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December 06, 2006


obviously stores find this segregation works for them. that suggests that it works for book-buyers, too.

what would be ideal, IMO, is if book stores simply put copies of 'specialty' fiction both on the general fiction shelves, and on the shelves in the specialty section - that way general browsers could find it, and people looking for something special could find it, too. of course they don't do this because shelf space is limited and carrying double inventory is sub-optimal.

on-line book buying is even worse - i almost never browse books on-line. i almost always find out about a book somewhere else, then hop to Amazon and buy it - no browsing around. i never even see books i'm not looking for.

music, on the other hand... i'll browse iTunes for hours.

Definitely, I'm for 'both', as long as the bookstores have two copies. I also think that it would be a good idea to say something about these policies in the General Fiction area -- I had no idea that, say, fiction by black writers might be found in African-American Studies, or whatever Borders calls it, so if I wanted to get a copy of The Bluest Eye (which I love), and it wasn't in Fiction, I'd assume it wasn't in stock.

I mind one implication of this: that Fiction is "White Fiction". That seems to me to be pernicious in any number of ways.

Just to throw in one of my pet annoyances: the existence, in a lot of stores, of separate sections for 'Fiction' and 'Literature' drives me crazy. (I could see 'Fiction' and 'Trash'...)

I wonder where Steven Barnes, Octavia Bulture, Tananarive Due, Samuel R. Delany, and other black sf authors are shelved.

Supporting the bookseller's practice is that when I went to look up Steven Barnes on Amazon.com (to make sure I was spelling his name right), the "people who bought this book also bought" listed a book by Tananarive Due, who I would not otherwise have known was black.

I'm pretty sure that e.g. James Sallis and Walter Mosley's books are in the regular mystery section in most bookstores. Considering how much black awareness, if you'll allow me, there is in those books, I have to wonder exactly how these shelving decisions are made. (I know that Octavia Butler is shelved in sci-fi/fantasy, and the same holds for her.) It makes me wonder if there isn't some additional weird stereotyping going on, along the lines of not wanting to ghettoize Mosley, since he's a bestselling author.

That WSJ article is a bit misleading. It says that "African-American sections are the rule" at Borders and Waldenbooks, thus leaving the impression that all books by black authors are shelved in the African-American sections of Borders and Waldenbooks stores. This is of course not the case. You can find the works of many, many black authors shelved in general fiction, or mystery, or SF, or the appropriate nonfiction sections. It's not wrong to be concerned about this issue, but it's an exaggeration to suggest that there's an ironclad "rule" about what goes where.

I wonder where Steven Barnes, Octavia Bulture, Tananarive Due, Samuel R. Delany, and other black sf authors are shelved.

SF tends to be remarkably egalitarian in this regard. The market and fandom IME seems much too riven by matters of import -- Is Star Trek an optimistic vision for the future or a ludicrously unrealistic portrayal of barely-human Mary Sues? Is the stilted language of the LOTR poetic or just plain annoying? Just what catastrophe, exactly, will it take for Jordan to finish The Wheel Of Time by the end of the century?* -- to worry about such frivolities as race. Though I'm sure Gary, if he's around, or any of the Making Light regulars could school me six ways from Sunday on the subject.

* There are correct answers to all these questions, and there'll be a quiz at the end of the period.

And lo and behold, cometh the hour, cometh the Nielsen Hayden. Should've hit preview, huh?

I'm with you Hilzoy. Who decides what is 'literature' and what isn't? Aleays thought this is rather pretentious.
I guess here in Aus, all authors works would just be classified by fiction type (romance, scifi/fantasy. etc). I would never even think about an authors ethnicity.

Note that Borders and Waldenbooks (which are chenging nationwide to Borders Express) are owned by the same company, which is why their policies are similar. The same also applies to the policies of Barnes & Noble and B. Dalton, which are both owned by another company. So the main 4 bookstore chains are in reality only 2.

Just another aspect of how we have less real choice in sellers of products than it appears.

ack -- changing, not chenging.

I can't answer your question, but I'll say this: I've fallen in love with a TV series ("The Wire", on HBO, a cop show) whose cast is about 70% black. I am a white guy, and not a particularly enlightened one; I don't seek out shows with "diverse" casts. I just want to watch a good show. Well, "The Wire" is the best TV show I've ever seen, or heard of, or could imagine. And one of the great things about it -- besides the smashingly good writing and acting -- is that it's introduced me to a _lot_ of actors whom I'd never have seen otherwise.

I'm really shocked - stunned, actually - that bookstores put general interest and genre literature books by ethnic authors in separate sections from everyone else. Seems to me that's imposing a needless and downright insulting ghetto-ization on the writers: "Oh, only black readers will want to read fiction by black writers - let's keep it away from the 'regular' books!"

OTOH, I haven't seen that in any of the bookstores I go to: whether it's B&N or one of the myriad independents here in the Pac NW, non-what writers' books are right there on the shelves with everyone else. They might also be shelved in with the special interest/ethnic titles - to accommodate anyone who wants to be sure they're reading and supporting writers of color - but that would be "in addition to," rather than "instead of."

Is it possible that the phenom is regional? Did ther article say what cities, what parts of the country, it found the "segregated books" in?

Just what catastrophe, exactly, will it take for Jordan to finish The Wheel Of Time by the end of the century?*

Ha ha! Trick question! Somewhere in his office, there's an envelope that says, "To Be Opened in the Event of My Death." Inside it there's a piece of paper:

"And then they all died. The End."

Jordan always reminds me of a pilot who can get the plane up and fly it around but doesn't actually know how to land it. So he's been circling the airport -- with his agent & publishers doing in-flight refueling -- for I don't know how many volumes now (I parachuted off after #4), getting no closer to an actual *landing*.

Can't be answered without saying "which Trek", poetic and annoying, trick question because Robert Jordan's story cannot be told--like Xeno's paradox, the closer you get to the end the smaller the timeframe covered by each book. It will soon be the case that he can't cover an hour of book-time in fewer than 1,000 pages.

Supporting the bookseller's practice is that when I went to look up Steven Barnes on Amazon.com (to make sure I was spelling his name right), the "people who bought this book also bought" listed a book by Tananarive Due, who I would not otherwise have known was black.

New one on me. Tananarive Due wrote one of the more psychotic sections of Naked Came The Manatee, and I say that with admiration. Steve Barnes, though, is always near the begining of the "B" section in scifi. Scifi, scifi, scifi!

Just what catastrophe, exactly, will it take for Jordan to finish The Wheel Of Time by the end of the century?

Considering he has a life-threatening disease, probably the life-threatening disease. I think he's planned to release the last book in two or perhaps three volumes, whatever that could possibly mean apart from "two or three more books". More than likely, he'll just leave behind a whole pile of disconnected manuscripts that will eventually be pieced together in story form by Christopher Tolkien or Frank Herbert, Jr.

Jordan's neverending story simultaneously annoys and intrigues me. Kind of like Lost for the sword&sorcery set.

Wow. Sebastian wins -- fatality! :O

The same is also true, at least in Borders, of "gay" fiction - there's a separate section, but they don't automatically put gay authors there (although it's amusing to imagine a famous author coming out, followed by laborious reshelving efforts). The impression I get is that if the book is considered to be particularly on "gay" or "black" themes, or have a plot particularly oriented towards those "issues," then it gets filed there, especially if the author doesn't have a lot of mainstream recognition. How those decisions are determined I have no clue, and it's all BS, but then in the bookstore of my mind there'd be various nonfiction sections and then one labeled "Fiction," where all genres would coexist. You can draw negative conclusions about the decisions behind making "black" and "gay" books into "specialty" fiction, but if the model works for Romance, Mystery, SciFi, etc., then presumably the stores honestly feel there's an analogous market that's not interested in having Richard Wright next to David Foster Wallace. Maybe the proper alternative is not my preference of lumping everything together, but rather being really honest about what genres we have, so you could go to one shelf find all the books in which middle-aged white men divorce their wives and take up with women twenty years their junior. (One shelf? One floor!)

Shelving in several places seems the obvious approahc to me. Bookselling isn't like library cataloguing, where you try to establish uniquely correct categories, or it shouldn't be - books should be wherever they are likely to find potential customers.

To address one of Andrew's points, I doubt the segregated black economy was so prosperous that its loss should be lamented. Yes, there were successful black entrepreneurs, and some well-off professionals, but remember that by and large their customer base was almost entirely black, which means fairly poor. That's a hard world to make money in, especially when whites can pick off some of your customers, but you can't pick off theirs.


I mind one implication of this: that Fiction is "White Fiction". ... I could see 'Fiction' and 'Trash'...

I donno, the temptation to keep the "White Fiction" concept, just so you could then have a "White Trash" section might be overwhelming.

Let's not lament the fact that books are segregated based on something as irrelevant to the content of the book as the author's skin color; rather, let's lament the fact that there is still to this day enough distance between the experiences of white people and black people that it makes sense to divide books up in this way. It's a legitimate distinction; (many) African-American novels do form a distinct genre based on motifs and themes and settings and characters, so why not separate them just as we separate romance and science fiction? And if that's a problem, then the problem is that so much de facto cultural segregation still exists. The books, and the publishing categories, just reflect that.

There's a "Black/African-American Fiction" section in my new local library. (There wasn't in my old local library, which was in Harlem.) Once I noticed the section, I spent a hour looking it over recently.

We're not talking about Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley, or Richard Wright here; those authors' books tend to get shelved under "literature" at this branch library.

The books in this section are much, much pulpier, published on very poor stock, with minimal cover design values. As far as the books themselves look, as physical objects, the obvious point of comparison are Harlequin editions and 40s/50s noir/pulp.

This is not the Toni Morrison section. There's a lot of chick lit. There's also a swathe of young man coming of age novels, but what I read of them didn't particularly appeal to me, though I'm obviously not their target audience. One author in the latter genre who seemed pretty well represented on the shelves opened his book in medias res with a pretty lurid (albeit cheerful-seeming) sex scene.

The sheer quantity at my smallish branch library indicates that there's a decent market for these books, but I'm guessing that the authors themselves don't see much money or good editing. If there's a great new talent in there, he or she might have a really hard time working to get out of the niche. However, the niche is providing a lot of mediocrish writers with work, and seems to be appealing to an audience that doesn't (in my reading experience) get a lot of books written to them. I'll be curious to watch how this market goes, frankly.

I've read science fiction for decades and I had no idea that any of the aforementioned authors were black. Samuel R. Delany may have written a classic or two, but he was always boring to me.

What's odd to me is that "black lit" apparently finds its own section while "chick lit" does not, although it seems equally distinguishable to me.

Many stores do segregate "chick lit," and the older women's niche fiction, "Romance," is almost always segregated.

It's a legitimate distinction; (many) African-American novels do form a distinct genre based on motifs and themes and settings and characters, so why not separate them just as we separate romance and science fiction? And if that's a problem, then the problem is that so much de facto cultural segregation still exists.
I've read science fiction for decades and I had no idea that any of the aforementioned authors were black.

Sure: science fiction tends to be about some made-up version of the future, rather than the messy past and present. Yes, the future is messy, too, but for the most part we've moved on to different sorts of messes. Messes of our own choosing.

Barnes I knew was black nearly from the moment I first picked up any of his work. Oddly, though, the early paperback editions of Streetlethal featured a distinctly nonblack hero on the cover, whereas if you read the book, Aubrey Knight is very, very dark. Later editions had a more representative-looking hero on the cover. Steven Barnes discusses this some here:

BTW--in case I wasn't direct enough, the editors were right to put a white guy on the cover of Streetlethal. They correctly believed that a black face would mean lower sales. To my knowledge, Octavia makes most of her money on the Feminist literature circuit. Chip makes his money in academia. That makes me, possibly, the ONLY black SF writer to make a living in the field. What about Asians? They're greatly under-represented for their population as well, pointing out again: SF quite possibly is less welcoming of "others" than white fans want to believe. They want to believe it is open and warm and wide-minded. Sorry. They're only human, and in some key aspects, some of the most closed-minded around. In other words, there aren't more minorities for the same reason that black and Asian men don't have sex in films--white guys don't buy it, and that drives the economy. So prospective writers can write about people of their own ethnicity, and earn less money (most writers lead a darned marginal existence--this additional burden is killing!) or they can write about white guys, all the while wondering if the very people they write to and for have any respect for them. It's quite an emotional ball of snakes.

Speaking from my own point of view (which is pretty much all I have), I think that one of the things that makes Barnes' work interesting and entertaining is the occasional blurring of cultural and racial lines (Knight's love interest in Streetlethal is a woman of mixed and uncertain race) while acknowledging What Has Come Before. Blood Brothers goes even a bit further and explores race as part of self-identification. This isn't quite it, but imagine if you were a macho white guy who occasionally rubbed elbows with the white-supremacy crowd, and discovered that you had a cousin who was...well, much darker than you.

This is just another axis of Barnes' appeal, though, and not the entire thing. Butler I haven't read much (or any) of, and Delany I've only made it through The Einstein Intersection, which I liked. FWIW, I picked up the version of Streetlethal with the black hero on front, but it's entirely possible (I honestly cannot recall) that the first thing I read by him was The Kundalini Equation, which features a white guy on the cover.

So I'd say that for me, the color of the person on the cover might indeed have affected whether I chose to read him, but it didn't factor in to my decision to give him another try.

Just a particular example of a common phenomenon: segregation by choice. Like church on Sunday morning, or where college students sit in their cafeterias.

N.b., to refine what Hayden said, that some imprints are specialty-black, -gay, -lesbian, etc., which it makes even more sense to put in a separate section based just on who the publisher/imprint is. I think that's what the NYT article was really talking about, although some stores do put Ellison, etc. there too.

OTOH, ever seen Thomas Sowell in the "African-American" section? Me either.

To join in what appears to be a chorus, dual shelving seems to be what makes sense -- if customers want to shop for 'African-American' fiction, there's nothing wrong with that, but it should be possible to find African-American writers in general fiction. (I've been annoyed by this in genre writing -- it happens with mysteries sometimes. A book clearly written as a mystery will get shelved as general fiction and not with the mysteries because it's 'literature'. Getting to be on the general fiction bookshelves shouldn't be a status marker.)

My nearest bookshop had shelves in the Crime & Mystery section labelled "GOLDEN AGE", "HARD BOILED", "PROCEDURAL" and "JIVETALKINBADASSMOTHERFUCKERS". I miss that place. The Military History shelf was labelled "DON'T MENTION THE WAR".

The video rental place, on the other hand, had one black section that included everything with any black actors in it at all.
So that was "The Siege", "Do the Right Thing", "Crimson Tide", "Mississippi Burning", "The Matrix" "Othello", "Much Ado about Nothing", "Event Horizon", "The Nutty Professor", "Deep Blue Sea" and "Pulp Fiction", all on the same shelf.
And it wasn't labelled. Took me months to spot the common factor.

Double shelving: customer's delight, shelver's nightmare. Holy cats, people, don't you know what you're asking of low-level bookstore employees?


Or in other words: it would cost a lot more money.

Let me way in as someone who spent 10 years working at Waldenbooks:
1)African-American fiction predominantly went in fiction, ditto Latino, etc. The specific ethnic sections focused more on nonfiction, but then we also had a specific African-American subsection in the history section.
2)Figuring out correct shelving is always a challenge: Should a particular police vs. serial killer novel a mystery, or is it more a thriller? If an author writes both horror and SF, do we put them in separate sections (increasing the chance a non-SF fan horror fan will pick it up) or clump all the books together where his fans can find them? Does a book about African American hairstyles belong in fashion and beauty or African-American interest? When does a love story go in mainstream rather than romance?
3)The multiple-shelving approach has merit, but inevitably you wind up with the books being out in one section or the other (unless it's the kind of hit where you have HUGE stocks on hand) which brings you back to the same problem. There's nothing more rollicking (not!) than having the computer tell you a particular book is on hand when it's not where you expect (did it get misshelved? Kept in the overheads? Not unpacked yet? Or is the computer just wrong?)
4)As someone whose fiction reading is overwhelmingly in the SF/fantasy vein I'd find lumping all fiction together as frustrating as lumping all nonfiction together--and we do have people who'd enter the store and ask for the "nonfiction" section ("Uh ... it's half the store, sir."). Although for real fun there's the question "Is fiction or nonfiction the one that isn't true?" (had that a couple of times).
5)The only really good solution is to have a staff that knows the books, knows where to find them and to ask them. Unfortunately a lot of stores don't place the priority on that that my manager did.

(FWIW, I work at a small, predominantly African-American branch library. We do have an African-American fiction section, and everything goes there by an African-American author: Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Zane, Carl Weber, Mary Monroe, etc., etc. It works, though not perfectly; though shelving is likely a bigger problem at bookstores, where the employees are less well-trained and paid, and catalogs aren't usually available).

Amazed by the numbers of folks above who hadn't guess that Tananarive Due was black. Come on, how many white people have creative names like that? :) Seriously, she and her mother wrote an autobiographical book about their respective involvement in civil rights activities, although (coming back to the post's topic) that book is obviously never shelved next to any of her science fiction works.

CD's are organized by at least partly by buyer, not genre'. At least this is the case at Borders. The sections have titles which indicate a type of music ie. "rock", "country" "world beat" etc., but decisions about where to put specific artists are made according to the section of the store where that artist's fans are most likely to be comfortable hanging out. That's how Gillian Welch ends up in "rock" not too far from Cassandra Wilson. They aren't remotely rock musicians but they are the kind of artists that people who browse through the Tom Waits CD's on the way to Warren Zevon, might buy.
I suppose bookstores do the same thing.

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