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A Boom in Fiction by Black Women Writers Has Brought a Wealth of Voices Telling Tales That Defy Stereotypes

July 17, 1996|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You could call some of them tenement tales. Others, historic strands of slave narratives intricately braided into fiction.

Still others addressed even grittier themes: the ravages of racism. Alcohol and drugs. Hustlers and numbers runners. Splintering families. Superwoman matriarchs. The scrap-ends of lives. These were the manuscripts reflecting black America that most often found themselves clothbound.

Dictated for decades by tastes and hunches of a largely white publishing world, it wasn't so long ago that the universe of black letters--fiction particularly--seemed cramped, a slender Cliff Notes summary of the African experience in America.

This is not to say that many of these stories weren't eloquent, textured or aching to be told. They were, however, a dogeared passage detailing but a small segment of the journey.

But now the spotlight is trained yet again on black authors, particularly women, telling all manner of stories from their varied corners of the diaspora.

To trace this most recent flash point, or filament, most look to a moment in 1992, when the publishing world finally sat up and took note: Titles penned by three black women--Toni Morrison ("Jazz"), Alice Walker ("Possessing the Secret of Joy") and Terry McMillan ("Waiting to Exhale")--stood firm in Top 10 slots on the New York Times bestseller list.

It was evidence difficult to ignore. And the latest "phenomenon"--as the publishing world madly tagged it--gained flesh and form. But for black writers and readers, it confirmed what had long been a given: If you write them, they will buy them. In hungry droves.

African Americans spend about $160 million yearly on books, according to a recent Gallup survey. But now as the decade takes firmer hold, what gets lost in all of the cant and numbers--books sold, advances pulled down, bestseller list standings--is movement toward a more panoramic and thus inclusive look at the black experience.

The last boom, in the late '60s and early '70s, gave rise to the protest and witness novel, penned by a chorus of resonant baritones. But as the civil rights fervor diminished in the late 1970s, so did publishers' interest in works by black American authors who picked at the scab of racism.

Although there were other ripples, winds shifted dramatically to women with Walker's gale-force bestseller success with "The Color Purple" (Harcourt Brace, 1982), which helped prop open the door. A decade later, McMillan threw it wide open.

And women's words have become the skeleton key.

Though critics cite omissions and shortcomings, this wave of fiction has birthed something more lasting than the advances and screenplay options, says Cheryl Woodruff, executive editor of Ballantine / One World: "I think their diversity and range of imagination and voice shows the public we're no longer identical twins.

"Here we have the works of people who are driven by the dictates of their own muses."

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Growing up, many black readers learned to play catch as catch can. In the '50s and '60s, glimpsing a dust-jacket photo on a library shelf or resonant title on a high-school reading list was a moment for celebration.

The choices were limited: Another painful integration tale or an across-the-ocean adventure? You choose.

"I realized growing up I didn't read a lot of black authors," says Tracy George, a publicity manager at Addison-Wesley. "I remember distinctly when my mother bought me a set, 'Little Women,' the Brontes. She didn't find a lot of [black] books at my level. They just weren't being published."

For many post-civil rights babies, it was the step across the college classroom threshold that opened windows on worlds that were a little closer to home--if not in content at least point of view--discoveries that were like tremors.

But the odd story, or the token author, only whetted the appetite.

Scrubbing old backdrops, shrugging out of outmoded characterizations, black authors today seek to articulate their breadth. And a few publishers, finally, are beginning to fall into step with them.

Many examining this cycle believe publishing's tentativeness is borne of lack of exposure.

In the past, "to be oversimplistic about it," says Amistead Press Executive Editor Malaika Adero, "publishers look to what sells in other media and then make decisions about what doesn't sell based on their limited knowledge. For blacks, it's pathological lives in communities called ghettos. Editors and publishers are limited by their own worldview so they often look for works that reflect [that] instead of being open."

Instead of braving new ground, Adero says publishers "try to imitate each other. So what works at this house--like a Terry [McMillan]--every house tries to find another instead of looking for something new."

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