Tuesday, July 03, 2007

W Commutes Libby's Sentence + Southgate on Black Fiction Writers + Black Gay Male Literary Fiction

After a few days of joyful rusticating with C's extended family down South, I returned to hear the scrofulous news of W's commutation of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's sentence. (I'll say more about the attacks in Britain, right-wing SCOTUS, the campaign to bomb Iran, and more one of these days soon.)

This disgraceful president--who has used his pardon and commutation power more sparingly than any of his recent predecessors, Republican or Democratic; who not only signed off on the killing of 150+ Death Row inmates while Texas governor, but also mocked a woman, Karla Faye Tucker, who had undergone a marked psychological and spiritual rehabilitation before he presided over her execution; and who in early June promulgated a policy to challenge the Supreme Court's ruling that permitted judges some leeway in sentencing--felt that he was running too great a risk in permitting Libby to serve even a day of his sentence, because he just might start singing like a nightingale. Now, Libby will serve no time, he'll have only a fine to pay ($250,000, which will easily be covered by his multimillion dollar Defense Fund), and he'll still be able to invoke the Fifth Amendment, thus protecting his former overlords, and in particular, Cheney.

I have not spent an hour in anyone's law school, but a number of bloggers have, and some have suggested that Bush might be engaging in a form of obstruction of justice. The sheer outrageousness of this action led both C and I to call once again for the Democrats to impeach him and Cheney, but Digby muses that it might be more trouble than it's worth if the Democrats cannot come up with a simple, ironclad charge to demonstrate at least one of the many traducements (from dereliction of duty before 9/11 to lying us into the Iraq War to warrantless wiretapping and spying on American citizens/FISA violations to contravention of international treaties and conventions on human rights and torture to manipulation of the voting system and politicization of the Department of Justice to corruption of some sort involving Jack Abramoff to defiance and contempt of Congress, etc.), particularly something involving this commutation, the outing of the covert CIA agent Valerie Plame, the misuse of that forged Niger memo--something!--there is no way the Senate Republicans, most of them anyway, will vote impeach and remove Cheney and W.

What exactly can regular citizens do? It's clear that W, with an approval rating lower than the magma layer, is going to continue to do whatever he wants until he's out of office. He's in a hard bubble, cushioned by "God," his wacko ideology, and who knows what else (liquor? drugs? you tell me). It's also clear that the Justice Department is in a state of default and in no way capable of holding W accountable. One option might be to appoint an independent prosecutor, but I doubt that's going to happen, especially since Congress let the statute run out several years ago. Not all, but far too many Congressional Democrats continue to hedge and hem, as if their own shadows were going to challenge them to a mixed-martial arts battle royale. (Why on earth are they not shouting from the rooftops about the Republicans' constant use of the filibuster? Why are they so timorous and so silent all the damned time?) The Congressional Republican Party, whose fortunes have sunk like a scuttled ship in a deep harbor, are still going to protect their horribly damaged standard bearer to some extent, and so will continue to gum up the Democrats' attempts to pass legislation and hold W accountable. So what can the people do? Is it possible to force the Democrats' hands and demand impeachment, and if so, what would the risks be? Is there any act by the citizens of this country that might clarify for W how beyond fed up the overwhelming majority of us are?


Yesterday Reggie sent the link via email, but I didn't get an opportunity to read Martha Southgate's June 1, 2007 New York Times Book Review article, "Writers Like Me" (subscription required), and then happened upon it again this morning. On several points, it clearly captures aspects of the experiences of so many writers I know, especially fiction writers, and mirrors some of my own feelings about writing and the publishing industry, as well as the undiminished sense, even in academe, that what I and others that I know are up to and against doesn't ever fully register. In essence, Southgate talks about the place of African-American "literary" fiction writers--as opposed to writers of popular fiction or Black writers in the US more generally, a category that would now include a significant number of Caribbean, African, European, and Afro-Latino writers--in the larger American literary world, and ponders in particular the factors that making the writing life a challenge and that might diminish productivity. I read her suggesting that money, resources, racism, and other elements all play a role, that certain dream projects and works have been ditched because of the difficulties that Black writers have faced, and that while things have improved, there are still problems. On the whole, I think she's right.

If I have any quibbles with Southgate's argument, they're that she doesn't discuss more extensively some of the challenges Black writers--and writers of color in general--face with regard to the various apparatuses of the publishing industry. In particular, what sorts of themes, topics and approaches many--but thankfully not all--are agents, editors and publishers--including Black agents, editors and publishers, wary of taking on, and why? To what extent do standing aesthetic and political expectations, racism, and economics play a role? To take up a thread of Southgate's argument, it strikes me that nowadays, it is easier for most Black writers and writers of color in general to get into print, especially if they are writing racially or ethnically inflected, formally conventional prose fiction, nonfiction and poetry. The publishing industry realizes that there are any number of niche markets, and that certain works--such as the difficult and complex Beloved or Edwidge Danticat's luminous Breath, Eyes, Memory--though initially targeted to specific audiences may have unexpected crossover appeal, so they have become more expansive in what they buy and publish than in the past. Also, the rise of easy and economical self-publishing has had a salutory effect on the mainstream publishing industry's approach to Black popular fiction, with a number of books beginning as self-published texts only to spark interest, because of their sales potential, among the larger publishers.

She also mentions the virtual absence of folks at "the parties," but it seems to me that in 2007 this might be far less important than it once was; isn't the chief goal to get the writing out there? The "parties" of course are a signifier of the personal literary networks that can mean jobs and other kinds of possibilities for writers, so I'm not dismissing them by any means, but I do believe that having books in bookstores and on the Web, and making sure that Black writers have opportunities to read and sell their work everywhere is the more important issue.

Another point that struck me--though I realize it's really a function of her article's direction and implicit in the network she reaches out to in her argument--concerns the development of autonomous Black literary communities, that have provided and are providing support and encouragement for Black writers. (The same goes for writers of other races and ethnic groups.) She says little about these communities and their relation to the larger literary world, but when I think of an organization like Cave Canem, its effects both for Black writers specifically, and for poetry more broadly, are quite evident. My compatriot Thomas Sayers Ellis used to talk about the Dark Room Collective bumrushing the show, but I think of Cave Canem, to give one example, as creating a range of new scenes altogether. Though the Hurston-Wright Foundation does great work, I'm not sure there's a comparable organization for fiction writing, which in any cases involves a different economic model as well. But I do think that three quarters of a century after the Harlem Renaissance and 40 years after the appearance of the Black Arts Movement and parallel groups, it's necessary to consider the intraaswell as inter and extra frameworks in which we exist.

Finally, I was a little surprised that these days she's not running into other Black "literary" writers at non-Black/Diasporic literary conferences; my personal experience has been quite different, whether I consider the old mid-to-late 1990s OutWrite conferences (where I first met writer Reginald Shepherd in person) or the AWP (which now features a Cave Canem reading every year) or the MLA (where creative writers and scholars of color are present) or regional conferences, like the NEMLA, or even literary workshop-type conference like the Indiana Writers Conference or Bread Loaf. Even at the last highly topic-focused conference I attended, in Iowa City, other Black writers, including several longtime acquaintances, were there, so I'm curious to know which conferences she's been hitting.

But back to Southgate's article, here's a snippet:

Things are tough all over, but arguably tougher for some. For many black writers, a writing life very rarely unfolds the way it does for so many white writers you could name: know you want to be a writer from the age of 10, get your first book published at 26, go on to produce slowly but steadily over a lengthy career. Even Morrison didn’t follow that timeline: her first novel wasn’t published until she was nearly 40 and had worked for a number of years as a teacher and then an editor at Random House. And she didn’t quit that day job until urged to do so by Gottlieb in the mid-1970s, after “Sula” was published.

So what’s holding us up? Sometimes it’s just the ordinary difficulty of juggling family, writing and earning a living. But African-American writers also speak of a larger problem of what I’d call internal or cultural permission. It’s just plain harder to decide to be a writer if you don’t have a financial cushion or a long cultural tradition of people going out on that bohemian limb. Consider the case of Edward P. Jones. He published his first book, “Lost in the City,” in 1992 (he was 41 at the time) to much critical acclaim and a number of significant honors, if not huge sales. He returned to his day job at Tax Notes magazine, where he remained until he was laid off 10 years later. He then wrote “The Known World” in about six months — though he told me he’d been thinking about it nearly those whole 10 years. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize.


Southgate's essay reminds me of something I've been mulling about for some time. Recently I came across a Gay Community News article from the late 1980s by the Boston-based writer and scholar Charles Shively that Reggie sent me many years ago, around the time we first met, concerning the difficulties, in terms of aesthetics and subject matter, audiences and reception, and the publishing industry, that Black gay writers faced. (Of course now I cannot recall where I stashed it away!) Shively was praising the emergence of what would become the Black Gay Male Literary Renaissance, a loosely affiliated group of writers, some of them members of the New York based collective Other Countries, that appeared during the years I was in college (the mid-to-late 1980s). This work was often politically engaged and frequently addressed the topics of racism and self-love and fashioning, homophobia, the social conservatism of the late 1980s, and the ravages of the HIV-AIDS pandemic. A great deal of it incorporated vernacular and Black gay cultural discourse and references, and outside of Dixon, many of the writers' works appeared in small-press or self-published editions and small literary periodicals. As I've stated before on this blog, a large number of these writers, including Melvin Dixon (who preceded them in age by about a decade), Essex Hemphill, Assotto Saint, Craig Harris, Donald Woods, and Roy Gonsalves, Steven Corbin, to name just a few, were silenced by the HIV-AIDS pandemic. Reggie knew some of these writers, as did I, and I will continue to assert that their deaths led to an incalculable loss to American, African-American, LGBT/Queer and Black LGBT/Queer literature.

When I think now about the work of these writers, one thing that stands out is the relative absence of novels; many of the writers were poets, though even these poets did work in multiple genres, including drama and performance, but Dixon and Corbin, of the people I listed above, published novels or books of short stories. There were, obviously, some Black gay male novelists who preceded them: James Baldwin, of course, and Samuel R. Delany, who continues to publish, like Baldwin, not only fiction but nonfiction as well. A few other Black gay fiction writers, like Larry Duplechan, or contemporaries of the late 1980s-early 1990s cohort, like Don Belton and Randall Kenan, both of whom are still writing and publishing, also produced works during this period. (I realize I am leaving out authors, like Sterling Houston or Canaan Parker, but I am not trying to be exhaustive.) It was shortly thereafter, however, that E. Lynn Harris self-published Invisible Life, and James Earl Hardy began publishing his B-Boy Blues series of novels, with both projects effectively bridging the literary and popular and opening up a space in which a number of Black queer popular novels and collections of short stories, and fewer but noteworthy literary works of fiction, like Thomas Glave's collection Whose Song? and Other Stories, to give one example, have appeared. (Though I began publishing around 1990, I include my own longer work in this matrix.)

That said, Black gay literary novels and collections of stories--and literary works of fiction, whatever the topic, by Black gay male writers, remain relatively scarce, and few contemporary Black gay male writers have produced anything close to the extensive fiction catalogue of the very prodigious Baldwin or Delany. While the situation doesn't approach what Jewelle Gomez explored in her essay on the virtual invisibility of works of contemporary Black American lesbian fiction in Black Queer Studies, I think it's an issue worth raising. What are the reasons for the relative scarcity?

Southgate's article, which cites Randall, offers some possible answers. I would add that writing fiction requires patience and the time to develop one's talent and ideas, which is to say mature, as well as the time to complete a long work of prose. (Although we require our undergraduate fiction majors to write a novella in about three and a half months, it's certainly the case that most novellas take considerably longer.) Additionally, I return to the conundrum that Shively discussed, which was the twinned issues of racism and homphobia/heterosexism. He noted, as others certainly have, that Black gay male writers faced--and still face--racism as Black people, and homophobia not only from Whites, but from within our own Black communities. As I read his argument, this twinned problematic made and makes the production and marketing of Black queer male literary work more difficult, and it also raises, as I continue to believe, questions of audience and the marketplace and reception. Who are the target audiences for these works and are the major publishers, or even many of the smaller ones (excepting, of course, Black queer publishers), capable of getting the work to them? Are they interested and how effective are they in doing so? How much do the writers take into account questions of audience, reception and economics when writing their works? (A good friend has said many times that he actively considers publishers' expectations, the market and the necessity of appealing to a broad array of readers.) How do such considerations shape the Black queer male fiction writer's imaginary? To what extent do queer fictional literary works whose narratives revolve around the experiences only of Black or people of color face a tougher time that interracial ones? Other questions that come to mind are, how do these works relate to Black gay popular literary production, and are publishers more interested in those works that in more strictly literary ones? What about the issue of bookstores and marketing, reviewing, and so on? In there past there was no infrastructure or support system for such works (and I would cite Fire & Ink, for example, as exemplary in this regard), and is there one now?

These are only a few of the questions I've asked myself or posed to others, and that I now put forward to others out there. I'm curious to hear your thoughts, and I hope to explore any responses I get down the road.


  1. Through highschool and college and for a couple years afterward, I read literally every work of fiction even rumored to have been written by a gay black man (I came across Annotations during this time, by the by). These days, many books pass me by, but I still read at least five a year, especially if I hear they have literary pretensions. I should say that I'm frustrated by the quality of much of what sees print: some of the authors (I won't name names) I've met during their writing processes and, when asked "Who do you read? Who do you like?" I'm met with blank looks, which stay blank as I suggest various (man!) names of writers I like. I definitely get the sense that there's a pervasive sense in the culture that "writing a novel" is something any bloke off the street can do, regardless of talent, mastery of basic grammer, or even literary interest; all that's involved, essentially, is the tenacity to fill approximately 300 pages with words. The lack of literature (written by black gay men) which even pretends to the literary breaks my heart constantly, when I pour over the shelves at B&N or browse Amazon. Occasionaly I come across a novel (I'm thinking particularly of one set in Ohio, a man goes home after a long time, a church scandal, a former lover--name's not coming to me) which seems to have enormous potential, which (in my mind at least) an excellent editor might have guided to a high polish of accomplishment; but all to clearly the hand of this hypotethical editor was lacking. Also heart breaking. Did you read Delany's most recent "Dark Reflections"? In fictional terms, he explores most of these very issues.

    Kai in NYC

  2. I go back and forth on the "problem" of "black gay fiction." On the one hand, as Kai says, the quality of some very unedited, very unstructured, and downright bad novels, so bad that even my pomo-queer readings can't rescue them, makes me believe there's some merit to the old argument that writing "gay" or "homosexual" work might be a terrible strategy. But then I catch myself and wonder if I'm imputing an ideological tag to what might more properly be called an issue of craft.

    I will admit, though, I'm not the best audience for black gay work, especially not fiction. My favorite reads over the years have more often than not troubled categories of race and sexuality instead of affirming them. And I read essays more than anything else right now.

    But we might also think about the international scope of black gay writing. Just as rap has become international (my local station was playing Kenyan rap the other day, to my delighted shock), it might be we need to think about black gay diasporic writing, a category to which, arguably, Thomas Glave belongs. Sorry for the rambling. My sentences are on leave.