February brings us Black History Month and along with it the usual thoughts about why attention to the culture of African-Americans is limited to one short month—and the coldest at that. Shouldn’t all the cultures of our society be a year-round presence and part of an ongoing conversation? I’d venture to say the answer is yes, but how does that happen?
In another form, this is a pressing question for authors of color who are limited in similar ways. They are pigeon-holed by their race and/or culture and their writing is marketed accordingly. Which means their work is offered in a limited fashion. That African-American Literature section can be pretty tough to find in a bookstore, if the shop has one at all. Even Toni Morrison, who certainly doesn’t have to worry about sales, knows there’s something lost when she is categorized as a writer by the color of her skin. Recently she gave a funny yet enlightening interview with Stephen Colbert in which she discussed the perception of her work. When Colbert asked how Ms. Morrison wanted to be “pigeon-holed” if not as an African-American writer, she said she wanted to be known “as an American writer.” She went on to say, “There is no such thing as race. None. There’s just the human race. Racism is a construct, a social construct…”
“There is no such thing as race. None. There’s just the human race. Racism is a construct, a social construct…” ~ Toni Morrison
I agree with her. I too think of myself as simply “a writer” working from the imagination and experience of being a human who happens to be named Sophfronia Scott. But she’s Toni Morrison and I’m not, which means I’ll have to work a little harder to sell more books. So, how do I and other authors of color expand our audience? By the way, I know this goes against the marketing common sense that says you identify your target market and put all your efforts there because it’s too difficult and too expensive to market a product to “everyone.” But I’d like to fine-tune the concept with this suggestion: you start with a smaller target market in hopes that success there will spill you into a larger pool of readers. Malcolm Gladwell discusses something along these lines in The Tipping Point.
I’m not an expert in all the possible ways to do this, but I will share what I’m working on in hopes that it may spark ideas. With my latest novel, just completed, I actually feel as though I’m cheating. The general plot is based on that of a well-known eighteenth-century French novel that’s so popular it’s found its way to both stage and screen. While I’m not the first writer to co-opt a plot, (Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is based on Shakespeare’s King Lear for example) it’s not the literary merit I’m thinking about, though I’ve written the book to be very much a literary novel. I’m considering the marketplace and thinking about how casting African-American characters into the stew of a beloved story might just pry open a wider audience for me. This isn’t why I wrote the novel—I wrote it because of my own love of and obsession with the source material—but I can’t ignore the opportunity it presents.
If you are a writer of color, how can you reach out beyond your expected audience? If you are a reader, what would make you choose a book that may be outside of your “culture zone?”
The book has many aspects to endear it to an African-American audience—a glamorous setting (1940s Harlem), historical references and cameos by noted figures such as Jackie Robinson and the vibrant Josephine Baker. But you can bet in every promotional activity I will focus on how the book fits more than one genre (historical fiction and possibly even romance) and how the emotions at the heart of the novel—love, mercy, forgiveness—are common to us all. One of my goals in writing the book was to bring out this commonality and create a different accessibility to the original eighteenth-Century French novel for another generation of readers.
So this is my offering. Now, will readers meet me halfway? Because, after all, for publishers to know you will sell beyond a certain market, more readers have to be willing to reach beyond their own comfort zones and broaden their cultural tastes. If not they will miss out on stories that could be relatable to them and help expand their literary horizons for what a cultural story could be.
If you are a writer of color, how can you reach out beyond your expected audience? If you are a reader, what would make you choose a book that may be outside of your “culture zone?” If we can bring enough responses to the table, we just might find that sweet spot where there will be more in the marketplace for everyone—sales and opportunities for the writer, stories and experiences for the reader. And that would make for a wider literary world for us all.
Sophfronia Scott is author of the novel All I Need to Get By. Her work has appeared in The Saranac Review, Numéro Cinq, Barnstorm, Ruminate, Sleet Magazine, NewYorkTimes.com and O, The Oprah Magazine. She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and she’s on the faculty of Regis University’s Mile-High MFA in Denver.