Gritty 'street lit' makes noise in the 'hood

At the table of Harlem book vendor Sidi Ib, novels featuring prostitution, drug dealing, and violence are common. Mr. Ib likes to help aspiring African- American writers, and tends to carry a large selection of books that are part of a new genre that goes by names such as "hip-hop fiction" and "street lit."

He doesn't accept every novel that comes his way - some are too sexually graphic or need more editing. But others offer lessons about the criminal life: If you use a gun to reign, you will die by the same gun, for example. "Those books are very good for our community," Ib explains.

Many of the authors start out selling their wares out of the backs of cars and on the streets, generating word-of-mouth enthusiasm. Their efforts often earn them book deals and spots on the shelves of mainstream bookstores.

The popularity of these novels is prompting authors and publishers to feel they've tapped a new market of readers. At the same time, it has stirred debate about what constitutes "literature" and whether the novels glorify the crimes they claim to be cautioning against. Either way, the new genre represents another conquest for hip-hop music, which has already permeated advertising, clothing, and film.

"I think one of the defining logics of hip-hop culture ... is its ability to create new markets for itself," says Mark Anthony Neal, a professor at Duke University who specializes in African-American popular culture. "It's now creating a market for literature."

The novels, with titles like "A Hustler's Wife," "Every Thug Needs a Lady," and "Street Dreams," sometimes show up on the Essence magazine bestseller list. They exude authenticity, say some readers, and appeal to their audience with the use of slang and tales of economic hardship and survival.

"These aren't fairy tales, they are in-your-face portrayals," says Malaika Adero, an editor at Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster that publishes books in this genre. "They reflect the world as [readers] know it, the society as they know it, much in the that way hip-hop lyrics do."

Ms. Adero gets new titles brought to her attention every day from writers around the country. One of her more popular authors, Shannon Holmes, has sold at least 85,000 copies of his book "Bad Girlz," about young strippers. "That's more than respectable," says Adero. "There are many books on the New York Times bestsellers list that haven't sold through like that."

At Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem, the popular titles sell well among men and women, says Melanie Boellinger, the store's director of marketing.

Ib says his customers are sometimes young men buying the books so they can impress girls they are dating who are also reading them. But he mainly sees women 25 and older picking them up.

Irene Evans fits into that category. Stopping to buy several books at Ib's stand, she says that in the past year she's gotten hooked on the novels. She can tell the books are popular because whenever she's carrying one, she's often stopped and told, "Girl, that's a good book!"

Currently in her bag is a novel by Vickie Stringer. One of the top-selling writers in the genre, her first novel, "Let That Be the Reason," has sold close to 200,000 copies, she says. While in prison, Ms. Stringer prayed about what she would do for a job when she got out. The answer that came was to write a novel about her life running an escort service and dealing drugs.

She was encouraged by the example of Donald Goines, considered one of the fathers of the genre. "He showed me that it could be done. Here it is 30 years later, people are still reading his books. I hope to be the same way," says Stringer, who started a company, Triple Crown Publications, to self-publish her first book. It is now a publisher of other street lit books.

Ms. Stringer takes issue with those who would suggest her book - which she calls "a cautionary tale" - could make street life look glamorous. "They haven't read the book," she says, "There's nothing glorifying, because [the main character] goes to jail in the end."

Many of the authors say they write because they have something to say, and they hope people can learn from them. "I try to put a good spiritual message in the story," says Mark Anthony, author of "Paper Chasers" and "Dogism," who was recently signed by St. Martin's Press.

What street lit could provide, says Professor Neal, is a chance to engage potential readers and writers. "If it helps young blacks and others to develop an interest in literature and writing, then I think it serves a higher purpose regardless of the content," he says. "That doesn't mean it should be beyond scrutiny. The same critical eye given to hip-hop around issues of gender, sexuality, etc., should be applied to street fiction also."

He also sees a wider audience for street lit: "Part of the success of hip-hop is there's been a kind of travelogue appeal to it, folks get to travel into the ghetto by listening to the music.... I think that the same thing is happening in literature."

For now, Stringer says, the books are filling a niche in the African-American community. "I think these readers have always been there," she says. "There wasn't anything out there for them to read."

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