Monday, July 06, 2009

Bookstore Balkanization

The bookstore I spend most of my time in, a niche Indie called Sacred Circle (its focus is religion and spirituality, but it also carries a number of literary titles if the subject is sufficiently spiritual). It is organized primarily by religion--the Buddhist books in once section, the Christian in another, the Wiccan in another--but the literature is all together in one place. No further separation of literary titles is necessary.

But I also go to the Green Valley Book Fair, just because it's fun to browse among so many books, and like the standard Barnes & Noble or Borders its literature section is organized into genres. This is perfectly reasonable. I'm not a mystery or suspense fan, so I can avoid all those books. And I'm not interested in Christian fiction, so I'm happy that I don't have to wade through those to find what I'm looking for. I'm interested in general literature.

But that's where the Balkanization comes in, and i'ts something that has alwas bothered me. There is a sizable section of African American Literature, for example. (What do my friends at White Readers Meet Black Authors think about this, I wonder?) If you are looking for a book by a black author, maybe it's useful that there is this section where you can go and find it. But if you're just browsing mindlessly in the general lit section, you're not going to stumble on Percival Everett's new book and impulsively buy it, which is a real shame. Is this a rational marketing ploy, or is it literary segregation?

Of course, it isn't only African American authors who suffer this fate. There's a GLBT section. Sometimes an Asian American section. And at the book fair there's an International Literature section that's also troubling in part because the store will sometimes shelve in that section any book by someone with an "international" sounding name. As if we don't all have "international" names. (Actually, I like the international section, but I think most browsers stay away from it.)

Does anyone else care about these things?

2 comments:

Tim Jones-Yelvington said...

This is always one of those challenging questions -- does setting aside space at the bookstore from writers from marginalized groups ghettoize the writers, or does it ensure a space devoted to their/our needs and issues?

...I think one of the arguments in favor of the GLBT section has invoked that imaginary closeted gay teen who needs to know where to go for resources... I think the other argument has been that writers from marginalized groups still struggle to have their work and voices valued in the mainstream (although I think this gets complicated, because there are also those cases, like so-called 'ethnic lit,' where writers of color or other writers from marginalized groups may have their work fetishized or specially commodified in a way that appears to in some way give them a 'leg up' in the publishing world), and so it remains important to set aside space where they/we can thrive.

Clifford Garstang said...

Complicated. Yes. So, Does Gertrude Stein belong in the GLBT section? Should Toni Morrison be in the African American section?