I’ve been thinking a lot about pettiness lately. I live in the U.S. and right now, the American media landscape is all blah blah incivility blah anger blah blah hate. But it feels to me like the great fever of rage-mourning prompted by the 2016 election has now settled down into a less intense, more pervasive atmosphere of snark and slights, subtweets and sarcasm. SNL spoofs rapists. Twitter memes hate crimes. And then there’s the hilarious string of alliterative names for white people losing their minds over black people existing. We’re squarely in an era of pettiness, the Age of the Drag.
Petty comes from petit, the French for small: Think small-minded, mean, snide. Pettiness might seem to trivialize social issues, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish them, at least no more than bad-faith grandstanding does. Plus, intense emotions like love and hate can get you killed. You might lose money or pride off of petty, but nobody’s dying from a subtweet. To mock hateful things like racism, misogyny, and elitism lets us think about them with some distance, without getting caught up in self-seriousness, fury, or despair. If nothing else, it makes them survivable. I’d say “y’all trifling” and strut off with a fluttering hand, but I kinda love pettiness: It’s witty and clever and often contagious.
For example: I’ve wanted for a while to teach a graduate course on everything Roland Barthes ever wrote, as an excuse to read it. (Most professors are just perennial students: We teach the courses we wish we could take.) So I mocked up a syllabus. I titled it, “Everybody Loves Roland.” I was inordinately excited. But then I was asked to teach another course I’d proposed as a second choice, “American Genres,” because it would help students fulfill a program requirement. Well. OK. Fine. I scrapped my syllabus of American Genre-ish fiction by high literary authors—Toni Morrison and Hannah Crafts as “Gothic,” Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler as “sci-fi,” Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley as “noir.” And I went full bestseller: Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Iceberg Slim’s Pimp, Stephen King’s Carrie, Charles Portis’s True Grit, Danielle Steel’s The Gift. It was a petty move over a set of novels that are themselves often considered trifling—the fast food of fiction.
And so, given my usual reading habits, and the black sci-fi class that I taught again last year, this was My Year of Reading Genre Fiction. I wasn’t alone. Genre is all the rage—this is especially clear in television and film—though it sometimes feels less like a key ingredient and more like a spice that contemporary artists have started shaking over their works (to say nothing of the disavowals). The thing is, it has always struck me as bizarre that professors mostly teach students how to read (and imitate) the “literary canon”—essentially the same one I was tasked to ruminate over as a student. You’d think this recycling project would be less tenable now that some of our greatest living writers (Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) have publicly embraced genre fiction. Haven’t we diversified the syllabus, if not decolonized it, by now? Maybe, but let’s be real: Even the non-white, non-male, non-rich writers on our reading lists are still mostly “literary”; as Du Bois might have put it, they “sit with Shakespeare and wince not.” Our anti-elitism is still elitist.
The question of how and what we (ought to) read is political for me in this sense: If we believe in democracy and equality, why are our aesthetic priorities shaped by an elite minority? Why do we dismiss our engagement with genre works as “love-hate,” “hate-watching,” and “guilty pleasure” when we spend so much time doing it? Why do we refer to these works as “low” or “lite” when they are read by millions more people than the classics? In short, why don’t the numbers matter? Maybe these texts aren’t read much in academia because they don’t require scholars to explain or analyze them: The story we tell ourselves is that they aren’t difficult or ambiguous; they’re self-evident, simplistic even. But maybe that’s just some petty nonsense to justify the need for literary critics?
As it turns out, many of the novels I read this year, while they fit the “formula” of genres like crime fiction, the Western, fantasy, romance, the spy thriller, and science fiction, are actually really weird and interesting and worthy of analysis. In fact, I’ve been developing a theory that the most recognizable of these non-canonical texts—the highest of the lowbrow, so to speak—are all deeply interested in their own form. That is to say, they are metafictional—they are self-aware about these genre categories we use to dismiss them. Now, a text’s self-investigation of its own condition is one of the marks of sophistication, of high literary value: Think Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage.” But I found it all over formulaic novels. It’s like they’re formally petty: They draw attention to and even drag the qualities we’re so used to valuing automatically. Let me give you three examples:
James M. Cain’s noir The Postman Always Rings Twice ends with the main character in prison saying this of psychology: “There’s a guy in No. 7 that murdered his father, and says he didn’t really do it, his subconscious did it. I asked him what that meant, and he says you got two selves, one that you know about and the other that you don’t know about, because it’s subconscious. It shook me up…. To hell with the subconscious!” This is a hilarious send-up of the psychological depth of high literature, whether or not it embraces Freud. As it turns out, Albert Camus’s L’Étranger was strongly influenced by Cain’s novel. Why is the absence of conscience, a refusal of psychological complexity, and an action-based philosophy valued in the existentialist classic but dismissed as “brutality” in the crime novel? The very existence of Cain’s novel calls portentous, intellectual fictions into question.
Madeleine L’Engle’s “science fantasy” A Wrinkle in Time dwells on the way time, space, and feeling get enmeshed in the literary setting. Tessering is explained in diagrams—famously an ant crawling along a string—and the setting is strangely book-like: when the characters tesser through a two-dimensional space, they become “flat,” as if they are literally made of the paper on which we’re reading about them. The novel seems to me to spoof the narrative questions familiar to us from Journalism 101 with characters like Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, and the Happy Medium, a jolly clairvoyant with a crystal ball, whose name puns on the equanimity to which Meg aspires while offering an apt description of L’Engle’s bizarro religious novel itself. In this way, the novel offers a metafictional meditation on the use of the objective correlative—using the setting to convey emotion—in the high literary novel. It even begins: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity is a (long-winded) spy novel about, yes, identity, but also about the literary category of the character. The amnesiac protagonist is a blank slate—who happens to have the default unmarked identity of a straight, white male—trying to figure out who he is. But he never really does and neither do we. Instead, the novel gives us a paradoxical refrain that seems to connect his code names with the names of his targets: “Caine is for Charlie and Delta is for Caine.” This odd phrase doesn’t make sense, though—is the character “for” as in substituting for or as in created for? “Spy,” whether it functions as a noun or a verb, comes to invoke metafictional questions about the visibility and identification of characters: Whom are we as readers asked to slip into and why? How “blank” or “recognizable” should characters be? This page-turner suggests the fascinating possibility that character—and perhaps identity itself—might be a matter of interchangeability.
Maybe I’m overreading—this is congenital for me, I admit. But it seems to me that even on their own terms, these genre fictions explore a set of formal questions that take us beyond the usual truisms about the satisfactions of “psychology,” “emotion,” and “the human condition” in literary fiction—which comes more and more to look like just another genre. So what happens if we take this truth to be self-evident: that all genres are created equal? I believe each genre offers its own specific value and way to think through literature, by which I mean both to think about literature and to use literature to think. My own fiction writing has become increasingly informed by this sensibility. My debut novel, The Old Drift (Hogarth 2019) embraces “low” genres even as it ironizes them. Regardless of how my publishers and reviewers see it, for me, genre is a lens—a mode of seeing the world—not a label.
I adore those contemporary fictions, like Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, that sing genre with their whole chests, that don’t pull punches or bleed it of its fun, color, and momentum, and respect it enough to engage with it. I read two books this year that fit this description. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties reimagines fairy tales and surrealism, and one of its standout stories, “Especially Heinous,” is a set of evolving synopses of episodes of Law and Order: SVU, a genre show if ever there was one. I love the unaccountable weirdness of that story—the girls with bells for eyes, the ubiquitous dun dun—and how it imitates the longueur of watching crime shows: the running jokes, the strange entanglement of voyeurism and misogyny in “hate-watching,” and that thrumming desire for release, however implausible.
After a casual exchange with Victor LaValle on Twitter about the creepy eugenical subtext of one of the animated movies I love-hate, The Incredibles, I plucked his novel The Changeling from the middle of my stack and opened it. Twelve hours later, I closed it, cheeks streaked with tears, throat sore from laughter. A beautiful, moving Gothic/fantasy/fairy tale, The Changeling is a masterful novel that doesn’t try to smooth away any of the dark, rough edges of its genres. It doesn’t shy from realism either, though—as when it literalizes the internet “troll” as a pale gross dude who sits in front of screens and gets paid for webcam views. This is clearly dragging fantasy and its fans, but LaValle has mad love for the genre, too. His novel The Ballad of Black Tom is essentially a love-hate letter to the virulently racist H.P. Lovecraft. It’s next on my list, along with a growing set of recent Afro-fantasy novels. Pettiness is not just a trifling game, it can be immensely generative. After all, we pay close attention to what we “haterate,” and sometimes that attention can yield glorious acts of creation.
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Justin Gifford’s timing is impeccable. He has just published his second book, Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim, a vivid retelling of the fluorescently eventful life of a hardened pimp, drug addict, and convict who turned to writing highly autobiographical pulp fiction about black street life. Though published by a small press and available mostly in drugstores, liquor stores, barbershops, and prisons, Iceberg Slim’s books, including his scorching autobiography Pimp: The Story of My Life, sold millions of copies and influenced countless writers, actors, directors, comedians, and musicians, including the creators of blaxploitation films, street fiction, and gangsta rap. Chris Rock, Ice-T, and Andrew Vachss are major fans. “He is arguably one of the most influential figures of the past fifty years,” Gifford writes, “and yet, apart from what he reveals in his own writings, very little is known about this fascinating and contradictory character.”
Gifford’s worthy goal is to right this wrong. He tells us that Iceberg Slim was born Robert Lee Moppins Jr., in Chicago in 1918, and later changed his name to Robert Beck. His abusive father left soon after his birth, and his mother abandoned her devoted second husband in favor of a street hustler, a pivotal event in young Robert’s life. Another was his sexual abuse at the age of three by a babysitter. These traumas spawned a deep ambivalence toward women, especially his mother. He despised school — he got expelled after a brief stint at Tuskegee Institute because he spent most of his time in juke joints — and he saw no future in straight, menial jobs. He would do time in prisons that were little more than academies for refining criminal skills. Later he described his world as a “black hell” awash in “the poisonous pus of double standard justice, racial bigotry and criminal economic freeze-out.” It was almost inevitable that he got seduced by the dazzle of the pimp life.
Street Poison paints a rich picture of a young pimp’s unsentimental education. The trade secrets were passed down by word of mouth from veteran pimps in the form of the unwritten pimp “book.” Young Beck drank in these lessons, spent hours practicing his come-ons. As he put it with typical flair, “I had memorized an arsenal of howitzer motivators I’d kept on instant alert in my skull. I’d barraged them daily for three years to persuade a ten ho stable to hump my pockets obese.” Beck was in awe of the smooth Chicago pimps, who drove Duesenbergs and kept pet ocelots. One of his most influential mentors was a notorious Chicago pimp and killer named Albert “Baby” Bell, who set an impossibly high standard of cruelty. “Bell’s form of pimping was more violent and manipulative than anything Beck had ever seen in prison or in the taverns of Milwaukee,” Gifford writes. “His main philosophy was ‘One whore ain’t got but one pussy and one jib. You got to get what there is in her as fast as you can…’” Bell encouraged Beck to beat his whores with a coat hanger when they got out of line because “ain’t no bitch, freak or not, can stand up to that hanger.”
Beck had never been shy about using physical force, but Bell showed him that he had a serious career liability: He didn’t hate women enough. Beck admitted as much in later interviews: “I had a very good mother. Most of the successful pimps in those days had been dumped in garbage cans, had been abandoned and had never known maternal love. They were the cold-blooded ones…But I always had that sucker streak in me…I was never the best pimp. To be a great pimp, you’ve really got to hate your mother.”
That shortcoming didn’t stop him from having a long career with all the conventional trappings: the hotel suites, the fine clothes, the jewelry, the Cadillacs, the dope (Beck was partial to speedballs), and the inevitable prison stretches. His street name was oddly high-tone: Cavanaugh Slim.
After his release from the grim Chicago House of Correction in 1962, Beck left the pimp life and relocated to Los Angeles, where he hoped to reconcile with his dying mother. He started a family and worked straight jobs. He also started writing, acting out the stories of his life for his white common-law wife, Betty Mae Shew, who typed them up. Together, they turned Cavanaugh Slim into Iceberg Slim and in 1967 they sold Pimp to Holloway House, a small L.A. publisher. The book became an underground sensation, and several autobiographical novels followed. Within a few years, Iceberg Slim was the bestselling black author in America.
Small wonder. His writing leaps off the page. Here, for instance, are an ex-con’s rueful ruminations after he gets double-crossed by his former cellmate and decides to salve the wound by finding himself a whore:
It was black ghetto Christmas. Saturday night! Easy to cop a ho! I’d guerilla my Watusi ass into a chrome-and-leather ho den and gattle-gun my pimp-dream shit into some mud-kicker’s frosty car. I pimp-pranced toward a ho jungle of neon blossoms a half mile away. Some ass-kicker was a cinch to be a ho short when the joints folded in the a.m.
In Pimp, Beck recounts being transfixed the first time he heard a group of pimps performing a “toast,” a cousin of the dozens, a bawdy, nearly Shakespearean roundelay of boasts, puns, putdowns, and one-ups-man-ship. Neither subtle nor politically correct, the pimp toast proved electrifying to certain ears. As Gifford writes, “Although he couldn’t know it at the time, Beck was witnessing one of the origins of gangsta rap and hip-hop in these toasts…Like the dozens and the pimp book, these toasts grew out of African American oral expressions, and they became the direct forerunners of the comedy of Rudy Ray Moore and the gansta rap of N.W.A., Ice-T and Snoop Dogg.” Rudy Ray Moore’s bad-ass character Dolemite, for instance, concocted this toast-inspired putdown: “You ain’t nothin’ but a born-insecure, rat-soup-eatin’, barnyard muth-a-fucka!”
Which brings us back to Justin Gifford’s impeccable timing.
A few days after Street Poison was published, a splashy Hollywood production called Straight Outta Compton, directed by F. Gary Gray, opened in theaters nationwide. It tells the 1980s origin story of N.W.A., a group of young rappers in the Compton section of Los Angeles led by three buddies, Eazy-E (played by Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ice Cube’s real-life son). As Gifford points out, numerous hip-hop artists have drawn on the legend of Iceberg Slim for their monikers and their attitude. He singles out Ice Cube and Ice-T, but he could have added the Houston rappers Pimp C and Slim Thug, among many others.
Like Robert Beck, the members of N.W.A. were faced with limited options in terms of jobs and housing. As crack cocaine and gang warfare engulfed their corner of L.A., they repeatedly tasted the wrath of a brutal police force. Joining the drug trade was one career choice — the movie opens with Eazy-E making a delivery to a drug house moments before the police storm the place — but these buddies decide to pursue music instead. You know the rest.
Though it’s a sanitized version of N.W.A.’s story, Straight Outta Compton does have its moments, including a live performance of the incendiary anthem “Fuck tha Police,” which triggers a riot inside a Detroit arena. Several songs on the soundtrack reveal gangsta rap’s twin lodestars: the prizing of flash and money, and the simultaneous devaluing of women as nothing more than sex toys and furniture. In one telling scene, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E are poolside at their respective compounds, talking by phone about a possible N.W.A. reunion — while Dre’s woman reads a magazine and Eazy-E’s touches up her toenail polish. As N.W.A. sings in “Gangsta Gangsta,” “Life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money.”
Straight Outta Compton stops far short of revealing the dark flipside of this mantra — gangsta rappers’ history of physical violence against women, something Iceberg Slim knew a great deal about. As the movie debuted, three women came forward with stories about receiving vicious physical beatings from Dr. Dre, who had recently sold his Beats company to Apple for $3 billion. After scoffing at these charges for decades, Dr. Dre suddenly came clean, issuing an apology that made the front page of The New York Times: “Twenty-five years ago I was a young man drinking too much and in over my head with no real structure in my life. However, none of this is an excuse for what I did…I apologize to the women I’ve hurt.” The timing of this apology made it impossible not to question its sincerity. It sounded like a billionaire’s advisers had finally convinced him that misogyny is bad for business.
Dubious as this sudden turnabout was, it couldn’t match the somersaults of the movie’s director, F. Gary Gray. The original script included Dr. Dre’s beating of the hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes, which resulted in his plea of no contest to assault and battery charges. (Dr. Dre was sentenced to community service and probation, fined $2,500, and ordered to make a public service announcement denouncing domestic violence. A civil suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.) Asked why the scene was dropped from the final version of “Straight Outta Compton,” Gray said the filmmakers decided the movie “wasn’t about a lot of side stories.” He added, “You can make five different N.W.A. movies. We made the one we wanted to make.”
What they did not want to make, obviously, was a movie that would make hip-hop’s first billionaire look bad.
Once again, Iceberg Slim was way ahead of the curve. Even before his literary career began to take off, he’d become a supporter of the Black Panthers and of another former pimp who turned his life around, Malcolm Little, aka Detroit Red, aka Malcolm X. As Beck’s autobiography and fiction gained popularity among black readers, he expanded into writing essays, vignettes, and personal deliberations, also lecturing at libraries and colleges and appearing on television. He was a tireless promoter of black liberation and a tireless critic of the racism that had shaped his life — the shabby housing and limited job opportunities, the police and the prisons, the undying disdain of white America. The street was his pulpit and street people were his flock, leading him to disparage not only white racists but also the black bourgeoisie, all the prosperous movie stars, professors, preachers, politicians, and landlords who are nothing more than “outlaw whores in the stable of the white power structure.”
Gifford, an associate professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, is also the author of Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing. He spent 10 years researching and writing Street Poison, and though his prose is sometimes wooden, his knowledge and affection for his subject are evident on every page. Near the book’s end, Gifford recounts Beck’s appearance on a TV show called Black Journal, where he gave an interview that might have been addressed personally to Dr. Dre and his fellow gangsta rappers. Gifford writes:
Here he outlined how his failed life as a pimp ultimately led to his revolutionary consciousness. As he proclaims at the end of the interview, ‘I’m here tonight appearing before you as a well individual. Free of the street poison that put me into the kind of position where I brutalized and exploited our black queens. You have to have a realization that when you exploit your own kind, that you are, in effect, counter-revolutionary.’
Beck had been both exploiter and exploited. He received a fraction of the royalties due him from Holloway House — which meant, ironically, that he got pimped by his publisher. Beck had also been an eyewitness to the Watts riots of 1965, and as he lay dying of diabetes and gangrene in a Los Angeles hospital bed in 1992, fire was again sweeping the city — following the acquittal of four white L.A. cops for the brutal, videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King. So much had changed, so little had changed. So little has changed. But we can be glad that one thing remains the same: Iceberg Slim has something timeless to say not just to gangsta rappers, but to all Americans, black and white, rich and poor, male and female, criminal and law-abiding. It’s in his books, and it’s in the pages of the timely and richly rewarding biography Street Poison.
Few people have heard of Iceberg Slim, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been important. His autobiography, published in 1967, tells the story of his life as a pimp, and one of his novels, Trick Baby, was made into a 1972 movie. He’s been called “the Mark Twain of hip-hop.” At Salon, Scott Timberg talks with Justin Gifford, the author of a new biography of Slim.