You may not know Marquis Styles, but if things go well you soon will. See, he is the creation of a very talented writer named Maurice Broaddus. He was created to capitalize on the ever increasing Urban Romance market, the "Girls In Tha Hood-'Round Tha Way Girls-Thug Life" books or as Maurice puts it the "Baby Mama Drama" books, the books that typically cater to every stereotype about Black men and women as thugs, pimps, players, giggolos, whores, and gold diggers.
Not all of these books enforce stereotypes. There are many that deal with very real issues in black romantic relationships and I'm sure Marquis Styles will fall into this category rather than the glorification of black male machismo. He and I co-authored a novella together so I know the man has talent. Still, it will be hard to pick this pearl from the swine currently crowding the bookshelves. So why do it? Why risk being lumped in with books like Thug's Life, Thug Matrimony, and Cash Rules? Why not take the literary highground or at least stick to more established and arguably more respected genres like Scifi, Fantasy, and Horror? Why? Because this is what sells. This is what the publishers are screaming for. This is what is flying off the shelves. Because it is difficult for a black author writing about black experiences to make a name for himself in regular genre fiction and Urban Romance is wide open. It is the equivalent of what horror was in the 80's. You'd definitely get far more female adoration as an Urban Romance author than as a horror author and in the Black community you'd get far less criticism.
Just check the shelf under African American Literature and you will find mountains of high-gloss covers with pictures of oiled down, scantily clad, black men and women, flashing skin or money or guns who look like they stepped right out of hip hop videos, written by people with names that likewise sound as if they came straight from a hip-hop album. It is what the public demands and if a writer wants to eat he sometimes has to bow to the public and suck up his artistic integrity and sometimes his moral integrity as well.
"Sometimes we sell out because we have no one else to sell to."
I discovered Marquis Styles while in Toronto for the World Horror Convention. I was in the self-proclaimed "World's Biggest bookstore" standing next to Maurice in the African American Literature section staring at a literal sea of gaudy and degrading book covers depicting one stereotype after another, when I made the comment that I often thought about writing one of them myself. After all, it's an easy in. It's an almost guaranteed sell, much like rap lyrics about pimping women, shootin' niggas, and slangin' crack. Write a book with a title and a plotline straight out of a Snoop Dogg album and someone will publish you. Write it well and you may even find yourself outselling some of the top Horror writers in the field. It is tempting. In fact, it is more than tempting. It is damned smart. It is good business. If I could do it I would.
"I wrote one."
I looked at Maurice thinking maybe I had heard him wrong.
"I wrote one. I have a publisher looking at it right now."
I was shocked. Not because he had sold out but because he had beaten me to it. Okay, I laughed my ass off when he told me his pen name. But so what? Marquis Styles will without a doubt outsell both Wrath James White and Maurice Broaddus. He may even outsell Brian Keene and Jack Ketchum. Is it really selling out though? I mean, how can it be selling out when we would be selling to our own people? Is there such a thing as selling in? Sure, every White person who walked by a book by Maurice Styles would probably shakes his head and think to themselves that every stereotype they'd ever had about Black people was justified by it, because it would probably have a cover that looked like all the rest despite it's content but they wouldn't be reading it anyway so who cares? These books would be read by the young men and women who were just growing up and trying to figure out what it meant to be Black men and Black women. They would be read by guys in reform schools, youth detention facilities, and prisons looking for justification for their criminal lifestyles. They would be read by housewives seeking to understand their Black men. By Black women trying to understand other Black women. They'd be used as an escape from reality by some and a way to get back in touch with Black culture by others who may feel that they have lost touch with it. And these books would be no different than all the Romance novels written by and for the default culture except that those books are amongst the millions of other non-romance books written by, about, and for the dominant culture including many heroic and sympathetic depictions while this would be the bulk of our literary representation. It would be the same as if Joan Collins and her ilk were the sole literary representation of the White race, if Harlequin Romance novels were your only glimpse into White culture. How could that possibly be selling out? What harm could these books possibly do? You followin' me here? You feelin' me yet?
I compared these books to rap music and that's a great comparison because what has happened to Black music since the seventies will now happen to Black literature as well. It will become less and less of a celebration of our culture and more of an exploitation of it. Much like black films in the seventies and even in the early nineties. It will focus on the most sensationalistic elements and exclude the true beauty and poetry of Blackness. Our children will gravitate to these stories and identify with them and ultimately emulate these tales. I'm not against anyone writing these books. I read Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines religiously when I was in my twenties. There is value in them despite everything else because they do depict a very real part of the Black experience. The problem comes in with an industry that will only allow you to portray one narrow aspect of the Black experience to the exclusion of all else. An industry that makes the most talented among us think that the only way to make it is to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Where for a writer or any artist for that matter "sell out or starve" is the only option. Given that option, the right choice is to become an Urban Romance author. Given the choice of never being heard at all, never being published at all, or only having one narrow aspect of the Black Experience published ad nauseum, I would always tell my brothers to go for theirs. I would tell them to get paid. If I could do it, I would too. Still, I wish that the options were more and the opportunites greater. I wish that a Black poltical satire or a Black Scifi novel or a Black Horror novel or a Black Fantasy novel would sell as well as an Urban Romance. I hope that Marquis Styles is very successful. I hope he makes it big and sells a lot of books. But I hope that Maurice Broaddus sells far more.