CHICAGO -- A day or so after Sonia Sotomayor's biography, "My Beloved World" was released, I got a call from a New York Times reporter asking me how well the book would sell. She jumped in to the first question: "Why don't Latinos read?"
I wasn't ready for that one. I thought: "Which Latinos don't read? All the ones I know read," but the perception was that Hispanics either don't read at all or don't consume books in English.
The fact of the matter is that though it would be better if more Hispanics spent quality time with books, the situation is not as dire as some would portray it.
First, to set a baseline, you should know that according to the Pew Research Center, 26 percent of Americans surveyed in 2016 said that they had not read a book (in print, electronic or audio form) in whole or in part in the past year.
When broken down by race, Hispanic adults were about twice as likely as whites (40 percent vs. 23 percent) to report not having read a book in the past 12 months. Again -- it would be great if more Latinos read more books, but it's a fair statement to make about all Americans.
So what's the issue with Hispanic readers?
"It isn't that Latinos don't read, it's that the Latinos who do seek out books often seek out the same kinds of books that stick to the tried and true Latino narratives and subject matter of immigration and identity, and that's what they'll read," said Jonathan Marcantoni, the publisher and co-founder of La Casita Grande Press, which focuses on Latino and Caribbean literature. Naturally, there are fewer of such titles to choose from in the mainstream book marketplace and therefore, by Marcantoni's logic, fewer readers.
Marcantoni, who just published "Tristiana," has been feeling the sting of this genre stereotype -- and been affected by the conundrum about whether Latino readers have a preference for works in Spanish or English.
His other books were written in English -- Marcantoni's native language -- and as he promoted each, the feedback he got from audiences at events, from online followers and from family was: "When does the Spanish version come out?"
This prompted Marcantoni to spend years teaching himself how to write properly in Spanish and then how to break the rules of grammar and style in order to incorporate slang and the sound of local dialects from around Latin America.
But when "Tristiana," an experimental novel about a group of artists trying to decide their place in a Latin American Marxist revolution, came out a few weeks ago, reception was tepid.
"When I released 'Tristiana' I contacted all those people who said they wanted a Spanish book, and any time I reached out it was crickets, absolute crickets," said Marcantoni. "I post excerpts of my novels on social media and when I post in English, I get an avalanche of responses. But the Spanish ones bomb. So where are all these Spanish readers?"
According to Pew, 68 percent of all Hispanics speak English proficiently. And, in 2013, the center noted that they tipped over into preferring English-language news, signaling that there may be some mismatch between what Latino readers say they want and what they will actually consume.
But Marcantoni says that the more important issue is not language, but better selection in the kinds of stories Hispanics want to see themselves in and, in turn, read.
"When I meet readers who are into genre work -- like experimental stories, science fiction, mythology and fantasy -- they've been brought up reading white authors because Latino authors are marginalized into the 'immigrant stories' category," Marcantoni told me. "It's not that Latino readers are not educated but there's a dearth of content that they like, written by their own people."
This indicates that there are some literary niches to fill. If Hispanic readers really are on the lookout for well-written horror stories, erotic fiction, hard-boiled detective mysteries, comedies and alternate histories that have a cultural component, then what we really need is for the Latino Patricia Cornwell, Stephen King and E.L. James to step up.
More importantly, however, is for large, mainstream publishers to recognize that Latino readers aren't interested exclusively in stories about culture shock or marginalization. When Latino writers who are not telling "immigrant stories" come forward, they need to be given a chance.
(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group