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Locating Goines Pt. 2: Goines & the Literary Tradition


Some throat-clearing before, we get down to business with Dopefiend. This project’s been slow, my bad. I’m usually obsessive about delivering on “theme” blogs and stuff on time, but real-life got in the way this time around. If you’re participating, I hope you’ve started Whoreson, as I still plan to have the essay/discussion stimulator for that one up by February 26th. Dopefiend discussion on Monday. I promise.-b

On the overall list of tragedies (addiction, jail time, being uh, murdered with his kids in the house) that befell Donald Goines during his way-too-brief life, the lack of support he got for his writing, probably ranks pretty low. This is important to note because too often, critics or just semi-amateur chin-scratching types like myself can get a little too caught up in the creator/artist and forgot about the person behind it all.

Don’t forget that Donald Goines was more than his sixteen books, but frankly, that’s what mostly “matters” in 2010. He was a troubled guy, who all too often resorted to crime, and wrote a bunch of incredible books that were really influential but percieved as “trashy” then, and are only slightly more respected now. That’s a bummer. Tragic from a certain point of view.

Better yet, Urban/Street Fiction–the sub-genre he helped found–is a phenomenon that’s still dismissed or laughed-off as a whole, while the critical discussion of Goines’ work is relegated to a lot of very boring, kinda out-of-it French scholarship (and no matter how bad my online translator is, these essays are clueless), some decent but marginalized American criticism (which I’ll occasionally cite), a terrible book called Donald Writes No More, and Eddie Allen’s Low Road, a book that wobbles but never falls down under the weight of being the only actual biography of Goines as well as the only American book to take the writing seriously.

Goines’ critical reputation could do a lot worse, but it could and should be better. This though, isn’t entirely a bad thing. The continued lack of critical interest, coupled with the unwavering appeal of his books amongst regular-ass people preserves Goines’ work in a good weird way. No matter what happens at this point, he’ll never fall into this armpit of respectability where so many other pulpy writers’ reputations currently reside: Not read by a lot of people, not really canonized, just kinda uh, there. “Cult” in the worst sense of the word.

There are at least a few more decades before Goines’ work becomes of only “ethographic” or pop-cultural value–like books by Horatio Alger or Charlotte Temple or something. In twenty years, Goines still won’t be part of any canon that matters, but more people will pick up his books than whoever’s dominating the bestseller list right now. If that’s the case, and I think it is, it’s the perfect time to look at Goines’ work from something resembling an academic standpoint. No amount of lit-crit nonsense could dessicate Goines’ populist appeal and some long-hard looks into his books could only serve them well.

In the first part of this supposed-to-be quick intro to the “Goines Book Club”, I tried to nail-down Goines very weird place as a writer. I called his perspective “next to the hood”–neither above it all, nor down in it and self-justifying. In a series of essays over the next few days, I would like to show how Goines is equally out-of-place when it comes to literary traditions; constantly straddling stuff from the past and stuff that hadn’t happened quite yet.

Again, hesitant to use the word “tragic” here, but there’s something really unfortunate about Goines’ five-year (would’ve been longer had he not died) literary epiphany: It arrived at an inopportune time for grabbing onto any kind of literary or popular fiction zeitgeist. And popular interest and critical respect were indeed, something Goines was after. Writing wasn’t a hustle for him anymore than it was for any guy, no matter how many fancy awards they got, who decide to sell their fiction to the public.

Part of positioning Goines into literary history involves, unfortunately, labeling him. Right now, he’s “Donald Goines, Street fiction pioneer” and he’ll always be that. But it’s important to find the ways Goines’ work dips into many literary traditions of his time (1950s-1970s) and how he fits into American Literature and African-American Literature overall. Goines the African-American Author, Goines the Sociologist, Goines the Social Realist, Goines the Post-WWII Writer, Goines the Post-Modernist.

Among the many reasons no one’s really connected his work to literary tradition before is because it can so easily be combatted with the cynical point that Goines wasn’t much of a reader. That he didn’t know anything about post-WWII American Literature or even know who the hell say, Claude McKay is. The only author Goines ever cited as an influence was Iceberg Slim–and really, his work only superficially resembles Slim’s.

A lot of this cynicism, or this refusal to connect literary dots, comes from those studying Goines’ work though. There’s a fear in most Goines criticism (again, except Eddie Allen) of being clowned for taking it too seriously, or not going well out of one’s way to discuss Goines’ foibles, how he’s a poor writer (he isn’t) or misogynist (most certainly not) or thug with a pen (no fucking way). This has to stop and part of what I want to do is save Goines from these kinds of caveats.

Critics’ rather low-rent expectations of the author become clear when even an apparent homage to Chester Himes in Goines’ White Man’s Justice, Black Man’s Grief (the main character is named Chester Hines) gets viewed speculatively. Eddie Allen says it would be “an uncanny coincidence” if it weren’t “a literary tribute” and goes on to describe Himes and Goines’ parallel lives in many ways (middle-class blacks who got into crime and took up writing in jail) but doesn’t try to read any intertextual meanings to the homage (152-153). Greg Goode’s essay “From Dopefiend to Kenyatta’s Last Hit: The Angry Black Crime Novels of Donald Goines”, in Melus (The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States), says “White Man’s Justice, Black Man’s Grief is perhaps a tribute to Chester Himes’ prison novel Cast the First Stone.” (44) Note that “perhaps”–you’ll find qualifiers like that throughout Goode’s tentative essay.

Goines never cited Himes’ work but then again, there’s very few places where a record of Goines speaking-on or citing much of anything exists. With most writers though, this reference would open the doors up for all kinds of inferences and text-to-text analyses and it’s surprising that it hasn’t. It’s also good; precisely what I mean about Goines occupying a good weird place when it comes to criticism. It’s important to consider Himes’ influence on Goines and not lean on it too heavily.

Personally, this kind of critical connect the author-dots is a little boring and lazy anyway, and what’s more important is Goines’ stylistic and thematic connections to authors and literary styles, intentional or not. That kind of “in the air” of the decades thing that makes books of the past strangely connected whether they were all reading one another’s manuscripts or not.

In short, it doesn’t matter if AUTHOR X and AUTHOR Y knew one another or read one another–they were doing similar things during similar times and that can really illuminate the work. With Goines, I’d like to not so much label him as this kind of author or that kind of author, but show how Goines’ work very much aligns with specific literary styles…and how it doesn’t.

This between a lot of things position is what makes Goines’ work interesting and once more, makes him like every great author. How the stuff that makes say, Hemingway a Romantic is as interesting as the stuff that makes him not only a Modernist, but the Modernist. With Goines though, there’s a sense of “what if” to this literary tradition stuff because, had he been writing in nearly any other decade but the 1970s, his work would’ve easily found a more sizable audience and one that could’ve afforded him a more sustainable living and writing career. No amount of criticism in the world can alter that fact, but more serious criticism of Goines’ novels may right that wrong in one way or another. It begins with placing Goines in the American literary timeline, really for the first time.

-Allen Jr, Eddie B. Low Road: The Life & Legacy of Donald Goines. St Martin’s Press: New York, 2004.
-Goode, Greg. “From Dopefiend to Kenyatta’s Last Hit: The Angry Black Crime Novels of Donald Goines.” MELUS, Vol. 11, No. 3, Ethnic Images in Popular Genres and Media (Autumn, 1984), pp. 41-48.

Written by Brandon

February 11th, 2010 at 4:07 pm

5 Responses to 'Locating Goines Pt. 2: Goines & the Literary Tradition'

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  1. Is urban/street fiction not taken seriously? Serious question because I remember Himes's "If He Hollers" being taught in one of my post-modern American lit classes a few years ago but I'm not sure if that's just one of my liberal professors being all liberal again. I was under the impression it was part of the canon. Or does Himes's stuff fall into that category of "ethnographically valuable"?


    12 Feb 10 at 6:19 am

  2. Quan-
    Himes is an interesting one. I'll begin by saying that by Urban Fiction, I primarily mean the stuff written now and that, coupled with the overall disregard for Goines or Slim would make its reputation pretty much non-existent.

    Maybe I need to go back through this and make that more clear. To me, "Urban Fiction" is a term that connotes say, the Street fiction of the past decade or so, stuff that's wildly popular: Nikki Turner, Zane, K'wan…

    Back to Himes-
    Himes is an interesting figure because he begins writing at the end of the Harlem Renaissance and he's occasionally lumped in there, though that makes no sense.

    Himes also became an ex-patriate by the 50s and so, he's sorta off to the side? He's an excellent writer and deserving of praise, but in a sense, he's a bit easier to celebrate? I'm working my way through this, sorry.

    Sorta what I said about Goines though. Himes, who I need to add, suffered a lot as a black writer, still had some kind of movement, etc. that even if he wasn't accepted, kinda could be lumped in with. It's why he's taught in schools. He's also more conventionally literary, which obviously helps.


    12 Feb 10 at 7:38 am

  3. Yeah, it would be much more surprising to see Goines or Iceberg Slim make an appearance on a professor's reading list. Himes is probably much more acceptable to whoever constructs the literary canon. If you skim through something like Norton's African American literature anthology, you find that Goines, Slim and the like aren't accorded with the same respect as Himes (or even a more contemporary writer like Mosly).

    Not quite sure why this is, seeing as how some of Himes' stories cover some of the same thematic territory. Maybe Himes doesn't tread as close to representing "the life" as empathetically or explicitly as Goines. Like you said, it's not like he's a poor writer, but he's usually lumped in with writers who aren't anywhere near as substantial.


    12 Feb 10 at 10:28 pm

  4. I realize that if you do not conform or are a part of the established mainstream aesthetic, you will not be accepted, observed or even considered. Some times it takes years for an artist, actor or musician to be recognized. Whether Donald Goines's catalog ever reaches a certain level of recognition doesn't matter because his work will more than likely continue to sell past the next decade.

    Yeah, I agree with your definition of "Urban Fiction" or street fiction. I never really considered Iceberg Slim or Donald Goines part of that movement. I always viewed them as regular authors. I think Goines has more in common with the pulp fiction books but with more sophistication and nuance. Ok, that may be a stretch.

    Vee (Scratch)

    13 Feb 10 at 6:03 pm

  5. Brad-
    It would be interesting to really dissect Himes vs. Goines/Slim because yeah, I just don't get it. Again, I see why Goines is dismissed (he can be a poor writer at times) but Slim?! Who knows.

    I think Himes' focus is more overtly sociological because it's usually from the perspective of the cops. I also think there's a palpable disgust for ghetto life in his stories at times and whether they–academic types–know it or not, I think this has an affect on liking it more.

    How would you, having read Himes differentiate him from Street Fiction?

    Yeah, I've never seen Goines or Slim as lesser writers to the crime writers of the 40s-60s.


    16 Feb 10 at 12:04 am

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