The Method, Madness, and Marketing of Street Lit [Response Essay]

by Latoya Peterson

The best article I have read to date on street lit was published last month in Elle Magazine.

Author Bliss Broyard – who explored her family’s complicated racial past in her book One Drop – presents the story of Miasha, a force in her own right and the subject of envy by other street lit authors.

Miasha, a 28-year old novelist, is walking through the Los Angeles Convention Center, home to the 2008 BookExpo America, an annual publishing conference. Sporting large diamond hoop earrings, sequined Manolos, and a short, lime green dress with a keyhole neckline that reveals impressive cleavage for her tiny frame, Miasha, an African-American novelist who is one of the biggest names in urban fiction, looks as if she wandered by mistake into the crowd of predominantly middle aged white women clad in comfortable flats and faded lipstick. [...]

Although Miasha has sold a respectable 200,000 books, she flies herself to the BookExpo and all the other literary and African-American festivals she attends. She prints (and pays for) T-shirts and tote bags she gives away. She maintains her website, produces a webcast featuring scenes from her life, and has begun staging “street plays” of her novels – all on her own dime. She foots the bill for lavish red-carpet release parties – complete with naked-models-in-body-paint re-creations of her book jackets – which sparked a trend among her urban fiction compatriots. “People in the game always commend me for that,” she says.

Boyard’s article fascinated me for a number of reasons. In addition the Miasha’s story, which is engaging in its own right, Broyard also adds her own history to the mix, draws a comparison to the work of Miasha and Kara Walker and sheds a light on the struggles of black authors working within the publishing industry.

Street Lit, Itself

Called hip-hop lit, street lit, and ghetto fiction, as well as the more decorous urban fiction, sex-drenched tales of crime, drugs, and glamour like Miasha’s crowd the shelves of bookstores and the tables of street vendors. Written in expletive-laced, colloquial style, the opening sentences of Miasha’s first novel, which launched her career in 2004 with a bidding war between three New York publishers, are fairly typical: “You know what, bitch? You fucked with the wrong one!I’m gonna kill you right in front of ya little boyfriend and then I’m gonna kill him!…Pop! Pop!” What follows is a suspenseful saga of two transvestites who use men to keep themselves in Marc Jacobs handbags, Dior minidresses, and Range Rovers.

Miasha is one of the many authors riding the boom of street lit, a topic we’ve tackled once before, in reference to young adult literature. In my last post, I wondered why so many of the young girls I knew were bypassing the YA section of the book store or library and heading straight to the adult oriented titles. Since then, I’ve wondered what the draw is for street lit. Who composes the market, and why?

It isn’t too difficult to find street lit on the shelves – it tends to crowd out everything else, it’s racy titles and provocative covers serving as a beacon to the genre’s fans. And the beacon is working – street lit stacks big numbers. As Broyard writes:

Sessalee Hensley, a fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble who’s often called the most powerful woman in publishing, says that urban lit now dominates the African-American scene: “We have 25 or so new urban titles a month, versus about one of the literary titles.” With titles like Bitch Reloaded and Sistah for Sale (one of Miasha’s) and covers of scantily clad women and flashy cars, these books stand out in stores even beyond their disproportionate numbers – to the dismay of some customers, Hensley admits, citing the heartfelt letters the chain has received pleading, “Why are you putting these books out?”

The answer is simple: Urban fiction sells. While Barnes & Noble tries to assuage offended patrons by erecting as many marquee end-of-aisle displays for mainstream and literary African-American titles as their urban counterparts, the book giant isn’t about to refuse to sell them. According to Hensley, in roughly 125 of the more than 700 Barnes & Nobles around the country, urban fiction not only outsells classics by black authors such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, but also popular genre fiction like The Da Vinci Code. As for the owners of independent black bookstores, many say that, like it or not, they stock urban fiction to keep the lights on.

It sells, it sells, it sells. How often do we hear this as a rationale for creating and producing stereotypical fare, especially what is racist and sexist. But the question still remains: why does this sell, and why does it outsell so many other genres?

Perhaps part of the answer lies with the authors of urban literature. Blessed with a hustler’s mentality, many of the authors become personalities along with their books, selling themselves along with their work. Broyard presents one of Miasha’s publicity moves, where the savvy writer made a deal with a snow cone vendor, then offered a free cone to anyone who showed her book. Author Relentless Aaron because the subject of his own lore, hustling books on 125th Street in Harlem both before and after his six figure book deal with St. Martin’s Press, and eventually receiving a write up of his life and work in the New York Times.

To their readers, the authors also feel familiar to their readers, many promoting their background and life story as a form of credibility while simultaneously presenting themselves as ambitious entrepreneurs out for their version of the American Dream. Broyard explains that in Miasha’s world, the art of the hustle is golden.

[T]he 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.

More important than stage persona, street lit authors like Miasha also make their work accessible to potential readers. Relentless Aaron peddles his wares on buses headed to prisons and open air markets. Miasha goes to beauty shops and hosts stage plays all in the hopes of drawing more readers. When I had originally started looking into the street lit boom, I wondered who was actually purchasing these books. A few months passed before I realized that there were many women around me with their own street lit book clubs – I just did not know about them as the genre did not appeal to me. At one office where I worked, four women had a healthy book trade going on, informing each other about new titles and exchanging books with friends.

Recently, I was on a family vacation and noticed some street lit underneath the passenger seat. Knowing my father was reading a David Baldacci thriller and my younger sister was busy sneaking my copy of Certain Girls out of my bag, I figured it had to belong to my dad’s girlfriend, Candy.

I showed Candy Broyard’s article and started asking her about the books she read. She informed me that many purveyors of street lit stopped by the salons or open-air markets that she visited, which made the books easily accessible. She also pointed out how much money I spent on books during the trip (I had run out of reading material and spent $50 at the bookstore on a hardback and a few paperbacks) and told me that I could have gotten more books for that price if I had purchased the cheaper paperbacks. She finished by explaining that many books were difficult for her to get into, but urban lit had an easy to follow plot and was juicy enough to share with your friends or coworkers.

Based on the very limited research I conducted, I would posit that street lit is popular because it tapped into an overlooked market – a person that would not necessarily describe themselves as “a reader” but still likes to be entertained.


The Perils of Publishing While Black

However, the gap between the sales of traditional literature and street lit is not solely due to market forces. There is a healthy bias in publishing that holds some very strange idea about what type of people read books:

“For years, publishers said that black people didn’t read,” says Calvin Reid, who oversees African-American coverage for Publishers Weekly. That changed in 1992, when three black women – Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Terry McMillan – landed on the Times best-seller list. Publishing houses scrambled to sign up African-American authors, and some added specialty imprints for black audiences. But it wasn’t until 1999, when The Coldest Winter Ever, the story of a drug kingpin’s daughter written by Sister Souljah, racked up big numbers that people fully realized the commerical potential in tales from the street relayed in raw, unmediated language. (Ex-cons Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines garnered attention in the 1970s with “true life” novels, but the movement didn’t spread much beyond them.) At the same time, amateur black authors began putting out books themselves – often after being rejected by conventional publishers – and managed to sell far more copies that so-called legit writers.

A white editor for a New York publisher recalls meeting 10 years ago in which a black editorial assistant enthused about a manuscript by ” ‘this new African-American erotica writer, Zane’… Eleven befuddled white faces stared back at her,” the editor says. When Zane couldn’t find a publisher, she released her first three novels on her own, selling more than 200,000 copies through a viral marketing campaign. (Eventually Simon & Schuster snapped her up and even gave her an imprint to oversee.) According to 2008 figures from BookScan, the book division of Nielsen ratings, Zane has since sold 2-million-plus copies of her own works, not including sales online, in beauty salons, by street vendors, and at smaller black bookstores.

Readers like to read. This isn’t a secret. But book promotion remains a murky thing. As many books as I read each year, I only follow the careers of a handful of authors. And even still, I’m not always sure when my favorite authors release a book that I may want to read. I’ve casually followed Farai Chideya’s career since she dropped Don’t Believe the Hype, but didn’t find out about Kiss the Sky – her fiction effort featuring a black rocker – until I caught a reference to it on Twitter. Erica Simone Turnipseed blew me away with A Love Noire, but her moody 9-11 based follow up Hunger was a mystery to me until 2008, two years after its release. Benilde Little writes wonderful characters, but I rarely see more than one copy of any of her works lining the shelves. Now this isn’t a problem that is solely the issue with writers of color – one of my favorite genre authors released the next installment in her Hollows series and somehow, I missed that too.

Missing my favorite books has made me realize how reliant readers are on information being provided to them. Normally, I stroll through a bookstore at least once a week, looking for my favorite authors on the shelf displays and hit the new books section at the library about once a month. Still, I miss things, particularly if one of my favorite authors is not necessarily popular. How do readers find new books? How much do we rely on reviews? On email blasts and blogs? On national bookclubs like Essence’s and Oprah’s? And how much of a book’s success is based on word of mouth? Marketing a book is tough for any publisher, but Broyard’s piece also touches on the unique concerns to black authors naviagting within a system geared toward white audiences:

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 black authors 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 reaffirmed, while others read to discover what they don’t know. How does a marketing plan take all this into consideration?

How does a marketing plan cover all the nuances of a reader? And could a plan such of this ever realistically capture the reality of who is reading a book? If the publishing industry created a model consumer for all of the genres I like to read, I highly doubt I would be in any of their compilations. Like so many of the other industries I love, according to those who are making the decisions and those who are conducting “market research”* I do not exist. I’m too old to read manga (as the target demo is somewhere between the ages of 12 and 17), too girly to play video games, and too black to read fantasy. The end result is frustration. It’s hard enough to find books I like, let alone ones I need to hunt down.

Which leads me to another one Broyard’s observations in the piece. In addition to just finding books to read, how much does the quality of a book count?

But while it may take Miasha a few months to write a book, many literary authors labor over a novel for years. The temperament required to create serious, ambitious work – introverted, contemplative, and high-minded – can be hard to reconcile with the chutzpah required to hawk your wares on the corner. When I remark to Barnes & Nobles’ Hensley that no on expects Jonathan Franzen or Jhumpa Lahiri to take to the streets, she laughs ruefully. “It’s very true and very telling – and awful.” I can’t imagine anyone asking a white writer to do the same thing.

This is a major point. Street lit turns over books far faster than the industry average – Relentless Aaron even hosted a one day book writing challenge where he attempted to write a book from start to finish working from afternoon to midnight. Contrast that feat to National Novel Writing Month, which allots writers 30 days to pen a 175 page novel. The organizers of NaNoWriMo are clear with their aims:

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

However, favoring output over quality has become a hallmark of the urban literature genre. After reading about two dozen books from multiple authors, one of the things that stands out in my mind is the lack of editing. (Imagine that – a blogger complaining about the lack of editing. But this blogger does not have a book deal…)

Sometimes, this is because the book is self-published. Other times, a book will have spelling or grammatical errors (in the text, not while characters are speaking) even if it was published through a major house. One would get the impression that street lit authors and publishers don’t care about quality writing. And for many in the black literati, this is not acceptable. Broyard notes:

Some of the more fervent criticism of the genre comes from black literary writers (few of whom, it should be noted, ever receive the financial reward or media coverage Miasha has). In a New York Times editorial called “Their Eyes Were Reading Smut,” lit author Nick Chiles recalls encountering row after row of urban fiction at a Borders: “I felt as if I was walking into a pornography shop, except in this case the smut is being produced by and for my people and it is called ‘literature’.” Later, in a letter leaked on the Internet, best selling author Terry McMillan excoriated publishers of urban fiction for their “exploitative, destructive, racist, egregious, sexist, base, tacky, poorly written, unedited, degrading books.”

Broyard turns her eye to Miasha’s books and comes to a similar conclusion:

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 normally 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.”

My own opinion is that, once again, street lit is written for entertainment, nothing else. But I think the discussions of keeping it real are a bit misplaced. While older genre standards like Omar Tyree’s Flyy Girl are notable for their unflinching view of their characters lives, a lot more of the recent offering seem to present an over-the-top version of reality. Broyard provides insight into this as well:

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 it as our truth.”

Is street lit conveying the truth? Perhaps. But it is also a very limited view of what it means to be black.

Christopher Jackson, an executive editor for the Random House imprint Spiegel & Grau, had the kind of childhood that might provide fodder for urban lit – his father died when he was five and he was raised by his mother, then grandmother in a Harlem project but what he remembers about visiting the African American section of bookstores was finding one phenomenal book after another – James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright. “I’d think to myself, Man, the black writers are putting it down!” The he adds, a little wistfully: “I suppose if I was a kid today, I would come out with a handful of urban books.”

One of the larger themes emerging around the street lit debates relate to how street lit is changing the landscape of black literature – both visually (translating to shelf space and dominance) and in terms of influences. What is happening to the readers of street lit? And what is happening to black writers?

Broyard inserts herself into the narrative, discussing the issues of representation, which sparked quite a few conflicting emotions for this reader.

I didn’t appreciate the dilemma until the publication of my memoir One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life – A Story of Race and Family Secrets. The book recounts how, after growing up white and privileged, I learned from my father on his deathbed that he was black (according to our country’s custom of defining a person with just one black ancestor – one drop – as black. One Drop found readers from many backgrounds, fortunately, so when I learned that the paperback’s release was being delayed to coincide with Black History Month, I told my publisher I was worried: Booksellers might regulate it to “black sections” where whites would likely overlook it. And honestly, I was embarrassed by the idea of One Drop rubbing bindings with titles like Freak in the Sheets. (The date was changed).

Hmm.

While I read this article, which was extremely well-done, I kept having one nagging thought at the back of my mind. Would Miasha’s story have made Elle magazine if a black author had pushed the story? Or was it due to Broyard’s access that this story was being heard? Her comments here are truthful – and I applaud that.

But as a black writer, it makes me a bit uneasy. I was glad she brought up the issue of whites overlooking the black section at bookstores – this is something many black authors have discussed, finding their work, regardless of subject matter, relegated to a section due to their race. And I am also pleased that she was so open about the embarrassment a traditional author would feel having their work next to street lit.

And yet.

The fact that she was able to alter the fate of her novel, to intervene and voice her objections and have her publisher take her seriously is an amazing thing.

I wonder if a black author, with the same kind of story, would be able to do the same.


Is it Art, Entertainment, or Something Else Entirely?

When I ask if the industry has a responsibility to prevent a proliferation of negative black stereotypes, [Reid, from Publishers Weekly] waves me off: “I don’t think you can build a business plan based on saving the most stupid people from themselves.”

Reid’s comments exemplify the attitude that many hold about any form of entertainment that is popular, yet promotes stereotypical behavior. But Broyard sees things a bit differently. One of the more interesting comparisons Broyard draws in her piece draws a line between Miasha’s work and the work of Kara Walker.

Across the street from the restaurant is the Hammer Museum, where a retrospective of African-American artist Kara Walker is showing. Walker’s highly sexualized silhouettes of antebellum-era pickaninnies, mammies, and masters have made her famous, while also provoking a firestorm of criticism among some of her art world elders. They accuse Walker of serving up despicable stereotypes for the viewing pleasure of white people, which echoes the scorn McMillan heaps on urban novels. “Old white men buy them to jerk off to in the bathroom,” she told me in an interview.

Detractors notwithstanding, the subtext of Walker’s work suggests that she is consciously using her incendiary messages to examine the still toxic influence of race on American culture. Miasha, however, isn’t trying to make a meta-point. Her message is literal. She wants to demonstrate the consequences of making bad choices, she says. “I know so many people who have this mentality of hustling me,” she says, shaking her head.

While Kara Walker and Miasha are working in different mediums and different industries, some of the questions surrounding their work is the same. The largest one looms in progressive spaces: Is their work causing more harm than good? Are they perpetuating rather than challenging stereotypes? And what is the ultimate responsibility of a black artist? Are they more loyal to their work or their politics? Broyard describes the visual impact of Walker’s work on Miasha (who, she notes, has never been to an art museum before their interview). She notes her wonder, and then closes her piece with the following paragraph:

Near the end of the show, as Miasha is wondering why Walker would make these images, we find ourselves before a video in which the artist is explaining herself. She talks about wanting “to freeze frame a moment that is full of pain and blood and guts and drama and glory.” The Walker says, as if speaking directly to Miasha “Its about, How do you make representations of your world, given what you’ve been given?

The larger question surrounding street lit is similar: How do we make representations of our world if our realities don’t fit the generally accepted narrative?

*In a former gig, I worked with a wide range of publishers of market research. What I found is that methods vary from house to house, and the people publishing the reports have very different ideas of what constitutes research. My favorite houses were the ones who dedicated a lot of time to polling and primary research – they normally had the most solid and informative reports. Other houses just kind of accepted any old write up as fact. I once read a report on the urban youth market that cited no polling, interviews, or focus groups, but referenced BET.com and AllHipHop.com forums as the only sources from where they gathered information. I laughed for days.