American Fiction, the directorial debut from Succession writer Cord Jefferson, is hitting theaters Friday, December 15. This new comedy-drama is a star-studded film based on the 2001 novel Erasure by Percival Everett. The film follows Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a Black writer dealing with rejection from publishers for not being “Black” enough. Frustrated with the industry, he writes a satirical book full of the Black stereotypes publishers want, only to skyrocket to fame as the world clamors to read his book. Ensnared in the same hypocrisy he claims to hate, Monk now must pretend to be the character he made up as people beg to hear his “real” story.
American Fiction is based on a novel over two decades old, yet the issues of authenticity and diversity the film grapples with are more relevant than ever. Several headlines discuss white authors who profit from characters of color, but American Fiction and its source material dive into the darker reality of marginalized authors who enable stereotypes to ensure their own success.
Erasure and Blackness in Publishing
Percival Everett wrote Erasure in response to the discussion of African-American literature happening at the time. The novel deals with the consequences an artist deals with when they give into the market forces or reduce their work to what they know will sell, even if it compromises the work itself. The market force Everett uses in Erasure is similar to the same market force of the late 1990s that prioritized a certain Black narrative over others.
The uplifting of Black stories set within urban poverty created pressure for Black authors to write certain stories or else risk their success in the industry. Monk experiences this pressure as his experimental fiction is routinely rejected while a novel, We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, becomes a best-seller. The success of We’s Lives In Da Ghetto prompts Monk to write a scathing parody first called My Pafology, which he eventually changes to Fuck.
Monk’s parody draws inspiration from two real works: Native Son by Richard Wright and Push by Sapphire. Wright and Sapphire’s novels follow Black teenagers living in urban poverty and dealing with the struggles that come with it. Fuck appears in Erasure in its entirety, showing a side-by-side comparison of Everett’s writing to the type of stories the market force pushed.
Diversity in Publishing: An Uphill Battle
American Fiction comes more than two decades after Erasure’s release and has adapted to critique Black caricatures common in the present industry. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, director Cord Jefferson explained, “I don’t want to excoriate other Black artists or people making movies about Black people, especially in this country where people are trying to actively rewrite history; stories of race; of racism in America; the stories of slavery.” Rather than condemning novels that appease industries, Jefferson wants to shift focus to criticizing industries that force the success of certain narratives:
The more interesting question always, to me, isn’t why these individual actors are doing this this way. It’s about remembering that individual actors all exist within a system that exists within institutions.
Jefferson’s directorial debut comes at a critical time for books in the United States, especially books by marginalized authors. The number of book bans across the country is at an all-time high, while the number of bestselling books by Black authors has fallen. Books that discuss race and race-related themes are under threat of objection, which means there is pressure to eliminate the one narrative the industry allowed from Black voices.
To make the publishing industry truly diverse, publishers and writers alike must break the mold that the industry has forced Black writers to fit. The entry of Black authors and Black stories into the literary sphere is just a stepping stone to achieving acceptance of all types of Black stories.
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