What's Behind the Big Boom in Black Women Writers
Whitaker, Charles, Ebony
In the wake of author Terry McMillan's success, a huge corps of female novelists dominate the best-seller lists
A DECADE ago, most of the attention paid to Black women fiction writers was focused on a small group of literary icons, notably Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and a few of their predecessors. Though immensely popular, these revered women of letters were the exceptions rather than the rule in the closed world of book publishing. Back then, Black fiction was considered an iffy proposition and Black authors, for the most part, made their reputations based on the patronage and critical notice of an elite White audience.
That was BTM: Before Terry McMillan.
The force with which McMillan's 1992 novel Waiting to Exhale exploded on the scene shattered conventional notions about the reading habits of Black folks and unquestionably established that a ravenous corps of Black book-buyers--most of them women--was clamoring for stories that reflected their lives or the lives of their sisters, daughters, mothers and friends. Waiting to Exhale, the dialogue-driven tale of four professional Black women and their quests for love, sold 1.75 million copies and remained on the New York Times Best Sellers list for 24 weeks.
More importantly, the Exhale phenomenon opened the eyes of editors at major publishing houses who went scurrying to find their own Terry McMillans in order to capture a share of what they belatedly realized was a powerful and long-neglected audience.
"You have to give Terry her props," says author Tina McElroy Ansa, who has produced three best-selling novels, including Baby of the Family, which she is now adapting into a film. "Terry McMillan is the one who struck that nerve at just the right time and that made the publishers sit up and pay attention."
The result was an unprecedented explosion of novels by Black women--a literary outpouring that rivals the Harlem Renaissance and the wealth of protest prose and poetry produced during the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and early '70s. But unlike those previous periods of Black creativity--when the majority of the literary luminaries were male--the bulk of the Black "stars" in fiction writing today are women.
In the past eight years, about 20 Black women have produced novels that have taken up comfortable and extended residence on a variety of best-seller lists, including the venerable New York Times' ranking of hot books. Another 10 to 15 women writers have generated considerable buzz with books that garnered critical praise.
While the current trend may have begun with books that mirrored McMillan's Sister-friend harangue about the trials of finding a man, it has been sustained by writers covering a wide swath of the Black experience. "The beauty of what is happening now is that you have African-Americans writing and publishing in all kinds of genres," says Breena Clarke, whose first novel, River Cross My Heart, spent a month on the New York Times Best Sellers list last year. "People think it's just the relationship books that are selling, but you have all these Black writers producing everything from mysteries to historical fiction. And their readers are eating it up."
These new literary voices range from immensely popular commercial writers like Rosalyn McMillan (Terry's sister), Yolanda Joe and Sheneska Jackson to critically acclaimed writers like Dawn Turner Trice and Diane McKinney-Whetstone. Some, like Pearl Cleage, Connie Briscoe and Tina McElroy Ansa are writing veterans whose creativity and popularity blossomed during this incredible period. Others, like 30-year-old National Book Award nominee Edwidge Danticat, are relative newcomers who bring the voices and sensitivities of the hip-hop generation to the literary table.
Many say it's not essential--maybe even counterproductive--to even try to categorize contemporary Black women's fiction. "I don't talk in terms of commercial fiction or literary fiction, because my readers don't make those distinctions," says Cleage, a noted playwright whose first novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, sold 500,000 copies. …