Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Sunday Salon: Urban Literature, Cash Cow?

Spicing it up this Sunday. I hope this alternate image has piqued your interest because this week's topic is not polite Sunday conversation. Real life isn't always tea and biscuits either so shall we get to this week's query:

Do you read urban/street literature? How do you define it? What does it provide readers, particularly young, disenfranchised readers? Can it be a gateway to other genres? Are there micro-niches within this niche book market? What are examples of the best of this kind of writing? Are there books under this label that you can’t relate to or don’t like?

Please consider these questions and read Zetta Elliott's interview with Vanessa Irvin Morris before you read my response. My opinion is biased.

Why I don’t read urban literature marketed to a black audience

Last week, Pam rightfully called me out for the slant of my questions for the query. This week, I make no apology for my opinion but I hope the questions are open and not biased.

This past week a girlfriend and I commiserated together about a book her teen was reading. My girlfriend mistakenly thought her daughter was engrossed in harmless romance fiction. Said daughter devoured these books in volume all summer. Her latest read she passed onto a friend and that friend was sharing it with a slew of girls anxiously waiting to read it, too. The book, The Prada Plan isn’t the harmless romance my girlfriend believed her daughter was so fond of. “It might as well had been porn,” she said later. The book is salacious and titillating. To paraphrase a line I read, “Slim loved Disayna the moment she came busting out of Dynasty’s sweet pink p—y.”

A few weeks ago, Zetta Elliott interviewed Vanessa Irvin Morris who made a case for urban literature. I didn’t agree with many of Ms. Irvin Morris’ points and this personal experience with a group of teens passing around The Prada Plan only made it harder for me to believe young women gain something by reading street lit.

I’m sure the publisher and author would argue the target audience is mature adults. I get that. But the main character is in her early twenties working for Elite Escort Service. How many forty-year-olds are buying this book? The reality is teens and young women in their twenties make up a large section of the readership, and they gobble this up like other women tune in for their daily dose of soap operas.

While our children think we are ancient, I do remember the naughty books we read as teens. You found your dad's porn or you read the trashy 'true life stories.' These stories didn’t lead to me reading great literature and for today’s teens, sexually explicit material is blaring everywhere twenty-four seven. Teens don’t have to sneak around to find it: you can go online, turn on the TV and pluck a juicy title like NeeNee Does Manhattan off the shelf at the library. My problem with these books is that they perpetuate the ugly, lowest dominator, demeaning images of black women. Aren’t we objectified and vilified by mainstream enough? Do we have to voluntarily put on a dog collar? My girlfriend said she went to the bookstore this weekend and there was a wall full of these books. We will buy self-depreciating material but we won't buy literary and contemporary fiction written by POC writers like McFadden, Elliott, Brice and Howard in the same quantity? These writers work exceptionally hard to get a publishing deal and then a hundred fold harder to promote their work. That reality depresses me.

I know all urban literature like all rap is not misogynistic trash, but call a spade a spade. Penning a tale about money, jewels and sex doesn’t empower young women. It doesn’t build healthy self-images. And those who read it aren’t reading for it that either. I’m sick of our daughters being fed a steady of diet of crap. I want a way to get them to back up from this nasty buffet. I want them to think more of themselves. I want them to reject images of cash boxes between caramel thighs, long wavy hair and green eyes that make Negroes want to grind into them long into the night.

Makes me wanna holla.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

Totally with you!

Anonymous said...

I can really see both sides of the argument. I definitely understand your frustration and distress, especially with all the negative media messaging around female self-worth, for women of color in particular.

On the other hand, I think Irvin Morris has a point about instilling the reading habit in young people. I used to read trashy vampire fiction and snuck into the erotica/porn sections of bookstores when I was a preteen & teen. I also read a ton of rock & roll memoirs and stories about drug use, casual sex, etc. All that stuff held a morbid fascination, just to see what was out there, and probably it made my folks uncomfortable. But then I grew up, and kept reading, and now my tastes are primarily for 19th and 20th century literary fiction.

I also question whether just switching genres or discouraging reading in a particular genre will really solve anything. As Irvin Morris points out, there are plenty of literary classics that deal with similar subject matter to a lot of "street lit," albeit sometimes in a more thoughtful, polished way. I'd argue that neither Ellison's Invisible Man nor Wright's Native Son are particularly friendly toward women, black or white. Female characters supposedly "asking" to be raped? Not exactly conducive to healthy worldviews, for girls or boys. Which doesn't mean that these books shouldn't be read, just that they should be discussed and evaluated. There's no reason kids shouldn't start developing critical thinking skills toward street lit titles - it just takes adults who work to engage with them about them.

But I guess the real test of my conviction will be when I have a daughter who loves these books!

susan said...

"I also question whether just switching genres or discouraging reading in a particular genre will really solve anything."

I hear you. My approach is to be honest about how I feel about the literature, I don't think censorship would solve the problem.

I have a teen and she's like many teens. I get the attraction. My frustration is that it's getting harder to get the kid to eat the vegetables. Know what I mean?

And in my defense, I didn't completely reject Ms. Irvin's arguments. Not agreeing doesn't mean I wasn't willing to hear her or to consider the validity of her reasoning.

susan said...

And let me add, there is plenty of literature I take issue with. Being well written or because it's part of the established cannon doesn't mean it shouldn't be critiqued or equally rejected.

Today though the flavor is bling and ass. I'm not down with that.

Anonymous said...

"My frustration is that it's getting harder to get the kid to eat the vegetables. Know what I mean?"

Ha! Yes, definitely. :-)

And I thought your post was totally reasonable & well-written. I disagree with some of her points, too.

Doret said...

My biggest problem with Urban lit, for awhile it was the majority of what was being published by Black Authors.

Yes, I know urban lit is hot and it sells but I've always thought literature can be a reflection of people and society.

When I started seeing mainly Urban lit in bookstores years back, as a Black reader it was a huge slap in the face.

We have so many more stories to tell. That is not all we are.

It hurt my readers heart to think of all the Black authors who went unpublished in recent years.

Though in the last 2 yrs or so there seems to be an increase in more stories told by Black Authors

When Chick lit was at its high point. There were still other stories told with Female protagonist. Did some stories go unpublished, probably. But they didn't stop entirely.

As I reader, all I want is balance in stories told. It should never come down to only one experience.

I really wish publishers would use some of the easy profit they make from Urban author to promote other Black authors.

Many Urban lit authors were first self published. So they are very good at getting the word out on their books, and Urban lit sells by word of mouth.

So publishers don't have to spend much money on PR for these books to sell. So they are making profit with little effort.

Eva said...

Honestly, I'd never even *heard* of urban lit before I saw this post. So I don't have a frame of reference for evaluating Elliot's interview of Morris or your opinion Susan. :)

I definitely read some s*xy, trashy books when I was in middle school/early high school. Probably of the romance fiction type your girlfriend thought her daughter was reading. But I was always a big reader, so they weren't a gateway genre to me. And they didn't constitute the majority of my reading; more something I'd read after a giggling friend passed it to me. lol

It sounds like these books definitely wouldn't appeal to me. But without having read any, I don't feel like I can comment intelligently on them. I'd be curious to see any kind of sociological data to see if street lit is successful at getting reluctant readers into other genres as well.

Color Online said...

I thought there would be more responses. Maybe tomorrow.


TheEnglishist said...

I'm with you and Doret. I went in a bookstore to the Af-Am lit section (I usually head straight for YA) and was disgusted by what I saw on the covers. Going by JUST THE COVERS, you would think that black people and their literature are about sex, sex, and bling. Yay.

My experience with street lit is much like Eva's with romance novels (which I also read). I was always a reader, so they weren't my gateway to reading and I always discerned between the good (Donald Goines, early Omar Tyree, etc) and the bad.

I think it's interesting that Coldest Winter Ever isn't considered street lit. It was one of the first examples that popped in my head.

Color Online said...

An educator talks about images of black women.

tanita davis said...

Oh, people. It is really deep that someone would consider a book written by Zetta Elliot to be street lit. Just. Really. Deep. That says to me that the interviewer did not read the book, nor did she have an appropriate grasp of what the genre actually embraces.

When I was in grad school a few years ago, Sister Souljah - who was considered a writer of street lit at our circle -- was a topic of discussion -- and dispute. Many of us felt that urban or street lit was not actually worth our time, while other classmates were bored reading Richard Wright and longed to get into it. We came down into two camps; those of us who'd grown up in suburbia, and those who were more city-savvy. Suburbanites seemed more disinclined to consider the genre. In the end, we all had to agree to disagree.

I did try and read some urban lit, but the demeaning and elaborately explicit details of vice and sexuality really made them difficult to get through, so to answer the question: NO. I don't read street lit. I define it as wish-fulfillment fiction with characters who embrace the "thug life" and feel they are owed something, that society's boundaries and legal strictures are a game and that they have to get over or get theirs back from "the man," no matter the cost to their health or friends or ethics. The wish-fulfillment portion of the fiction is that most of the time, the characters win through, vanquish all enemies, and end up riding high -- monied, satisfied sexually, with others envying them.

I realize my view is prejudiced; I haven't been able to get through enough of these books to find the good, but with that opinion in mind, the only gateway street lit or urban lit has, to me, would be a gateway to an attitude of entitlement and resentment -- I should be with that boy, I should have that girl, that ice, those rocks, that car, and someday I will and all of you haters will be sorry. Or, dead.

It's the resentful mutterings of an insecure, immature pipe-dreaming monster-child -- nothing empowering about that.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in the hood. I lived hard and saw far too much. It is not something to be glorfied whatsoever.

The portrayals of black women in these books are awful. But I'll keep it real,I know women who thought of their bodies as cash. But these books don't discuss the horrible way such an attitude came about. For many of them,sexual abuse in childhood taught them that their bodies were all they had. I grew up with guys who turned to the streets to survive or support their siblings because Mama was hitting the base or just plain sorry. Like I said,I've seen it all.

I am torn about these books. For me,sometimes the outrage that comes from upscale black folks not wanting the community's dirty laundry aired annoys me. I get a distinct feel that they want to look a certain way for whites or whomever. These so called bougie blacks irritate me and I say to them,shut the f- up. Not everyone lived in the burbs,son. Other times I completely understand their frustration with the demeaning depictions of blacks and the glorification of hood culture. Half the folks reading urban lit are not hood folks. Why read about what we have lived and seen? It's those raised in the burbs,looking for a bit of seeing how the natives live.

It's an irony that many of the people you appeal to and ask to support black lit,are voracious readers of urban lit. Black folk do this all the time. We break our necks to see Tyler Perry but won't support Rosewood. We can't expect for change to come if we don't start at home.

Still,I say all lit deserves to be read. One shouldn't be dissed and held down because it offends some. These books hold an element of realness for many and that's why they are so popular.

TheEnglishist said...

wyattkim - I grew up close enough to the hood to understand the reality of these books, but I think, for me, it's an issue of representation. These are not the only stories about black people worth telling, but if you walk into a bookstore, that's what you would think. So I don't have a problem with the genre, necessarily. I have a problem with the fact that it seems to be the only genre attributed to black people.

Anonymous said...


I feel you. I would love to see writers of color rackling YA,sci-fi,fantasy,everything AND getting equal representation in marketing and placement in the book store.

But it seems that publishers are only interested in these books. I wish they'd give other kinds of books by POC a chance. As long as there is an appetite for these books,they will get published while other books don't get a chance because publishers believe the black community won't support them. It's hard to admit,but they are right. We will support a Beyonce but give no love to a Leela James. Change starts at home. I don't know how we can overcome this.

Anonymous said...

I do not like street/ urban fiction. I do not think that it's a gateway to real literature, yes real literature. As I commented on Zetta's post, it can't be a gateway if it's unguided. If educators are very selective and use it for comparison/ contrast with a more canonical piece of literature then, maybe the gateway theory is viable. However, most people I encounter who read street fic. have never bothered to venture beyond it and don't show any desire to do so. I find the writing is often mediocre at best and is just a carryover of the media and how it sensationalizes crime and hyper-sexualizes Black women. So, this genre is doubly offensive because it's Black writers cashing in on the madness.

When I went to Borders to purchase McFadden's novel Sugar in honor of the 10th anniversary, I almost didn't find the lone copy available. It was misshelved in a sea of urban fiction all by the same author and all with the word "bitch" in the various titles. I don't know how it is in other markets, but in my city, the African American book section equals about 97% urban fiction with a smattering of literary fiction sprinkled in. Often, though, the Black literary fiction will be mixed in with the general fiction but you'd be lucky to find one copy of a dozen or so titles by Black authors including the old guard (i.e. Morrison, Walker, Hughes, Wright).

And like wyattkim, I don't know how this will be overcome but I look forward to discovering and/or championing the solution.

Pam said...

First of all let me be the first to say. I love tea and biscuits. ;)

Secondly for the PoC challenge I picked up the lot of L.A. Banks books. I mean what can be better? I love vampire fiction, and this included some biblical characters I thought it would be a fun read. It was nothing short of porn on paper. I have no religious ideals, but I suppose I do have some bit or morals. I don't need to read about sex in such a graphic manner. I do not understand why anyone would.
What's the saying "A lady in the street but a freak in the bed", I think we can compare that to our reading. I don't need sex in books at all, if it has to be there for plot reasons do we need whether a cute first time or a rape situation does it need to be described in such graphic and slutty detail?

I rarely do not finish a book but I never finished past half of the L.A. Banks novel. I went so far as to put them in the trash, I didn't even want to send them to the Soldier's Angels program.

So let me ask for some suggestions in this arena. What books should I try that aren't full of erotica?


Color Online said...


There are lots of books written by women of color that are not full of porn. Erotica and porn are not the same. And let's not go off on that tangent.

I wish you had asked first and plenty of members here could have recommended authors who likely are closer to what you enjoy.

I'm new to sci-fi/fantasy but I can tell you I love Octavia E. Butler, Nalo Hopkins and I'm looking forward to reading Tananarive Due.

One of our most successful CORA Diversity Roll Calls was our Sci-fi/Fantasy assignment. There are dozens of writers listed and discussed.

Color Online said...


I grew up in the hood, I'm blue collar; many of the folks who read street lit are family so I think I qualify and I am offended.

I'm not sure who you are referring to when you say:

"It's an irony that many of the people you appeal to and ask to support black lit,are voracious readers of urban lit."

If you are referring to this community, look again at our registered followers, the people who regularly read and actively support this community is diversity in technicolor. We a broad spectrum across race, economics and education. And I'm going to say the majority here does not read street lit.

Now the young women I mentored at the shelter read it and I shelved it. I didn't promote it. I ran a library and turning my nose down at readers' choices wasn't going to get me any chance of suggesting other books which I did all the time.

Part of the problem is the amount of focus and money spent on publishing street lit. If a black teen goes into the bookstore for black literature she can't miss BLING! And there is little wonder why white readers don't venture into the area.

Why do we have hunt down and request that other black experiences are given equal access?

Jewel Jackson McCabe said blacks are the group judged by our lowest dominator while other groups are judged by their highest achievements.

What the publishing industry does in it's focus on street lit is perpetuate a fantasy that most blacks don't even live and that is wrong. Wrong and profitable.

I know pimps, hoes and hustlers and ain't nothin' glamorous about the Life. I've buried enough folks to know this.

Pam said...

Thank you, that's why I asked now. I thought I could find me some on my own but yeah I couldn't finish those. I will pick these up.

Color Online said...


I need to update our Prize Bucket and Arie's been helping with our book loan books. We want to do better so members know what's out there worth reading.

Not enough hours in the day.

Sandra said...

I never did read a trashy book, except Candy when I was 16, and most of it went right over my head. I would like to think everyone is like Emily and would turn their attention to the better stuff when they mature. But the fact is that many, if not most, just don't. I would discourage the young from reading this sort of thing but like another commenter pointed out, how DO you get your kids to eat more vegetables? Parental example is the only way I know of.

susan said...

Folks, I'm suppose to put up new piece, but I'm beat. More tomorrow.