NY Conversation June 2011

Back when NY Conversation lived up in Harlem, one of our favorite pastimes was strolling along the stalls on 125 St, where you can buy all sorts of exotic African products — essential oils, shea butter, incense, spices — along with polemics on black history, faux ancient Egyptian paraphernalia, a fine selection of pirated DVDs, and a shitload of old soul/funk/jazz CDs that the vendors will kindly burn to order for you.

And also, you can buy books. The street is dotted with vendors specializing in lurid pulp-y novels with scantily-clad girls or gun-wielding ebony Adonises on the cover. NY Conversation always found the titles on sale perversely fascinating — they weren’t Great Literature by any stretch of the imagination, but they seemed a kinda modern day equivalent to the pulp titles of the mid-20th century (but with exclusively black protagonists), and they never seemed available anywhere else. NY Conversation always thought of it internally as “blaxploitation fiction”, and kept meaning to buy a couple of books to see if they were as awesome as Shaft or Super Fly.

Since then, it’s become clear that our timing was slightly off — the majority of these books don’t date from the 1970s, but rather from the 2000s and beyond. The genre goes by the name “urban fiction”, and in 2012, it’s selling like hot cakes. These books are to fiction what hip hop is to music — indeed, an alternative name for the genre is just “hip hop literature”. The books mine the same mythology that occurs again and again in hip hop: the idea of escaping the ghetto, the relentless machismo, the hustle, the ubiquity of gun culture. It’s really a surprise no-one thought of this idea earlier.

Not everyone’s a fan, though. The erudite gentleman behind the counter at the excellent Hue-Man Bookshop on Frederick Douglass Boulevard — where NY Conversation picks up a copy of something called False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness for a whole $2 — blanches when I ask him about the whole idea of urban fiction. “It’s popular, sure,” he sighs wearily, gesturing out the window at the vendors on the street. “Otherwise they wouldn’t be other there in the rain selling it. But to me it just glamorises ghetto life. I don’t like it.”

Such criticisms mirror those that have been levelled at hip hop over the years, and they tend to be batted away with well-meaning rhetoric about depicting the gritty realism of life as an African American in the US. As NY Conversation is, y’know, not African American, I don’t really feel qualified to comment on just what degree of realism is to be found in urban fiction, but either way, case, this does raise another question about the genre: who its audience is.

The Guardian ran a piece about urban fiction last year, presenting a largely positive view of the genre, especially the fact that it gets books into the hands of kids who mightn’t otherwise be reading at all. The piece also focused on what it called “seg-book-gation”, suggesting that these novels are palmed off as books by African Americans for African Americans, rather than just, y’know, books.

If this is indeed the case, it seems remarkably commercially wrong-headed — fans of hip hop culture aren’t exactly a niche market, after all. This is perhaps why major publishers are now starting to see the appeal of the genre (and, more importantly, the cash it can generate for an industry that, like the music industry, is experiencing a general decline in revenues). The majority of the books on 125 St remain self-published, but some writers are being snapped up by “real” publishers — for instance, Midnight, the latest novel by genre luminary Sister Souljah, was published by Atria, an urban fiction focused imprint of Simon and Schuster. It sold over a million copies.

It’d be interesting to get hold of some sort of demographic breakdown as to who those million people are, because it wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see the genre’s appeal starting to extend to the same bored suburban kids who consume hip hop so voraciously. Again, our friend at Hue-Man isn’t brooking such ideas. “I would hope that isn’t the case,” he says ruefully. “These books are written by African-Americans, and I would hate for people to think that they represent the whole of the African-American experience.”

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