Critical Mass

NBCC/PEN Beyond Margins: A Critical Perspective


Earlier this month the panelists pictured here considered the question of gatekeepers in the publishing, book reviewing and awards communities as part of the NBCC/PEN discussion Beyond Margins: A Critical Perspective, held the night after PEN’s Beyond Margins awards celebration (audio of readings and Amiri Baraka and Joseph Marshall II conversation with Peter Cameron from this year’s event plus book excerpts from this year’s winners here).

Ibrahim Ahmad Akashic Books [third from left above],editor of two 2008 PEN Beyond Margins award winning books, by Chris Abani and Amiri Baraka, said both books ended up on the Akashic Books list (which he characterized as “giving voice to the voiceless”) because of meeting the authors at the Calabash Festival in Jamaica. The two books Abani has chosen to publish with the Brooklyn-based indy press rather than mainstream publishers (“Song for Night” and “Becoming Abigail”) had a “different aesthetic—idiosyncratic and at times odd,” he said.And Baraka’s PEN Beyond Margins award-winning book, “Tales of the Out and Gone,” had an “astonishing validation,” Ahmad said, from a review in the New York Times Book Review in which the critic said “Somebody Blew Up America” could almost have been written by Allen Ginsberg, and that Ginsberg “would surely have loved it.”

Joseph M. Marshall III [first on left above], 2008 PEN Beyond Margins award winner for “The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn,” mentioned earlier authors—Dr. Charles Eastman, whose first book, a memoir of his boyhood, was published in 1902, Henry Standing Bear, and Vine DeLoria, whose 1971 “Custer Died for Your Sins” “opened eyes to our perception of history.” “Anyone who’s native deals with various attitudes,” he said, including “narrow-minded condescension” and “benign curiosity.” “Gatekeepers who work for publishers are no different,” he added. “Once we get past the gatekeepers, we have things to say.” For instance: “I’m thinking of writing a history of America from the native perspective.”

Jabari Assim, editor of The Crisis, missed the panel due to deadlines for “What Obama Means,” due out in early February from Morrow. Earlier this year, he noted on Critical Mass, “…I reflect on the African American writer on a daily basis….During my four years as book editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, followed by 11 years at the Washington Post Book World, I’ve tried to keep close watch on developments in black writing while providing opportunities for African-American reviewers to show off their critical chops. I tried to make sure that no one could say what Margaret Walker charged so long ago: ‘in the final analysis the audience and the significant critics were white.’”

Rigoberto Gonzalez, NBCC board member and Critical Mass blogger, focused on the “limited resources” so many authors who publish with independent presses have, and the value of blogs, in particular poetry bloggers. “The Internet has become an essential tool,” he said, even for bigger presses.

Margo Jefferson, Pulitzer award winning cultural critic and PEN member, concluded by noting the value of academic departments—black studies, ethnic studies, American Indian studies, gay and lesbian studies. “These things matter,” she said. “They create a critical mass of seriousness” that keeps the work from becoming vulnerable to the vicissitudes of fashion. As for the influence of bloggers: “They’re changing the future tone.”