“Get my book–$1. $1 for the whole thing. Read the back. Good story for only $1.”
I first saw him at last summer’s West Indian Day Festival–a corn-rolled man in his early twenties, backpack full of books trying to tempt passersby into purchasing his latest novel. The man made me take notice: I’d seen people on the street before selling their $1 poems (that is, the price = $1 per poem), but an entire novel was a bargain–and this young author knew it. He’d get right in your face, his head so close you could smell his hair grease, walking up to people and waiving his book under their faces, telling them in an ominous voice to buy his book or they’d regret it. I couldn’t help but smile at this young writer’s aggressive self-confidence as he metaphorically thumbed his nose at all the major bookstores.
You know major bookstores. Major bookstores have “colored” book sections, an “African-American interest” or “Latino Interest” implying that only persons of color are interested in reading books by authors of color, or worse yet, that the books that we colored read can be confined to one tiny section. But I see us all the time reading—on subways, brownstone stoops, those cute little outdoor cafes–our heads tucked into novels, newspapers, semi-inspirational books on how to get ahead.
And so as this young writer’s T.A.S.M: A Mystery Novel competed with national flags, jewelry, oxtails, Michael Jackson t-shirts and Obama hats for people’s spending dollars, I felt that there was something noble about what he was trying to do. A lot of my middle-class, scholarly friends complain that self-published literature is too ghetto, too lacking nuisance, but at least these writers have a chance of getting read, and that’s more than most of us can say. In the past, we’ve been supportive– too supportive–of traditional avenues that could care less about our culture or our art. We’re critical of the mistakes on our blogs but less vocal about the errors, from say, a Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass.
I don’t expect us to like everything that’s self-published, but on occasion, we can give it a try. When it comes to the literary world, I expect us, the people whose work has been ignored or marginalized, to be the ones who expand the cannon, who believe that interesting work can be found in nontraditional avenues. While important literary critics want to maintain the canonical fences so that they can stay important, we know there’s time to read the great stuff, the trashy stuff, and all the stuff in between. We know that reading diverse materials, from diverse places, helps your brain make unexpected connections. And we know, just as importantly, that reading this diverse material can be fun.
We know this better than anyone because we already did this for hip-hop–we took the classic R&B of our parents, appreciated its artistry, and used it to create wondrous new art. I hope that today we’re doing the same for literature.