Reading Progress:

‘A Black Book’: Watching American Fiction

by Shardai Smith

‘A Black book’ must cover all the bases. First, address a quintessential Black struggle like racism in the workplace or gang-related poverty without being too hard to whiteness. Second, include a white character, generic or otherwise, for them to latch onto. And third, either support the rigidity of white-dominant society or leave it undisrupted.

I knew NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute would be no different to any other primarily white space. In the third week, we were tasked with imagining a book imprint and its list. As I sat at the end of the table, defending the need for authors of colour, I saw exactly what the rest of my career in book publishing looked like. I, the lone Black person, mincing my words in meetings and calculating when to speak. Last year’s book deals reflect this whiteness. In 2023, 70% of deals on Publishers Marketplace were for books written by white authors (with only 10% of them for Black authors). In simpler words, the book industry is white as fuck.

American Fiction, which was released in December 2023 and won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 96th Academy Awards, follows Thelonious “Monk” Ellison – an author struggling to sell his next novel. His latest has died on submission to editors suspicious of his Greek tragedy-inspired novel, citing that it isn’t “a black book” and – of course – Black authors only understand Black tragedy. When his agent asks for him to come back with “a black book,” Monk responds, “I’m black and it’s my book.” But as a writer, I know that’s not enough. When Monk’s agent praises the brilliance of the writing, and yet still decides it’s not enough, Monk concludes black books publishing wants are “simplistic and meaningless.”

The American/Western book industry does like a certain type of ‘Black’ book. It’s a book they can root for, a book they can relieve their guilt into and close when they tire of carrying it. Acceptable ‘Black’ books must cover all the bases. First, address a quintessential Black struggle like racism in the workplace or gang-related poverty without being too hard to whiteness. Second, include a white character, generic or otherwise, for them to latch onto. And third, either support the rigidity of white-dominant society or leave it undisrupted it. Every few years, the rules change slightly and Black authors adjust accordingly.

Back at his writing desk, Monks starts Fuck – a stereotypical parody of Black gangsters. He’s proven right when his manuscript goes to a multi-publisher bidding war and, as his agents says, Fuck quickly becomes “the most lucrative joke [he’s] ever told.” The whites eat it up, comparing it to fellow Black author Sintara Golden’s book We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, a current bestseller overstuffed with urban vernacular and Black trauma. When Monk dismisses her book at a conference, she claps back: “I write what interests people.” She’s tells him she’s comfortable appeasing “the ones buying the manuscripts” and has no issues “giving the market what it wants.”

In Rebecca F. Kuang’s Yellowface, white author June Hayward steals her so-called friend’s unpublished manuscript after her sudden death and passes it off as her own. Her late friend, Athena Liu, was a Chinese American author writing about Chinese labor workers during World War II. A minor subplot in the explosive novel struck me: Athena Liu may have exploited the Asian community despite belonging to it. Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta and produced by Jordan Peele, asks the same question through a financially privileged and artistically struggling Black artist longing to recapture the interest his old work inspired.

In watching, I was reminded of how wealthy Black people can gentrify Black neighborhoods. I realise what happens in Yellowface and Candyman is a sort of intellectual gentrification that’s yet to be defined. Monk reproduces Black lived experiences that are not his own for profit. In fact, even though her book is based on painstakingly gathered information from a interviews and primary research, Sintara isn’t from the hood either (though her family are not quite doctors like Monk’s). Black and other racialised authors are all hyperaware of everything they do to make white people comfortable – whether they decide to go ahead and do those things or not. Marketability makes careers; that’s why Sintara, not Monk, is a success. Some books only need one yes. Others must appease white-staffed imprints whose influence affects our thinking far before finger is put to key.

I started writing my first book the last year of college. From Our Blood began as a Black woman’s response to the whiteness of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and ‘dark academia’, a genre that draws on the aesthetics of New England wealth, privilege, whiteness, and education. After the body of a Black alumnus is found at her PWI (Predominantly White Institution), Arden Gnight, the sole remaining Black student and resident lightskin, discovers a trail of missing Black residents. She is led to the school’s golden boy, who she decides to seduce for her protection.

After American Fiction, I began to question my motives. Does my work reinforce the misconception that only Black stories about race are valid? I’d hinged my story’s worth on its examination of racism in elitist schools in the hopes that publishing would reward me. As an academic overachiever, I hope my work is someday praised classrooms for its writing on Black women’s rage and desirability, colourism, generational grief, the need to be loved. But my desire to explore the shape of white supremacy in academia begs the question, who needs to know? Certainly, Black folks in academia are already intimated with the ways academia upholds racist ideas.

In writing my second novel, In Every Line I Write Our Graves, I couldn’t stop asking myself these questions. Years after surviving a tragedy, uninspired and failing author Torrance Hallow returns to her hometown where she has been hired to transform derelict Deveraux Place Plantation into a museum. As in Yellowface, I wanted to dig out the worst of myself and inspect it under a microscope – the pandering to white tastes, the desire for commercial success, the moral dilemma that is writing.

That’s how American Fiction captivated me. The success of Fuck makes Monk uncomfortable because he sees himself as a sellout. I also believe in questioning my actions and those of my community. Our actions set the new normal, determining the range of our existence and the integrity of our storytelling. As authors with the privilege of influence and gift of communication, it’s imperative to distinguish between other people’s and our own biases towards our own community. And with racism, why do we write about it and who is it we are trying to educate?

By Shardai Smith

SHARDAI SMITH has BAs in creative writing and political science and a master’s in creative writing, all from Seton Hall University. When not thinking of all the ways society horrifies her, she can be found watching horror movies and daydreaming.

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