The publishing world presents itself as a world of opportunity for hopeful and ambitious writers with dreams of becoming the next Chimamanda, Larson or Hosseini. However, even the newest successes in the publishing game will attest that landing the first book deal is no small feat. For Black writers, the challenge is even greater and this world of opportunity is often lightyears away with a host of hurdles to cross - especially when it comes to breaking into genre fiction.
Earlier this year in June, all ten spaces on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list were filled by anti-racist texts by Black authors. Understandably, the wave of protests spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement following the tragic murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others accounted for this increase in anti-racist literature. However, this proliferation of Black authors on the bestsellers list during a time of heightened racial awareness is not an adequate reflection of how the publishing world treats Black writers from a range of genres.
The recent article from The New York Times, "Just How White is the Book Industry?", disclosed the jarring racial disparities present in the publishing industry. It was revealed that of the over 4000 English-language fiction books printed from 1950-2018 included in the study, 95 percent of the authors were white. If over a period of almost 70 years, an overwhelming amount of fiction texts from nearly exclusively white authors can be published by some of the most renowned publishing houses, we have to consider what this says about how the publishing world treats Black and Brown writers in fiction.
It is not uncommon to receive the all-too-familiar “we’ve had this before” response from publishers when it comes to the work of Black fiction writers - exactly what the upcoming fantasy writer, LR Quentin, was told when recently submitting their manuscript. Of course, the tropes of fantasy are well-established, with first-time author Annabel Steadman’s much-lauded new Skander and The Unicorn Thief proving that there's an ongoing hunger for even the most classic symbols and characters in the genre. However, as a Black fantasy writer, these antiquated literary styles have the opportunity to be given a fresh face. Offset by character names, religious and historical symbolism that reflect the diversity of fantastical global empires, fantasy writing from Black authors is just one example of how Black and Brown writers are capable of stepping outside of the boundaries of political or race-based writing - and of how important their presence is there, by simple dint of its different lens.
Are publishing houses bordering on hypocrisy when they deem ‘familiarity’ as adequate grounds for rejection from Black and Brown writers, but continually publish similar texts from the same types of authors, namely, white ones?
It is time for the publishing world to set its pride aside and recognise that it has been ignoring the talent of Black and Brown writers for too long. Bolu Babalola’s recent novel and Sunday Times Bestseller, Love in Colour, is an example of how Black and Brown fiction writers can bring new perspectives to the most inundated genres like romance. Babalola’s novel, which aptly puts together a diverse collection of short stories from West African tradition, Greek mythology and ancient Middle Eastern legend, redefines romance narratives in a way some would call revolutionary.
Hena J Bryan, founder of Bryan House Publishing, credits the “gaping hole” of diversity in the publishing world to the history of transatlantic slavery and the consequent suppression of Black literacy and education. She offers that there has been no “true recovery” from this in the publishing sector and that the continual publication of “struggle narratives” pigeonhole many Black authors’ creativity. Instead, she encourages Black and Brown writers to explore the “depths of the creative world” and seek out the right publishing houses, indies and imprints to support their literary endeavours.
While the literary tropes that grace fictional genres like romance, fantasy and mythology are universal, historically, the way in which these stories have been told has been exclusionary. Narratives that are continually told from the perspective of white writers may fail to reach a new generation of readers that are committed to reading stories that reflect their own histories and cultures or explore global ones. It is the work of Black and Brown authors to provide these new retellings and it is the obligation of the publishing world to acknowledge that these stories must be told.
“We’ve had this before” is not a legitimate response to Black and Brown writers. The most familiar stories become radically different when placed in the right hands. In a progressive and increasingly racially-aware society, it’s time for the publishing world to start taking the work of Black and Brown writers from all genres seriously. In the words of Eldridge Cleaver, “The world of today was fashioned yesterday. What is involved here, what is being decided right now, is the shape of power in the world tomorrow.” Without a push to embrace genre fiction - whether traditional or revisionary - from people of a wider range of backgrounds and perspectives, the publishing world is in danger of being left behind.
Mary-Hannah Oteju is a race, religion and culture writer and undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge. Follow her on Twitter @mhannahoteju to keep up with her work.