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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Street Lit

When I tutored high school students in math and the SAT in Brooklyn, I would often ask what they read recreationally. The answer was usually some form of "street lit"--books by black and Latino writers that were printed cheaply, written in vernacular ("But Carol was feenin and right now she wasn't even tryin to hear that"), and sold from tables on the sidewalk or in black bookstores. I borrowed a few and read them when I kept seeing my students reading them voraciously.

They were pretty bad, but a few dealt with real issues in important ways. For example, Homo Thug, a favorite of several of my students, in which a black man in and out of prison deals with the realization that he's gay. (Young black gay men have been a hot topic lately because of the growing prevalence of "down low" gays, whose acceptance of the closet increases the risk of HIV for the women whom they sleep with.) As an Amazon reader says, "The sex scenes within the book between the men is real, and raw..."

A few writers at the top end of the street lit scene have crossed over into mainstream publishing. Among the best known are Zane (Addicted, Gettin' Buck Wild: Sex Chronicles II), whose erotic lit is advertised in New York City subway cars, and Michael Baisden, a well-known talk radio sex guru.

It's an exciting thing that publishing has gotten inexpensive enough that people who can't write well but have stories to tell can publish and get a readership through direct, in-person sales and a little word of mouth. There's obviously a need that mainstream publishing hasn't fulfilled for raw, up-to-date soap opera novels that are localized to particular cities, ethnicities and subcultures. I wonder what the Desi street lit scene is like? And what the difference is between the street lit on sale in New York vs. Chicago vs. Atlanta vs. Los Angeles?

One more thought. There's so many messages about work, values and life that teachers and parents are struggling to make kids hear. Why not write some street lit and work it in there?

Here's what sparked this post: the NY Times ran a story a few weeks ago on street lit, focusing on writer "Relentless Aaron":

Mr. Gilmore first began showing up on the prison buses two years ago, arriving by subway, alone and unknown. Now he arrives announced by the bold graphics on his sport utility vehicle — "Relentless Aaron, Father of Urban Fiction" — flanked by two female assistants carrying piles of product: his self-published paperbacks, selling for $10 apiece.

Mr. Gilmore's books fall into a growing genre known as street lit. With titles like "Push," "Topless" and "Platinum Dolls," they are saturated with sex, violence, gangsters and drug dealers and take place in prison and on the mean streets of New York City. He began writing them while serving a sentence for check-cashing fraud in federal prison in New Jersey. When he was released in 2003, he walked out with 30 completed manuscripts. So far, he has had about a dozen printed. He aggressively markets and distributes them on the buses to prison, sidewalks, the Internet and in small bookstores.