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.
Within days, McMillan’s e-mail began circulating on black-oriented publishing blogs, including Thumper’s Corner, and on AOL’s BlackVoices website; I received it on October 6, in an e-mail message from another black writer, a former journalist and author of several “serious” nonfiction titles. To date, none of the mainstream book industry websites or industry-watchers at the big daily papers have picked up on it, possibly due to the messy, high-profile divorce that McMillan and Plummer went through. If you missed that episode, a quick primer on the McMillan/Plummer personal situation is in order: McMillan and Plummer first met at a Jamaican resort in the mid-1990s, when she was 42. Plummer, a native of the West Indian island, married McMillan and went to live with her at her swank Northern California home when he was 20. Even so, McMillan has always maintained that Stella is not her exact doppelgänger and the book is a work of fiction.
In 2004, Plummer came out of the closet, setting off an ugly divorce that was characterized by claims of embezzlement (McMillan said he raided her accounts of more than $200,000), homophobia (Plummer said McMillan became abusive and called him “fag,” among other things, after he admitted being gay) and accusations of lying and cheating on both sides, much of it hashed out in a shockingly raw Oprah Show appearance featuring McMillan and Plummer in 2005.
Anyway, bitterness over the dissolution of their marriage clearly combined with McMillan’s long-simmering feelings of disgust over “ghetto lit” to set off this latest tempest. Plummer’s first novel, Balancing Act, is a thinly-veiled recounting of his relationship with McMillan. It is a big stink, to be sure, one that probably strikes many mainstream journalists who cover the publishing industry as unseemly at best, or as just too damned “ghetto” to warrant any further coverage.
Yet, whatever the reason it has not yet garnered attention beyond the parallel universe of black authors and bloggers, I am not at all put off by the fact that McMillan’s busted marriage helped push her over this particular edge. Far be it from me to judge any woman who feels she’s been done wrong by a man, and who then takes those bad feelings and turns them toward activism. As Chiles did with his Times op-ed in January of last year, McMillan performed a public service by exposing the large pool of published dreck directed at black readers.
Terry McMillan’s e-mail to Hunter and the two Simon and Schuster bigwigs is scathing, funny, heart-wrenching and raw; it is filled with invective directed not only at her ex-husband, but at the publishing establishment itself–a brave instance of biting the hand, though time will tell if it proves to be a foolish act, too, in terms of her long relationship with her own editors at Viking.
Within days after the October 3 e-mail began to circulate, McMillan wrote to a few bloggers and added clarifications; in one instance, on an AOL BlackVoices site, she engaged in a tepid bit of backpedaling, saying she had written the e-mail in a hot fit of anger, and wished to take back some of the harsher comments she’d directed at Hunter. But by then, the original e-mail had been rocketing around the black blogosphere, adding texture to the serious, long-brewing debates over art versus commerce, race and media, and the complicated question of black writers’ “responsibility” to black readers.
For their part, Hunter and the two Simon and Schuster executives, Carol Reidy and Louise Burke, have been silent. But I am guessing that the minute the mainstream outlets start covering the story, they will have something to say. I am not convinced this latest flare-up in the publishing world over “ghetto lit” will lead to any positive changes immediately; after all, these books sell like crazy, which, ostensibly, allows publishers large and small to have a bit more breathing room to put out the “serious” literature that we all agree must be published. But, for sure, now that McMillan has officially entered the fray, it bears watching to see what the next chapter holds.