Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Have Our Books Become Like Our Music?

This book on the left is one of my favorites of all time.

Erasure, by Percival Everett, is a novel that chronicles a fiction writer, who happens to be black, and his struggle with the state of black books. If you're a writer, or an avid reader, I strongly recommend you read this novel. It is funny. It is sad. It says a lot about where and how readers and some say the industry views fiction by writers who happen to be black. I wrote a blog entry about Percival Everett back in October 2005.

With that in mind...

Over the holidays, I visited a number of bookstores to buy books, sign books, and see what's new on the shelves.

I noticed that every "Black" or "African American" fiction section (which is another commentary in itself -- black fiction section and everybody else's fiction section, i.e. general fiction) is quite colorful. Especially the covers that are facing outward. The sections are filled with salacious covers, scantily clad models, some guns, some shiny cars, street elements, etc... Much more colorful than the other parts of the bookstores I visited over holiday. Talked with a few bookstore employees on their thoughts, just to see what's selling and what's up, and the consensus is: The titles are selling... BIG TIME!

In today's New York Times, author Nick Chiles, shares an
opinion piece on the whole "Street Lit"/"Black Lit" dichotomy in fiction today. It's very interesting reading. Good for discussion. Found it while browsing during lunchtime.

Other writers have discussed the influences of hip-hop, or so-called street culture, on literature. Many do it silently, though, and among tightly-lipped circles where you know your trust/confidence/opinions won't be broken. It's a sensitive subject among writers.

On one hand, many say the fact that these books are extremely popular means a new segment of folks are reading... maybe folks who wouldn't normally pick up a book for fun.

On the other hand, many say these books aren't holding up the strong tradition of writing and literature that we come from. They say these books wouldn't fly during the Harlem Renaissance.

Either way, there are strong opinions. What do you think? Have our books become, like our parents and elders often say, like music... where it's not like they used to make? Or is just like any other area of consumer goods -- some good, some not-so-good, and you sort through what you like or don't like?



Terrence said...
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Terrence said...

Thanks for the heads up on the book.

I personally think there's enough room for anyone who desire to be an author.

There are still plenty of good, well written books out there, I think. Oprah just featured Edward Jones and his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Known World" - claiming it was the best book she's read in a decade. It's a NY Times Bestseller.

Plus, there's always been trash - music, film, and literature - by all types of people. I don't think everyone can be a James Baldwin, WEB DuBois, or Carter G. Woodson, but if you like to write and be creative - do it.

Just like a filmmaker that improves on his or her filmmaking abilities, I also believe authors evolve and hopefully most, if not all, of the new crop of hip hop writers will strengthen their material and writing skills over time.

Just my two cents. Thanks for the heads up.

nOva said...

While I agree that these books are tacky, badly-written, sensationalistic and just overall trash, I don't think we should try to hold them to the same standard as the more legit works. But that's the only defense I have for them.

I'm just annoyed by how nowadays they represent the majority of black lit, at least according to the booksellers. It's downright insulting. You would think that was all we were reading.

The quality of the books is bad too. A lot of them haven't even been within sniffing distance of an editor.

tout noir said...

My last visit to Barnes and Nobles a few weeks ago was disappointing for the same reasons.

It's hard to know whom to blame - the demand or the supply. Either way, there's a need for more quality black books. "Street Lit" is fine as long as there are more options for those that don't like to read those accounts of the street.


James said...

I had a similar experience at a Barnes and Noble in Chicago. Complete shock at the number of books available and the titles, covers, content, etc.

I am mostly concerned for the young people who are reading this type of literature. As a former teacher, I would always encourage my students to read as much as possible because by doing so they would gain a command of the English language and learn to express themselves effectively. They would also be exposed to new worlds in which characters of all races, genders and creeds try to make the best of and understand life. My concern is that these books are not really elevating us as a people, they are not challenging us -- they simply are meeting a quick need (entertainment, smut, release -- all of which have their place).

I guess I'm torn, because at least people are reading, but are they growing as a result of the experience?

Duck said...
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Duck said...

I agree with Nova, Tout Noir, and James. It's great that these writers are getting the opportunity to be published, but at what expense? Part of the issue is that people relate to the situations in these books, and it's unnerving to try to step out of their comfort zone to explore other works of fiction. I have friends who refuse to read Morrison because it's "too hard." It's not about literature being challenging our people; many times, our people don't want to challenge themselves. And unfortunately, that's very easy to exploit while being very hard to change.

So where does the push for better black literature start? With publishers, since they make these books available? With readers, because they make the purchase? Or with writers because they create the material?

Marz said...

I call those books,'urban fiction'. (Well a lot of people in Philly call them that.)

A lot of the girls my age, read these books. With the guns, drugs, violence, etc. Then they pass it on, like pink eye in a kindergarten class.

I think writing books has become like music. Meaning, many want to get out there, and make money. Receive the limelight. But they can't sing (write), and won't take time to perfect their craft.

Or, their subject matter is more corrupt, than a full season of Law&Order.

It has stopped being about making good material, and more about what will sell. Also, what percentage the author makes off of their latest creation.

But many of these authors/readers feel as though, other literature isn't real. Meaning, they don't show the 'drug game'. Or life as a thug, criminal, stripper, etc. But I think this can be shown with literary skill.

For example, recently I started an urban fiction book. The first line was, "Pass that blunt, nigga". That was a foreshadowing of what was to come.(I didn't finish it actually.) But many find that to be 'real'. Smoking weed, while sitting in a car. Waiting for someone to exit a bulding, so you can murder them.

Personally, I think many of the books don't hold any type of real content matter. They also reinforce many stereotypes of African Americans. But, many think they possess reality, and I guess for some, it does. Because there are people who live crime filled lives.

The authors write these books saying that its getting more people to read. But, I don't see the target audience being reached. It's mostly young African American females who read these books.

Just like music, the quality of books has plummeted very low. But that means the literary geniuses get recognized more for their talent. (In my opinion at least.)

I could go on forever. But I won't LOL. Always a pleasure reading you.