Waterstones Piccadilly is ever and always my favourite book shop. It’s housed in a stunning art deco building in Central London and contains eight floors filled with miles of beautiful books.
I love the branch not only for the eight floors of awesomeness, but also for its Black Writing section.
Racially defined areas in book shops are so rare these days. I know that when they were common, some black authors disliked and rejected them, protesting that they siloed minority writers. And I can understand that perspective.
But, personally, I see no conflict between stacking minority writers in both general areas and a specialised section. I enjoy being able to scan one set of shelves to get a snapshot of new black books and new black authors.
In fact – confession time – one of my secret fantasies is that one day Waterstones Piccadilly will call me (on my special hotline phone) and request plead that I curate their Black Writing section.
I can’t lie, they’re doing a great job curating the section already. They have the classics covered: Achebe, Morrison, Walker, Thiong’o, Tutuola, Ellison, etc. They’re diligently shelving the ‘future classics’: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith, Teju Cole, Aminatta Forna, and so on. They have the Oprah bookclub picks like Cynthia Bond, genre reads like Dorothy Koomson and even old-skool Brits like Patrick Augustus.
But I can do better.
My Five Improvements
1. I’d add some YA authors. Over 50% of YA books are bought by adults anyway. And for the adults who don’t read YA themselves, let’s give them some books to recommend to their kids. Nicola Yoon, Angie Thomas, Malorie Blackman, Walter Dean Myers, Kwame Alexander, etc.
2. I’d insert some Sci Fi. Black writers are winning awards and punching well above their weight in this historically white genre. N. K. Jemisin, Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Ta-Nehisi Coates (Black Panther graphic novel). Let’s celebrate them and get the word out.
3. I’d give a little less shelf space to the literary grandparents (Achebe, Morrison, Walker, Thiong’o, etc) and a lot more space to novels published in the last three years.
Black Writing can feel static because bookstores have been stocking the same names for decades. They’re not working nearly as hard to promote new voices. Your store-browsing consumer doesn’t need you to shelve Alice Walker in the Black Writing section in order to find The Colour Purple. They already know her name, if they want her, they’ll track her down in general fiction. So save that space on your Black Writing shelf and place Ayana Mathis (12 Tribes of Hattie) there instead. A shopper can discover her, fall in love, and add a new name to their black writing rolodex.
4. I’d relocate white authors. I can see the intention behind shelving white authors of black subject matter in the Black Writing section, but I find the logic flawed. You can find The Help in general fiction. Ditto Tiny Sunbirds Fly away. Books featuring black characters shouldn’t be conflated with books by black authors. Especially when there’s limited shelf space.
5. I would find a way to include ebooks. The decision-makers in publishing are 90% white. This results in a particular kind of gatekeeping that polices the kinds of stories black writers can tell. For instance when Tia Williams sent her fashionista, rom-com novel to publishers, she was advised to insert racial tension. The publisher ignored the book’s premise and chose to assume that nobody takes an interest in narratives featuring black characters unless skin colour is the dominant theme. For this reason (and others) many black writers are opting to bypass the gatekeepers and tell the stories they want to tell by self-publishing. I think this is fabulous. For those who love physical books, I would find a way to get the best of those digital stories on a physical bookshelf.
And there you have it, a great Black Writing section elevated to fantastic. Call me, Waterstones. I’ll be waiting by the phone.