Why are certain books discriminated against? In Bozeman, Mont., where I live, our local NPR station (YPR, based in Billings) broadcasts a program called The Write Stuff. As on other such programs, writers are interviewed and invited to read from their works. The host has told me on several occasions that “the only writers I can invite are those who write fiction, poetry, or memoirs.”
Book festivals feature fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction (especially memoirs). The Humanities Council told me that these are the only categories it supports at the Montana Festival of the Book, which it funds. Year after year, I go to the Holiday Inn where the weekend event is held, sit in on panels about writing narratives with authors who have new books out, and wistfully peruse the books being sold. I write psychology books, but there are none in that genre to be seen. An acclaimed fiction writer gives the keynote each year. This year it was given by Sherman Alexie, a popular and award-winning author who performs with humor, sarcasm, and pain.
My books have been turned down by both The Write Stuff and the Montana festival. My titles include Your Soul at a Crossroads, with Steps You Can Take Not to Lose It; Dreaming of Animals; The Inner Lover: Using Passion as a Way to Self Empowerment; and, in another genre, The National Audubon Society Almanac of the Environment: The Ecology of Everyday Life.
To my mind, the policy of featuring authors of fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction only at festivals and on radio programs is shortsighted. Books are written in many genres, and new genres sometimes appear, like chick lit, urban fantasy and new adult fiction.
My books treat psychology, science, and education seriously. Discrimination against this type of book has, I believe, prevented them from finding a large audience, which makes me feel rejected and angry—and I’m sure writers working in similar genres feel the same way. As Zora Neale Hurston suggested, it’s astonishing that the public is deprived the pleasure of our company.
It’s time for a change. Festivals and media overwhelmingly favor bestselling authors of literary fiction, crime/mystery/suspense, and science fiction. Health, sports, biographies, Christian, history, and business/technology are the most widely promoted nonfiction genres. Books on psychology, philosophy, religions other than Christianity, humor, travel, and photography are featured less often, no matter how well they sell, as are graphic novels, multicultural literature, how-tos, and inspirational titles. Are psychology, philosophy, and religious subjects too intellectual? Are how-to titles considered fraudulent?
Cookbooks now are a trendy exception; cooks have their own radio and TV shows. Are they so popular because eating is our most basic instinct and family-friendly? Poetry sells the least but gets airtime. I don’t begrudge poets a single moment in the sun.
What’s to be done? Booksellers could do much more to introduce new titles in diverse genres. I knew Frances Steloff, the owner of the famous Gotham Book Mart, when she was old and her desk was crammed with papers, on top of which rested her white cat, Putsy. The N.Y.C. store became so famous because she had a knack for putting into customers’ hands just what they needed. She was partial to esoteric spiritual books. Steloff’s willingness to take chances across genres was surely one of the reasons for her fame and the success of her bookstore.
I urge all book people, including conference and media planners, to widen their vision and pack more entertainment into their programs. If they occasionally featured neglected authors, that would be much more fun for everyone. Readers would be far more satisfied listening to representatives from the full orchestra of literature, not just the string section.