So, which black writers have sold out?

“One can argue that, to earn mainstream cred, [black] artists typically had to be culturally inert, pandering to the masses with racial broad strokes at the expense of artistic integrity. Alexis has risen above, delving into universal themes and cultural commonalities that are enriched by his racial makeup and illuminated though (sic) his methodology to prose.” So says Ryan B. Patrick in a recent piece entitled “André Alexis and the changing narrative of popular black literature”

In the concluding comments in a recent post entitled “Publishers vs People of Colour Who Write” I remark, “It’s hard to resist conforming with ‘mainstream’ values, aesthetic and otherwise, when that conformity opens doors.” It’s not just a problem for People of Colour. (Hereafter POC.) We all know very well that some writers choose marketability over deep truth. Writers, like other people, have got to eat.

Whereas I agree with much of what Ryan has to say about the difficulties writers of colour face, I also know, as an old editor, that generalities are sensible cover, especially when one qualifies them carefully. When one proceeds to specifics, it’s a different calabash of crabs. So, though I do not know what Ryan Patrick means by André Alexis’s “methodology to prose” and I’d disagree with his describing Alexis’s work – or for that matter the writing of Marlon James or Ta-Nehisi Coates, who also figure in his post – as ‘popular’, my ignorance and our disagreement about terms needn’t constitute a problem. I must also say that I admire André Alexis’s work, and that I enjoyed Fifteen Dogs. (I’ve just finished Childhood on my second attempt and will reserve judgment on that book.)

But if man going bring dis kind o argument – “[black] artists typically had to be culturally inert, pandering to the masses” – no mind if him is Marlon James (who just now make a similar comment) or Ryan Patrick, him must come better dan dis.

I note Patrick’s careful, “One can argue…” Indeed. One can argue that Donald Trump would make a fine president of the United States, or that the earth moves round the sun – and persuasively, if one has wit enough. “One can argue…” can also shape shift, Anansi-like. Is one making this argument? And if one is, as seems to be the case, upon what basis? Who and how many are these black writers? African? Black British? Caribbean? I’d be glad if any of these had that much of a look-in to publishing!

I’m left to think they must be Black American or Black Canadian writers. But it doesn’t really matter. Whoever Ryan Patrick is flinging stone at (perhaps in the wake of Marlon James’s comment?), he needs to name at least some of those he indicts for selling out. That there may be many in some respects would be a good thing. It would mean writers of colour are getting published. But if one is going to praise and name (as in André Alexis’s case), one should, in fairness, damn and name. It needn’t be a long list; just a couple examples would firm up Ryan Patrick’s case.

It’s true that for some a publishing contract with a big house – or any contract at all – may be a temptation to desert the narrow path of honest insight. Others, though, like Ezekel Alan , self-publish to answer their responsibilities as griots in this millennium. The irony is that Ryan Patrick is making this argument in the midst of self-searching by the publishing industry, which at all its levels and in all its permutations, includes a miniscule proportion of POC in both Europe and North America, and, as it is now admitting, systematically whites out these writers.

That said many black authors accept that, even if their work is good enough to warrant their becoming “authors of note”, they will likely have to wait till they are dead for that recognition. In this, they follow writers of all colours through the ages. As Lydia Davis says of Lucia Berlin, “I have always had faith that the best writers will rise to the top…sooner or later, and will become exactly as well known as they should be…” The struggle meantime is for all the people to hear their stories told, to see their lives and experiences thoughtfully and skilfully explored, their sorrows mourned and their triumphs celebrated. Black writers will write bad books, mediocre books, and fine books, just as all other writers do. They are perhaps the most to be forgiven for selling out. The sad truth is that for a young person to merely see the name and photo of a black author on a book is still eminent cause for rejoicing.

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