BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. The movie Precious, in theaters now, was adapted from the novel Push, about a sexually abused teenager growing up in the inner city. Push is part of a genre called “urban fiction,” which, though it began in the 1960s, is enjoying a kind of renaissance in recent years, and with its renewed popularity comes renewed controversy over whether novels that depict gritty reality glamorize violence. On the Media producer Mike Vuolo has the story, which has some rough language and situations that may not be appropriate for young listeners.
MIKE VUOLO: Iceberg Slim was a pimp. In 1969 he published a fictionalized account of his very real life and pioneered a new genre of American literature. He called his book simply Pimp.
NARRATOR: “You got to make 'em hard and fast to stick 'em for long scratch quick. Pimpin’ ain't no game of love, so prat 'em and keep your s**** outta him. Any sucker who believes a whore loves him shouldn't have fed out of his mammy’s ass.”
MIKE VUOLO: Forty years ago, a violent and vulgar book about whoring in the black ghetto would have a tough time getting reviewed in the mainstream press, so the publisher, Holloway House, marketed Pimp in the inner city, building a kind of distribution network of liquor stores and barber shops. It carved out a niche, specializing in books about what it called “the black experience” which Holloway defined as gritty, urban tales.
NARRATOR: “I felt powerful and beautiful. I thought I was still black in the white man’s world, but it was simple. Just pimp my ass off and get a ton of scratch. Everybody in both worlds kissed your ass black and blue if you had flash in front.”
MIKE VUOLO: Donald Goines was a junkie. He read Pimp while serving time in a penitentiary, and soon after fictionalized his own life in the novel Dopefiend, an appalling story of the crime and degradation that comes with chasing a heroin addiction.
NARRATOR: She began to run her finger up and down until she could feel the vein she was searching for. Without hesitation, she plunged the dull needle down into her groin.
MIKE VUOLO: In a fit of writing over several years, before he was shot to death in Detroit, Goines wrote more than a dozen novels for Holloway House, which became a small empire of black publishing through the '70s and '80s, though few outside of a core black readership even noticed.
K’WAN: I loved growing up in the projects with me and like all of my cousins, like 15 of us in the house.
MIKE VUOLO: K'wan is a contemporary author of urban fiction who was influenced by Slim and Goines. He grew up in the Frederick Douglass Houses in New York City.
K'WAN: Our lives were just as rich as the kids we went to school with that didn't live in the projects. And then crack came and everybody went crazy. You know, people that you recall seeing at your house, they’re like smoked out, all doped out. So you look at that person, like, wow, I remember you used to work for the post office. You had a good job. We all looked up to you because you was like one of the few people in the projects working. And it was just crazy to see everybody get caught up by it, even my parents.
MIKE VUOLO: Like many authors of urban fiction, K'wan used his own life to find a way to a different one.
K'WAN: I was about to have a baby. I didn't have a job, you know, so I was getting’ my little hustle on. I was robbing people and selling drugs. So people told me I was crazy when I said, you know, I'm going to be a writer. They laughed at me and they said - you’re a criminal, what could you possibly have to write about that people would want to listen to? Well [LAUGHS], you know.
MIKE VUOLO: K'wan lifted the copy of his first book, Gangsta, from my dining room table and held it up in the air. He says he intended the book as a kind of memoir in the tradition of Iceberg Slim and, like with Slim, it’s not clear where reality ends and fiction begins. The protagonist of Gangsta is Lou-Loc, a gang member who controls a lot of the drug trade in Harlem.
LOU-LOC: “I want at least one Blood on every set dropped. I want it to be made crystal clear that we want the nigger or the bitch that gave the order. If they don't up 'em, we keep killing, period.”
MIKE VUOLO: Since 2002, K'wan has written nearly a dozen novels, brutally violent and sexually graphic, all starring characters who want desperately to leave the criminal life, though they usually die trying. It’s a continual theme throughout all of urban fiction, which in the past decade has exploded in popularity, with hundreds of new titles.
JUSTIN GIFFORD: Now, these things are distributed everywhere from street corner tables in Harlem to Barnes and Noble.
MIKE VUOLO: Justin Gifford is a professor of English at the University of Nevada.
JUSTIN GIFFORD: They are at the center of the literary conversation about African-American literature right now; they make up a full half of the titles being published by black authors. So what started off as this relatively unknown subculture is now the driving force of the African-American publishing industry.
MIKE VUOLO: Nick Childs is a newspaper reporter turned novelist.
NICK CHILDS: If you dropped down from another planet into a Borders and you went to the African-American literature section, you would think that the African-American community was crass, superficial, didn't really think very deeply about very many issues, aside from sex and violence.
MIKE VUOLO: A few years ago, Childs wrote an Op-Ed for The New York Times in which he charged urban fiction authors with glamorizing and glorifying black criminals.
NICK CHILDS: And I have a hard time with that. The community has decided that it’s okay for this to be our art. The art that we consume and that we produce is about how destructive we are to each other.
K'WAN: The books are graphic, the books are violent, but so are the neighborhoods that we live in.
MIKE VUOLO: Urban fiction author, K'wan:
K'WAN: If you think that this stuff is offensive, can you imagine or do you have an idea what it feels like for this to actually be your life?
MIKE VUOLO: Childs says the content wouldn't be so troubling if not for the genre’s predominance, pushing other black voices off the shelves. But the major publishers see urban fiction more as a trend. Monique Patterson is K'wan’s editor at St. Martin’s Press. She says, yeah, sure, there’s a lot of it, but –
MONIQUE PATTERSON: Before urban fiction there was a lot of relationship novels - a lot, everywhere, all the time. Everything is cyclical in publishing.
NICK CHILDS: But it’s been a decade now going pretty strong, so it may be cyclical but this cycle seems to be taking a long time.
MIKE VUOLO: Childs worries too about urban fiction’s preoccupation with authenticity, the idea that an author has to have lived the life, like Iceberg Slim, like Donald Goines, like K'wan, in order to write about it.
NICK CHILDS: You know, I don't have to have been a criminal to write an entertaining story about life on the streets, but somehow we've gotten to the point where that’s a selling point. People want to know, did this happen to you, and if it didn't then your book and your storyline are much less valuable to me.
MONIQUE PATTERSON: I wouldn't call it a hard and fast rule.
MIKE VUOLO: St. Martin’s Press editor Monique Patterson.
MONIQUE PATTERSON: It’s interesting, ‘cause I've thought about like if you had somebody who didn't live the life at all and wrote a really, really good urban fiction novel, I'm not sure if people would reject it or not.
MIKE VUOLO: What would you do as an editor? Would you want to take that book on?
MONIQUE PATTERSON: [SIGHS] That is a good question. I probably wouldn't. It would have to be that rare, rare case where the book is just so stunning, despite the fact that this person hasn't lived not one bit of this kind of life.
NICK CHILDS: And so, what is that saying to a teenage kid who is a talented writer? Does he need to go out and commit crimes?
MIKE VUOLO: It’s impossible, of course, to say if urban fiction simply reflects the reality of the street or helps create it, and so the whole controversy around urban fiction comes down to the question, why do we read? Escapism, identification, prescriptions for how to live, or maybe how not to live? We know that lives can be changed by books. What we don't know, can't predict, is how.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] For On the Media, I'm Mike Vuolo.