This is the story of why I am making the ebook version of Rosalyn Story’s novel Wading Home available for free during the rest of African-American History Month. For the next two weeks, you can get this ebook free at Amazon.com or from Agate’s own site. This new book–which was written by a critically acclaimed black writer, and which centers on one of the most significant events in recent American history, and which deals with social and cultural issues at the heart of African-American experience–has had a few important champions (in particular the stalwart Patrik Henry Bass at Essence), but for the most part has not gotten the attention it deserves. So I’m giving it away, in the hope that more people will read it, appreciate it, and tell others about it.
Please note that I’m stressing the “attention” Wading Home attracted, as opposed to “praise”; while I certainly believe it praiseworthy, my first-order concern is the dismaying lack of exposure the book got upon release–even from places that had singled out Rosalyn’s earlier work for very high praise indeed. In fact, to its publisher’s embarrassment, Wading Home has gotten hardly any attention at all–despite the hundreds of advance reader’s copies we distributed months before it was published, despite the efforts of PGW’s excellent sales force, despite the author’s appearance at BEA, despite how the book’s publication coincided with the fifth anniversary of Katrina. And despite the fact that I’ve had a hard time finding any other such novels from trade presses–novels by black writers addressing this event, which had such a huge impact on how both black people and others think about the lives of black people in this country today. Next to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Katrina and its aftermath may have been the most consequential event of the last decade. You wouldn’t know it by the response of the book publishing industry. (But thanks, David Simon and HBO, for Treme.)
Agate published Rosalyn’s first novel, More Than You Know, in 2004, some years after she published a highly regarded nonfiction book about African-American opera singers. More Than You Know is intelligent but accessible, featuring a powerful love story wrapped in a very deftly structured narrative. I like it a lot, and both Rosalyn and I were gratified that plenty of other people liked it too—the book earned terrific reviews, in particular a rave in the Washington Post, and the sales were a cut above the norm for most first novels. I looked forward to the chance to publish her next book, and when I saw the manuscript, I thought it was even better, in many respects, than her first.
Of course, a lot has changed in the intervening six years. The number of freestanding newspaper book reviews has diminished sharply (including the one published by the Post), as has overall review space devoted to new books. The people making decisions about what to cover have it tougher than ever before. This is no longer news to anyone. But here’s the problem, as I see it–Agate’s problem, and Rosalyn’s: the amount of attention devoted to African-American fiction writers seems to be falling even more sharply than the total amount of attention devoted to fiction writers overall.
I was put in mind of this issue earlier this month when I noted all the attention devoted to the statistics assembled by VIDA about women’s representation in major magazines. Ha, I thought to myself. Wait til they look at African-American people’s representation in those places. Then I thought some more: Don’t hold your breath. Black writers and editors talk about this problem all the time, but that doesn’t appear to be having much impact on the gatekeepers at the major review media, or at the major book publishers and retailers. This is an even older story, unfortunately, than the fall-off in reviewing. What’s the effect? Less good work is published, and fewer people find out about the good work that does get out there. Even for a writer like Rosalyn (about whom you can learn more from the nice little book video below)–whose first book seemed like such a solid start career-wise, in terms of both reviews and sales–this diminished attention can make it impossible to build on that initial success and reach new readers, or even the readers who loved her first book.
So what’s a publisher to do, besides publish a book as well as he can and then rail about the outcome from his personal soapbox? I believe Rosalyn Story’s new book deserves more people’s attention. This book performs what Stephen Elliott recently reminded us is one of the most important functions of fiction: “The question for every book is, is it necessary? There are so many good novels, but if it gives voice to people that aren’t usually written about with understanding, then that’s plenty.” I think this is a good reason to publish a book, and a good reason for people to pay it attention.
A river’s worth of ink has been spilled on Katrina and the lives of black people in New Orleans, but there is certain information about life and experience that we can only find in the work of creative artists like Rosalyn Story. In that respect, Wading Home does plenty; Wading Home is necessary. This is a book that gives voice to people that aren’t usually written about with understanding. But don’t take my word for it–get the book yourself. For free. I hope you’ll read it, and make up your own mind.