Black Writers, White Publishers: Marketplace Politics in Twentieth-Century African American Literature

By Fisher, Rebecka Rutledge | Southern Quarterly, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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Black Writers, White Publishers: Marketplace Politics in Twentieth-Century African American Literature


Fisher, Rebecka Rutledge, Southern Quarterly


Black Writers, White Publishers: Marketplace Politics in Twentieth-Century African American Literature. By John K. Young. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006. 230pp. Cloth: $40.00, ISBN 1-578-06846-0.)

With the publication of Black Writers, White Publishers: Marketplace Politics in Twentieth-Century African American Literature, John K. Young joins a substantive list of varied scholars of what he calls, with seeming synonymity, "editorial theory," or "textual criticism," a list whose most outstanding names include Hans Walter Gabler, George Bernstein, and Jerome McGann. Editorial theory, of course, instantiates just that, while textual criticism would refer to the application of this theory to the "reading" of texts, or, perhaps more pertinently, to an analysis of the materiality of texts. Editorial theory and textual criticism are essentially a part of a broad inquiry into the "culture of the book," specifically as this has come to be practiced by such academics as Joseph Lowenstein in The Author's Due (University of Chicago Press, 2002). Terms and phrases such as bibliographic politics, bibliographic codes, the genetics of the text, and the hierarchy of text and document give shape to these enterprises. And, in good measure, these terms remain foreign to the literary critic.

To be sure, Young and other editorial theorists hearken to a number of familiar names. While Lowenstein works to distance his readings from the ideas of Michel Foucault, Bernstein sidles up to Walter Benjamin's widely applied concept of the "aura," which Benjamin expounds at length in his classic essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936). The author is put off neither by Benjamin nor Foucault. In a sense, Foucault's thought serves to give shape to his collection of studies: "My focus throughout this book on cultural interactions among writers, editors, and publishers who are identified socially as black or white thus operates at the level of power, in the Foucauldian sense: I investigate the ways in which a concentration of money and cultural authority in mainstream publishers works to produce images of blackness that perpetuate an implicit black-white divide between authors and readers, with publishers acting as a gateway in this interaction" (6).

Editorial theory is crucial to his investigation because, he argues, "its purview is precisely the interaction between the material and immaterial aspects of textuality, what Jerome McGann terms bibliographic and linguistic codes" (6-7). While nationality has long played a role in editorial theory, ideas of race have not, Young writes. And thus, while eschewing race as essence, and, simultaneously, marking its trace in material texts and paratexts, Young renders a study that emphasizes "the circumstances of textual production." That is, he focuses upon the historical recovery of African American texts with the aim of demonstrating "the specific ways in which the fictionality of race has been mapped onto real bodies, both textual and anatomical" (25).

Black Writers, White Publishers, based upon Young's dissertation, presents five studies on five prominent, even canonical, African American writers: Nella Larsen, Ishmael Reed, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, and Ralph Ellison. Larsen's novels Quicksand(\928) and Passing (1929) are read often enough in college surveys of African American literature, and they appear so frequently on doctoral reading lists as to render them de rigueur. Of greatest significance and interest in the chapter on Ishmael Reed is Young's argument regarding a "black copyright page" that was restored, by Reed's white publishers, to "its 'normal' color" in paperback editions of Mumbo Jumbo (1972). In chapter three, Gwendolyn Brooks's "bibliographical blackness" emerges from the well-known story of her "conversion" at the 1967 conference of African American writers convened on the campus of Fisk University in the guise of what Young, borrowing a phrase from Zofia Burr, deems a "newly emphatic gesture of address.

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