A gritty urban landscape peopled with gangstas, prostitutes and ex-cons has been fodder for much of rapper 50 Cent’s music career, from his record-breaking debut album “Get Rich or Die Tryin,” and “The Massacre” to last week’s release, “Curtis.”
But now the rapper is mining the same fertile underworld as he tries his hand at fiction and book publishing in a controversial genre called street lit.
The rapper’s imprint, G Unit Books, in cooperation with MTV/Pocket Books, has recently published novels bearing titles such as “Harlem Heat,” “Derelict” and “Blow.” His next book, “Heaven’s Fury,” co-written by Meta Smith, is due out in November.
“Street lit,” once the domain of self-published authors selling books out of their cars, on buses and on street corners in New York, is now a nascent genre that’s attracted the attention of mainstream publishing houses such as St. Martin’s Press, HarperCollins and Random House.
The books are taking some heat from critics who say street lit, variously called ghetto lit, urban fiction or urban noire, is not only bad fiction, it’s no better than the stereotypes and misogyny perpetuated in gangsta rap. Others say street lit is a legitimate form of artistic expression of hip-hop culture, and an important and genuine reflection of a subculture.
“I think there is a direct correlation between the rise of rap music and street fiction. The topics they write about in rap music are very similar to what they’re dealing with in these books and it’s very exciting and appealing,” says Lauren McKenna, senior editor at MTV/Pocket Books, a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster, which carries 50 Cent’s books and other street lit authors.
The language in these books is the raw and graphic slang of the streets, with liberal use of the n-word. The plots are populated with black characters who are prostitutes, hustlers, gang bangers, ex-cons and other unsavory stereotypes.
And that’s the problem, says Sofia Quintero, who has written two street lit novels published by New American Library/Penguin Group under the pseudonym Black Artemis.
“The problem with street literature is that you will get a sense from reading a lot of it that women are strippers, especially people of color and Latinos, and African Americans are drug dealers because that’s what black men and women do. I don’t think that’s the intent of the author to say that, but that is the impression you get,” Quintero says.
Bryan R. Washington, associate professor of English at Lafayette College, says street lit’s connection to gangsta rap is “problematic.”
“I don’t believe in censorship, so it certainly needs to be out. But I think it’s politically problematic, especially in terms of the way it represents women. There’s something reductive about it all. It seems to be full of stereotypes which I don’t think are particularly helpful in terms of political struggles for blacks to achieve parity in the 21st century in America,” he says.
For some of the authors, the plots and characters in street lit may very well be authentic and “for real.”
Some authors such as Relentless Aaron started writing “Derelict” while serving time in prison for bank fraud. Vickie Stringer wrote the top-selling “Let That Be the Reason” after she was released from prison for running an escort service and dealing drugs.
Street lit authors “are writing for their community because they are from that community,” says Mary Ann Zissimos, publicist at New American Library/Penguin Group.
“They use a lot of the language found in the street but they are tackling complex issues. (The characters) are just a reflection of the people that they know. They tackle topics that are generally taboo outside the realm of everyday experience of mainstream general readers,” Zissimos says.
“Some of the topics deal with graffiti culture, or tackle the subject of being the other woman in an affair or of being of mixed races. I think that’s subject matter that not a lot of the average white audience would understand the dynamic of,” she says.
Fiddy’s own back story lends itself particularly well to street lit. The rapper, whose real name is Curtis Jackson, grew up in the violent, drug-ridden streets of south Queens and was struck nine times in a drive-by shooting outside his grandmother’s house where he was raised.
“The stories in the G Unit series are the kinds of dramas me and my crew have been dealing with our whole lives,” 50 Cent writes in the preface of his books, “death, deceit, double-crosses, ultimate loyalty and total betrayal. It’s about our life on the streets and no one knows it better than us.”
Except 50 Cent does not actually write the books, although he is listed as co-author.
“He’s not a writer but he does brainstorm and work with the authors,” says Lauren McKenna, his editor at MTV/Pocket Books.
That 50 Cent is featured so prominently as a selling point strikes Quintero as further proof that “it’s getting more and more difficult for publishing to be about writing. It’s showing it’s being more personality driven and not about quality.”
Quintero says street lit is weakened when it’s built on cliches and stereotypes of black culture.
“Because in communities of colors there are many stories. It’s not that some of the stories shouldn’t be told - they should be,” she says.
“I don’t have a problem with the hustler’s tale, but tell me why he does what he does, what are the external forces? Some of the quality of writing is wanting. We shouldn’t be settling for that kind of mediocrity in anything,” she explains.
They are the same concerns shared by Mark Anthony Neal, who teaches courses in black popular culture at Duke University’s Department of African and African American Studies.
Despite those concerns, Neal says street lit has some redeeming qualities, namely “that it gets young people reading.”
“We can make critiques about the quality of the work. Not by any stretch of the imagination is this great literature or fiction, but it is fiction that gets young people reading. And if it’s used as a mode to introduce them to more fiction and nonfiction then I think we should support street lit as it exists,” Neal says.
As a genre it’s been around for awhile, Neal says, who cites the crime-ridden subculture captured in the novels of Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines and Chester Himes and blaxploitation movies of the 1960s and 1970s.
But Neal says it’s time to raise the bar.
MTV/Pocket Books does not deny the draw of 50 Cent’s starpower - in fact, it’s by design.
“By bringing 50 Cent into the genre we are hoping to reach younger males,” says editor Lauren McKenna.
McKenna defends the books and says the content and language is “no different than anything they can see in a video or see on TV and the movies.”
“We are writing street fiction, not a romance novel. We work with what the genre calls for. We don’t feel it’s anything more outrageous than what you see on TV.”