- The Remarkable Reception of Ta-Nehisi Coates
If we’re talking about contemporary African American book history, then of course we’re discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. Rarely has a book by a black author generated so much attention in the young twenty-first century. And why stop there? In the entire history of African American writing, relatively few writers have ever enjoyed the kind of extensive responses to their works over a three-year span that Coates received in 2014, when his article “The Case for Reparations” was published in The Atlantic; in 2015, when Between the World was published by Spiegel & Grau; and in 2016, when The Black Panther #1 was published by Marvel Comics. The production of Between the World and its astonishing reception signal the convergence of audiences, technology, African American cultural perspectives, editorial vision, major events, coordinated marketing campaigns, and lucky breaks.
Despite his popular acclaim, contemporary writers like Coates seldom become central focal points in African American literary studies. Articles on African American literature published in scholarly journals concentrate, by and large, on historically significant books and established authors. For instance, a review of the approximately 1,900 full-length articles published in African American Review between 1967 and 2014 reveals that focal authors born prior to 1960 appear as recurring subjects. That trend did not change over the course of the last twenty-five years, as the numbers of published authors born after 1960 greatly expanded. In fact, during this time period, nineteenth-century literature, not twenty-first-century literature, constituted the most notable growth field in African American literary studies. Coates’s status as a journalist and blogger make him an even less likely topic in our field, which typically covers the works of conventional literary artists like novelists and poets.
Nonetheless, the rise of Ta-Nehisi Coates as a major author presents a number of challenges and opportunities for scholars of black literature. How might we incorporate examinations of blogging, tweeting, and online commentary into African American literary studies? What difference does it make that African American literary scholars have been largely absent from the vast body of writing produced about Between the World in prominent online venues? In what ways do responses to Coates’s works illuminate and overshadow other African American writers? Where will a book history of a contemporary work like Between the World lead us? These questions represent just a few of the inquiries that we could address as we consider Coates and a range of other African American writers who first gained prominence in the twenty-first century. [End Page 196]
What follows is a brief, pre-production history leading to the publication of Between the World as well as a cursory look at the book’s reception. The first section explains how Coates’s capabilities building a large, devoted following and the support he received from multiple publishing institutions facilitated his tremendous success. The second section describes the strategies and shifts of Spiegel & Grau in the marketing campaign for Coates’s book. Finally, the third section discusses the wide-ranging and remarkable reception of Coates and his work. Overall, this article makes a case for thinking about Between the World in relation to what we might call “contemporary black book history.”
Building a Large Following prior to Publishing a Book
With vital support from The Atlantic where he began working in 2008, Coates cultivated an expansive, supportive audience through his prolific blogging activity. The perspectives that he sharpened and audiences that he gained as a blogger served as the foundation for the prominent online presence that Coates established prior to the publication of Between the World. Historically, many of our most well-known African American writers developed their audiences and acclaim after the publication of noteworthy books. Richard Wright gained international recognition after publishing Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945). Ralph Ellison drew widespread attention after the publication of Invisible Man (1952). Many readers became interested in Toni Morrison after she published novels such as The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song Of Solomon (1977), and Beloved (1987); scholarly interest in her...