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Things I Like: American Fiction

It’s hard to make a movie about writers. There’s “The Man Who Invented Christmas” about Charles Dickens. And “Best Sellers” which has Aubrey Plaza trying to get Michael Caine–a J.D. Salinger style curmudgeonly shut-in–to promote his new book. Neither of these were particularly exciting because writing just isn’t exciting.

But American Fiction is very good, especially if you’re a writer. In the same way I was charmed by Chants of Sennar, I was intrigued by American Fiction. It’s about an affluent African-American professor (his sister’s a doctor and his brother’s a plastic surgeon). He writes normal literary books, but they aren’t selling because publishers only want stories about Black people suffering for that “real African American experience”. Stories like “The Color Purple” or “12 Years a Slave” or “Selma” or “New Jack City”. Stories so white people can feel guilty and absolved for sins of the past.

The breaking point comes when he sees a woman like him promoting her best-selling book “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto”. In a fit of anger, he writes a “joke” novel (apparently in one night!) that has all the stereotypes and cliches he’s been railing against. Gangstas and absent fathers and running from the cops and life in the projects. And of course, publishers are idiots, so they love it.

(There is a subplot about him having to take care of his ailing Alzheimer’s mother with no support from his siblings and no money, which is why he keeps the ruse going).

So this becomes a story not unlike one’s you’ve seen before where an artist has to choose between integrity or commercialism. Writing what he wants or writing what people want to read. Also known as “selling out”. It reminded me of Bamboozled. This is known as the “Springtime for Hitler” trope (from “The Producers”–a Mel Brooks comedy where two Broadway producers get people to invest in a terrible show so they can write it off and get rich only for the plan to backfire). Also Blazing Saddles, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, The Hudsucker Proxy, Major League, and others. As you can see, the story itself indicates “there’s nothing new under the sun.”

And I can’t say it’s wrong. All the books I’ve read with Black people as the main character are decidedly “urban”. Mostly YA, but they’re always about Black folks suffering under an oppressive system. The Hate U Give, Kendra, The Boy in the Black Suit, Long Way Down, The Help.

And I sympathize with the main character that he can’t cut a break in the business because he’s eclipsed by other authors writing to market. How he feels about race, I feel about gender.

It seems like book-selling is a woman’s club. Look at the bestseller lists–it’s all books by female authors about female stories. Romantasies and beach reads and soulmates and regency galas and Where the Crawdads Sing. The few males are legacies–James Patterson, David Baldacci, Stephen King, Tom Clancy. There’s no room for new male authors because, I guess, men don’t read. I’m not saying I miss books that have explosions and sex–far from it. I just mean I can’t believe people keep consuming the same thing and don’t get sick of it. Something that’s not a Lifetime movie.

Not to mention, what agents say they’re looking for is equally disheartening. About half of them have guidelines that say they’re only interested in international, BIPOC, and LGBTQ authors. Not that I’m going to complain about that–there are so many underrepresented voices out there and they tell good stories. They deserve to be seen in media. The problem is where does that leave me? I’m about as far away from what agents are looking for as Pluto from Earth.

So yeah, I sympathize with the main character here. It’s an old story, but it’s still a true one. Either do what you want and not be read or write what everyone wants (even if it’s fake) and be read.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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