Sunday, September 18, 2011

Productivity and African American Novelists

If you follow Colson Whitehead's and Edwidge Danticat's writing, then you've never had to wait too long for them to produce new novels, short stories, or essays. They seem to regularly release new works. But perhaps that level of productivity from "serious" literary artists is uncommon.

In this week's NYTIMES, the book reviewer Dwight Garner has a piece where he pleads with leading novelists to write "smaller novels and more of them." Garner focuses on literary novelists such as Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen, but I've been thinking for a while about the amount and rate of output offered by black writers.

It's worth noting that publishers often dictate when and how much a writer can publish. I imagine that are some writers out there willing and wanting to publish more and quicker, but their publishers might determine that they should wait. In addition, it's possible that some really prolific writers don't have a publisher or a publisher that's willing to put out all of their work. 

But then, there are probably others who have a green-light but are taking their time to produce. I imagine there are quite a few readers ready and waiting for new books by Edward Jones and Toni Morrison, right? Readers are definitely waiting and ready for another offering from Alice Walker and Charles Johnson. And Gayl Jones. And ZZ Packer. 

Back in the day, readers likely wanted more novels from Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison, though Hurston's and Ellison's Invisible Man have been wonderful contributions to literary and cultural traditions. In addition to the popularity of Richard Wright's Native Son and Black Boy, part of what made Wright such an important writer was his outstanding productivity. 

I wonder what productivity has to do with the successes of Colson Whitehead and Edwidge Danticat. How  much has the release of books by the writers every few years over the last 10 years contributed to their importance and visibility on the literary scene? 

Perhaps issues associated with productivity--what it means, how authors and publishers control it, how it's influenced by critical and popular reception, etc.--deserve more of our attention in the study of black literature and publishing history. 

1 comment:

martha said...

The question of productivity is such a complicated one. And I think one thing that is certainly overlooked in Dwight Garner's NYTmag essay and that to some extent I grappled unsuccessfully in my NYTBR essay "Writers Like Me," is simply that it is impossible to know what a writers mental process is from the outside. Also, we don't know what's going on in his or her life. Garner only touches on certain rarefied men who, frankly, wrote in a world that is gone (infinitely helpful wives and paramours, being able to find enough paying venues that you could make a living writing without having another job, all fiction having a degree of cultural currency it no longer has, whoever you are) and other contemporary men (who, interestingly, are all white) who he has no way of knowing WHY they are taking a long time. Writers are people too--we get divorced, fight with our spouses, run short on cash, have sick parents. That stuff can shut you right up, John Cheever aside. Some of us just take a long time to think and let things soak in. Garner has a point about the attempted epic reach of some of the novelists he refers to and I think odds are good that some of that "great man" thinking is going on, but I think he also makes some indefensible leaps in logic and lumps unlike writers together. I stand by my theorizing about why productivity may be complicated somewhat by race for black writers of my generation (I am about 10 years older than Whitehead, Packer, Danticat, et al.) But I also don't really know what was going on in each individual case. Productivity IS important to relevance I think, as long as it's not overkill (see Joyce Carol Oates) and a certain level of quality is maintained. But in many ways, trying to dictate it or decide what's driving it from outside is a loaded gun.