By now, perhaps you’ve heard of The Great American Read, a program sponsored by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to encourage reading? The television show premiered in May with a two-hour special, and it continues in September as an eight-part series. The Great American Read polled 7,200 Americans to compile a list of the country’s 100 favorite novels — not the greatest novels, but our favorites as a country. That’s why the list can encompass both Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy. The list includes only novels, not non-fiction or short story collections, and books in series are represented in one slot (so, for example, the Harry Potter series takes up one place in the list rather than five). Viewers/readers can vote for their favorite of the 100, and the winner will be announced on October 23.
The list is pretty diverse. Several African-American authors are represented, along with many women, LGBT authors, and authors from other countries like England (Jane Austen) and Nigeria (Chinua Achebe). However, no Indigenous American authors made the list.
I am not that surprised. Native writers (and Indigenous people in general) are often left off of lists and out of statistics. When Sherman Alexie’s sexual harassment allegations were made public, several people wrote about the problem of Alexie being represented as the only famous Native author. (Alexie himself had also spoken about that problem prior to the scandal.) I thought one of Alexie’s novels might make the list, but he did not. I wondered if he had perhaps been on it at one time but was removed when the allegations were made public just before the list came out — but Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao made the list, and his allegations occurred before the list was published as well. So possibly, Alexie, arguably the most famous contemporary Native writer, just didn’t make it.
I also thought maybe Louise Erdrich would be on the list. So many people seem to love her books, especially Love Medicine. But it’s not there. Nor is Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony or N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer prize winner, House Made of Dawn. In a list of 100 favorites, only the most famous authors and books tend to appear, and those are our most famous Native novelists. If they aren’t on there, I’m not surprised to find that nobody else is either.
I don’t blame The Great American Read. Statistics are statistics, and they could only include books with enough votes. (Though they also had a committee that could rally on behalf of books that nearly made it.) I don’t even blame American readers. Books by Native American authors are so often marketed as “history” rather than “literature.” And Native novels are definitely not marketed as entertainment. I think that type of marketing keeps them from being chosen by many casual readers, as does the fact that “ethnic” literature is so often marketed around the ethnicity of the writer rather than on other merits like style, plot, or genre.
I taught a Native American literature survey course to college students for several years, and very few of my non-Native students were familiar with any of the assigned authors when they arrived at my class. Native students tended to know a few, and several students of all ethnicities knew Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian because high school teachers had taught it when it was new. For the most part, however, my students arrived at my class expecting to hear “authentic Indian legends,” not read novels, poetry, and stories by modern people in modern settings. If my students were any indication, that may be the case for many readers across the country as well.
In recent times, three Native authors have received a lot of press. Tommy Orange’s novel There, There, Layli Long Soldier’s poetry collection Whereas, and Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir Heart Berries were reviewed in the most important places, and Long Soldier won one of the most important literary prizes. Representing popular literature, the first book in Rebecca Roanhorse’s urban fantasy series, Trail of Lightning comes out later this month from Simon & Schuster. Perhaps one of the new books or a future one will prove to be a widespread favorite.
But for now, Native writers didn’t make this particular cut. There is some irony in the lack of Native authors on The Great American Read list since we are so often described as “the first Americans” (another irony, since Native people, as a whole, were not U.S. citizens until 1924). However, maybe it’s better that we are still seen and marketed as “foreign,” because that indicates we still hold cultural, as well as political, sovereignty in the American imagination. But it also might mean there just aren’t enough Native writers published and marketed by major houses, visible on library and bookstore shelves, and taught in general education literature courses.
It’s not that Native writers need to be voted into “favorite” lists to be relevant or successful, of course. But readers need to be able to find them more easily and be introduced to them as more than token representatives of a “vanishing race” or “oppressed minority.” Native writers need more chances to become readers’ favorites because that is the way literature changes individual lives and, thereby, history. As for The Great American Read, the program has created a genuinely positive, interesting social media community of readers via The Great American Read Book Club, and I do wish the list that we’re all debating and reading and enjoying included some Native writers and some readers who loved them. Maybe by the next time the poll is taken, it will.