Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Pointless Rant

Allow me to rant on a very delicate topic, and thus offend numerous people.

For weeks, even months now, I have been not-so-patiently awaiting the publication of Colson Whitehead's new novel. If you are unfamiliar with Whitehead, I encourage you to check him out. His two novels, "The Intuitionist" and "John Henry Days," are two of the most imaginative books I've read. He's currently #3 on my list of favorite authors (behind Tom Robbins and Margaret Atwood). And his new book, "Apex Heals the Hurt," came out this month. So I was stoked.

I walked over to Borders to pick up a copy. I looked in the "literature" section where most non-mystery and non-scifi/fantasy authors can be found ("literature" includes everyone from James Joyce to "Shopaholic" Sophie Kinsella). No "Apex." Not even "The Intuitionist," which was a relatively popular book. Confused, I used the "Title Sleuth," Borders' in-store computer directory. I discovered that Whitehead's books were in the store - in the "African-American Fiction" section.

"African-American Fiction?" Why the hell is my bookstore segregated?

Seriously, does Borders think books like "Invisible Man" or novelists like Toni Morrison and Richard Wright - and Colson Whitehead - are only accessible to people with a certain skin pigmentation? I know I'll never experience personally the kind of soul-crushing discrimination and abuse related in "Invisible Man" - but that doesn't make the book any less powerful or any less great.

Here's my point - it is an insult to black authors, or any group of authors, to place their books in a separate section because of their ethnicity/skin color/what have you. Not only that, it sends a message to non-black readers that these books "aren't for them." Chaim Potok isn't just for the Jews, Margaret Atwood isn't just for women, and Amy Tan isn't just for Chinese-Americans - why should Zora Neale Hurston be just for black people? The segregation of black authors "otherizes" them and their work and takes away from what should be considered, quite simply, great literature.


Leah said...

That's bothered me for a long time, too. There are no Asian, Latino, Native American, etc. literature sections. Just African-American, and everyone else. I think the original intent was to showcase those works so that those books would be read more; but looking at my own shopping habits (and others in the store that I've observed), the segregation of books has led to the opposite effect.

Mike said...

I agree with you whole-heartedly. I would divide my fiction into two sections: Hack Writers/Beach Books, and Literature. That's all the distinction I need.

As an interesting side note, though, I think many African-Americans would actually avidly support there being a separate section for black authors. Maybe you can ask Professor Farley about it :-P

Incidentally (wow, I'm using that word a lot recently), I've never heard of Colson Whitehead, but I will add him to my list of novelists to check out.

Ben said...

Damn, I wish I had time to read novels.

My guess as to why bookstores do it that way? It helps sales. I'm guessing enough Borders customers are looking for books which revolve around issues of being African-American....enough so that they prefer having a separate section. It makes it easier for them to find such books.

Now I can't say whether Mr. Whitehead was mis-classified (i.e. whether he would have appeal to people who aren't looking to read about the African-American experience), but I think that's the reasoning behind it. And, as such, I don't have a problem with it. As long as I can find the book I need, I don't really care where they place it.

Mike said...

Incidentally, I could find Colson Whitehead neither in Literature or African-American Literature at Borders yesterday. Any thoughts?

LOL, I just realized I used "incidentally" again. This is becoming an epidemic.