Among writers and editors of black fiction—and many others in the publishing industry—a debate rages, pitting street lit against literary fiction. Earlier this year, Nick Chiles set the tone with his now famous New York Times op-ed piece (Jan. 4), "Their Eyes Are Reading Smut," which bemoaned the popularity of self-published, poorly published, down-market books portraying African-Americans in their worst light: sex-craving, drug-dealing and gang-banging. The surge in sales of "hip-hop fiction" has clearly struck a nerve. But perhaps we should look beyond the debate for a moment and consider the writers on each side—and what they can teach each other.

I happen to be one of many editors at major publishing houses who owes her success—i.e., paycheck—to bestselling authors, many who write books that Chiles would define as smut. I also publish award-winning, critically acclaimed novelists including Jewell Parker Rhodes, Maryse Conde, Carl Hancock Rux, Guillermo Arriaga, Tananarive Due and others whom Chiles and other cultural critics would like to see more of in bookstores across the country.

I share their lament. Day after day, my colleagues and I labor to bring more attention to the kind of literary and up-market writing that I know significant numbers of avid book readers and buyers in the black community crave. Every time I have the opportunity to speak to the public and the media, I complain of the relative lack of media interest in books by black writers—except erotica and street lit. When I have the chance to talk with booksellers, I plead with them to give more shelf space to a wider variety of books by and about people of color, in both fiction and nonfiction.

I also talk to writers, whether they're seasoned, novice or would-be, telling them no matter what kind of writer they aspire to be or career they want to have, they have a lot to learn and gain from others. So many self-described—or hopeful—"literary" writers put a lot of time into formal education and writers' workshops, earning the favor of cultural institutions that bestow awards so that those writers may achieve the status they seek. But literary writers often invest less of their time and resources in learning how to promote their work, expand on and respond to the desires of their prospective readers, and associate themselves with all kinds of other writers and artists—not just the ones who teach at the right universities and have the enviable contracts with major houses. Commercial writers model for the artsy set new ways to cultivate and expand their audience, and fashion themselves into better business people.

On the other hand, so many of the commercially successful authors—once self- or small-published—are amateur writers, albeit with great storytelling and entrepreneurial instincts, and tremendous drive. They could learn from the example of their colleagues who study with and expose themselves to the criticism of their peers and academics; who discipline and challenge themselves to be more creative, rigorous and ambitious in the practice of their craft. These writers are fearless in exposing themselves to new techniques and approaches to language and imagery; and they push their readers to appreciate work that requires more thought and consideration, work that is more than titillation and entertainment.

What commercial and literary writers need to remember is that, for the most part, publishing houses need a balance of big profit-makers—the commercially successful—and award-winners—the critically successful—to thrive. But both sides can and should benefit from reading (and observing the promotion behind) all kinds of fiction, especially from people who seem different from themselves.