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Ghetto lit goes mainstream

Possibly the most vital – and certainly the most gratuitous – debate in American letters is occurring almost entirely under the radar.

The controversy surrounds a body of work referred to variously as ghetto, urban, or street literature, which describes a genre directed at African-American readers that is often poorly written, barely edited, and glorifies crime, sex, and violence. Here’s how New York Times editorial writer and author Nick Chiles reacted when he encountered a sizeable display of ghetto lit titles at a Borders Books in Georgia in 2005:

On shelf after shelf, in bookcase after bookcase, all that I could see was lurid book jackets displaying all forms of brown flesh, usually half-naked and in some erotic pose, often accompanied by guns and other symbols of criminal life. I felt as if I was walking into a pornography shop, except in this case the smut is being produced by and for my people, and it is called “literature.”

But as Chiles also acknowledges, ghetto lit sells – in fact, he says that this was “one of the largest collections of books by black authors that I’ve ever seen outside an independent black bookstore.” The genre is so popular that mainstream publishers are jumping on the bandwagon. But as Chiles points out, the fear is that ghetto lit titles are being published at the expense of books by serious black writers.

The debate was reignited on Oct. 3 when bestselling author Terry McMillan sent a scathing e-mail to Karen Hunter – co-author of a number of controversial ghetto lit titles, including Confessions of a Video Vixen and Pimpology – and two Simon & Schuster executives, who recently launched an imprint catering to black readers with Hunter at its helm. McMillan castigated the trio for publishing “exploitative, destructive, racist, egregious, sexist, base, tacky, poorly-written, unedited, degrading books,” which she says are particularly demeaning to women.

Adding to the intrigue, the screed dovetails into an attack on McMillan’s ex-husband Jonathan Plummer, whose fictionalized memoir of their split was co-authored by Hunter. (Coincidentally, Plummer served as inspiration for McMillan’s mega-bestseller How Stella Got Her Groove Back.) But as author Amy Alexander argues in The Nation, McMillan’s personal ire is justifiable:

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…. McMillan performed a public service by exposing the large pool of published dreck directed at black readers.

(For more background on the debate, Alexander’s article is a good place to start.)