Book segregation or book equality? Readers’ final thoughts

On MLK Day, I mentioned a Boston parent’s concern that her local bookstore failed to stock any children’s books about the holiday or about King himself.

In response to this post, a reader argued against separate African American literature sections in bookstores, noting that excellent writers like ZZ Packer and James Baldwin aren’t available on the general literature shelves and contending that a sort of segregation results when bookstores arrange their sections this way. Annie Reid,’s Friday blogger, added her $.02 a couple of days ago.

She also posted a thoughtful dissenting opinion from bookstore veteran Charlie Quiroz. Since then we’ve received a flood of opinions, pro and con.

The Monk, a librarian, writes:

I have to side with Mr. Quiroz on the African American Lit question. I worked at Borders for way too long. When I started there, our store had opted against an African American literature section for the very reasons you cited, and it was a decision I supported until we had many customers who were disappointed that they couldn’t easily browse works by black authors. Almost all of these customers were black, and it occurred to me that my liberal white guilt did not give me the right to dictate to black customers what their preferences should be.

Any bookstore is faced with the necessity of organizing their material, and this is bound to result in some balkanization. For example, Philip K. Dick‘s books are not necessarily science fiction, but because a customer is likely to want to see “where the Philip K. Dick books are,” and because he’s primarily thought of a sci-fi writer, they’re all shelved in Science Fiction.

The African American literature issue is obviously a little more sensitive, but it should be noted that an author’s placement in the “literature” section is not a value judgment. If it were, you wouldn’t find Sidney Sheldon in such proximity to Upton Sinclair (to grab a few examples out of my ass).

You may ask “Why not shelve them in both places?” and ideally that would be the solution, but when youre dealing with such large inventories it’s just not practical. At Borders, the inventory sytem depends in large part on a numbering system that tells you where in the store a particular title will be found. Double-shelving also makes restocking difficult, particularly if you’re dealing with small quantities of a particular title.

Like Mr. Quiroz, I’m the last one to leap to Borders’ defense. But in this case I’d have to say that they gave the issue due consideration and based their policy on the needs of their customers. Now don’t get me started rattling off examples of decisions they made in which neither the customers nor the employees were considered in Borders’ tunnel-vision pursuit of the bottom line.

Writer Jess Row (The Train to Lo Wu), on the other hand, argues:

Several years ago, when I was in graduate school in Ann Arbor, I ran into one of the teachers in my program, the African-American novelist Reginald McKnight, outside the downtown Borders. He needed to run into the store to buy a copy of his own latest novel to give to a friend. I accompanied him into the store, and we searched the fiction section, with no luck.

It took me a minute to realize why this was, and when it dawned on me I was almost too ashamed to point it out: his book was only available in the “African-American” section. He was shocked, and dismayed. How many people who’d read a review of his book, or heard about it on the radio, would think to look for it in a separate section? How many of them
would even necessarily remember that he was black in the first place?

If Borders wants to have a separate section for readers who only want books catering to a specific audience, fine: they should call it “African-American Interest,” and allow writers and publishers to designate if they want their books to be sold there. Eric Jerome Dickey obviously would, for example. But putting ZZ Packer, Colson Whitehead, John Edgar Wideman, Charles Johnson, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison only in a separate section is absurd.

My local Barnes and Noble has a “Judaica” table out in front, to cater to the many customers in the neighborhood who want that, but they don’t lump Jonathan Safran Foer and Isaac Bashevis Singer and Jerry Seinfeld into a single section marked “Jews.”

Kirstin takes the same position as Row, but from a different angle:

I have been disturbed about book segregation for years now. I’m a gay woman and first became irritated when I bought an editon of The Well of Lonliness by Radclyffe Hall which was labelled “Lesbian fiction” on its cover. Similarly, the very idea of putting the great Sarah Waters in a “lesbian/gay” section is infuriating and demeaning. My mother, who is straight, loves Waters’ books, as do many of her straight friends who she has lent them to. None of them would have ventured into a gay/lesbian section on a hunt for good literary fiction.

Those minorities who do not patronize a bookstore because they can’t be bothered to look through a literature section can’t be very serious readers, in my opinion. On the other hand, marginalizing books which do not use conventional stories is not only offensive to many (and familiar), but is anti-literature.

I don’t object to non-fiction or histories of minority groups having a separate section (though I don’t think this is necessary either), but segregation of literature must stop. A writer is a writer first after all and should be seen as such.

Laura, a children’s librarian, considers the feasibility of separate sections in libraries:

There’s a discussion about this very topic on the British School Librarian’s discussion list. The consensus seems to be that segregating books leads to narrowness of searching – there’s that “aha” moment when you find Dickens near Dostoyevsky and Davies.

It’s not just the fiction sections, either (many libraries put labels on them so you can see if the book is a mystery or a western or historical fiction, etc.), that patrons want “segregated.” They’d like all books about Ireland to be together: history, travel, fiction, science, art, etc.. That’s just not realistic, given that many books cover more than one topic.

Borders may be doing a good thing, but from a library standpoint, it just doesn’t work for the long-term. Booklists and occasional displays are a far better option.

Finally, Nichelle of Nichelle Newsletter relays her recent struggle to find an African American author’s book in any section at all:

A few weeks ago I got an email from author Nichelle Tramble who found my blog through yours. I wanted to read her book, and I went to my local Barnes & Noble to buy it.

Her book, The Dying Ground, is fiction, so I assumed it would be in the African American Studies area. (That section seems to be a catch-all for both fiction and nonfiction books.) It wasn’t there, so I looked in the fiction area thinking that it was “intergrated.” No such luck, so then I had to find someone who works there to assist me. It was in the mystery section. Eureka!

My point is that they are no hard and fast rules but some Black authors “crossover” (Edward Jones, Malcolm Gladwell) while others don’t.

I read everything and all I want to do is to be able to find it easily.


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