October 13, 2007

A "Healthy Debate" And Other Weekend Odd Ends

NPR's All Things Considered yesterday had a interesting little piece on the so-called "urban" or "ghetto" literature not meeting favor in all corners, something that has been a bit of a controversy for years. Author Terry McMillian has written a scathing letter to the head editors at Simon & Schuster, excoriating them for elevating hip-hop, street culture, for being complicit in the exploitation of African American girls and women, and for allowing poorly written, barely edited street trash to be promoted beyond more literary novels.

Of course, Terry McMillian has her own reasons for her fury, but I laughed as the pleasant voice of NPR's correspondent said that this would contribute to a "healthy debate" on the topic of urban/ghetto lit. Debate -- what a polite, classroom word! I think she meant to say 'screaming arguments.'

Supporters of urban literature are so enthusiastic about it. They insist that there are no drawbacks to the books; minority teens are now reading. In 2006, a Newsweek report added, "Hip-hop fiction is doing for 15- to 25-year-old African-Americans what 'Harry Potter' did for kids," says Matt Campbell, a buyer for Waldenbooks. "Getting a new audience excited about books."

Written in some cases by incarcerated authors, with titles like Baby Momma Drama, A Gangster's Girl and Project Chick, the tsk-tsk-ing has gotten pretty loud from worried and unhappy urban lit detractors. It reminds me of the anxiety produced by the soap opera-esque Gossip Girls series. People worried then as now that the books glorify a certain trashy lifestyle, make illegalities look attractive, reinforce stereotypes and allow other books by more mature and mainstream authors to be ignored.

That last bit is probably pretty true. The publishing industry seems to revolve on money and marketing, and Urban Lit is a massive money-maker; it sells sex, it sells sizzle, it sells all of the things that are easily accessible in cities, easily digestible, don't require a dictionary, and major publishing companies have leaped to take part in what is seen as a sure thing, in all likelihood ignoring other worthy projects. Unfortunately, that's just kind of the way things go. In many circles the question is brought up, "Is it literature?" but I'm not sure defining the parameters of literature would actually answer the question. What I think people really are asking is this: "Is this appropriate? Is it worthy? Is it okay to like this?"

I've been helping my niece write a novel for the last year. She's just turned eighteen, and is dead serious about this tragic morality play she's creating, where a Good Girl does Bad Things and Pays A Price. It's almost Shakespearean in its simplicity, and it occurs to me that many of the 'urban lit' novels are just the same. After reveling in the drug culture, gambling, pimping and excess, quite a few of the novels end with jail or death -- which might seem a strange end for young adult literature, but it does reveal cause and effect, and the books are being read...

When it comes down to it, young adults read what interests them, and questions about worth and appropriateness will have to be answered individually, as always. As much as I cringe over what I see to be as kind of ...tacky, it's everyone's right to indulge in tacky as much as they want, and we would all fight tooth and nail for that right.

Within urban lit, there are good books, and not so good books, as with any genre. And, frankly, since I haven't read more than a couple of books that come under the heading of "urban," and I haven't yet found anyone in the YA blogosphere who has read any of the KimaniTRU novels, much less reviewed anything else targeted to minority YA's, I can't make a judgment. I do think that the controversy is about to be revved up yet again, however, so I will stay tuned with interest...

Did you see Jules & Eisha went and got all popular and stuff? I mean, I knew they were the YA/MG/Picture Book blogosphere IT girls, but now they're guest blogging at ForeWord Magazine. Eisha's posting on YA novels dealing with depression - right after National Depression Screening Day, and Jules takes it next week. We can now say: we knew them when...

Don't miss Miss Erin's interview with D.M. Cornish, the author of Monster Blood Tattoo, the author-illustrated, complex novel that ended JUST as I was getting into it... And Big A, little a's interview with Eric Luper, author of a really interesting YA book on, of all intriguing things... gambling. Another unusual YA topic!

The Cybils are blazing quite a trail! At last count, there were fifty-six Science Fiction/Fantasy nominations, and I don't know how many in YA, picture books, Middle Grade, Non-Fiction and Poetry. If you haven't' already nominated your limit of one new book per category, what are you waiting for? And consider putting in your two cents at the Cybils Blog on what makes adults able to judge what is 'kid-friendly.' It is a REALLY good question as we, as teens and adults of various ages, set out once again to read for what we hope is an important award.

If you didn't have a chance to read all the way through the Poetry Friday selections, there's still time to check out The Book Mine Set challenge - a difficult, but unique poetic form I'd like to try writing for myself.

Well, there are books calling my name -- and mugs of steaming tea, so happy weekend to you, may you wear sloppy clothes and read to your heart's content.


david elzey said...

Why does the Hip-Hip literary market sound so much like separate-but equal to me? Is it its own genre or just another way of stating the same idea: that the large American publishers have long-ignored minorities, that "literature" is for the educated and predominantly white?

When I last worked a large general book store we would be inundated by kids from the local high school looking for something to read. As with self-segregated seating in the cafeteria, the white girls would be congregated around Gossip Girls (or various Chick Lit books in regular fiction) while the black girls would huddle with Sister Souljah or Zane; the white boys were glued to Maxim magazine, the black boys hit the sports magazines.

The question always seems to be chicken and egg: which is the cause and which is the effect? Is there a market because a subset of society is being ignored, or is the subset created by the marketing?

David T. Macknet said...

I would wonder not about the effect upon the population reading the books, but upon the authors themselves. Do they actually succeed in their craft, after having written in this genre? Are they forever condemned to write in this marginal market? How does it look on the authors' resume?

I'm particularly concerned with the lack of editorial participation - at the very poor quality of the work. It's one thing to be 'urban,' quite another to be poorly constructed, full of stereotypes, with obviously formulaic plot, hideously undeveloped characters, aside from all of the other issues surrounding the exploitative nature of so many of these works.

They are the equivalent of instant macaroni & cheese, lacking substance, creativity, content.

Crack cocaine sells, too. Are you buying?

tanita✿davis said...

It sounds like 'separate but equal' to me, too. And it annoys my soul.

Last year, we reviewed Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist for the Cybils, and I thought to myself, "THIS is urban literature." And seriously, they were out and about in NY all night long, and they obviously knew the city well enough to go into dives and hole in the wall joints and they had a lingo and they had a soundtrack. How much more urban could it get?

Yet, it was just categorized as YA Fiction genre, and honestly, its appeal was narrowly defined to a certain type of kid who liked a certain type of music -- I knew it didn't really fit the preconceived boundaries of 'urban lit.' But I brought it up to be the devil's advocate.

I don't like the feeling that the genre "Urban" or "Ghetto" or "Hip Hop" lit gives me, that of "this is YOUR literature. You stay over there and read that."

I don't do well being told what to do.

Disco Mermaids said...

Once again, you've brought up an interesting subject...and written about it with great care.

You're the literary version of NPR's "pleasant voice."

- Jay

Sarah Stevenson said...

I agree--the thing I don't like about "urban" is that, to me, it reeks of being a sociopolitical code word, like "family" has become a code word for "Christian." And, as everyone has already commented much more eloquently, it's very limiting when it comes to defining literature. Limiting, yet somehow also meaningless and empty.

Just my 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

a. fortis--
Your point about "family" and "Christian" had not occurred to me before. But in that sense, I think "Christian," as commonly used in the media nowadays, is in danger of becoming a code word for a particular subset of Christians.

tanita✿davis said...

Hah! Thanks, Jay!

Oh, yeah, A.fortis -- it IS a code word. "Urban" means lower class, lower educated and minority, usually black. It's like what people call "Neds" in the UK (or so I was told by a couple of local teens) - "Urban" could be code for "Non-Educated Delinquent."

And the "family" and "Christian" thing is disturbing, but I've noticed that myself. It makes the rest of us Christians a little uneasy. A LOT uneasy...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for providing a balanced perspective on something I haven't seen discussed much (or at all?) in our little corner of the blogosphere. It seems to me that if minority teens want to read about characters who are like them, then as an industry we should be providing and highlighting books that have that "this is like my life" appeal AND are well-written. But it takes time, I guess.

I do think that no one should ever tell you or anyone else what they should, or should not, read. I think that part of what gives you a balanced perspective is that you read widely.

Erin said...

Thanks for linking the interview!

~Pastor D said...

Amen Tadmack - As an Af/Am Christian, "uneasy" is an adequate adjective. As the mother of a toddler son, "unsettling" is also in the running. I write fiction & Christian fiction for preschool, youth and teens and I'm hugely concerned what will be out there once my son has moved on from "Lil' Bill".

I picked up a book at a K-Mart hoping to contact the publisher, opened a page and the first sentence I read said "...she made my mandingo rise..." What the...??? I slammed it shut and put it back.

Why is that crap on the shelves while my mail box keeps spitting up rejections? The Af/Am community is starting to make music producers and production companies take responsibility for what Hip-Hop perpetuates in our culture and society. I think we need to make publishers do the same. I mean, I'm not in favor of censorship, but at least a healthy balance and an end to rejecting the good guys!

David T. Macknet said...

Deztnie asks the question, "why is that crap on the shelves...?" I think it's a valid question, with a frightening answer: because people buy it. That's the piece which is missing from the equation, and which angers so many: what is marked and sold to minorities frequently stereotypes, belittles, and degrades ... yet those same minorities continue to buy the products, as those products are the only products targeted to the group with which they self-identify.

If we're to break this trend, we need to figure out how to penetrate the publishing industry (as GuerillaFunk.com has attempted with the music industry. It's perhaps a bit different, as nobody sees authors with "bling" and "hoes," but it's the same dilemma: publishers sell the "gangsta" and the "thug," not the real people.

One of the artists (Paris) has a lyric definition of Evil which fits nicely into this discussion.

Saints and Spinners said...

Hmmm... I wonder if "Urban Lit" is YA Junie B. Jones in the sense of the vernacular language getting people into a tizzy.

There are so many interesting things to read here, and I'm so very much behind in reading.