Almost two years have passed since writer Nick Chiles published a New York Times op-ed piece headlined, “Their Eyes Were Reading Smut.”
Chiles, an African-American editor and author, had not written that headline, but its clever play on the title of Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, quickly established Chiles’s thesis question: How did so many poorly written black oriented titles–novels that depict wall-to-wall crime, sex, violence and hip hop ghetto-fabulousness–come to own so much shelf-space in major bookstores?
It’s a topic that has been smoldering for the past several years among black writers who hold aspirations to literary seriousness. For us–I consider myself a “serious” writer, having authored or edited nonfiction titles concerning black topics–it is not about envying the big sales that “ghetto lit” books like Karrine Steffans’s bestseller Confessions of a Video Vixen and Zane’s Addicted rack up (well, not entirely, anyway).
Nor do we have some unrealistic expectation that black readers should only take in “uplifting” titles. The issue is, as Chiles eloquently argued, the publishing world’s apparently callous, willful obliviousness to the potential long-term consequence of this trend: that millions of young black readers will not grow out of these titles. (Conversely, the argument favored by some defenders of “ghetto lit” is that it appeals to young urban blacks, a favorable development that will lead to their becoming readers of more serious literature down the road.)
After Chiles’s piece appeared, in January of last year, the debate heated up among many of us–we burned phone and Internet lines from San Francisco to Washington, DC, talking over the Times essay. Then things quieted down. But early this month, author Terry McMillan–a k a She Who Penned Waiting to Exhale and Finally Proved to Big Publishing that Black Folk Do Read Commercial Fiction–drove an eighteen-wheel tanker filled with gasoline into the embers of the debate.
On October 3, McMillan e-mailed a scathing letter to a black writer, the former New York Daily News journalist Karen Hunter, and to Louise Burke and Carol Reidy. Hunter has co-authored several popular titles that might be described as “ghetto lit,” including Confessions of a Video Vixen; Reidy is CEO of Simon & Schuster and Burke is publisher of Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books imprint. McMillan’s e-mail accuses all three of harming black consumers by publishing “exploitative, destructive, racist, egregious, sexist, base, tacky, poorly-written, unedited, degrading books.” And that was for openers.
McMillan had been seething for a long time over this trend, apparently, but was finally put over the top by a title that appeared in late summer: Balancing Act. Published by Simon and Schuster, it is a roman à clef co-written by Hunter and a first-time author named Jonathan Plummer–McMillans’s ex-husband. Plummer is said to be the inspiration for McMillan’s blockbuster, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, a kicky story about a middle-aged black woman vacationing in Jamaica who takes up with a man twenty years her junior.