ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Writer Terry McMillan has become famous for her best-selling novels about black American life. But as NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, books on a certain aspect of black life have her steaming.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: When Terry McMillan's 3rd novel, "Waiting to Exhale," was published, it not only became a national best-seller, it gave many outside the black community a look at something they hadn't seen before, normal, middleclass black life. For many readers, it was a revelation.
The 1995 movie gained the book even more fans.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "WAITING TO EXHALE")
LORETTA DEVINE: (As Gloria Matthews) Is this your first time hanging out?
LEILA ROCHON: (As Robin Stokes) I hate to be the one to break it to you, but this is as good as it gets.
GRIGSBY BATES: The success of "Waiting to Exhale" showed publishers the potential in a largely untapped market. But for the past decade or so, books aimed at black readers have included a genre now referred to variously as ghetto or urban or street literature. None of it makes Terry McMillan happy.
TERRY MCMILLAN: The fact that they are glorifying things that happen in our communities that shouldn't be glorified - being a pimp, being a ho, you know? How much we can get away with it is seen as something to be applauded almost.
GRIGSBY BATES: Applauded at the cash register anyway. The genre has turned out to be very profitable. Like many publishing houses, Simon & Schuster has a new black imprint. It's headed by former journalist Karen Hunter. Her imprint's first book was "Pimpology by Pimpin' Ken." Hunter's latest offering is a novel by McMillan's ex-husband. It's an unflattering alternate version of their divorce.
In a private e-mail, McMillan blasted Hunter's decision to publish it. That e- mail ended up circulating on the Web, and has refreshed the whole debate about ghetto lit. In her e-mail, McMillan chastised Hunter, who declined to speak to us for this story, and other ghetto lit publishers for elevating urban literature while allowing more practiced black authors to languish, and for being complicit in exploiting black women, both inside the books and on their covers.
MCMILLAN: The publisher almost insists that there will be something sexual to look at and it's always a black woman. And it insults the hell out of me because it's almost as if our breasts and our behinds are for sale.
GRIGSBY BATES: McMillan's objections reflect the opinions of many ghetto lit critics. They say much of it is poorly written, barely edited and increasingly promoted at the expense of better books. But not everyone agrees. Troy Johnson edits the African-American Literature Club, a popular Web site for black books that often hosts lively discussions about the street lit genre. Johnson says, when it comes to marketing their books, literary authors could learn something from their street counterparts.
TROY JOHNSON: We see a lot of complaining and haranguing over the lack of prominence of literary novels and bookstores, but at the same time, the street, urban authors are aggressive marketers and they market in a non-traditional means.
GRIGSBY BATES: That hustle has benefits beyond individual sales. Susan McHenry is editorial director of Black Issues Book Review, the industry's bible for black publishing news. McHenry says skillful entrepreneurs and their books get noticed.
SUSAN MCHENRY: When folks are selling them on the street as independent authors and succeeded, they have identified themselves to the mainstream publishers as a sure thing.
GRIGSBY BATES: Others agree. Calvin Reid has little patience for the outraged voice against street lit. Reed is a senior news editor at Publisher's Weekly. He acknowledges some non-black readers of the genre may assume street lit is a window into black life. But he isn't worried about being stereotyped.
CALVIN REID: It's hard for me to believe this category can blot out every representation of African-American life anymore than novels about, you know, Italian gangsters can blot out every other achievement of the Italian American community. It's just very difficult to take that seriously.
GRIGSBY BATES: So continuing that analogy, one mafia novel shouldn't eclipse the accomplishments of one Antonin Scalia. But what if there were hundreds of mafia novels? The sheer volume of street lit with this message of crime and sexual depravity is exactly what has McMillan's blood boiling. Calvin Reid likes that there's a diversity of opinion on the genre.
REID: I think that the artists should produce and readers should be able to buy what they want, and I do think that a healthy debate about all of it is good for all of us.
GRIGSBY BATES: And there will probably continue to be plenty of that.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.