Greene Response to “Their Eyes Were Reading Smut”
by Brenda M. Greene
Published: Monday, January 9, 2006

Dr. Brenda Greene
Brenda M. Greene, Ph.D.,
Professor of English
Medgar Evers College, CUNY
The Op-Ed Page
229 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036

Dear Editors:

As I read Nick Chiles’ article, "Their Eyes Were Reading Smut" (January 4, 2006) I was overcome with feelings of déjà vu.  His words and experiences echoed my own and those of others who have become frustrated by the preponderance of "street lit" in the marketplace.  Yes, this literature has left the tables of urban street vendors, and it has been integrated into African American literary sections in mainstream and independent bookstores. It has taken over the publishing industry.  The question is why?

Why are publishers promoting "street literature?’ What is the appeal?  Why has this literature become the standard for what is commercially viable and marketable?  One clear reason is that it is being read and purchased.  It moves quickly from the shelves of the vendors and booksellers into the hands of a range of writers including young black female readers and those inner city readers whose lives it mirrors and glorifies.  As Chiles notes, many applaud it because it reveals that people are reading. Yes, they are reading, but is this a starting point to engage them as readers who will eventually expand their reading interests or is this representative of all that they are reading?

An equally important reason for the rise in "street lit" is that publishers invest in the literature of those who have demonstrated an ability not only to write but to market their books. These writers know what it takes to publish.  They understand that their book will not sell unless they develop a plan for marketing it.  In short, they understand the business of promoting books.

The rise in urban street literature is a reflection of our fast- paced, internet- based culture, a culture in which writing as a way of thinking and as an imaginative act has been reduced to writing as a vehicle for getting one’s message across quickly, and where concern for form, grammar, and even punctuation has become negligible. Those of us who are frustrated by an inability to get serious literary writing published are many, and include readers, writers, agents, editors, academics, and publishers.  We have to devise our own marketing strategy for making our voices heard, and we have to hold the publishing industry more accountable for its publications. 

A first step is to create forums where those who are interested in engaging in more literary and diverse reading can raise critical questions about the literature being published and can exchange ideas about how to get the attention of the publishing industry .  The National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College is one venue for raising these issues. This biannual conference brings together writers, readers, agents, editors, publishers, booksellers and the general public to raise consciousness about black literary writers and black literary texts, and to examine the themes and issues in black literature. 

We must also find a way to create mechanisms for promoting literary writers whose voices are not being heard and whose literature has become marginalized.  Because these writers are more concerned with writing than with promoting their books, they may never get the recognition they deserve. Writing is the first step, but marketing the book is just as essential.

It is not only writers themselves who have to take responsibility, however. We also have to put pressure on publishers and make them understand that the range of black literary fiction is vast, and as those responsible for introducing the public to this literature, they have secondary ethical responsibilities. In addition to selling books, they have the responsibility to introduce their readers to the full panoply of black literature. As Chiles reminds us, there is a need for a balance between publishing quality writing and more urban writing.  If there is to be a weight in one direction, let it be towards promoting well-crafted literary texts.

Brenda M. Greene,

Ph.D., Professor of English
Executive Director, Center for Black Literature
Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York


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