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:
Comments page 4 of 8:
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Andreanna Mond :
Posted 2760 days ago
How is that authors like Zane have somehow become the crux of street lit? I've read Sister Soulja, and I've read Zane. I've also read True to the Game, a street lit novel, and I see no comparison between what Zane writes and what the author of True to the Game wrote. Don't get me wrong I am not under the belief that Zane can be on the same shelf as Toni Morrison, but at the same time, I would not place her in the same boat as Bitch 3. The issue's with street lit, is not that it's being published or pushed, but that the message that it is sending to its audience is so negative to the positive outcomes that we want people in the ghetto to believe in. Many of Zane's book have very explicit sex scene's in them, but then again Zane is not sexually inhibited, and therefore writes how she feels. She uses intelligent language, where as in books like Crackhead, your going to find Ebonics and language like it.
Sherrodzilla :
Posted 3150 days ago
Ghetto lit has its place, but can't we have an attitude of "everything in moderation?" I enjoyed "Coldest Winter Ever," but haven't been able to stomach most of the others in the genre I've tried reading. I don't know which is saddest: the publishing and book-selling industries' push behind these books, most of the authors' obvious disdain for their audience, or the voracious appetite the readers have for them. As a former employee of Borders, every time a Black customer would come in asking for the African-American literature section, the first question I had to ask was "Are you looking for the African-American section like Zane or like Frederick Douglass?" It was usually more the former than the latter. Why must we be living "ghetto fabulous"? Can't we at least strive to live "lower middle class fabulous"? 'Cause ain't nothing fabulous about the ghetto.
Maxine Thompson :
Posted 3253 days ago
I think it depends on how the issues are presented. Issues such as sexual dysfunction can and need to be addressed. Issues such as incest, which was explored in Color Purple and Push, are necessary. Each book showed the transformation and liberation of the heroines through their individual journeys. Healing is an underlying theme.
My latest novel, Hostage of Lies, deals with family secrets, lincluding a closed adoption. The storyline looks at the impact of hidden truths on one family, which spans generations since slavery.
Available nationwide on Black Expressions Book Club on 12-1-09.
Maxine Thompson
Therone Shellman :
Posted 3268 days ago
@Rhonda I'm going to respond to everything in this article. But I will say Borders is closing 200 Waldenbooks stores. The NYC street market has shrunk by 30% or so over the last twelve months. Over the next twelve months things are going to change a whole lot more for the whole book market. The AA market depends on the mainstream market because it has not foundation of its own from the store to the distribution market. The AA market was never built, and the folks who are in positions of control come from a different business time and they do not know how to deal with today business wise. The internet and marketing as well as salemanship are key....We['re not going to come together on this because its not like whats going on has not been dailogued before. So when it hits rock bottom. I guess thats when folks will start from the beginning. I myself from the start of 2009 realized what I need to do to see 2010 and beyond through.
Well the best..
Q.B. Wells :
Posted 3270 days ago
Well said Rhonda Chowder, we need more black publishers, distributors and wholesalers to change the framework of how we do business. Otherwise we will continue run into the same problems and brick wall. Publishers, let me know if you have ideas to network and change some of the problems in the industry.
Jarold Imes :
Posted 3272 days ago
If we are going to talk about book cover packaging in relation to this article then this has to be said. When some of our black imprints meet with buyers from major chain book stores ... sometimes, a publisher is told "we'll buy 300 to 500 copies" of a book with a less "salacious" cover. But let that same publisher, present the same book with scantly clad males and females then "we'll buy 3,000 to 5,000". And the reader who mentioned Fabio is right ... those book covers are more graphic. And we won't even compare the black erotica books to the non African American ones ... our most "scantly clad" book covers are no where near as racy as those the non African Americans. Those people are practically nude and getting it on like they are in a porno.
I have published adult books without scantly clad covers on them to be told they were horrible. I presented the same cover with a risque cover and the books couldn't get out of my hands fast enough from the printer.
So in conclusion (for now) this is a mindset we need to change not only within our community, but within the industry. While I respectfully disagree with not only majority of what Nick has said but in the manner he is pursuing his objections without reaching back to help a new writer or an established one; I conceded that in order to change the covers, we need them to stand with us united on this one issue ... if that is really what we want to do.
J. Love :
Posted 3273 days ago
I am the author of the novel, "Heavy in the Game." My book is based on true events and my real experiences in the streets of Los Angeles. I am reading "The Godfather" right now and learning that the same things that one will call glorifying in the black community such as sex, drug use, and violence happens everywhere in literature like in "The Godfather." So why is it a bad thing for a black writer to write about it but when another race write about these simular conditions, it can go on to be in films and win an Oscar with praise? We as black people will always take sides against one another in public view instead of supporting and helping one another within. I will continue to write what I see and tell of the consequences of these things in my writings in the hope that I can redirect the lives of our youth. We have a condition in the inner-cities that should be addressed and if I can get them to read about it and see that it is not as glamorous as others have portrayed it to be, I have done my job.
J. Love
Wendy :
Posted 3274 days ago
Well said, L.J. Miller. Let's find a solution to the problem instead of creating rifts and more problems.
L.J. Miller (June) :
Posted 3275 days ago
@ Mrs. Denene Milner Chiles, you co-sign what your husband is saying, however, I feel you have a better delivery than he. There are urban lit works that are very questionable and poorly written and there are some that are written well and have been very successful. This can be proved from the sales or the lack thereof. I have never heard of your husband before and have not heard of any of your books until I Googled your name, and with respect, I’m sure you have never heard of me nor read my only published novel, but that only proves how large and diverse this genre is. I’m curious to know something about you two guys. What hood did you come from? Our black communities are and were in danger long before urban lit, rap music, and the like. If you guys really want to make an impact, reach out to the youth in the black communities, target the children and mold them from young.
This can become a black, conscious collective effort, if we all come together and help “our community” by working towards the same common goals.
@ Treasure E. Blue…Kudos to you brother.
L.J. Miller (June) :
Posted 3275 days ago
@ Mr. Chiles, in all of the questions asked of you about urban lit authors and their writings, your response seems to be one-dimensional. It seems, from your responses, that you feel the same about “all” urban lit authors and their works when in fact, you cannot name a percentage of the books you’ve read that supports your argument about urban lit authors and their works. It is very obvious that there is a clear distinction between African American Literature and Urban Lit. African American Literature derives from authors like James Baldwin, Charles Chestnut, Ralph Ellison, Chester Hines, Lorraine Hansberry, etc. Urban Lit derives from authors like, Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines, Chester Hines, etc. To say your work is comparable to the African American Lit authors is a far cry but I’m sure you believe your work to be along the lines of following in their path, however, there is a clear distinction to your writing today and their writing. It is easy to see why urban lit authors would be offended by your comments and believe you are “hating” because it seems you are concerned more with the sales in urban lit books and the lack of sales you have. Money is definitely a motivating factor the majority of writers, you included, unless your books are free. Please don’t insult a genre that has created a new wave of readership that was left untouched, created young black successful businessmen, and created another profession for black people to get involved in.
MyOpinion :
Posted 3275 days ago
I have to agree and disagree on this.. Yes the "street" lit is predictable all the writers are basically making their characters have the same issue with each book that has been written. I think that "street" lit is amazing the books are somewhat real and sometimes u can relate to them. i guess it all depends on who wrote the book..
Dead Street Lit :
Posted 3275 days ago
Read one, read 'em all!



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