Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Sunday Salon: Urban Lit, Cash Cow?

Some things are worth repeating. I'm cross-posting this in its entirety.

Spicing it up this Sunday. I hope this alternate image has piqued your interest because this week's topic is not polite Sunday conversation. Real life isn't always tea and biscuits either so shall we get to this week's query:

Do you read urban/street literature? How do you define it? What does it provide readers, particularly young, disenfranchised readers? Can it be a gateway to other genres? Are there micro-niches within this niche book market? What are examples of the best of this kind of writing? Are there books under this label that you can’t relate to or don’t like?

Please consider these questions and read Zetta Elliott's interview with Vanessa Irvin Morris before you read my response. My opinion is biased.

Why I don’t read urban literature marketed to a black audience

Last week, Pam rightfully called me out for the slant of my questions for the query. This week, I make no apology for my opinion but I hope the questions are open and not biased.

This past week a girlfriend and I commiserated together about a book her teen was reading. My girlfriend mistakenly thought her daughter was engrossed in harmless romance fiction. Said daughter devoured these books in volume all summer. Her latest read she passed onto a friend and that friend was sharing it with a slew of girls anxiously waiting to read it, too. The book, The Prada Plan isn’t the harmless romance my girlfriend believed her daughter was so fond of. “It might as well had been porn,” she said later. The book is salacious and titillating. To paraphrase a line I read, “Slim loved Disayna the moment she came busting out of Dynasty’s sweet pink p—y.”

A few weeks ago, Zetta Elliott interviewed Vanessa Irvin Morris who made a case for urban literature. I didn’t agree with many of Ms. Irvin Morris’ points and this personal experience with a group of teens passing around The Prada Plan only made it harder for me to believe young women gain something by reading street lit.

I’m sure the publisher and author would argue the target audience is mature adults. I get that. But the main character is in her early twenties working for Elite Escort Service. How many forty-year-olds are buying this book? The reality is teens and young women in their twenties make up a large section of the readership, and they gobble this up like other women tune in for their daily dose of soap operas.

While our children think we are ancient, I do remember the naughty books we read as teens. You found your dad's porn or you read the trashy 'true life stories.' These stories didn’t lead to me reading great literature and for today’s teens, sexually explicit material is blaring everywhere twenty-four seven. Teens don’t have to sneak around to find it: you can go online, turn on the TV and pluck a juicy title like NeeNee Does Manhattan off the shelf at the library. My problem with these books is that they perpetuate the ugly, lowest dominator, demeaning images of black women. Aren’t we objectified and vilified by mainstream enough? Do we have to voluntarily put on a dog collar? My girlfriend said she went to the bookstore this weekend and there was a wall full of these books. We will buy self-depreciating material but we won't buy literary and contemporary fiction written by POC writers like McFadden, Elliott, Brice and Howard in the same quantity? These writers work exceptionally hard to get a publishing deal and then a hundred fold harder to promote their work. That reality depresses me.

I know all urban literature like all rap is not misogynistic trash, but call a spade a spade. Penning a tale about money, jewels and sex doesn’t empower young women. It doesn’t build healthy self-images. And those who read it aren’t reading for it that either. I’m sick of our daughters being fed a steady of diet of crap. I want a way to get them to back up from this nasty buffet. I want them to think more of themselves. I want them to reject images of cash boxes between caramel thighs, long wavy hair and green eyes that make Negroes want to grind into them long into the night.

Makes me wanna holla.


Girl on a Mission said...

Thanks for posting about this Susan.I'm actually guilty of reading urban lit in my past. I have learned nothing from them and didn't expect to. Some are pretty entertaining and
some are just plain embarassing.I've since stopped reading them because this is not the type of African American fiction I want to support.

Jessie Carty said...

i had this things for VC Andrews books when I was around that age but my mom knew what it was and dropped a hint she knew what it was when she let me still read it. I grew out of it thank goodness!

April said...

I actually haven't heard of urban/street lit. While I think sexuality is okay, I'm not exactly sure how I feel about this. I think the cover is sort of trashy, to be honest. I think there's better books out there featuring PoC to be read, obviously.
However, I'm not sure this is all that different from the romance/erotica genre. I don't really read that sort of thing, so I suppose I can't quite judge.
I think I will pass on these sort of books, I'd rather read some thing with some substance (stares at The Color Purple and my Toni Morrisons) -- really do need to get to those SOON!.

susan said...


I'm all for sexuality. I'm the mom who is perfectly fine with getting a trojan and banana for a healthy demonstration and I think every girl should learn how to please herself.

The issue with street lit for me is the ugly, distorted, objectified images of black women. And the thug life is not glamorous. I don't care how much bling is involved.

My problem is that young black girls deserve better, healthy images of the women they can become.

wdjenkins1 said...

My example of a book which covers the same topics as most urban lit, but which stands on a completely different level is "Upstate" by Kalisha Buckhanon. It's got teenage love, prison, etc., but it's beautifully conceived and written and is empowering, not degrading. There's no reason that other books could not be done equally well.

susan said...


That is on my list. I don't think an urban setting alone makes a book street lit. I wouldn't put Push for example in the same category. Push doesn't romanticize a life of hustling and getting paid though it is urban.

Goes back to what I said about rap. All rap isn't equal.