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The need to read black literature that’s not just about black struggle

And the rest of the week’s best writing on books and related subjects.

Koranic bookstore in Alexandria, Egypt, on November 22, 2019.
Frédéric Soltan/Corbis/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here is the best online writing on books and related subjects for the week of June 14, 2020.

  • June is Pride month! At the New York Times, queer writers Jericho Brown, Carmen Maria Machado, and Thomas Page McBee reflect on Pride. Here’s Brown:

Why, after all of this, did I make love to the man? One reason I finally touched him on the night of that parade was an unexpected feeling of pride: If I was going to be known as a home-wrecking sissy, I was going to reap the few benefits that role offered. I was young enough to feel owed a physical ecstasy equal to the rage he and his wife felt. And that’s the other reason we made love. I was only a few weeks away from turning 25. I was desperate to get the deed all the way done before my birthday. I needed the act as proof that I wasn’t only experimenting — an initiation into an identity that I had struggled to avoid.

We need to see the joy in Black literature at this time and beyond because what recent events have exposed - we are now in the fourth week of international protests against anti-Black racism and police violence - is that Black Lives Matter, not just Black deaths. The Black experience cannot be defined by one moment or incident. If it is, it becomes detrimental to self-identity, mental health, and ultimately, progress and change. It is also not the experience of every Black person in the world. It’s relief, entertainment and escapism to explore other narratives, whether it be Afro-futurism, LGBTQ+, or African, European, American, Latin American in its very origin. For want of a better word – it’s fun.

Why didn’t you hear about The Nightmare-Verse, or many other stories by Black authors? Because our books don’t center on Black pain. In the industry, stories about police brutality, the struggle, poverty, etc. have been dubbed “issue” books, and it’s a not-so-secret secret that if your book doesn’t fall into this category, it won’t get any real push or marketing. These are the “right” Black books I referenced earlier. Nearly all other Black books are treated as less important. They’re denied the time and resources needed to make them successful. They’re ignored by the industry, by librarians, by awards committees, by schools, and yes, even by certain readers. Unless, of course, there’s a protest going on. Then everyone wants those ally cookies, nom nom.

Romano, who once made headlines for writing a review in which he imagined raping the author of the book, has intermittently sat on the board since the mid-’90s. According to nearly a dozen current and former members, he has developed a reputation in the organization as a bully. Muhammad, a board member for the past four years, told me, “For as long as I’ve been on the board, Carlin has always exhibited intolerant, bullying behavior, accusing other board members of lacking a sense of ethics and denigrating authors, trying to impose his own narrow ideas of what literary narratives are, or what accounts for criticism.”

Someone who knows Mary Trump and has read the book similarly described it to me as follows: “The punch of the book, the real symbolic thrust, is about how Donald is really an outgrowth of this complex empire that Fred Sr. built—a pretty dark, win-at-all-costs environment. If there’s going to be a big takeaway, it’s about that emotional DNA of the family.” The narrative, this person said, also touches on Mary’s deep bond with her father, Fred Trump Jr., who died of an alcoholism-related heart attack in 1981 at the age of 42.

That argument, however, runs counter to history and to O’Connor’s place in it. It sets up a false equivalence between the “segregationist by taste” and those brutally oppressed by segregation. And it draws a neat line between O’Connor’s fiction and her other writing where race is involved, even though the long effort to move her from the margins to the center has proceeded as if that line weren’t there. Those remarks don’t belong to the past, or to the South, or to literary ephemera. They belong to the author’s body of work; they help show us who she was.

  • Staffers at Hachette UK, which is publishing J.K. Rowling’s forthcoming children’s book The Ickabog, are threatening a walkout over Rowling’s recent transphobic essay. At the Bookseller, Katherine Cowdrey has the story:

It is understood that between four and five employees, whose roles span the breadth of the full publishing team, communicated their reluctance to work on the project in a meeting held yesterday morning, and that these staff are now being spoken to individually by their managers.

Hachette UK has released a statement drawing a line when it is and isn’t valid to refuse to work on a book project.

Several weeks into New York’s statewide shutdown, Troy Chatterton, the manager of Greenwich Village’s Three Lives & Company bookstore, called Beth Whitman to collect her credit-card information. They wound up talking for half an hour — about cooking projects, Whitman’s recently attempted victory garden, and, of course, books. Chatterton recommended Whitman tack on Grow Fruit & Vegetables in Pots to her order — it was written by Aaron Bertelsen, the gardener at the Great Dixter, an East Sussex home dating to the 15th century that the pair had discussed during her visits to the shop. Days later, a stack of books arrived at Whitman’s place along with a jar of Chatterton’s homemade marmalade.

I ultimately found my niche in the most derided, mocked, and secretly beloved realm of internet writing: the listicle. But this too has influenced my fiction writing, or at least my first novel—for good or for ill. Personally, I think it’s for good. I love lists in literature; I find them ecstatic. I am not the first writer to say so, though I may be the first one to have made a career out of listmaking. I have made lists of literature, I have made lists of literary lists, I have made lists of reasons you should not be mad about literary lists of literature on the internet. Lists are great.

And here’s the week in books at Vox: