Monday, July 9, 2007

Why I Don't Sell "Booty Books"

The Martha Southgate essay that appeared in the New York Times Book Review has sparked a small flame within the black writing community. I responded in my blog post Writers Like Her and other writers responded with many comments from readers on their blogs such as Eisa Ulen, Tayari Jones, and Mosaicbooks. I am really grateful that this much overdue discussion has begun.

In a discussion of today's "Black Literature" it is important remember that there are separate things going on and not to confuse them. It seems to me that there are at least three things going on here. All the issues are related, yet they are different problems:

  1. The serious lack of money to do the work
  2. The debasing effect of "booty books," which started out as "relationship books"
  3. The lack of readers of literature

First, lets look at the money issue -- the root of all evil. This issue has been a problem for artists since the going back to the Renaissance. There is no such thing as a benefactor anymore. No one is bankrolling anybody to be a writer or artist today. So we all have to figure out ways to make money to support ourselves while squeezing in making art during our "free" time.

This brings us to the second point. Some of us in the black community of writers (names will be omitted) began to write "relationship" novels or "black erotica," hoping that they would sell and make some money and that it would only hurt a little. Well, it's like being a little pregnant: the thing grows and eventually takes on a life of its own. It has become "ghetto lit," "street lit," "gangsta lit," booty lit" and, God help us, "black lit".

From "Their Eyes Were Reading Smut" by Nick Chiles —

On shelf after shelf, in bookcase after bookcase, all that I could see was lurid book jackets displaying all forms of brown flesh, usually half-naked and in some erotic pose, often accompanied by guns and other symbols of criminal life. I felt as if I was walking into a pornography shop, except in this case the smut is being produced by and for my people, and it is called "literature."

It has been a vicious cycle: we want to sell books; bad books sell; we sell bad books. Or, for a writer: I want to be a good writer; a good writer sells books; bad books sell; I'll write bad books. (And repeat until we all go crazy.)

I don't sell "booty books," have never sold "booty books," and WILL NEVER sell "booty books." I feel that it is akin to prostitution: The selling of black flesh to make money. I've worked too hard to to get where I am and I will NOT allow myself to become a Bookstore Madam. I held on to that principle right up until the day my doors closed. Should I have succumbed? Maybe on a monetary front, but this way at least I can sleep with myself at night.

I think that it is time to take our collective heads out of the sand and look at the state of our literature, "black" and "white", and make the obligatory groan of disapproval. Can anyone say that "chick lit", which is mostly marketed to white young women, is a giant step for literature? The difference to the way "chick lit" is being marketed is that there is no confusion of "chick lit" with literature. When people talk about "chick lit" it is with a little giggle.

We are on a dangerous slope when we allow the marketing of "street lit" as "black lit". We need to nip this thing in the bud. The association will be a very hard to shake in the future for serious black writers. It is a reality that we must face now. For instance, why is the Harlem Book Fair honoring Omar Tyree with the Phillis Wheatley Book Award? (Uh, oh, she said it. We are in trouble now!) I'm sure that this was done for monetary reasons and not the quality of his work. It has become politically incorrect for a black person to criticise black writers (and hip hop artists, but that is a topic for another day.) "C'mon, the brotha is just tryin' to get paid." But it will be much worse when the criticism comes from outside the community. Trust me, the day is coming and we will all feel ashamed. We can do better and we know it.

This bring us to the third, and I think, the most important issue in this post: the lack of readers of literature. This is a national problem as I have stated in previous posts (NEA Survey of Literary Reading in America and American Readership is Way Down) and not just among black people. The lack of readers, means a lack of sales, and a lack of sales means a lack of money -- the money we need to do our work.

I think that we need to take this thing back. One idea I had is to create an alternative to the bestseller list. (I've never been able to create one that made any sense any way.) Let's create a "Critics list" or "Best Reader's list" in which writers, booksellers, and literary critics vote on the best work being produced every month, one for fiction and one for non-fiction. (This wouldn't be a bad idea for the "greater" community of writers) After all, isn't the bestseller lists just a self-perpetuating guide to what is being read? It is kinda crude to only use sales as a measure to what is worthy of reading. These new lists are not a complete solution to these very complicating set of issues but it could be a start. It's a way of putting a stamp of approval on some of our more worthy books and making a clean separation from the "street lit."

6 comments:

iyan and egusi soup said...

hi jenn,

i've blogged about the martha southgate article, and mentioned the discussion you're having on here. you raise some very important issues, and i hope this much needed engagement continues.

jenn said...

It does seem that Martha Southgate has started the discussion. I hope that it will continue as well.

Trenee said...

You made a valid point concerning "the lack of readers of literature." That's exactly who authors like Zane write for--people who don't read real literature. But then again, when people pick up booty literature we must consider the fact that...hey...at least they're reading, right? Something. Anything.

I know high school students who hate reading, but the booty authors are able to attract and maintain their interest. We can only hope that these authors will bring them to the shelves to checkout other books in the African-American literary canon. I guess not at your store though. He he he.

Really enjoyed reading this post. Thanks to iyan and egusi soup for pointing it out to me. :)

jenn said...

Thank you iyan and egusi soup for pointing Trenee to me. :o) (see I added a nose!)

There was a time that I tried to say the same thing, "at least they're reading", but the truth is GIGO, or "Garbage In, Garbage Out." Reading involves the most intimate form of communication, it goes directly into your brain. Filling up that precious space with nonsense is not a good thing to do. After a while that is all that is in there -- and will be all that comes out.

We need our people to be strong cognitive thinkers. People who can make good decisions for their lives. Our young people filling their heads with this kind of garbage does not bode well for the future.

Anonymous said...

Just a question. Wouldn't a solution to ghetto lit issue be to produce better ghetto lit with compelling themes, interesting plots and multi-dimensional characters?

I say this with the rare exception, popular fiction is more widely enjoyed than literary fiction across the board. I personally prefer not to read books that I need to have Cliff Notes to explain the meanings of symbols. After working 60 hours a week, I want to read to be entertained not taught or lectured.

Finally, what exactly prevents authors who don't write ghetto lit or black erotica or church lady books from aggressively promoting their titles?

jenn said...


Just a question. Wouldn't a solution to ghetto lit issue be to produce better ghetto lit with compelling themes, interesting plots and multi-dimensional characters?


If "ghetto lit" or "booty lit" were doing these things then it wouldn't be considered part of that genre. I don't have a problem with the genre per se, I have a problem with it being confused with "black literature" -- which it is not.


I personally prefer not to read books that I need to have Cliff Notes to explain the meanings of symbols.


No one's asking you to do this. The purpose of this blog post is to point out that "booty lit" is not the literature of an entire people. I don't want future generations to look back and think (or be taught) that this genre represents the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of black people, which is basically being said when "booty lit" gets grouped together with "black lit."


Finally, what exactly prevents authors who don't write ghetto lit or black erotica or church lady books from aggressively promoting their titles?


Absolutely nothing.

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