Black Artists and the Logic of the Market: On Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction”

By Eskor David JohnsonMarch 9, 2024

Black Artists and the Logic of the Market: On Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction”
IT IS A TRUTH seldom considered that every published book or premiered movie in the United States must at some stage have made its way past a white checkpoint. For the writer, the first and most forbidding of these checkpoints is the literary agent, who is likely white, and whose job is more often to reject manuscripts they don’t think they can sell than to select the few they think they can. Beyond the agent stand the editors at the publishing house, most of whom are also white, and who, should they like your story, must then convince their in-house team, most of whom are white, of the work’s commercial viability. Once the manuscript is sold (congrats!), the author will spend the exciting months before publication working with the editor, copyeditor, art department, publicity team, and booksellers, nearly all of whom will be white.

Are there, for example, Black agents? Of course! Are there Black editors? Surely. Do entirely Black in-house marketing teams exist? Slow down now. But even allowing that some exceptions exist, the fact remains that it is effectively impossible for a written work to make the journey from the mind of a non-white author to its intended audience without some white authority having had their say.

The Academy Award–nominated film American Fiction (2023), the directorial debut of Cord Jefferson, offers a useful case study for understanding how two major entertainment industries—literary publishing and commercial filmmaking—have an ultimately constraining effect, not just on commercial output but also on the minds of artists and audiences. The film stars Jeffrey Wright as middle-aged writer Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, well on his way to curmudgeon-dom, his oeuvre of well-considered literary novels having consigned him to sophomore seminar teaching instead of the loftier echelons of cultural relevance and breathy New Yorker profiles. “For most of your career, your books have been good, […] but they’re not popular,” admonishes his agent, played with a shrug-of-the-shoulder charm by John Ortiz. Why doesn’t he try giving editors a Black book? “They have a Black book,” Monk quips. “I’m Black, and it’s my book.” If only.

Frustrated and fueled by bourbon, Monk takes to the keyboard, where, in a blaze of midnight glory, he churns out a tongue-in-cheek spoof of “Black” writing, rife with drug dealers, shootings, fatherless sons, and parodies of Ebonics. It’s a hit! Of course it is. As the novel’s popularity skyrockets, it captures the imagination not only of the general public but also of the more erudite among them, from an intelligent love interest trained as a lawyer to fellow literary authors on a prize panel. Why has something so bad, so intentionally dreck, been met with such acclaim?

On its surface, American Fiction points to the first and most obvious danger of a publishing structure whose checkpoints are also choke points, whose predominantly white gatekeepers narrow the narrative possibilities that works are allowed to express. In the land where fiction meets commerce, all must be made palatable, all subverted to the grander cause of what is deemed “marketable.” Today, even a casual survey of the year’s buzziest books will reveal among its Black-authored cohort certain recurring motifs: slavery, incarceration, migration to America. What publishers mean by “marketability” is this ready-made set of themes and topics for which they have cultivated an audience, using plug-and-play vocabulary—“powerful,” “important”— to ensure a frictionless rollout to readers.

In an essay for The New York Times Magazine, Ismail Muhammad invokes critic and novelist Elaine Castillo’s description of mainstream publishing’s tendency to seek out “writers of color for the gooey heart-porn of the ethnographic: to learn about forgotten history, harrowing tragedy, community-destroying political upheaval, genocide, [and] trauma.” This, Muhammad himself goes on to say, “is representation’s trap—the whittling down of Black life’s full scope into marketable, digestible facsimiles that are then thrust onto Black writers.” It is simply easier for a media company to debut one more tale of runaway slaves or release another Green Book (2018) because people know these stories already. Easier, that is, and more profitable.

The self-fulfilling nature of this cycle can hardly be overstated. How is it that book publishers can tell with such fidelity which new titles are destined to make a splash? Well, it’s a notably simpler task when they are the ones who decide that too. The modern publishing behemoths are as much market makers as they are predictors, as other recent industry satires, from The Other Black Girl (2021) to Yellowface (2023), have similarly observed. In American Fiction, Monk’s problem is not that he hasn’t been able to get his literary-minded works published; rather, it’s that they lacked the hefty publicity and marketing apparatus—the billboard ads and prime positioning at the front of chain bookstores—needed to break through. Real-world parallels are not hard to come by, with the massive advances given to certain titles often becoming a part of the book’s publicity itself. “We’ve spent a lot of money on this,” publishers seem to be saying, “so now you have to read it.” Adam Smith’s invisible hand at work this is most certainly not. The market, far from being some neutral tournament of ideas, is what publishers say it is. Whether or not a book is going to do well is often not a guess but a decision.


Such a state of affairs is troublesome enough, but there’s an even more insidious danger that white gatekeeping presents for Black artists—a danger not alluded to in Jefferson’s film, and that the film in fact falls victim to. It has to do with influence. Whether its participants intend to or not, the very presence of a white-centered market comes to dominate the imaginations of those who live and work within it, preemptively stifling those alternative ideas that may have sprung to life if not for the lack of a nurturing cultural landscape.

Simply put, as Black artists, we cannot even know the stories we would otherwise tell. So entrenched are we in the logic of the market that we sense beforehand, almost by instinct, those of our stories that are likely to survive the journey from ideation to publication, and no longer encourage those others predestined to fail. We have felt too often that brand of quiet obstinance that is the industry’s means of curtailing the unexpected. On the way to the publication of my own debut novel, I time and again ran into the obsequious jargon designed to flatter me into rejection, which lauded my novel’s prose, admired its plot, and concluded nonetheless with concerns about “how to place it in the cultural market.” I should have expected as much—after all, I had written a big-city tale whose concerns lay more with modern survivalism than with racial obstacles. To situate the latter at the heart of the story, as it was implied I should do, would have been to invoke the kind of plot I was tired of reading in other novels, and would have bastardized my own. Although perhaps I shouldn’t complain: a colleague of Indian descent once had an agent’s rejection delivered with a blunt inquiry as to why she was not writing “an immigrant novel.” Given enough chances, you’ll eventually run into the quiet part out loud.

I was lucky that my material circumstances allowed me the privilege of stubbornness, and saw me through two years of revisions and queries until the manuscript’s eventual sale. I was also fortunate to have a fabulous agent and editor whom fate sent my way. But many are not as stubborn as I am, nor should they have to be to endure the gauntlet of skeptical industry insiders too concerned that the author has not written a novel set in the Antebellum South, or that features newly arrived immigrants or the ghosts of dead slaves. To be certain, such themes are of genuine concern for some writers. Writ large, however, the ease with which these narratives are fast-tracked to publication, and their resulting ubiquity, strikes one as something more than coincidence.


For the dog in the kennel, freedom looks like the rest of the backyard. It cannot begin to fathom what might happen were it to scale the surrounding walls. So, too, when it comes to defying the expectations laid upon us by the market do we still tend to reach for the low-hanging fruit of creative freedom—so that some Black protagonist, for instance, may take a more active role in pointing out the constraining forces around them. The point seems to be to say, See? Black people can be other things too. Well-intentioned though these efforts may be, they still accept within their fundamental premise a white arbiter to whom said point must be made. It’s the essential flaw of films like Dear White People (2014) and, ultimately, American Fiction, operating as it does by inverting archetypes, so that the Black characters enjoy full humanity while the white ones are reduced to slapsticking pantomime: the money-hungry Hollywood agent, the vapid execs performing racial concern. It’s all pleasant fun—and very funny!—but in its decided reversal of the usual Hollywood dynamic of flat Blacks and rounded whites, it amounts merely to an exception that proves the rule. It is not a new paradigm.

What strange tales would we tell if not for the awareness of a market that pressures us to mine our trauma for popular consumption? What lands beyond brutal plantations and drug-addled communities? Occasionally we are given a glimpse, through offbeat books like Open City (2011), surreal shows like I May Destroy You (2020) and Atlanta (2016–22), and the visual poem that was Moonlight (2016), constituting a sort of first tier of creative freedom (or perhaps a second, if you are inclined to start with the reactive one that includes American Fiction). How many more will we need until our imaginations are allowed to arrive at the kind of ingenious experiments that are Lucy Ellman’s single-sentence Ducks, Newburyport (2019) or the sprawling saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? For the Black artist, it will require many more iterations to realize the possibilities that lie ahead in a landscape of unfettered passage, where the stories we would otherwise tell each other if left unbothered can flourish. Many of these stories will continue to be about race, slavery, or segregation, and rightly so. But many more will not. For all of American Fiction’s critique of troublesome norms, someone, likely white, had to have been the one to first green-light it for production. They must have liked the way it made them feel.

LARB Contributor

Eskor David Johnson is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago and the United States. His debut novel, Pay As You Go, was named a 2023 NPR Book of the Year and short-listed for the 2023 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.


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