Black Writers, White Publishers: Marketplace Politics in Twentieth-Century African American Literature
Realigning the broad concerns of cultural studies with the revisionary tendencies of American literary history is a necessary project for twenty-first century scholars, mainly because the conditions that obtain in the production and reception of literature have changed radically. John Young argues convincingly that by giving sustained attention to [End Page 163] the contexts of textual production, "we can best understand both the complex negotiations required to produce African American texts through a predominately white publishing industry and the material marks of those negotiations" (5).
Young seeks to use the methodologies urged by editorial theory to illuminate relations among writers, editors, and publishers as well as how such paratextual materials as book designs, advertising, and reviews reinforce racialized lines of power. Thus, Young forces us to recognize shortcomings in literary histories that ignore the importance of texts as elements in what Michel de Certeau would call the practice of everyday life. Young provides solid evidence that the phenomenon of marketing African American literature is a microcosm of the political economy of the United States.
Young's discussion of the material and immaterial aspects of textuality leads us to reconsider how urgent is the need to write literary histories which are informed by a sociological consciousness of literary commerce. The five chapters in Black Writers, White Publishers are representative treatments of specific issues. The first two chapters deal with the problematic ending of Nella Larsen's Passing (1929) and the "aesthetic tension" (65) manifested in the printings of Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo (1972). Chapters three and four focus attention on Gwendolyn Brooks's shift from mainstream publishing to the black bibliographic environments of Broadside, Third World, and David presses and to Oprah Winfrey's successful marketing of Toni Morrison's fiction for popular audiences. The final chapter is devoted to the considerable problems of editing Ralph Ellison's unfinished novel Juneteenth.
Although Young's examination of Oprah's Book Club pales when compared with Cecilia Konchar Farr's Reading Oprah: How Oprah's Book Club Changed the Way America Reads (SUNY Press, 2005), his book is, nevertheless, a remarkable contribution to scholarship in American and African American literatures. It provides models of how scholars might begin to fill the gaps left by cultural studies and literary histories that isolate textuality and transmission by failing to articulate how the practice of literary power is constituted. It is crucial, as Young argues in his conclusion, to address how editorial theory and practice have blurred the contingent reality of "race" in America. Indeed, the more ethical scholarship that Young imagines has the possibility of moving us beyond the severe limits of racial binaries into a more adequate and sophisticated historical explanation of how writers and publishers interact in the production of a vast body of works that add flesh and blood to the vexed skeleton of a national literature.