It's urban, it's real, but is this literature? Controversy rages over a new genre whose sales are headed off the charts

By Malcolm Venable

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These days, it seems that nearly every black-owned bookstore and every street vendor s table--from 125th Street in Harlem to Jacksonville, Florida, to Chicago, and to Oakland, California, and back--is spilling over with titles in a new genre dubbed by some as urban fiction, by others as hip-hop fiction. These books are generally geared to younger audiences influenced more by TV, music videos and hip-hop culture than their Civil Rights Era-raised, Black Arts Movement-nurtured, Toni Morrison--worshipping parents.

What is urban of hip-hop fiction? Basically, it is set in the world of hustlers, pimps, thugs, chickenheads, blinged-out rappers or 'round-the-way baby mamas. The genre displays a street sensibility by using the language of everyday people in the hood. Of course, this sort of book is by no means new to the publishing game. It shares ancestry with the work of 1970s authors such as Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim, whose gritty depictions of street life and shady characters catapulted them to international fame. (See "The Legacy of Ghetto Pulp Fiction," BIBR, September-October 2001.) More recently, Sister Souljah's groundbreaking 1999 novel The Coldest Winter Ever (Atria), which has continued to be a best-seller among the hip-hop generation in the tire years since it was published, is forerunner and the prototype of this 21st-century rebirth of the urban novel.

Many popular books in this new genre were originally self-published--and often available only through the Internet. But a number of black-owned companies have cropped up to publish and/or distribute the books, and large, mainstream publishers are getting in on this boom by picking up and republishing or distributing some of the self-published stars. (See sidebar, "Industry Playas in Hip-Hop Fiction" page 26.)

Best-selling author Nikki Turner, a 29-year-old Richmond, Virginia, native who attended North Carolina Central State University, has been dubbed the "princess of hip-hop fiction" because of the success such books as A Hustler's Wife (Triple Crown, March 2003), A Project Chick (Triple Crown, July 2003) and in anticipation of her latest, coming this fall from Urban Books, Girls From Da Hood. She describes her audience as "ages fifteen to twenty-five--people in jail, people that went to college." But she adds, "At book signings, I have people from all walks of life--grandmothers, middle-aged men--I'm surprised."

Prolific author, publisher, and New York book retailer Carl Weber is not so surprised. (He launched the Urban Books imprint in August 2003, distributed by Kensington Publishing Corporation, is the author of five novels, including Baby Momma Drama [Dafina/Kensington, January 2003] and is president of a New York City retail chain, African American Bookstores, Inc.) "Our audience is fifteen to fifty," he says. "Most of the fifty year olds were in their early twenties when The Sugar Hill Gang came out with the first rap record that hit the Billboard charts, so they still have some tie-in to hip-hop. We definitely intentionally appeal to black people."

One might think the books appeal more to men, but, as with other literature, it is women who drive the market, sellers say. Russell Prince, a Harlem book vendor who has been selling on the street for eight years and currently runs four tables along 125th Street, says that men go for "the heavier stuff," but that "eighty percent of my customers are female."

Victoria M. Stringer's Triple Crown Publications has put out 14 titles and sold 300,000 trade paperbacks in 16 months. Triple Crown plans to release a total 25 books in 2004. (See "Triple Crown Winner," BIBR, May-June 2004.) Stringer, whose drug dealer/former boyfriend pulled her into a life that landed her in jail, started her company to publish the semiautobiographical novel she wrote while in prison, Let That Be the Reason (2001). This year, at June's 2004 BookExpo America, the major national trade show for booksellers, Stringer was fending off offers from mainstream publishers for her work and that of other authors Triple Clown publishes. She eventually signed a two-book deal for herself with Atria Books.

Dumbing down black literature? Or attracting new readers?

So-called street literature is now enjoying major mainstream success with many of the major publishing houses doling out six-figure deals to the writers who can tell the grimiest tale. It even rings the cash registers in mainstream bookstores: "Hip-hop fiction is doing for fifteen- to twenty-five-old African Americans what Harry Potter did for kids," Matt Campbell, a buyer for Waldenbooks, told Newsweek magazine; "[They are] getting a new audience excited about books."

Purists, though, are wondering aloud if the explosion in so-called ghetto lit--titles like Baby Momma Drama, The Sex Chronicles by Zaoe, and True to the Game (Triple Crown) by Teri Woods come to mind--is an entirely positive development. The seeming ease with which one can publish an urban book has created skeptics in surprising corners.

"I'm sick of talking about ghetto literature," says James Fugate, owner of Eso Wan, a Los Angeles black-owned bookstore. "It seems like I'm the only one against it." Though Fugate says he sells a lot of these titles himself (and he is mindful to hold back on getting preachy with customers), it is fair to count him among the readers who dislike the genre. Fugate represents a generation bred on Richard Wright and Nikki Giovanni, and they find swallowing the new stuff like transiting from Motown to Def Jam records.

Indeed, in the past few years, well-established black-owned bookstores have suffered, and a notable few have even dosed because of the economic downturn. Now, says Brett Hewitt, who runs the African Vibes and Positive Vibes stores in Hampton Roads, Virginia, urban fiction is "the only thing that brought the spark back to us. That's what has kept us on top. We don't even trouble customers with the real literature any more," Hewitt says.

"They want the junk, and we sell junk because we have to stay open." For example, Toni Morrison's Love, serious hardcover literary fiction and the eighth novel of the Nobel laureate, sold about 10 copies in his stores, he says. A Project Chick outsold Love three times over. "This is not Terry McMillan's class," says Hewitt. "It's not a silky smooth story. But this is what people relate to--Baby Momma Drama."

Weber, coincidentally the author of Baby Momma Drama, thinks a lot of the criticism is misguided, or just sour grapes from others whose work is not selling. "It's a real travesty that people put down this popular genre. No one puts down Tom Clancy or Danielle Steele. No one puts down people that write Mafia books.

"It really upsets me when people say we're dumbing down" continues Weber. "I see it as a way of raising people up. We're giving peopie the opportunity to read." He concedes that some books in the genre are not well edited, but added: "Everybody has to have a voice. Is rap wrong because it's not classical? I understand the argument, but I don't agree with what they're saying."

Another bookstore owner, Clara Villarosa of Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem, defends the appeal these books haw', although their language is not necessarily literary. Their proliferation means a decline in craftsmanship, she admits. "But now, ordinary folks are reading books. It's not such a narrow reach anymore. Not everybody is going to read a Zadie Smith or Colson Whitehead."

In fact, author Nikki Turner says she in tends for her books to be helpful to readers. A Hustler's Wife, for instance, is "not just about drugs--it's about a girl and her struggle. I wanted to warn young girls about street life. They never know the risks that come with it. They listen to the music and see the bling-bling. But nobody ever says what can happen to you--that you can go to jail ... I try not to reinforce stereotypes, I try to show a different light."

Search for quality storytelling

Industry insiders ate witnessing a continuing flow of material in this new genre. Anita Diggs, an agent at The Literary Group in New York City, says that out of the 30 manuscripts she receives a week, at least two are hip-hop titles. She hasn't signed any of them so far, but says she will jump for a good manuscript. "I want to get more submissions of the quality of The Coldest Winter Ever. It had a discernable plot with well-fleshed out characters. It's a good story well told." But Diggs says the mode d'emploi of hip-hop writers has been to bypass agents. "They're contacting the publishers directly," Diggs says.

Walter Mosley, the critically acclaimed mystery writer whose latest book is Little Scarlet (Little, Brown and Company, July 2004), believes, "Obviously, there can be an art to ghetto lit. I would never dismiss it out of hand. But I'm an American who believes in freedom of speech and freedom of thought. I may not read it, but I can't make a moral decision for someone else." More importantly, Mosley says, "Reading is a good thing.

"You might read this hip-hop book, and next year, read Mosley or even Mark Twain" he continued. "It's not about the book--it's the idea that reading becomes an important part of your life."

Publishers like Weber insist there is no place to go but up. "The people that are creative and come up with good strong stories will slay around," he says. "You can only write so many stories about somebody being pregnant or being a drug dealer."

Weber says he and Kensington plan to distribute a new Urban Books trade paperback every month. "We're exactly a year old," he says. "We're doing phenomenal numbers. We have a less than five-percent return rate, which is almost unheard of. We're selling thousands and thousands of books, which puts us two of three years ahead of the schedule of our business plan."

Malcolm Venable is a freelance writer in New York City. Tayannah McQuillar is a writer in New York Yvette Mingo is a senior at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

RELATED ARTICLE: Industry playas in hip-hop fiction.

A&B Distributors This Brooklyn based, black-owned, family-run wholesaler, specializing in African American books, tapes and gifts, is a big player in getting the urban books to the retail outlets that get these books in readers' hands.

Atria Books Simon & Schuster's Atria imprint may be doing more for urban books than a street fair in Harlem. It publishes and distributes some of the most popular novels of this genre, including The Coldest Winter Ever and Zane's novels and those from her Strebor imprint.

Kensington Publishing Corporation This 30-year-old publisher made its name in romance fiction, and now publishes urban titles and distributes Weber's Urban Books. Kensington accounts for about seven percent of all mass-market paperback sales in the United States, according to the company.

Triple Crown Publications Victoria M. Stringer, author of Let that Be the Reason runs this house. which apparently has a tight-grip on the emerging voices in urban fiction. The independent franchise distributes the more hard-core, crime-influenced titles including K'wan's Road Dawgz and Nikki Turner's A Hustler's Wife.

Urban Books Carl Weber, the man who once said he'd write a book every year, pretty much has done that since his 2001 debut Married Men. Weber is also president of African American Bookstores, Inc., a chain in the New York City area and has been president of the Black Retail Book Association of New York.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

Black Issues Book Review. Sept-Oct 2004.

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