Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Norton's "Tales of the City," or on Black Street Fiction

I want to Reggie H. and others for pointing me towards "Tales of the City," James Norton's August 13, 2005 article. (In order to read it you have to view an ad.) In the piece, Norton explores a certain genus of Black popular fiction that I'll call "Black street fiction," though "urban vernacular fiction" might also be appropriate. Black street fiction is basically the popular, often self- or independently-published, frequently autobiographical fiction, written by Black authors (and I use this term racially, not ethnically), that is sold for the most part in Black bookstores, on the street by book venders, and via mechanisms other than the mainstream distribution channels, though it is often available now on online sites like

Norton provides an overview and pocket history of the genre, focusing primarily on best-selling authors like Teri Woods, who has sold millions of dollars worth of self-published books, which unsurprisingly has gotten the attention of the mainstream publishing industry in New York. (This sort of grassroots-to-the top phenomenon has occurred periodically over the long history of Black American literature.) Now bookstore chains increasingly are carrying these Black street fiction books, and publishers are vying to sign contracts with some of the authors, whose works are direct, roughly written and strive for authenticity, as opposed to being consciously literary and "avant-garde." (Though in terms of subject matter, some of the material certain goes beyond what mainstream publishing regularly issues, so avant-garde here would refer only to the formal aspects of the work.)

Norton provocatively suggests that these works may push acclaimed Black authors like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin off the shelves, and to buttress his argument, he quotes Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles, the eminent Spelman College scholar, who says that many young Black people are no longer being introduced to canonical works in the African-American tradition, so that encountering the works of the Black street fictionists could be problematic. I teach so few Black undergraduate students on a regular basis that I can't generalize, but most of those that I've taught--as well as most of my non-Black students--are quite familiar with Toni Morrison's work, and some are familiar with Baldwin. (I cannot think of one Black graduate student I've ever encountered who hadn't read at least one work by either author.) I haven't posed the question of whether or not these Black undergraduates are reading Black street fiction first, but I would imagine that if they are, they probably also are reading some of the established authors as well. When I think back on my year a decade ago teaching poetry to two classes of mostly Black and Latino 7th, 8th and 9th graders in New York City, I found it to be the case that the students who read anything on their own read everything they could get their hands on. One young woman in my 9th grade class was writing stories as accomplished as much of what I encountered in the first college creative writing class I ever taught, at NYU the following year, and she was voraciously reading romance novels, The Color Purple, anything that struck her fancy.

(And then again, as last year's NEA report "Reading at Risk" made quite clear, there's a national crisis in literary reading in general, so the issue extends beyond young Black readers. Norton concludes his piece by asking Woods who she considers influences (Morrison? Baldwin?), and she cites Jackie Collins. And here I was, thinking she'd mention Julian Mayfield and Toni Cade Bambara [sarcasm alert].)

But back to Norton's article, I find it problematic to be presenting the increasing success of Black street fiction vis-à-vis canonical works as one of opposition. Doing so is simplistic, reductive and squares up aesthetically incommensurate works. Woods' and Morrison's novels, for example, may share some similarities--they're both by Black authors, written in the United States, utilize vernacular elements and motifs, etc.--but in other fundamental ways they differ so considerably (in terms of basic genre, intention, scope, use of voice, rhetoric, formal play, etc.), that it makes little sense to compare them, or pit them against each other, though the Battle Royale mentality burns brightly on, of course. They both fall within the larger category of Black American writing, and more specifically fiction, but are operating on very different levels. No one would suggest that Jackie Collins and Philip Roth, for example, or Cormac McCarthy or Mary McCarthy even should be categorized in even vaguely similar ways (except as "authors"), and Norton actually does state this at a certain point, and yet the premise of his article strives to draw this sort of silliness out. Why can't there be room for the sorts of books both Woods an Morrison write? Just as there's room for Clancy and Dan Brown, and the McCarthys? Moreover, the sort of vertical cognition that can only view things as either-or flies in the face of Black tradition, life and experience--if we'd proceeded by either-or, we'd have disappeared a long time ago.

Second, I actually read one of the books mentioned in the article, Homo Thug. I saw it on a bookstand in the West Village (just steps from Barnes & Noble on 6th Avenue and 21st Street to be exact) early this summer, bought it, and vowed to read it to see what the fuss was about. The fuss, if there's any at all, should center on getting your money back if you actually paid full price for it (I bartered it down). By any measure, it is an awful book. It is badly--horribly--written, homophobic, implausible, artless. It consists of a tissue of clichés that become particularly clotted and insipid once the author has to describe sex, or really anything having to do with sex, including genitalia, sexual acts, the emotions surrounding them, such that it blunts any possibility of eroticism or even pornographic interest. The main word that comes to mind with regard to this book is lack: it lacks a sense of pacing of pacing, a believable plot, an ability to sustain anything other than voice. In fact, voice is really all it has, along with a few nuggets of interestingly precise details (drawn obviously from the author's life experiences), some almost cinematic action, and a fascinating, framebreaking postscript, in which the author intrudes to let us know that despite the central theme of the book, which is crystallized in the title, he is not homosexual. Whew, thanks for reassuring me. Still, I found the book interesting--I even convinced C. to read it, and he could barely stomach it--in part because I feel it's representative of and a window into the popular literature (I use the word in its older sense) that many folks are reading. (And I do think folks are reading books like this, despite the dire NEA figures.) Its indexical, representational, aesthetic, symbolic, social, and material functions and values, among many others, fascinate me. But I also read it, contextually of course, as a work of fiction in and of itself. The author of Homo Thug not only felt the need and desire to write a book, but he (and I'm assuming that it's a he) carried it through.

As a writer, teacher, and an avid reader--as someone who actively engages with literature and the printed word--and as someone who eagerly explores many facets of Black experience, I have often sought out texts like this one over the years. I believe they have their value, and even multiple values; but I also can say without hesitation that they are won't be replacing either works by Morrison or Baldwin, or by any of the major Black authors, anytime soon.

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