Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair

A black man’s struggle to find a book

If you’re a writer and wish to be traditionally published, you must acquire an agent. Agents often ask, “What book is your work similar to?” They want you to list competitive or comparable titles of contemporary best-selling books. This list tells them how to sell or pitch your manuscript to an editor at a publishing house.

They want to know where your book would fit in a bookstore.

Asking for comps seemed like a reasonable request. I visited my local library in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, and walked the aisles searching for contemporary literary fiction written by black men. I spent thirty minutes browsing the shelves and did not find one book that fit my criteria.

Books about infidelity and drug dealing filled the library’s African-American section. After the first thirty minutes, I was exasperated, so I searched the library’s catalog for literary fiction. The catalog pulled up a measly two pages filled with genre and middle-grade books. I returned to the stacks, thinking surely, I’d missed something. I walked between shelves for another hour.

Shelf by shelf, book by book, the library became metaphorically dark. I was walking up a steep staircase, and when I came to the last shelf, the lights went out.

I spoke over the phone with a manager at Tangipahoa Parish library, responsible for acquisitions. When I told her about my experience, she was incredulous and insisted that their system held African-American books. Right off the bat, she mentioned Gerome Dickey. She suggested that I search Goodreads, the Brown Bookshelf, theroot.com, and Wikipedia.

All pulled up lists of urban and genre fiction, or books written too long ago to list as a comparable title. I kept getting “no results” when I tried searching for African-American literary fiction.

I understand that “coonery” and hood books sell.

One day, the library in Mobile, Alabama (where I then lived), was selling some of its inventory. The used selections included works by Ernest Gaines, Toni Morrison, and Ralph Ellison. The names impressed me. Then a young black woman came to stand next to me and scanned the shelf. After thirty seconds, she squatted to reach the lower shelf. I will never forget watching her hand as it moved toward one of the Baby-Daddy Wifey-Beat-by-Police books.

Multiply her actions by millions and mix in editors’ assumptions about black writing, and you get a large body of printed works that look and sound alike.

A search on Google for “Best Sellers in African-American Literary Fiction” yielded:

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, a novel about Ghanaian immigrants in Alabama.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. A white security guard in a yuppie neighborhood accuses an African-American babysitter of kidnapping the child in her care.

What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah. The book is a short story collection that blends magical realism and sci-fi elements.

Taft by Ann Patchett. Ann Patchett is not African American.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. At last, I’d discovered a literary novel written by a black man. This makes me hopeful.

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth Book 1) by N.K. Jemisin. The novelis not strictly literary fiction. This is a speculative literary crossover.

Other books on the list included: To kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and American by Day by Derek B. Miller. Miller is a white, male.

I’m still on that staircase in the dark, and I’m searching for a little light, perhaps from a faraway star or the moon, to shine through a slit.

Racism is endemic to America. That’s inescapable, but the experience available to people of color outside of that reality is expansive. It’s a shame that readers don’t see all these worlds.

A blog post permits only a non-scientific foray into the business, but I hope to awaken some interest in this topic.

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