Warning: this article contains spoilers.
Drawing inspiration from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel, Erasure, Cord Jefferson’s directorial debut American Fiction follows disillusioned novelist-turned-professor Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) as he grapples with the challenges of the American publishing industry. Despite his clear talent, Monk continuously faces rejection for his latest novel.
It’s never explicitly said but it’s made pretty clear that his book is just not “Black enough”. As a scholar exploring the relationship between Black British literature and its intersections with the British publishing industry, I was struck by the similarities between the UK and US industries.
The industry continues to face global criticism and has come under constant scrutiny particularly after the Black Lives Matter protest in 2020 brought attention to the inequalities faced by Black people, including the persistent lack of diversity and representation in creative industries like publishing.
Authors from historically marginalised communities, including Black authors, repeatedly encounter obstacles to getting their work published, receiving post-publication support, or securing a safe platform that allows their voices to be heard.
The Struggle for Authentic Representation
In American Fiction, Monk encounters the work of Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) who has gained major success with her novel We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, the sort of “Black book” publishers want. Monk considers the book as pandering “Black poverty porn” and its success drives him to the edge.
In one scene, Monk asks a bookseller why his books are being stocked in the African-American Studies section as they’re “just literature”. When he takes his books to sit among the general fiction, he’s confronted with a large display of We’s Lives in Da Ghetto.
The pigeonholing of books by marginalised authors is common. In 2010, the writer NK Jemisin wrote on her blog that she wanted libraries and bookshops to stop stocking her novels in the “African American Fiction” section as she doesn’t believe such a section must exist. She went on to say that writers who find that their books are stocked in this section have a much lower earning potential after being marketed as a “Black book” and rarely sell enough copies.
Watch the Trailer for American Fiction:
This pigeonholing reinforces the idea that only Black readers find stories by Black authors interesting. When framing certain stories as representative of the Black experience, publishers overlook other Black experiences – causing the market to be saturated with monolithic depictions of Blackness.
The year 2020 was a perfect example of publishers commissioning “Black books” to absolve themselves of guilt. A swathe of books by Black authors were commissioned and aggressively marketed. As a result, books such as Reni Eddo Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, a book with a target white audience by a Black author, became incredibly popular during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.
PEN America’s 2022 report Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and Book Publishing found that waves of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts made by the publishing industry since 2020 have largely been temporary efforts. They engaged with these sorts of equity and diversity drives without enacting real structural change.
Publishing companies sought to “diversify” their catalogues, both as a marketing tactic and so that they could shape themselves as influencers of public opinion rather than be subject to it. In American Fiction, although it is not outwardly discussed, I believe these are the likely reasons for the publication of Golden’s book. It reflects an idea of Blackness and Black experience that publishers are all too happy to buy into.
Commercial Success Vs. Authenticity
After his sister dies unexpectedly, Monk becomes the primary carer for his mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. In a desperate position, in need of money and support – and driven mad by the unfairness of it all – he begins to write.
Under the pseudonym Stagg R Leigh, Monk pens My Pafology (later renamed F**k). It’s his answer to the absurdity of the publishing industry, replete with almost every Black stereotype he could think of, including gangs, absent fathers, guns and drugs. To Monk (and initially his agent) this is an unsellable book that obviously calls out the racism inherent in the success of such books like Sintara Golden’s.
To his complete bewilderment, however, he’s offered a $750,000 advance from a publisher who had passed on his other work. Part of the draw of this book for many of the white decision makers he encounters is the perceived “authenticity” of the story and, under the advice of his agent, he takes on the persona of Stagg Leigh, whom he makes a convict on the run from the FBI.
Unsurprisingly, F**k quickly becomes a bestseller.
In the midst of all this, Monk is asked to be the diversity inclusion to judge a prestigious literary award. F**k happens to gain a nomination and Monk is surprised to learn that Golden shares many of his criticisms of F**k, labelling it “pandering”.
The conversation between the two touches on the complex issues surrounding authenticity, commercialisation, “selling out” and the definition of meaningful representation. Monk critiques Golden’s novel as “trauma porn” — a needlessly traumatic story created to shock and entertain — arguing that narratives like hers oversimplify the Black experience, “flattening” Black lives.
Black authors constantly grapple with the pressure to conform to the expectations of the publishing market. These are undoubtedly extreme examples, but both Monk’s and Golden’s novels are a product of this pressure. While Monk seems to feel ashamed of chasing the money, Golden sees no issue with it, arguing that she is simply writing to the market’s demand.
Black authors are more heavily criticised for writing books that feature stereotypically Black experiences. Alex Wheatle’s The Dirty South is one such novel that, to this day, faces criticism for depicting Black people as “eternal victims”. Wheatle has defended himself stressing that he draws inspiration from his real, everyday life and that he thinks characters should be three dimensional.
Monk, however, isn’t able to come to terms with his own fight against the burden of representation, wanting desperately to depict “true” Black experience but seemingly unwilling to believe narratives that counter his own understanding of what Blackness is. Without even meaning to, Monk is just as guilty of flattening the Black experience due to his rejection of Golden’s work.
Both the British and US publishing industries face parallel challenges concerning the portrayal and treatment of Black writers. American Fiction showcases these issues and highlights the industry’s tendency to pat itself on the back for small acts of perceived diversity, rather than take any meaningful action.
I thoroughly enjoyed American Fiction and it emerges as a clear voice among critics of an industry that has proven it is greedy for profit over inclusion and representation.
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