Urban fiction

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Urban fiction, also known as street lit or street fiction is a literary genre set in a city landscape; however, the genre is as much defined by the socio-economic realities and culture of its characters as the urban setting. The tone for urban fiction is usually dark, focusing on the underside of city living. Profanity, sex, and violence are usually explicit, with the writer not shying away from or watering-down the material. Most authors of this genre draw upon their past experiences to depict their storylines. [1]

Literary genre category of literary composition

A literary genre is a category of literary composition. Genres may be determined by literary technique, tone, content, or even length. The distinctions between genres and categories are flexible and loosely defined, often with subgroups.


Genesis and historical forces

Contemporary urban fiction was (and largely still is) a genre written by African Americans. In his famous essay "The Souls of Black Folk", W. E. B. Du Bois discussed how a veil separated the African American community from the outside world. [2] By extension, fiction written by people outside the African American culture could not (at least with any degree of verisimilitude) depict the people, settings, and events experienced by people in that culture. Try as some might, those who grew up outside the veil (i.e., outside the urban culture) may find it difficult to write fiction grounded in inner-city and African American life.

African Americans are an ethnic group of Americans with total or partial ancestry from any of the black racial groups of Africa. The term was coined to refer to descendants of enslaved black people who are from the United States.

<i>The Souls of Black Folk</i> collection of essays by W.E.B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Folk is a 1903 work of American literature by W. E. B. Du Bois. It is a seminal work in the history of sociology, and a cornerstone of African-American literature.

W. E. B. Du Bois American sociologist, historian, activist, and writer

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois grew up in a relatively tolerant and integrated community, and after completing graduate work at the University of Berlin and Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate, he became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. Du Bois was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

City novels of yesteryear that depict the low-income survivalist realities of city living can also be considered urban fiction or street lit. In her book, The Readers' Advisory Guide to Street Literature (2011), [3] Vanessa Irvin Morris points out that titles considered canonical or "classic" today, could be considered the urban fiction or "street lit" of its day.

Titles that depict historical inner-city realities include Stephen Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893), Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (1838), Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods (1902) and Langston Hughes' The Ballad Of The Landlord (1940). [4] [5] In this vein, urban fiction is not just an African American or Latino phenomenon, but rather, the genre exists along a historical continuum that includes stories from diverse cultural and ethnic experiences.

<i>Maggie: A Girl of the Streets</i> novel by Stephen Crane

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is an 1893 novella by American author Stephen Crane (1871–1900). The story centers on Maggie, a young girl from the Bowery who is driven to unfortunate circumstances by poverty and solitude. The work was considered risqué by publishers because of its literary realism and strong themes. Crane – who was 22 years old at the time – financed the book's publication himself, although the original 1893 edition was printed under the pseudonym Johnston Smith. After the success of 1895's The Red Badge of Courage, Maggie was reissued in 1896 with considerable changes and re-writing. The story is followed by George's Mother.

<i>Oliver Twist</i> Monthly serial; second novel by Charles Dickens; published 1837–1839

Oliver Twist; or, the Parish Boy's Progress is Charles Dickens's second novel, and was first published as a serial from 1837 to 1839. The story centres on orphan Oliver Twist, born in a workhouse and sold into apprenticeship with an undertaker. After escaping, Oliver travels to London, where he meets the "Artful Dodger", a member of a gang of juvenile pickpockets led by the elderly criminal Fagin.

Paul Laurence Dunbar American author and poet

Paul Laurence Dunbar was an American poet, novelist, and playwright of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in Dayton, Ohio, to parents who had been enslaved in Kentucky before the American Civil War, Dunbar began to write stories and verse when still a child; he was president of his high school's literary society. He published his first poems at the age of 16 in a Dayton newspaper.

Emergence of contemporary urban fiction

In the 1970s, during the culmination of the Black Power movement, a jailed Black man named Robert Beck took the pen name Iceberg Slim and wrote Pimp, a dark, gritty tale of life in the inner-city underworld. While the book contained elements of the Black Power agenda, it was most notable for its unsparing depiction of street life.

Black Power is a political slogan and a name for various associated ideologies aimed at achieving self-determination for people of African descent. It is used primarily, but not exclusively, by African Americans in the United States. The Black Power movement was prominent in the late 1960s and early 1970s, emphasizing racial pride and the creation of black political and cultural institutions to nurture and promote black collective interests and advance black values.

Robert Beck, better known as Iceberg Slim, was an American pimp who subsequently became an influential author among a primarily African-American readership. Beck's novels were adapted into movies, and the imagery and tone of Beck's fiction have been acknowledged as an influence by several gangsta rap musicians, including Ice-T and Ice Cube, whose names are homages to Beck.

Iceberg Slim wrote many other novels and attained an international following. Some of the terminology he used in his books crossed over into the lexicon of Black English. [6] Other writers included Donald Goines [7] and, notably, Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land, which was published in 1965. Also published that year was The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley . Because Haley's non-fictional read captured the realistic nature of African American urban life for coming-of-age young men, the book has consistently served as a standard for reading among African American teenaged boys.

Donald Goines American writer

Donald Goines was an African-American writer of urban fiction. His novels were deeply influenced by the work of Iceberg Slim.

Claude Brown is the author of Manchild in the Promised Land, published to critical acclaim in 1965, which tells the story of his coming of age during the 1940s and 1950s in Harlem. He also published Children of Ham (1976).

<i>The Autobiography of Malcolm X</i> autobiography of African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist

The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published in 1965, the result of a collaboration between human rights activist Malcolm X and journalist Alex Haley. Haley coauthored the autobiography based on a series of in-depth interviews he conducted between 1963 and Malcolm X's 1965 assassination. The Autobiography is a spiritual conversion narrative that outlines Malcolm X's philosophy of black pride, black nationalism, and pan-Africanism. After the leader was killed, Haley wrote the book's epilogue. He described their collaborative process and the events at the end of Malcolm X's life.

Hip hop lit: hip hop music as an urban ballad

During the 1980s and early 1990s, urban fiction in print experienced a decline. However, one could make a cogent argument that urban tales simply moved from print to music, as hip hop music exploded in popularity. Of course, for every emcee who signed a recording contract and made the airwaves, ten more amateurs plied the streets and local clubs, much like urban bards, griots or troubadours telling urban fiction in an informal, oral manner rather than in a neat, written form.

One of the most famous emcees, Tupac Shakur, is sometimes called a ghetto prophet [8] and an author of urban fiction in lyrical form. Shakur's early poetry was posthumously compiled into a volume entitled The Rose That Grew from Concrete in 1999.

Modern hip-hop literature in print form is a thriving and popular genre. [9] Many non-fiction publications from figures in the hip-hop realm such as Russell Simmons, Kevin Liles, LL Cool J, and FUBU founder Daymond John feature prominently in this genre. Karrine Steffans and shock jock Wendy Williams have written blockbuster books for this audience. Both Steffans and emcee 50 Cent have had such success with their books that they were given their own imprints to usher in similar authors, such as for 50 Cent's G-Unit Books.

Contemporary street lit: The new wave of urban fiction


Toward the end of the 1990s, urban fiction experienced a revival, as demand for novels authentically conveying the urban experience increased, and new business models enabled fledgling writers to more easily bring a manuscript to market and to libraries. [10] One of the first writers in this new cycle of urban fiction was Omar Tyree, who published the novel Flyy Girl in 1996, reissued as a reprint in 1999.

The genre gained significant momentum in 1999 with Sister Souljah's bestseller The Coldest Winter Ever . [11] Teri Woods's True to the Game was also published in 1999, and became the standard from which the entrepreneurial publishing and distribution of contemporary urban fiction took note. The simultaneous publishing of these three novels created a momentum of readership for urban fiction and carried that wave for years. Thus The Coldest Winter Ever, True to the Game, and Flyy Girl are considered classics in the renaissance of the genre. [12]

Sister Souljah describes the untapped market for urban fiction and the stereotypes that held it back in its early years:


In less than a decade, urban fiction has experienced a renaissance that boasts thousands of titles. The newest wave of street fiction is urban Latino fiction novels such as Devil's Mambo by Jerry Rodriguez, Chained by Deborah Cardona (a.k.a. Sexy) and Jeff Rivera's Forever My Lady.

Major writers of contemporary urban fiction include Wahida Clark, Vickie Stringer, Nikki Turner, Kole Black, K'wan, Toy Styles, Roy Glenn, Kwame Teague, who many believed penned Teri Woods' Dutch, [14] and the writing duo Meesha Mink & De'Nesha Diamond.

There is also an unexpected literary wave of hip-hop fiction and street lit, which was sparked by Sister Souljah.[ citation needed ] Authors with a book or books in this offering include Saul Williams, Abiola Abrams, and Felicia Pride. These are hip hop lit or street lit books that take a more literary approach using metaphor, signifying and other literary devices. These books may also be used in socially redeeming or classroom capacities, while maintaining love and positivity for the music and hip hop culture.

With this new wave of renaissance, "street lit" was breaking new ground when it came to promotion and exposure. Aside from hand-to-hand sales, which seems to work best in a genre where word-of-mouth has proven to be worth more than any large ad campaign, the Internet has increased the authors' and publishers' ability to reach out to the genre's readers.

With Internet savvy, many self-published authors who once had no shot of recognition are now household names, such as author Rasheed Clark, who went from relatively unknown, to being honored with fourteen Infini Literary Award nominations for his first two novels, Stories I Wouldn't Tell Nobody But God and Cold Summer Afternoon, both of which became instant bestsellers and proved that Clark was a fresh voice in African American fiction, and a leading African-American writer. [15]

Authors in this genre such as K'wan Foye, Nikki Turner, Toy Styles, Kole Black, are known for bringing street teams and other musical promotion efforts to the book scene. [16] In recent years, some of these authors have joined with hip hop artists such as 50 Cent to further promote the genre by penning the musicians' real-life stories.

In 2010, the hip hop music label, Cash Money Records, established a publishing branch to their brand, Cash Money Content. However, Cash Money Content's last book, Animal 3, was published in November 2014. [17]

Vickie Stringer is an urban lit author, as well as founder and CEO of her own publishing company, Triple Crown Publications, a publisher of 45 novels and 35 writers as of 2008. [18]

Forums like AALBC are often used to keep track of the progressive urban fiction genre as it grows tremendously daily.


Early criticism of street lit was that books were badly edited due to lack of copy editing by independent publishers. [19] However, in recent years the mainstream publishing industry recognized the genre's potential and signed many street lit authors to contracts, thus producing better packaged product. One such author was Treasure E. Blue, according to Kirkus Reviews Magazine, a self-published sensation—it has reportedly sold 65,000 copies before getting signed to a major six-figure deal with Random House Publishing. [20]

The reach of urban fiction into a large youth readership is undeniable today. Researchers have turned their attention to its influence on urban literacy, particularly among adolescent girls. [21] Despite misgivings about editing quality issues, secondary school teachers in suburban settings have included urban literature in curricula, referring to it as "multicultural young adult literature" to expose students to "authentic" voices. [19]

Notable authors of contemporary urban fiction

Related Research Articles

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Sister Souljah American hip hop-generation author, activist, recording artist, and film producer

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Hip hop or hip-hop, is a culture and art movement that was created by African Americans, Latino Americans and Caribbean Americans in the Bronx, New York City. The origin of the name is often disputed. It is also argued as to whether hip hop started in the South or West Bronx. While the term hip hop is often used to refer exclusively to hip hop music, hip hop is characterized by nine elements, of which only elements are considered essential to understanding hip hop musically. Afrika Bambaataa of the hip hop collective Zulu Nation outlined these four main pillars of hip hop culture, coining the terms: "rapping", a rhythmic vocal rhyming style (orality); DJing, which is making music with record players and DJ mixers ; b-boying/b-girling/breakdancing (movement/dance); and graffiti. Other elements of hip hop subculture and arts movements beyond the main four are: hip hop culture and historical knowledge of the movement (intellectual/philosophical); beatboxing, a percussive vocal style; street entrepreneurship; hip hop language; and hip hop fashion and style, among others. The fifth element, although debated, is commonly considered either street knowledge, hip hop fashion, or beatboxing.

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Nikki Turner is an American author of urban fiction, dubbed by Trendsetter Magazine as the "Queen of Hip Hop Lit". Her first two books, A Hustler's Wife and A Project Chick have sold about 150,000 copies as of 2005.

Teri Woods is an American novelist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a successful, self-published pioneer of the urban fiction genre.

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  1. Munshi, Neil (November 13, 2015). "Urban fiction: words on the street". Financial Times. ISSN   0307-1766 . Retrieved February 23, 2016.
  2. "Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk".
  3. The Readers' Advisory Guide to Street Literature (2011)
  4. "Urban fiction (or nonfiction) would not exist without Langston Hughes". www.chicagonow.com. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
  5. The Ballad Of The Landlord
  6. "Iceberg Slim: biography, bibliography, filmography and links - Biography Project: An Independent Reference Resource for counterculture-subculture-underground".
  7. "INTERVIEWS: Kendrick Lamar CONFIRMS Engagement To Whitney Alford, Calls Tupac Shakur A Prophet, Discusses J. Cole Trying To Sign Him" . Retrieved February 23, 2016.
  8. PINTO, C. "Urban lit blazes off bookshelves." Gannett News Service. 2009, August 31
  9. Barnard, Anne (October 22, 2008). "Urban Fiction Makes Its Way From Streets to Libraries". The New York Times. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved February 23, 2016.
  10. (Morris, Hughes-Hassell, Agosto, & Cottman, 2006)
  11. (Morris, 2011)
  12. Hoffman, Melody K. (April 7, 2008). "Urban fiction set to heat up the summer with hot new titles". JET. 113 (13): 50. ISSN   0021-5996.
  13. "A Message from the Penitentiary". The Huffington Post. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
  14. Smith, Jessie Carney (2010). Encyclopedia of African American Popular Culture [Four Volumes]. ABC-CLIO. p. 507. ISBN   9780313357978.
  15. "Tome Rule: Toy Styles can write a novel in a week. But can she dominate the cutthroat world of street lit? - Washington City Paper". Washington City Paper. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
  16. "K'wan Animal III:Revelations set to release Nov. 4th!". Cash Money Content. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
  17. Hoffman, Melody K. (April 7, 2008). "Urban fiction set to heat up the summer with hot new titles". JET. 113 (13): 48. ISSN   0021-5996.
  18. 1 2 Gibson, Simone Cade (2009). Critical Engagements: Adolescent African American Girls & Urban Fiction. ProQuest. pp. 23–4. ISBN   9781109198478.
  19. "HARLEM GIRL LOST by Treasure E. Blue". Kirkus Reviews . Retrieved February 23, 2016.
  20. Gibson, Simone Cade (2009). Critical Engagements: Adolescent African American Girls & Urban Fiction. ProQuest. pp. 24–5. ISBN   9781109198478.

Research articles


Reading lists

Because this genre is very popular with urban teenagers, the following reading lists should prove to be helpful for teachers and librarians.