Tales of the city

African-American street fiction is moving on up from sidewalk stalls to megastores like Borders. But should these gritty novels of drugs, gang wars, race and romance replace James Baldwin and Toni Morrison on bookstore shelves?

By James Norton
Published August 15, 2005 7:08PM (EDT)

Even within street fiction -- a literary genre written by, for and about African-Americans, defined by its blunt honesty, aggression and flamboyance -- author and publisher Teri Woods stands out as a hard case.

On growing up in a tough neighborhood: "I didn't work until I was 25. I lived with a drug dealer. And that was before crack."

On reparations and reservations: "See, the Indians don't pay taxes. The Indians get checks cut to them every month because their land was stolen from them. We don't get diamonds. De Beers doesn't ship everybody a friggin' diamond."

On her role as a publishing pioneer: "There was no one out here doing what I did. Selling books out of my car. Selling on the streets of New York. Standing under the Apollo sign. If I left a blueprint for other people to follow behind me in independent publishing, then I accept that. Bow down to that shit."

While writers like Woods are beginning to taste mainstream success -- their books are filtering into megastores and some are being courted by major publishing houses -- most street fiction is still moved on actual city sidewalks. The scene in downtown Brooklyn's Fulton Mall echoes that of urban centers all over the United States. Two middle-aged black women work a table of books, attracting passersby. Potential buyers browse the table's 70 or 80 titles as though it were a single rogue aisle escaped from a neighborhood bookstore.

The volumes that line the table six deep and 12 across are assembled from the elemental building blocks of drama: sex, death, conflict, hatred, redemption, forgiveness and betrayal. The Bible, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" sit side-by-side with street fiction titles such as "Harlem Girl Lost," "Block Party," "South Side Dreams" and "Homo Thug," as well as Woods' "Dutch: The First of a Trilogy." The cover is black, dominated by red type that rings out in a hard sans-serif font. Below the title is a photo of a hundred-dollar bill, soaked and spattered by blood.

It's undeniable that this is a genre of work that could be thought of as dangerous, glorifying violence and criminality. Its heroes are often pimps, prostitutes and/or drug dealers; the three things most commonly exchanged by its characters are profanities, gunfire and bodily fluids. And beyond questions of content, others worry about street fiction's creeping acceptance into the black community -- especially in schools. Says Gloria Wade Gayles, an author, professor and teacher of literature at Spelman College in Atlanta, "I don't think we're introducing young people to some of the major African-American writers. It's very, very, very problematic, that urban literature is replacing other literature -- literature that is part of the African-American history of literary accomplishments."

Yet, according to its authors and publishers, street fiction is not intended as literature -- it's entertainment, pure and simple. The genre is driven by stories and characters, not esoteric themes and avant-garde style; its authors typically self-publish, or sign up with small independent houses that are themselves headed up by working writers. (Woods runs her own eponymous publishing company, and claims to have sold more than 720,000 books over the last 10 years.) The work of authors like Woods is defined by its jagged, direct prose, roughly hewn stories, and a rawness that is as gripping as it is jarring. In "Dutch," Woods tells a story about characters who, rather than merely playing within or "beating" the system, dynamite and dismember it. Dutch's father is a soldier on leave from the Vietnam War at the time of his son's conception. While on the front lines of the conflict, he kills off his "cracker" brethren, blaming them for the insanity of the war as a whole:

"'See baby, they fightin' some war for they President, but I'm fighting my own. So, when I lifted my M-16 he ain't pay no attention, no attention 'till it was too late. The look on his face, when the nose of that M-16 swung around and stopped on him...' just then he broke out into a mad liberating laughter which scared and warmed Delores all at the same time ...

'That was my first,' he said proudly as he took a long drawl on his cigarette, then let the smoke out slowly. 'I lost count after fifty-somethin'.'"

During lunch in a midtown Manhattan restaurant, I asked Woods why she sympathetically depicted a serial killer who executes his victims based on the color of their skin. "You gotta understand," says Woods, whose mother is of white and American Indian heritage. "You want me to tell you why that book sells so well? Because 'Dutch' is what every black man feels right now. Go to traffic court, dude. Go to criminal court -- it's fucking disgusting! It seems like white life is excusable, and black life is intolerable. We will not be tolerated! 'Nothing from you fucking people will ever be tolerated.'"

"My father was made to pick cotton at the age of 8," she adds. "My grandmother was born in the 1800s. I am like this far away from injustice. I'm not going to let it go. You made my father pick cotton, man. You had all my aunts and uncles out there picking fucking cotton. It needs to be aired out."

Not every book within the street fiction genre is powered by a feeling of racial anger, but most share "Dutch's" basic hook: A hero or heroine somehow escapes, redefines, finds refuge within, or manages to control, his or her challenging inner-city circumstances.

Escapism is the rule here. Rather than using the street setting as a heart-rending diorama of misery and poverty, urban fiction tends to use it as a starting point for adventure. Sure, the system is rigged, the man is on your case, and the game is deadly. But there are ways out. Grab a gun, pull your friends together, and make something of yourself. Overthrow and supplant the local drug kingpin. Hack your way into the business world where the deck is stacked against you. (Alternately, partake in a crazy threesome with two bootylicious sisters.)

Violence is the flip side to the sexual themes that underpin many street fiction novels. Some books are defined by the romantic trials and tribulations of young black characters. Darren Coleman, a Washington street fiction author who's crossed to the mainstream, has made headway by putting a male perspective on a style of storytelling that has largely been owned by female writers. Others mix the romance with the drugs and guns that mark the roughest edges of street life. And some, such as "Bloody Money" by Leondrei Prince, live entirely within the world of stash houses, "packages" and gats in order to attract and sustain their readers:

"Pretty E and Dog went over the plans one more time from the top. The plan was to stick Malik and Shawn up for everything at their stash house on the North Side. Over the past couple of months, Malik and Shawn came from outta nowhere, splurging on to the drug scene causing a shortage to their money being made, and that was no good. Dog, Pretty E, and Hit Man laid low and watched their every move. That was their thing!

Watching and waiting for new dealers to make a move in the game, so they could knock them off. It was called capitalism. An idea they thought of long ago. 'Why should we risk going to jail for pumping hand to hand on some street corner, when we can let the next muthafucka get da gravy, and we take it! Feel me?' Hit Man said, during one of their many get togethers, and it stuck, and they lived by it."

But Teri Woods isn't impressed by the likes of Prince and other rough-hewed street fiction authors. Her style is hard to push into a box, and calculated to be equal parts outrageous and smoothly entertaining, and she doesn't see peers among the authors whose work crops up next to her own on the tables. When I asked Woods who among them had influenced her writing, she had a categorically negative answer.

"Nobody," she says. "I mean, don't get me wrong. There are some really good stories. But they're really full of shit. A lot of those books that you see on that stand, they have no plot. All they are is just sex, drugs ... 'Gonna go kill somebody ...' There's nothing there. No substance. Just a Puerto Rican chick on the back of a lowrider on the cover -- nothing in the pages that's ever going to make a difference."

Halfway through her tirade, she brightens.

"What I like, though, is that they're flippin' the dollars," she says. "I don't give a fuck what they sell. You got a way to make some money in a society where you're not supposed to have any? Oh my God! Then fucking get some more Puerto Rican bitches on the backs of lowriders and put some more books out there! If you can flip your dollar, I don't have nothing to say about that."

Woods herself is a one-woman publishing phenomenon. Teri Woods Publishing claims to have done roughly $10 million in business since 2000. This year, Woods signed a deal with Borders to put books from her publishing house into the heart of the nationwide chain -- a major coup. She's also in the process of starting a film company in order to turn her first book, "True to the Game," into a movie. In the process, she's attracted interest from high-profile actors including Hassan Johnson and Michael K. Williams (who respectively portrayed "Wee-Bey" and Omar Little on HBO's groundbreaking urban crime series "The Wire").

She's also on the radar of mainstream publishers. Rockelle Henderson, associate publisher of the HarperCollins imprint Amistad, which handles books about the African Diaspora, has been following her career for the past three to four years. "Right before you called," said Henderson, "one of my sales reps called, to say: 'Do you know the author Teri Woods?' And I said yes, and I don't think she wants to go to a major house yet. And he's like: 'OK, because her numbers are amazing at Borders.'"

The boom in sales isn't restricted to Woods alone, according to Henderson.

"Street fiction authors are selling 20,000 copies in a matter of two or three months. These are numbers you even can't ignore in a major, non-African-American author! The numbers speak for themselves. And guess what? Big publishers want those numbers, too."

The genre's growth has been felt at the street-side tables, too. "Right now, the industry is so flooded," says Darren Coleman, the D.C. writer who now has a four-book contract with Amistad. "And the best indication is if you go out and look at the tables of the vendors. The turnover is so quick. If your book doesn't become a classic, you're off that table; in 60 days, you're old news. There used to be a time when your book would sell strong for a year."

Coleman, who sold more than 30,000 copies of his first self-published book by working through mom-and-pop vendors and small East Coast chains, also runs a publishing house called NVision. His strong sales have come from an ability to pick and write stories that resonate with his readers, a group that he says includes an increasing number of men.

"Traditionally, people think that men don't read, or black men don't read a lot of fiction," Coleman says. "But I'm getting so many responses from men who say: 'You know, I haven't read a book since junior high school, but yours was the first book I picked up and was able to get all the way through.' I have a large readership in the prisons. I have a large readership of young people, college people. But I would still venture to say 80 percent of the people are women, the core readers."

Coleman's brand of gritty, street-ready writing has roots that go back for decades. Chester Himes polarized and captivated readers in the 1950s and '60s with his edgy black detective novels featuring Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones and his earlier, more strident works such as "A Case of Rape." In the late '60s and early '70s, writers such as Donald Goines ("Dopefiend" and the "Kenyatta" series) and Robert "Iceberg Slim" Beck ("Pimp: The Story of My Life") paralleled the rise of blacksploitation cinema, and laid the seeds of the current street fiction boom.

"I just remember sneaking those books under the kitchen table and reading them, because my older brothers and sisters were reading them," says Amistad's Rockelle Henderson. "I think you're having sort of a rebirth of that sort of thing -- it's the story from the streets, and the people who are buying it, they're living this. So they're starting to see themselves in books, and that's what's been missing for a long time."

"A lot of it has to do with drugs," Henderson adds. "It's the real stories. They're not glorifying the streets, it's just what it is."

Sister Souljah's "The Coldest Winter Ever" is often cited alongside Woods' "True to the Game" as the beginning of this most recent revival of the genre. Both authors have used street stories and racial tension to stoke book sales, selling to a population traumatized by gang violence and the brutal criminal justice system. For much of Woods' audience, the illicit side of the drug war was a way of life. "That was just a lifestyle that a lot of people lived," says Woods. "And a lot of people relate to that lifestyle. And if you look up a federal institution and see how many people have 067 behind their number -- that means drugs -- that's a lot of them. It was a way out for everybody."

That way out of the inner city, of course, was also a way into the burgeoning U.S. prison system, where many of the incarcerated cling to books as emotional life rafts. Both Woods and Coleman credit prisoners for an appreciable chunk of their sales, and both have published authors living behind bars. In a recent Publishers Weekly article, Earl Cox, a publishing industry veteran who now runs a consultancy serving African-American writers, directly attributed the genre's rise to an increase in the prison population, particularly for drug-related crimes. "In the '80s and '90s, a lot of folks got locked up and wanted to write about it," Cox said. And, as Coleman pointed out, those same folks wanted to read about it, too.

"I make a lot of money off of inmates," says Woods. "There's a lot of money in jail. People have locked these guys up, mostly black men. And they've made society think that they're right for doing it. Half of those guys are nonviolent. Half of them are in there for drugs, from the '80s."

Inmates might find something recognizable in urban fiction; a character, situation or romance might ring particularly true. But what about the black kids devouring titles by Woods, Prince and others at an ever-growing pace? "I'm no expert on urban fiction ... I can see how people have concerns," says Henderson. "My personal opinion is, if it's a child reading it the parent needs to understand what the child is reading. If you're an adult, I would hope that you're responsible enough to understand that it's entertainment."

Gayles of Spelman College adds: "Young people do not know writers such as James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. One of the things that some educators are attempting to do in order to get children to read is: 'I'm going to give you literature you can relate to. So you don't have to read a Ralph Ellison -- that's not your world, that's not your time.'"

Is there a disconnect between the great traditional African-American writers and the authors driving street lit's sales? I ask Woods about her influences: Baldwin? Morrison?

"Jackie Collins. That's my bitch. That's my bitch right there." She turns to her fianci, Lou, who has accompanied her to lunch. "Lou, even you read Jackie Collins, right?"

"Yeah," says Lou, grudgingly.

"Fuckin' right."

Woods has a simple explanation for her own success that could just as easily explain the booming popularity of the genre that she works within.

"I guess at the end of the day, if I do nothing else, I will always give you a great story," she said. "You're going to get a hell of a story fucking with me. If my name is on it, you best believe: I'm better than the average fucking movie."

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

James Norton

James Norton is the co-editor of Flak Magazine (www.flakmag.com). He's also the author of the forthcoming book "Saving General Washington: Why Everything the Right Wing Tells You About Your Founders Is Wrong," due out this spring from Tarcher/Penguin.

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