas and hoochie mamas in the ‘hood, few who are not interested in this topic will go out of their way to discover the other two titles that may be of broader interest. In order to read a book people must be able to find it, both on purpose and by fortunate accident. There are independent bookstores that are the equivalent of a large Black Only shelf for those writing and shopping by skin tone, just as there are schools, churches, nightclubs, even whole neighborhoods to be found that primarily cater to black folk. There’s also a month designated to paying attention to historic achievements by black people, inferring that it’s okay to ignore them the other eleven months. Better one month than none, I guess. I’m fine with places (and calendar designations) that opt to specialize, but I believe the existence of locations that generalize is also critical. I feel this way for social reasons, political reasons, moral reasons, and literary reasons.

Returning to the grocery analogy for a moment, when food shopping I aim to buy gluten free when feasible. If a store doesn't stock it in isolation from other foods then I have to do a fair amount of label reading. I’ve accepted that I need to shop at a slower pace to do ingredients scanning. If acceptable in a grocery store then certainly I shouldn’t mind doing a little reading in a bookstore. After all, love of reading is why I’m there in the first place. I go to a bookstore in search of stories. Not black stories, not white stories, just stories. Make that, just good stories. If by chance I do happen to be in a particular mood for "good black stories", I don't mind wading through some non-Black books to find them.

Let me reiterate that I'm not against book categorization in general. There are even cases where I wouldn't mind additional subdivisions to those already in existence. For example, I’d have no problem whatsoever if all awful books were placed together so I wouldn’t need to brush past them in my search for quality literature. However, although it’s becoming increasingly common to find food labeled GF for Gluten Free, no bookstore or library as of yet has been bold enough to label novels GF for Good Fiction. The meaning of “Good” is too subjective, and even it was defined by some panel American Idol style, many would ignore the labels because they only care about what is good to them personally. They might strictly be interested in vampires, or in chick lit, or in horror, or in espionage, or in erotica. But is it really necessary for each of these categories to be further carved up into White version and Black version? If you feel it should be necessary because you’re pressed for time, don’t worry, book mixing won’t mean you’ll have to do a bunch of unnecessary reading while choosing something to read. Just look at the picture on the cover. Chances are if you find Fabio (or whoever the contemporary edition of Fabio may be) flexing his chest on the front, you are not in possession of a Black Romance title.

Rock and Roll did not become ROCK AND ROLL until it left the Black Only shelf and was made prominent to a general audience. Same thing for Hip Hop. Where you end up is supposed to be on a grander scale than where you started out if ambition is present. With the exception of a small handful of crossover stars, most residents of the Black Shelf will never gain broad recognition if they don’t make it to the center aisle where the majority of the population does their browsing. In the 21st century black authors should not have to stage sit-ins and marches for the right to equal shelving.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Sadly noteworthy news of the day: Borders has filed for bankruptcy

"It has become increasingly clear that in light of the environment of curtailed customer spending, our ongoing discussions with publishers and other vendor related parties, and the company's lack of liquidity, Borders Group does not have the capital resources it needs to be a viable competitor and which are essential for it to move forward with its business strategy to reposition itself successfully for the long term." – Mike Edwards, President of Borders

As an author I’m personally not affected by the plight of Borders at this time as they do not carry my novel Patches of Grey. I decided to go with Amazon and Barnes & Noble along with both brick & mortar and online independent booksellers when choosing homes for it. As a book buyer however I’m saddened by the closing of any store, especially such a major player as Borders. I truly hope bookstores big & small are not going the way of the dinosaur because rather than frequenting them, people instead are finding coffee shops in which to read off the screens of their electronic reading device of choice. But perhaps such a fate is inevitable. If so, we’ll adapt as always. The most important thing is that no matter how we end up reading them, great stories continue to be written and distributed.

1 comment:

  1. I don't think I've ever seen a black sci-fi section in a bookstore, although admittedly I live in a small town and our small town bookstore doesn't break down categories that small. I don't think they have an African-American literature section either. I don't think the library where I work does either. Of course, our library is consolidating everything: it used to break down mysteries, science fiction and romance, but now it's all lumped together into "Fiction." On Barnes & Noble online, I haven't looked to see how they have categories broken down, but I do know they have a lot of sub-genres available at the NookStore. Personally, at least, in that case, I'd like to have it broken down a little more to narrow my field of search. However, I understand what you're saying, because in terms of music, you're right, there is no black jazz, white jazz, black rap, white rap. It's all jazz. It's all rap. It's all good...well, not all of it, but that's a matter of subjective opinion.