Sunday, October 18, 2015

Reading patterns, Digital Culture, and Ta-Nehisi Coates

An advance copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me

For years now, I've been working through a concept that scholar Jerry W. Ward, Jr. referred to as "a sociology of African-American literature," where we might, among other things, study reading patterns: "why do Black readers read what they read when they read?" This sociology is especially needed these days as modes of production, particularly with digital culture, have drastically changed our reading and writing experiences. 

Take Ta-Nehisi Coates for example. Perhaps no other black writer has gained more attention than him in the last two years. In 2014, more than 100 writer-reviewers responded to his article "The Case for Reparations." In 2015, more than 100 assessed his book Between the World and Me. Those hundreds of online responses were integral to Coates's rise and relevance as a major black writer.

The vast majority of readers--black, white, Asian, Hispanic, etc.--first gained access to Coates's work online and not in print. The Atlantic and subsequent outlets noted that Coates's reparations article set a "single-day traffic record" when it appeared online.  

Adjusting Ward's question, I'm interested in the following: Why do readers read black writers when they read them? We know that contemporary black poets and novelists usually become more widely known after they win a major literary prize or award. Those awards function as megablurbs. But Coates did not wait for a major award.

Instead, he was steadily building a large audience online following as a blogger for The Atlantic. His following grew even larger when he published "Fear of a Black President" in September of 2012. The very title drew attention, and, among other venues, hundreds of people "tweeted" the article. Adjusting Ward's question again: how do online followings and Twitter affect what black writers are read?

There's a popular origin tale for major rap artists and urban literature authors. Before they became highly successful, so the story will go, they first established themselves by driving around and selling their products out of the trunks of their cars. Coates's origin story is necessarily different and hi-tech. That is to say, he initially gained a following online at The Atlantic, not based on selling books and magazines out of the trunk of his car.

Was his work appearing in print? Sure. But even his print works receive a tremendous boost thanks to pre-publication publicity. Between the World and Me, for example, was reviewed (online) by more than 30 publications prior to the book's July 14th release date. His publisher distributed dozens of advance copies to readers and potential reviewers. On Instagram, John Legend mentioned reading his advance copy of Coates's book. Most notably, Toni Morrison received an advance copy and had her assistant email Coates's editor Chris Jackson her (Morrison's) thoughts about the work to serve as a book blurb.

The scholarly discourse on African American literature primarily concentrates on historical works and authors who first published decades ago. However, we'll need to do more to examine digital culture and pre-publication issues in order to adequately understand why readers read black writers when they read them.     

A Notebook on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates 
A notebook on readers
Pre-publication activities: Colson Whitehead and Ta-Nehisi Coates

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