Down in the bookstore ghetto

When Andrew Klavan went looking for a new copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, he couldn’t find it in the literature section. It was in the Bookstore Ghetto, he writes on Pajamas Media.

When I asked a salesgirl for help, she took me—but of course!—to the “African-American Section,” because Ellison and the protagonist of his novel are black.

What a great idea! Putting all the novels about black people in a single section! Why didn’t I think of that? But wait—wait—how many of the characters have to be black before the novel does go into that section? Does just one black character make the whole novel black or is there a special section for mulatto novels with characters of both colors? And if all the novels about black people are in the black section, does that make the Literature section the white section? Why don’t we call it that then? I’m confused.

And hey, what about The Adventures of Augie March—do I find that in the Jewish section? No, don’t be an idiot. Important novels about Jews trying to find their place in America go in the Literature section, of course.

In the new cop series, Southland, a rookie cop tells a black girl that he liked the book she’s reading, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. She asks in surprise why he read it, and he says he took a black studies course. White people can’t read Beloved as American literature or just because a friend recommended it?

About Joanne


  1. I wasn’t aware that, as a white person, I wasn’t allowed to shop in the African-American section.

    Is there something about it being African-American Lit that automatically makes it the ghetto of the bookstore? Why not the Young Adult section or the Self Help?

  2. Nah, couldn’t be a leftist conspiracy! It’s gotta be one of those rightists who did his market research into what sells. Now there’s the true conspiracy 🙂

  3. Tom West says:

    Indeed, the leftistxs (so to speak) picked up on this a while back as a right-wing conspiracy. (Lets those white people more easily skip books by black authors.) The right was a little late to the party before finding it a left-wing conspiracy. (Probably because they aren’t as likely to be shopping in the neighborhoods where having a separate section is thought to increase sales.)

    Of course, the whole point of separate sections is to better serve their customer base. It’s really only done in areas where the owners think that a significant section of the customer base may be especially interested in finding books by African-American authors.

    I’ve seen a (very) few bookstores that shelve science fiction and horror with Literature because they didn’t feel enough customers were interested in it to merit a separate section. Of course, they were the sort of bookstores that had a separate classical Greek and Latin section…

  4. I suppose Mr. Klavan knows better then to ask for the humor section in a feminist bookstore?

  5. Margo/Mom says:

    Actually–the whole organization of bookstores troubles me–although I didn’t think too much about it until a bookstore organization was implemented in some of the local branches of the public library. First off it drove me crazy, because I couldn’t do what I am accustomed to doing with the Dewey decimal system, which is to search the cataologue for a topic to the extent that I have identified the general numbers cataloguing numbers that appear to be likely places to find it–and then go browse the shelves where I could pull off books that appeared to be likely to be what I wanted, and not be troubled by chasing after books that were checked out.

    It appears that in the bookstore “browsing” style, the categories are much broader, may not be intuitive if someone is looking for something quite specific and based on what most people are looking for most of the time. And the catalogue–a huge system-wide database–remains in Dewey decimal. Apparently research shows that patrons–in certain neighborhoods anyway–don’t use it, or don’t know how to.

    So, I do my library shopping mostly at home, online, and order up specific volumes to pick up at the convenient branch. Or I go to the Main Library, where things are still organized properly. The one advantage that all of the libraries have over all bookstores is librarians. I can always ask and always get reliable help. Not so in book stores.

  6. This topic is old hat. Percival Everett’s novel from a few years back, Erasure, even had this as plot element. Clearly bookstores will always stock their books by category. These categories change with time and what goes in each category can also change. For example, bookstores used to keep fiction separate from other literature, but frequently they will put biography and critical works together with novels and short stories (and usually poetry kept apart). Categories like African-American and so on are niches (also sci-fi etc.) The grandest of the niches is simply called literature. The question for a given work is whether it should be categorized in the small niche or the grand one. And the rationale has to do with helping customers find what they are looking for, not keeping people away from books.

    Everything Isaac Asimov ever wrote will go in the small niche. What about Philip K Dick? Maybe some of his books have a wider audience and so go up to literature. These decisions are critical decisions (i.e. decisions involving literary criticism). Not every book written by an African American would even make sense as going into the African-American section; an example would be Samuel R. Delaney (goes to sci-fi).

    What about Ralph Ellison? Does his book have an audience beyond the niche of African-American literature? Yes, in fact its audience is so general that the real question is whether a second copy should be put in the African-American section. When things get misplaced, the cause is not always nefarious. Borders used to always put books on numerical analysis under number theory. That’s because they didn’t have people who knew what the categories meant. Maybe some bookstore also don’t have people who really know what the literary categories mean.

  7. greeneyeshade says:

    bky’s mention of Samuel R. Delaney reminds me that I met him back in, oh, the 80s, maybe even the late 70s, when I was involved with people in our local science fiction society. Delaney, who I remember was relatively light-skinned, told us how the publishers had made him look as light as possible in jacket photos for his early books, and then made him look darker as “black” became chic after the mid-Sixties.
    Make of that what you please.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    Blame Bush!