Friday, October 24, 2008

Zora Says: The Literature of Urban Affairs

Not only have we had to suffer the indignity of having great African-American literary works shelved alongside bad Iceberg Slim knockoffs, we now have to endure a New York Times discussion of those knockoffs as a window onto the "urban" experience. So now "ghetto lit" / "urban fiction" reflects my life as an Oakland transplant in New York City? Of course, not. It's supposed to reflect my life as a Negress in modern America --> urban=Negro.

One expert on "urban affairs" offers in the article, "... the genre tells the stories of African-Americans who survived the 1980s drug wars. This is about documenting history, or, I should say, collective memory." Can I ask whose collective memory? A more accurate comment might have said that this genre of fiction is about documenting a collective imagination. In that collective, I would include all of America -- black and non-black.

A parallel can be found in gangster rap with its exaggerated violence and masculinity. The more it was sold to American audiences as an authentic representation of the Negro experience, the more we saw young, black suburbanites posturing as thugs at the local malls with their white friends in tow. We also witnessed white, frat boys hosting "ghetto" theme parties where they would talk, dress and act as they imagine black people do. The members of NWA, and currently Rick Ross, are masters of performing and reinforcing this collective imagination of authentic Negritude. (The reality is that they all come from lower-middle to middle class backgrounds.) Travel around the world and you will see idiots of all nationalities performing as Negroes, as hawd rappuhs. At one point, it seemed that all you had to do was have a jerry curl and hold a forty-ounce in your hand in order to get a record deal. Remember looking around wondering what happened to groups like Tribe Called Quest and Poor Righteous Teachers?

In the same way that gangster rap played into the collective imagination of black men as aggressive, thoughtless criminals, ghetto lit is playing into the collective imagination of black women as hard, gold-digging whores: "And then there’s Angel, a Versace-clad seductress who shoots her boyfriend in the head during sex, stuffs money from his safe into her Vuitton bags and, as she fondles the cash, experiences a sexual frisson narrated in terms too graphic to reproduce here." Says Shonda Miller, 35, "I read what I can relate to. They’re writing about what I’ve experienced. It’s easier than reading about Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive.” Really? If this is what she relates to, am I wrong in thinking that Ms. Miller should be in jail, or at least in counseling?

I am fearful of what ghetto lit will do to the already negative images of Negro women in America. Yes, there was Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines before, but they were never legitimized in the same way. They simply weren't placed in the same category as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. Publishers were not falling all over themselves to produce them and they certainly weren't getting regular press in mainstream newspapers. The images of Negro women as oversexed and threatening are being articulated as never before. And sadly, I have to add, by ourselves. While we may be writing this smut ourselves, we certainly are not the only ones consuming it. I have found ghetto lit dominating the African American literature section in bookstores across Vermont, Idaho and Maine. New Englanders, Christians, Main Streeters, Gun Enthusiasts and Real Americans are reading these books, gaining perspective on "urban affairs." Shiver, shiver.

The New York Times praises the genre for bringing in new readers: “We’ve got people who are reading for the first time. We’ve got people coming into our building asking for Teri Woods who have never come here before,” said Lora-Lynn Rice, the director of collections at the Martin Library in York County. “Why would we not embrace this?” Why? Because not only is it negative, most of it is terribly written. Have these librarians read these books for themselves?

One reader responded to the article by saying, "People often miss the point when discussing these "urban fiction". They are poorly written, loaded with grammatical errors and typos, since most of them are self published. They are found mostly in areas where there is a vast population of African Americans. Young African American readers are being exposed to these materials that are filled with errors. So when they're test scores in reading, for instance, are lower than other students; how rewarding that they were exposed to poorly written materials such as these overrated urban fiction materials. Furthermore, I don't want my stinkin' tax dollars paying for a book called "Gold Digga" or "Wifey". Yuck!" Well-said.


Spinster said...

Glad it isn't just me who feels this way about "urban" literature.

macon d said...

“'We’ve got people coming into our building asking for Teri Woods who have never come here before,' said Lora-Lynn Rice, the director of collections at the Martin Library in York County. 'Why would we not embrace this?'”

As my mom used to say: "Oof!"

Have you read Percival Everett's novel Erasure? Fantastic satire on ghetto/street/urbana lit, and on "African American Litruhcha," and especially on the mostly invisible white frames around them.

Zora said...

I think a lot of people feel this way but are afraid to express their thoughts for fear of being labeled "elitists." For me, the issue is not about policing what people read; rather, it is about not making appropriate distinctions and lowering standards for black readers/consumers based on "at least they are reading." How much more patronizing can you get?

Macon D, it is interesting that you raise Everett's novel; for, Chauncey has proposed that our blog begin a weekly serial spoofing ghetto lit. I am a little nervous about how we will handle the graphic sections, but I think it will be fun.

Stay tuned!

Anonymous said...

I think these books, "gospel stage plays" and the collected works of Tyler Perry, get a pass because the mostly white critics don't give them the brutal savaging they deserve for fear of being labeled "racist" and there are no black themed critical outlets of note to do that job (save for the bloggers).

Black folk themselves gotta take the hit as well because they accept crap like that because they feel that entertainment geared towards black people come few and far between, yet they avoid good films like "Talk To Me" like the plague and swarm garbage heaps like "The Family That Preys".

P.S.: Zane sucks. There, I said it. Her books are porn for people who have never watched porn and get all their erotic ideas from "The Young And The Restless" re-runs. There is more eroticism between Celie and Miss Sugah in "The Color Purple" book.

Anonymous said...

I still remember the fateful day that I picked up my very first novel; Richard Wright's "Outsider". This book sparked a love for reading that, while having suffered highs and lows over the years, is still impeccably strong. Why was it, though, that all of my brown lady friends suggested I read Sistah Souja's "Coldest Winter Ever"? Why did I feel different having been so drawn to the musings of authors like Wright?

Don't get me wrong, the tales of Winter and Midnight were intriguing indeed, but I could make the distinction between her and I, and thats where the magic happens...pure discernment. Not every brown man or woman is vulnerable to be persuaded by such literature, but they still get a kick out of reading it.

I am by no means an advocate for what you coin as "Ghetto lit" but (Like Zora said) you can't exactly police the literature that people choose to stick their noses in. We've just got trust that negroes (respectable or not lol) will make judgments that will reflect their best interests when it comes to the books they read, the deodorant they wear, AND the names they choose! (pertaining to Gordon's post on Linked fate)

IdoIdoTiff said...

I am so glad I stumbled across this blog. You know have a new daily reader! And this is one of my favorite gripes to no one in particular because everyone's too busy reading the latest book by Zane.

Who cares about being called "elitist"? Perhaps "educated" is really the correct term. I'm so sick and tired of seeing all these tacky, grammatically incorrect and overly-sexualized "Black Novels" being plastered all over book clubs and Essence bestseller lists. We can thank Ms.Steffans for selling millions for this influx of quality Black literature.

Have most Black people that read these books even read the novels by classic Black authors like Ellison or Haley? Have they even heard of Zora Neale Hurston? Probably not, but why? The reason which is always the answer in this country-$$$. Idiocy sells.

Which is what mainstream entertainment in our modern American culture is based on-"reality" is merely a cover for valuing ignorance above intelligence. How can most Black people stand to watch hardly anything on BET nowadays? Judging from ratings, millions do.

Hopefully, we have hit our bottom as a culture and the tide is turning. I can now turn on the TV or pick up a magazine and smile when I see Barack staring back at me.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to find someone expressing a similar opinion on "Ghetto Lit". I purchased a book called Missing Births in hopes of an interesting suspense novel. I was highly disappointed and annoyed by the spelling and grammatical errors in this piece of urban lit. I wanted to corrected it and send it back to the publisher.
It's like great Black female authors like Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Zora Neale Hurston, and Tananarive Due are been pushed to the side.

MilesEllison said...

People gravitate toward entertainment that confirms stereotypes. That explains the popularity of a lot of these books. Just because black people are creating it doesn't lessen the offensive minstrel aspect.

Unknown said...

thanks for this piece.. this is something that has ragged me for ages.. why have a 'black literature' section in a bookstore and weed out the black authors.. alice walker is in the 'mainstream' read easily accessible 'white' fiction section of my local bookstore here in london and i keep moving the copies to the 'black literature' section.. andrea levy and zadie smith have never been on the shelf either.. their books came out and were claimed by 'white literature' they get moved too... yes i do know i am a little sad for this but principle is over in the black literature section all the books are 'ghetto lit' - great term by the way.. and iyanla self help books.. no offence iyanla..
this bookstore has replaced all of our classic writers with books by zane and books of that ilk... i am dumbfounded that this is the choice i am given.. i read authors of every race and across lots of genres and while there is no section for chinese authors, indian authors or even australian authors i wonder why there is a black section at all if not all black authors are in there... my solution is to have no sections by race - sci fi is sci fi and crime is crime yes? if it is good it is in there - and have the best of all literature out there for all to discover and read..
hope this makes sense..had to take a phone call half way through writing!

Jesi Met said...

I hate the term "urban" lit. I'm black, not urban.

The issue with this is that African American writers and readers are forced to see the world through this tainted lense. More often than not, African American writers (or the more popular ones) tend to have this consistent style of writing and are too where they are writing the common 'black' story in order to grab the attention of African American readers. The problem with that is that society, or white America don't find reading stories written by their "brothas" or "sistahs" that interesting in fear that it's gonna be the same type of story, when it usually is. Or rather the more interesting yet less popular writers usually don't (but no one wants to read actual good writing from black writers)

African American writers need to broaden their horizons and not feed into the fears of not succeeding so they don't end eventually derailing the entire future of Black writing off into nothingness.

Good Black writers are being overlooked and the bad ones are making a name for themselves to get rich quick. It's fun selling out when you're selling out.

African American writers need to remember why the New Negro Renaissance was even started.
Oh and I don't want to read stores about "Wifey" either. lol

Anonymous said...

It's a twisted world if supahead can call herself an author.

50cent also had a few horrible gangbanger books published through his gorilla inc. company.

The worst I came across was Dante Moore and "the re-education of the female", which goes into terrible virgin/whore lady in the street / freak in the bed clichés, but is luminating in his use of police talk as proper English. Where there aren't a lot of role models (so "urban neighborhoods") to learn "proper" English they co opt cop speak as proper, using females instead of women, vehicle / car, law enforcement / police etc.

Anonymous said...

I'm white. I produce "Urban Fiction" for a major NYC publisher. We try to do our best to make the pubs integral, but many of the better copy editors and proofreaders won't touch these titles---they're considered offensive. They are. (A lot of my pubs combine violence with hardcore erotica; some are just erotica.) Of note, a number of bestselling Urban writers are actually white (i.e., Velvet). Some of the actual black writers are begnign souls who rewrite their bios to gain "street cred." (Prison, anyone?) No matter what, if the book is integral or full of errors, they sell. To the publisher, that's all that counts.

Zora said...

Anonymous, thanks for being honest and not trying to defend that which is indefensible.

It is also interesting to hear that "a number of bestselling Urban writers are actually white (i.e., Velvet)." I didn't realize this before, but it doesn't surprise me at all.


Anonymous said...

You're welcome, Zora. It's been on my chest for a long time now. It weighs on many in and around the industry: What good books concerning black culture are being unpublished to serve the Urban Novel audience? If you need clarification on how the industry works--on all levels, for all genres---feel free to email me at

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing about this from this perspective. I'm an enthusiastic book lover, but I'm troubled by what "urban lit" is doing to the psyche and self image of Black people. We need to continue to speak out about this.

Anonymous said...

Madame (and all who read this):

Here in Philadelphia, the offensive books described in the original entry are standard wares for the two-bit hustlers. Were I to ask one of the people hawking the "Wifey" series (and other Triple Crown trainwrecks) if he carried Octavia E. Butler's "Mind of My Mind", I would've been taken as slapping him with the gauntlet (metal glove) I felt he had thrown at my feet.

I am unsure whether, as a lonely, culturally outmoded computer jock, there is any merit to my waging war on the marketing of stereotypes, and if so, how to proceed.