When “Untamed” bookends “white fragility:” Social Justice Books fade in popularity after this summer’s spike

“Untamed” and “White Fragility” topped the bestseller lists this year, but social justice books have fallen down these lists after the summer spike. 

“White Fragility” shot up to the #1 spot on the Barnes & Noble Bestseller list on May 31, shortly after George Floyd’s death at the hands of police. Less than three months later, “Midnight Sun,” a retelling of “Twilight” from the perspective of vampire Edward Cullen, was at the top of the chart.

The nation was rocked this year by the deaths of multiple Black men and women by police, which prompted protests from coast to coast that were attended by people of all races and ethnicities. In the wake of Floyd’s death, books written by Black authors and those concerting social justice spiked in popularity and rose to the top of the New York Times, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon bestseller lists.

Across social media, people shared these purchases, showcasing the work they were putting in, with many influencers hopping on this trend.

However, interest has since waned. Political books and escapist titles, which encourage people to take their minds off the world around them, have risen in popularity.

The top five on the Barnes & Noble Bestseller list before May 31 featured books such as “Untamed” (memoir) and “If It Bleeds” by Stephen King (thriller). After May 31, “White Fragility” and “The New Jim Crowe” replaced these titles.

But as the world moved farther away from #blackouttuesday, a social media trend on June 2 meant to highlight Black voices, these books began slipping further down the list. As of Oct. 16, the #1 Barnes & Noble Bestseller on Sept. 9, in sharp contrast to its top seller on June 2, “White Fragility.”

The New York Times Bestseller list showed a similar trend, with “Disloyal” by President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen claiming its #1 spot on Sept. 27. While the social justice books have fallen down the list. “Disloyal” was also Amazon’s #1 Bestseller on Sept. 9, in sharp contrast to its, top seller on June 2, “White Fragility.”

“There has been a big drop off on the anti-racism books,” said Ezra Goldstein, co-owner of Community Bookshop in Brooklyn. “There was about six weeks where it was the constant center of attention, and now there is just so much else competing.”

Interest has waned in these books due to burn-out on the issue, the upcoming election, and a return to escapism, Goldstein believes. The latter was quite popular in the Spring, with “Little Fires Everywhere” (domestic fiction) and “The Boy From The Woods” (thriller) claiming the #1 and #2 spots on the Barnes & Noble Bestseller list on Mar. 29.

A study done by the Pew Research Center shows that these has been a 12% decrease in support for the Black Lives Matter movement from June to September.

Even specialty bookstores, such as Rizzoli Bookstore, who mainly carry fashion, architecture, and art books, experienced this trend.

“We had a little bump in socially conscious books, but it didn’t last too long,” said Chris Pangborn, the Rizzoli Bookstore manager.

The only change in its front window display was plywood’s addition after its windows were smashed during the summer protests.

Ziwe Fumudoh, a Brooklyn-based comic, interviewed many influencers who got in on this trend on Instagram-Live, where she asked hard-hitting questions about race and racism.

In her Live with famously controversial influencer Caroline Calloway, which took place mid-June, Fumudoh mentions how Calloway has been promoting books such as “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” and “The New Jim Crowe.” In response to this, Calloway starts unpromptedly listing off Black authors’ names, leading the audience to assume that these are authors she has read.

Fumudoh responds with, “How many of these books have you read?”

“Honestly, of the nine books that I recommended on my Instagram, I’ve read four. But I ordered the other five from Black bookshops, so I would like my ally cookie now,” answered Calloway, prompting an intense social media backlash.

Even though some of these books have remained unopened, there are still benefits to their solely being purchased.

“Even though they aren’t reading them, the authors are still getting paid because these books are being purchases,” said Cody Madsen, the marketing coordinator at Book Culture. “And since there is demand, there will be reprints, so they stay on the shelves longer.”

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Gabrielle Holliday is a fashion journalist attending Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

She previously attended the University of St Andrews, writing for The Saint and Haute Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @gabbieholliday

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