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 off...like 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
He 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.)
I'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?
This 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....
A few days ago, I got the following email from Andrew Prince at UK Blackout. Rod 2.0 reports that Gay.com 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: