Kim McLarin Ponders the Universality Trap

Kim McLarin refuses to pull punches in her fiction, and that’s true of this essay for Beatrice.com about her reaction to the reaction she’s getting for her third novel, Jump at the Sun. She raises an important question that will tug at every writer’s conscience: Is it possible, in aiming to appeal to the widest possible audience, that you might get cut off from what could potentially be your core readership? For that matter, is the mainstream really the perfect place to be? It’s something everyone has to consider for themselves, but Kim’s thoughts on the subject make an excellent starting point.

kim-mclarin.jpgI received a lovely email the other day from a woman who had read Jump At The Sun.

I receive my fair share of emails—fewer than Dan Brown, I’m sure, more than the guy down the street who blogs about his bathroom tile—and they are always welcome, but rarely do they give me pause. This one did, not because of what the writer said (loved the book, stayed up all night reading it, the issues of race and class and motherhood you explore hit home for me), but because of who she was.

“My grandparents were Italian and Polish immigrants,” the woman wrote, “and there are family members who act like your characters.”

Since the characters in my novel are neither Italian nor Polish nor immigrants, but the sharecropping grandsons and granddaughters of African slaves, this was, to me, a compelling comparison. I sent the email on to my (white) editor because I knew she would like it. Back when the book was just a sparkle in my eye, she spoke about the need to make my third and, hopefully, break-out novel a “universal one.” And when the book was delivered she crowed that I had succeeded. Which should have been music to my ears.

But there’s one problem: I’m not certain I want to be dubbed universal by the white publishing industry. It’s vaguely insulting and potentially dangerous. Plus, it’s not going to help me sell books.

Whenever a reviewer praises my work as universal I get the same, tingly, back-of-neck sensation I get when a white person compliments me for being so articulate. Always I suspect that just beneath the shiny surface of such compliments lies the hardened ground of surprise that such a thing as an articulate black woman is possible. After all, no one praises the expected; no one compliments the status quo.

No one doubts Philip Roth’s ability to explore the universal themes of identity, growing up, aging or death despite writing through the eyes of a middle-class, Jewish American male, not to mention being one. No one questions John Updike’s ability to explore the human predicament while writing almost exclusively in the personae of self-centered and self-indulgent WASPy suburban men (well, okay, some of us do, but not the editors of the New York Times Book Review.)

At the same time, I wonder if the push to universalize the black experience—to say that the things my grandmother and great-grandmothers experienced were just like those events experienced by America’s many immigrant groups—isn’t really a subconscious effort to minimize the unique and shameful treatment of black people in America. To whitewash history, so to speak. And to dismiss its legacy.

Worst of all, being universal helps me not one whit at the cash register. What’s the best-selling trend in black book publishing today? If you have to ask, you’re not a black writer of any stripe, nor have you been to a black book fair or book conference or writing workshop in the past five years. Street lit, urban lit or hiphop fiction is a rose that by any other name smells sweet indeed to the publishers raking in the green by selling it. Whatever you want to say about these books and their relentless depictions of sex, violence, sex, hustling, sex and “keeping it real,” they are selling because they appeal directly and unashamedly to a specific audience: young and not-so-young black women, primarily. My white, Jewish editor is not going to recognize herself in BabyMamaHustlingHo (nor will I, for that matter) but BabyMamaHustlingHo is going to outsell my novel three to one. Or maybe five to one.

Nor can a literary black writer count on white readers to step into the breach. The daughter of Italian and Polish immigrants related to my book, but Max Perkins only knows how she had the courage to pick it up in the first place. How many white women (let alone white men) will buy a novel by a black woman unless Oprah tells them to? Or unless the writer wins the Nobel Prize? Or unless she wins the Nobel Prize and Oprah tells them to? Not enough. I’d bet an appearance on Fresh Air that I’ve read more Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley than the average book-buying white woman has read Lorene Carey or Gayl Jones.

So while I’m glad to be considered universal and while I want—fervently—any and all to read my books, forgive me if I temper my joy at the designation. Sometimes being all things to all people is the same as being nothing to no one at all.

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8 August 2006 | guest authors |