Monday, July 24, 2006

going to the fair

yes, i did pick up eight books that i'm proud to own, a mix of fiction and historical/biographical nonfiction. and yes, i did miss the workshops because i got there late (which was not my fault, 'cause i had to wait for my passengers to convene before i finally hit the road). and yes, i realize that the gathering was what folks collectively put into it. and no, it wasn't the rain sprinkles or clouds. it was the other stuff, like the fact one of the two blocks seemed to be predominantly food, jewelry and clothes instead of books. and then, of the books that were there, most were what a friend of mine has termed, "ghetto fiction."

i'm sure there's a term they use for it in publishing that isn't so charged. i realize that the word "ghetto" has in recent years become a word that no longer carries the innocuous "ethnic enclave" meaning that you may find in a dictionary. folk generally use the term now with disdain, or alternatively bothersome, with praise, when talking about the bad stereotypes, character flaws, and various degrees of shady activity and ignorance that folks like to pin on poor urban minorities. the term ghetto fiction has been used, at least by my friends, to describe the legion of books that are being marketed en masse to black folks, often by black folks, seemingly everywhere that books are being sold to black folks. the books are all paperback. most of the covers have pictures of black people on them (to reassure us that we're not picking up a book about white folks, since surely, we wouldn't be interested in reading about anything or anyone other than ourselves.) many times the women are wearing really provocative clothing, or no clothing at all. and the men all look angry, with bandanas on their heads. if you read the back cover, you'll often find that the protagonist faces some dilemma that has something to do with "the streets," "the hood life," or "the game." many of these books are like extended written versions of the lyrics and videos of the latest r&b or hip hop songs. their plots commonly twist and turn around drug culture, sexuality, and violence. some are cautionary tales. others are simply tales, like pu.zo's the god.father, except that the characters are black and poorer, but somehow even more glamorous and daring. unfortunately, the books are often poorly written and edited, with predictable plots, unimaginative language and character development, rampant misspelling, and bad grammar outside of dialectical speech or narration. publishing houses (first the small ones, and increasingly, bigger and bigger ones) are really cleaning up with these books, with the exception of the many that are independently published.

i've read some of these ghetto fiction novels on the rare occasions that i have overestimated certain books because the cover didn't fit the profile. i avoid these books like the plague. i grew up reading classic short stories by writers of all colors, and my introduction to black authors' novels and poetry came from toni mor.rison, maya ang.elou, james, rich.ard wright, nikki gio.vanni, and the like. i'm a snob. i've had prime steak, i don't want canned potted meat now. to me, ghetto fiction is a dented can of potted meat. that's been sitting in the corner store since it fell off the back of a truck when the store opened seven years ago. that's been sitting untouched on the shelf through numerous fumigations.

anyone can write a book. get their little cousin who took art at the vo/tech to draw a cover. get their little sister who has a computer to type it up and edit it. get some money from somewhere and print it, selling it out of the trunk of their car. don't get me wrong, i'm not knocking the hustle. some folks even start small publishing companies, some of which specialize in creating and marketing these books. i find that to be very enterprising and smart. there's a demand, and they're just supplying it.

but at what cost? some folks say they're glamorizing immorality and the kinds of lives that we shouldn't want for ourselves. others say that the books have gotten people reading who wouldn't otherwise be reading. (unfortunately, young people can be included in this population.) but i'll be honest, i'd rather this trend stop now. i hate the idea of our literary ability as a people to decline because we expect and demand less creativity and skill from the folks and write and tell our stories. it's actually not the subject matter that grates at my nerves so much as it is the treatment of the subject matter and the bad quality of the books. it's getting more and more difficult to find new creative books by black authors that fall outside of the ghetto fiction or ter.ry-mc.millan-sistagirl-dilemma trends. could it be that aspiring black authors will one day choose to write ghetto fiction merely because it's the lucrative genre, instead of striving for their own personal literary heights? could ghetto fiction dull the senses of those who would otherwise be skilled readers with discriminating taste? in other words, would the nightmare that's happened in the black music industry happen in the black literature industry as well? would i wind up being a "backpacker" author, hustling my book underground to the "conscious" heads 'cause i'm too old school and counter-trend for the mainstream publishing houses to sign me, 'cause i won't sell out and write a simple book with no style, value, or nuance just to move units and keep the people simple yet hungry for more to dull their intellect?

i actually heard a very annoyed someone ask at one of the booths, "do you have any lang.ston hughes here?" as if they'd been looking all day. i felt their pain.

i'm nervous. the harlem book fair made me nervous. not just for my future in writing, but for all of us.