Black authors on New York Times top 10 book list draw backlash

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While The New York Times Books Review‘s annual Ten Best Books list has long considered the gold standard of literary criticism, not nearly enough attention has been given to black authors on the list. This year’s list corrects that issue, but still drew a critical response from people who believe the list was “too woke” for their tastes.

2021’s’s top 10 list included both fiction and non-fiction from a variety of authors, four of whom are Black: Imbolo Mbue’s “How Beautiful We Were,” Honorée Fanonne JeffersThe Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois”, Clint Smith’s “How The Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America,” and Annette Gordon-Reed‘s “On Juneteenth.”

“Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City,” by Andrea Elliott wasn’t written by a Black author, but covers poverty in New York City through the eyes of a homeless Black girl and her family.

Author Imbolo Mbue (Official website)

Though these kinds of books and their subject don’t largely deviate from the past New York Times lists of top books, for some, this year’s balance of books by and about Black people was deemed too “woke” for some readers. It may also be an issue that eight of ten books chosen this year were by female authors.

A commenter from Ireland wrote: “Fiction should not be a tool to promote a specific agenda. The best fiction has always subtly highlighted social issues, injustices, etc. So frustrating to realize 50 pages into a novel that the agenda takes precedence over the storyline.”

Another agreed, also stating that the list was too “politically correct” and suggesting a book be added by an award-winning white male writer.

“I’m super liberal, and this list is an overwhelming collection of politically correct wokeness. What about [Jonathan] Franzen’s “Crossroads?” It’s fantastic,” opined a poster from Los Angeles.

“This list is so woke it cancelled itself,” a commenter from Greensboro, North Carolina wrote, sharing similar sentiments with a poster from Connecticut who sniped, “Much too “woke” to be of any value. I can’t help but notice the overtly liberal tone of these picks. Many better books than these were omitted because they didn’t fit into a certain paradigm.”

One poster wanted to know additional books that could have made the list instead of the ones Times editors chose.

“Will the people who are complaining about the contents of the list (being too “woke”, “depressing” and “leftie”) kindly list the books that they found so interesting that have been excluded? That might actually be useful, and readers could understand if you’re just blowing hot air, or if there are some amazing books that haven’t been mentioned.”

Despite the fact that all four books were NYT bestsellers and were shortlisted for multiple awards and recognition from other prestigious literary or media organizations, some readers believed the inclusion of the books were to meet a certain “agenda” or, in the recognizable dog-whistle language of racism, suggested that the books were not selected specifically on merit.

Yet in 2011, just a decade ago, the top 10 booklists was made up of only one book by a Black author: “Malcolm X: A Live of Reinvention,” a controversial look at the life of Malcolm X by Manning Marable. Four authors were women in 2011, and the omission of any Black authors at all from previous lists hasn’t drawn the same scrutiny or scorn that the inclusion of more Black authors or Black subjects seems to.

Author Clint Smith (Carletta Girma)

The publishing industry has weathered accusations of racism in its publishing of, promotion of, and prestigious awards for all but a very select set of Black writers. In the book “Redlining Culture: A Data History of Racial Inequality and Postwar Fiction,” published earlier this year, author Richard Jean So extracts some truly eye-popping data.

According to his research, Random House, a major publisher, released books from an astonishing 97 percent of white authors from 1950 to 2000. He also notes, per the Los Angeles Review of Books that “91 percent of novelists who win major awards, such as the Pulitzer,” and “90 percent of the most reviewed novelists” are white. So points out that “white authors receive 90 percent of book attention, while black and POC ([…] Asian American, Latinx, and Native American) authors respectively get 6 percent and 4 percent.”

If that weren’t bad enough, 98 percent of authors on bestseller lists, who are the beneficiaries of promotion, marketing, and book tours, as well as media attention, are also white.

While the New York Times comment section isn’t necessarily indicative of a wide range of the public’s views, it does provide insight into the mindset of many serious readers, as they are the obvious demographic targeted by the list.

That makes it concerning that so many potential book purchasers believe the inclusion of Black authors is an attempt at pandering, instead of the recognition that a larger group of talented authors should be read and recognized.

“The way the industry is set up, you’d think Black books don’t sell; you’d think that there are only a handful of Black stories worth telling and you might assume that Black authors don’t exist,” award-winning British author Candace Carty-Williams wrote in an article for Vogue UK in 2020. “The truth is so far from that.”

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