RAWING with Dr. Vanessa Irvin (University of Hawai’i at Mānoa) answering the five questions of doom
1. In your book, The Readers Advisory Guide to Street Literature (ALA Editions, 2012), you define street lit as “stories that depict realistic naturalistic tales about the daily lives of people living in lower income city neighborhoods.” The book emerged from your earlier writing and work in the field, so you’ve had this definition for some time. Your book does a great job of tracing the history of the genre, including the turning point books like The Coldest Winter Ever. So where are we now? Is the genre growing? Shrinking? Changing? Getting better? Worse?
Thank you for your kind words. My observations of the publishing and reading trends of street lit indicate that the genre is now mainstreamed along the lines of other literary genres of the American literary landscape. This means that the genre sits independently alongside the rest of popular fiction genres on the library bookshelf (e.g. romance, horror, science fiction, etc.). Additionally, some authors are redefining street lit as an version of the genre of crime fiction.Other authors have really taken on the moniker of “urban fiction”. These various assignations are all good (in my opinion) because this shows that the genre continues to self define, grow,and evolve.Is the genre getting better or worse? I don’t know what “better” or “worse” means for literature. Is romance better or worse? Is horror better or worse? What does it mean for a bodyof literature to be “for better” or “for worse”? I base literary merit on the conversation between authorship and readership. Are authors still writing and publishing street lit? Yes. Are readers still reading street lit? Yes. Then street lit is doing just fine.
2. The appeal of street lit is strong among teens, even if most of the books are not published for the YA market, nor found in a YA section of a library. In your book, you have a chapter on YA street lit noting one difference between adult and young adult stories is the “toning down” of profanity, sex scenes, etc. A blogger wrote that books in my The Alternative series were not street because they were not “unapologetic.” Is this an element of the genre? And what are the other elements which define YA street lit?
I can see an unapologetic tone as an element of street lit because the stories are told from a raw, authentic space, often informed by the life experiences of the authors themselves. In this regard, YA street lit is aligned with YA realistic fiction where the stories chronicle realistic experiences of city youth. I still think that YA street lit is a milder, toned down expression of the genre, yet still within the realms of realistic fiction. In this vein YA street lit appeals to tweener and early teen readers who want (and need) to read literature that reflects their identities and experiences. And it has been shown in LIS and education research, older teens and young adults will be attracted to adult level novels (e.g. regular street lit) that appeal to their developmental needs.
3. When writing about the history of street lit, you note many key early novels were really street fiction as the authors sold them from the trunks of their car. While access to selfpublished orsmall publisher works is better in libraries than before, how much does this hinder street lit in libraries that so much is not from “mainstream publishers?” Could you address this from your perspective as a former librarian (need those reviews!), but also a philosophical one: what is the place for sel-fpublished works in library collections?
I believe that selfpublished works are important for public libraries because they give voice to the creative works of community members and authors who might directly appeal to local readers. I realize that the acquisition process of selfpublished works can be complicated, however, there are other ways to highlight and support selfpublished authors via library programming and book displays, for example. Nowadays, many selfpublished authors are offering their works as ebooks as opposed to books in print. Street lit ebooks are primarily promoted via social media. Local authors often have a pretty successful experience promoting their work online because they are directly engaged with their readers via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms like Tumblr. If librarians connect with authors via social media, there may be a way for libraries to promote selfpublished ebooks to better inform their patrons about street lit titles available for minimal cost online.
4. I believe my new series Locked Out fits all street lit criteria. In the YA section of your book, you mention Bluford High and authors such as Todd Strasser and Paul Volponi, all of us white authors. So what is your take on this? Do you have to grow up in “the hood” to write about “the hood?”
Yes; and everyone is in the hood. If you grew up in the hood you’ll have experiences about what it was like to live there. The same is true if you grew up in the suburbs or in a rural community.Authors write from what they know. Yes, we infuse our imaginations to shape characters and to move plots along, but by and large the core of realistic fiction comes from some basis in life experience. For example, during the early 20th century, residents of “the hood” (called “ghettos” back then) were European immigrants (Irish and Italian) and families from Jewishtraditions. Thus the city novels of yesteryear depicted the experiences of those peoples who were living in city enclaves at that time. In current day, the same applies: if you lived there, you’d have those stories to tell that realistically and authentically reflects that environment.
If you did not live there, you’d have other stories to tell, from your own experiences based on where you lived. So the question becomes: in your series, Locked Out, does it come from your own authentic experiences? Or are you telling stories from your imagined ideas about other people’s experiences? Nowadays, authors have to be careful about whose stories they tell because authors of color, LGBTQ authors, etc., are actively standing up and out for authentically expressed stories that are inclusive of diverse experiences where “voice” = “my life” (e.g. #WeNeedDiverseBooks). The authors you’ve mentioned tell their stories from an authentic space that is based on their lived experiences
. For example, Paul Langan is from Philadelphia, North Philly, to be exact, and he’s worked intensively with Philadelphia teens. He’s lived city stories. Paul Volponi is a native New Yorker who has worked directly with incarcerated teens on Rikers Island as well as rehab teens, for years. These experiences inform his agency as a writer, too. Based on their biographies, these authors grew up having seen, felt, and interacted with all kinds of people in urban settings. Their lived lives, which includes their professional experiences, is the basis of authenticity upon which they tell the stories they tell. I believe their relatability is why teen readers enjoy their work. However, at the same time we must acknowledge that those who hurt the most, scream the loudest.
Meaning: if you’ve actually been poor, black, and disenfranchised as a city dweller all at the same time, during these contemporary American times, street lit stories are going to come from a lens based on historical and infrastructural oppression, as opposed to from an outsider/observer’s lens based on the privilege of witnessing other people’s experiences. Both lenses are needed, and neither at the expense of the other. Moreover, contemporary street lit is valuable because it gives us a lens through which readers can attest to what historical and infrastructural oppression looks and feels like in the nuanced experiences of people who are hegemonically positioned on the societal rung of poverty and marginality.
5. Finally, what else are you working on: a new edition of the book? What are your current research interests? And will we ever see a street lit book with your name on it?
The book was published just a couple of years ago, so I don’t anticipate a new edition is needed, just yet. My current research interests involve the professional development of public librarians. My research with street lit gave me the question of: what are the impacts and outcomes of librarian professional practice when librarians read what their patrons read? So I am very excited about learning and sharing ways in which public librarians research their own professional practices, particularly in localized contexts. As for a street lit book from me; my father has charged me with this task a long while ago! When will I write it? I don’t know when, but I definitely have a story to tell …