- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 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 Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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 tens of thousands of young people who, like Mr. 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.

“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 Miss Villarosa places some of the books near the front of her store, she wonders about their effect on readers.

“It’s drugs and thugs,” Miss 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 Mr. Woods and other such writers also sell consistently, just as Iceberg Slim once did. But Mr. Fugate says there’s an important and unhappy difference between the young people 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,” Mr. 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 have the same defense: The books reflect reality and are intended to discourage, not glamorize.

“I only can write what I know,” Mr. Holmes says. “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.”

Mr. Holmes, 30, is a troubled kid who made good. Jailed from 1996-2001 on drug charges, he saw a fellow inmate working on a book. “I knew that I was smarter than him, and that if he could write, I could write,” Mr. Holmes recalls.

Mr. Holmes was still in jail when he completed “B-more Careful,” the story of a girl who will do anything to get rich. “Greed set in and greed has the ability to blind a person, making wrong seem right and vice versa,” he writes.

Mr. Holmes tried shopping his manuscript, but he had no contacts in publishing. So he turned to fellow author Mr. Woods, who distributed the book through her company, Meow Meow Productions.

“It’s all word of mouth,” Mr. Holmes says. “It’s interesting. The things I write about are the things that got me locked up. Now, they’re feeding my family.”

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