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More than a mouthful 

The book business, unlike, say, politics, rarely creates strange bedfellows. So-called "serious" literature types aren't often paired with their populist cousins in the ranks of romance, mystery or other genre fiction.

But sometimes the mass-market and the literati collide, as in the appropriately titled Gumbo: An Anthology of African American Writing (Broadway Books). The book delivers a diverse blend of modern black talent, with short stories from 69 writers.

"Gumbo is a literary rent party. And like the rent parties of old, everybody here had to pay to get in," anthology co-editor Marita Golden writes in the introduction. "This time, however, the currency was a story."

All royalties from Gumbo benefit the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation, which Golden started in 1990 with $750 of her own money. The organization funds an annual award for college-aged African-American writers.

Included in the mix are names ranging from the famous (like Terry McMillian and Gloria Naylor) to newcomers like Tayari Jones, whose fascinating "Press and Curl" inspired her novel, Leaving Atlanta. Anthology co-editor E. Lynn Harris offers a new (and thankfully brief) short story, The Dinner Party, which puts a twist on the author's typical black-and-bisexual formula. Unfortunately, incorporating the likes of Harris, whose writing rises only slightly above the realm of Harlequin Romance, with more highbrow authors somehow cheapens the dish.

Golden defends this dichotomy, noting that there's "much hand-wringing over the 'commercialization' of black literature," but she suggests that the black community should read both its literary and commercial writers. The sentiment rings a bit hollow, given the book's ties (however tenuous) to names as luminous as Hurston and Wright.

The anthology serves as a passable who's who of current African-American letters but gets bogged down at 800-plus pages. Gumbo is one dish where too many ingredients almost spoil the pot.

Marita Golden reads and signs Gumbo Jan. 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the Shrine of the Black Madonna Bookstore, 944 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd. 404-752-6125.

Noted: Ironically, Golden's Atlanta visit conflicts with another Zora Neale Hurston event. AJC reporter Valerie Boyd appears at the Margaret Mitchell House at 7 p.m. Jan. 30 to read from Wrapped in Rainbows, her new biography of Hurston. It's sad to see events with similar markets clash in a city not really known for an over-abundant literary crowd.

Shelf Space is a weekly column on books and Atlanta's literary scene.

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