The fiction ghetto

Observations on bookshops

Why is it that, nearly 20 years after the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, the works of fiction in your local high-street bookshop may very well be segregated according to the colour of their author’s skin?

Walking into a London branch of Waterstone’s recently to buy a copy of a novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Toni Morrison, I noticed a curious deficiency in the Ms between Blake Morrison, Ewan Morrison and . . . John Mortimer. Asking at the desk whether the shop had simply sold out of the Nobel laureate’s works, I was directed to the Black Writing section, a niche-interest bookshelf between Sci-Fi and Gay Porn.

In modern, multicultural Britain, this was rather puzzling. So I went around the corner to a branch of Borders – and found exactly the same system. In the carbon-copy versions of these stores in towns up and down the land, it is likely that you will find significant authors, who happen to be black, absent from the shelves that accommodate writers of all other races.

This method of organisation can prove obstructive in searching for a particular volume, particularly as selection appears to be somewhat arbitrary. Zadie Smith is perhaps not “black” enough for Black Writing, being out front with all the other Ss. But, irritation of literature lovers aside, is it not rather offensive to relegate a work of fiction to the book ghetto at the back of the shop because of its author’s ethnic origins?

Trevor Phillips of the Equality and Human Rights Commission is usually very keen to comment on issues of segregation – claiming only last year that the inherent bias of ordinary Britons would prevent the election of a British Barack Obama – but a spokesman said that this was not an issue on which he would like to comment.

A spokesman for Waterstone’s claims that all works by black writers should be stocked simultaneously in Black Writing and in the common or garden fiction area, and blames the specific stores I visited. “Toni Morrison should be in fiction and black fiction,” he said. “It must be a fault within the store in which you shopped. The stock should be automatically replenished.”

But why is there a separate section in the first place? It is demeaning, to say the least, to suggest that so many brilliant black authors will only really be of interest to those who happen to share the colour of their skin.

Within the same patch of London, another large bookshop, Foyles, has not elected to round up all the books by black authors into one section. Kate Gunning, head of buying at Foyles, explains: “The tendency to separate out ethnic writers is in many cases unpopular with the customers. When I used to run a bookshop of my own we would get a lot of complaints from black and Asian customers. One of my colleagues here is Punjabi and argues very strongly that it’s racist.”

The tendency, Gunning argues, is a relic from a different age. “We used to separate out gay writing at Foyles, but a few years ago it became redundant – you’d find people objected to being put on the ‘death row’. Gay writers are now so accepted, there isn’t a distinct need to market them separately. Increasingly the tendency will be to integrate rather than separate.”

Lovers of literature – whether black, white or fluorescent pink – will no doubt hope so.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd