As I always do when a new Colson Whitehead book is released, I've been tracking the coverage of his latest novel, Crook Manifesto. Something that stands out, when I consider it, is the absence of black literature reviewers for Whitehead and other novelists.
Among the 40 or so reviews and interviews I've tracked so far, only about 4 or 5 were by black people. All black men, as far as I could tell. That pattern of few black reviewers has been consistent across Whitehead's books and the books of other black creative writers.
Earlier this summer, I tracked the coverage of Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Among the 20 or so reviews, about 4 were by black reviewers.
I've noticed this pattern with several novels I've tracked over the years. I've noticed it with poetry as well. There's just a lack of black book reviewers, particularly in relation to artistic writing. On the one hand, it perhaps stands out to me because I work in African American literary studies, so I communicate with several black folks who read, discuss, and write about literature. However, those folks are producing scholarly writing, which is not the same as the writing that appears in newspapers and magazines.
Still, I wonder: what difference does the absence of black literature make? I rarely hear folks mention the absence at least over here in the literary coverage world. We've kinda accepted it.
Of course, there aren't many people nerdy enough (as I appear to be) to track coverage of various novel releases. So they people might be aware of the minimal black presence.
I have noticed versions of this conversation about a lack of non-white reviewers in other realms. Back in 2019, Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang published "The Dominance of the White Male Critic" in the New York Times, where they mentioned people of color are underrepresented in art, film, and music criticism, even when the featured artists and art are by people of color.
Berry and Yang cite a study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative that found that "there are 27 white male film critics for each woman of color."
A couple of weeks ago, I noticed the journalist Harry Allen over on Twitter making some points in a thread about the absence of black writers on hip hop for the New York Times. "What I find most remarkable is this," he wrote at one point, "In the global paper of record, based in the city where hip-hop cohered, really capable white guys dominate rap coverage."
Allen closed by asking, "What does it mean when white people oversee the historical documentation of Black art & culture?"
That thread by Allen and that article by Berry and Yang are just two examples. There are likely more, right? And look, they're raising some good points about white dominance. But at the moment, I'm not even on that. I'm legit just wondering about the absence of black voices.
Hmmm...or do we have to always talk about both -- white dominance and black absence?
Oh, a little more from Berry and Yang. I thought what they said about those who produce cultural criticism was useful. They observed that:
Culture writers are often unpopular, and critics of color doubly so: Marginalized by mainstream outlets, they’re sometimes viewed with suspicion within their own communities when they challenge a beloved artist. At their best they are unbought and unbossed, which makes them difficult to employ, and doubly necessary.
Maybe one reason for the absence is that we haven't done more to institutionalize the path to becoming
black literature reviewers. That's where there's a difference between becoming a black literary scholar/professor and a contemporary black reviewer for a publication.
For one, journalism has been struggling with newsrooms shrinking over the last two decades. English departments are facing their own share of problems, I know, but the routes to going to graduate school, pursuing and ideally getting a job at a university, and working to earn tenure seem a little more clearcut and steady.
My sense is that aspiring and working culture writers, particularly a culture writer specializing in, say, African American literature, would face some tough odds, it seems.
I think back to when I began to actively write about black poetry here. It was the spring semester of 2011. Not coincidentally, I was on sabbatical. I had the freedom to explore some ideas. Hey, I couldn't earn a living doing that. I had to have this day job as a college professor.
I suspect black writers with bigger platforms would be encouraged if not obligated to write about artforms with bigger audiences. That is, novels over poetry, and then films, television, and music over novels. That could explain some of the absence -- accomplished black writers are producing work on more popular artforms.
Ok, time is another reason. It takes years to develop as a culture writer. Folks likely weigh the benefits and such, and decide that their time could be better spent doing something else. So closely related to time are resources.
By and large, arts and culture critics receive low compensation. Mary Louise Schumacher, who surveyed 300 journalists about their experiences, offered the following:
Income patterns tend to reflect employment patterns. The majority of arts journalists—60%—make only half of their total earnings or less from their arts writing. More than half make $20,000 or less a year. This raises serious questions about who has access to our field and who can afford to work for such wages. One of the critical questions facing the profession is how to support the work of cultural writers in a sustainable way.
I've been addressing the "why" we're absent black literature reviewers. More could be said about the difference that it makes. For one, I think we miss chances to see black writers summarizing, assessing, complimenting, and critiquing works by black authors. Unconsciously, those acts then seem less possible.
We also miss the distinct comparisons and observations that some black writers might make. I've noticed in the Whitehead coverage, the reviewers have been, so far, less likely to comment on the recurring critiques of racism and white people in Crook Manifesto. They don't talk on it much. They also don't talk about the relationship between Whitehead's novel and other black books and cultural productions.
I've been noting what's missed. At some point we might wonder what would be gained by more reviews and commentary from black writers. Like, imagine that there were 40 reviews of Whitehead's latest novel, and 35 of those reviews were written by black writers. What difference would that make?