Street Lit
October 25, 2009 12:33 PM   Subscribe

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

Examples of Urban Lit from Amazon:
posted by trojanhorse (157 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's been my limited experience that folks who answer, "Is This Literature?" with an affirmative (regardless of the subject) are generally on the right side of history.
posted by leotrotsky at 12:42 PM on October 25, 2009 [36 favorites]


Of course people are saying it isn't literature. It treats as real the experiences, feelings, and realities of a group which is outside of the literary academic and critical circles and does not pay the requisite homage and genuflection that said circles regard as their due.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:47 PM on October 25, 2009 [39 favorites]


As a big fan of trash, I've read a couple of the new wave of "urban fiction" (hell, I even did an AskMe about it a few years ago). They are in fact pretty awful from a stylistic standpoint. Like way past Donald Goines (who was really pretty bad as a stylist) and way past the "ha-ha" badness of that Da Vinci Code fellow.

On the other hand, they're apparently as good as they need to be, so I say meh to all the hoopla. Is it "literature"? Well, if that's the kind of question you ask, then you probably ought to stay clear of them.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:48 PM on October 25, 2009 [7 favorites]


It's unfair to categorize an entire genre as "literature" or "non-literature." The only way you can really do so is to make a value judgment about a type of book, not a book itself. And I think the only way you can do that is to be a snob -- to decide these books come from the wrong side of the tracks or what have you, and summarily dismiss them, never actually reading them. And even if you do read one and think it's junk, you cannot in any fair way conclude that they're all junk. So. Basically. It's just a stupid question. Better questions are, "Why do people like these and not some other books?" or "Why do people tend to buy more books written by Urban Lit Writer A, whose work critics seem to agree is ghastly, and not Urban Writer B, who seems to be the better writer?" or "Are critics only likely to take these writers seriously once they've been cherrypicked by real publishers; and if so, what does that say about what 'literature' means to us?" and etc.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:49 PM on October 25, 2009 [17 favorites]


As someone studying right now to become an English teacher, I believe it's important for people to have an access point to literature and practice in reading. We use reading in so many other parts of our lives and it's a valuable skill to hone, no matter the material used to practice. What is literature essentially? Written language used to effectively communicate?
posted by bright knight at 12:55 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Is it really so surprising that those marginalized from society gravitate towards more "anti-social" sentiments and fantasies?
posted by PsychoKick at 12:56 PM on October 25, 2009


Also just look at those criticisms and find even one that couldn't be retrofitted with absolutely minimal work into a condemnation of the romance novels that make up an enormous percentage of any public library's fiction section.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:56 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


i managed to "look inside" one of those "bitch" books on amazon - not good, not terrible

i don't see why a book in this genre couldn't be literature
posted by pyramid termite at 12:56 PM on October 25, 2009


For the record, if it was written after 1900 and the writer wasn't some white guy, it isn't literature.

It's better than that.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:59 PM on October 25, 2009 [5 favorites]


If they're reading, that's good in my book. Official "literature" or not, it brings people to the bookstore who wouldn't otherwise be there.
posted by spiderskull at 12:59 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Do you really want to fill your pretty little head with that stuff?
posted by Cranberry at 1:02 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


The exposition in those books makes my brain bleed.
posted by joechip at 1:02 PM on October 25, 2009


As the fellow said about this newfangled writing:

They who have been accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will, no doubt, frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness: they will look round for [literature], and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title.

Meanwhile, some of the stuff that wins Booker Prizes and National Book Awards these days is stunning in its meh-ness.
posted by FelliniBlank at 1:06 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Popular books tend to be dumb, poorly written tripe. In other news, today, water is wet, the sky is blue, and cookies happen to be delicious. More tonight at 11.

I'm just going to copy and paste my last comment on this sort of thing: Face it, the masses NEVER read "literature." They read pap. Some of the pap was good enough to become literature in time. Every time a popular book that's aimed squarely at their target demographic sells well, we get the same stupid "Literature is dead" whine. Stop it, you elitist fuckwads!
posted by SansPoint at 1:09 PM on October 25, 2009 [18 favorites]


Is it an "art of written work?"

So far as I know, that's the only objective rule that determines whether something qualifies as literature.

The other qualifications, rationales, and silliness wrapped around the question reflects the subjective opinion of the reviewer. When they first arrived on the scene, novels didn't count as "literature." Likewise, comics didn't count as "literature." Science fiction didn't count as "literature," either. In all cases, time, perspective, and cultural change changed subjective opinions on all of those categories.

Is it good literature? Some of it's absolute crap, juvenile efforts by writers attempting to wedge in a new genre. Some of it, either now or in the future, may end up good literature. But - is it literature? Of course it is - it's an art of written work.
posted by FormlessOne at 1:12 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's not literature, in the sense that it's not the sort of thing people who talk about literature talk about, in the same way that the faked pulp biographies of of Western outlaws was not literature. This writing, is, for the most part, what those books were back then: tawdry entertainment for the most part now, fascinating from a sociological and historical perspective 100 years from now.

It is, however, possible this genre will produce a great writer. Writers are sort of weedlike in that quality, in that they flourish where you least expect it, and also where you expect it, and also where you're trying to grow something else, and also Where you have tried to destroy them.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:14 PM on October 25, 2009 [34 favorites]


But Diggs says the mode d'emploi of hip-hop writers has been to bypass agents. "They're contacting the publishers directly," Diggs says.

Can you seriously use mode d'emploi to mean modus operandi in English? Because to this French speaker, a mode d'emploi is an instruction manual.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:14 PM on October 25, 2009 [15 favorites]


Is this any different from other potboiler pulp fiction? Despite the Wikipedia article's focus on race, the novel thing I see here is that the intended audience seems to be women. Other than that, it looks like the continuation of a long, long tradition of lurid, vaguely escapist-power-fantasy popular fiction. Most of which is forgettable trash, but some of which is certainly literature. Is there any genre to which that statement doesn't apply? Sturgeon's Law, and so on. There'll be the occasional Dashiell Hammett or Jack London in among the murk.
posted by hattifattener at 1:15 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


The us of "Literature" as a value judgement always baffles me.
posted by signal at 1:16 PM on October 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


This isn't music at all! It's just drums, they make it up as they go along, and they're not even singing!! Furthermore, it's all about such dreadfull things like pimps and violence and gang life! In fact I wouldn't be the least bit suprised to learn these so-called "artists" regularly smoked marijuanna cigarettes!

Oh, wait, what are we talking about here?
posted by fuq at 1:18 PM on October 25, 2009 [15 favorites]


I just gave the first couple pages of "Bitch" a read. The writing itself is not terrible. Deja King is, at least, competent. There are people in community college fiction courses who could learn a lot from her, especially with regard to voice.

That said, the story itself is some of the most trite, clichéd crap I've ever read. I started laughing halfway down page two.
posted by SansPoint at 1:19 PM on October 25, 2009


Literature in as much as it's the written word being used to tell stories.

Whether or not it becomes a literary genre that is influential, studied and referenced, is yet to be seen.
posted by m0nm0n at 1:20 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's interesting to look at this debate from a prescriptive vs. descriptive perspective. The prescriptivists argue 'This is how Literature should be. It should have x, y, and z. It should reflect this set of values. Urban fiction doesn't have those things, so it's not Literature. For the descriptivists, urban fiction simply mirrors what is going on in the world of the people who read it. It speaks to them. So the whole argument just boils down to another incarnation of the Old Guard vs. the Young Turks. And really, who cares if it's "literature" or not? If you like it and it makes you want to read more, that's a good thing.

On a personal note, I started getting requests for urban fiction novels at my library a few years ago. I looked at the genre and saw that the plots of the books did reflect the realities of what a lot of the young people in my community were experiencing (poverty, teen pregnancies, gang life, etc.). I also realized that the people requesting urban fiction were not people who usually went to the library, and they were enthusiastic about these books. So I ordered a bunch of books by the bestselling authors in the genre. To my dismay, they were all either stolen or checked out and never returned.
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 1:20 PM on October 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


(And just to be clear, I don't think there's anything wrong with forgettable trash. I read plenty of it. But the question posed is "is this literature?", not "is this morally repugnant?", and those aren't very closely related questions.)

Monday: That usage sounds wrong to this English speaker as well.
posted by hattifattener at 1:21 PM on October 25, 2009


So is the latest in the "how DARE they" arguments about a genre of fiction?
posted by xingcat at 1:21 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


The us of "Literature" as a value judgement always baffles me.

The pompous Bloom-n-Hirsch types use it as sort of a synonym for "The Great Books." You can usually tell someone's doing this if (s)he pronounces the word "li-ter-a-tyooooor."
posted by FelliniBlank at 1:23 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


This line from the wikipedia entry pleased me greatly.

"Profanity (all of George Carlin's seven dirty words and urban variations thereof)..."
posted by HotPants at 1:24 PM on October 25, 2009


So... Easy Rawlins sparkles when he's exposed to sunlight?
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:25 PM on October 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


Is this any different from other potboiler pulp fiction?

Yes, it's written by black people. Apparently that means it needs both a special name and segregated area in the bookstore, because we've advanced very far as a nation.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 1:27 PM on October 25, 2009 [20 favorites]


It's urban, it's real, but is this literature?

It's pretty fucking arrogant to think that this is even in question.
posted by deadmessenger at 1:28 PM on October 25, 2009


Yes, it's written by black people. Apparently that means it needs both a special name and segregated area in the bookstore, because we've advanced very far as a nation.

Well, in fact it is different from other potboiler pulp fiction ... it's selling.
posted by Bookhouse at 1:34 PM on October 25, 2009 [5 favorites]


Yes, it's written by black people.
The books are written by people who have "black sounding" names (quotes intentional) or pen names. For all we know all these books were written by Nora Roberts.
posted by PenDevil at 1:37 PM on October 25, 2009


You like it? read it. Not to worry about is it this or that. There is music I dislike. Others like it. That's ok with me. Others don't like what I like? Who cares. Not me. We must all get together and give work for the critics so they can have jobs. Let them decide this or that. Ps: I don't like chick lit....is it literature? Ask People mag writers.
posted by Postroad at 1:39 PM on October 25, 2009


You can usually tell someone's doing this if (s)he pronounces the word "li-ter-a-tyooooor."

I'm a high school English teacher, and I once had a student who was obsessed with getting me to give her a solid definition of literature. I refused. It eventually became a joke between us.

Anyway, we pronounced it "litch-ruh-chuh."
posted by HeroZero at 1:40 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


It can't all be bad. Once again, Sturgeon's Law. I seriously doubt that a greater percentage of "urban lit" is crap than any other segment of the market you choose from. And, of course, one reader's "crap" is another reader's "great," and vice versa.

Further, reading the so-called crap as a gateway drug to reading the arguable best is a fairly common pattern. Sooner or later, someone you respect will ask you why you're reading that crap, and hand you something marvelous, and you ask why one is better than the other. And you read a few of the "better" books, and your sense of what's good begins (however slightly) to improve. If you read a lot, you eventually learn to sift the good from the mediocre from the "who wrote this shit?"

But you've got to start somewhere. Your friend with the awesome collection of books you'll love will never ask you why you read that crap if you aren't even reading crap. So yeah, even bad books are good, I think, at least in this way if in no other.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 1:53 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Hero Zero: I like (Stephen King's?) rendering it as "Littrachaw."
posted by Mister Moofoo at 1:54 PM on October 25, 2009


The pompous Bloom-n-Hirsch types use it as sort of a synonym for "The Great Books." You can usually tell someone's doing this if (s)he pronounces the word "li-ter-a-tyooooor."

Yes, let's all have a good ol' fashioned Metafilter pile-on on Harold Bloom as we are wont to do. His expertise, education, and position is precisely what makes him suspect, right? Oh, and he's old, white, and wealthy so obviously that means any utterance of his can be dismissed right off the bat. I bet he talks funny too!

Is it literature? Of course it is -- that word encompasses quite a lot. Is Iceberg Slim, to use one famous example from this genre, fine literature? Work that will stand among the greatest in the history of human art? I'm afraid to say "no" lest it proves my patriarchal, Euro-centric, racist tendencies.
posted by inoculatedcities at 1:55 PM on October 25, 2009


Just asking is there any evidence that the majority of the consumers of this genre are in fact African Americans?
posted by PenDevil at 1:57 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


I finished reading some Literature last night. I won't mention the title or the author, except to say the author had previously won a nobel prize in literature.

The book was an unmitigated piece of arrogant, self-indulgent crap. Huzzah for non-literature, I say.
posted by Jimbob at 2:02 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Just asking is there any evidence that the majority of the consumers of this genre are in fact African Americans?

Wait, you mean there might be a possibility that media depicting bizarre stereotypes of people of color might actually be primarily consumed by white people?
posted by yeloson at 2:03 PM on October 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


This issue and its controversy is at least five years old now.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 2:03 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Is Iceberg Slim, to use one famous example from this genre, fine literature? Work that will stand among the greatest in the history of human art?

I've no idea. However, his work is still selling steadily, being read and influencing people forty years after it was originally written. How many of the big names in 1960's literary fiction can you say that about?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:08 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Just asking is there any evidence that the majority of the consumers of this genre are in fact African Americans?

Anecdotes ain't evidence, but three years of riding the New York subways while armed with an insatiable curiosity about what other people are reading tells me that the audience is overwhelmingly black, young and female. Again, I'm not claiming this as scientific proof, but without contradictory evidence I'd assume the conventional wisdom to be correct.
posted by Bookhouse at 2:10 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: Stop it, you elitist fuckwads!
posted by Rangeboy at 2:12 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


This kind of stuff absolutely flies off the shelves at my public library--as soon as we put it out, it gets checked out again, and most of the stuff never makes it to the shelves because there are long hold queues. People chase down an author's every written appearance, they read everything a publisher releases, they pay off decade-old overdue fines so they can get on the list for the next available copy of Girls From Da Hood 5. After listening to tons of requests, I put up a dedicated display area, and it gets more traffic than anything this side of kiddie DVDs and Naruto manga. In short, these books attract some of the most dedicated readers in my library, and I think it's awesome.

(My experience jibes w/Bookhouse's, by the way--the audience for these books is almost entirely young African-American women.)
posted by box at 2:21 PM on October 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


Two tweed-wearing white men with glasses sit in plush chairs in a posh hotel lobby. One is reading part four of the "Bitch" series and smiling to himself. The other looks across and says: "Yes, but is it literature?"

[/verbalNewYorkerCartoon]
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:25 PM on October 25, 2009 [13 favorites]


inoculatedcities: Is Iceberg Slim, to use one famous example from this genre, fine literature? Work that will stand among the greatest in the history of human art?

PeterMcDermott
: I've no idea. However, his work is still selling steadily, being read and influencing people forty years after it was originally written. How many of the big names in 1960's literary fiction can you say that about?

Are you unable to make a judgment of the work because you have not read it or are you just incapable of judgment because you're so fair? Since when is sales the metric by which great literature is evaluated anyway?

But I'll humor you with a few: Philip Roth, Samuel Beckett, Walker Percy, Joseph Heller, Kingsley Amis, Flannery O'Connor, John Updike, V.S. Naipaul, John Steinbeck, Richard Yates, J.G. Ballard, Ray Bradbury, Anthony Burgess, William S. Burroughs, William Faulkner, Philip K. Dick, Ken Kesey, Doris Lessing, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Elie Wiesel, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Pynchon, Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Hubert Selby Jr., Gore Vidal, Jerzy Kosinski, Margaret Atwood, Truman Capote, William Styron, Arthur C. Clarke, Norman Mailer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, John Cheever, Günter Grass, Graham Greene, Yukio Mishima, etc.

Is that a sufficient list or would you argue that these writers' books aren't "selling steadily, being read and influencing people forty years after they were originally written"?
posted by inoculatedcities at 2:30 PM on October 25, 2009 [5 favorites]


Several of you have put forward the idea that, as long as it gets people (especially teens and young adults) reading, it's a good thing.

You obviously did not read the "rages" hyperlink in the original post where the writer/scold takes on that point and breathlessly responds, "At what cost?"
posted by mreleganza at 2:36 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Your favorite author sucks isn't crafting works of literature but instead mere pap for the masses.


HeroZero and Mister Moofoo are both about right. The proper way to pronounce literature is with a snooty English accent.
posted by graventy at 2:46 PM on October 25, 2009


That's not writing, it's typing.
posted by fixedgear at 2:54 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


How many of you actually read the article with the "controversies", or did you all just assume it was old while New York Times authors wondering why black kids weren't reading things written by black people?

Because those articles against it were written by people of color, and the issue with "urban lit" is not whether or not it fits your English professor's reading list of dead white men, but the fact that the writing itself is just fucking terrible and there is anger in the African-American community that it perpetuates the same stereotypes that the lyrics of 50 Cent songs tend to perpetuate.

I mean, Go Go Metafilter Liberal Guilt and all, but seriously, actually pay attention to the FPP before you break out the "Fight The Man" chants.

Having read a couple of these books, I tend to lean towards the "I could barely call this writing, much less literature" crowd, but also understand that the books could serve as a gateway (maybe, hopefully), and they're popular for the same reason that vapid pop and romance novels are popular: people like things that make their brains turn off.
posted by schroedinger at 2:54 PM on October 25, 2009 [12 favorites]


Is this any different from other potboiler pulp fiction?

Not at all. That's what I was going to say. This is a dime store novel, but it looks strange because the genre as a whole is shifting to meet the needs of the market, which is not so much about European immigrants and their children anymore.
posted by krinklyfig at 2:56 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


There seem to be two senses in which one could ask the question, "Is it literature?"

(1) "Does it represent, by virtue its exemplary craftmanship (both in language and form) as a literary work, a superlative expression of human culture?"

I would venture to guess, without having read much of it, that the answer to this question would be "no" with regard to much "urban fiction."

(2) "Is it an artifact of human culture that may, now or in the future, be worthy of study or examination regardless of the objective merits of its craftmanship in language or form?"

The answer to this question is almost certainly yes, as to all "urban fiction."

--

It's kind of like old slave narratives. They may be objectively weak, as formal examples of writing, but they are worth studying for reasons outside of their literary merit.
posted by jayder at 2:57 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Are you unable to make a judgment of the work because you have not read it or are you just incapable of judgment because you're so fair?

I've read it. I enjoyed it. I'm unable to say how people are likely to respond to it in the future, but it seems to me that longevity and the influence that a work has on the culture is at least as valuable a measure of its importance as any aesthetic judgement I might make about a book.

And perhaps I should have provided the caveat 'American literary fiction of the 60's' -- I thought it was obvious. I think the fact that you felt the need to pad your list with the whole world of lit-fic, from writers like Steinbeck, who began publishing in the 1930's, and a bunch of others whose best work mostly happened in the 50's speaks to how small that list actually is.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:57 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's kind of like old slave narratives. They may be objectively weak, as formal examples of writing, but they are worth studying for reasons outside of their literary merit.

Like old slave narratives? Geez ... is that meant to be tongue-in-cheek?
posted by krinklyfig at 3:01 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]



Two tweed-wearing white men with glasses sit in plush chairs in a posh hotel lobby. One is reading part four of the "Bitch" series and smiling to himself. The other looks across and says: "Yes, but is it literature?"

[/verbalNewYorkerCartoon]


Christ, what an asshole.
posted by homuncula at 3:07 PM on October 25, 2009


The books are written by people who have "black sounding" names (quotes intentional) or pen names. For all we know all these books were written by Nora Roberts.

Like Zane and Jeff Rivera and Vickie Stringer and Shannon Holmes and Mallori McNeal and Miasha and TN Baker and Solomon Jones and K'wan Foye and Erick Gray and Nikki Turner and Meesha Mink and Pamela M. Johnson and J. Gail and Kole Black.

Yeah, you would really have no way of knowing whether these individuals are PoC or not.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:13 PM on October 25, 2009


As far as I can tell "literature" is a subset of "books", kinda like how "films" is a subset of "movies". Some movies, given enough time and critical acclaim and influence on other directors and status as representative of a particular era, come to be regarded as films. Some books go through the same process and come to be regarded as works of literature.

So asking if ghetto lit as a genre is "literature" doesn't make much sense. Are most novels in the genre literature? I haven't read any, but it sounds like the answer is no. Will there be certain ghetto lit novels which will eventually become classified as such? Maybe. Does it matter if you're reading "Hamlet" or "A Hustler's Worst Nightmare", as long as you're exercising your vocabulary and imagination either way? Not in the least.
posted by xbonesgt at 3:13 PM on October 25, 2009


"It's urban, it's real, but is this literature?

Nope. It's just trendy pulp fiction:



Product Description (Pitbulls in a skirt)

If you make it through the gates which house Emerald City, one of D.C. s deadliest projects, you ll run into four women with colorful ski coats and designer jeans. And if you don t belong, you ll quickly find out what they have nestled inside the Marc Jacob or Louis Vuitton purses they keep closely to them. These females aren t just pretty faces. They were taken out of their beds and placed on the throne by the hustler s they loved. Their only request was that the Emerald City squad remain true. But when Thick, the self proclaimed leader of the clique decides to bring an outside chick into the picture, to floss using the money their girlfriends earned, the security of the operation is jeopardized, sides are chosen and all hell breaks loose. Immediately they decide to remove the gang-stresses from power to prevent their emotions from interfering with business. But it s easier said than done and their ungratefulness only insights their fury. Once they shared their beds together, now they fought a war against one another for the ownership of a million dollar empire. Four women against their ex men. Who will reign supreme? The men who taught them everything they knew about the game? Or the Pitbulls In A Skirt?
posted by KokuRyu at 3:15 PM on October 25, 2009


Are you unable to make a judgment of the work because you have not read it or are you just incapable of judgment because you're so fair? Since when is sales the metric by which great literature is evaluated anyway?

But I'll humor you with a few: Philip Roth, Samuel Beckett, Walker Percy, Joseph Heller, Kingsley Amis, Flannery O'Connor, John Updike, V.S. Naipaul, John Steinbeck, Richard Yates, J.G. Ballard, Ray Bradbury, Anthony Burgess, William S. Burroughs, William Faulkner, Philip K. Dick, Ken Kesey, Doris Lessing, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Elie Wiesel, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Pynchon, Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Hubert Selby Jr., Gore Vidal, Jerzy Kosinski, Margaret Atwood, Truman Capote, William Styron, Arthur C. Clarke, Norman Mailer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, John Cheever, Günter Grass, Graham Greene, Yukio Mishima, etc.


Uh-huh, but how many of them would have been considered, without qualifiers, literature at the time? I'm seeing a list that looks a little bit more like:

Philip Roth, Samuel Beckett, Walker Percy, Joseph Heller, Kingsley Amis, Flannery O'Connor, John Updike, V.S. Naipaul, John Steinbeck, Richard Yates, J.G. Ballard, Ray Bradbury, Anthony Burgess, William S. Burroughs, William Faulkner, Philip K. Dick, Ken Kesey, Doris Lessing, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Elie Wiesel, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Pynchon, Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Hubert Selby Jr., Gore Vidal, Jerzy Kosinski, Margaret Atwood, Truman Capote, William Styron, Arthur C. Clarke, Norman Mailer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, John Cheever, Günter Grass, Graham Greene, Yukio Mishima, etc.

Bye-bye, sci-fi trolls; seeya later, beatnik weirdos. But wait! you say. Philip K. Dick was a genius! Ray Bradbury was already a respected author, man! Maybe so. But I think you would have had a hard time finding an academic who considered them literature in the '60s. In all honesty, you might still have a hard time finding academics who consider them literature today.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:16 PM on October 25, 2009 [7 favorites]


If any of these books are 1/10th as noxious and poisonous as The Secret, I'll eat my hat.
posted by The Whelk at 3:18 PM on October 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


"Work that will stand among the greatest in the history of human art?"

This seems to assume that there is a set canon, when it comes to literature, and that the canon is meritocratic. This ignores the fact that there are a host of other factors when it comes to canonization: from who decides on the list, to how well a particular work was disseminated and carried down through history, to what language it was originally written in. Works that "stand among the greatest in the history of human art" don't do so simply because they're "great," but because through a series of coincidences, they were lucky enough not to be forgotten.

That said, I'm one of those people who doesn't see the concept of a permanent canon as particularly useful. When it comes to chosing what to read, I prefer the MTA terror watch method: If you see something (and like it), say something (to me).

Maybe, instead of depending on a canon, we could start using the Department of Homeland Security advisory system as a way of rating books? As in, "that novel was so orange alert," or "the new Pynchon novel is a threat level guarded, at best."
posted by evidenceofabsence at 3:25 PM on October 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


In all honesty, you might still have a hard time finding academics who consider them literature today.

I'll take PKD and Vonnegut any day over James Fenimore Cooper. I can take college courses featuring PKD and Vonnegut. Not sure about Cooper, but I'd guess it would be more difficult to find a whole course on him, though he will always be in the canon.
posted by krinklyfig at 3:27 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Because those articles against it were written by people of color, and the issue with "urban lit" is not whether or not it fits your English professor's reading list of dead white men, but the fact that the writing itself is just fucking terrible and there is anger in the African-American community that it perpetuates the same stereotypes that the lyrics of 50 Cent songs tend to perpetuate.

And most of the people in the African American community who get their knickers in a twist over such things tend to also be insufferable snobs and their elitism is no different than anybody else's.

The argument is the same as it was in the ascendancy of hip-hop "how dare you not aspire to a cultural standard which excludes you at every turn?" It's no surprise that these books are popular with young African American women, given that you'd be hard pressed to find a more underserved demographic in modern popular culture. And why should their escapism be more virtuous than anyone else's? Maybe they should go pick up an issue of Vogue and develop higher rates of Eating disorders? I don't care what color these concerned defenders of "literature" are, as far as I'm concerned they're overfed trolls.

In a world where Ice Cube makes millions producing family friendly comedies, and Jay-Z has more #1 albums than Elvis, anyone who's questioning the literary aspects of this genre is asking all the wrong questions.
posted by billyfleetwood at 3:29 PM on October 25, 2009 [6 favorites]


Let me settle this: everything is literature. Literature is just a word. Everything is just a word. A lot of words together is literature. Oh, what was that? Is it good literature? Hmmm. I haven't read it, I was reading John Wright lately.
posted by rainy at 3:32 PM on October 25, 2009


de Maupassain't.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:33 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Jesus Christ the amount of typos in that article is unforgivable. Like real easy to catch spell check shit too:

- Another bookstore owner, Clara Villarosa of Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem, defends the appeal these books haw', although their language is not necessarily literary.

- and they find swallowing the new stuff like transiting* from Motown to Def Jam records.

I mean for fucks sake, how can the author talk about the value of this genre when they can't even write a competently edited article??

* Technically this isn't a typo per se, but the word the author wanted was transitioning not transiting, which has to do with transportation.
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 3:36 PM on October 25, 2009


[more inside]
posted by trojanhorse at 9:33 PM

Flagged as eponysterical?
posted by ymgve at 3:39 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Jesus Christ on Stilts. Is it literature? What a fucking stupid question. And not because it has an obvious answer, the actual question itself is fucking stupid.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:46 PM on October 25, 2009


I mean for fucks sake, how can the author talk about the value of this genre when they can't even write a competently edited article??

Man you gotta reposition your paradigms, moving forward. Your attitude isn't value-add.*

*This used as an example of a particular style of writing that makes me want to vomit with rage.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:47 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


So according to your analysis, six out of the forty authors I listed produced work that wasn't considered "literature" by academics when they were published, though you could argue about those six today. This is a semantic argument about what distinguishes literature from genre fiction -- one we can argue about endlessly. Notice that's not a value judgment about the precedence or supremacy of either. PeterMcDermott asked me which writers (popular, new, and fashionable) in the 1960s were as widely read and influential as Iceberg Slim. I offered a list which he objected to because he meant to say authors first published in the sixties, which eliminates some. You object to six of the forty because you don't think many academics (who we've already established are rich, stuffy, funny-talking white men whose positions are invalid by virtue of those attributes) considered them apart of "the canon" when they were first published. That still leaves a hell of a lot of literature (said in the most aristocratic of accents by this working class guy, I assure you) to point to.

Obviously I wasn't clear: not all art and literature is equivalent merely because it sells or because its creators come from diverse backgrounds and, as such, any evaluation of it is unfair. Not all qualitative judgments are representative of class/race/gender/species/whatever bias and not all works are created equal.
posted by inoculatedcities at 3:58 PM on October 25, 2009


I'll take PKD and Vonnegut any day over James Fenimore Cooper. I can take college courses featuring PKD and Vonnegut. Not sure about Cooper, but I'd guess it would be more difficult to find a whole course on him, though he will always be in the canon.

He will? I've never heard of anyone reading Cooper in a modern Lit class, much less taking a whole class in him.
posted by Bookhouse at 4:00 PM on October 25, 2009


I didn't mean that to sound fighty, by the way. I'd just never thought of Cooper as being taken seriously by modern scholars.
posted by Bookhouse at 4:14 PM on October 25, 2009


I can't judge the quality of the writing itself but I gotta say I love some of the titles:

"Unloveable Bitch: A Hoe Is Born"
"10 Crack Commandments"
"Section 8: A Hood Rat Novel"
"The Face That Launched A Thousand Bullets"

They're even better if you add "In Heat" so they sound like low end porn movies:

"The Dopeman's Wife In Heat"
"Ride or Die Chick In Heat II"
"Gangsta Bitch In Heat"

You get the idea.
posted by MikeMc at 4:15 PM on October 25, 2009


Chester Himes
Ernest Tidyman (who was white, but wrote Shaft.)
Donald Goines

This new "Urban Lit" or whatever you want to call it is nothing new, although the stuff referenced above appears to be aimed at women, which is a new twist. Black pulp fiction has been around for quite some time. And let's not forget Iceberg Slim.

Nothing new under the sun folks. Time will tell if Hooker to Housewife will stand the test of time. In the meantime, might I suggest The Real Cool Killers by Mr. Himes.

Know your history before you start asking "Is it literature."
posted by dortmunder at 4:23 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


"But is this literature?"

This isn't a sincere question at all. Why don't they just come out and say it. "Are these books? I mean, you know, books *we* read?"

Those articles made me so damn angry I can't even think straight or begin to organize a coherent argument about just what a tired, biased, dismissal of culture the authors willingly promote. Talk about drivel. Shit.

Seriously, am I alone here? Did I miss the point? Because what I see is some serious intellectualized bullshit. Is this literature? How is that question anything BUT some euphemistic false construct meant to de-legitimize and invite the casting of negative judgment upon the contributions of an entire subculture?

I hope to God I'm just confused.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:27 PM on October 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


"The Face That Launched A Thousand Bullets"

That's a great title, and a dangerous face.

"What happened?"
"Accidental death. Cleaning his face and it went off."
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:31 PM on October 25, 2009 [6 favorites]


some euphemistic false construct meant to de-legitimize and invite the casting of negative judgment upon the contributions of an entire subculture?

It occurs to me that if the genre we were discussing was called "Juggalo Lit" this thread would be nothing but "LOL Trailer Trash amirite" comments. Ooh, Juaggalo Lit, another idea in the NaNo hopper.
posted by MikeMc at 4:39 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Back when I was in grade 7, I discovered that my public school library had a whole bunch of 'young adult' novels like this, but from the mid 1970s and set amongst the then quite innocent* black and Chicano gang culture of places like Long Beach and South Central LA.
I loved them, and read them all, but today I don't recall any of the titles or authors - sure wish I could.
(*drugs weren't involved, and guns were rare and feared)
posted by Flashman at 4:45 PM on October 25, 2009


kittensforbreakfast, FWIW, nearly all the names you crossed out were regarded as "literature" in the 60s -- albeit perhaps controversial literature. P. K. Dick was regarded as a pulp hack, I have no idea who Herbert Selby was, and Clarke was ghettoized in SF, but Bradbury, Ballard, Vonnegut & Burroughs were all taken seriously in the 60s. (Ballard & Burroughs even punched through to literary notoriety.)

The criticism I would have made of that list is that it's post-facto. The more interesting question would be whether if you asked someone to produce a list of that many names, whether those people would be on it. That's going to be true whenever you make the list. If you make a list today of the "best books of the oughts", then do it again30 years from now, guess what? It's going to be radically different at those two points. It's an interesting and obvious fact and I doubt many people reading this would dispute it, but it really doesn't say a lot about the inherent quality of the literary works in question. What it does speak to is the fact that each age filters the art of the past to its own ends. Sometimes in the process some of it gets lost. E.g., who the hell remembers Robert Ruark today?

Where things might get a little different in the future is that things will get lost in different ways -- and furthermore, it will be easier for stuff published after about 2000 to get un-lost, because it's all part of the long tail.
posted by lodurr at 4:46 PM on October 25, 2009


I can't stand the word 'genre.' As far as I can tell, it's code for 'the point at which we stop thinking and start assuming.'

Judging a book by what particular words the author might choose to use, or what particular kinds of characters which inhabit its pages, seems like the height of folly. It's all literature, isn't it? There are particular books that end up being great, but the point is that they could come from anyone or anywhere.
posted by koeselitz at 4:46 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


bookhouse: I'd just never thought of Cooper as being taken seriously by modern scholars.

I think the decline in awareness of Cooper probably parallels the resurgence of interest in Twain.
posted by lodurr at 4:50 PM on October 25, 2009


ach, hit the wrong button.

Twain > Twain
posted by lodurr at 4:51 PM on October 25, 2009


koeselitz, did you just say its folly to judge a book based on the words within?
posted by mannequito at 4:52 PM on October 25, 2009


Ohh, I love urban fiction, every since I read Coldest Winter Ever (Sister Souljah) a decade ago working in a secondary school with a primarily black population. The sequel, Midnight, was on my to-read list as soon as I heard about it and I hyped it to all my patrons - crap, was I ever embarrassed at how awful it was and I had to tell them to come back and talk to me after the read it to introduce a bit of critical thinking about it. (My main complaint was the misogyny and victim blaming in it.) Many urban novels with young black women as protagonists show them as smart, strong women who maybe make mistakes but learn from those mistakes too. Or else are negative role models, like Winter, showing how looking out only for yourself will bite you in the ass.

At my public library the main consumers are young black women but a surprising amount are also teen boys ('tho they are more into K'wan than Dickey). I wish there were more Canadian Urban fiction books though. I haven't read any from the UK, I assume there must be some though. Some of it is written really crappy, but some is completely awesome. A couple of years ago a read an amazing novel with a young black male protaganist whose father was a jailed DJ and his momma was pretty useless at looking after him and his little brother and he cheated on his true-love girlfriend. I'd love to re-read it but the genre is so big now I am having no luck tracking it down.
posted by saucysault at 4:57 PM on October 25, 2009


mannequito: koeselitz, did you just say its folly to judge a book based on the words within?

No, I mean - well, I mean it's folly to say, "oh look, this book is in the style of X, therefore it's part of Y genre and therefore it's crap."

Take the words for what they are, is what I meant - not for what other group of books you associate them with. Who cares what people think is literature - hell, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are still wedged firmly into the "genre fiction" slot in the minds of most "literary academics," whereas their novels were (in my mind) some of the best of the last century. So what if it was "genre fiction" - whatever that means?
posted by koeselitz at 4:59 PM on October 25, 2009


The whole "literature" question is a major pet peeve of mine.

I was in a critique group a year or so back where the wife of one of the members was participating for the evening. She was a Creative Writing prof and a serial unpublished-literary-novelist. Speaking from authority, she quoted some famous dead white creative writing prof / literary fiction author (whose name escapes me) to the effect that "literature creates its own genre."

I'd just finished reading The Yiddish Policeman's Union at the time (now there's a challenge to genre categorization if ever there was one!), and I laughed in her face and pointed out that Pulitzers and Macarthurs routinely get awarded to authors of SF (admitted or otherwise) like Chabon and Wallace and Atwood, that we now regard as "literature" the work of Chandler, Hammett, Dickens, Austen, the Brontes, the Dumas, Cervantes and countless other writers who in their time were regarded as the contemporary equivalent of "genre writers." And that's not even getting into the supposed damage to literacy that Twain was supposed to inflict on American youth with Huckleberry Finn.

I would also point out that Hammett, Chandler, Thompson and Hemingway were all part of the same literary movement in a very real sense, and that as far as I know, all of them were aware of it.

I know a lot of black people probably find "hip-hop lit" to be insulting and that they think it furthers racial stereotypes or holds black people back. But we've got our own history of that amongst whites, and it hasn't killed us yet. (Can you spell "Mickey Spillane"?) And sometimes it even produces something really interesting, like Jim Thompson. (Sick, yes, but nevertheless interesting.)
posted by lodurr at 5:02 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


saucysault: Some of it is written really crappy, but some is completely awesome.

My experience is that some of the best things are written when people are convinced that they can't possibly be writing 'great literature' so they may as well just write something fun and heartfelt that means something to them. Witness the whole of science fiction; none of those people writing in the 50s had any illusions about ending up on 'greatest book of all time' lists, but they achieve some really fantastic stuff.

It just goes to show, I think, that the pretention to writing "great literature" pretty much prevents great literature, which really just happens when you're writing what you know and what you love.
posted by koeselitz at 5:05 PM on October 25, 2009


And, in case previous in-thread mentions have gotten re-buried: Sturgeon's Law.
posted by lodurr at 5:06 PM on October 25, 2009


If you want to check out a modern equivalent to those YA books, Flashman, you might enjoy (among other things) the Bluford and Drama High series, and the work of Sharon Flake and Sharon Draper.
posted by box at 5:07 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


lodurr: Hammett, Chandler, Thompson and Hemingway were all part of the same literary movement in a very real sense, and that as far as I know, all of them were aware of it.

Absolutely. And Cormac McCarthy, too. It's shocking how much Dashiell Hammett's writing reads like Cormac McCarthy; I really and truly believe that McCarthy had Red Harvest in mind when he wrote Blood Meridian, even down to the very title.
posted by koeselitz at 5:07 PM on October 25, 2009


koeselitz: My experience is that some of the best things are written when people are convinced that they can't possibly be writing 'great literature' so they may as well just write something fun and heartfelt that means something to them.

Didn't John Gardner used to rant on this at great length?
posted by lodurr at 5:07 PM on October 25, 2009


koeselitz: chandler bores me after a while, but i find Hammett almost endlessly fascinating. and my understanding is that mccarthy is a huge hammett fan.
posted by lodurr at 5:09 PM on October 25, 2009



Absolutely. And Cormac McCarthy, too. It's shocking how much Dashiell Hammett's writing reads like Cormac McCarthy; I really and truly believe that McCarthy had Red Harvest in mind when he wrote Blood Meridian, even down to the very title.

McCarthy is a genre writer. His most famous works all fit firmly into established genres. Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy are westerns. No Country for Old Men is hard boiled crime fiction, and The Road is sci-fi. I've always wondered if it's his disdain for quotation marks that makes people take him so seriously.
posted by dortmunder at 5:19 PM on October 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


lodurr: Didn't John Gardner used to rant on this at great length?

What, the conductor? Heh. I haven't heard of him, but I'll look him up.

lodurr: chandler bores me after a while, but i find Hammett almost endlessly fascinating. and my understanding is that mccarthy is a huge hammett fan.

Yes, I know what you mean. I think Chandler is interesting, though he has his flaws. I just finished Farewell, My Lovely, which so far seems to be his best of the ones I've read, but The Little Sister was just awful; he is at his best when he transcends the camp, but he sometimes just descends into vague sarcasm and even simple moody petulance, which was what I couldn't stand about the Little Sister.

But Dashiell Hammett... what a magnificent writer. That cold, empty prose which intentionally removes all sentimentality and drives directly to the simple heart of reality... he had to know, I think, that Red Harvest, his first novel, exploded every vestige of the "limitations of the genre," being so far ahead of what anyone had ever even imagined for detective fiction; but I believe we still haven't plumbed the depths he explored there. Simply: I think he's the only writer who's discovered how to be a just man in an unjust world; that's why we're still so obsessed with detective fiction, nearly a hundred years after Hammett reinvented it and simultaneously blew it to bits – because we just want to know how to be just in this world that's so unfair. And The Glass Key... Jesus, what a book. Worth more than I can ever say about it. As you say: endlessly fascinating. I've been putting off my thesis for my political science degree for years, and at the moment I'm trying to put together a prospectus to justify writing it on those five fantastic novels.
posted by koeselitz at 5:23 PM on October 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


Are you unable to make a judgment of the work because you have not read it or are you just incapable of judgment because you're so fair?

i think iceberg slim's novels give a picture of a time and place that we would not otherwise have and do it in a memorable, artistic and meaningful way

yes, it's literature
posted by pyramid termite at 5:25 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Much as joyce is much more interpretable and enjoyable if you can read him with an irish lilt and knowledge of irish songs and folktales; an understanding lot of the urban fiction I read is more complex with an grasp of Ebonics and allusions to songs and media created by and aimed at a black audience.

There has always been crappy novels; just because we still read the few gems from the nineteenth century does not mean everything published then was "literature". The same applies to urban lit.
posted by saucysault at 5:26 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


But Dashiell Hammett... what a magnificent writer. That cold, empty prose which intentionally removes all sentimentality and drives directly to the simple heart of reality... he had to know, I think, that Red Harvest, his first novel, exploded every vestige of the "limitations of the genre," being so far ahead of what anyone had ever even imagined for detective fiction; but I believe we still haven't plumbed the depths he explored there. Simply: I think he's the only writer who's discovered how to be a just man in an unjust world; that's why we're still so obsessed with detective fiction, nearly a hundred years after Hammett reinvented it and simultaneously blew it to bits – because we just want to know how to be just in this world that's so unfair. And The Glass Key... Jesus, what a book. Worth more than I can ever say about it. As you say: endlessly fascinating. I've been putting off my thesis for my political science degree for years, and at the moment I'm trying to put together a prospectus to justify writing it on those five fantastic novels.

You may be interested in reading Hard Boiled Sentimentality which, among other things, has a pretty fascinating analysis of The Maltese Falcon in light of the Great Depression and the rise of corporate credit based capitalism.
posted by dortmunder at 5:33 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Forgot to link to Hard Boiled Sentimentality. Woops.
posted by dortmunder at 5:34 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


The "this isn't literature" argument in a nutshell:
"Is this food? No, because well I've had food before and what I just had tasted nothing like food therefore it's not food."
posted by suedehead at 5:40 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


A couple of years ago a read an amazing novel with a young black male protaganist whose father was a jailed DJ and his momma was pretty useless at looking after him and his little brother and he cheated on his true-love girlfriend. I'd love to re-read it but the genre is so big now I am having no luck tracking it down.
"Tyrell" by Coe Booth. (You should also read her new one, "Kendra.")
posted by Jeanne at 5:45 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


FelliniBlank: The pompous Bloom-n-Hirsch types use it as sort of a synonym for "The Great Books." You can usually tell someone's doing this if (s)he pronounces the word "li-ter-a-tyooooor."

inoculated cities: Yes, let's all have a good ol' fashioned Metafilter pile-on on Harold Bloom as we are wont to do. His expertise, education, and position is precisely what makes him suspect, right? Oh, and he's old, white, and wealthy so obviously that means any utterance of his can be dismissed right off the bat. I bet he talks funny too!

Normally I try not to speak on behalf of other people, or to make assumptions about their point, but I think that FelliniBlank was speaking not of Harold Bloom, but of Allan Bloom, whose The Closing of the American Mind was published shortly after E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.

Harold Bloom, I agree, is worth reading. Of Allan Bloom's work, I am not so much of a fan. I thought that The Closing of the American Mind was a hysterical screed, best used for flinging violently against the wall at the end of a bad day. It did have impressive heft, I'll give it that.
posted by bakerina at 5:51 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


First, inoculatedcitites is may favorite new mefite. You go, whoever you are. (Please don't turn out to be a serial killer.)

Second:
"The Face That Launched A Thousand Bullets"

That's a great title, and a dangerous face.


No, it's a hopelessly derivative title. It's a play on the phrase "the face that launched a thousand ships," which refers to Helen of Troy, a character in one of the oldest works of Western literature. In particular, the "Bullets" in the former title functions in the same way as "ships" in the latter - both are instruments of violence. The only title more derivative would have been "The Face That Launched a Thousand Boats."

A much more interesting title would be "The Face That Launched a Thousand Chips" about a poker player who falls in love with a woman so deeply that he folds the winning hand in a huge pot to ultimately win her over. Or something. At least it's an interesting turn on the phrase.

This isn't a sincere question at all. Why don't they just come out and say it. "Are these books? I mean, you know, books *we* read?"

Oh stop it. It isn't the establishment that's hiding here. Did you read the wiki article linked in the post? The entire first paragraph avoids saying what everyone knows to be true. Urban fiction is fiction written overwhelmingly by black authors about black people in the underclass of American cities. There nothing wrong with that, so I don't understand the need to spend an entire paragraph in an encyclopedia struggling only to imply it, without ever directly saying it. Probably because the wiki article was written by a guilt-ridden white guy.

And I hope you realize that "books *we* read" includes books by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Baldwin, to name a few. They are indisputably in the "canon" of great American literature. But I guess Baldwin doesn't count as "urban fiction," despite the fact that he was writing actively when Pimp came out, and like Pimp, Baldwin's works are autobiographical, describing life in early 20th century NYC. I wonder why it is that Slim is "urban fiction," but his contemporary Baldwin is not...
posted by Pastabagel at 5:59 PM on October 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


Oh stop it. It isn't the establishment that's hiding here.

Oh, but yes it is. Every time we speak of 'literature' vs 'non-literature', without any semblance of irony or self-awareness, we're using concept of 'greatness' that has become naturalized and universalized as some sort of constant. Whereas 'greatness' is really a specific designation made by a specific subculture of people.

Is it any surprise that those who have mostly read from the 'canon' endorsed by the literary institution (including institutions of higher learning, the new york times, the new yorker, etc) go around and designate those books that don't align to their values as "not-literature"? Of course not.

It's not a race issue, but an intelligence/class issue.* That's why, Pastabagel, saying "But we read James Baldwin too etc etc" has no bearing on what iamkimiam is saying. To haphazardly spurt out a list of authors, like what inoculatedcities does, and to act as if the list of authors speaks for itself is to completely be blind to the way that canons work, and how standards of taste work, and is a rather excellent example of how the things you read and write about can change your mindset until you're unable to imagine that you had ever thought in a different fashion, otherwise.

* Yes, I know, haha, et cetera.
posted by suedehead at 6:14 PM on October 25, 2009


On re-read, I rescind my comment about inoculatedcities. I see that what he's saying is not "these are Authors with a capital A" but rather "these are best-selling authors from the 60s who are considered to be Authors", as a very specific reply to PeterMcDermott's question.

My earlier points still stand, though. Literature is an establishment, the same thing way that 'Culture' or 'Art' has been and will always be, and that'll be a lesser issue as long as we're aware of it -- but if we're not, then it's a pretty uninformed and sinister move on one's part to ask the question "is urban fiction literature?" with a straight face.
posted by suedehead at 6:22 PM on October 25, 2009


"The Face That Launched A Thousand Bullets"

That's a great title, and a dangerous face.

No, it's a hopelessly derivative title. It's a play on the phrase "the face that launched a thousand ships," which refers to Helen of Troy, a character in one of the oldest works of Western literature.


Well, duh. Plays on words are by definition derivative. Some plays on words are awesome. I submit that The Face that Launched a Thousand Bullets is a pretty good one, in part because of its derivation. The "a thousand chips" gag is too punny for my taste.
posted by Bookhouse at 6:26 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Urban-fiction authors have a weakness for those allusive/punny/double-meaning titles. Two representative examples: the main character in Sister Souljah's The Coldest Winter Ever is a woman named Winter. Nikki Turner's A Project Chick is named after a Cash Money Millionaires song.
posted by box at 6:33 PM on October 25, 2009


Oh, no, I think you misunderstood me Pastabagel. But I'm actually a bit confused by what you've written. I *think* we're coming from the same perspective, but yet, there's so much in this thread that is really hard for me to interpret. I've read everybody's comments, and the links of course too (including the Wikipedia one), but it just still really seems to me this:

There's a new genre of books that people enjoy. They're getting really popular. The books are generally written by a specific group of people, they reflect a experiences and culture of those people, and the books don't conform to traditional rules of English grammar. I imagine that the authors do not speak Standard American English dialect (SAE), nor do they identify with or aim to conform to the standards set by SAE. I only say this last part based on what I've read on the links here, because I cannot seem to find an actual writing sample/paragraph/chapter to look into. :(

Then, we've got this 'controversy' over whether or not this is literature? Who is asking this question? Why? Why does it matter whether or not this is literature? Whether or not it conforms to a SAE standard of what literature is? Why 'literature' – a term that is loaded with all sorts of connotations about privilege, class, prescriptivism, etc.? Who is on the other side of this 'controversy'? What's their actual stance? Because the links tend to show the article authors' disdain for the genre, and mostly quote people who think it's trash reading. Do the articles really have equal representation of both sides of this 'controversy'? I don't really know how to interpret their use of the book author's statement, since it really seems to be sandwiched between 'this is junk, but it's selling!' sentiment. I guess I'm saying that the controversy seems fabricated to me, that the books are being held up to a standard that (I feel) they have every right to be a part of (I'm saying, Yes urban fiction is indeed literature), but the framing of it all seems so snotty and elitist that to question whether or not it is literature seems to be a bit hegemonic – not perpetuated by the system or the establishment or whatever, but by the people who wrote the articles in the links.

I guess to me, after reading the articles, the question doesn't read "Is it literature?" as in, "Where does it go on the shelf?" No value judgment there. But it reads more like, "But is it literature?!," as in "Don't let that smut written by those uneducateds near our Classics!"

Like I said, I may be really, really confused and misinterpreting all of this. I'm generally pretty savvy, but this stuff (the topic, the articles, the books, the post, and the comments) are all very socially complex and nuanced. I think a lot can get misinterpreted when we're reading it online in a text-based medium too. If I'm confused, I'm pretty sure I'm not alone. So I welcome anybody who wants to offer up a clear untangling of the various viewpoints, and where mine has gone astray. I'm obviously lacking some background info, and not inferring it from the links.

I just still feel that something in those articles seems really, really off. And the more I read them, the less I can articulate what it is.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:35 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thanks Jeanne. I placed a hold on Kendra immediately.
posted by saucysault at 6:39 PM on October 25, 2009


Just to head off any confusion, that's not to say that the Cash Money Millionaires invented the phrase 'project chick.' But that song was a big hit, and one that most of Turner's audience would know about.)
posted by box at 6:46 PM on October 25, 2009


XQUZYPHYR: Yes, it's written by black people. Apparently that means it needs both a special name and segregated area in the bookstore, because we've advanced very far as a nation.

Dangerous trend, that. I've seen Zora Neale Hurston and other authors of color of her prominence stashed in these sections. The line between speaking to the urban experience and perpetuating racial stereotypes can be a very thin one. Regardless of your opinion of Hurston or your opinion of the titles in this thread, they are breathtakingly different in time period, in tone, in purpose, in setting and in intent. To lop them together as "black fiction" is dangerously close to "black people read like this..."
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 6:47 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


No, it's a hopelessly derivative title. It's a play on the phrase "the face that launched a thousand ships," which refers to Helen of Troy, a character in one of the oldest works of Western literature.

Thank you so much for clarifying that. It's from an old book, huh? Man, I hope I can tear myself away from the teevee long enough to read one a them things some day. And then maybe I'll be able to presume that folks on the internet are ignorant, too. Bet it feels GREAT. All warm and cozy, like one a them blankets what has arms in it and such. I saw an ad where they's makin' 'em for dogs, now! HAMBURGER
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:48 PM on October 25, 2009 [10 favorites]


Hooray for story. Hooray for reading.

The guardians of Littracha should be happy that reading is on the rise anywhere, in this day and age. If people are reading and writing, the art will take care of itself.
posted by fleacircus at 6:54 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hang on, BOP--this shit will blow your freakin' mind, man. The guy who made up that 'face that launched a thousand ships' shit also wrote a play called Doctor Fausto. They made it into a movie called Petey Wheatstraw.
posted by box at 6:57 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


bakerina - You know, I didn't even consider that but now I see how obviously I misinterpreted to it, forgive me. I'm certainly not making Allan Bloom's argument that the young are being corrupted by relativism, rock music, and modern philosophy. I'm just stating that all cultures are self-aware and collectively designate their own greatest achievements. I'm willing to bet that in thirty years, none of the books we're talking about will be in the canon of any civilization.

Every time we speak of 'literature' vs 'non-literature', without any semblance of irony or self-awareness, we're using concept of 'greatness' that has become naturalized and universalized as some sort of constant. Whereas 'greatness' is really a specific designation made by a specific subculture of people.

Undoubtedly true. At no point did I argue that the genre of urban fiction was not literature. Further, it seems obvious to me that any analysis of a particular culture's greatest achievements will vary depending on the bias of the interpreter. Acknowledging that does not mean the culture can not form a consensus on it's greatest accomplishments. I think we can agree on that. By defining "greatness" in culture and making a "specific designation" of "a specific subculture of people" I am making a "specific" characterization that is unfair to make, you say. It's all intentionally quite vague but this apparently means imposing some antimulticultural, elitist, myopic, etc. standard. Of course this a distortion. I am referring to our collective designation and preservation of the culture's most valued artifacts, just as all other human civilizations have gone to great lengths do.

It's not a race issue, but an intelligence/class issue.

Absolutely.

To haphazardly spurt out a list of authors, like what inoculatedcities does, and to act as if the list of authors speaks for itself is to completely be blind to the way that canons work, and how standards of taste work, and is a rather excellent example of how the things you read and write about can change your mindset until you're unable to imagine that you had ever thought in a different fashion, otherwise.

I was asked a specific question and I replied specifically. That's all. PeterMcDermott asked, albeit somewhat rhetorically, how many literary fiction authors from the 1960s compare to Iceberg Slim in terms of sales and influence today. I provided a list and most of whom included tower over Iceberg Slim in terms of sales and influence. I never said the list "spoke for itself" -- I hope that no one would take my opinion that those listed are great writers, I hope they'd read them instead and decide for themselves. If your argument is that tastes change and people form affinities for and treasure different things, I am not disagreeing.

Also I'm open to having my mind changed, which is why I enjoy talking with this "specific subculture" of people on the blue.
posted by inoculatedcities at 7:05 PM on October 25, 2009


But the thing is, KokuRyu; I would probably read Pitbulls in a Skirt, if it were put in front of me. If for no other reason than that the lives of black women is pretty much completely absent from anything else I've ever been asked to read, except the Color Purple, and that one book cannot possibly carry the weight of all black women's experience; expecting Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston to be sufficient for black readers is like saying white people should be fine with just Dickens and maybe some F. Scott Fitgerald, and nothing else. Magisterially declaring that color and gender should not matter to readers is something white male writers, who never have to make that particular logical leap, seem particularly prone to.

Let's ask another question; if this type of fiction vanished magically from the land tomorrow, where would young black women find something that spoke to them?

What we are seeing is the birth of a new type of literature, arising from the need of a group that has been not only underserved but effectively erased from our culture at large, except as stereotypes. I know a great deal about the worries and angsts of male white and/or Jewish academic types, also of upper middle class white women with unhappy marriages and a literary bent. About the world of these books, I am utterly ignorant.

Which means I find this much more exciting than otherwise. The early women novelists weren't all that hot, by and large; romances, Gothics, excruciating religious sermons disguised as novels. Also derided by those who called themselves gatekeepers. A great deal of them are now simply literary curiosities. But eventually we got Austen, the Brontes, Woolf, and then things really began to pick up steam. Literature expanded enormously, and was enriched.

I have no reason to think this can't happen with these books and writers too, given enough time. It may have begun happening already.

And in the meantime, a wholly new group of readers is being formed, who are being seen and understood, for the first time, by an author who "gets" at least part of their experience. Isn't that why anyone loves a book, the "aha" feeling, when you meet an author or a character who seems to be explaining something about you that no one else ever did? It's a hell of a rush, and even if these books don't stand the test of time, for their current readers, they are obviously performing a service.
posted by emjaybee at 7:15 PM on October 25, 2009 [15 favorites]


It's pretty undeniable at this point that hip hop has been one of (if not THE) largest cultural movement of our lifetimes. Naturally, something as big as hip hop would have to have a literary component (it already is music, dance, fashion, art, pretty much every other form of cultural expression). These articles just sound like some oldsters wringing their hands about portrayals of African Americans in the media, etc. which is valid - but if you don't like it, it's not for you! The comparison between pulp detective fiction and this is valid, except that we've had 50-60 years to shake out the Chandlers and Hammet's from the thousands of other mediocre pulp genre writers. The more people reading and writing anything the better chances of something amazing coming out of it. And pastabagel, if you think that Baldwin, Hurston and Hughes don't have their own little area in a lot of bookstores, think again. They are certainly canonized American writers, but there's no way that someone who died in the 1960 is talking about hip hop, which is really what's at stake here - What will the literature of hip hop look like? Like everything else, I'm guessing there will be a lot of crap to sift through to find the great work. I just hope that people aren't so closed to it that they don't search.
posted by mike_bling at 7:33 PM on October 25, 2009


"It's a hell of a rush, and even if these books don't stand the test of time, for their current readers, they are obviously performing a service."

Amen. There is no need for these books to stand the test of time any more than the Harlequin NASCAR novels. They're both genre fiction meant to be read and enjoyed by a fairly specific demographic and in that they succeed. Is it literature? I don't know, what is art? Who gives a shit?
posted by MikeMc at 7:36 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


...the "aha" feeling, when you meet an author or a character who seems to be explaining something about you that no one else ever did? It's a hell of a rush...

It's sad how often I get that feeling from reading The Onion.
posted by mreleganza at 7:41 PM on October 25, 2009


It's pretty undeniable at this point that hip hop has been one of (if not THE) largest cultural movement of our lifetimes.

What is undeniable, that hip-hop has attained a large youth following based on sales in mass media outlets? So what? Size and popularity are not important. Youth are fickle and tribal in their tastes, which is why new "cultural movements" find a foothold among them so easily.

I would argue that the most influential and prescient cultural movement of our lifetimes has been post-modernism.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:00 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


He will? I've never heard of anyone reading Cooper in a modern Lit class, much less taking a whole class in him.

He was the first successful popular American novelist, sometimes known as America's first novelist, which puts him in a unique place in history without having to be very good. My high school honors class had to read The Pioneers. But that was sort of my point. Just because something is considered "literature" doesn't mean it is of the highest quality and may be canonical for historical or other reasons.
posted by krinklyfig at 8:01 PM on October 25, 2009


In passing, Cooper (Natty Bump novels, aka Leatherstocking) early on recognized how we were savaging Nature in our crazed buffalo killing, fishing etc, and noted that what we had in abundance might not be around at the rate we were messing with it.
posted by Postroad at 8:05 PM on October 25, 2009


inoculatedcities: No forgiveness required. I'm sure I've made that mistake in reverse, wondering why someone was citing "Bloom" so respectfully, scratching my head, and then realizing s/he was talking about Harold, not Allan.

Even though I still disagree with A.B. on, well, almost everything, I can respect that he was a smart, complex thinker, and not quite the reductive caricature that many made him out to be. But...gah, I really hated Closing, which, along with Cultural Literacy and Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals, was a serious cudgel in the late 1980s culture wars. (I graduated from college in 1988, and my one wish for the future was that everyone would forget about these damn books by 1990. Apparently I got my wish -- except now I'm still talking about them, so the joke is on me. (rimshot)

But I'm even more off-point than I was earlier...

I'm just stating that all cultures are self-aware and collectively designate their own greatest achievements. I'm willing to bet that in thirty years, none of the books we're talking about will be in the canon of any civilization.

I pretty much agree with you, although I probably will not take that bet, just because it's almost impossible to predict, as Astro Zombie described upthread, where the source of a flower among weeds will emerge. One of my favorite reading memories is reading Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write, which she wrote in 1938, and hearing her dismiss the likes of Steinbeck and Hemingway and Galsworthy because they were supposed to be Great Modern Writers, but she found their voices to be empty and posturing and untrue, unlike the voices of William Blake and "the great Russians." I often wonder if, in her final years, Brenda Ueland was gobsmacked to see the same Of Mice and Men she smacked around in 1938 being taught to high school students.
posted by bakerina at 8:15 PM on October 25, 2009


I was asked a specific question and I replied specifically. That's all.

Yeah I misread, apologies for that.

I would argue that the most influential and prescient cultural movement of our lifetimes has been post-modernism.

Except that postmodernism isn't really a cultural movement, but more like a phenomenon termed (all too loosely) to tie together a series of characteristics that all happened after modernism. It's a post-facto, descriptive definition.

And on top of that, much of hip hop arguably has 'postmodern' tendencies - the whole culture of sampling, remixing, creating mixtapes, and so on runs counter to so many ideas of the discrete author and his/her consistent, singular creations.

Besides, who says only the "youth" listen to such "tribal" music like hip hop? Those seem like some sketchy assumptions I see peeking out from beneath your words.
posted by suedehead at 8:25 PM on October 25, 2009


"Is it literature?" is a stupid question. The smart question is, "Of the many books in this popular genre, which ones are worth reading -- either for fun (the way "Faster Pussycat Kill Kill" is a movie worth watching), or as something that holds up as strong writing?

We've had three suggestions so far -- 'Tyrell' and "Kendra" by Coe Booth, and "The Coldest Winter Ever", by Sister Souljah -- and one from the previous generation ("The Real Cool Killers", by Chester Himes.) Himes for example hung out in 1950s Paris with Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin, all of whom are clearly part of the canon of literature.

Let's talk specifics we know about instead of platitudes about how black authors are unfairly excluded from consideration as literature, OK? Thanks so much.
posted by msalt at 8:25 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of that one post about the painter and how the MeFites were all, "who are we to judge?" and "who says what art is, anyway?"
posted by mattholomew at 8:32 PM on October 25, 2009


We've had three suggestions so far -- 'Tyrell' and "Kendra" by Coe Booth, and "The Coldest Winter Ever", by Sister Souljah -- and one from the previous generation ("The Real Cool Killers", by Chester Himes.) Himes for example hung out in 1950s Paris with Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin, all of whom are clearly part of the canon of literature.

If it's suggestions that you want, then yeah, read Pimp by Iceberg Slim. From Donald Goines I'd recommend Dopefiend and Daddy Cool.
posted by Bookhouse at 8:56 PM on October 25, 2009


I'm surprised that nobody's brought up Paul Laurence Dunbar. Between "An Ante-Bellum Sermon" and "We Wear the Mask", there seems to be some relevance to this issue, I think.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:58 PM on October 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of that one post about the painter and how the MeFites were all, "who are we to judge?" and "who says what art is, anyway?"

To be honest, I realized a while back that I give a lot more of a berth in terms of being non-judgmental to cultures that are not my own- simply because I feel like I have less barriers to understanding. It's sort of the backlash from people automatically disliking the unfamiliar, and I'm not so sure it's a terrible impulse.
posted by 235w103 at 9:05 PM on October 25, 2009


Is Iceberg Slim, to use one famous example from this genre, fine literature?

Iceberg Slim was a strong writer. He wrote an excellent memoir. The two or three novels of his I read didn't impress me too much; they weren't horrible, just not standouts. I can easily imagine Pimp being read some decades from now. Comparing it to some similar books, it's almost as good as You Can't Win by Jack Black and quite a bit better than either the Memoirs of Vidocq or Bad by James Carr. Literature doesn't seem like the right word. Most of the time I hear it used as a subset of fiction, i.e. not your typical genre fiction, a story that subverts the expectations of the reader. But 'literature' is used in a broader sense as well, as in all written works. By that standard, then of course it is literature. But, what wouldn't be?

-----

I'm unable to say how people are likely to respond to it in the future, but it seems to me that longevity and the influence that a work has on the culture is at least as valuable a measure of its importance as any aesthetic judgement I might make about a book.

If longevity and influence are the main criteria then Louis L'Amour is a towering figure in 20th century American literature. That alone suggests to me that there must be some sort of judgment of quality.

-----

I'm not a fan of The Wire but I heard some time ago that one of the inspirations for a character was a contract killer in 70s Baltimore, Dennis Wise. He has since become an author, and his books look like fun reads.
posted by BigSky at 9:18 PM on October 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


I thought Iceberg Slim's "Pimp" was outstanding. It was real, gritty, complicated and fascinating. A vivid picture of a world I could never know. I tried to read "Ghetto Superstar" by Nikki Turner a few weeks ago--I came across a description somewhere, thought it sounded interesting, and found it at the library. I was definitely predisposed to like it, but it just felt too contrived. It lacked convincing detail, and I didn't believe that the author had experienced the world she was describing. The writing itself was pretty uninspired as well, but if the plot and the characters had been more compelling, it wouldn't really have mattered.

I'd never put Nikki Turner in the same category as Iceberg Slim, however. I feel like she has more in common with someone like Lauren Weisberger ("The Devil Wears Prada") or Plum Sykes ("Bergdorf Blondes"). Young authors writing books about a simultaneously glamorous and horrifying world that people love to experience vicariously. I'll shamefacedly admit to enjoying such authors, mainly because they seem to really understand the societies they write about. They both convince me and intrigue me. Nikki Turner sadly did neither of those things (though her other books might be better, and I'm certainly intrigued by the concept).

If there is such a thing as urban literature, I'd put Iceberg Slim in that category, but not people like Nikki Turner. This new "urban lit" seems to just be a new flavour of a formula perfected by Jacqueline Susann, perpetuated by Joan Collins, and modernized for the tween set by Zoey Dean. I say more power to these authors, and to anyone who can get more people reading. It's about time this type of book took place somewhere outside the narrow confines of the Manhattan and Hollywood elites.
posted by Go Banana at 9:44 PM on October 25, 2009


There was a black publishing house called X Press based in Hackney that was creating a similar stir back in the 90s in the UK with titles like Yardie by Victor Headley and Cop Killer (you have to scroll down for the review) by Don Gorgon (AFAICT not the Don Gorgon better known as Ninjaman). Any road, despite a bit of a moral panic about the themes they were pretty well-written rip-roaring reads the ones I saw but you got exactly the same irreconcilable questions asked.
posted by Abiezer at 9:45 PM on October 25, 2009


Oops, forgot to link the article I found on X Press and Caribbean lit in the UK.
posted by Abiezer at 9:46 PM on October 25, 2009


On preview at Amazon, "Queen Bitch" looks totally entertaining. I'm in!
posted by Go Banana at 9:54 PM on October 25, 2009


What we are seeing is the birth of a new type of literature, arising from the need of a group that has been not only underserved but effectively erased from our culture at large, except as stereotypes.

Yes yes yes. A thousand times yes.

This is the same phenomenon that made my family come running to the TV en masse, whenever one of us spotted another Asian in a commercial. It is the thrill of seeing someone like yourself reflected in the mainstream media at long last. If you are part of the majority it will be hard to understand this, but it can drive some otherwise questionable consumption. I watched way more Star Trek: Voyager than I probably should have simply because Harry Kim was Asian.
posted by emeiji at 10:21 PM on October 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


Is this one of those retroactive genres like Steampunk?
posted by Artw at 11:01 PM on October 25, 2009


To respond, for a second, to the articles linked in the post, I think it's unreasonable to expect authors to portray their communities only in a positive light, lest someone conflate the characters in their book with entire groups of people. Shouldn't the onus be on the jerks who're willing to draw such conclusions? And shouldn't urban lit authors be granted the same freedom to be as pulpy (or not) as any other authors? Why should they be held to a different standard?

A story can both trade on stereotypes, and provide vivid, true-to-life details that resonate with readers. That's why my dad loved The Sopranos, even though I come from a Sicilian-American family that's spent 100 years going out of its way to avoid stereotypical appearances and behaviors. Being portrayed as a corrupt, fat, criminal thug? Crappy. Seeing a fellow family man eat capicola, scream Sicilian profanities, and deal with a passive-aggressive mom? Not half bad.

A lot of people have brought up canonized African-American novels. But think about the characters in some of those works—about what makes them compelling, or revolutionary. Take The Invisible Man, or Sethe, or Celie, or Janie Crawford...the list goes on. All live through exceptional circumstances, and deal with some serious awfulness. So, honest question: If their experiences can appear in books that are deemed worthy, why should other books be dismissed for having plots that veer away from the straight and narrow?

Aside: One of my favorite short stories of all time is Baldwin's Sonny's Blues, which is available here, as a .pdf. As goes stereotypes, it considers the relationship between a man and his heroin-addicted brother, and is set in Harlem's "killing streets" (Baldwin's words, not mine). But damn if it isn't one of the most beautiful things I've ever read.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 12:38 AM on October 26, 2009


So how many pitbulls can you fit in a skirt?
posted by Eideteker at 1:21 AM on October 26, 2009


So how many pitbulls can you fit in a skirt?

One, if her name is Sarah Palin.
posted by dortmunder at 5:55 AM on October 26, 2009


Well, I was going to make some kind of lipstick joke, but instead, here's a link to a rap video.
posted by box at 6:02 AM on October 26, 2009


I know a great deal about the worries and angsts of male white and/or Jewish academic types, also of upper middle class white women with unhappy marriages and a literary bent.

So true. It seems as though the only books that feature characters of another race or culture are imports or genre fiction. In fact, it is surprising how few published books are written about the poor and working class in America except in thrillers and detective novels. Where are the novels about the handicapped, the mentally ill, native Americans, black cleaning ladies? You can find them in the mystery section of the library.

As far as crap books go, my own 16 year old reads some doozies-- she loves the Gossip Girl type stuff: sex, mean girls, stupid parents, alcohol, parties, and lots and lots of credit card shopping. I'm hoping that she will get bored and move on to better literature eventually, just as I read my fill of horror and SF in my teens until I got bored with reading trash.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:24 AM on October 26, 2009


"What's the most dangerous thing in America? A[n Urban] with a library card."
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 8:08 AM on October 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


I know a great deal about the worries and angsts of male white and/or Jewish academic types, also of upper middle class white women with unhappy marriages and a literary bent.

We can certainly discuss how underrepresented many factions of American society are in the realm of literary fiction. We can ponder the relationship between class, education, and artistic productivity. We can trace the rise of dominant enclaves of particular ethnic groups within certain disciplines. These are all fruitful, valuable, interesting topics, but they do not inform the judgment made by our society as a whole as to what work is most valued.

Further, dismissing all celebrated American literary fiction as the "angsts of male white/and or Jewish academic types" and "upper middle class white women with unhappy marriages and a literary bent" is completely inappropriate, dismissive, reductionist, and quasi-racist. It's entirely unfair to dismiss work of artistic value simply because it doesn't conform to a radical, justice-oriented, politically-correct, anticolonialist, feminist, Afrocentric, etc. ideology. Just as it would be unfair to dismiss all fiction written by black authors from large cities as "urban fiction" (as others have pointed out regarding the distinction between James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison vs. Iceberg Slim, Sistah Souljah, Mikal Malone, Tyler Perry, etc. ). There are qualitative, meaningful differences between these writers and to intentionally ignore that fact and take them all together as "urban fiction" contesting the evil monolith of white, Jewish old men and idle well-off housewives dabbling in prose is pure silliness or just a manifestation of white liberal guilt.

Again, not all work is created equally and there's nothing wrong with acknowledging that fact.
posted by inoculatedcities at 8:52 AM on October 26, 2009


Considering that the most recent book I've read written by a white dude that had a black protagonist was Anansi Boys and that guy was the son of an ancient god...

I say we need more of this, not less. Preferably of better quality so that it might cross over into the general reading audience, not just the African-American niche. (Which is to say, while I approve greatly of its existence, I'm not going to be going out and buying it up since it's just not my bag. I feel the same way about romance novels. Anything that gets someone reading and brings them joy is awesome. Those don't have to be the same things for everybody.)

(Way to summon Brother Mouzone, Uther Bentrazor!)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:56 AM on October 26, 2009


Wouldn't Ralph Ellison retroactively be in this genre?

Of course, it's a "genre" of the most made up, cynical marketing type rather than anything lasting, but if it did then I could totally see all kinds of arguments that Ralph Ellison is or isn't in the genre, along the lines of the Margaret Atwood is-or-isn't SF arguments. And much like Atwoods stuff, the core reason for not inclusing it in the genre would be "Because it's good!*" with a side serving of "and we don;t want it marketed alongside that other crap."

* Actually I've never read her SF outside of The Handmaids Tale, which is excellent, but her other SF sounds really, really bad.
posted by Artw at 9:04 AM on October 26, 2009


As an English teacher I always knew it was a myth that kids in the 'hood don't read. They read like crazy when it's a story that interests them. After trying to get them into the stuff I liked, I hit on some of my favorite authors, Terry MacMillan, Eric Jerome Dickey, Sista Soulja, Bebe Moore Campbell, Tupac Shakur and Omar Tyree. Some were more popular than others. I couldn't keep "The Coldest Winter Ever" on the shelves. Forget about Fly Girl or Sister, Sister.

Sure, the themes were pretty adult, but my kids, even at 14 and 15 were dealing with adult pressures. I always asked them to get me written permission and often I'd have parents call me asking if they could borrow the book when the kid was done with it.

What I found was the more they read, the better their writing got, which is pretty much true of anyone.

So before you turn your nose up at it, think about the audience. Seriously, have you read some of the crap on the best seller list?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:18 AM on October 26, 2009


Further, dismissing all celebrated American literary fiction as the "angsts of male white/and or Jewish academic types" and "upper middle class white women with unhappy marriages and a literary bent" is completely inappropriate, dismissive, reductionist, and quasi-racist.

It would be, if that's what I'd done; specifically, I disagree with the word "all" in your statement. Because that's not what I said.

To be more clear; this is not an either/or, The Canon vs. X Group of New Writers, or White Males vs. Everyone Else, Who are Better. I know and love the works of many white male/Jewish male/Establishment writers. But they can only write from their experience, however well they write. It's possible to research, listen, and write in the voices of those not like you, but it's not the same as having lived those experiences yourself. Dickens wrote powerfully of children caught in poverty and desperation partly because he suffered through a childhood marked by those things.

It's exciting when a new group that we haven't heard from adds its voice to literature. We all benefit. Even if it takes awhile for the best writers to make their voices heard above the crowd of mediocre and bad ones.
posted by emjaybee at 9:25 AM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


In fact, it is surprising how few published books are written about the poor and working class in America except in thrillers and detective novels.

As good a place as any to plug Daniel Woodrell, who writes (yes) crime fiction set in the heart of the Ozarks. Really great stuff.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:28 AM on October 26, 2009


Another county to hear from. Raymond Chandler in "The Simple Art of Murder" has some observations about relative quality in a relevant genre:
The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average—or only slightly above average—detective story does. Not only is it published but it is sold in small quantities to rental libraries, and it is read. There are even a few optimists who buy it at the full retail price of two dollars, because it looks so fresh and new, and there is a picture of a corpse on the cover. And the strange thing is that this average, more than middling dull, pooped-out piece of utterly unreal and mechanical fiction is not terribly different from what are called the masterpieces of the art. It drags on a little more slowly, the dialogue is a little grayer, the cardboard out of which the characters are cut is a shade thinner, and the cheating is a little more obvious; but it is the same kind of book. Whereas the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel. It is about entirely different things. But the good detective story and the bad detective story are about exactly the same things, and they are about them in very much the same way. There are reasons for this too, and reasons for the reasons; there always are.
What Chandler says about detective fiction is true of most genre fiction, to an only slightly lesser degree. So the fact that there are only variations in "quality" separating Jim Thompson from Mickey Spillane makes it really hard to spell out why Spillane is exploitative crap that the world would be better off without and Thompson is challenging work that should be read by people of strong constitution and dark fascinations.
--*
(This is well worth-reading if only for the number of plays on words that source back to it -- e.g., "The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers." And: "...the classic detective story...has learned nothing and forgotten nothing." And of course the immortal "But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid."

posted by lodurr at 10:04 AM on October 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


Wow, that's a great Chandler quote.
posted by jayder at 3:11 PM on October 26, 2009


'Tis bodice-ripping lit in hip-hop garb.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:49 PM on October 26, 2009


I think it's just as silly to assume "urban literature" isn't literature because it's written by outsiders of the wrong skin colour as it is to automatically grant it that status out of a fear of appearing racist. You have to judge things based on their merits, not as a kind of posturing.
posted by tehloki at 3:16 AM on October 27, 2009


when i look at most of the 'of course it's literature' comments up-thread, I'm not seeing fear of being seen as racist. Of course I've been reading some of these people's opinions for several years now, so I have a context, but I still think it's pretty clear in most of the posts that in most cases it's more a matter of "of course it's literature by definition" alongside "but that people are asking the question also smacks of racism."
posted by lodurr at 4:47 AM on October 27, 2009


Looks like Juan Williams has some views that slam it. In fact, he calls it ghetto lit.
posted by alteredcarbon at 9:04 PM on November 8, 2009


Williams does something strange when he says that Sapphire's Push (on which the movie Precious is based) is "one of these books"; Push was written before the genre took off, and it occupies a "literary/legitimate" position in the field (as opposed to the pulp/popular position of Urban Lit).
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:08 AM on November 9, 2009


Wait -- are you saying that any book that is actually good doesn't count as Urban Lit?
posted by msalt at 12:11 PM on November 9, 2009


i think 'monday...' is just saying that williams's criteria are confused.
posted by lodurr at 12:46 PM on November 9, 2009


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