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100 Novels Project Revisted

[By Kenton Rambsy]

Although research on African American literature has flourished over the last three decades, there have been almost no quantitative studies on black novels. For instance, of the wide ranging body of novels published prior to the Harlem Renaissance, how many remain in print? What geographic region produces the greatest number of major novelists? Among one hundred select major black novels, how many were reviewed in the New York Times?

From these questions, the “100 Novels Project” came into existence as a means of surveying a wide body of African American literature and making divergent connections across a large and varied number of black authors that write in different genres, publish in different time periods, and utilize various language and stylistic features in their novels. The development of an extensive record of publication and reception based on empirical data shifts the scholarly discourse from examinations of two or three novels at a time to a more expansive view of hundreds of African American novels. Given the extensive collection of over 1,000 rare and canonical novels by the HBW, providing new insights into black writing through digital mediums became a chief goal for the project moving into the 21st century.

Since the project’s inception, the HBW has continued its initial goal of attempting to collect every novel ever written by a black writer. Of course, with the rise of independent and online publishing, in recent years, there have been numerous challenges that have prevented the program from staying as current as we would like in updating our collection with emerging writers.

The “100 Novels Project,” though, has given us an opportunity to consider the wider scope of African American literature and analyze these new trends in publishing. An analysis of four dozen factors such as publication dates and regions, thematic focus, author education and main residence, number and type of awards a novel has received, and gender of novel protagonists associated with more than 100 novels will bring us closer to producing a comprehensive portrait of black literary history.

Over the next two weeks, we will feature blog posts that highlight books in our collection and provide insight as to why studying a wide body of novels at a times provides useful applications to understanding how black writers assess and critique reoccurring artistic, social, and political occurrences over a 158 literary time period.