Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Wordcraft – What happened to the literary in literature?

This year’s Dallas Book Festival staged a welcome comeback. After years of languishing, the dozens of top quality authors and thousands of readers in attendance last Saturday were a satisfying demonstration of what can be accomplished by putting more sponsorship money and more publicity behind a civic literary event. The festival even included that well-known drawing card of any festival – food trucks.
Adam Mansbach

So why did at least two of the festival’s headliners – authors Adam Mansbach and Omar Tyree shy away from the term “literary author”? Why did each of them essentially have to invent his own genre to become bestselling authors?

Mansbach’s 2008 novel The End of the Jews won a California Book award, but he didn’t reach the New York Times bestseller list until the surprise success of what he wryly termed his 2011 “obscene fake children’s book,” Go the Fuck to Sleep (which, he told his Dallas audience, “I will refer to as Go the Fuck to Sleep,” after attempts by both the Dallas Public Library and The Dallas Morning News to tiptoe around the title).

Of his post-Sleep appearances on NBC’s The Today Show, he said, “Previously, I was the guy who wrote literary novels, but you don’t go on TV if you write literary novels, unless they’re about vampires.”

He professed pleasant surprise that one TV host (OK, it was Matt Lauer, so you know) actually knew he had written other novels besides the rhymed picture book inspired by his then 2-year-old daughter. 

Tyree’s 1993 novel Flyy Girl invented the genre of urban fiction, but he claimed to sidestep the entire “literary” issue by deciding to major in journalism instead of a more obviously creative field. “I have a degree in journalism because they didn’t have a degree in ‘book writer,’” he told his Dallas audience Saturday. “You could get a degree in journalism or in English.”

People who majored in English, he decided, wrote about the past; journalists “wrote about the now.” And it was in the now that his interests lay. Nothing against such grande dames of African-American literature as Toni Morrison, “but she’s always writing about slavery,” and his interest lay with contemporary city dwellers. 

And that word “urban”? Having noticed that “urban radio” was a code term for “black radio”, Tyree promoted his work as “urban” fiction, further sidestepping the pigeonholing of “African-American” literature with its freight of historical associations.

(He did sidestep slightly from the addition of “street” to the urban genre. “We have a lot of African-American men in jail who read. I wondered, why can’t we read when we’re not in jail?” It was that group of jailhouse-graduates who added shades of drugs and prison life to the urban genre Tyree insisted he only meant as a way to convey the reality of inner city life.)

So where is modern literacy going, Tyree’s listeners asked, with one audience member even taking the microphone to read a protest poem on the subject. Why aren’t more men (and boys) reading before they end up doing time?

Although Tyree set up a foundation, the Urban Literary Project, to counter the trend, he doesn’t have a definitive answer. In an echo of Mansbach’s wry take on literary novels, Tyree noted that every time he wants to write books to appeal more to males, such as his short story collection, 12 Brown Boys, his publisher protests that there’s no market because men and boys don’t read.

I came away wishing for a collaboration between Tyree and Mansbach, who honed the poetic skills of his picture book by writing hip-hop rhymes. Surely there would be an audience for a book about how to read more and stay the fuck out of jail.

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