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.


Questions, comments and concerns can be sent to: taylor@urbanbooksource.com
Comments page 3 of 6:
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I Get Money :
Posted 2762 days ago
@Urban Author: Brother you need a healing! I hope you’re on these comment boards just trying to get people all riled up with your ignorant stupid ass commentary. You can’t be an author. I would hate to read your material. I mean really. If that’s all you can muster then, what do you really have to say in your little bullshit ass “street” tale? You on here telling people you gonna murder them over literature and their opinion? Your comments deserved to get DELETED. Okay say what you want but murder? Personal threats? Nobody can be that mad over literature?

Lastly, I wish some of you would read what Nick is saying! He’s not hating in my opinion. He wants the best for you really! I have to give much props to Treasure E. Blue for coming here and expressing his concerns the right way, not with vile remarks. Again, murder? Matter fact, does that make it easier for the “street” lit authors? You just set them back again you idiot!

@Amused: I agree! Oh brother!

Wow this is some crazy shit here! We got problems! Its no wonder Michael Jackson wanted to be white!
I Get Money :
Posted 2762 days ago
@AA Reader: Your right about the the Danielle Steele books being the same. The same romance story being told over and over again. However, the book covers with Fabio look nothing like the ones displayed on street lit titles. Lets be honest here. And I’m not making this a black and white thing, I’m saying that these covers could be done in a tasteful way with some integrity! Go back and look at those Fabio bookcovers. You can’t even compare them. They are still done with taste and craft. These street lit covers look like porno DVD movies!

And in general speaking, you right again, we are aganist the world, we as blacks never had the luxury of just producing some lackluster products! We’ve always been behind. So why set ourselves back again? Whites have never been through what we have been through, that’s why when they get judged as “individuals” and we judged as a “whole.” When Michael Vick fucks up we all fuck up; when OJ Simpson fucks up we all fuck up!
Amused :
Posted 2763 days ago
Oh Brother!
An AA Reader :
Posted 2763 days ago
@ “I find it disheartening that many of the 'street lit' titles I peruse, contain the exact same plots, characters and scenarios. It is not an exaggeration to say that 'street lit' is fairly predictable and offers very little variety.” Can’t the same be said for other genres and authors? Romance to name just one. How many times can Danielle Steele right the same story? Yet you don’t hear other authors attacking her. Why is that? How many covers did the model Fabio appear on without his shirt? Those covers weren’t deemed obscene. Only in African American literature do we see such in-fighting. It’s already us against the world and instead of helping, supporting and guiding each other, we want to take the next person down. Why? Because we don’t like their writing? Because their reality is not ours? Because a particular genre is making more money than another? There is room for everyone to express themselves. There is a consumer out there for all. Sure, Nick Chiles may have made some valid points but his points are directed at an entire group unfairly. How would he feel if white American directed the same comments about his books and books similar to his? Single out authors, not an entire genre as they are many who do not write the stories that you speak about including book and authors that he himself named. Take a stand as a group against these publishers that are calling for stereotypical, dumbed down stories, no matter the genre. Don’t hate the player, hate the game and DO SOMETHING! The divide and conquer method is still working well for us today.
are you serious? :
Posted 2763 days ago
Are you serious? All these threats and hate over literature?
Pathfinder :
Posted 2763 days ago
Continuation:
Here's another side of the issue that needs to be addressed: There are elements of creativity, symbolism, irony, complexity, imaginative, analytical aspects, structure, critical thinking, observation, introspection and retrospection, all writers should try and master. The accomplished and polished writer who implemented all of the above components in his or her craft didn't happen overnight. I can unequivocally assure you that it took discipline, maturity and writing competence. Writing is not stagnant to any one particular genre. The concept of writing borders on language, society, symbolism, and what one see, hear, observe and even feel. People , allow the writers and the genre to grow and mature and discontinue the use of sordid and ulterior motives that seem to be prevalent throughout this discussion. Live and let live! Hotep!
Pathfinder :
Posted 2763 days ago
The many experts who have added their post somehow believe they are the voice of black literature. Where's the validity and credence that what you're writing and saying is the Holy Grail of literature? In the same breath what makes it valid for an urban lit writer to believe that what he writes is also the Holy Grail? This much I can say, I cannot remember an instance where an urban lit writer railed against other writers and their particular genres. It behhoves me greatly that instead of challenging the mainstream publishing houses and the CEO's of our "what's hot right now" multimedia society that is information rich and have created a medium that is willing to give a number of young blacks a consortium to express themselves and make a few dollars; there's an uproar. Challenge them instead of the authors! Would you turn down the monies being offered to some of the urban lit writers? Would you go to Borders and tell them to remove your books from their shelves? I think not! Does anyone see the similarities here, vis-a-vis Spike Lee and Tyler Perry?
CONTINUE:
Mr. 666 :
Posted 2763 days ago
Great Interview.
Valid points, the Art of African-American literature over the next few years has suffered due to this explosion of Street lit. With very few writers concerned about the craft of storytelling, the quality of black literature has declined.
Many years ago authors used literature to make a comment about the society we lived in. This artistic statement authors made in their work gave people ideas towards improving their lives in addition to making others aware of the issues going on in the community. They featured elements of creative writing like irony, foreshadowing, symbolism and told stories about black life with deeper themes than just entertainment. Books like Invisible Man and plays Like A Rasin in The Sun made us think.
Contrast this to Street lit, which is just mindless entertainment. Instead of making a social commentary on African-American life or some perspective about the direction of the Black community it's all glamorization and the perpetuation of racial stereotypes. There's no message to the storytelling, in many cases no semblance of plot or character development; just the same story ripped off Scarface or whatever drug tale. BOOOORING. Like Chinese food it's empty calories for the brain. It feels good, it tastes good, but it gives the reader nothing of value that will enrich their lives long-term.
TBG Reads :
Posted 2764 days ago
Wow, my head is still spinning reading all of these comments. Street Lit is not my thing but then again neither is "Meet the Browns" or "Real Housewives of Atlanta". We all know we are monolithic but the problem is that when marketers see a good idea/genre they run with to the detriment of everything else. And such is the case in book publishing these days. As a result, the myriad of our experiences is getting lost (and somehow devalued). That in the end is the real shame. I love well crafted stories that transport me but I'm not mad when I see young folks with a book in their hand. And if they start with Street Lit maybe they'll like the idea of reading so much they'll try something else.
Stephen Chukumba :
Posted 2764 days ago
Continued.
Get Real put it best, "a critique is not a hate." Nick, like myself, Denene, and anyone else who does not necessarily feel that 'street lit' elevates Black authoriship, should not be treated as haters. In fact, any 'street lit' author who is offended should take a detached perspective and cooly assess whether 50 years from now, students or other literary critics would be discussing their contribution to the masses, whether as a commentary of the state of society or as an exceptional piece of literature.
If the answer to either of those questions is "no" then don't decry critique as hate, look at it as constructive criticism. If another member of my profession told me, "Stephen, you're stuff is kinda wack, and virtually indistinguishable from every other cat purporting to do what you do," then I would have to step back and really THINK about what I'd just been told. It's human to be offended, but it shows wisdom and maturity to apply what's been said to improve your craft.
If you're an Iceberg Slim, kudos. Treasure E Blue, if you're doing it (i.e. six-figure deal with Random House), kudos. Other 'street lit' authors, if you're selling books, kudos. But for anyone interested in uplifting their craft, AND the overall perception of Black literature, AND the revenues Black authors earn from their writing, what Nick has to say is worth listening to and not dismissing as 'hating.'
Stephen Chukumba :
Posted 2764 days ago
My, my, my. Aren't we a rowdy bunch. For all writers in this space, it would behoove you all to treat each other with a modicum of decency. You may disagree with Nick or Denene's points, but to start name-calling and engaging in demeaning behavior is very unfortunate. Crabs-in-a-barrel, I believe someone said, but I see this discourse as positive, even if it paints a particular genre of writing in an unfavorable fashion.
At the end of the day, the issue is whether or not 'street literature' as it has been labeled, elevates or denigrates Black authors, generally. It is not the same thing as saying "all street literature denigrates Black authors" but the position that Nick posits should be given some credibility.
As someone who has read authors from all backgrounds, and considers himself well-read, I find it disheartening that many of the 'street lit' titles I peruse, contain the exact same plots, characters and scenarios. It is not an exaggeration to say that 'street lit' is fairly predictable and offers very little variety. That being said, when you can predict a story's outcome within the first few pages, and each story progresses in the exact same fashion, what is being contributed to the mass of literary output from these authors?
Continued.
I Get Money :
Posted 2764 days ago
Well, its not much left for me to say. But I will say this, I think the real real real real real real real real problem is: The packaging of these books. The material inside is fine, but the bookcovers and packaging needs to be stepped up, point blank! Lets make the appearance look better! Other than that, nice article and I can appreciate the honesty in the commentary here. Kudos to Treasure Blue, Ms. Millner and Nick Chiles. Keep up the great work!
 



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