Today I’m touching on what has always been a decidedly touchy subject. It’s sparked much debate in the blogosphere and will undoubtedly continue to do so for many years to come. In fact, my fellow Novel Spaces blogmate, Kaz Augustin, just mention this in her post a few days ago. I’m talking about the shelving of African American literature in bookstores.
I’ve made my feelings known about this subject several times on my personal blog, but those were all from the author’s perspective. However, a review of one of my books opened my eyes to the injustice being to readers as well.
Let me preface this by saying that when it comes to reviews, I take them all in stride, the good and the bad. I’ve encountered both and, thankfully, have grown a thick enough skin to face those not so favorable reviews with an open mind. This particular review was pretty darn bad. The reader absolutely hated my book. And I’m cool with that. I know my writing style is not for everyone. But I just had to know more about this reader, because, let’s face it, when someone has such a strong negative reaction to your work it piques your interest. (Or, maybe that’s just me.)
Intrigued, I clicked onto some of the other reviews the reviewer had posted, and discovered something very interesting. Many of my fellow romance authors had received one and two star reviews from this reader, while titles I’d label “Urban Fiction” earned four and five stars. Clearly, this reader enjoys a different kind of book from what I write. You just won't get that level of melodrama in a Farrah Rochon novel.
It got me wondering. How does a reader who, if using her reviews as an indication, doesn’t enjoy the romance genre, end up reading so any romances? Could it be because in some bookstores--including several major chains--all books by African American authors are shoved in the same section, regardless of genre? If my book was shelved in the romance section, would this reader have ever run across it?
Of course, this could just be a case of someone who simply didn’t like my writing. It’s happened before and will undoubtedly happen again. But the pattern of this reader’s reviews pointed to something more than just someone who didn’t like one particular romance novel. It’s quite possible she doesn’t enjoy the genre, but because all the books are shelved together, it’s hard to distinguish an African American romance from urban fiction, especially now that more and more urban fiction novels are being printed in mass market paperback format.
I see this as a total injustice to the reader. After reading her review, I was upset on the reviewer’s behalf for wasting both her money and time on a book she didn’t enjoy. I imagined myself buying a book with a pretty innocuous cover only to start reading and realize it's a horror novel. For someone who closes her eyes when she passes the Horror aisle, this would not be a good thing. But if the horror novelist is African American, there's a pretty good chance his/her book will be sitting right next to my tame romance novel on store shelves.
It's just not right! Why would stores make it a guessing game for readers? Simply shelve the books by genre so readers are not duped into buying a story that will leave them dissatisfied.
This argument has been going on for a long time, but I’m not sure there has ever been a compelling argument for shelving all books by African Americans in one place, regardless of genre. Is there one, or is this just blatant segregation that readers and authors will have to endure indefinitely? Someone please help me understand.