Roundtable: Black Authors in Spotlight
ED GORDON, host:
This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon. Black authors are enjoying increasing book sales and greater attention. From Maya Angelou to Terry McMillan, From Bebe Moore Campbell to Omar Tyree, black literature is seeing a growing readership. NPR's Farai Chideya has a special roundtable on the past, present and future of black literature. Farai?
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
Thanks, Ed. Joining me from our bureau in New York is Dewitt Gilmore, who writes under the name Relentless Aaron. He's the author of Push, The Last Kingpin and Platinum Dolls, among other books. Also in our New York bureau is Malaika Adero, senior editor for Atria Books at Simon and Schuster. And from the studios of Emory University, Nick Chiles, editor-in-chief of Odyssey Couleur travel magazine. He recently wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled There Eyes Were Reading Smut. Welcome to all of you.
Ms. MALAIKA ADERO (Senior Editor, Atria Books): Thank you.
CHIDEYA: So, Relentless, can you give us a taste of what your books are like? You know, the plots, the characters, the audience.
Mr. DEWIT GILMORE (Author, aka Relentless): Generally, what I did was I pulled from my experiences in business, in entertainment, on the streets, in prison, and in the Marine Corp, I basically took from all of these various experiences and poured them into my characters, my plots and worked at being, at mastering my craft in doing so.
CHIDEYA: The Last Kingpin, just one of your titles. What's that about?
Mr. GILMORE: It's about an organization that stretches from the streets of the Bronx to the jungles of Bogota, Columbia, and I'd like to say that it's a big lesson in humanity because it really outlays the levels of desperation and temptation that there are in, as it relates to the drug industry. This would also touch on the thugs in the street that sell it, the traffickers, the DEA that hunts it down, the death squads that commandeer it down in the jungles, and as well as the farmers, so it really is, it spans that entire organization, and it doesn't leave anything at random, like these random acts that you see today. This really does lay it out intricately, surgically. It's a look at the drug war as we know it today.
CHIDEYA: Malaika, the place where you work, Atria Books, publishes everything from the speeches of Ozzie Davis to the kind of va-va-voom bedroom lit of Zane. So what in particular is the appeal of someone like Zane? And who is the audience for those top-selling books?
Ms. ADERO: Well, the numbers of the audience are in the hundreds of thousands, and it's primarily women. It's primarily African-American women. The range of education levels and economic levels to not any one particular core group.
CHIDEYA: And is it strange to be at a publishing imprint that has such a wide span of the kinds of books that you publish, some of which are very highbrow, and some of which are not?
Ms. ADERO: No, no, and actually, no stranger than I am because really my list reflects who I am, and I appreciate as a reader and as an editor literature that ranges from the literary, Maurice Kongday(ph), Carl Hancock Rux, to urban lit. I mean, there are categories of literature that I don't do, for example romance novels. That's not something that is particularly my forte. I cater to a market that is very varied. I mean, the African-American market is very varied. Obviously, the American public is quite varied. I have books by Asian writers, European writers as well.
CHIDEYA: Now, Nick, you're a novelist, and you wrote a scathing New York Times op-ed called Their Eyes Were Reading Smut. In response, author Jill Nelson sent in a letter of support, and she complained, in that letter, that the bookstores, quote consign African-American writers to a literary ghetto, end quote. Now, is the problem street lit books themselves? Or is it the fact that all black books are lumped together in one section of the book store?
Mr. NICK CHILES (Editor-in-Chief, Odyssey Couleur): No, actually, I don't mind the one section of the bookstore. I mean, I appreciated Jill's perspective on that. But my complaint was how the section now seems to be overwhelmed by this street lit, and street lit, in and of itself, isn't something that I necessarily have had a problem with. I mean, it's not the kind of books that I would prefer to read or that I would want my children reading, but when I walked into a Borders a few weeks ago, and I had been aware of this, the growing influence of street lit, certainly if you go into any black bookstore the last couple years, it pretty much has become all that you see.
But I think I was blown away when I saw it in Borders, and so I guess, kind of seeing all those titles, lurid and very crass, the sexual positions and the violence depicted on the covers, it all just kind of hit me at once like a smack in the face. When you look at this title above this section, African- American fiction, and then you walk in it, then you get the impression that this is who we as an African-American community consist of: crime, violence, a glorification of these street elements that certainly don't even come close to depicting the totality of our experience in this country, so...
CHIDEYA: But Nick, let me ask you this. Who are you blaming? Who was slapping you in the face? Was it the black readers? Was it the street lit authors?
Mr. CHILES: I think everybody has a stake in this. I mean, certainly the publishing community has seen the dollars that are available with this type of fiction, and they're going at it whole heartedly, kind of crowding a lot of other things off of their lists and out of the market. The bookstores don't really have much a conscience.
They see what sells, and they respond to that. But I think readers who appreciate different types of literature, different types of experiences depicted in their literature, they have more of a responsibility to go to the stores and buy the things that they like to support, a diversity of book types, because right now, as Malaika mentioned, there's a lot of women buying this stuff, a lot of younger women, like girls buying this stuff, and so the booksellers are responding to the marketplace, and so that's what consumers seem to be saying that they want.
CHIDEYA: So, Malaika, if you were on the subway in New York, and you saw a 13- year old girl reading Zane, I've seen them reading it, would you feel like, Gosh, I unleashed something on the world that maybe isn't going where I intended it to go?
Ms. ADERO: No, I don't think that. I mean, I'd prefer to see a 13-year old reading something else, but I don't think it's the worst thing in the world. When I was in junior high school and high school, you know, we were always dog- earing the pages of books like Mario Puzo's The Godfather and anything else we read that had any sexual content of it, and passing it around. You know, I mean, that's what kids do. I would hope that that 13-yearold's experience was balanced at school and at home by exposure to other kinds of literature.
CHIDEYA: Relentless, how do you respond to somebody like Nick who's like, you know what, this is crazy that black literature is being converted into this street literature?
Mr. GILMORE: Well, you know, if you walk out of your house, and you walk down the block, you can find anything to be offended to by, so you know, I live by a live and let live philosophy, so you know, nothing that the next person does is going to really bother me unless it has some physical implications, and then it's all bets off.
You know, I don't know how Nick's doing with book sales, and I really don't know why he felt that slap in the face, but you know what? If I was in his shoes, I would not necessarily hate on the next genre. I would try to do what was necessary to push my book, to push my book to the forefront because there's always going to be stuff out there that we can detest or what have you. But to each his own.
How could you write books, in one sense, and then frown on another genre, an entire genre of books, an entire genre of books that's doing nothing but stimulating reading. We want readers by any means necessary because whether they read good or bad books, whether the kids read good or bad books, they're still broadening their awareness. And then eventually, as they grow out of what Nick calls the smut, then maybe perhaps they'll read a book like Guy Johnson, Maya Angelou's son, who's one of my favorite authors.
But then, when you frown on that quote unquote "smut," are you frowning on Sydney Sheldon's smut that's deeply buried in his fiction? Are you frowning on Elmore Leonard's smut, who buries things like that deep in his fiction? I mean, you know, why should we would be outcasted? We should be embraced and encouraged to write, to be more imaginative, to write books that step beyond the threshold.
CHIDEYA: Let me Nick in on that. Why should he be lambasted? And isn't it just the same as the smutty white authors? Or is there a higher stake because of the race issue?
Mr. CHILES: There's definitely a higher stake because of the race issue. I'm a parent. I'm somebody who cares about my community, who cares about the things that my children are exposed to, and if I see a ten-year old who's wandering into a bookstore or who's in a library, African-American, and looking for something to inspire them, I will be disturbed by seeing this, the offerings that are in front of them in a Borders or in the library if it consists largely of this urban fiction.
No, I don't have a problem with the fact that urban fiction exists and that there are writers like Relentless Aaron out there making a dime, and yes, your books may sell more than mine. That's not the question. That is not even close to why I'm here. I'm talking about the message that we're sending to our community that this is who we are, this is who we consist of, then you're really short selling who we are and the diversity of our experiences in America.
CHIDEYA: Malaika, let me bring you back in here. One of our commentators here at NEWS AND NOTES, Professor Mark Anthony Neal, thinks that the appeal of street lit is similar to that of hip-hop music. He says there's been a kind of travelogue appeal to it--folks get to travel into the ghetto by listening to the music. Now, if you carry that analogy out, some people have critiqued hip- hop, because it's like, you know, there's guys producing albums about drive- bys, long after they've made millions of dollars, because they're taking white kids into some kind of fantasy about what ghetto life is like. Is this street lit starting to cross over to white audiences, and if so, what are they learning about black life from it?
Ms. ADERO: Yes, it's a good question and we don't see any evidence that it has. I think that it's a matter of time, myself, but actually, I don't think it has yet crossed over, but I agree with your colleague. The literature does mirror the music. And the literature is varied, it's not all the same. I mean, the quality of the writing from author to author isn't the same, the content and the story lines are not the same.
I, of course, publish some of this, and I do because I think some of the work is important. And some of that work which is different from erotica, and different from work that's age inappropriate for young people, I actually have acquired, because they are books that I would want and do want the children and the young people, age appropriate, mind you, to read, because they are important cautionary tales, and an important reference point for having discussions about what is going on in this society today.
CHIDEYA: How much do we know about the sales of these books? How much would a top street-lit book sell in terms of numbers of copies sold?
CHIDEYA: How much of the black book market does this represent? Do we know anything about that?
Mr. ADERO: Yeah, we do because, and being an inquiring editor, Shannon Holmes, for example, I've published two of his novels. Bad Girls, for example, when I last checked, 111,000 copies. We published Sister Souljah's Coldest Winter Ever, which has now sold over a million copies in all of the editions, various editions. You know, and publishers don't have total control over what retailers do, and we're negotiating with them and nagging them all the time about balancing the placement of work.
You know, we want the literary work up front as we want other kinds of books. The other thing is it just so happens, publishers, we actually don't' spend more money in promoting urban lit and street lit, because we don't have to. The word of mouth is so tremendous, just like in the music industry, you know, you could put out an underground record, and it can make money, the same thing happens for us.
CHIDEYA: So, let me ask you this, Relentless, Malaika just mentioned that some of the street lit books have redemptive themes, or, you know, people who were going through things and who emerged triumphant on the other end, do you see yourself ever, in your books, writing about redemption in a way that actually could be teaching life's lessons, or is that just not the point of what you do?
Mr. GILMORE: No, but I actually do that. I actually do teach underneath the entertainment. I actually, I pride myself with broadening a person's awareness, you know, whether it's street politics or high-level politics. If people stretch their imaginations past the book covers, because, you know, we all know a shallow person judges a book by it's cover, we will be able to see the jewels within the books, and not pigeon-hole everyone, and if I wasn't a good writer, people wouldn't be flocking to me.
I wouldn't get the front page of the art section in the New York Times. On the other hand, other authors that might feel slighted by such thing, you know, might have a problem with it, and I think that might where Nick felt he was being smacked.
Mr. CHILES: So, you think you're on the front page of the Art Section because of the quality of your writing? Is that what you're saying?
Mr. GILMORE: Oh, absolutely, because without the quality of my writing I wouldn't have sold so many books.
Mr. CHILES: So, the fact that you're selling books on the prison bus, you don't think that's what the Times felt was newsworthy about this, and that that was converted into a book deal?
Mr. GILMORE: No, that just happens to be coincidental.
Mr. CHILES: You think it's the quality of your writing?
Mr. AARON: That was coincidental, that the writer ran into me while I was selling books on the prison bus. Prison bus books, the books that we sell on the prison bus, Nick, is not, that's not our biggest audience. Our biggest audience is in the streets, is in the beauty salons, is on the web. You know, that's where my audience is. I mean, I also sell books to the prisons and on the prison buses, but I also...
CHIDEYA: Let me just jump in and ask Nick, you know, E. Lynn Harris, who, he started out selling in beauty parlors, door-to-door out of the trunk of his car. There's a long history of black folks kind of boot strapping it to get literature out, or to get books out. Now, would you consider doing street marketing? Have you done street marketing for your books, regardless of the kind of literature you do, there's a whole market of people who just go to the corner booksellers. Could literature, black literary fiction, become more aggressive in competing street to street?
Mr. CHILES: Well, I think that all of literature needs to be more aggressive and wiser about how we market our books, and finding our audience. I mean, this is about finding your audience. I'm not sure if the audience for many of my books would be on a prison bus, but you know, they, they're somewhere in the community, and it's part of my job and my publisher's job to find them, but the answer to that question lies in what our editor said about not having to spend as much money on the marketing of these books, because they're doing the marketing, the street marketing themselves.
I think that that lies at the heart of why so many mainstream publishers are now so eager to acquire this stuff. If you have some guy who you know is going to be out there hustling, selling it out of the back of his car, going into, up and down the street into barber shops, beauty parlors, then sure, you're going to be a lot more eager to publish him regardless of the quality of the writing, than somebody maybe who's more literary or more commercial. I can understand why they would be more attracted to the guy who's going to work harder.
CHIDEYA: Now, I'm afraid that we're just about out of time, but I'm going to go one last question to Malaika. Given what you just heard, the interchange between Relentless and Nick, what is the future of street lit as a part of African-American literature?
Mr. ADERO: I never set aside the quality of the writing and the storytelling for marketing considerations. One of the most affective means for making a book popular is for it to get into the word of mouth flow. All authors have to take responsibility for promoting their own work along with, and in partnership with their publisher.
CHIDEYA: Well, that's going to have to be the last word. We've been talking street lit with Malaika Adero, senior editor for Atria Books at Simon and Schuster; Relentless Aaron who was born Dewitt Gilmore, author of the upcoming Extramarital Affairs; and Nick Chiles, co-author with his wife, of novels including A Love Story. Thank you, all.
Mr. ADERO: Thank you.
Mr. CHILES: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Back to you, Ed.
GORDON: All right, Farai, thanks a lot. That was NPR's Farai Chideya. Next up on NEWS AND NOTES, we'll meet a master of the Brazilian martial art form, Caporera. At nearly 80 years old, he's now introduction it to a younger generation.
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