Nick Chiles:
A Critical Look at Street Lit

by Taylor Nix
October 2009

Nick Chiles has been the poster child for the dissenting voice against Street Lit that has surfaced among Black authors of opposing genres. Whether deserved or not Nick has often been villanized as Street Lit's biggest enemy. But this casting has not stopped Nick from speaking out and sharing his concerns. In fact, he has taken the time to speak candidly about the New York Times article, Their Eyes Were Reading Smut, with The Urban Book Source. Read on for an interesting look at Street Literature.

Since your infamous article, “Their Eyes Were Reading Smut,” have your feelings changed about street literature? For better or worse?
No, my feelings haven’t changed at all. In fact, they’ve probably gotten worse. Because my magazine, Odyssey Couleur, did book reviews in every issue, we were sent new releases by many of the publicists for black-oriented books. What I’ve seen over the last couple of years since the New York Times article is even more of an increase in the sexuality of most of the African-American books, as if everybody is trying to be Zane.

Given your stance on street literature, would you ever work with any of the authors or publishers in the genre to improve the material being produced to a better standard?
I just don’t have the time or inclination to be focused on trying to improve street fiction. I have too many things I want to say in my own work, too many issues that I think need to be addressed in our literature. I don’t think nearly enough attention has been given in recent decades to the internal life of black men, the emotional and psychological scars that we grapple with in private. If there were more works that delved into these issues, I think it might prove to be revelatory for a lot of black men out there who currently think they have to work through these things alone. I’m actually working on a book with Kirk Franklin right now that explores some of these internal issues. Works like these have a much higher priority for me right now than street fiction.

Since your article have you discovered any other issues with street literature? Could you theorize any solutions or ways to improve this genre?
As I’ve said before, it doesn’t appear that writers approach the work with a desire to say anything remotely profound or with an attention to craft. Right now, for too many writers, the idea that propels them seems to be primarily financial, that writing street fiction is a good way to make a buck. Maybe 10 years ago it was real estate, 20 years ago it was Amway, now it’s urban fiction. In the past, most writers humbly approached that blank page with a desire to say something about the human condition, to explore some of the peculiarities of trying to stay alive and thrive in a complicated age.

The last thing that writers used to think about was getting rich. That was not a realistic expectation, and it wasn’t a thought process that was likely to produce memorable works of art. So I would say that if writers today asked themselves the key question, what am I trying to say here, how are my words intended to contribute to an understanding of African-American life in the new millennium, then perhaps there might be an elevation in the quality of the work.

What do you think is the difference between African-American Literature and Street Literature?
I think African-American literature concerns itself with trying to explore, explain, reveal the true nature of the African-American soul, with asking and answering questions about what it means to be black in America at a time when so many others are trying to tell us it has so much less meaning than it used to. Street literature is too often about the glorification and exploitation of sex, violence, greed—the worst aspects of our nature, the things that we all must fight to tame, rather than to celebrate. I’m not saying that wonderful, explosive, revelatory works can’t be done about the streets, or criminals, or even about subjects that are very sexual in nature. But these works would need to use these issues as a vehicle to discuss the human condition, rather than a glorification of the subjects being the point of the whole exercise.

In your article, you wrote, “I walked into the African-American Literature section - and what I saw there thoroughly embarrassed and disgusted me.” Can you take us back to that moment and explain why you felt that way? Did you think those books represented you? If so, why?
I still feel it every time I walk into a Borders. It’s a sense of that shame that this is what our community feels about itself, our importance to the world, our contribution to the exploration of the human condition. It’s like the gifted, talented, brilliant woman who decides that she should use just her looks and sexuality to get ahead, rather than developing and using her mind and her talent. We’re like that woman—unbelievably talented and complex, but ignoring it all to make a buck. Fifty years from now, what will be said about our generation? I fear history will not be kind to us at all. And that saddens and shames me.

Do you think Street Lit will survive?
I think there will always be books that titillate, that entertain by glorifying sex and violence and street life. I just hope that the writing community and the publishing community eventually present more of a balance, so that readers who want to learn more and learn deeper about black life have more of a choice.

Have you ever read any of the authors who are considered to be the pioneers of this “street” literature? Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim? If so, do you think there is a difference between their work and what is being published now?
I read Iceberg Slim when I was younger. There were also others I read that focused on life in the streets, such as Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land,” “Howard Street” about the streets of Newark, works by Chester Himes like “A Rage in Harlem.” These were all seminal, transformative works that changed the way many Americans thought about black life and the streets. They were intended to reveal a part of American society that had previously been hidden too many. But that’s not what’s going on now.

Has the emergence of Street Lit impacted your work directly? Or what the publishing houses are demanding?
Street lit has impacted the life and work of every working black writer in America in a number of ways. Because the publishers are so reliant on the street fiction authors to do their own publicity and marketing, the marketing and publicity budgets for black books are now miniscule, even for books that aren’t street fiction. Because the publishers can get away with paying paltry advances to street fiction authors, the advances that other black authors are offered has gone down dramatically. Because of the success of some street fiction authors, publishers decided it would be easier to just hand over imprints to authors like Zane and Teri Woods, rather than going out and trying to find new authors themselves.

So the number of talented new authors being brought into the profession has plunged. Many of the established black authors, in their attempts to stay relevant and make a living, have gravitated to more salacious topics. Others just decided to stop writing altogether because they refused to go in that direction. So it has impacted every aspect of the publishing profession.

- - - - - - - - -

Nick Chiles is an award-winning author and journalist; he is the Editor-In-Chief of Odyssey Couleur Magazine.

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Pathfinder :
Posted 3277 days ago
This is a great discussion and as an urban lit writer I feel this medium has allowed me to express and show that there's a mutitude of variations within the urban lit genre. In my self-published novel Fair Game, my main character was sexually abused by her father. In our community this is something of a taboo; yet I manage to put an urban twist and feel to it, and bring it to the attention of others instead of sweeping in under the rug so to speak.
Where is it now? :
Posted 3277 days ago
This is a really great open discussion. I'm grateful that Nick Chiles and his wife have came here to comment. I must thank Treasure E Blue as well. Where are all the other street lit authors? Voice your opinions! Cowards!
Kudos to TB and NC! ... I wish we would stop with the silly and childish comments though. Let a real dialogue have real points!
Pathfinder :
Posted 3277 days ago
Surely, some of the books in urban lit could be better written and edited. The same can be saidof all genres of writing. We cannot limit ourselves when it comes to our "stories" because it is endless, ever changing and filled with a vast array of beginnings and endings some that will make you laugh, cry, understand, relate, and life changing that will motivate you to be the best that you can possibly be. So why should we not expect to read another side of our plights, failures, redemptions and victories? As writers, we should all admire, love and respect what we do as griots because we know the hard work it takes and the love that we put into what we bring to life. Hotep!
Pathfinder :
Posted 3277 days ago
I've read myriads of literary works from Manchild in the Promise Land, Down these mean Streets, Why we can't Wait, Notes of a Native Son, Things Fall Apart, Flowers Bed, Black Beans & Rice, Harlem Girl Lost, When Somebody Loves You Back, Black Folk Here and There, Our Kind of People, and Crimes of the heart.
It's unfair how urban lit writers are always viewed by other writers. I have never come across an article, book, magazine, newspaper or newscast that showed an urban lit writer criticizing, disrespecting, degrading or for that matter lashing out at any other genre of writing. The majority of writers write from their own experiences and it would be unfair for writers who have been subjugated to certain atrocites in their lives to write otherwise or to write something relating to say, the lifestyle of "uppity" folks, and many of the issues that should be of concern to us and our community. Perhaps, as they grow, mature and develop their craft they will take the risk and come out of their comfort zone, and that's only if they choose to do so. Some writers will continue to write that which he or she knows. Some of us will gravitate to it, especially if we have experienced or know someone who has led such lives. Others may gravitate towards it because it was well written; and in the same breath, there will be those who find it disgusting and repulsive.
Denene Millner :
Posted 3277 days ago
@Treasure E. Blue: I'm sure if you asked a jazz musician about rap, he would praise hip hop artists for creating a genre that moves the masses, but then lament that the same people who claim to love music don't appreciate or support one of the greatest musical art forms ever created by black folk, that's what I think a jazz artist would say. And you have Nick confused with someone else: He wasn't at the Book Expo in D.C. Not sure who called your books smut or garbage there, but it sure wasn't him. As for chicklit, I feel you on that. Not all of it bashed (some would consider what Nick and I wrote together chicklit, which is kinda weird since he was writing from a male perspective, but I digress), but with the proliferation of books like Waiting to Exhale, it got hard to tell one from the other afterawhile. Which circles me back to your original point about your book being different from the other streetlit: This may be so, but after awhile it all starts to sound the same, so you'll have to forgive if we didn't make it to your book. Doesn't mean it wasn't good enough; just means we chose not to read it. Can't answer for Nick on that question, sorry. But it looks like he explained it in his answer up top...
Treasure E. Blue :
Posted 3277 days ago
@ Denene I respect entirely what you said and your point about other African American works being overlooked is very honest. But in all honesty, time works in cycles, the hot one minute and gone the next is the way it is. It's been done since the beginning of time, think about music. You had your Big Band cycle, then jazz, then Blues, Be-bop Rock and Roll, R&B, then Rap. It was natural, say, A Jazz artist to say Rap is not music, it's been done and said a million times over. Getting back to your husband, he was way out of line in my opinion, to go as far as calling our work smut and garbage. I was in D.C at the Book Expo when he made a fool of himself by saying his work is better then ours. James Baldwin could have easily said the same about your writing in his era. At one point in this very country, black people wasn't even allowed to read. What do you think they said about the first black who wanted to get published? You got it, they didn't think it was worth the paper it was written on. Now look at us, our own kind is bashing their own, how sad is that. To be honest with you, I never read chick lit, e.g Terry Mcmillian because it was anti black male book, but I didn't go around attacking her body of work or her character like your husband, I just chose not to read it.. Just answer this one question and I'm done, why do Nick praise books like ManChild in the Promise Land and Howard Street when it is just a street as ours.
Denene Millner :
Posted 3277 days ago
@Nickie: Every time Nick brings up this issue, someone accuses him and me of "hating" or being mad because our books aren't selling and we're not making any money. I'm didn't mention my bank account to make you mad or jealous; I mentioned my bank account to let the people who think our motives for raising this issue is financial are sadly mistaken. Sorry if you took my comments out of context.
And you're absolutely right: there are multitudes of people who didn't like my books. I don't go online and call them whores or bitches, or say that they shouldn't ever write again. What I DO say is that, as an author, I'm tired of going to the bookstore and seeing only ONE kind of black book on the shelves, or walking into meetings with publishers who demand I put more "street" or sex into books that have nothing to do with the street or sex. This is wrong, and, I would argue, treading on censorship.
Denene Millner :
Posted 3277 days ago
@Treasure E. Blue: Thank you for coming back with a comment that actually speaks to the issue at hand. I appreciate your story and admire your hustle, and I've actually heard of your book, though I've never read it. I think it's fantastic, too, that you were able to speak directly to your experiences and hope that you did reach someone who needed your book to witness that they could overcome the odds.
Be clear: I'm not ignorant or uppity, by any stretch. Neither is Nick. What we are is concerned that the ONLY stories being told in an industry we love and work in are those like yours. I would venture to say that there are PLENTY more stories about the black experience that ARE NOT making it to the shelves because of the proliferation of streetlit. All we're saying is that one does not have to die at the expense of the other. What's so wrong about that?
Treasure E. Blue :
Posted 3277 days ago
@ Denene Millner, yes, you made some good points, but you are not looking at the big picture. I never, ever heard of a street lit, urban lit, or whatever you choose to label us, talk down or ever remotely talk against any writers in the game. All we ever wanted was to be heard. Yes, I'm from the ghetto, Harlem to be exact, but I see my neighborhood as a community, uppity black folks and whites labels it that. But my point is, I talk about what I know, things like alcoholic mother who died without a liver, or being abandon at 14, or selling drugs to survive at 15, am I wrong for writing about the ill reputes that I lived, and seen. My writing is about redemption and succeeding against all odds, as well as virtually all street lit writers concludes in their story. I challenge you, and Nick, to read any of my books and see for yourself, to read about something you obvious never read. Publishers Weekly gave my first book, HARLEM GIRL LOST, a starred review, yes WHITE REVIEWERS, so I must be doing something right. When I first got into the game I started off self-publishing, and sold over 65,000 copies along with my team, and often challenged potential buyers, who by the way, was just like your husband, to buy my novel and if they didn't love it, I'd give them their money back. Of course when I see them again, they tell me how wrong they were. To conclude, only ignorant people form an opinion on something they never tried.
Denene Millner :
Posted 3277 days ago
@therandomwhoeveryouare: a response to your comment isn't worth the 16 words it took to write this sentence. But I do wish you good luck in your writing journey, and hope that your books are much more thoughtful than your online prose.
@Rhonda Crowder: Brilliant observation with which I wholeheartedly agree. We were making a major shift toward this in the traditional publishing houses, which, a few years ago, were teeming with black imprints, giving black editors and their publicity and marketing staffs the valuable input and experience needed to make the transition into actually running an independent publishing company. But these days, those imprints have been decimated, the editors demoted or folded into more mainstream houses, and their marketing, sales, and publicity staffs eliminated. That's a lot of valuable experience just gone.
There are authors out there who are doing their own publishing (outside of the urbanlit genre), most notably Tina McElroy Ansa, who started her own publishing company after she was told that her bestselling literary works weren't salacious enough for today's market. I know there are others who've followed suit, but they do not enjoy the same attention. But you're right: We DO need to own more.
Nickie :
Posted 3277 days ago
Denene, you sound as silly as your husband. Coming here to talk about your bank account has nothing to do with nothing. If you don't like a genre, then don't read it, but to bash it isn't the answer either. Somebody somewhere could say the same things about the books you've just bragged that you and her husband wrote. Crabs in a barrel!
Rhonda Crowder :
Posted 3277 days ago
Although I disagree with Nick on some things, he makes valid points on others. However, I think the real problem here is that African-Americans DON'T own a major publishing company, distribution company, or book store chains. Until that happens, this will always be a problem because we fighting for the same resources (advance, marketing budgets, shelf space). Those writers with BIG bank accounts needs to invest in building our own instituions so we can have more control over the decisions as to what is promoted to our community.



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