Saturday, January 30, 2016

Prominent black writers and accumulative advantage

Prominent black writers, like prominent figures in every field, are often the beneficiaries of a system of advantages. Since we rightly concentrate on the challenges and obstacles that black people confront concerning racism, we spend less time talking about the advantages and even privileges of black writers.
Yet, when you think about black writers in relation to other black writers as opposed to only white writers, you begin to recognize notable distinctions. 

To come to terms with why some black writers are more prominent than other black writers, it's worth giving thought to the notion of accumulative advantage -- the notion that small or distinct advantages early on can compound and result in exponential and ongoing grow over time. Accumulative or accumulated advantage, also known as the Matthew Effect, is encompassed in the old saying that "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."

Consider the careers and, more importantly, the receptions to select works by Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. A large, concentrated response to their works at key moments have led them to being viewed as "major" black authors. 

Wright's Native Son (1940) received substantial attention at almost the moment of its publication, helping to ensure that Wright would become one of the most critically-acclaimed African American novelists of all time.
Keneth Kinnamon's A Richard Wright Bibliography: Fifty Years of Criticism and Commentary, 1933-1982 (1988) and Richard Wright: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism and Commentary, 1983-2003 (2005) contain more than 21,000 items (news articles, scholarly essays, books, unpublished dissertations, etc.) related to Wright.

Beginning during the late 1970s, Zora Neale Hurston, who is often presented as a rival and alternative to Wright, gained considerable attention, and her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1934) was celebrated and assigned in classes over and over again, far outpacing dozens and dozens of other black writers. Hurston and Wright, or at least their legacies, have in fact benefited from the attention scholars and teachers place on their perceived rivalry. (Writers without a sense of conflict or controversy are somehow more easily overlooked in the historical and literary record).

From the late1980s through the present -- that is, over nearly the last three decades -- the scholarly and popular responses to Toni Morrison began to accumulate in dramatic fashion. In particular, her novels The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Beloved (1987) have become the most frequently written about books among scholars, a fact apparently confirmed by the Metacanon project, a project that tracks and tabulates references to authors and their books in scholarly publications.  Morrison's rise was spurred in part by the public support she received from a group of 48 black writers, which in turn influenced her receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. 

Over the last year, there has been a tremendous reception for Ta-Nehisi Coates's book Between the World and Me (2015). That reception was an extension of the extraordinary response to his article "The Case for Reparations." The many responses to Coates, Morrison, Hurston, and Wright have generated more and more responses to the writers' works.

Extensive, far-reaching receptions present writers with a series of advantages. A substantial reception can lead to increased readerships, which can in turn lead to increased symbolic capital and concrete sales. Concrete sales generate revenue for a writer's publisher, which in turn increases the odds that the publisher will publish, market, and support the writer's future work.

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