Saturday, July 31, 2004

Street Lit, Pulp Fiction and The Worst Novel Ever Written

The Post has an article about "street lit" - the bawlderized black pop "literature" that has become popular if not increasingly financially successful these days:New Books In the Hood

For good or for bad, street lit is eating up the African American book world at the moment. Walk into the Karibu bookstore in Prince George's Plaza and you'll see. It used to be there were just one or two small shelves of "street life" books. Now there's a whole section.

The titles of the paperbacks pretty much say it all: "No Way Out" by Zachary Tate, "The Last Kingpin" by Relentless Aaron, "Payback's a Bitch" by Marcus Spears, "Thugs and the Women Who Love Them" by Wahida Clark, "Bad Girlz" by Shannon Holmes and countless more. In the same way rap music muscled melodious soul tunes off the charts, street lit is altering the equation of African American publishing.

What is a street lit novel? The telltale signs usually include a shut-your-mouth title, straightforward sentences, vast amounts of drugs, sex and rap music and varying degrees of crime and punishment. An exemplary tale is a mixture of foul language, flying bullets, fast cars, a flood of drugs, fallen angels and high-priced frippery. It venerates grams over grammar, sin over syntax, excess over success.

Street lit, says Karibu co-owner Simba Sana, "is the hottest thing going right now."

The paperback fiction bestseller list at Karibu -- a local five-store chain featuring books by and about African Americans -- is dominated by street lit, aka urban lit, gangsta lit or hip-hop fiction. "Do or Die" by Washingtonian Darren Coleman is at the top, followed by Keisha Ervin's "Me and My Boyfriend," Thomas Long's "A Thug's Life" and "A Project Chick," the second novel by Nikki Turner. Karibu stores have sold nearly 3,000 copies of Turner's first novel, "A Hustler's Wife." [...]

First, the 'Iceberg'

The new street lit is not to be confused with the classic naturalistic style of Richard Wright or James Baldwin, some critics say. That would be a little like comparing P. Diddy to Duke Ellington. Street lit lacks the literary ambition -- and the power -- of great writing. Terry McMillan, Walter Mosley and Nichelle D. Tramble are literary fiction writers -- in the tradition of Wright and Baldwin -- who write about the streets. Their novels, however, are not street lit.

Street lit has always been more of a social than a literary movement. It can be traced to 1969 when Iceberg Slim, aka Robert Beck, published "Pimp," a memoir of his professional life. He was born in Chicago in 1918 and lived most of his life in the Midwest. Between the ages of 18 and 42, he worked as a procurer of prostitutes. He did some jail time.

While in solitary confinement in 1960, he decided to go straight. When he was released, he moved to California and wrote his memoir. He went on to write a lot of books, including "Trick Baby" and "Death Wish." The books were groundbreaking in their real-life, close-to-the-bone accounts of life, sex and death on the streets. And they were packed with urban patois, such as using "jasper" for lesbian and "macking" for pimping. Iceberg Slim died in 1992.

In the 1970s, Donald Goines picked up the thread. A former heroin addict and chronic convict, Goines produced in short order a slew of books including "Dopefiend: The Story of a Black Junkie" and "Whoreson: The Story of a Ghetto Pimp." The books came along with the rise of blaxploitation movies and hip-hop music. For a while, street lit fell by the wayside, but it returned in the late '90s, with a bullet, when Sister Souljah published "The Coldest Winter Ever."

Today's street lit has its champions. Many of the novels have a moral, says Mackey. "In most of them it's about people who have made wrong choices," she says. "The authors are making a conscious decision to say these people made bad choices and you don't have to. There is a moral fiber running through the whole book."

Plus, she says, "There is a blessing in all of this: African Americans are reading. They've picked up a book and they are reading."

Poet Sterling Plumpp, who taught at the University of Illinois for 30 years, says that contemporary hip-hop writing "is the most inventive thing happening to the language in a long time."

He believes it is more successful in fiction and poetry than in rap lyrics. "I'm not sure the music is there," he says.

Eventually, Plumpp says, great writers may emerge. "What you have is a very difficult situation for a lot of young African Americans," Plumpp says. "They did not inherit the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois or Frederick Douglass in terms of literacy."

But, Plumpp continues, these young folks have life experiences that they want to express. "They have almost developed an African American language that is as estranged from the educated African American world as it is from the white world."

Street lit, he says, "should be promoted."
I think Bill Cosby would disagree with the above statement but it does have a utilitarian grain to it.
  1. If more people (and especially black people) are reading, then surely that is a good thing - there has been a bit of a todo of late about the declining numbers of people reading
  2. Popular culture does not need to address the academy; it has a life of its own. Tarantino for example has mined the shlock of b-movies to wonderful effect and we are all the better for it. Similarly some of the great writers of the past century made a living working in the pulp fiction genre.
  3. It not so much that street lit is at best a guilty pleasure. I have found more literary verve in Bill Marshall's slender novel Bukom about the slum of that name ["We are going to make folks in Bukom realise that I Ataa Kojo, and my children are forward looking. We are going to make folks envy us. We are going to build a whiteman's toilet in this house and the neighbours are going to come here and beg us to use it"] than in say Ayi Kwei Armah's entire oeuvre of weighty historical tomes on slavery like say The Healers. Similarly, and not to be so obscurantist, I'll take John Grisham's The Client or even Terri McMillan's Waiting To Exhale over Thomas Pynchon's V any day - literary pretensions be damned.
In the same vein, the most annoying (nay, the absolute worst book I've ever read) was The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. I mention this as a public service announcement - avoid at all costs.

This must be the novel parodied by Martin Amis in The Information: the novel circulated to critics which induces severe headaches, nausea and worse to anyone who begins it, what with its circle of 8 unreliable narrators.

After 150 pages, I literally wanted to punch the author. After finishing the book - I unfortunately feel obligated to finish every book I start - exquisite torture was the only appropriate punishment.

The sad thing is that I've loved every other book by him. It goes to show that technically-adept writing without purpose can be a lethal thing. Let's have more "street lit", especially with soul!

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have fell in love with street lit myself,and one of the best books that I hav read is call Characters Colors -N- Cash, a novek by some cat going by the name Thinkpen Write, this is a must read for those woh love a nice read. I am really looking forward to reading his next book. I bought it off the street, and found out that It can be purchase at Trafford Publishing. A must read!