Kim McLarin Ponders the Universality Trap

Kim McLarin refuses to pull punches in her fiction, and that’s true of this essay for 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.


8 August 2006 | guest authors |

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