Nick Chiles:
A Critical Look at Street Lit

by Taylor Nix
October 2009

Nick Chiles has been the poster child for the dissenting voice against Street Lit that has surfaced among Black authors of opposing genres. Whether deserved or not Nick has often been villanized as Street Lit's biggest enemy. But this casting has not stopped Nick from speaking out and sharing his concerns. In fact, he has taken the time to speak candidly about the New York Times article, Their Eyes Were Reading Smut, with The Urban Book Source. Read on for an interesting look at Street Literature.

Since your infamous article, “Their Eyes Were Reading Smut,” have your feelings changed about street literature? For better or worse?
No, my feelings haven’t changed at all. In fact, they’ve probably gotten worse. Because my magazine, Odyssey Couleur, did book reviews in every issue, we were sent new releases by many of the publicists for black-oriented books. What I’ve seen over the last couple of years since the New York Times article is even more of an increase in the sexuality of most of the African-American books, as if everybody is trying to be Zane.

Given your stance on street literature, would you ever work with any of the authors or publishers in the genre to improve the material being produced to a better standard?
I just don’t have the time or inclination to be focused on trying to improve street fiction. I have too many things I want to say in my own work, too many issues that I think need to be addressed in our literature. I don’t think nearly enough attention has been given in recent decades to the internal life of black men, the emotional and psychological scars that we grapple with in private. If there were more works that delved into these issues, I think it might prove to be revelatory for a lot of black men out there who currently think they have to work through these things alone. I’m actually working on a book with Kirk Franklin right now that explores some of these internal issues. Works like these have a much higher priority for me right now than street fiction.

Since your article have you discovered any other issues with street literature? Could you theorize any solutions or ways to improve this genre?
As I’ve said before, it doesn’t appear that writers approach the work with a desire to say anything remotely profound or with an attention to craft. Right now, for too many writers, the idea that propels them seems to be primarily financial, that writing street fiction is a good way to make a buck. Maybe 10 years ago it was real estate, 20 years ago it was Amway, now it’s urban fiction. In the past, most writers humbly approached that blank page with a desire to say something about the human condition, to explore some of the peculiarities of trying to stay alive and thrive in a complicated age.

The last thing that writers used to think about was getting rich. That was not a realistic expectation, and it wasn’t a thought process that was likely to produce memorable works of art. So I would say that if writers today asked themselves the key question, what am I trying to say here, how are my words intended to contribute to an understanding of African-American life in the new millennium, then perhaps there might be an elevation in the quality of the work.

What do you think is the difference between African-American Literature and Street Literature?
I think African-American literature concerns itself with trying to explore, explain, reveal the true nature of the African-American soul, with asking and answering questions about what it means to be black in America at a time when so many others are trying to tell us it has so much less meaning than it used to. Street literature is too often about the glorification and exploitation of sex, violence, greed—the worst aspects of our nature, the things that we all must fight to tame, rather than to celebrate. I’m not saying that wonderful, explosive, revelatory works can’t be done about the streets, or criminals, or even about subjects that are very sexual in nature. But these works would need to use these issues as a vehicle to discuss the human condition, rather than a glorification of the subjects being the point of the whole exercise.

In your article, you wrote, “I walked into the African-American Literature section - and what I saw there thoroughly embarrassed and disgusted me.” Can you take us back to that moment and explain why you felt that way? Did you think those books represented you? If so, why?
I still feel it every time I walk into a Borders. It’s a sense of that shame that this is what our community feels about itself, our importance to the world, our contribution to the exploration of the human condition. It’s like the gifted, talented, brilliant woman who decides that she should use just her looks and sexuality to get ahead, rather than developing and using her mind and her talent. We’re like that woman—unbelievably talented and complex, but ignoring it all to make a buck. Fifty years from now, what will be said about our generation? I fear history will not be kind to us at all. And that saddens and shames me.

Do you think Street Lit will survive?
I think there will always be books that titillate, that entertain by glorifying sex and violence and street life. I just hope that the writing community and the publishing community eventually present more of a balance, so that readers who want to learn more and learn deeper about black life have more of a choice.

Have you ever read any of the authors who are considered to be the pioneers of this “street” literature? Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim? If so, do you think there is a difference between their work and what is being published now?
I read Iceberg Slim when I was younger. There were also others I read that focused on life in the streets, such as Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land,” “Howard Street” about the streets of Newark, works by Chester Himes like “A Rage in Harlem.” These were all seminal, transformative works that changed the way many Americans thought about black life and the streets. They were intended to reveal a part of American society that had previously been hidden too many. But that’s not what’s going on now.

Has the emergence of Street Lit impacted your work directly? Or what the publishing houses are demanding?
Street lit has impacted the life and work of every working black writer in America in a number of ways. Because the publishers are so reliant on the street fiction authors to do their own publicity and marketing, the marketing and publicity budgets for black books are now miniscule, even for books that aren’t street fiction. Because the publishers can get away with paying paltry advances to street fiction authors, the advances that other black authors are offered has gone down dramatically. Because of the success of some street fiction authors, publishers decided it would be easier to just hand over imprints to authors like Zane and Teri Woods, rather than going out and trying to find new authors themselves.

So the number of talented new authors being brought into the profession has plunged. Many of the established black authors, in their attempts to stay relevant and make a living, have gravitated to more salacious topics. Others just decided to stop writing altogether because they refused to go in that direction. So it has impacted every aspect of the publishing profession.

- - - - - - - - -

Nick Chiles is an award-winning author and journalist; he is the Editor-In-Chief of Odyssey Couleur Magazine.

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