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The Vanguard of Ethnic Voices in Popular Literature


Sandra Cisneros is America's most widely read Latina author, so the publication in September of her long-awaited second novel, "Caramelo," is a much anticipated event.

It also will be another moment of satisfying affirmation for Susan Bergholz, the New York-based literary agent who has championed Cisneros' work and that of many other Latino and Asian-American writers.

"There's so much great writing coming out of the Latino community, and now there's some glitter to match," said Bergholz, reflecting on the sales and advances generated by authors whose work was once virtually ignored by major publishers.

Cisneros' first novel, "The House on Mango Street," has sold 2 million copies. In 1982, recalls Bergholz, "when we started with Sandra, there were just two takers willing to bid for her book. Then she sold 100,000 copies and there was a flood of interest. She knocked down doors for this second generation of non-Anglo writers."

Some of those doors, Bergholz argues, were opened by unheralded allies--teachers, textbook editors and librarians. "Sandra was first widely published in textbooks because editors responded to teachers' complaints that there weren't stories to which their Latino students could relate. Librarians said the same thing. I think it is to their great credit that they recognized this need in their young readers and then filled it. For me, it has been a great lesson."

The early enthusiasm of teachers and librarians for Cisneros' work contrasted sharply with the confusion it evoked in other traditional literary quarters. In which critical pigeonhole did the coming-of-age story belong? Was it prose, poetry or memoir? Was its audience adult or adolescent? What was to be made of its feminism, its preoccupation with love and oppression? What helped bring Cisneros' work into critical focus was the realization that some of its important antecedents were to be found in Testimonio, the Mexican literary genre that incorporates all these elements.

Bergholz believes another, similarly important process of cultural recognition currently is underway, accomplished--as she describes it--by "interesting writers from not-entirely-Anglo backgrounds. For example, there is Hawaiian novelist Lois-Anne Yamanaka, who writes in pidgin and English. Can you imagine that she now is being published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux?

"I can tell you that when I first brought Sandra Cisneros' [short fiction collection] 'Woman Hollering Creek' to publishers in 1989, they said, 'We can't do this. You'd need a dictionary to read it." Now, she says, New Mexican novelist Rudy Anaya doesn't even italicize the Spanish in his work. "I have a Korean American client, Nora Okja Keller, who wrote 'Fox Girl.' She uses Korean phrases in her prose, when they're significant and appropriate.

"I love the fact that these diverse new sounds that already are heard in the spoken English on our streets are now to be found in our literature too. The mainstream just isn't the mainstream anymore--and it hasn't been for a long time."

Looking Over Other Readers' Shoulders

Reading is a solitary pleasure, but not an introverted one.

The proliferation of book clubs and "one-book-one-city" reading programs is testament to that. So, too, is the continuing fascination with information about who is reading what and in what numbers.

With that in mind, Barnes & & Noble, the world's largest bookseller, has taken the unusual step of making current sales information available on the Web at www.barnesand The site lists the chain's bestselling volumes in 300 categories, tallies orders placed for books yet to appear in the stores and breaks down the most popular titles by topics--say, presidential biographies--and even by cities. These are updated weekly, but a list of Barnes & Noble's 100 bestselling books is updated hourly.

It is a unique snapshot of readers' tastes at any given moment, but why share it?

"We believe that people are hungry for recommendations," said Barnes & chief executive Marie Toulantis, "and what this does is let readers make recommendations to other readers. Obviously, there are a lot of lists published in newspapers around the country, but because of our size we have a unique ability to take the pulse of what people are reading. Not only do we have 600 stores, but Barnes & attracts 10 million unique visitors each year. We did more than $400 million in online business last year and 6% to 8% of our sales are overseas."

Toulantis pointed out that the new site also gives readers a window on the forces that move book markets. Television, particularly the networks' morning shows, powerfully influence book buyers. "They seem to meet people's need for a personal recommendation," she said. "We see an immediate pop in the sales of any book mentioned on those shows." For example, on the day Steven L. Carter appeared on NBC's "Today" show, the company's online sales of his novel "The Emperor of Ocean Park" jumped 630%.

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