Is It Time To End Women’s, African-American, Etc. Sections In Book Stores?

Pursuant to our discussion about fantasy earlier this week, Salon has an interesting piece on N.K. Jemisin and David Anthony Durham, fantasy, race, and class. Both authors have some interesting thoughts on the form. Jemisin talks about the inherent limitations of telling stories that fall into a pattern of a “MacGuffin of Power being brought to a Place of Significance.” And Durham points out how useful changing the framework can be when you want to talk about thorny issues, ranging from slavery to Halliburton, saying, “I have some readers who are quite liberal and some that are more conservative than I am, but they still engage with the book that I wrote, with all the components that are at play in it, in a way that I think they wouldn’t if they perceived me to have a political agenda right from the start.” And towards the end, both raise a point that I think merits serious consideration: should we do away with racial and ethnic sections in bookstores?

Durham’s second book, a literary novel titled “Walk Through Darkness,” about an escaped slave and the man tracking him, “never made it to the front of the store, really, because it was immediately shelved as an ‘African-American novel.’” Now, “my stuff is being read by more and a wider range of people than it was in the early days.”

Jemisin has been annoyed to learn that her first novel sometimes gets shelved in the same section, which means that readers searching the science fiction and fantasy area can’t find it. “The inherent danger of that section,” she said, “are the ideas that, a) only African-Americans would be interested in it, and b) African-Americans are interested solely because there is something African-American associated with it — usually the writer. I don’t see the novels of white authors who write black characters getting shoved into that section.” This is all the more irksome when, as was the case with her first novel, people assume her narrator is black; Jemisin envisioned the character and her people as similar to the Incas. “Just because I am black,” she said, “does not mean I am always going to write about black characters.”

I’m sympathetic to both sides here. As someone who is interdisciplinary by profession, it can be really useful to have fiction, history, sociology, etc. on similar themes in juxtaposition with each other,though in reality, that’s not really how African-American or Women’s sections in bookstores tend to work. And just putting books next to each other aren’t a guarantee that someone who comes in for a romance novel will leave with that and something like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

I also think that shelving situations that create and promote semi-artificial differences in taste aren’t useful. The idea that Jumping the Broom or Waiting to Exhale are so vastly different from The Wedding Planner or Julia Quinn’s novels that they need to be shelved separately is just bizarre, and separating them keeps readers who might like them from coming across things they might not otherwise seek out while browsing. Yes, of course, we also bear responsibility to get up and explore new things if we want to be widely read. But if we can’t count on most people to do that, I think I’d favor putting a greater diversity of things in the average browser’s path.

As a side note, would folks be interested in starting a side reading project that explores fantasy that draws from religious traditions other than Christianity and by non-white authors? I’m going to start Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan this weekend, and while I’ll probably blog it no matter what, if folks wanted to read it specifically for discussion in a few weeks, I’d be more than game to set up something like the Pop Culture and the Death Penalty Project or the book club.