Street Lit: Is That All Black Authors Can Write?

I was on my way to Wendy’s to pick up my brother, when I took a detour to Walmart to do a little shopping. Since I had about an hour to spare, browsing the shelves in Walmart sounded like a better option than wasting gas sitting in the Wendy’s parking lot waiting for my brother, or worse, going inside to buy something not on my diet.

While in Walmart, I ventured to the tiny book section next to the electronics department. I hadn’t read a really good book in quite some time, so I decided to browse around, see if I could find something that would spark my interest. As I trekked down the aisle, picking up various books, looking at the covers, reading the synopsis on the back, flipping through the pages, and returning them to the shelf, I found myself standing in front of the tiny African American authors section, and immediately, I lost my appetite.

Covering the shelves dedicated to authors who look like me was hood story after hood story. Around the Way Girls, Gangsta Twist, The Streets Keep Calling, the list goes on. My response: WHY? Why does it seem like this is the only type story my contemporary black authors can write? Stories that center around drugs, sex, money, gangs, murder, and everything in between. The urban fiction. The street lit. The explicit stories. Maybe we should rename the African American authors section. Let’s call it the urban/hood writers section. Maybe we should move every book written by a black author in with the erotic novels like some bookstores have done. While I was in a used bookstore in Charlotte, I found the African American authors section adjacent to the Erotica section, and, other than the color of the cover models’ skin, I literally could not tell a difference.

So what does that mean for me as a writer? A fellow writer once told me that I would have no problem in finding publication because I’m black, and there’s apparently a huge market for African American authors. Well, if this is what I have to write in order to be published as a “black” author, then I’ll pass. I’m not saying that these books are bad. Who knows? Maybe Bottom Bitch is a great book, full of plot twists, good character development, and so on. I myself have written a story set in the projects, but it wasn’t a “projects story;” it could have easily been set in the suburbs if I wanted. Plus, the main characters were children—not much drugs, sex, and murder you can do with that.

I’m just so sick of seeing stereotypes dancing on my TV screen; I don’t want to read them too. I feel like the novels written by African American writers today, are interchangeable with the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. It’s offensive that these novels are all I see in the African American section of bookstores across America. This can’t be all we’re writing, could it? What happened to variety? What happened to the Toni Morrisons, the Terry McMillans, the Ralp Ellisons, the Richard Wrights and so forth? Maybe they still exist; they just don’t want to be associated with the . . . can I say trash? . . . in the African American sections.

I remember in an Intro to African American Literature class, one of the first things we discussed was whether or not African American literature still existed, if it isn’t all just American literature now. I think it does exist. White people can’t accurately write about the black experience, even with extensive research. Only a black person can convincingly explain why black people are angry about what has been going on in Ferguson, Missouri.  Only a black person can give you the low down on how things got so bad in Chicago, and if you think it’s simply because of gang violence, you are completely missing the bigger picture.

I wish black authors could get back to writing novels that told more than just a story. If you think the trap, or the sidechick, or the local weed man, or the neighborhood Bloods, need a voice in literature, fine, but give us more than just the average, explicit street lit. I want some depth!

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8 thoughts on “Street Lit: Is That All Black Authors Can Write?

  1. When I think of quality writing by African-Americans, I think of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, James Baldwin, Frank Yerby and several others. Before I started my career as a composer and conductor, my dream was to write novels capturing many avenues of America: a couple of World War 2 novels, a courtroom drama and, yes, even a Blaxploitation book that paid homage to Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” with a 1940s Harlem angst. And in recent years I have toyed with the idea of going back to writing fiction, but it won’t be about the subjects Nortina S. extolled here.

    Today’s youth is interested in the gangsters, the bad boys who try to one-up the establishment by their rules and no one else’s. This is more akin to the gangster movies of the 1930s made by Warner Brothers, not to mention the social climate of that era when Prohibition was on its death knell, the gangs were basically destroying themselves by destroying one another, and a new type of folk hero was born in the form of Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde and Ma Barker. While there were very few Black American men or women following their lead then, we have the equivalent in today’s society, yet instead of robbing banks or the rich, the novels and the real-life subjects that serve as their inspiration are fueled by fast drugs, loose sex and rap music, which in many ways is not only a real-life soundtrack, but also serves as the modern Greek chorus complete with troubadours, jesters, ladies in distress and femme fatales.

    Were such an author to take these formulas and bring them to a literary level along the lines of Chester Hines or Walter Mosley, or even within the confines of neo-modern American styles akin to Steinbeck, Faulkner and the like, such subjects can be transformed into universal characters and situations that just happen to be about “da hood” and not display inane provinciality.

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  2. I would like to add that I do not regularly shop for books in Walmart. I was simply there because it was close & I needed to pass the time. Plus I wanted to see if they had any good cheap books. Obviously black authors don’t only write street lit. I studied African American Lit in college as well as Native American, Latin American, British, Russian, etc. So my scope as far as literature is not limited in any way. But I’m glad my post was able to spark some great discussion.

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  3. Okay so where is the market for Urban Adventure, Urban Sci Fi, or Urban Mystery??? We (readers) buy from retailers like WalMart because they are AFFORDABLE!!! I won’t discredit Urban Lit authors because there’s a market for it and we are witnessing a time where they are actually making money and topping the NY Times bestsellers list. If you do your research most people read to escape their everyday lives. I could watch the news or blockbuster Superhero movies for those stories. I read Urban Lit for the escapism but that’s not all that’s being read. I also support Romance, Mystery and Political writers of all races. My point is there is more to read out there, Do your research and Broaden Your Horizon!

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  4. Hello, Nortina,

    I understand your frustration at not seeing other books written by African American authors in the AA section. However I have reason to believe that you don’t understand how the publishing industry works. I copied and pasted my thoughts below, as I already wrote this on my on blog.

    The author has the impression that the so-called THUG/HOOD/STREET LIT is the only kind of books that contemporary African-American authors are writing. The truth is that the reason why she seing these books on book shelves in the African American section is because the companies that publish those books pay stores to place them in those sections.

    While I was on my way to publishing my first novel, I had a chance to converse with Jerry Simmons, the former VP of Time-Warner Books. He explained to me that a publisher’s client is a bookstore, and not the consumer. When you walk into a Barnes and Noble or any other bookstore and you see a book pyramid, or your favorite book in a particular spot, it’s because the publisher paid the bookstore for those areas.

    One must think of shelf and floor space like real-estate. The more visible the location, the more expensive it’ll cost the publisher. The author of this article falsely accused African-American authors of only writing this kind of literature. A reason why she may not have seen other kind of books written by AA authors in the AA section was because their publishers may not expect to make any profits in those neighborhoods. By the same token, it just further demonstrates how publishers have a lot of control over what consumers can access.

    Rather than accuse Black authors of not writing the books that she wants to read, she could have easily gone online and researched the ones she wanted. She then had the option of either ordering it online, or going to a real bookstore and placing a special order.

    If she were shopping for books up here in Montreal, most of these Street Lit titles she wrote about wouldn’t necessarily be the only books found in the AA section. Almost six years ago when I discovered Eric, I searched for his books in the front among the Bestsellers. I was told that I could find his books in the AA section–in the BACK of the store. Riddle me this. Why is it that a Black NYT bestselling author is placed in a less visible location at the BACK of the bookstore rather than at the front among other White NYT bestselling authors? And this was 2008 Montreal, Quebec, not 1950 Selma, Alabama–if you catch my drift. And here’s the best part, an acquaintance of mine attended Eric’s book signing when he came to town. According to her, the audience was predominantly White. You’ll never see Alex Cross in the AA section, even though the series has a strong AA platform.

    I didn’t feel comfortable with that book placement so I didn’t give the store my money–but keep in mind that I didn’t know how the publishing industry worked until later. I went to my public library where there are only two sections–A Children’s and an Adult section–with a subdivisions for French and English books. I found all of Eric’s books under D in the adult section, where they are up to this day, just a few rows away from mine.

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  5. This is so crazy! Of course we write other stuff. The tea question is what does Walmart really think of its customers when it only purchases books that fit in this small category? Do they think that their customers are not intelligent enough to want more? Think about that, then find the BOOKstores that purchase and carry work that show the real talent of the diaspora….Shop for your reading material at a retailer that does not insult your intelligence. (No disrespect to authors who write streetlit).

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  6. You’ve made some valid points. However, introspection is not one of our strong suits. As a writer, I abhor the fact that my work is bunched up with other writers who don’t have my state of mind, experience, education, life experience and the ability to write a cohesive sentence. I’m tired of every “hood” writer coming out with books with “Bitches and Hoes” in the title. I’m tired of finding 10,000 uses of the N word in every book. I’m tired of every black female character being called a “bitch or a hoe.” When dignity has been taken out of an art-form because respect for the craft is lost, that art-form might as well be dead. The redundancy in the stories and the never-ending boasting of name brands throughout urban books can be nauseating, but who cares, right? As long as the hood readers continue to support it, that’s all that matters. Love and Hip didn’t become a franchise because it’s stimulating television. Well, the same thing is happening with books. As a writer, my goal is to create my own lane and write stories that will affect the reader, whether positive or negative, but the hope is to propel change in behavior and open the readers’ eyes to something different and new. However, as a businessman and a publisher, I had to make a choice whether my company could thrive on just the positive books that I write. I try my best to maintain a balance, but I’m only one of a few. check me out at http://www.rjpublications.com

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  7. Reblogged this on areal and commented:
    My God this is a very intelligent woman! Seems like she took a page from my mind! I remember when I first started being interested in books and I hate to say it…..but a street novel peeked my lil interest im grateful that SHEISTY jumped started me into me wanting to read maybe it was how I was living at the time that made me identify with the book. As I grew I got tired of the dope boy story’s the cheating slutty girlfriend or the lost gang member that got a hurt and want to fall in love those story didn’t move me no more I wanted something more realistic do anybody feel me or Nah???

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  8. Been hearing more and more on Facebook and elsewhere, including black book clubs, about how “hood lit” and “urban fiction” are blending into a “same ol’ same ol'” descriptive. I’ve been writing for 40 years, novels for the past 20. I’m a black man. And I am an AUTHOR. My readers are perhaps 50 percent white, 50 percent black. I write FINE LITERATURE IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. Certainly I’ve done the urban drug exploratories. Yet I write about universal subjects, spirituality even in an action/adventure venue. I don’t neglect so-called urban fiction. I just don’t consider my work among this genre.

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