Today's New York Times informs us that urban libraries like the one headed by Shonda Miller in Far Rockaway, Queens, have begun to embrace what's variously known as "urban fiction," "street lit" or "gangsta lit," a genre that sprang up during the 1990s and which chronicles the (glamorized) trials and tribulations of urban black life in America's cities. Pimps, hustlers, dealers, and madams populate the pages of these fast-moving novels -- take, for example, Angel, protagonist of the wildly popular eponymous novel set in this blogger's own hometown, is according to the Times "a Versace-clad seductress who shoots her boyfriend in the head during sex, stuffs money from his safe into her Vuitton bags and, as she fondles the cash, experiences a sexual frisson narrated in terms too graphic to reproduce here." Toni Morrison it's not, but is that the point?
The point, librarians say, is that people are reading. People who have never seen the inside of a library in their lives, they report, come in asking for Teri Woods, Kwame Teague, and other street lit luminaries, whose tales of lurid urban doings speak to phenomena with which many patrons are sadly familiar in their daily lives. Some librarians see the genre as a sort of gateway drug into further reading; Vanessa Morris, a professor at Drexel who started a book club in North Philadelphia, has seen her teenage pupils branch out from street lit into more "credible" genres like straightforward biography. At Far Rockaway, once the librarians have got their hooks into kids weaned on the drugs-and-guns glamor of street lit, they use it as an opportunity to push the hard stuff on them -- "If you want sex, dirt and murder, read Shakespeare!" says Sharon Anderson, the head librarian there.
The Times reports also on a street-lit "backlash" -- some librarians, it seems, consider the genre too low-brow to grace their shelves. Apart from the reasons outlined above that recommend street lit's inclusion, it's perhaps instructive here to take the long view, which is to realize that one generation's so-called trash often becomes another's treasure. Fifty years ago few would have predicted that today people would write their dissertations on minstrel shows, pulp fiction, superhero comics, or any number of "low" entertainments, but certain of today's scholars have made the case for their value, heuristic or otherwise, quite convincingly. Is street lit not, like other genres, a reflection of both the dreams and the reality of a certain place and time? "This is about documenting history, or, I should say, collective memory," says Professor Morris. The 1980s drug wars, whose protagonists and generalized ambience provide much of the plot fodder for street lit's brightest stars, were very real for residents of places like southeast Queens, which not surprisingly proved to be the breeding ground for the largely self-published luminaries of the burgeoning street-lit scene, not to mention the explosion of musical creativity that helped make hip-hop what it is today (see journalist Ethan Brown's engaging Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent, and the Rise of the Hip Hop Hustler for a primer on the drugs-music nexus that brought the neighborhood to the attention of the nation and made certain of its residents quite a lot of money).
It seems fair to say that the street-lit phenomenon constitutes a from-the-ground-up cultural movement, proof that literature is inextricably located in a particular place and time, and an indication that the reading culture we might expect is not always the one we're going to get. Anyone who has haunted urban library branches or bought books along 125th Street in Harlem knows that reading is alive and well in these places. And if you believe that the very act of reading is in itself valuable, you might be hard-pressed to condemn a phenomenon that apparently is drawing more and more people to the magic of print every day.