15 February 2009

A Second Look at Street Lit

Normally I don’t give Curts “Fitty Cent” Jackson too much credit. I mean, he DID survive being shot like eight times, and he grew up on the streets…

That’s actually what my post is about. Fitty Cent writes thug lit, or street lit, and people read it. And Fitty Cent has street cred, so I don’t question what he and his ghostwriter write. But if I wrote street lit? I’d be criticized, and I probably wouldn’t gain much respect from my readers.
In the same vein, is teen lit better, more effective, or better received when a teen writes it? Or does “Write What you Know” only extend so far in this case? Stephen King has never woken up paralyzed on an autopsy table. Jodi Picoult couldn’t possibly have as much tragedy in her life as her characters do. But their writing is still legitimate and well-received.

Picoult and King are writers of “adult” books, though. Taking a look at authors of teen books, I’m wondering if age or life experience contributes to the popularity or effectiveness of the book. Feed is written by M.T. Anderson, an adult. The teen slang used in his novel is so over-the-top I felt like I needed a glossary, and I’m not that far removed from my teen years. Ann M. Martin was once a babysitter, but she was not in any sort of club at the time the series was written. Tolkien was not a hobbit. Why do some adult authors “work” as teen authors, while some do not? I think one strategy is to write about something that is foreign to everyone, like the Lord of the Rings books. It’s hard for critics to say, “But that’s not the way middle earth really is,” because as the author, you get to make up the rules. It gets messy when you try to imitate rules you didn’t live by: Anderson’s slang, me writing street lit; it just doesn’t jive.

Teen readers are so sensitive to authenticity. I’m thankful for street lit. If it gets kids reading, teaches them about an environment unfamiliar to them, or reaffirms a way of life they already know, then it’s an effective piece of media, in my opinion.

Has anyone had any experience with writer’s groups and teens? Or book clubs and teens? I think teen writing is so interesting, because they very rarely try to write “above” themselves: a fourteen year old doesn’t normally write from the point of view of a middle aged person, for example. They haven’t lived it, they aren’t living it, it’s not in their immediate interest to do so, and so they don’t. often when they do, it’s inauthentic, much like an out-of-touch adult writer trying to write in a false modern teenaged vernacular. Maybe teens know something we don’t, in that respect.

I think showcasing examples of street lit is especially important in teen writing groups: it’s such a good example of how writing can still be “good” even without perfect grammar, or a sunny blonde protagonist, etc. it encourages freedom of writing, freedom of speech, and freedom of reading selection. I also love pairing street lit, literature heavy on the slang, or non-traditional forms of writing with “the classics”. I hated Sons and Lovers until I read it side-by-side with Junot Diaz. It makes the classic important in a way we’d never thought of, and it makes them more relatable to teens today.

As librarians, how do we judge the good from the bad in terms of collection development? As a Midwestern white girl, who am I to select which street lit is best? How do I know what’s authentic? Seriously, any advice would be much appreciated. I’m just feeling my way towards an answer here, but here’s what I’m thinking: Say I’m looking to purchase some street lit for my library. I have no idea what’s good, aside from reviews. I don’t know what’s authentic. But half of my readers won’t have lived the street life, either. If it’s well written (tells a full story, has good character development), then who cares if it’s exactly like how Fitty lived? I never read street lit growing up, but I loved books about cancer, teenaged pregnancies, drug problems, and eating disorders. None of these issues afflicted me or my immediate family or friends. I had no idea whether or not the way chemo was described in the Lurlene McDaniel books was really how it happened. But I didn’t care. I took it at face value and moved on, because at the time I thought the story rocked. I paged through a little something from Lurlene the other day and groaned--it was terrible! But something about it really spoke to me as a teen reader. I can’t remember what it was, but it was there. I’m hoping I’ll remember that as I order books at my own library some day. There are all sort of good books and genres out there; it just depends on who you ask.

So now, I’m asking: Are there any books, series, movies, music, games, etc that you dismissed at first glance, only to learn the true value of them later? Are there any series or media you used to love, but now you can’t find the appeal? Are there any examples of contemporary fads in the last few years that you find especially groan-worthy? What makes them valuable to teens? As you ponder by ramblings, I’m going to go get rich or die tryin’.


  1. What a fascinating post, Maggie!

    As I see it, you're talking about 2 different kinds of writing here:

    1. First-person experience "written" by the survivor and then tweaked by a ghostwriter who can actually punctuate


    2. Imagined stories written by someone who's honed their writing craft by research and practice.

    So maybe, at some point, you COULD write a street lit story and be respected; because you'd done enough research and your work had artistic merit. After all Shakespeare wrote about a lot of different characters, but as far as I know he wasn't a 12 year old Italian girl (Juliet) or a murderous Scot (Macbeth). Yet no one (with the exception of those pro-Marlowe scholars) questions the validity or value of his work, many centuries after its creation. He did his historical research homework and he had talent. The art is what matters.

    I haven't read a lot of teen literature written by actual teens, unless you count S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, which she wrote at 15 and published at 17. One of my favorites from my teen years was Go Ask Alice; a supposedly anonymous diary of a teen girl who got sucked into the drug scene and died of an overdose. I have no idea if the book was ever authenticated as an actual memoir, or if it was written by an adult as a cautionary tale for younger people. Another title I recall was Lisa, Bright and Dark written by John Neufeld. This was about a manic-depressive teen girl who did a lot of self-mutilation due to her inability to cope with her feelings. Even though I personally wasn't a) a "greaser", b) a druggie or c) manic-depressive, I loved all three of these books as a teen because they showed me a world outside of my own (white suburbia), told a good yarn and provided some safe scares. That, to me, is one of the great benefits of literature for all ages--it's a safe place to explore feelings and situations that are scary and it's a place where we can learn about consequences and coping strategies.

    As far as judging literary quality for collection development, I'm as up in the air as you are. We can rely on reviews, for sure, and ask other professionals. When I do book talks for elementary school kids, I always ask THEM what they like after I've gone through my spiel, and I've gotten quite a few good recommendations from them. Plus we need to remember that not everything has to be great literature to be a good read. "Trash" is okay. My least favorite type of librarian is the snob, who won't recommend "certain books" because he or she feels kids should be reading "the classics". I love your idea of pairing classics with newer work; that's a great way to spark discussion and renew "the oldies". We need to remember that we will be serving all kinds of people, with all kinds of interests and all different reading levels. What's important is that they READ and enjoy it, be it Fitty Cent's memoirs or the Bard's plays.

  2. On the note about adult literature read by teens, many of those stories were not written for teens, but they speak to young adults because they don't talk down to them. Honestly, as a teen I didn't read much "YA" lit. I think part of the reason was that a lot of YA lit wasn't as challenging and it used lingo I never used. It was the adult work that spoke to me, because they weren't trying too hard to be something they weren't (even when they wrote about teenagers).