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'Street lit' is a breakout hit

Major book publishers are buying into the growing popularity of the gritty African American genre. But not everyone's thrilled.

August 16, 2004|Linton Weeks | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — For good or for bad, "street lit" is eating up the African American book world at the moment. Walk into Karibu bookstore and you'll see. There used to be just one or two small shelves of "street life" books. Now there's a whole section.

The titles of the paperbacks pretty much say it all: "No Way Out," "The Last Kingpin," "Thugs and the Women Who Love Them," "Bad Girlz." In the same way rap music muscled melodious soul tunes off the charts, street lit is altering the equation of African American publishing.

What is street lit? The telltale signs usually include a shut-your-mouth title, straightforward sentences, vast amounts of drugs, sex and rap music, and varying degrees of crime and punishment. An exemplary tale is a mixture of foul language, flying bullets, fast cars, a flood of drugs, fallen angels and high-priced frippery. It venerates grams over grammar, sin over syntax, excess over success.

Street lit "is the hottest thing going right now," says Simba Sana, co-owner of Karibu, a small chain featuring books by and about African Americans. There, the paperback fiction bestseller list is dominated by street lit, a.k.a. urban lit, gangsta lit or hip-hop fiction: "Do or Die," "Me and My Boyfriend," "A Thug's Life" and "A Project Chick."

The last title is the second novel by Nikki Turner, whose two books are also among the top-10 favorites on the Essence magazine August paperback fiction bestseller list. Turner is near the top of the street literati hierarchy, as are Vickie Stringer and Shannon Holmes. But there are scores of other hip-hop novelists cranking out rough-hewn, rumble-tumble stories.

Until now, the books have mostly been self-published and sold by the authors on sidewalks and in music clubs. But street lit is so happening that big-time American publishers are catching the fever. Simon & Schuster has signed Stringer and Holmes to its Atria imprint, and Random House has tapped Turner for its One World division.

"This whole street-lit movement is recent," says Carol Mackey, senior editor of Black Expressions, a book-of-the-month club for African American readers that boasts a membership of 400,000 nationwide. "I consider it a trend."

People are buying street lit because they identify with the harsh realities, Mackey says. Most Black Expressions members are women, and all are black, she says.

Some critics say the new genre is not to be confused with the classic naturalistic style of Richard Wright or James Baldwin. That would be like comparing P. Diddy to Duke Ellington. Street lit lacks the literary ambition, and the power, of great writing. Terry McMillan, Walter Mosley and Nichelle D. Tramble are literary fiction writers -- in the tradition of Wright and Baldwin -- who write about the streets. Their novels, however, are not street lit.

Street lit has always been more of a social than a literary movement. It can be traced to 1969 when Iceberg Slim, also known as Robert Beck, published his memoir, "Pimp." Born in Chicago in 1918, he was a pimp from ages 18 to 42 and did some jail time.

In 1960 he decided to go straight and, upon his release, moved to California and wrote his memoir. He went on to write a lot of books, including "Trick Baby" and "Death Wish," groundbreaking in their real-life, close-to-the-bone accounts of life, sex and death on the streets and in their urban patois. He died in 1992.

In the 1970s, Donald Goines picked up the thread. A former heroin addict and chronic convict, Goines produced in short order a slew of books including "Dopefiend: The Story of a Black Junkie." The books came along with the rise of blaxploitation movies and hip-hop music.

For a while, street lit fell by the wayside, but it returned in the late '90s, with a bullet, when rapper Sister Souljah published "The Coldest Winter Ever."

Today's street lit has its champions. Many of the novels have a moral, says Mackey. "In most of them it's about people who have made wrong choices," she says. "The authors are making a conscious decision to say these people made bad choices and you don't have to. There is a moral fiber running through the whole book."

Poet Sterling Plumpp, who taught at the University of Illinois for 30 years, says that contemporary hip-hop writing "is the most inventive thing happening to the language in a long time."

"What you have is a very difficult situation for a lot of young African Americans," Plumpp says. "They did not inherit the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois or Frederick Douglass in terms of literacy."

But, Plumpp continues, these young folks have life experiences they want to express. "They have almost developed an African American language that is as estranged from the educated African American world as it is from the white world."

Street lit, he says, "should be promoted."

The big-time publishers are seeing to that. With visions of profits dancing in their heads, they are scarfing up the street literati, right off the curbs.

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