Tuesday, October 6, 2020

ProQuest and Top Five African American Novels

Howard Rambsy II and Kenton Rambsy

If you pursue dozens of ProQuest searches about African American novels, you’ll likely encounter mentions of a select group of books more than any others: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston, Native Son (1940) by Richard Wright, Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison, The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker, and Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison.  Since the late 1980s, those five novels have been among the most referenced works in American and African American literature.   

Overall, African American novels have consistently received attention for decades now. Often, a recently published novel receives notice and then mentions of the work fade. That’s not the case with our top five.

Our ProQuest searches reveal that references to those signature works by Hurston, Wright, Ellison, Walker, and Morrison have remained somewhat constant over the last three decades. Ellison’s Invisible Man was mentioned in newspapers, journals, books, and dissertations about 1,800 times between 1990 and 1999, about 1,900 times between 2000 – and 2009, and about 2,000 times between 2010 – 2019.    

The consistency of Invisible Man mentions, along with the steady references to Their Eyes Were Watching God, Native Son, The Color Purple, and Beloved really caught our attention. Something about the precise tabulation of coverage gave us firmer ground to make our claims about developments taking place in African American literary studies from the late 1980s and onward, especially with respect to key texts and authors.

Places for development
Our guess is that ProQuest will eventually develop tools that make it easier for student-users to view and track changes in the coverage of patterns and trends over time. Google Trends stands out as one popular model for this kind of work, but it does not allow the focus on different categories of sources in the specific way that ProQuest and other databases do.

Graduate students and scholars are going to find it particularly helpful when and if databases develop accessible tools for tracking various trends in the scholarly discourse.


No comments: