Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Shelving Issue: Another Perspective

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.


KeVin K. said...

You hit it on the head.

I backed out of this debate years ago because sooner or later in every venue someone would finally tell me I will never "get" why African Americans need their own space in a bookstore because I'm white.
(My argument: That classifying/shelving books as AA only made the much larger and generally better funded pool of white readers feel they were not welcome. I think the industry is shooting itself -- and some of the best writers out there -- in the foot with this practice.)

Of course there are those booksellers who think AA-authored fiction is a genre. But that's a whole different battle.

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't know what the answer is. I typically find folks like Ishmael Reed, James Baldwin, and Samuel Delany shelved in the general shelves. But I also see a lot of newer African American writers shelved in a separate African American section. I'm not sure there is a perfect solution, and certainly not one that would please everyone.

Liane Spicer said...

My feelings exactly, Farrah. It makes no sense. I've said it before and I'll say it again: shelving books of all genres together based on the color of the authors' skin is nothing short of idiotic.

I've read where some authors claim it makes AA-authored novels easier for the AA readers to locate. AA readers have been buying books since time immemorial and they've never had a problem locating books they wanted before. I find this kind of shelving, the rationales for it, and the assumptions behind those rationales repugnant in the extreme.

P.S. - I see we have the same reaction to the horror genre - but I've read a couple and actually enjoyed them, just like I found the movie Shadow of the Vampire delicious although you'd normally have to drag me kicking and screaming to see a horror movie. And I'll be reading Terence's Bite Marks, of course. :)

Shauna Roberts said...

Personally, I'd like books to be filed in more than one section. That would solve the problem of the increasing number of cross-genre books and accommodate the wishes of someone who wants to read only AA books. Although, really, how many people want to limit themselves like that?

One benefit I do see to a separate AA section is that once a bookstore has one, it has to buy enough books to fill it, thus getting AA books into stores that otherwise wouldn't carry as many. When I go into a bookstore that has a tiny sf/f section, I often notice that that section has primarily books by men, often classics from the 1940s and 1950s. It would be silly to separate books by sex of author, and yet, sometimes I wish bookstores did just so they would be forced to buy more sf/f books by women.

Anonymous said...

Bookshelves should be filled and categorised according to genre, only to make things easier to find. The faster readers find books, the more sales will be made. Pure marketing basics. I enjoy cross-genre stories but that's another issue for another time...

Authors' colour, sex, race, creed and the like are not genres. Filing books according to these makes no business sense and is segregation for possibly dubious reasons. Do book sellers honestly think that AA readers will only want to read AA books? If that's the case then their business plan is weak and narrow-minded.

Right, now where do I find a book by an atheist black lesbian amputee?

Tina Glasneck said...

As an avid reader and author, I have never understood the reasoning behind such a blatant racially motivated move. I just want my book to be placed in its genre, alphabetically.

I have heard though that if your interested in getting removed from the "black shelf" you can pay to be placed in a more prominent position.

Writers deal with enough just creating a good story. Neither my race nor my gender should have any hold on the genre I write or where my book is placed.

Maybe it is time that we all just plain said something about it.

Unknown said...

Farrah -- Ah, you strike so close to home! As a paranormal author, I'd love to have my books shelved by genre so that readers who want a magical/mythical/otherworldly escape can find my work. Like you, I don't want to be plucked from the shelf by someone searching for Baby Mama drama and assuming that's what I bring because I'm on a shelf filled with Urban Fiction.

Yes, let's base bookstore sections on genre and not race.

Brazos Outlaw said...

Hello all, I for one thinks this is an injustice to the reader and to the writer. I wrote a story about an African man who was a US Marshal in the 1870's. There were some good reviews, but so many wondered why I had a black man as my protagonist, being that I am white. The bookstore did not know where to put the book. I said how about with the western fiction. How hard is that?

Brazos Outlaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
princessapr said...

I do think it's ridiculous and agree with your every point.

I wonder what the store's motivation is - was this something that at least a focus group requested?

I have seen readers go straight to the African-American section in DC bypassing all other sections in the bookstore though. So, though I see being misled by finding so many different genres in one section, I find it interesting that a reader would just read what is in a given category, too.

In most stores I visit, the Farrah Rochon books are in the general romance section. In DC, the books are shelved with the AA books so it also makes it difficult to find what I want and as a reader that's frustrating. Nice topic to discuss today.