Smut Lit Comes to Harlem
By Herb Boyd
Call it what you will—ghetto lit, chick lit, hood lit, smut, slut lit, Black erotica, underground lit, street lit, urban or hip hop fiction, or even clit lit—African Americans are reading more than ever, and seemingly enjoying every sexy, lascivious, eye-popping passage. A few years ago the best indication of this new trend could be found on public conveyances where it was impossible not to see a scantily clad book cover with a reader absorbed in what we used to call bodice-rippers or, much later, black pulp fiction.
Nowadays, the trend can be spotted at any of your local bookstores, which has set aside an African American Literature section that is mainly overflowing with Nikki Turner, Mary B. Morrison, Teri Woods, and a host of other slingers of lust, decadence, and low intensity warfare between black male hustlers and ambitious, money-hungry divas of the night.
If you’re in a community where late night cable is available Zane’s The Sex Chronicles, based on tales by the best-selling author of the same name—and a pioneer of the genre—may be part of your premium package. But the greatest exposure for “au courant lit” is on 125th Street in Harlem where there is a proliferation of book vendors, hawking such best-selling titles as “Maneater,” “Daddy’s House,” ‘Single Husbands,” “Ghetto Superstar,” and “Midnight.” The last title by Sister Souljah perhaps expands the genre as several other titles do there by falling into the category of Passion or Romance books, which makes the line between the hot vendor products rather fuzzy and indefinite.
Back in the day, as many readers from the Old School insist when the Holloway House publishing company ruled the lurid roost, Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim (Robert Beck) were the top writers, and they merely extended the art form promulgated by Clarence Cooper, Robert Deanne Pharr and Henry Van Dyke. While these writers were not immune to murder, mayhem, numbers, dope, pimps and whores they invested their narratives with a bit more literary gravitas than the current crop who could care less about fancy high art and filigree. Cut to the chase, get to the bedroom, get on with the smack down, and let’s see the blood and gore the readers of short-attention span seem to demand.
“I’m not sure why they like these kinds of books,” said Saidu, a book vendor from the Ivory Coast. “Maybe it’s the cover, maybe it’s something they can really relate to. I have no idea, I just sell them.” Saidu and his brother, Kadidi, have been vending on 125th Street for five years, competing against an army of other vendors as well as first-time, and perhaps last-time, publishers who set up their tables nearby. Every week there’s a different author on the corner of 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard with his or her book, hot off the press, shoving it in the face of the multitude of passersby.
“My favorite author is Teri Woods,” says one patron, who gives only Shela as her name. “I’ve read all three of her True to the Game, and I can’t wait to get into this fourth one. She’s a fantastic writer, and it’s not all smut. Her characters are well developed and she’s a superb story teller.”
A couple of years ago there was brief debate among African American writers about the significance of this new trend and whether there was anything at all redeeming in the fiction in the mostly self-published, vanity books from authors who were still struggling to understand form and content. Most disturbing was the way in which the new literature was replacing the old literature of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, Maya Angelou, Gloria Naylor, and other writers who had replaced the old triumvirate of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin.
Writers lined up on both sides of the argument, some quoting Mao-Tse Tung about letting “a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend,” while others pooh-poohed such latitude of expression, insisting on literary purity to guard against what they view as pollution. What was brewing, and eventually erupted, was a showdown between low-brow and high-brow, between “serious” literati and “keepin’ it real” kamikaze .
One side of the line drawn in the sand is represented by Dr. Brenda Greene, a professor of English and executive director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn—and a frequent contributor to this publication, and author/editor Nick Chiles. Greene’s Op-ed article was in response to Chiles’ Op-ed that appeared in the New York Times.
Here’s an excerpt of what appalled Chiles upon browsing in a local bookstore in Georgia: “On shelf after shelf, in bookcase after bookcase, all that I could see was lurid book jackets displaying all forms of brown flesh, usually half-naked and in some erotic pose, often accompanied by guns and other symbols of criminal life. I felt as if I was walking into a pornography shop, except in this case the smut is being produced by and for my people, and it is called ‘literature.’”
Chiles was even more upset by the “literature” label appended to that section of the bookstore. It “didn’t say ‘Street Lit,’” Chiles observed, “but ‘African-American Literature.’ We were all represented under that placard, the whole community of black authors - from me to Terry McMillan and Toni Morrison, from Yolanda Joe and Benilde Little to Edward P. Jones and Kuwana Haulsey - surrounded and swallowed whole on the shelves by an overwhelming wave of titles and jackets that I wouldn't want my 13-year-old son to see: ‘Hustlin' Backwards.’ ‘Legit Baller.’ ‘A Hustler's Wife.’ ‘Chocolate Flava.’”
Clearly, Chiles was offended, but this profusion of nasty wouldn’t be so bad, he mused, if it were a starting point on the path to great literature. He seemed as perplexed as he was saddened by the new and “I must that I retain very little hope and excitement and enthusiasm that I had when my first book was published eight years ago,” he lamented. “I feel defeated, disrespected and troubled about the future of my community and my little subsection of this carnivorous, unforgiving industry.”
Dr. Greene agreed with much of Chiles’ conclusions, but her mission was to explain why this phenomenon was occurring. “One clear reason is that it is being read and purchased,” Greene asserted. “It moves quickly from the shelves of the vendors and booksellers into the hands of a range of writers including young black female readers and those inner city readers whose lives it mirrors and glorifies. As Chiles notes, many applaud it because it reveals that people are reading. Yes, they are reading, but is this a starting point to engage them as readers who will eventually expand their reading interests or is this representative of all that they are reading?”
Moreover, Greene related, publishers tend to invest in writers who have demonstrated both literary clout and marketing skills. “These writers know what it takes to publish. They understand that their book will not sell unless they develop a plan for marketing it. In short, they understand the business of promoting books,” she noted.
Dr. Greene was insightful enough to place the new genre within a larger societal context, connecting the literature with the impulses of the current generation of readers and writers. It’s a “reflection of our fast- paced, internet- based culture, a culture in which writing as a way of thinking and as an imaginative act has been reduced to writing as a vehicle for getting one's message across quickly, and where concern for form, grammar, and even punctuation has become negligible. Those of us who are frustrated by an inability to get serious literary writing published are many, and include readers, writers, agents, editors, academics, and publishers. We have to devise our own marketing strategy for making our voices heard, and we have to hold the publishing industry more accountable for its publications,” she wrote.
Publisher Carl Weber, himself one of the trend’s pioneers with his popular “Baby Momma Drama,” is among those enterprising marketers who understands exactly how to titillate the libido and massage the cash register. He believes that much of the criticism about the trend is misguided, and to a great degree nothing but “sour grapes from others whose work is not selling,” he said a few years ago during an interview. “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,” Weber charged. “I see it as a way of raising people up. We're giving people the opportunity to read." Sure, some of the books haven’t been soundly vetted and edited, he said, but “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.”
The only thing new about this debate is that it’s happening among African Americans, and a few whites—who are rumored to be working surreptitiously in this trend as publishers and sometimes disguised authors, realizing how fecund and profitable the new literary direction. Currently, there is such a glut of these kinds of books that the field is being considerably leveled, and many first-times authors are facing a grim reality of a saturated market. And this problem is exacerbated by a seemingly ever spiraling downward economic recession.
In the end market forces will determine the fate of this new trend as it gets older and loses some of its attraction. Of course there will always be a demand for good literature and only the best of these newcomers will survive, and it may depend less on their marketing skills than their ability to tell a good story.
Three authors who seem to be faring pretty well with booksellers and buyers along 125th Street in Harlem this summer are Joy King and her latest Stackin’ Paper; Wahida Clark’s Thug Lovin’; and Karrine Steffans’ The Vixen Manual—How to Find, Seduce & Keep the Man You Want. Steffans is among the more heralded of the writers of this genre, having twice made it to the top of the New York Times charts with Confessions of a Video Vixen, and The Vixen Diaries. A former ex-model, she has the looks and body to be on the cover of her own books. In fact, Steffans even surpassed Bill Clinton on the Times’ bestseller list several years ago.
Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell the highbrow from the lowbrow. So much depends on your perception. So here is a short quiz to see how much you know of high versus low. Name the authors of the following two passages. Answers at the bottom.
1. “The orderly strolled into the room to collect the cadavers. He had been at the job for little more than a year now, and he loved it. Working in a hospital morgue paid well and afforded him the peace and quiet that he needed to study for his premed courses. The job suited him more than most, as his goal was to become a surgeon. He was now in his final year of premed, and one semester away from actual medical school, where he would be cutting open bodies and not just transporting them from one floor to another.”
2. “He woke up this morning, or he didn’t—either way, its’ a story—and he brushed his teeth or he didn’t, and then he peed, or didn’t, and then shit, or he couldn’t, and he fucked his wife or his broad, or he fucked his boy or his boy fucked him, or they blew each other, or they didn’t—it’s a story either way, any way.”
1. By Teri Woods, True to the Game III.
2. By James Baldwin, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone.