10 Books that 'Disrupted' the Literary Status Quo

Posted by Cybil on April 20, 2021
 
Mateo Askaripour is a Brooklyn-based writer whose bestselling debut novel, Black Buckwas published in January. It's been a Read with Jenna Today Show Book Club Pick, an Indie Next Pick, and a best of the month book by Goodreads, Amazon, and Apple.

He was a 2018 Rhode Island Writers Colony writer-in-residence, and his writing has appeared in Entrepreneur, Lit Hub, Catapult, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. When he’s not writing or reading, he’s bingeing music videos and movie trailers, drinking yerba mate, or dancing in his apartment.
 
Maybe it’s because I’m a child of the startup world, but innovation is constantly on my mind. When describing the act of innovation, “disrupt” is a word that founders love to use, signifying that they see what the status quo is, believe that the world deserves better, and are going to give the people what they need. Uber disrupted the taxi industry. Airbnb disrupted the hotel industry. Napster, way back when, disrupted the music industry. The examples go on and on.
 
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When I made the move from the world of startups and sales to the literary industry, this need to innovate and disrupt didn’t wane but only increased, especially when I realized that while there is a rich tradition of Black and brown American writers, our stories have not been prioritized, promoted, and praised in the ways they should be.

Only last December did The New York Times publish a piece, “Just How White Is the Book Industry?”, in which they shared a study that said that out of 7,124 books published between 1950 and 2018, 95 percent of them were written by white authors. And while this may come as a surprise to some, it was self-evident to me, in 2016, when I began writing my first novel.

So what did this all mean for me, a young Black writer trying to break into an industry that, historically, didn’t actively seek to publish work created by and for people who look like me? Well, it meant that I would spend about a year and a half pandering to arbitrary standards of what it meant to be a writer, novelist, and literary citizen—reading books that were lauded by the media yet didn’t resonate with me; trying to be buddy-buddy with the “who’s who” of publishing on social media; measuring my value as a writer based on feedback from agents who didn’t even fall into the demographic I wanted my work to resonate with.

Fortunately, I learned better. I began reading deeply and widely in the canon of Black and brown literature while also, of course, leaving room for others who don’t fit into this description. What I found was a vibrant world of writers who changed the literary landscape through taking risks, pushing the boundaries of what it means to write a novel, and living into their truth—not just as writers but humans.

Below are only a few of the books I’ve read over the years that speak to me as works that—whether through content or form—redefine the perceptions of fiction, and specifically the novel. You will find books written by authors who are no longer with us, New York Times bestsellers, winners of prestigious awards, and, quite possibly, some you’ve never heard of—discovery is always a special experience.

It’s important to point out that most, if not all, writers are writing in a tradition that stretches further back than their own books—sometimes I will allude to older books that paved the way, but not always. With that said, this list is surely incomplete, and only a snapshot of the books that have expanded what is possible on the page, so I ask that you provide a few of your own favorite innovative reads in the comments, to help others support work that may not fit neatly into any standard and because of that are even more worthy of our consumption.
 

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When asked who some of his biggest literary inspirations are, Robert Jones Jr. is quick to cite Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, and if you read The Prophets, you’ll understand why. Playing with time, history, and shifting ideas of power, Jones’ novel focuses on the love between two enslaved Black men, producing a story that despite never being told before, was one the world needed. I know I did. And that is nothing to say of what he does at the line level, turning his sentences into vehicles for multiple meanings, ways of thinking, and forms of feeling in a way that only someone who has truly dedicated themselves to their craft, and the people they want to serve through their work, ever can.


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If you’ve watched any films and TV shows in the last 30 to 40 years, you’re familiar with the Asian character who makes a quick appearance—either as a villain, karate master, wise old man, or helpless woman—only to either blend into a seemingly faceless mass that isn’t faceless at all, or be killed. The viewer is typically expected not to care about these characters, because they are only scenery, not people. With Interior Chinatown, Yu says, “To hell with that!” and writes a novel, in the form of a screenplay, focusing on a young man’s desire to go from “Generic Asian Man” to “Kung Fu Guy,” exposing the truth, absurdity, and complexity of racism from the much-needed Asian American perspective.


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If I ask you to describe a Black woman, how would you do it? Great, now take that description and throw it out the window. What Raven Leilani does with her debut novel, Luster, is reaffirm that to try and define the Black woman by a word, phrase, or feeling other than “limitless” is an exercise in futility and, to keep it real, foolishness. Her main character, Edie, does not conform to norms, nor does she do what many of us readers want or expect her to do, providing a reading experience that may leave you with more questions than answers, which, if you ask me, is a good thing. 


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When it comes to banned books, I have a loose rule of thumb: Read them. Now, that’s not why I read Portnoy’s Complaint, but when I found out that it’d been labeled as a “prohibited import” in Australia, in 1969, and that many libraries in the States banned it, because of its unfiltered depictions of sex, I appreciated it even more. In Portnoy’s Complaint, we meet Alexander Portnoy, who, through a continuous monologue, is speaking to a psychoanalyst about his sexual escapades, childhood, and what it means to be Jewish. It’s hard to read Portnoy’s Complaint and not believe you are in the hands of an author who is an expert at messing with people, including the reader.


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The Sellout is personal for me. It was the last book I’d read in 2017, right before I began writing my third novel, Black Buck, which is the one that ended up being published. When I read The Sellout, which can be said to be the offspring of older works by certain Black authors—like Darius JamesNegrophobia, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, the writing of Charles Wright, and many more—my mind broke in half. It was hard to believe that someone could so thoroughly push the envelope in a way that made it difficult to know when he was making a mockery of the reader, racism, or political correctness, all while producing bellyaching laughs from page to page. Without a doubt, The Sellout stands on its own two feet as one of the best works of satire written in the 2000s. 


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Percival Everett. Whew. Like Paul Beatty, he is someone I regard as truly inimitable. Sometimes I read a novel, and I think, “Hmmm, I can clearly understand how the author made this,” but with every single work of Everett’s that I’ve read, beginning with Erasure, I find myself putting the book down and wondering how in the hell can anyone think and write like this? His mind is like a four-dimensional kaleidoscope. If that doesn’t make sense to you, it’s fine, I don’t fully get it either. Aside from the intellectual acrobatics taking place on every page, what stands out most to me about Erasure was the book-within-the-book, which, through hilarious and devastating prose, exposes the publishing industry, the type of Black art that non-Black people love to consume, and the ever-increasing pressure to conform in order to get ahead.


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The Street came out in 1946. You’d think that a Black woman—the first to do it, mind you—selling a million copies would have made the publishing industry say, “Gee, maybe we should start publishing more books by Black and brown authors so that in the not-too-far-off future a study doesn’t come out proving that we only really care about books written by white people,” but no, that didn’t happen. In addition to Petry showing how financially successful books written by Black authors, about Black people, could be, her debut novel, which focuses on Lutie Johnson, a Black woman who does all she can to survive in a world set on breaking her down, deserves to be given its rightful place in the literary canon next to the so-called great American writers.


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It can be said that Colson Whitehead is the preeminent American writer—in fact, that’s what I’m saying. Not one to shy away from shining a bright light on the dark parts of American history that many would rather forget. When he set his sights on the enslavement of Black people, it was game over. With The Underground Railroad, Whitehead turns the path that enslaved individuals took to freedom into a literal mode of transportation, no doubt leaving many readers scratching their heads to wonder if The Underground Railroad was an actual series of interconnected railways or not. But what I love most about Whitehead is that he writes what he wants in the way that he wants, whether that means a novel about a nomenclature consultant, an elevator inspector, or survivors of an apocalypse, communicating to us what it means to be truly free.


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This is a book that made me want to throw it across the room multiple times. Honestly, I regard it as one of the works that changed the literary landscape because it is the novel of recent memory—more than any other written in the twenty-first century—that subjects its characters, and, in turn, the reader, to so much pain, heartache, and loss. This is the height of innovation. From a publishing perspective, it raises the question of “who gets to tell certain stories, and what does it mean to write out of your experience?” This question, and the many others Yanagihara’s heart-splitting book inspires, are always necessary and illuminating.


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If you ever ask yourself “How did we get here, to this moment in history?” read Homegoing. Yaa Gyasi’s debut—which follows two half-sisters from different villages, as well as their descendants—begins in 18th-century Ghana and brings the reader on a journey from there to the United States, piercing through time and space to the now. I remember reading this book and remarking at how Gyasi was able to fit so much life into only a few hundred pages. It just felt so damn full, revealing how a skilled writer can, in some cases, do more with less. What this novel does so well is that it conveys to the reader that historical fiction is not just a view into the past, however near or distant, but, in many ways, a mirror of our present. With Homegoing, Gyasi invented a time machine that actually works.



Which groundbreaking book would you recommend to your fellow readers? Share your picks with us in the comments.

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Comments Showing 1-24 of 24 (24 new)

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message 1: by Mary (new)

Mary A Little Life was the most gut- wrenching book I’ve ever read. Not an uplifting tale but a truly incredible one! I’ve recommended this book to many. It’s tough, though.


message 2: by Megan (new)

Megan  Honaker Mary wrote: "A Little Life was the most gut- wrenching book I’ve ever read. Not an uplifting tale but a truly incredible one! I’ve recommended this book to many. It’s tough, though."

Totally agree. One of the best books I've ever read.


message 3: by Nathan (new)

Nathan It's true, everyone reading this comment should also read Homegoing


message 4: by Matt (new)

Matt Lawson If you want to read somebody who “pushes boundaries” read ‘High Life’ by Matthew Stokoe. That will change your whole perception on what it means to push boundaries.


message 5: by Hope (new)

Hope Sherman Could not agree more regarding Underground Railroad and Homegoing... Black Buck is next up on my to read list! thanks for the recs on these other books, adding them now!


Shireen | The Happy Days Travels Mary, I have to agree with you. I’m still processing it.


message 7: by Shira (new)

Shira Agree on "A Little Life" (and The People in the Trees). They should come with a warning.


message 8: by Ken (new)

Ken Porter Mary wrote: "A Little Life was the most gut- wrenching book I’ve ever read. Not an uplifting tale but a truly incredible one! I’ve recommended this book to many. It’s tough, though."

you're right, it was brutal. now read 'Shuggie Bain'.


message 9: by Myrto (new)

Myrto Pirli A Little Life was great but indeed gut-wrenching. Jude's story was so sad! I wanted to shake him and tell him that what had happened to him wasn't his fault, that he should talk to his friends about it, they wouldn't reject him.


message 10: by Sandra (new)

Sandra Vega "In cold blood", by Truman Capote. "Salón de belleza" by Mario Bellatin


message 11: by Amy (new)

Amy Nathan wrote: "It's true, everyone reading this comment should also read Homegoing"

I second this assessment.


message 12: by Graham (new)

Graham Petrie Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambro - actually everything he has written is amazing
Minor Detail by Adania Shibli
Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor


message 13: by Jim (new)

Jim I wouldn't call any of these books disruptive, considering how it is defined in this article. Not saying they are bad, just not all that far away from the usual, non-disruptive fiction.


message 14: by Cait (new)

Cait McKay Luster was AMAZING. what a debut!


message 15: by Ajay (new)

Ajay Mary wrote: "A Little Life was the most gut- wrenching book I’ve ever read. Not an uplifting tale but a truly incredible one! I’ve recommended this book to many. It’s tough, though." totally agree. i finished it in 4 days sraight. my most voracious spree ever.


message 16: by Carol (new)

Carol Bee Ken wrote: "Mary wrote: "A Little Life was the most gut- wrenching book I’ve ever read. Not an uplifting tale but a truly incredible one! I’ve recommended this book to many. It’s tough, though."

you're right,..."


I read “A Little Life” some time ago and It is still in my head and I still feel the sadness I felt when reading it. Heartbreaking. That said, I enjoyed the characters and their backstories.


message 17: by Carol (new)

Carol Bee Ken wrote: "Mary wrote: "A Little Life was the most gut- wrenching book I’ve ever read. Not an uplifting tale but a truly incredible one! I’ve recommended this book to many. It’s tough, though."

you're right,..."

Recently bought “Shuggie Bain” and it’s sitting in a pile of about 20 waiting to be read.


message 18: by Carol (new)

Carol Bee Shira wrote: "Agree on "A Little Life" (and The People in the Trees). They should come with a warning."

I’ve got People In The trees on my shelf for the past few months, hope to get to it soon.


message 19: by Dorin (new)

Dorin Lazăr It's funny you complain about race, when this article is barely able to acknowledge that other countries and cultures exist.


message 20: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl “American Dirt” was a book that stood out for me. Great recommendations here.


message 21: by Krishna (new)

Krishna Chaitanya The Sellout was hilarious. I loved it.


message 22: by Lily (new)

Lily Jim wrote: "I wouldn't call any of these books disruptive, considering how it is defined in this article. Not saying they are bad, just not all that far away from the usual, non-disruptive fiction."

Agree! I´ve read three books from this list and found them pertinent in terms of social agenda but otherwise.. normal, a bit trying too hard. Too much hype, not enough substance


message 23: by Dwayne (new)

Dwayne The Prophets and Homegoing are bloody brilliant works. Can't wait to read them again!


message 24: by Theresia (new)

Theresia The Five Wounds by Kristin Valdez Quade is excellent!


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