The first time I noticed the question being asked, the victory parties were barely over, tears of joy were still being shed and Oprah continued to vibrate. Inquiring minds in the black literary community really wanted an answer: Would there be an Obama effect in the publishing industry?
People weren’t talking about Barack Obama’s own books, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, which both sold over 100,000 copies in less than one week after the election. No, the Obama effect that many authors of color, myself included, are hoping for is much more personal. Bernice McFadden, the award-winning author of Sugar and This Bitter Earth, posed the simple question on her blog : “Will a black president help me, a black writer?”
In the past month, those of us who make our living from the written word have started to ponder the possibilities. We are imagining the different ways the incoming president might inspire the overwhelmingly white publishing industry to get a clue about our stories. Obama has proved, after all, that readers of all races and backgrounds can take to non-mainstream literary portraits of the American experience. As McFadden told me: “The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States has shattered the publishers’ lame and tired excuse that white readers cannot relate to black literature.”
In the world B.O. (before Obama), publishers seemed to operate under the impression that black authors appealed only to black readers. Even worse, that those black readers were interested only in books that involved a lot of sex and ghetto baby-mama drama. For the past decade, support for authors of color with literary ambitions, or even those who just wanted to tell a different kind of story, has been dismal.
Martha Southgate, the author of three novels, most recently Third Girl from the Left, documented this phenomenon in an essay in the New York Times . The article sparked the rumblings of an underground revolution among the black literati, longing to do something to change the system. Inspired by the great outpouring of support for her story, Southgate and four other writers founded ringShout: A Place for Black Literature in January. The organization’s mission is “is dedicated to recognizing, reclaiming and celebrating excellence in contemporary literary fiction and nonfiction by black writers in the United States.”
Still, Southgate is among those keeping her expectations low. “I think it can’t hurt in terms of what gets published and promoted, to have someone who is black and represents the very best of what’s possible, as the leader of the Free World,” she says. But she noted cautiously, “With such enormous other issues in front of him and all of us, Obama’s effect on the writing life may be minimal, at least at first.”
From McFadden’s optimism to Southgate’s wait-and-see attitude, opinions vary greatly about the Obama effect in publishing. “I hope that I’m wrong, but I’m not feeling any love,” says New York-based literary agent Marie Brown, who has more than 40 years in the publishing business. Pointing to the dismal economic forecast, Brown sees Obama’s success as an exception, not the beginning of a trend. “Obama was able to put together a team that could make his presence felt,” Brown says of Obama’s literary and political success. “But everybody who wants to have a book published can’t put together a team like that.”
Malaika Adero, a vice president and senior editor at Atria Books, a division of Simon and Schuster, isn’t as pessimistic as Brown, but she said publishing is all about timing.
“Sometimes there’s this notion that publishers introduce the hot new thing,” she says, “but we don’t lead, we follow.” Adero, who founded the UpSouth Interntional Book Festival in 2006, says authors get it wrong when they lump the publishing industry in with short-lead media like TV, newspapers and magazines. “As publishers, we only have the ability to document a trend that has already established itself.” In other words, right now publishers are still focused on the past, reviewing proposals about the election, not looking toward the future (which explains the reported $7 million thrown at Sarah Palin for her life story).
So some authors who can follow close on the heels of this Obama moment may have an in.
But even if Obama’s success doesn’t translate into more and bigger deals for black writers, some hope it may make publishers more willing to consider a broader range of approaches. “I have hopes that Obama’s high profile will go a long way towards supporting the idea that one’s racial background is part of the conversation, but not all of the conversation,” offers Lise Funderburg, a journalist and author of the new memoir, Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home. “This would liberate a lot of us who are often pushed by editors to make race play a more melodramatic role in our writingversus the organic role it should play.”
“What it will do very profoundly,” Adero says, “is that it will challenge the assumptions of editors and publishers who think in limited ways of black people’s abilities.”
It is unclear what shifts, if any, will take place in the publishing industry. Ultimately, Obama’s impact on the literary community may be first felt among writers themselves. “Where I think Obama’s effect may become more apparent is in how empowered and driven literary writers now feel about getting our voices out there in the world,” Southgate says. Street lit, move aside. This may be a new day in more ways than one.