I was really excited about a lot of books this spring. You may recall that I wrote a whole post about it. There was a lot of #blackgirlmagic in the works, and nothing could be better or more necessary than that. The biggest readers in the country are college-educated black women, while in the UK (and I gather in the US), young black girls are the biggest demographic of readers under 18. We deserve to be recognized for that and thanked by the publishing industry, but of course we’re not.
So I was really excited to find a bunch of upcoming books that not only starred black girls, but they were smart, middle and upper class, and front and center on the covers, too. I mean, look:
Two of those, Flawed and Into White, are from the same publisher, Feiwel & Friends, and I give them extra points for not bowing to the whole “we already have a black book this year; thanks” thing that so many do, though I imagine part of it has to do with the fact that Cecelia Ahern is a white author with two solid adult books on her resume to recommend her. The other, Little White Lies, is from Soho Teen.
The problem is that at a time in American history (Flawed is Irish, but it’s being published here, so) when we desperately need #blackgirlmagic (and strong black men) in our books, in a life-or-death way, what we don’t need is these books. Not because I don’t appreciate what they do to represent the diversity of the black experience (from left to right, you have a very wealthy black girl, a wealthy biracial girl, and a girl on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale who doesn’t live in the inner-city), but because they’re not very good books. Publishing is like Hollywood in that they have this idea that all white books or movies are inherently good or at least worth giving a try, but if a book about minority (or other marginalized) characters fails, it’s because there’s clearly no market for Those People or stories about Those People. So even though it’s unfair, we don’t have room for mediocrity right now. Diverse rubbish, yes. We need that. But not this stuff, where it’s mediocre at best AND, in the case of Little White Lies and Into White, supposed to be controversial. If it’s going to be controversial, it damn well better be good. White people are always allowed mediocrity and second chances, and I just have to let Papa Pope tell you, black people have to be
Part of this is personal. I generally dislike high-concept books because they can only go downhill once they establish all the high concept stuff. I feel that way as a writer, certainly, which is why all of my works in progress are episodic, scene-based, character-based, slice-of-life things, plot lite. So maybe your readings of these books will be different if you’re okay with flashy things. They all read like Disney Channel Original Movies, which are one of my favorite things in the whole world, but that high concept, overdramatic, wide-eyed tween thing works much better on television than in print.
#1. Little White Lies has an amazing concept, and it reminds me of the plot thread of the protagonist’s blog in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, which you should read if you only recently overturned the rock you live under. You can go and read the Little White Lies synopsis yourself and come back; if you’ve read this blog for a minute you know I let you figure out background info on your own time and jump straight to real talk.
Where this book goes wrong is in a few places, like how even though it’s the whole point of the story, nobody really wants a petulant, immature white adult narrating a book about a teenaged girl. And he narrates half of it. It’s gross. The other problem is that it reads like your usual book by an adult who heard about this thing called social media that is a big deal, and so they decided to name drop and reference every internet thing they can, even though it comes out awkward. Also, Coretta, the protagonist, is just a boring person who doesn’t actually seem intellectual enough to write the type of blog the book is about. Again it’s like that thread of Americanah, except terrible.
There is so much room for books about black social media. Black Twitter is fucking amazing. Tumblr is bombdotcom for marginalized people. I mean,
There is so much to explore. But this is not the book to do it.
#2. Flawed may be okay in that it’s more on the end of rubbish/mediocrity than Setting Black People Back. It’s an incredibly derivative and uninteresting dystopia starring one of those I Am So Perfect That I Think I Am Totally Ordinary protagonists that are boring af. And while I am all about having more people of color in books that are not about being a person of color, this one has Black Barbie syndrome, meaning that it’s actually about a white person painted brown, not a person of color. I will grant that when you’re a teenager and have, by virtue of not having lived for as long, not read so many stories, this may seem somewhat unique in its take on The Scarlet Letter, but honestly I don’t think they will be impressed. Celestine is so aloof that you can’t really feel for her at all.
#3. Into White is, like Little White Lies, garbage that will probably set us back in racial progress, when it could have been really interesting. Or maybe not. The concept, that a girl prays to Jesus until she wakes up white, is cool. But not all concepts can be stories, and this one, wherein LaToya does indeed wake up white but her family still sees her as black, fails in internal logic. Then it follows kind of like Big, where she has to play a brand new person at school and LaToya the black girl is just absent, but since she still manages to go home every day and be herself, it’s not like her parents need to be worried, and her brother inexplicably manages to figure out not just that she’s acting weird (not hard to notice) but that she must have magically changed her appearance and yet kept it from her family. You know, because that’s a logical conclusion to jump to.
Everyone’s going to tell you that this book is supposed to push the envelope, but that doesn’t mean it’s good at it. Props for how it doesn’t shy away from the absolutely horrid, racist things LaToya’s classmates say to her when she’s white and they don’t think anyone black is listening, but really, it undermines any potential to be revolutionary by the lack of narrative logic, poor writing, and lack of actual plot. Not even the most woefully underread person could fail to predict that this book would be about Learning To Love Yourself For Who You Are, and there’s nothing remotely touching about the journey.
Oh, and did I mention she literally talks to Jesus? Like, he comes into her bedroom to chill.
It took me awhile to finish this post, because I know that criticism of diverse books hurts them much more than criticism of majority books hurts them. But this shit is squib central.