Material factors affecting the publication of black British fiction

Ireland, Philippa Ruth (2011). Material factors affecting the publication of black British fiction. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000d3cc

Abstract

This thesis examines some of the material factors affecting the publication of black British fiction during the last three decades of the twentieth century. It argues that a study of the publishing history of black British fiction in this period must take into account wider political and cultural issues, as well as the internal structure and mechanics of book publishing. It therefore explores how shifting cultural, political and commercial contexts influenced the selection, marketing, supply and reception of a number of black British texts. The importance of the interaction between such 'external' factors and the 'internal' modus operandi of book production and distribution is highlighted throughout. A distinctive aspect of this thesis is its use of archives and personal testimonies provided by significant figures in publishing as key sources of information.

The Introduction sets out the scope of the thesis, addressing, in particular, the label 'black British' and how it is to be used within the study. It also situates the research firmly within the discipline of Book History, considering some of the most influential models that have been proposed to help us understand the circulation of books in society.

Part One establishes the historical context. Beginning with the early publication of black writers from the Caribbean in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, it moves on to consider the ways in which black writers and writing were affected by changing political and cultural agendas throughout this period. It investigates the effect of multicultural policies and practice upon education and librarianship, as well as the response of local government and the Arts Council strategy to the changing make-up of British society, arguing that the impact of these wider developments had a significant influence upon the publication of black British fiction.

Part Two focuses on publishers, publishing and prizes. It opens by offering a critical analysis of the activities and legacy of two pioneering black British publishers, both established in Britain in the late 1960s: New Beacon Books and Bogle L'Ouverture. The contrasting approach of the niche publisher X Press provides an example of the variety of ways in which autonomous black British presses evolved over the course of three decades. Comparisons are made with the role played by feminist publishers in Britain in the promotion of fiction by marginal groups, and it is argued that the market success of African American women's writing was an important influence on decisions by feminist publishers to publish black British women writers in the UK.

This is followed by a detailed investigation of the literary prize phenomenon and its influence upon the publication of black British fiction. The final chapter of the thesis proffers a critical account of the success of some black British novelists in the light of this phenomenon. It argues that literary prizes with very specific entry criteria were to have a marked influence upon the literary careers of a handful of black British writers, and that this in turn had the effect of raising the profile of black British fiction more generally, thus demonstrating its commercial viability.

In conclusion, it is argued that the period from the early 1980s to the 2000s represented a very specific and important moment in the publishing history of black British fiction. There still remains a role in the current market for a number of different publishers of black British fiction. This now needs to be viewed, however, within a context where the relevance and contemporary significance of the label 'black British' is constantly being reassessed.

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