Tuesday, May 20, 2003
New York Jose Perez wasn't interested in books as a child. They were boring, hard to understand. They didn't speak to him the way rap and hip-hop did.
Then a friend encouraged him to read such books as Sister Souljah's "The Coldest Winter Ever," about the daughter of a drug lord, and Shannon Holmes' "B-more Careful," set in a Baltimore housing project.
"They're books I can relate to," says Perez, 21, a nursing home storage worker who recently stopped by Harlem's Hue-Man Bookstore and looked over a copy of "Gangsta," by K'Wan.
"They're about people like me, and how they have to struggle and to hustle their way through life."
Perez is a fan of a fast-growing genre dubbed "street life" by Hue-Man owner Clara Villarosa. "Street life" books -- also known in the publishing industry as "ghetto lit" -- are often highly profane and sexually explicit stories featuring guns, drug dealers and prostitutes. The prose can be as crude as the subject matter, but booksellers say they appeal to at least tens of thousands of young people who, like Perez, might not otherwise be reading.
Although usually self-published or distributed by tiny presses, "street life" titles have caught on well beyond black-owned stores such as Hue-Man.
Barnes & Noble's fiction buyer, Sessalee Hensley, says there has been "huge growth" in the market, with "B-more Careful" and Teri Woods' "True to the Game," a story of drugs and violence set in Philadelphia, especially popular.
In March, Random House Inc. published Y. Blak Moore's "Triple Take," about an ex-convict in Chicago. Simon & Schuster recently signed up Holmes for a six-figure advance and will publish his next novel, "Bad Girlz," in the fall.
"I live in Harlem and I noticed a lot of people carrying 'B-more Careful,"' says Malaika Adero, a senior editor at Simon & Schuster's Atria Books imprint.
"It is an unflinching look at what you can say are the worst aspects of urban life. And I think he can reach a wider audience. White suburban kids flock to hip-hop music and those lyrics, so I think the same thing could happen with this kind of literature."
Booksellers appreciate the sales of these stories, which follow in the harsh tradition of such older writers as Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. Some sellers, however, also worry. Although Villarosa places Holmes' book and others near the front of her store, she wonders about their effect on readers.
"It's drugs and thugs," Villarosa says. "It's the hip-hop of the publishing industry. I have mixed feelings about it. I'm concerned about the subject matter and the glorification of it."
At Esowon Books in Los Angeles, co-owner James Fugate says Holmes, Woods and other such writers sell consistently, just as Iceberg Slim once did. But Fugate says there's an important -- and unhappy -- difference between the youths who bought such books 20 years ago and those he sees now.
"When I first started selling these kinds of books I could get people to the next step -- something more literary," Fugate says. "But it's a lot harder to do that now. With all the technology and the other media, things have changed so much. People just want to read the same kind of books over and over."
"Street life" books get the same criticism as rap music and violent films, and use the same defense: The books reflect reality and are intended to discourage, not glamorize.
"I only can write what I know," says Holmes. "I can't write a romance novel, because I don't know much about romance. I don't write to put a shine on what's going on in the street. I write to dissuade somebody from this kind of life. I try to preach without being preachy."