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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Jean Toomer's Cane was advertised as "a book about Negroes by a Negro," despite his request not to promote the book along such racial lines. Nella Larsen switched the title of her second novel from Nig to Passing, because an editor felt the original title "might be too inflammatory." In order to publish his first novel as a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection Richard Wright deleted a scene in Native Son depicting Bigger Thomas masturbating. Toni Morrison changed the last word of Beloved at her editor's request and switched the title of Paradise from War to allay her publisher's marketing concerns.

Although many editors place demands on their authors, these examples invite special scholarly attention given the power imbalance between white editors and publishers and African American authors. Black Writers, White Publishers: Marketplace Politics in Twentieth-Century African American Literature examines the complex negotiations behind the production of African American literature.

In chapters on Larsen's Passing, Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, Gwendolyn Brooks's Children Coming Home, Morrison's "Oprah's Book Club" selections, and Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth, John K. Young presents the first book-length application of editorial theory to African American literature. Focusing on the manuscripts, drafts, book covers, colophons, and advertisements that trace book production, Young expands upon the concept of socialized authorship and demonstrates how the study of publishing history and practice and African American literary criticism enrich each other.

John K. Young is an associate professor of English at Marshall University. His work has appeared in journals such as College English, African American Review, and Critique.

Excerpt

Boni and Liveright advertised Cane (1923) as “a book about Negroes by a Negro,” despite Jean Toomer’s express request not to promote the book along such racial lines (Larson 25; Toomer 157). Nella Larsen agreed to switch the title of her second novel from Nig to Passing (1929) because an editor at Knopf felt the original title “might be too inflammatory for a novel by an unproven writer, while ‘Passing,’ and the phenomenon’s connection to miscegenation, would incite interest without giving offense” (T. Davis 306–7). Richard Wright revised and deleted several scenes in Native Son (1940) depicting Bigger Thomas masturbating, as well as those showing Mary Dalton’s desire for Bigger, in order to publish his first novel as a Bookof-the-Month Club main selection. Zora Neale Hurston criticized American racial policy in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), noting that “President Roosevelt could extend his four freedoms to people right here in America.” But she cut this passage and others like it after an editor at Lippincott wrote, “Suggest eliminating international opinions as irrelevant to autobiography” (Hemenway 287, 288, emphasis added). Toni Morrison revised the last “racially charged but figuratively coherent” word of Beloved (1987) at her editor’s request (“Home” 8), and changed the title of Paradise (1998) from War to allay Knopf’s marketing concerns (see Mulrine 22).

These examples share a marked power imbalance between white editors and publishers and African American authors. To some extent this is, of course, a normal publisher-writer relationship: Theodore Dreiser muted several of his novels’ passages deemed to be too sexually explicit; the British . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.