Esther’s Space- journey through my life

February 19, 2008

You are rubber

Filed under: ENG 597: Literature in the Information Age — estherspace @ 11:04 pm

I’m going to apologize right from the start. I am using you. This class blog is unfortunately (for you) also going to act as a sounding board for my ideas re: the final research essay. Not totally inane, being that the class and the final paper should be able to be related.

Anyhow, in class today we were discussing the future of literature. Imagine that. But, Kim suggested that one quandary we might have to face in the future (though I’d argue it’s taking place now, and has been for the history of the novel) is the question of whether it is better to have a small group of individuals who are educated in terms of the way that literature should be read and are capable of engaging deeply and thoroughly with the text, or, is it better to have a larger literate population, who might not be as invested in reading deeply or analyzing the text as thoroughly. This polarization is directly related to the issue of democratization of literature verses the protected space of literature.

This brings me to my current topic of interest, the urban novel, and more specifically, Sister Souljah‘s The Coldest Winter Ever. If you’ve never read the novel, the Wikipedia entry provides a good summary here. Clearly, TCWE is part of the democratization of literature. It is a hugely popular book, but not one that you’re likely to find on any St. Rose curriculum. MLA bibliography only lists one journal article and a solitary dissertation abstract on it. Though, fascinatingly, there is another journal article that investigates the rhetorical problem of establishing ethos in relation to Sister Souljah and Harriet Jacobs’s texts.

However, Sister Souljah is interested in using this book as a powerful tool aimed at inspiring young blacks in America to rise above their positions of servitude and oppression in order to become strong black men and women. As her website proffers, Sister Souljah “offers cultural, spiritual, political, economical, practical analysis and constructive solutions with the precision of a surgeon.” In the “Ask the Author” section at the back of the book, Sister Souljah describes how she began to read books in an effort to understand her family and the things around her when she was young, but the books “were not really about the world I lived in” (433). In writing TCWE, Souljah is invested in both chronicling the environment of drugs and their effects on community, as well as writing a cautionary tale for the “teenage ghetto female” that is seemingly trapped in this downward-spiralling environment. Conveniently, she even includes a list of the things she hoped to achieve with her novel:

  1. put drug use out of style
  2. put drug dealing out of style
  3. get youth to recognize their talents and convert them into business
  4. to get youth to use their time wisely
  5. to recapture the black male identity
  6. to redesign the black female identity
  7. to put the black family back together again
  8. to expose how the American economy is fueled by drug dealing and drug money

But, while it is important to notice what the author is saying, it is equally important to investigate what the readers are hearing. Similar to Special Topics in Calamity Physics, The Coldest Winter Ever can easily be read as a simple, entertaining book. Often, the experience of reading it has been compared to watching a movie.

The problem that arises for me is that the novel, in the task of imparting Souljah’s message of re-visioning of the black in America, TCWE has largely failed. boasts 1,125 reviews of the novel, from both self-confessed avid readers and rarely-caught-reading readers. The majority of the reviews focus on the high-energy action of sex, drugs, and law-evasion that pushes the narrative on a basic level. One such reviewer recommends the novel by saying, “If you enjoy urban stories, tales from the hood about the fast life and the spicy young girl who have the life of the gangaster girl…this is it” (Shawntavia Rush). More seldomly, reviewers comment on the cautionary message that Souljah claims to have intended, and often, recognizing the cautionary tale embedded in the story, the readers are inspired to recommend the book to others they know, to give copies as gifts, and very often, to look forward to their daughters being old enough to read it, so that they can learn the lesson as well.

So, this book is in a position faced (I’m sure) by many novels; many of the readers don’t have the skills or training to recognize the ‘true’ message of the novel. Such readers then misread the book as a testament to the glory and excitement of being the daughter of a successful drug dealer and a ‘bad bitch’ (the goal of the females in the community of the novel). Those readers that are able to engage deeper with the novel learn a very different lesson from Winter’s (the main character) experiences with drugs, sex, and homelessness.

This brings me to my questions phase. Is it possible to have only an educated readership? Would an author such as Souljah (who sees herself largely as an activist) want a readership that has already been trained in a particular academic system? If this novel was written with less excitement designed to draw the reader in, would it be successful in reaching the audience it has?  What are the implications of so many readers taking the novel as a largely positive testament to the experience of growing up rich-through-drug-money in the ghetto?  If literature was reserved for a small group of educated readers, would this novel have been written/published?  Is it ‘bad’ that readers aren’t reading this novel critically?  (who put out the memo that they had to?)

Obviously, I haven’t been able to work out my position on the democratization vs. protected space of literature problem.  I want to say that literature is (a) free for all, but, at the same time, I want to believe that the act of reading well is a skill that is important to have.  It is likely that the answer lies in some sort of combination of both forms of literary interaction, much like we have today.  But, will the two ever be able to work happily separate from each other?  There seems to be some natural antagonism between the two approaches.  And, as usual, the difficult part is in finding the proper place to draw the line between the two poles, as well as figuring out who has the right to deem one worthier than the other.



  1. We’ll talk more about this for sure, Esther, but a quick note here. Methodologically speaking, I’d encourage you to think about the “real message” of the book existing somewhere in between what the author wants the book to do and what people are getting out of it. Readers construct meaning too, and to them, it’s real (arguably, as literary critics, we’re doing that all the time).

    So, try, to the extent that you’re able, to take those reviews seriously. Close read them for what they reveal about the meaning that people are making from the book. Even in the quote you feature above, there lurks some interesting information. The reviewer, first of all, is participating (see Jenkins) in a community of readers and book buyers. What holds this community together? Second, I’m struck by the “if you enjoy urban stories” “spicy young girl with the gangster life”, etc. She’s picking and choosing very specific parts of that book. If you’re operating from the vantage point of a literary critical approach, they may be plot points. But if you’re the reviewer, what’s the appeal here? What are the elements of the gangster life that the book represents? What else does she read and recommend, that might suggest a particular focus and value set for her?

    Comment by kmiddleton — February 26, 2008 @ 11:29 am

  2. […] as a dessiminator of literature to previously alienated social/cultural audiences (perhaps) here, if you need to […]

    Pingback by My sincere aplogies « Esther’s Space- journey through my life — March 12, 2008 @ 10:27 pm

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