A Chiles Left Behind

Let's be brutally blunt: Nick Chiles is
a crybaby. A full-grown, overblown bucket
of woe.

Weeping last week on The New York Times’ Op-Ed Page ("Their Eyes Were Reading Smut" January 4, 2006) his tears were a wail that might've been heard 'round the world had boo-hoo been something worth listening to.

It isn't. And he's not.

Why the wet? Street Lit. The Nowest nanosecond in books. Seems little Nickie went into a Borders Books down in Lithonia, Georgia and was "embarrassed and disgusted" to find the stand-alone African-American Literature section "overrun with novels that appeal to our most prurient natures."

Worse, the poor, poor pitiful penman was "ashamed and mortified to see [his] books sitting on the same shelves" with those of these "purveyors of crassness." This smut is not literature, claims the cry-it-all, and should not be shelved as such.

This from a man who (with his wife) has co-written such high literary classics as Love Don't Live Here Anymore and What Brothers Think, What Sistahs Know About Sex: The Real Deal On Passion, Loving and Intimacy.

The nerve of this hack. Apparently cliché-ridden self-help masquerading as fiction is too falutin' to be sided with tales from the hood.

Maybe it's your books that need to be moved, Nick.

Contrary to this naysaying Left Behinder, the new crop of crime stories coming outta the ghetto is an extremely heartening state of bound affairs, it means folk are reading and writing, that written words still have some life in them yet. For a writer, any writer, to bemoan a burst of books is downright shameful.

Heartening too is the tremendous entrepreneurial spirit that has placed those books atop bestseller lists. Sold first from inner city sidewalks, outer borough nightclubs and outta the trunks of cars, street lit has bootstrapped into a bonafide phenomenon, available everywhere. Selling like the hot properties they are.

It's called the free marketplace, Nick. And you’re free to cease and desist, or at least excuse yourself from the fray.

Back in the '80s there was but one place south of 125th Street to buy the works of the likes of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines – the Port Authority book shop; now anyone anywhere can walk into any bookseller and handily nab not just the Godfathers themselves, but their slew of screaming offspring as well.

So what if the works are a little steamy, a mite dirty, occasionally ultra-violent. That's the Life, Nick. And, for an identifyingly defiant too many few, that's Life. Not everyone gets to Cosby out in the 'burbs and fret themselves over relationships. Some folk are too busy living.

And writing their way ahead. Keisha Ervin (Chyna Black) was a teen mother, Ebony Stroman (The Game Chose Me) was orphaned with two younger sisters and an incarcerated husband, and Vickie Stringer (Let That Be the Reason) is an ex-con, ex-gang banger, who ran whores. Now Ervin's a minor bestseller with three – count ‘em, Nick – books to her credit, Stroman and her husband have their very own publishing house, and Stringer's Triple Crown Publications (named for the Posse with whom she used to run) boasts a stable of authors twelve-strong and a sales record (a reported 300,000 sold during a recent 16-month period) that'd make even the big boys blush.

Chiles claims all this action is "driving out serious writers." Well, discounting the presumption that these bold new fictionists aren't serious about their craft (Who's being crass now, Nick?), we'd have to allow that their very existence is putting a damper on writing itself. Sure street lit is supplanting some so-called serious fiction at the top of the charts in Essence, but it's not because the serious is selling less. It's because the street is selling more.

It’s doubtful Ralph Ellison whined about Chester Himes, and neither Slim nor Goines kept Eldridge Cleaver from delivering Soul on Ice. Hell, even now Walter Mosley seems to sling – and sell – along fine despite – or because of – all the words from the street.

Full disclosure: I'm not Black. But I am a decidedly urban veteran of America's ever-growing gulag, and after a decade-and-a-half of wordwork, I do know some things about books. I know they need to be written, and I know they need to be read. And every bit of writing that gets people reading is a damn good thing.

Even, yes, the writing of ninny Nick Chiles.

If Chiles has a groan, it shouldn't be about sharing shelf space; it should be about how titles are shelved in the first place. There's no reason why books need to be segregated, just as there's no need to segregate people. Fiction is fiction. Period. And should be shelved as such.

Perhaps bookstores should devote an entire section to what's Hot and Happening. Then Chiles wouldn't have to worry about sharing anything. He wouldn't even be there.

And Nick, you might wanna switch shampoos. I understand Johnson's Baby still promises No More Tears.

Note: This is the unedited version of an article that ran in the NYPress, Volume 19 Issue 2, 2006 my rebuttal to Nick Chiles' weepy Times Op piece.