Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Best (African) American

Today on St. Louis on the Air, Don Marsh interviews Gerald Early about the new Best African American Essays and Best African American Fiction collections, of which Early is the series editor. 

When I first heard about these new series, I wasn't quite sure what to think. Like the African American fiction section at Borders where you have to go to find Toni Morrison or Edward P. Jones, these series seemed to smack of "separate but equal," a kind of literary Negro league. 

Marsh asks Early about this misgiving in a slightly different way, wondering if critics might say that the notion of "best African American" is polarizing: Why should we have to label something African American or white or whatever? Early acknowledges the question as one he'd given thought to, then suggests some things about the African American essay as its own genre. 

As I thought about it some more, it occurred to me that, in some ways, the question is moot. The books are being published by Bantam because Bantam thinks they will make money. Marsh and Early both comment on how the sales prospects for the books are looking even better in light of the election of Barack Obama. Early also notes that, at one point, he floated the idea of changing the titles of the series to "Best Multicultural"—but that the publishers rejected the idea vehemently. They wanted, it seems, a specific market niche.

I argued in a previous post that these "best of" collections are, ultimately, merely a bunch of pieces of writing that somebody liked. But an important corollary I didn't think of is this: They are collections of writing that are intended to sell books. The publishers behind the Best African American series evidently felt that a segment of the market was being left out by the rest of the "best ofs," and they are seeking to reach it with these books. Likewise with the African American section of the bookstore. 

Early notes that the writers whose works are included in the collections were ecstatic about their selection. Perhaps they feel not that they are being ghettoized or sent into some alternate league, but instead that their work is being highlighted in the marketplace, given a better chance of reaching the readers who might find it interesting. And, really, what more could a writer want? And is it really so great to be lost among the shelves with all the other fiction—or not to be included at all in the original Best American series because the tastes of the editors have a different emphasis?

The point is that such collections are arbitrary books to begin with, and if, by exploiting the "best American" label, those who produce these new series can draw attention to interesting writing that would have otherwise been overlooked, then that's good for business and good for writers—and, maybe, good for race relations in America. 

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