African-American Fiction: A Slamming Genre

By Brown, Vandella | American Libraries, November 1997 | Go to article overview

African-American Fiction: A Slamming Genre

Brown, Vandella, American Libraries


Since the 1970s, African-American novels have slammed, slid, infiltrated, and blended into the mainstream shelves of libraries. Once submerged in general fiction, these novels now have an authorship and readership to match the other genres. According to the 1995 Target Market News annual report, "between 1988 and 1993, African-American book purchases increased 100%." During the same period, African-American fiction attracted a new readership with the establishment of African-American book clubs and more college courses that taught the works of black writers.

Magazines like Publishers Weekly, Essence, Booklist, and Library Journal; organizations like the American Booksellers Association; and Oprah's Book Club recognize the African-American genre and have compiled reading lists and bestseller lists showing the popularity of these titles.

The debate continues among librarians whether or not to create a genre section in the public library for African-American fiction. Some librarians do not view African-American novels as a genre, commenting that it would be a shame to separate them from general fiction. These librarians predict that a collection for these novels would be ignored or would only be read by people of color.

Other librarians have discarded this thinking because many black authors are well-read by everyone and appear on major bestseller lists. Their viewpoint is that African-American novels are being written by both black and white writers and are in high cross-cultural demand.

What does the genre include?

Although not all African-American novels include structured narratives With rules governing plots, specific styles, and acceptable scenarios, the novels do speak consistently about, black diversity and culture. With an established list of prolific and bestselling writers, African-American novels easily qualify as a genre equal to romance, mystery, or westerns.

"Where is the black writer's section?" That is how most readers ask for the genre in libraries. They may be looking for writers like Donald Goines, who authored more than 16 titles from 1971 to 1975. Goines was one of the first to write pulp paperback novels depicting black ghetto life during the 1970s. Readers still question librarians about what to read next after reading Goines. The librarian might recommend Chester Himes or Robert Beck, who write on similar themes, but nothing seems to really match Goines's unique style.

The African-American genre includes such award-winning, bestselling authors as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Terry McMillan, Bebe Campbell, Gloria Naylor, and E. Lynn Harris, a black male writer whose novel And This Too Shall Pass spent nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. These writers have become synonymous with the black experience in fiction.

The genre's readership has come a long way since The Color Purple by Alice Walker. For example, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon acquired an expanded readership after TV talk-show host Oprah Winfrey added it to her Oprah's Book Club titles. Similarly, readership of Walter Mosley's mystery detective novels featuring Easy Rawlins increased after President Clinton pronounced them a good read. Mosley gained still more readership after his novel Devil in a Blue Dress was made into a movie.

The African-American genre includes romance novels, such as those written by Sandra Kitt, a librarian with more than 17 to her credit, among them Adam and Eva and The Color of Love. It also comprises all novels on black male-female relationships; interfacial conflict; short stories portraying the black experience regardless of the author's race, sex, or religion; and it often incorporates novels about Africa in which people of color are characterized. But the African-American genre doesn't stop there. The major characters of this genre are black individuals and groups exploring and dramatizing diversity, from black pulp fiction, through black gay fiction, to hard-hitting realism such as Push: A Novel by Sapphire or Coffee Will Make You Black by April Sinclair. …

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