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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Quan Millz Was the Biggest Mystery on TikTok. Until Now

Reaction videos started flooding TikTok this summer, all of them with the same question: Who is Quan Millz? 

The answer varied depending on the person, but each new response carried with it some variation of curiosity, shock, and excitement. “If you enjoy watching shows like Paternity Court,” one TikTok user commented, “or old school Maury Povich, if you’re old enough to remember Jenny Jones and Ricki Lake, you too might enjoy this reading experience.” Read another caption: “Quan Millz is so unhinged we must protect him at all costs.” 

There seemed to be no corner of the internet Millz had not reached. On the podcast Sleeping In Mom’s Bed, rapper Danny Brown recited some of his favorite books to host Christina B. “I want to collect every book this motherfucker got,” he said, laughing, as they scrolled through Millz’s eye-popping, sometimes X-rated book titles. There was Pregnant By My Husband’s Granddaddy and Tax Season Thot. Also, Hoe Yo Coochie Stank: A Bacterial Vaginosis Love Story. And who could forget, Let Me Smell Your Dick. “All Black men have been through these things,” Brown joked. “I don’t even really want to read them. I’m gonna start collecting them like Pokémon cards.”

Brown’s point being this: Very little is known about Millz except for the fact of his prolific output. He is an author who has self-published dozens of books but, until very recently, has evaded real mainstream attention. The bulk of Millz’s books are available on Amazon for less than $1, and fall squarely within the subgenre of street lit, a category of American literature known for its controversial and confrontational realism of Black life in the “inner city.”

Buzz around Millz’s work started in July, when a TikTok user by the name of @justdesean posted a video to his page. He wondered if his 223,000 followers knew who Millz was. At the time, most people outside the very-insular worlds of street lit, urban fiction, and Black romance hadn’t. “I want to know which book you’re likely to pick up and read,” he said. “Are you braced?” What followed became the discussion of group chats and comment sections for weeks to come. The books he highlighted are some of Millz’s most polarizing titles, like Becky Put Raisins in the Potato Salad, to which @justdesean exclaimed, “Look at the potato salad! Hell no!” When he got to Old Thot Next Door—if social media is any indication, Millz’s most recognized title—he wondered, “Whose grandma is that?” The video exploded across TikTok, seemingly reaching Twitter and Instagram feeds overnight, and has since garnered more than 2.1 million views.

As online chatter intensified, the mystery of Millz’s identity persisted. Who was he?

Raised in Miami, Millz first started writing in 2014 on the advice of a friend, his former business partner and coauthor N’Dia Rae. (Rae is also a fairly prolific author in the genre whose Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Side Chicks trilogy, a story about sisterhood and the loss of trust, was described on Goodreads as “a page-turning jackpot.”) He wasn’t that far out of college, and was working various odd jobs. Rae convinced him that this was an easy way to earn passive income. Millz dabbled in romance writing at first, writing under a different pen name, but found a more energized readership in street lit. In 2017, he officially went solo, carving out a unique niche in a genre already overflowing with stories of visceral originality. 

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Street lit experienced an infusion of Black voices in the late 1990s as hip-hop dominated the charts. The genre is defined by sensationalism, sex, violence, and grittiness. Above all, it values authenticity, even if that authenticity isn’t particularly flattering. The genre is full of stories about people who live in or have overcome poverty, its pages littered with tales of loyalty and betrayal, survival and addiction. Some of its most well-known practitioners are household names, from Omar Tyree, who is considered the godfather of the genre’s contemporary revival, to Zane, Sister Souljah, and Sapphire. In a 1999 review, Kirkus wrote of Sister Souljah’s debut novel The Coldest Winter Ever: “This is a tour de force of black English and underworld slang, as finely tuned to its heroine’s voice as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.” The book spent multiple weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and sold more than 1 million copies.

But the genre is not without its critics. It is regarded as an elementary form of literature, and looked down on by establishment types. The publishing world, like America at large, has primarily engaged “urban life” and “the Black experience” as a landscape not worthy of critical exploration, and certainly not on the level of its white practitioners.

Millz knew otherwise. He wanted to mirror those hard realities back to his readership, even as the subject matter was difficult to digest. In an interview from 2018—one of very few times he has gone on record—he addressed the accusations of misogyny in his work. “My stories draw from real life experiences of things that have happened in the news,” he said. “I try to weave in larger social themes, but I also try to still incorporate everyday colloquialisms that resonate with people. None of my books are overly cerebral. I write simple and direct but try to be expressive with language.”

This was how Millz carved out a singular space in a crowded market. Today, street lit “is quite at home on bookshelves and national bestseller lists,” says Monique Patterson, who oversaw the acquisition of works by Ashley Antoinette, Tracy Brown, and K’wan during her tenure as editorial director at St. Martin’s Press. But what sets Millz apart is his uncanny gift for embellishment. He holds nothing back. Much of the appeal of his work is drawn from the titles and imagery of his books, which teeter somewhere between salacious and virtuosic. “Other street lit authors have been writing the same type of novels for years,” says Tamara Walker, host of the YouTube book review series, Tam Telling Tales. “We’re just not accustomed to seeing covers so bluntly reflective of the storylines.”

Millz has said it takes him anywhere from one week to three months to complete a book. To date, he has published more than 60 titles, all of them presented in a fiercely exaggerated tone. As one TikTok user described it: “Quan Millz doesn’t know what writer’s block is.” Reader reviews regularly highlight his candid storytelling and aptitude for untying the knottiness of human behavior. Hoe Is Life, about a vain sex worker named Minx who loves money and men, was praised for portraying people “who aren’t afraid to be their ignorant messy selves,” and highlighted Millz’s ability to dive into the soul of his characters. “Rarely does a writer take you into their minds and give you an inside look into their dangerous ass thought process.” Pregnant By My Gay Stepdaddy—not to be confused with Pregnant By My Husband’s Granddaddy—was called a “literary masterpiece” while Pastors Eat Pwussy Too was lauded for its delicious histrionics. “If you want wild drama and people getting read for the filth then read this! Bish do not pass Go, just pick up and read.”

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In street lit, however, profundity sometimes comes at a cost. For years, Millz’s identity was a mystery, and intentionally so. Like erotica writer Chuck Tingle, who goes so far as to make author appearances wearing a pink sack over his head, Millz concealed every trace of his biography, never once showing his face and rarely gave interviews. “Pen names are very common in genre fiction,” Patterson says. Because of that, the author could have probably stayed anonymous for a while, but as Millz’s books began to gain traction, circulating widely because of their shock value, many people wondered if he was actually Black himself. 

The rumor began after Millz jokingly used the hard-R version of the n-word in a Facebook post. He was responding to people who believed the Los Angeles Police Department was behind the killing of rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was fatally shot in March 2019. Millz was in LA with his wife at the time, and didn’t feel what people were saying online was true. “I was writing in the tone of a Clayton Bigsby,” he tells WIRED, reflecting on his post, a reference to the popular Chappelle’s Show character known for being a “Black white supremacist.” Millz meant it in jest. But people on Facebook didn’t see it that way.

It was just the fuel his critics needed. On Reddit and Lipstick Alley message boards, readers questioned Millz’s authenticity with a fine-tooth comb. His writing regularly lampoons Black men (My Baby Daddy Stole My Tax Refund) and typecasts Black women (Addicted to the Abortion Clinic), so he must be white, they theorized. There is a long, controversial history of racial cosplay in literature and perhaps, many wondered, this was just the latest instance of it, despite the subject matter of his work mirroring what is already emblematic of the genre. 

“The content of his novels is nothing new,” Walker says. “His work definitely plays into the stereotype, but it also allows those individuals whose lives align more with these narratives to see themselves in the pages of a book.” In January 2022, a Change.org petition requested that Amazon, where Millz self-publishes his work, ban the author for “hate speech” against Black women. “I need your signature to spread awareness of corporations like Amazon who intentionally spread agitprop content and hate language by allowing independent publishers to remain anonymous,” it read. To date, the petition has 106 signees. 

If the conditions of Millz’s writing are hard to confront, that’s because they are meant to be. On this, he is unequivocal. “I choose to write the stories I want to write, that I feel reflect realities for a lot of Black folks who live in the working class and poor neighborhoods,” Millz said in that same interview from 2018. “Sorry if I’m rambling I just … ughh. I’m kind of heated because I already have to deal with controversy within the urban fiction writers’ community for my choice of titles. I get it though. But then I don’t like it when these cultural elitists see it as an opportunity to tear down writers and the readers who write urban fiction and street lit.“ 

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Even as social media has brought a new fandom to Millz’s work, accusations of him being a white man profiting on Black culture continued across TikTok and Twitter. “I do understand the concerns over Quan’s racial identity,” says Georgina Kiersten, a Texas-based author of Black romance. “What can be seen as a joke or satire with a Black author can immediately be seen as an act of blatant racism with a white author.” It is, Kiersten adds, also more complex than that. 

“Being a romance or an erotica author is not an easy profession. There are many real-life consequences a lot of us face when we choose to be open about our identity,” they tell me. “You can lose your day job, your home, your marriage, your family and friends, or even your kids. This is the reason that a lot of us choose to write under pen names. It is truly unfortunate that Black authors are burdened with risking their safety in order to prove their racial identity.”

In one of his last recorded interviews, from December 2018, Millz was clear-eyed about the corner he’d unfairly been backed into. “I’m just one small blip in the urban fiction universe,” he said. “These fake, stay-woke Black folks are hypocrites in a way because they’ll get on Twitter and talk all types of shit—Quan Millz is this, Quan Millz is that—[but] they have no idea what the book is about.”

All the gossip surrounding Millz’s identity quieted on August 11. It was a Friday, and Millz, responding to a TikTok commenter, finally revealed himself. He sat in his car, sporting a black T-shirt and a thick mustache. The author is notorious for his imaginatively graphic vocabulary, but on this particular day he kept it short and sweet, pangs of irritation in his voice. “But I’m not white, though,” he said in the five-second video. “So I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Millz, whom I finally got a hold of in September, said keeping his identity a secret was only a hurting his potential as an author. “There were a lot of people sitting on the sidelines, wanting to support me. But they didn’t want, in good faith, to do that if they knew a white person was  behind it,” he tells me. The decision turned out to be a boon for his business. “Now that I am out there front and center, I have seen a shift in reception.”

Since then, and hoping to capitalize on his increasing fame, he has been a steady presence on TikTok. He joined the app in July, right as @justdesean’s post went viral. He consistently responds to fan reaction videos and has hosted live readings. In the most recent, from early September, he wore a blonde wig and read from his forthcoming title, 1000-lb Beckys and the Niccas That Love Them. “My American literature course should’ve included these books,” one commenter exclaimed. 

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In August, as enthusiasm swelled, Millz started a GoFundMe for Old Thot Next Door, his story about 76-year-old Vernita Washington’s quest to find a renewed sense of life through sex. “I really would like to adapt this book into an indie film that would be distributed to Tubi,” he wrote on the page. Millz set the goal for $100,000 but, so far, has only raised $250.

This is another puzzle in the Quan Millz multiverse. What is the true scope of his impact? His books go viral across social media and readers leave glowing, if sometimes brutally honest reviews of his writing (poor punctuation and excessive typos are a recurring criticism), but it is hard to determine just how effectively his work translates into the larger market. Millz is a self-professed “international best-selling” author, but according to whom? By what metrics? Because Millz self-publishes through Amazon and its audiobook subsidiary Audible—and because the company does not share data on book sales—there are few indicators of Millz’s impact beyond social media speculation. He estimates that in the six years since he began writing under his current pen name he’s made half a million dollars.

Millz, who is 39, is transparent about his objectives. “I'm not writing to try to win a Pulitzer Prize or a Nobel Prize for literature. I'm not looking for accolades and awards and high acclaim and reviews in The New York Times,” he says. “I’m simply writing to the times that we’re in.” People constantly tag him in “wild” posts on Facebook and Instagram, he explains, begging him to turn them into a story.

But even that has its drawbacks. Black writers are championed for their authenticity, but are often held to an unfair standard. It’s “representation” with limits. With time, Millz wants to “outgrow” urban fiction and evolve into other genres, particularly horror and thriller. “People perceive me as being this author of ghetto soap operas or ratchet bedtime tales, or whatever you want to call it,” he says. Millz doesn’t necessarily see anything wrong with that labeling—it has afforded him the opportunity to work full-time as a writer since 2018—but creatively it isn’t as fulfilling anymore. Not to mention the constant backlash he receives. 

Before we end our call Millz wants to be very clear about one last point. “I should be allowed to create and not have to put the image of Black America or Black people in general on my shoulders,” he says. “It's not one person's responsibility.”

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