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.