Monday, January 09, 2006

Is Smut Taking Over Black Literature?

Yesterday as she and I discussed the feasibility of plot twists in a fictional novel we are working collaboratively on, my 22 year old god-daughter Carmen made me aware of an article she had read in the New York Times titled "Their Eyes Were Reading Smut" by Nick Chiles.On receiving a link from her to the article, I read it for myself and subsequently found myself thinking over the opinions and concerns expressed by Mr. Chiles in the piece. When browsing in book stores, I have had very similar experiences to those that Mr. Chiles describes, and though I have yet to actually publish any of my own writings, I can definitely identify with the impact the apparent decline in black literature is having on the marketing of books and writers in the black literature genre. When one makes a serious and dedicated effort to turn out a finished product that has some redeeming value which provides an opportunity to actually leave the reader with something worthwhile to take away from the time invested in reading, it is easy to understand how the current trend towards "literature" with little to no literary or even social value would be cause for concern.

This is not the first time I have had the opportunity to roll this particular issue over my brain cells as during my attendance in August of last year at the National Book Club Conference, a panel discussion was held titled "The Past, Present, and Future of Black Literature", which addressed this same topic. A panelist, Vickie Stringer, the head of Triple Crown Publishing, a well-known facilitator of the publication of this genre referred to as Urban Lit, street lit, and sometimes ghetto fiction, tried to defend her company's position as to why they aggressively publish this type of product. During this session, I found myself agreeing with both sides of the argument, the one that said that the glut of this genre in the marketplace is detrimental to good literature being produced; as well as the flip side which asserted that there is a niche market available for this genre which deserves to be recognized and serviced. A stroll through the African-American section of any major bookseller reveals that in fact this niche market may be taking priority over the broader market if the number of books of this nature available on book store shelves is a reliable indicator. The discussion became very heated with several of the panel participants including a well-known, best-selling author of popular black fiction seeming to attack Ms. Stringer, and actually bringing her to tears. My empathetic nature kicked in at this point, and I was much more strongly aligned with Ms. Stringer's point of view verses that of the established, successful writers, editors, and publishers on the panel, perhaps simply because they did appear to "gang-up" on Ms. Stringer. Once she had composed herself, Ms. Stringer very eloquently defended her position saying that this type literature was necessary to encourage reading in a subset of the black community who might not otherwise ever read a book. Ms. Stringer gave an impassioned retelling of how she herself had never read anything with which she could identify prior to the publication of Terry McMillan's "Disappearing Acts", and though she was not comparing this book to the "urban lit" her company produces, she did make the point that before "Disappearing Acts", she was not aware of books that were representative of black people like herself. She suggested that "urban lit" serves the same purpose for an entire sub-culture among black America, and might be the first step to getting this group exposed to the world at large that literature makes available.

However, now that several months have gone by, and I have revisited this question without the added pressure of the emotions flowing in that room, I must admit that I too, as a lover of black literature am quite concerned about what I see as the diminishing availability of black literature worthy of investing the cost of a book and the time required to read it. I am a member of two book clubs, one of which is dedicated to reading only black authors. We have been reading black authors exclusively since our inception back in 1997. Up until about two years ago, we never had difficulty finding quality books by black authors upon which the group could agree to read for upcoming discussions. However, in recent times, finding books that did not revolve around typical "sister-girl" themes casting men as dogs, playas, or no-good baby daddies, or plots detailing urban plight or blight that was so exaggerated as to have become ridiculous, has been almost impossible. In these times, stumbling upon a well-written book of fiction such as Ian Smith's "Blackbird Papers", Octavia Butler's "Kindred", or Tayari Jones' "The Untelling" feels like hitting the PowerBall. Lovers of fiction must mine deep for quality writing though for those of us who are lovers of non-fiction, the picture may not be as bleak. In his article, Mr. Chiles writes "As I stood there in Borders, I had two sensations: I was ashamed and mortified to see my books sitting on the same shelves as these titles; and secondly, as someone who makes a living as a writer I felt I had no way to compete with these purveyors of crassness." That a published author of quality literature should feel this level of frustration along with an "inability to compete" when faced with the reality of the marketing push behind "literature" of sub-standard quality is inexcusable.

Defenders of "urban lit" oftentimes make the assumption that its detractors take issue with the material that often becomes the subject matter in these endeavors. In actuality, though the topic of these works often do revolve around potentially controversial subjects including drug use/sells, violence, and sex including prostitution, the issue is more so in the way this material is approached. Many of these books lack the essential elements of good writing such as plot, theme, character development, etc. Even more discouraging, is the fact that many of the publishers of this genre fail to be mindful of the advantages that good editing and copywriting provide. I personally consider this failure to be minimally professional in their approach to what they can deliver to the reading public an insult. "Sugar" by Bernice McFadden is a beautifully executed story of a family of women who for various reasons were prostitutes for generations. While the subject matter is no different from that found in many "urban lit" projects, the level of attention to the more mundane demands of literary creation were closely adhered to resulting in a simple, yet wonderful work of fiction. As consumers who have long complained about the level of disrespect we as a people have been shown in the marketplace, we have an obligation to share in the responsibility of derailing this train before it reaches its final destination: the elimination of quality black literature.

As a "wannabe" writer myself, the question I find myself wondering about, is how do we curtail this decline? Currently swimming forehead deep in the process of writing what I hope will be my first publishable work of fiction, I frequently find myself at a loss for mentorship and guidance. In my opinion, writing is like any craft, it requires intensive training which might be best approached by apprenticeship-like liasons that could assist those just starting out in learning the ropes; while ultimately strengthening the quality of the collective body of work being produced. Vicki Stringer alluded to this possibility while defending her company's position, saying that she did indeed reach out for mentoring, guidance, and assistance to no avail. I'm an optimist by nature, which makes me choose to believe that good writing will always be sought, recognized, and published when found. However, as I look at the state of HipHop and rap music (another truly African-American art form), and how far it has degenerated from the music of my adolescence that I loved so much, I think I would be naive not to have some concern over the future plight of black literature. Since I was a small child, black authors have transported me to places I might not otherwise ever have traveled. I fear that the black literature that has nourished, taught, and sustained my natural curiosity, might indeed be taking the same route as HipHop and rap music into a world that will be just as overwhelmingly negative and potentially destructive.

As a people, we typically galvanize in reaction to something that has already occurred, most often when it is already too late to reach our desired goal. In this instance, the handwriting though on the wall is not necessarily written in permanent marker; therefore let's each do what we can to erase what appears to be the roadmap that has been planned for the literary future of our culture. REBEL! Without regard to what subject matter you prefer to read, force book sellers and publishers to be minimally responsible for providing a product which meets at least the minimal literary standards of good story telling. Then make them respect us enough to utilized accepted literary standards of research, editing, and copywriting. Afterall, its your time and money they are receiving in return, and I think I speak for us all when I say mine is at least worth that much.