Urban Street Lit in the Library

Here’s some food for thought for your weekend: the NY Times takes a look at readers, writers, and fans of the “urban lit” genre, and the article swerves like a train of thought out of control from moms who enforce reading for at least an hour a day to librarians who visit the tables on 125th street where street vendors sell self-published and small press offerings of urban-set novels featuring drugs, sex, and violence. Libraries take heat for stocking them on the shelves, while readers who escaped the projects or who still live there grab hold and read as part of a “collective memory” of the way life often is for those stuck in urban centers of poverty and violence, and for those who want desperately to get the hell out of there.

Some of the comments are causing a head-shaped dent in the table, as once again people appoint themselves arbiters of what others ought to be reading. I’m not falling on the sword of “Oh, at leeeast people are reeeeading” (sing along with me?) but it bugs the ever living fuck out of me when people decide that their way is best, and a librarian trying to offer on the shelves what her patrons are looking for clearly isn’t doing her job correctly. But I get a kick out of the number of people calling the Times to task for their outdated stereotypical image of librarians, and the subtext of the article: “OMG, Black people are reeeeeading??!!” Commenter “Pierce” kicked the Times report to task by saying:

Instead of perpetuating stereotypes about black urban culture, perhaps this will shatter the particularly pernicious one that urban blacks don’t read.

And if people have a problem with the writing and its the possibility “reflecting your own face back in the mirror,” it’s better for another writer to take the genre and write something more artistic than to criticize the whole form.

I hear you, Pierce. And as always, I remain ever surprised when individuals think that fiction is scary, that reading will harm someone’s thinking, that experiencing terror, harm, pain, and joy in the fictional confines of a novel will somehow irreparably damage the reader.

[Thanks to Robin for the link.]

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    delta dupree says:

    Like Pierce said much more eloquently: Hey, folks from every ethnic group reads, dammit!
    Whether the writing is poor or off the charts with BS many people do not understand, the point is that someone likes what the author has written. Should grammatical errors or punctuation matter? In a sense, yes. Hopefully, the reader will recognize those errors, but it’s the content of the story that’s most important—what excites the person turning the pages. Will Urban Lit influence the mind set of the reader? Highly doubtful, no more than romance [or any genre] influences their readers.

  2. 2
    Datagirl says:

    Apparently they’ve edited the article a little bit since my library director commented on it. They took out the “Prim Librarian” statement. This is good to me, but at the same time, I’ve seen ONE article that seems to put urban lit in a good light and this was in VOYA Magazine (Voice of Youth Advocates, a favorite for any librarian working with teens, i.e. myself). The author of that article just explained what is was and why libraries should look at having these titles. School Library Journal, a school librarian favorite, even picked up on the “Prim Librarian (“Madam Librarian”) Stereotype” when it came to this topic.

    I manage a Teen Collection at a public library in a small college town that denies it is having any of this happening. In the last few months, I’ve tried to pick up books featuring different characters other than the “cookie cutter middle class white girl” or the “Gossip Girl Stereotype”. The mix is certainly working for the teens as well as the adults coming in. The Bluford High books I put into the collection are all out now and I had teens, who were coming into the library for the first time, asking for Urban Lit and I think currently, next to the director, the only one who knows what it is.

    Ack. Either way, perpetuating stereotypes is stupid. Some of what is deemed Urban Lit is no different than your Realistic Fiction. I’ve read a few intense Realistic Teen Fiction (Crank by Ellen Hopkins anyone?) that has some of the same themes as Urban Lit. What’s the difference besides skin color? There are many reasons people read just as there are many reasons why people go to movies.

    Thanks for pointing out this article though. I completely forgot that I wanted to read it.

  3. 3
    Datagirl says:

    Oh and to add, there are decent Urban Lit authors out there. Jacqueline Woodson and Angela Johnson will work for those interested in the genre and these authors are considered “great writers.” I guess they were considered Realistic Fiction though…

  4. 4
    Deb says:

    ahh, but someone did manage to equate it with romance novels. From commenter Ben at October 22, 2008 2:11 pm “The real issue is that sometimes extreme violence and sexuality is found in works of astounding literary. Most of these “urban fiction” books are not. They are the literary equivalent to ripped bodice romance garbage.”

    I’ve never read an urban lit book, but I’ve seen them fly off the shelves at the libraries I’ve worked at – as well as Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines, Zane, etc.  Teens have been reading these, mainly because there was nothing in the teen section for them, beyond Mary McDonald, Angela Johnson, and Woodson.  Bluford High is a big hit with teens and YA publishers are finally starting to cash in on the big market of readers there are.  I’ll happily put any book in a teen’s hands.  No judgy mcjuderson here!

  5. 5
    Michele says:

    I just want to say that librarians are some of the most incredible people on Earth for their dedication to providing all types of reading material to the public and battling to get books on their shelves and into the hands of their readers. Regardless of what anyone’s personal opinion of a particular work might be, I believe everyone should have access to it. I also believe that anyone should be able to write what they please and damn the critical assholes of the world who say otherwise.

  6. 6
    Vicki says:

    I had a fling with a library science student back in med school and, believe me, prim was not in his vocabulary. He’s the one who introduced me to Nin, for instance. And hot! And totally dedicated to shaking up the establishment.

    I also think it is wonderful that authors who self publish can end up in libraries. We need more of that, no matter the genre.

    Oooh, hot82, well, he was certainly hot in 78.

  7. 7
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    Well, this is actually the first I’ve ever heard of so-called Urban Fiction, and I’m intrigued.  I’m going to try and seek some of these titles out.

  8. 8
    Joanne says:

    The sweeping generalizations, oversimplifications, rationalizations and half-assed explanations are flyyyyyyyyyyying in that article and the responses to it . Interesting how everyone knows everything about what everyone else should be doing including writing and reading.

    *****by the way***it’s now The Law.
    The words (word?) “Bodice-ripper” must be removed from any article or response before it can be printed on this planet.

    Hugs, kisses and all kinds of kadoos to ACW from New Jersey who quoted Theodore Sturgeon (response #39) ….

    “Sturgeon was asked: “Why do you write in that genre? 95 percent of it is crud.”

    “95 percent of EVERYTHING is crud,” Sturgeon said.

  9. 9
    amy lane says:

    Ugh!  Censorship is my cross to die on—this knots my knickers in ways nothing else does.  Social censorship can be just as pernicious (if not more so) than legal censorship—I forgot who said it, but the truth of “What is right is not always popular; what is popular is not always right,” is never more evident than when someone tries to tell us what and what not to read.

  10. 10
    Joanna says:

    For a good website on banned books and tried-to-be-censored books, try forbiddenlibrary.com
    some of the reasons are just silly; like for James and the Giant Peach (i know, wtf!) it ’ contains the word “ass” and “promotes” the use of drugs (tobacco, snuff) and whiskey’ and ‘contains crude language and encourages children to disobey their parents and other adults’

    There’s other hilarious/depressing examples there.
    *cough*thebible*cough*

  11. 11
    Joanna says:

    and really good quotes
    “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”
    —Mark Twain

  12. 12
    Sasha says:

    You know what ticks me off about this article?  It wasn’t “shelved” in the Book section of the Times.  It’s not like they don’t cross reference other articles on their webpage – so why is this a regional story as opposed to a literary/book story?

  13. 13
    Faellie says:

    I could pick out problems with the grammar or spelling of a large proportion of those commentators, including the one who says she has a graduate degree in English.  Glass houses, anyone?

    On the subject of correct usage, as a person without colour living in a large city, can I no longer describe myself as “urban”?

    capcha is england29.  Seriously, that thing’s gone beyond spooky.

  14. 14
    Cora says:

    Don’t forget the various dismissive comments about chick lit either. For that matter, why is chick lit always held up as an example of everything bad in popular literature, usually by people who have no idea what chick lit actually is?

    Anyway, I have never read an urban lit novel nor am I likely to, since this seems to be a very American phenomenon and the books will probably be difficult to come by on my side of the pond. But I think it’s both great that self-published authors are finding success and getting their books on the library shelves and that librarians are willing to buy the books their customers actually want to read, even in the face of disapproval.

    Finally, why is the TV-show The Wire, which features drugs, crime, sex and violence in black urban neighbourhoods, widely hailed as a masterpiece and the best show on TV ever (disclaimer: I have never seen it, so it may really be good), whereas this new urban lit genre, which features drugs, crime, sex and violence in black urban neighbourhoods, is derided as trash? Is it because The Wire is written by a white guy (and its most vocal fans also seem to be young white middleclass men), whereas urban lit is written by blacks?

  15. 15
    Norsey says:

    As we all know:

    reading Literature > reading nothing at all > reading non-Literature.

    Or perhaps, more accurately,

    people who only read Literature > people who don’t read > people who purchase non-Literary works, which are of such negative value that the world would be a better place without them, since we would at least then be holding steady instead of actively degrading ourselves and civilization as we know it.

    Also, black historical fiction = Nobel prize. Black contemporary fiction = not even worth the shelf space. WHARRGARBL.

  16. 16
    mirain says:

    [From commenter Ben at October 22, 2008 2:11 pm “The real issue is that sometimes extreme violence and sexuality is found in works of astounding literary. Most of these “urban fiction” books are not. They are the literary equivalent to ripped bodice romance garbage.” ]

    So… “extreme violence and sexuality” is all right as long as it is Literature, but otherwise is unacceptable? Am I interpreting that correctly?

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