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Keeping it Real | The Nation

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Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

Keeping it Real

The New York Times has an interesting story on street fiction, the ever-rising genre of "urban" (read: Black) fiction that is moving from stalls on Brooklyn's Fulton Street to Manhattan publishers' desks. Long popular in prisons (especially with incarcerated Black men) and with Black women (women are historically bigger readers than men), some of these writers have become mini-empires unto themselves. Most white people have probably never heard of her, but Teri Woods, featured in a Salon story last year, has done millions in sales and attracted the attention of Random House. (She's also in the process of turning one of her books into a film, which may feature actors Hassan Johnson and Michael K. Williams, who play Wee-Bay and Omar on the best-show-of-all-time, HBO's The Wire ).

The Times story focuses on DeWitt Gilmore, the author of books like Push, Topless, and Platinum Dolls, who writes under the pen name Relentless Aaron. He has just signed a six-figure deal with St. Martin's.

According to the Gray Lady, "Mr. Gilmore's prison pedigree gives him a street credibility that is almost as vital as his written word," Ms. Patterson [Monique Patterson, a senior editor at St. Martin's] said. Readers of the genre want to feel that the author is drawing upon his own hard-knock experience as grist for his books.

'He's really writing about what he's been through," she said. "It's similar to the way hip-hop appealed to a mainstream audience.'"

Riiight. Cause hip-hop artists are totally known for really writing about what they've been through. Cause 50 Cent knew druglords Pappy Mason and Supreme, and Jeezy's been cooking crack for days, and Tupac didn't go to a performing arts high school. Is it that an African American experience that isn't ghetto isn't real, or just that it won't sell?

I don't really know what to think about "street fiction" --- on the one hand, it glories in misogyny and violence, passing itself -- and those things, too -- off as "gritty" and "real." On the other, it's pure entertainment, and it's reading, right? (As someone who has been known to very much enjoy listening to music about drugs and guns, it's really hard to point any fingers here.) Besides, Mr. Gilmore has gone from a convict to a six-figure deal, and you've got to give him some credit for that. But look at that Times quote again: "Mr. Gilmore's prison pedigree gives him a street credibility that is almost as vital as his written word...Readers of the genre want to feel that the author is drawing upon his own hard-knock experience as grist for his books."

It's not just readers of "street fiction" or hip-hop fans who want to feel that the artist is drawing upon his or her own life. It's all readers, and all viewers, and all listeners. It's why we have reality television and it's the cause of people's tiresome obsession with James Frey. We don't really care about telling stories anymore unless they're extreme real-life stories, unless they feature "viewers like you."

Last thing: A while back Gawker linked to an item about Marc Gerald , 50 Cent's literary agent (What, you didn't hear about G-Unit Books?). Gerald used to run an imprint for Norton called "Old School" that specialized in "gangsta-lit novellas" that are presumably kin to what 50 will oversee. The project is rumored to have fallen apart not only because writers were grossly mistreated, but because manuscripts were "blackened" with "ghetto" language. It will be interesting to note how Mr. Gilmore's writing fares under St. Martin's, and how he's pimped out for the public --- sorry, I meant marketed.

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