Recently I came across a novel by Marc Blatte entitled, Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed. After hearing the author discuss his book on NPR’s (National Public Radio) Weekend Edition radio show a while back, I decided to investigate the novel for myself. A rather catchy title, Blatte’s novel had been categorized as “Hip-Hop Noir.” Yet, what I imagined “Hip-Hop Noir” to be was not quite Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed, instead I found his novel to be a kind of farce, in which the characters were more like amalgamations of every urban stereotype imaginable. They were like crude drawings, stick figures that lacked depth and soul. Blatte used terms like “ghetto thug” and “punk-ass” in descriptions and dialogue in an effort to add authenticity to the fictional landscape, but it only overpowered the rather middling prose.
I consider myself to be a true fan of the noir genre and well-versed in the many facets, troupes and traditions. I’m also a fan of hip-hop and still hold such albums as Nas’ “It Was Written,” “Things Fall Apart” by The Roots, and more recently Lupe Fiasco’s “The Cool” as superb works of art. In many respects, I learned how to craft sharp, witty dialogue from the rhymesayers of my youth. Nas’ lyrics have always sounded as if they were ripped out of some noir flick just waiting to be made. I remember him describing a man as “short—a few inches north of a dwarf,” or even Lupe Fiasco, who examines the trappings of wealth (via metaphor) by describing an encounter with a mysterious dame, stating “The sound of the motor, the only revin’ (reverend) you confess to/ I see it all in the eyes of the girl I’m next to/ I asked her, “Where we going?”/ And she just told me “Pleasure”/ Hands on the wheel and heel on the accelerator.” Gritty stories of gangsters, dirty cops, femme fatales, and crooked governments have existed in both noir and hip-hop. But I’ve come to the conclusion that books like Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed is helping to perpetuate the prevailing idea that noir fiction is filled with one-dimensional characters—the idea that if you meet one detective, you’ve met them all, or more specifically, if you meet one drug dealing lover of hip-hop, you’ve met them all.
But with the success of “Street Lit” or “Hip Hop Lit,” it’s become increasingly difficult to sell authentic noir titles that are set in urban environments to major publishing houses. After sending out a wave of query letters to agents and publishers for my most recent novel The Science Of Paul, I received responses asking if my novel would be considered “Street Lit,” and if I’d be willing to “infuse the dialogue with more slang, or street talk.” How did it come to this? If the protagonist is African-American and the story is set in a major city, preferably one that is overrun with drugs and crime, then somehow it gets pushed into the “Street Lit” category. “Street Lit” has its place, but not every African-American writer that tells stories of brazen and hardened characters with criminal pasts is writing a “Street Lit” novel.
Authentic noir is gritty; the stories typically contain some element of crime and the dialogue is punchy and stimulating. But most importantly, the stories inspire the reader to think beyond the page. It encourages the reader to question humanity on a primal level and to ask central questions, like: Why are some people so hell-bent on causing harm to others? Why is crime such an integral part of our society? And what is the true meaning of justice? Yet novels like Mr. Blatte’s and countless others don’t ask these types of questions. In fact, they seem to avoid the very concepts and themes that make noir resonate with its readers.
In the modernization of the noir genre, elements of street life and urban culture naturally have become part of the fictional tapestry, but are publishers even aware of the distinctions between noir and “Street Lit”? In Blatte’s case, Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed is really just “Street Lit” with a higher diction. And Blatte, who believes he successfully captures the voice of urban culture in his novel, attributes his knack for street slang to his time spent in hip-hop clubs while starting a record label. But what would Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald and Dashiell Hammett say if they saw the genre they loved so dearly being reduced to novels with purple prose, questionable dialogue, clichéd plot lines and a dearth of character development, all in the name of authenticity? I venture to say they’d feel the same way I do—embittered.
Author Gar Anthony Haywood, who has received critical acclaim for his noir series featuring private investigator, Aaron Gunner, stated in an online post that it took three years to get one of his latest books, All the Lucky Ones Are Dead published, despite the success of his previous books in the “Aaron Gunner series”. This is unfortunately becoming more common as the publishing industry continues to suffer from the effects of the recession. Publishers have become much more selective when it comes to their title choices, even for those authors contributing to a successful series. This has forced many budding novelists to turn to self-publishing with the hope that their bare bones marketing strategies will translate into sales, and they’ll get the attention of major publishing houses. But even seasoned authors are finding it difficult to attract the attention of major publishers; therefore, small press publishers have become ever more desirable to authors with a few titles already under their belts, leaving freshman novelists lacking the credentials easily lost in the fray.
So what’s a noir writer to do? In an industry where debut noir novels are being ignored by the major publishing houses, the consummate writer must carve a niche and literally sit in it. This is the time to experiment, to explore, to integrate various genres within noir, and to launch new sub-genres, like the “Tart Noir” sub-genre that emerged in 2001. It’s time to separate noir from the traditions of the past and to take bold steps forward. The challenge will be to craft novels that the Black Mask Boys would be proud of, while avoiding the pitfalls of the current trends and the demands of the languishing publishing industry.
AARON PHILIP CLARK is a native of Los Angeles, CA. He is a novelist, poet, and half of the spoken word/jazz duo Soul Phuziomati. Clark has worked in the film industry as a scriptwriter and documentary film producer. He currently teaches screenwriting and English in North Carolina. His first novel is THE SCIENCE OF A PAUL: A Novel of Crime (New Pulp Press).
For more on the SCIENCE OF PAUL and New Pulp Press visit www.newpulppress.com.
2 thoughts on “Molotov’s for Humpty Dumpty by Aaron Philip Clark”
You raise a lot of interesting and vexing issues here, Aaron, too many to respond to in a comment post. I’ll say this: I think that much of the pigeonholing of crime fiction into various sub-genres these days is about tying written works to trends in ‘media’ products, movies, TV or music, in an effort to hype them to a large audience that’s not primarily interested in written fiction. The ‘Street Lit,’ ‘Hip-Hop Lit’ or ‘Urban Fiction’ sub-genre seems to be about pitching a sideline of written works to the moneymaking category of hip-hop music, sometimes in works authored or co-authored by musical performers (Mr. Blatte, in contrast, is a popular songwriter who’s mostly worked outside the category).
I agree that hip-hop music varies a great deal in quality and some of it is very worthwhile. I also feel that the fixed association between African-American culture and crime that’s heavily propagated by the corporate media, and often pitched these days in works with supposed hip-hop flavoring – and, often made fantastically lurid and stereotype-ridden partly out of a false concept of ‘authenticity’ favored mostly by people who live far away from the harsh settings of such works, and partly as a politically-useful manipulation of public opinion – should be countered and critiqued, and not just by African-American writers.
As you suggest, there could be different approaches to this. Obviously, one would be to offer more realistic depictions in crime fiction, under whatever heading. But perhaps another would be to attempt to subvert the nonsense and slurs from within that hyped sub-genre of ‘Street Lit.’ I’m not very familiar with the category thus far, but I hope and expect there are writers who wish to do the latter.
I agree. I do believe there are writers operating in the ‘Steet Lit’ genre who are attempting to write some quality stuff. Unfortunately, I’m seeing more and more ‘writers’ who have figured out that pumping out a few tales of the hood will generate some kind of revenue. It’s those titles that seem to be choking out a lot of quality novels by African-American authors. The ‘African-American’ section at some of the chain bookstores are filled with them. What I find disheartening is that while ‘Street Lit’ and Black Erotica titles are plentiful in chain bookstores, it’s hard to find titles from the Harlem Renaissance or even a little Zora Neale Hurston. I guess my hope is that the classics don’t disappear.