RARA-AVIS: The New Pulp Fiction?

From: kip.stratton@ni.com
Date: 13 Nov 2000

Interesting piece from the LA TIMES.... Hope it doesn't get truncated in the submission.



It's a quick-cut, fast-and-furious world: Dom Perignon. 9-millimeter Walthers, shrink-wrapped Benjamins, Ferrari 360 Modenas, skyscraper-cribs with wraparound views.

And women. Of course, women. Wall-to-wall women--ambient and muted as a background score.

No. Not a Hype Williams rap video. Nor a hidden track from Mos Def.

This is the world of Jerome Usher, a fictional ice and granite hit man whose raw, urban drama--"Street Sweeper" written by Ronin Ro--is the inaugural novella launching a series of books mingling gangsta rap with the noir essence of pulp fiction in high hopes of reaching a long untapped reading market: young black and Latino men.

Publisher Marc Gerald's unconventional yet thorny proposal is to pick up where pulp cult writers like the late Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim left off. [S] Affiliated, a new line of books from Gerald's the Syndicate Media Group, focuses on the urban underbelly. Packaged with a CD of unreleased cuts by Def Jam rap artists, the books are aimed at the post-soul generation looking for something that carries a bit of the drama, high-life floss and intrigue--something the music already brings them with lots of deep bass and in 15 cuts.

However, in just a few weeks on the shelves, "Street Sweeper"--itself packaged in the shape of a CD-jewel box and stamped with a parental advisory warning--is stirring up ire. At a press conference on the day of publication, Najee Ali, director of the Los Angeles-based Project Islamic HOPE, called the novels violent and destructive. The community activist is particularly concerned about the Syndicate's efforts to target the nation's prison population with its tales of players and hustlers.

Gerald is baffled by the outcry, although it shouldn't come as a surprise. The Syndicate finds itself in the midst of the same sort of minefield that minority recording artists and feature film directors have encountered for years--the place where fictional and real-life violence intersect. Community groups that struggle with the daily realities of violence are fighting hard to pull the plug on projects steeped in such content--for example, Ice Cube's film "Player's Club" and Hype Williams' feature film
"Belly"--or, at the very least, trying to mute the impact with protests.

It's a classic conundrum: To ignore it is to whitewash; to present it dramatically is to possibly glorify it. How does one keep it real, so to speak, without adding to the problem? It's a murky, uncharted middle space that the Syndicate attempts to navigate.

For decades, mainstream publishers largely ignored black authors and readers until Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and most particularly Terry McMillan told them otherwise. But black and Latino men aged 18 and up, have fallen through the cracks as a focus of marketing. Gerald's idea is to try to find an attractive concept and package that not only speaks in their language but also to their interests and fantasies. Hooked on Pulp Fiction and Street Stories

Gerald, 33, a college dean's son, grew up in Ohio reading voraciously--Dostoevsky and Hardy, Goines and Jim Thompson--with fanzines mixed in for good measure. "For me it was my principal means of escaping," he recalls. "Columbus was a very segregated world." Yet by high school, he found his most "idyllic" moments playing in a punk band and listening to early hip-hop--Sugar Hill Gang, Kurtis Blow and Run DMC.

After college, his obsession with street stories and pulp fiction ultimately led him to True Detective magazine. His job as a writer and editor there segued into a gig writing and producing for television's
"America's Most Wanted." And in 1996 he was able to merge his interest in literature and true crime when he joined W.W. Norton to launch its Old School Books imprint, dedicated to bringing back out-of-print seminal pulp novels.

"If you weren't [Richard] Wright, [James] Baldwin or [Ralph] Ellison," says Gerald, "you were lost to history." While there, he worked to resurrect authors like Goines, who have stayed alive primarily through a large, cult readership, particularly in prisons. He also used the opportunity to rediscover authors like Herbert Simmons, who wrote jazz-steeped tales, and Clarence Cooper Jr., whose work, Gerald suggests, is part Hubert Selby Jr., part William Burroughs and part Prince.

Though he reintroduced 18 books in three years, Gerald looks at the project as both "a triumph and a disappointment." The books didn't do as well commercially as he'd hoped, but in researching the project, he had begun to connect the dots. "I'd been reading a lot of remarkable stuff. I knew that there was a universe of contemporary fiction, talented journalists, really talented music artists . . . and a generation reading Iceberg Slim--and there was nothing 2000 about it."

That was the basic framework. Now, Gerald and his staff of four have set up shop above what looks to be a dead storefront along one of Hollywood Boulevard's livelier stretches--across the street from Frederick's of Hollywood.

On this particular afternoon, instead of protesters, only a legless man sits on the sidewalk polishing the stars along the Walk of Fame with Windex and brass polish. Two flights up, Gerald, Mykel Mitchell, vice president of marketing and promotion, and Leah James, director of sales, gather around the glass conference table in an airy space ringed with books. Jacin Scott, who serves as prison sales coordinator, and Mao La Beet, the Syndicate's new media director, tap at computer keyboards.

Though the books are meant to be raucous and hard-core, Gerald says, they also are ready-fitted with a moral. "The idea was to meet these kids where they are," marketer Mitchell explains. "They may not be ready for the Baldwins and the Wrights, and this is meeting them where they are."

But for critics, any positive messages are either too ambiguous or come far too late to matter.

The key to the project's street credibility, Gerald says, is the music element. The books should not only reflect rap culture, but also be an outgrowth of it. "My goal from the start was to combine the two," he explains. "I was persistent. I went to labels who were putting out hip-hop and said: 'You've got to do this.' Def Jam felt like the logical place because they were the label who were most about the culture. They don't just produce hits, but the culture."

The first installment is currently being shipped to nontraditional bookselling venues: record stores and clothing stores. Some are already at Tower Records' flagship store on the Sunset Strip.

Though Gerald won't reveal his start-up figures, he says that actor Wesley Snipes--who had been involved in talks with Gerald while at Norton's Old School Books--provided them with a "significant" investment. "Street Sweeper" will be followed by screenwriter Antoine Black's "The International," novelist and forensic psychologist Roland Jefferson's "XXL Money," and journalist Michael Gonzales' "Platinum." The books retail for about $15.

But plot lines such as that in "Street Sweeper," about a hit man who
"smokes" people from a moving bus--then smooths the edges with copious amounts of alcohol--isn't Najee Ali's idea of "broadening horizons." Instead, he suggests, stereotypical violent plots and characters will serve only to keep readership intellectually boxed in.

And the 1,000 sample books being shipped to correctional facilities across the country is what has Ali most outraged. "I'm concerned that these books may possibly be reinforcing negative behaviors and disrupt the rehabilitation process," explains Ali, who is also a Muslim minister. 'When those men come back into the mainstream, they don't come back into their communities--Wesley's communities--they come back into our community. And we're the ones forced to repair our neighborhoods."

Though the Syndicate says it is developing outreach programs for juvenile offenders as well as lending its music industry resources--Def Jam artists and the like--to fund-raising efforts for organizations like Lynwood's Drive By Agony (a nonprofit resource center for victims of violent crimes), Ali says that's not enough. Too Early to Detect Impact of Books

As of now, it's difficult to measure the impact of the books. Some Tower outlets have them, but it's too early too tell how they've been received on the schoolyard or at correctional facilities.

Gerald next plans to publish self-help nonfiction titles that will focus on everything from finance to spirituality, tailored to the same young audience.

James Fugate, co-owner of Eso Won Books in South Los Angeles, says that he will carry the books--and will be the first traditional bookseller in the country to do so. "There is an untapped market of young, intelligent people looking for the fast read--a good crime or mystery novel." But getting the segment that isn't so easily inclined to put a book in their hands will be much more difficult, he said, because "they just don't come in."

Whether it's disinterest in the discipline or a dearth of stories that reflect their lives, there is a need, Fugate says, to find a better cross-section of stories that take disparate lives and conditions into consideration.

Like Fugate, Gary Phillips (whose novel "Tyson," about pit bull fighting, is due out next March on the [S] Affiliated imprint) figures the back and forth is not going to solve the larger issues--from street crime to inferior schools--that often bedevil urban centers and the people who live in them.

"I agree with the criticism on one hand," says Phillips, who is author of the Ivan Monk series of mysteries and a community activist. "But there are a lot of white writers writing about sex and violence, like Donald Westlake or Elmore Leonard, and they don't get called on the carpet about uplifting the race."

For writers and readers, says Phillips, the problem "is that we don't get enough product out there. Books are about ideas and stories. I'm all for having this debate. But ultimately these books aren't designed to be the end-all, be-all. What we should really be putting our energies in is instituting writing and reading programs."

And when you boil it down, it doesn't take even the most hard-boiled gumshoe to tell you: "You can't just read 'Street Sweeper' and then pick up Ellison."

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