Sunday, September 25, 2011

Notes on the Coverage of Black Books 2011

Earlier this year, Kevin Young's volume Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels received some important coverage, especially since volumes of poetry tend to receive relatively little commentary. I charted the coverage of Mat Johnson's novel Pym. Later, I looked at the extensive commentary focusing on Manning Marable's biography of Malcolm X, and more recently, Randall Kennedy's The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency has received quite a bit of attention.

Colson Whitehead's newest novel Zone One, which will be published officially on October 18, has already received significant pre-publication buzz. This week, Toure's book Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness? made the cover of the New York Times Book Review, a placement that will certainly elevate the visibility of the book.

It's worth noting, of course, that substantial coverage for 'black' books, like all books, is fairly rare. The probability that a book will receive numerous reviews and extensive publicity, especially prior publication, is typically tied to the symbolic and financial capital of a publisher. Large and elite publishers have the resources, connections, long-term institutional experience, and monetary funds to help ensure that readers and reviewers are at least aware of particular books.

I would like to see books by black women and African American-authored volumes of poetry receive more coverage, as more coverage tends to lead to more discussions on particular topics related to the books. However, it is unlikely that those books will receive more coverage without the necessary backing from a powerful publisher. 

The likelihood that a new black book receives substantial coverage might also be linked to whether the author has prior publications. Young, Johnson, Whitehead, Marable, Kennedy, and Toure had all published many works before the appearance of their works this year. They had built followings for their works and also earned the attention of their publishers. I suspect that the coverage that Young, Whitehead, and Kennedy received is also linked to the regularity of their publications and the substantial attention their previous books have received.

The pre-publication notion, of course, is not full-proof. There are all kinds of writers who've published dozens of works and yet get no play on the coverage tip. So, hmmmm, I guess it just all depends.

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