I've grown tired of the whole street lit debate. You know the one that tries to determine whether or not street lit—the genre categorized as sub-par tales that feature gratuitous sex and violence—deserves to be published, if it pollutes minds, if it is a good thing because it gets neglected audiences reading, and/or if it's presence detracts from the release of other types of books by black authors (read Percival Everett's "Erasure" for more information).
I'm not saying that many of the elements of the debate aren't important. We need to have conversations about gatekeeping, diversity in publishing (in terms of output and employee makeup), access, literacy, etc. Then we need to put action behind these conversations. However, more often than not, the street lit debate is way too simple, annoyingly redundant, and usually pits the wrong parties against each other—black writers of street fiction versus black writers of literary fiction—without ushering in any real progress, understanding, or movements toward community building.
Some of these feelings reemerged while reading "Pulp Princess," an article about street lit in the July issue of Elle Magazine. Yeah, Elle. The article, written by Bliss Broyard, author of "One Drop," (she reached out to me for comment while she was writing the feature) centers on street fiction author Miasha, who has penned titles like "Diary of a Mistress," "Sistah for Sale," and her latest release, "Chaser."
Much of the piece I've read and heard before (I'm assuming that the controversy is new to Elle readers), but here are a few excerpts:
Growing up with two crack-addicted parents in Philadelphia, Miasha had to learn how to hustle to survive. "Anything you can sell, you sell," she explains, gazing from underneath bangs that tickle her eyelashes. "We'd make Kool-Aid, freeze it, and sell it as water ices. We'd put potato chips from a big bag into little baggies and sell them." Once, her father asked 11-year-old Miasha to panhandle with him. He didn't do it in the end, she says. "Thank God."
But the lessons that taught her "to do what you have to do to get by" are now helping her to get ahead. Just as a rap album contract used to be the golden ticket out of Compton (or Queens), writing has become the creative soul's unlikely conduit to fame and fortune. "I'm trying to be a household name," Miasha says, "a substantial person in the entertainment industry, a Tyler Perry or Will and Jada." With six titles out in just over three years; book contracts totaling $400,000; photo ops with Jamie Foxx, Kanye West, and Jay-Z; and media coverage by the CBS Early Morning Show, the CW Network, syndicated radio powerhouse Wendy Williams (the Oprah of urban fiction), Essence, and Black Entertainment Television, her once-improbable dream is seeming ever more probable.
Miasha's books are engrossing-I read one straight through sitting in a Borders-and she has a talent for creating surprising plot twists and sympathetic characters, but after a prolonged ride through her fictional world I felt deadened, like I'd stayed up all night watching a Cops marathon on TV. A street-honed justice usually prevails in the end, but all the designer-brand obsession and sex-and drug-slinging adds up to a stereotypical vision of the black urban experience-and left me feeling like I was colluding with it. Her books are competently written, but there is no beauty of language lurking behind the dark subject matter, no sense of redemption, no contextualization to illuminate the social roots of all the ugliness. It's almost as if the craft of sentence writing associated with "literary fiction" is at odds with the quest to "keep it real."
Yet black literary authors question whether ghetto fiction is anything like a faithful representation of living poor and black in urban America. Novelist and African literature professor Eisa Nefertari Ulen occasionally works with Brooklyn middle school kids, many of whom live in the projects. While the students gush over street lit for "keeping it real," when she asks if they know people like those in the books, they draw a blank. And so does she, despite having a cousin on crack herself. "[Urban fiction] is a glamorization of black pathology," Ulen says, "and we begin to accept this as our truth."
Major publishers, on the other hand, have often seemed at a loss about how to get books by black authors in front of people who might buy them. "Many of my colleagues didn't know the difference between Essence and Ebony magazines or Tavis Smiley and a public access show," Adero recalls. Even when they mastered the nuances of African-American media, publishers still had to contend with the consequences of pigeonholing their authors. If you put a person of color on the cover, will white readers still pick up the book? How do you avoid treating a black audience like a monolith? To what degree is sharing the cultural or ethnic background of characters in a book essential to the ability to enjoy it? Some people read with an eye toward having their suspicions about the world affirmed, while others read to discover what they don't know. How does a marketing plan take all this into consideration?
What do you think about the street lit debate? And Elle's take on it? What are the real issues? What can be done to repair the publishing industry?
is a writer, speaker, author of books for adults and youth, and the book columnist for The Root. Her most recent book is \"The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop’s Greatest Songs.\" Visit her at feliciapride.com.