Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Nick Chiles on Street Lit + Man Fleeing Anti-Gay Crowd in Jamaica Dies

ZaneHere's a piece I'd missed until one of the students that I always run into and exchange greetings with at the circulation desk of the university's main library, Ish Harris, asked me, "Did you see the article on African-American literature in today's New York Times?" I told her I'd check it out, and did, and I'm glad I did. Got me thinking. On the Op-Ed page, Nick Chiles, an author I'm not at all familiar with, has penned a caustic piece entitled "Their Eyes Were Reading Smut." I won't restate the entire article, but to sum it up, he's digusted by the fact that his books--and other works of "serious" Black literature--are not only sitting on the bookshelves beside, but in some cases being crowded out by what he and others have called "ghetto lit" or "street lit." As he says:

On shelf after shelf, in bookcase after bookcase, all that I could see was lurid book jackets displaying all forms of brown flesh, usually half-naked and in some erotic pose, often accompanied by guns and other symbols of criminal life. 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."

As a black author, I had certainly become familiar with the sexualization and degradation of black fiction. Over the last several years, I had watched the shelves of black bookstores around the country and the tables of street vendors, particularly in New York City, become overrun with novels that seemed to appeal exclusively to our most prurient natures - as if these nasty books were pairing off back in the stockrooms like little paperback rabbits and churning out even more graphic offspring that make Ralph Ellison books cringe into a dusty corner.

Now it may just be me, but I think Chiles, in addition to engaging in a bit of racially-tingued sexual hysteria ("pairing little paperback rabbits" and "churning out even more graphic offspring"--has he ever seen Nayland Blake's work?), is conflating a number of related but differing points:
  • an anguished query into the current state of Black literature, an anguished query about the current state of black readership and the future of and future relations of both;
  • the current state of publishing in America;
  • the present and future aims of mainstream publishers of "Black" books;
  • the economic and social viability of certain types writing by Black people;
  • racial and social respectability;
  • the visual imagery on book covers vs. what's inside them;
  • publishers', distributors' and book stores' marketing strategies and the question of book stocks and what makes it on the shelf and what doesn't;
  • the false or problematic dichotomy between "serious" vs. street/popular Black literature;
  • a crisis of authenticity and concern about who's representing or gets to represent a Black "real";
  • and the anxiety of marketplace competition
just to name a few.

Legit BallerHe doesn't appear to be overtly critiquing the books on the basis of their aesthetic value, as aesthetic artifacts. Or rather, he assumes that these books in general are artless and aesthetically lacking. At least from what I can tell. (My most frequent criticism of some of these books, which I tend to pick up during the summer off booksellers' tables in Chelsea and Harlem, is that some are entertaining, but really poorly written and edited. Dreadfully written and edited.) Does he think that any of them might be well written? Do they give their readers pleasures beyond mere socially authentic mimetic recognition? Is there anything formally interesting about them? and so on.

What about their political and social values and functions? Are they reflective or indexical of the norms and values of their readers? What sorts of political and cultural capital do they represent? What sorts of effects are these books having and what are their roles in their readers' lives? How reflective and critical are they of the society we live in? How do we assess the value of their social production, as cultural artifacts? What is the value of their "authenticity"? What sorts of social concepts and values do they reproduce? Are they retrograde, ambivalent, liberatory, what? In fact, one of the chief elements of his critique involves, at least to my reading, an antiquated, bourgeois notion of social respectability, along with a certain amount of snobbery and sexual anxiety, that he extrapolates into what "literature" is and into "the future" of Black books.

As I read his piece, I asked myself, in 2006, what is Black literature, or African-American literature? (I have my ideas, but I'd like to hear Chiles's answer.) Who decides this and marks it out? What's at stake? Are there still hierarchies and what are they based on? Aesthetic quality? Accessibility? Popularity? Sales figures? Who buys into which criteria? After the canon battles of the 1980s and 1990s, haven't Black literary scholars--as well as Black readers and writers--taken a much broader view of what constitutes our "literature"? In addition, did Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim's novels, to give two examples, preclude the publication of work by Jamaica Kincaid, John Edgar Wideman, Paul Beatty, or Renee Gladman? Is there no conversation whatsoever between them? Is it true that readers of Zane (pictured up top, at left) will not pick up Terry McMillan's work, or Alice Walker's? What about Walter Mosley's? Octavia Butler's? And what about the implicit idea of a progression of material--you start with the books he's decrying and move up to something else?

(I also thought about Noah's Arc, and my and others' praise and criticisms of the series, and how some respondents, particularly on Rod 2.0's blog, didn't want to brook any critical commentary whatsoever. The immediate mimetically representational power of the series was the ending point in terms of quality, or any kind of critical reading and understanding, for these viewers; questions of the quality of the scripts and acting, the politics inherent in the depictions and plots, the ideology of the representations, simply did not matter. So long as a show with attractive Black gay/sgl (or gay-ish/sgl-ish) men was on TV (and I'm not daring to call them queer, though in a profound way, they were queer, or quare, more than anything else), that was what was most important. That trumped all else. I've seen similar responses on online threads about Brokeback Mountain.)

HurstonI'm also thinking about Chiles comment about Ralph Ellison's books "cringing in the corner" as the books are knocking...covers?; has he *read* Invisible Man, which includes several plot elements that would give some of the "street lit" novelists pause? What about The Bluest Eye, which among other things includes father-daughter rape and incest? Or Corregidora or The Color Purple? (Then there's The Mad Man!) What about Junot Díaz's stories, or Randall Kenan's? Of course the point of these texts is not sexual prurience, but then not all the books he's denouncing as "smut" are pornographic or aim to be pornographic either. In fact, some of the authors aspire to tell stories as "seriously" as Langston Hughes, Paule Marshall, or James Baldwin, whose own later works I once heard someone describe as "full of sex"--which was one reason I used to skim through Just Above My Head when I was in junior high, searching for the bi-sex, the gay sex, the straight sex (and there's interracial sex in the novel too).

He also notes that publishers have a responsibility to balance out the books they publish. But is this true? Has he read André Schiffrin's lament and jeremiad against mainstream publishing and its conglomeration over the last five decades, The Business of Books? Or Alexander Korda's memoir about his life as a publisher? Or any similar books? The responsibility publishers have is their bottom line. Social and artistic responsibility I agree should be part of the equation, but they've gone the way of the great auk. Publishers now view books like they view any other product or unit. A book has to sell, which is why the resurgence of smaller publishers, on-demand publishing, and self-publishing have provided a real, refreshing counterpoint in the last few years--and ironically have made possible this renaissance in Black publishing. Many of the books Chiles sniffs at were and are self-published. Even E. Lynn Harris, one of the top selling Black literary authors, started out with a self-published volume. I know; C. and I went to one of his first readings and book-signings for Invisible Life.

(I also wondered about a lot of the Black gay/sgl male literature out there right now. Where would it fall on his spectrum? I'm assuming he'd include the likes of Kenan, Delany, and perhaps Hardy and Harris in his "literature" roster, but what about the self-published authors? What about the books with covers featuring "half-naked" men, and storylines that are a step up from soap operas? What about the recapitulation of problematic racial, sexual, class, gender and color stereotypes in some of these books? What about the mere fact that many are self-published or published by very small, unknown presses? Is the sociopolitical and aesthetic ecology, and thus criteria for judgment, of Black gay/sgl publishing--or any niche publishing--necessarily different and distinct from what would constitute the mainstream?)

Chiles doesn't "want to compete with Legit Baller." Does he mean for readers, for bookshelf space, for attention, for love? For an advance? For literary prizes? Break it down, Nick Chiles. I would imagine that most bookstores are still going to carry well-known and even lesser known Black authors whose work is of high aesthetic quality as well as the ones who are now making onto the shelves. Most of the street lit folks and their work will disappear, but a very few will be remembered long into the future, just as their predecessors have been--or if they disappear, someone may come along and draw them back into the light. It might even be a reader from a distant shore, and not an American. As my Kenyan colleague has repeatedly noted, to the astonishment of some of my other colleagues, students in his high school and college classes were reading some classics of African-American literature that some Black Americans haven't read or aren't reading. Who can say what effects globalization and cultural circulation will have? And isn't 50 Cent getting into the publishing game too?

DixonThis is a bit of a tangent, but after finishing Chiles's article, I also thought about that NEA report from a few years ago, "Reading at Risk," which I've mentioned on this blog a number of times. It points out that the percentage of Americans who've read any book, let alone a literary work, during a calendar year, has diminished over the last 10 years. Among non-White readers, the numbers are even worse. In terms of the books that Chiles is describing, however, we know from the success of these books that a Black readership--and in particular a Black female readership--exists. We also know from Oprah Winfrey's bookclub that a vast swathe of Americans--and not only Black Americans--will read books by Black authors, including challenging texts by Toni Morrison and Edwidge Danticat (and they do read and discuss them). So in a sense these books are playing a role in countering the decline in reading, and there is a reading audience--a potentially very large one--for high quality books (well written, aesthetically innovative and groundbreaking, etc.) for Black authors as well.

Chiles says, "I feel defeated, disrespected and troubled about the future of my community and my little subsection of this carnivorous, unforgiving industry." Okay, there are several distinct points braided in this statement; I sometimes feel troubled about the future of some of my communities, some of my communities of Black people. I hardly feel defeated or disrespected, however. I'm heartened by the fact that Black people--Black women, anybody Black--and Americans in general, some of us at least, are reading. That we're not all TV-fied zombies. That we still exercise our conceptual, expressive and critical faculties. Certainly I'd like more people to read the books I like, which is why I mention, critique, teach, and list some of them. Why I'm always proselytizing for reading. I'd like people to read my book--and when I write more--books. I'd like people to read my friends' books. But I champion the fact that people are reading, and even reading some of the books that Chiles lays out. Given the Times report a few weeks ago about how levels of literacy even for college graduates had fallen, even reading--and critiquing--Legit Baller might not be such a bad idea.

I am going to have to check out Chiles's book, A Love Story. It sounds sexy....

FlagA few days ago, I got the following email from Andrew Prince at UK Blackout. Rod 2.0 reports that has picked it up, and gives a more extensive treatment:

There was another homophic killing a couple of nights ago. A young man was chased by a mob to the wharf of downtown Kingston where he jumped into the water to escape and drowned. At this moment details are sketcy, but JFLAG has released the following statement.

Statement on the death of Nokia Cowen

JFLAG calls on the police to investigate the death of Nokia Cowen in downtown Kingston on the 28th of December 2005. Information reaching JFLAG suggest that he was chased by an angry mob because of a perception that he was gay. In an attempt to flee this mob, the young man jumped into the Kingston harbor and perished because he could not swim.

JFLAG condemns the prevalence of incidents such as this and calls on the police to fully investigate the matter. Most importantly, we implore the highest members of government to clearly indicate that violence based on sexual orientation, both perceived and actual, is unacceptable in Jamaica.

You can contact the Consulate General of Jamaica, which is headed up by Dr. Basil K. Bryan here. Their address and telephone and fax numbers are

Consulate General of Jamaica
767 Third Ave, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10017-2993
Tel: (212) 935-9000
Fax: (212) 935-7507

To contact JFLAG, you can visit their site here. To send them a letter of support or donation at:

P.O. Box 1152
Kingston 8
West Indies
J-FLAG Helpline - (876) 978-8988
General information:
Website related issues:


  1. Ahh, the literary quality argument: done in the 18th c Romance and Gothic vs. "Serious" literature; the 19th, Women's "Scribbling" vs. "Serious" Literature; and throughout the twentieth, the Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts, just to name two.

    I love books. (And I have been flogging your book all over!) But I love all kinds of books--I was reading Shakespeare alongside James Earl Hardy--not that there's much difference.

    I find it hard to buy new books, especially from mainstream presses. And I have a real independent/small press vibe going, with the possible exception of New Directions, which lives in a strange publishing space.

    Most people I know read books based on informal recommendations. "Lurid" fiction lures us in (I'm just done with Walpole, Radcliffe, and Matthew Lewis, lurid indeed). But it also gives us a yen for other things.

    I honestly believe reading harlequin romance, sidney sheldon, and jackie collins shaped my literary trajectory just as much as reading Austen and Dickens, perhaps more.

    I'm yet to be convinced that "we" are reading less. Reading differently, and in ways publishers have yet to account for, maybe. But not less.

    (Did you see Mark Bauerlain's piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed? He makes the unconvincing argument that undergrads read less because they watch too much tv and spend too much time blogging and playing with wireless implements. If you haven't check it out!)

  2. I agree with you that Chiles takes a bazooka to go hunt rabbits: makes a very unfocussed, somewhat hysterical argument. And yet . . . I feel like there's a commonsense dimension that maybe we're not acknowledging. Two things.

    First of all, I keep being appalled at the ability (that is, the lack of) of adult (Black) friends of mine, including those who "went to college," to simply figure out what a given piece of writing is trying to communicate on the most basic level. I'll say, "Oh, my god, read this article!" shoving the newspaper at them, and they'll squint at it, eyes struggling over its (surely unchallenging?) sentences, and finally look up at me saying, "What. ..?" And I'll respond, "Did you read the part where . .. !" And they look back at the article, astonished, dumbfounded, that so much could be there (and they'd missed it entirely).

    Anyway, my point is basically that I think readers who begin on those books (not those who include them "in the summertime" among their Shakespeare and Morrison and Wilson) have their reading ability calcified exactly at that level (with all the dreadful writing and horrendous notions of punctuating, spelling, syntax). I personally see plenty of evidence of this. (Begin with more challeging books, rise; start with utter trash, stay stuck).

    And secondly (and here you may catch an unpleasant whiff of elitism) did you ever notice how in B&N the romance, and mystery, and sci-fi books get shuttled off to their relative corners, while the "true" literature boldly reigns over the store in its prominent, exclusive place of honor? Some critics whom you all could cite better than I make the point that "black," as a signifier in American social discourse, is allowed to signified only very narrowly. "White," can mean so much, and so diversely, that the phrase "a white author" tells us nothing at all. Yet now, with the present realities of the publishing and promoting of black books (and their undifferentiated ghettoization), the phrase "a black author" certainly means something, and nothing nice. Sure, we can make "recoveries" and "interrogations" of those different uses of "black" and "white"; but on the everyday, common sense level of language surely we can agree that this is a disturbing development?

    Kai in NYC

  3. Ironically, I read Lynne's post ( about it after I read yours. I think I'm kind of ambivalent. One of the reasons I don't read as much as I should is because it's often a decision on what is "good" and what isn't.

    I could expend more energy in reading books, but in the 90s and early 00's, it became less about press out there and more about online reading. Perhaps I need to explore that.

  4. Keguro, I haven't read Mark Bauerlein's piece, so I'll check it out. He usually writes from an ideologically rightist perspective, and more than once expressed critically negative thoughts about the activities of his students, but I'm interested to read his article. I would say that I have students in writing classes now who tell me they don't read, or rarely do so. That never used to occur. The NEA report, despite its failings, isn't an artifact of the publishing industry, and appears to have involved a large sample and to be scientifically sound, so I think there is some truth to less reading. How much less reading is debatable. The reasons behind also are debatable. I'm not ready to blame TV, though I will say that is the most powerful medium out, and many of the critiques of it from as far back as the late 1950s and early 1960s, let alone throughout the 1970s, have come to pass. It is one of the major mediating mechanisms of our contemporary society, in good and bad ways. How it affects reading is a complex question I can't answer, though I have my thoughts. I agree with you, though, about reading widely and actively. I almost think anything--including a telephone book--can be put to good use, which is an argument about instrumentality, really, and not about quality. Samuel Delany has this great, harsh essay for advanced creative writing students that basically says you'd better read THE BEST WORK if you want to write well. I agree. But I also think we should be reading as widely as possible, as he does. Thanks especially for the good words about my book!

    Kai, I hear you. But I have to ask, are we to blame these books for the lack of critical reading skills among adults, or isn't the problem one of prior elementary and secondary education? Isn't the crisis really there? Chiles displaces this anxiety onto the books; but if students don't develop an interest in reading early, and if they don't acquire critical skills by a certain age, it's an uphill battle. This connects directly with my prior post about fascism and the government's role in education, propagandizing, and so on. Goebbels laid out pretty clearly how a fascist state could get its message across, and part of it had to do with short-circuiting people's innate critical and analytic skills. Aestheticizing politics and stagecraft, repetition of messages, undermining traditional bases and sources of authority, and so on, are all means to a very dangerous end. I can't say that reading Zane is killing people's critical skills, but I do know that if you never read anything, you're going to have a harder time when a complex argument is nested within a text. I like your snappish remark about "summertime," but seriously, I'm only in the New York area for a long period then, and it's also the only time of the year when I can read as freely as I want, so that's where that anecdote and example come from.

    In terms of blackness and whiteness, well of course, white is considered normative in American public political, social and cultural discourse. (And in the private psychological structurations of most Americans, I would argue.) White = the norm. So of course "Black" is delimited. Yet there are Black-authored books that make it into the various genre areas (romance, science fiction, mystery), by whatever strange system of classification different bookstores use, while others get dumped in the "Black" book section. But this is nothing new. In fact, Black books used to have fight for a shelf. I'm not sure that publishers consider "Black author" as "nothing nice"; I think it depends upon the author, and the store, and so on. In general in American society, "Black" remains something marked or mapped out as "raced" and negative, though in certain spaces, and among certain audiences--some of them quite vast--"Blackness" is a positive and very desirable signifier. We could critiqute how and when this occurs, but I think it's complex and definitely not static.

    EJ, I urge you to pick up some books again. There's so much online, but so much that isn't, so very, very much.

  5. I, too, was struck with the unanswered question of 'what is literature' behind the article. Seems to me at all times there was as much if not more dross than gold, and only time and readers will tell what from our time will last.

    I also have difficulty withthe notion that if you read one type of work, you don't/won't read another. Library experience has taught me that the recent spate of 'thug' fiction is in part fueled by black people hungry to see anything about our lives between covers. AND that those who read will and do read widely. Or at least they will 'try' someone, like Oprah got a number of people to 'try' Morrison (who my sister says she has to read slowly and sometimes twice). The people we see on the regular read "black lit" everything (particularly if word of mouth from friends and others has reccomended it).

  6. I had this image of a young man or woman in the 1920's being introduced as a "black author," and all that that designation would have brought to mind, and a similar young man or woman being so called nowadays; what different connnotations (and can't you just picture the bright, sexy cover of the book?) "black author" arouses now! But nevermind that: it occurs to me that we haven't even particularly discussed the subject matter of these books. I keep on being sure that the glorified reificiation of prison/drug/thug culture is finally ending, and that blacks folks at large (as opposed to those on high) will hold up a new ideal. I keep on being wrong. The extent to which these books contribute to the wide strain of self-destructive and nihilism in black culture . . . well, you know the rest.

    postscript: You're right; I was kind of snappish. Sorry.

    Kai in NYC

  7. Reggie would know this better than I, but isn't it interesting that much of the work we now consider interesting and was often dismissed. I return, as always, to how post black-aesthetic critics read and dismissed a lot of really interesting works (though, I still can't get myself to actually like Jessie Fauset; I've tried, lord knows I've tried). Or how, black leaders dismissed works like Home to Harlem and other portrayals of "low life." We don't need more schisms on "good" vs. "bad" literature, which tend to be useful, I think, only within limited academic and aesthetic circles.

    We need to be talking about why books cost so much!

    Should we be worried that "the masses" cannot distinguish "good" quality from "bad." Well, yes, as instructors and people who care about aesthetics. But have we not trained ourselves through years and years of reading to distinguish between the two? And is such training often, though not always, situated in relation to institutions? So, books I'll read vs. books I'll teach vs. books I'll discuss with friends vs. books I'll discuss with family vs. books I'll keep vs. books I'll give away. (I never claimed to be logical about vs.) Some of these overlap, true, but not always.

    I've had as much pleasure discussing, say, Marguerite Duras as I have discussing the latest Johanna Lindsay or Judith McNaught. I have often bonded with people over the latest Harlequin romance. And, of course, I return, as always, to Frank O'Hara's rather caustic comment that reading does not improve us. "Improve us for what?" he asks. Perhaps we need more complex versions of what reading does, even as we provide more accessible means for "us" to read.

    Sadly, not everyone will go to a library, though many people do. But people will pick up and read free books on the street.

  8. Keguro do you really not feel improved by your reading? I certainly know myself improved: improved as an informed citizen, improved as a compassionate and forgiving friend and lover, and improved as an appreciator of the subtle, the exquisite, of that which requires patience and discernment to enjoy, and infinitely, immeasurably improved intellectually, in my ability to distinguish the complex and sophisticated from doublespeak and obfuscation. This improvement did not come from "street lit." I would hope that all readers, especially my politically and intellectually disenfrancised brothers and sisters, could partake of such improvement.

    Kai in NYC

  9. Reggie, I agree with you; I wish he'd defined "literature" a bit more. Yesterday my class and I discussed some of Harold Bloom's Spenglerian/Hegelian denunciations of "bad" "literature" as we also talked about the implications of Plato's criticisms of poets and the state, Orwell's critique of self-censorship and Lorde's mystical understanding of the sources of poetry (which I think I once mentioned to you bear the traces of Nietzsche and others), and I have to say that one thing Bloom often does is to define what *he* thinks literature is and does. I may disagree with him--and he's more expansive than many people might think--but he does define the term to some degree to make his rant possible.

    Kai, no need to apologize for coming after me. LOL. One of the things Keguro rightly points out is that many of the works that are now considered canonical from the 20s and 30s were denounced or criticized on various grounds (usually moralistic) by some Black leaders in their day. Keeping in mind the issue of reception and how canon-formation occurs is critical; not everyone was embracing Zora Neale Hurston or Langston Hughes or Claude McKay or Wallace Thurman, etc. I think Rodney Evans even includes a little of this in "Brother to Brother." I'd say the image "black author" provokes now is a middle-aged Black woman sort of like Zane or one of her compatriots, or Alice Walker or Toni Morrison. At the Harlem Book Fair this past summer, this was what I was primarily seeing. As for the books contributing to "nihilism"...I just don't buy that. Now there are other aspects of African-American cultural production and pop culture, as well as American culture, that contribute to "nihilism," but really, these books???

    Keguro, you're right on about questions of reception. It wasn't only just post Black-aesthetic critics. Again, the FIRE! crowd were not universally celebrated in their day. I mean, also consider the contemporary and then post-18th century critical and popular receptions of Wheatley, Hammon, etc. And so on....

    In terms of the cost of books--I agree, they're way to expensive. The technological transformation of publishing is going to change that, though. On-demand printing technologies, online texts and so on could all provide the means to lower costs.

    You find Plum Bun hard going? LOL

    I also agree with you about the question of quality. I immediately think of Bourdieu's arguments on this account; for example, where do people acquire the kinds of social and cultural capital that shapes their "taste"? What is their "habitus"? Also related to this, as you point out, is the issue of institutions and education. And the role, as people like Marcuse and Adorno would point out, of the culture industry and the commodity machine, which have a vested interest in defusing and short-circuiting people's critical and analytical faculties. My parents in segregated schools performed plays by Shakespeare, etc. The also heard Blues and jazz musicians live (and my parents went to the same high school as people like Clark Terry, Tina Turner, Billy Davis, Jr., Dick Gregory, etc.), and the oral tradition was also still quite vibrant (Stack Lee/Stagolee is a St. Louis Negro, after all!). My mother loves to talk about how when she was in high school, she wanted to run off with her friends like the "Romantic poets." This was at a time when Blacks and Whites couldn't drink from the same water fountains or eat in the same restaurants. But she acquired certain kinds of cultural capital that opened up her fields of interest. The issue today is how few young people of any racial background, except the very wealthy, receive this kind of "habitus." We can debate the usefulness of a heavily Eurocentric focus, certainly, but the sorts of broad yet rich introductions to cultural life and production around us are not occurring; instead, we are bombarded with a lot of cultural noise and nonsense--and yes, I love TV, so I'm not saying it's all bad, but still--that not only reinforces the status quo, but becomes the basis for many people's taste formations.

    I haven't read Harlequin romances in years. I can also recall falling in love with Duras, and having my undergraduate contemporary literature professor, whom I later had at another university for 18th century literature, denouncing Duras's work as "tripe" and "not literature." (He had rather severe standards, LOL).

    I sort of agree with the idea that literature doesn't "improve" us. It may make us think about certain things, it may reset or resituate our understanding, it may reframe or refocus how we think, read, write, but it also may do nothing more than give us the immediate or longterm pleasure of, as I said in my original post, socially mimetic recognition. I must say that I'm always learning new things when I read. Always. But then something cognitive always does happen, but is it "improvement"--ever? What's improved? We see ourselves (as John Ashbery says, "as we truly behave"). Or as we *want* to. This is the erotic aspect of reading--the text fulfils, at least momentarily, the lack on which desire itself is constituted. Bloom says all reading involves critique--to read is to read critically. But we know that's not the case for everyone--for most people. I agree we need complex versions of what reading does; sometimes it has this morally or cognit

    I agree that many will not go to a library, though whenever I am at public libraries--like the NYPL main research branch at Bryant Park, where I've spent many a summer morning, or at Jersey City's little public library, I can tell you, the folks are up in there! Putting free books out for people to pick up--free books that aren't all religious!--is a great idea. Wasn't this to be one of the goals of the National Poetry Foundation?

    Kai, I see where you're coming from in your question about improvement. I'm not sure that happens for everyone. Or is it really improvement? I also think about folks who regularly read Machiavelli's The Prince, for example, which supposedly was very popular with some rappers and gang members! Improved thugs, perhaps--it certainly has helped Karl Rove in his ruthlessness! But back to what you're saying; I think that one has to develop certain critical skills, certain reading skills, for the kinds of transformations that you're describing to occur. Don't you think? Can one tell the different between doublespeak and truth, no matter how much one's reading, if one doesn't have these skills in basic form? Just think of how many Americans have kept buying all the crapola we keep getting from this government. All this BS and rhetoric about "democracy," when the reality is that it's under direct assault here. Why can't people SEE this? Why can't they SEE through the propaganda? It drives me up the wall. But basic critical skills, semiotic skills, analytic skills, would make this possible. Wouldn't they?

  10. Well, yeah, not many perhaps will get as much from reading as I have. But no one's going to get it from "street lit."

    I wonder if most people do picture a Morrison or an Alice Walker when they hear the phrase "black author." Delany mentions in one of his essay in "About Writing" the disconnect that can exist between the academia's notions of reading and literature and the rest of reading community's (by pointing out that many literature professors do not even recognize the name of the romance writer who's sold more books than any other writer, living or dead; much less do they have any familiarity with her work.)

    As far as these books and nihilism in the community--you're right, of course: their contribution is minimal in the direct sense. What I find discouraging is the . . . call it unanimity of representations (in music, movies, tv, "news reporting," and now, yes, literature) of the "authentic" black life (thugged out, violent, misogynistic). At one time, not too long ago, if you read many black authors, you were sure to come upon eye-opening, vista- expanding visions sooner rather than later. Now you can read and read, quite avidly, and never come across anything that contradicts your basest notions of yourself.

    To compare authors of the particular subgenre of black writing we're talking about to Hurston, McKay and Langston Hughes . . . ! It makes me wonder if you've actually read any of these books. Go to the ghetto and grab a copy of "Homothug" for example. "Book," "author," "quality of writing" uttered in relation to those pages, and other similar ones, glorifies the endeavor vastly beyond its accomplishment. Engagement with previously written work, vision, style, psychological acuity, even syntax and spelling, for God's sake, are entirely absent. Zane, you mentioned, and someone else Iceberg Slim: those two writers are as far removed --by the aforementioned criteria--from the writing of most "street lit" as the rings of Saturn from the bottle caps, cigarette butts and stripped chicken bones littering the streets around here.

    Kai in NYC

  11. Kai, I never said people wouldn't get something from reading, but getting something--knowledge, insight, digust, whatever--is different from the qualitatively marked statement of "improvement." Samuel Richardson wrote Pamela and Clarissa, two of the earliest British novels (Keguro, this is right, isn't it?), in part as a means of moral instruction. Moralism remains an aspect of the writing enterprise, but I think it's important to question it. Whose morals, whose improvement?

    As for "most people," this is a vast category. Do you mean most "Black people" or most "people who are rich" or "most people who read regularly" or what? These categories aren't commensurate. To take an example, when I ask my mostly White, middle and upper-middle-class students about authors they read and enjoy, often Morrison's name comes up. My presence may influence this, but I do think there's validity to the fact that her name and work are in great circulation among the reading public, and even among people who don't read, many have some familiarity with her as a famous literary figure. As for Black people, I think it would make an interesting study; who do many Black self-identified regular readers call up mentally when asked about "Black authors"? Maybe I'll undertake that as an art project this winter! Thanks!

    Delany is correct as always. I think you're attributing to me certain traits that really aren't there. I am in academe, but not really of it. But Delany's comment cuts both ways, or multiple ones. Most SF enthusiasts I've come across aren't familiar with major contemporary mainstream realist works, and on and on. And most academics are rewarded for focusing on a fairly narrow area and becoming authorities on it. There are some who could discuss contemporary romance novels, their economics and aesthetics, social function, etc. Most literary scholars have some familiarity with the genre of romance, given the role of (the) romance in the formation of the realist novel. But if one's area is Afro-Caribbean modernist literary studies, why would that person be expected to know who the top-selling romance novelist is (is it Barbara Cartland?)? Just wondering. LOL

    I hear you on the uniformity of representation, or rather the similarities. Marcuse and others talk about how the economic system of popular culture helps to reinforce this similarity, in essence reifying certain forms of "authenticity," which then recirculate and become naturalized.... Yes I agree. But I don't impute it to the novelists or novels (or whatever you want to call them). Or just them alone. I would say look at the system as a whole and its individual parts. I mean, can we blame the author of "Homothug" for BET??? Doesn't that horrible excuse for a TV channel have FAR MORE INFLUENCE than a novel that far few people have read?

    I'm still not sure I agree with you about this nostalgic view of Black literature, at least after a certain historical period. But I also find it very disturbing that even you are discounting the presence--they're still there, they haven't vanished into the ether--of black literature that "contradicts your basest notions of yourself."

    As for literacy, and I'm not being harsh here, but you were criticizing people earlier for not reading, and then you misread what I said. I didn't compare Hurston, etc. to the writers that Chiles was attacking; I made the point, I thought, that in fact critics attacked those authors for violating certain codes of representation, such as using the vernacular, writing about "low lifes," including frank depictions of (homo)sexuality, their leftist political leanings, and so on. You are aware of this, right? That's different from saying that qualitatively Hurston equals Zane. I never said that, and as I mentioned in my original post, I think it would be ONE THING to critique the books on the basis of quality--with some criteria to establish what you mean by quality. They exist. But Chiles becomes hysterically prudish and starts going off on a Meesian panic about the sexual material in the works. That's why I asked if he was aware of the sexual content of a wide array of canonical works of African-American literature.

    Actually, I have read Homothug, and thought it was horribly written, so badly written it was painful to read as someone who teaches writing, but an interesting story on several levels, many of them sociological. The ways that it reinforces many of the standing notions of heterosexism and homophobia were of particular interest to me. I would not EVER say it was a work of quality, but that doesn't mean it isn't a work of interest. Is that clear?

    I also find it fascinating how you keep dropping these clues to establish a certain amount of authenticity for the arguments. "Go to the ghetto"..."from the bottle caps, cigarette butts and stripped chicken bones littering the streets around here." Come on, Kai! I guess you must imagine I live on Mt. Parnassus or something, but believe me, I don't. LOL. If you only knew...! But I won't get into a tit-for-tat about versions of black authenticity based on where we live, etc.

    Anyways, back to my response--if the issue is quality, that's one thing. That wasn't Chiles's argument, or really, it wasn't the focus of his rant, which was all over the place. Say you don't like poorly written books crowding out well-written books, and say why. That's one thing. Your criteria are technical; I agree with them. But that's different from ranting on about sexy covers, etc. And no one has yet responded to my question about Black gay male fiction and where it would fit....

    But seriously, I do appreciate the conversation greatly, so keep writing!

  12. Hey now, why do I get the question about canonical white authors? (I ask shamefacedly as I just finished Swift and am about to start Pamela.) Yes, Richardson wrote didactic novels, as did a vast majority of early novelists.

    A lot of "bad" writing has always co-existed with "good." Take a gander at historical studies on sales of pornography. Cleland's Fanny Hill is a case in point, probably one of the most famous and widely read novels in its time, despite its barely readable quality. (Okay, I read old "porn." Sue me.)

    I'm still fascinated by the "scene of reading." For example, my mother is by no means a reader. Plays golf five times a day, but will not pick up a book. That said, like many black peoples across the diaspora, she is quite religious. Reads the bible and a study guide pretty much every day. How do we understand this by no means uncommon practice, as an instance of reading? No matter what we think about the bible ideologically, we have to admit it's got some pretty powerful writing. Those of us who grew up reading it learned a great deal about aesthetics--Baldwin, need I say more?

    On black gay fiction: once again, the question of institutions comes up. For instance, much of the work that interests me formally is out of print, available to me because my school has one of the top libraries in the world. And, also because, as an academic, I *know* where to look, how to look, even which questions to ask.

    Often, I read more poetry than fiction and that's because my time functions in unusual ways: I have the hour to devote to 80-100 pages that I don't have to devote to 200-300 pages, not always, but sometimes. I realize it's a "petty" consideration. But most of the work I've enjoyed in the last year, with the exception of Dickens, tend to be shorter. (I have a rant about the excessive length of many *good* novels in the Anglo-American tradition currently as opposed to the relatively shortness of some Afro-Caribbean and European works, but it's tangential and probably self-created.)

    On yet another tangent: compare reviews on James E. Hardy vs. E. Lynn Harris. (I have an essay on this somewhere in my future projects pile.)Now, JEH has said he did not set out to write the "great" American novel. And Harris is distintly middle-brow (don't get me started on the problems I have with his work). My more general point is that many readers seem to have read both and have very different yardsticks for measuring both: literary "quality" vs. "truth" in representation, being one. Why do more middle-class black gays, university educated, fraternity belonging, dl or bisexual identity with Harris? While Hardy gets some of this crowd, but also, perhaps not strangely, a white gay audience looking for "real" black gay material, in addition to black gay readers who think "jood" describes their world better than "perfect"?

    But now I'm rambling. I just woke up. Sorry.

  13. That previous post of mine embarasses me now (I was typing in a passion and got way carried away). I humbly accept all your chastisements, but I think you still miss the point I was trying to bring out by introducing Delany's discussion of the best-selling romance novelist: in academe, for the most part, you (in the general sense) are concerned with depth (the pinnacle of the various fields of literature) but may have no notion at all of its span (the reading habits of those with no literary or critical training or aspirations.) I think that that art project you proposed could be eye-opening in this respect. Now, about the gays ...

    I think black gay writers tend to exists and operate in two quite different planes. You've got your Kenans and Glaves, on the one hand--who require a certain "literary muscle" to heft (you've got to've been reading for a while, and rather challengingly, to enjoy them fully or at all). And you've got Hardy and Harris on the other. I'm that going to try to say a little about this other hand (Harris, et alii).

    Gosh, I'm just realizing how complex this I argument I want to make really is . . . are you familiar with "slash" writing? Slash is (to simplify the definition for our discussion here) male homoerotic writing written by and for (straight/gay/bisexual) women. It's a booming field, though underground (on the internet, in amateurly published zines and chapbooks, etc) not in mainstream publishing. Though I haven't heard this notion put forward elsewhere, I'll dare to suggest that the huge appetite of black women for books by Harris, Hardy and street lit writers like Asante (who wrote "Homothug") is related to the slash phenomenon, and at heart is a manifestation of erotic curiosity, or just eros (it "gets them off").

    It occurred to me as I wrote that last sentence that we haven't made at all explicit the implications of the fact that most of the reading black population (WHERE am I getting my statistics? lol) is made up of black women, of whatever sexual orientation, and us, the sissies; but there are many fewer heterosexual black men reading (my experience and observation bears this out, but, no, I can't produce any hard data). Some of the hysteria in dude's Time opinion piece doubtless has its roots in a kind of sexist (and homophobic) panic. But what do y'all think?

    Kai in NYC

  14. But, Kai, I ask coyly, when would heterosexual black men read?

    They need to polish their muscles so they can pose for book covers!

    Or be satisfied trade.