This article has multiple issues. Please help improve it or discuss these issues on the talk page. (Learn how and when to remove these template messages)
With more than half the world's population living in cities, urban fiction has become a truly global field. Recent comprehensive studies of urban fiction showcase the worldwide reach of the genre and include Writing Beirut: Mappings of the City in the Modern Arabic Novel (2015) by Samira Aghacy, Indigenous Cities: Urban Indian Fiction and the Histories of Relocation (2017) by Laura M. Furlan, Postcolonial Indian City-Literature: Policy, Politics and Evolution (2022) by Dibyakusum Ray, and Sensing the Sinophone: Urban Memoryscapes in Contemporary Fiction (2022) by Astrid Møller-Olsen.
American 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.
Genesis and historical forces
Much of contemporary american urban fiction is written by African Americans, due to the current demographics of inner cities. 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. 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.
In a broader sense, urban fiction can be traced back to the 19th century as realist and modern authors began writing literature that reflected a changing urban society. 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), Vanessa Irvin Morris points out that titles considered canonical or "classic" today, could be considered the urban fiction or "street lit" of its day.
Some of the most notable examples of urban fiction from this time period include Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, called the "greatest of all American urban novels," and Ulysses by James Joyce. Titles that depict historical inner-city realities include Stephen Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893), Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (1838), and Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods (1902). 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.
Early 20th century urban fiction
In tandem with the modernist movement that sought to challenge traditional modes of literary representation, so came a new wave of urban fiction. According to Katherine Mullin, "the alienated modernist self is a product of the big city rather than the countryside or small town." According to Elizabeth Young in the essay anthology Shopping in Space, "the city offers unparalleled opportunities to the creative artist," ranging from "greed and deviancy, crime, bohemianism, sexual excess, nightlife and narcotics." Some of the most prevalent cities in 20th century urban fiction are New York City, especially the neighborhoods Greenwich Village, Time Square, and Harlem, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
The Beat Generation was a counterculture literary movement concentrated in New York City that contributed much to urban fiction. Author William S. Burroughs' novel Junky is a semi-autobiographical chronicle of heroin addiction on the fringes of society in New York, New Orleans, and Mexico City and a seminal text of New York urban fiction. The book is notable for its use of time period contextual slang, something characteristic of urban literature. Regarding the accounts of drug use, Will Self writes that Burroughs' "descriptions of the 'junk territories' his alter ego inhabits are, in fact, depictions of urban alienation itself. And just as in these areas junk is 'a ghost in daylight on a crowded street', so his junkie characters who are invariably described as 'invisible', 'dematerialized' and "boneless" - are, like the pseudonymous 'William Lee' himself, the sentient residue left behind when the soul has been cooked up and injected into space." Accounts of drug addiction and social alienation are also common in modern and contemporary urban fiction."
The Harlem Renaissance was an importance precursor to contemporary urban fiction that depicts the experience of African Americans. Langston Hughes was an influential author of early urban literature and his "The Ballad of the Landlord" is regarded as an early text of urban poetry. The poem "grew out of conditions in New York City’s Harlem in the 1930’s. In graphic terms it describes the escalation of anger and frustration that tenants experienced trying to get landlords to make basic repairs. It is structured like an old time blues song until the final verse where the rhythm changes." According to Sabrina Nixon, "instead of being swallowed by the depression of living in the ghetto, Hughes made it work for him."
Emergence of contemporary urban fiction
As the demographics of urban cities shifted, so did that of urban fiction. Contemporary urban fiction was (and largely still is) a genre written by African Americans. In the research paper "Urban Underworlds: A geography of twentieth-century American literature and culture," Thomas Heise explores how urban settings in literature reflect "pathologized identities and lurid fears" and why American cities have been selectively targeted as "urban underworlds" in representations of 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. 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.
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 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. 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. The first writer in this new cycle of urban fiction was Omar Tyree, who published the novel Flyy Girl in 1996, which was reissued as a reprint in 1999.
The genre gained significant momentum in 1999 with Sister Souljah's bestseller The Coldest Winter Ever. 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.
Sister Souljah describes the untapped market for urban fiction and the stereotypes that held it back in its early years:
The publishing industry did not realize that there was a huge market of Black readers. A lot of people in publishing fell into the same stereotypes that people in the mainstream fall victim to: that Black people either can't read or can't write, or don't read and don't write [...] When The Coldest Winter Ever came out... it took to task those stereotypes and showed that, yes, Black people love great stories like every other people from every other culture.
A notable example of urban fiction that entered the mainstream American consciousness, Push by Sapphire, follows the story of a 16-year-old teen mother tackling incest, abuse, and poverty. It has since sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and thirteen years after its release it became an award-winning film called Precious. William Penn describes Sapphire's reaction to the book's success in an interview:
A few hours earlier, she says, she noticed "Push" for sale in one of the Penn Station bookstores, and at that moment it struck her she's no longer a creature of the tiny world of art magazines and homeless-shelter readings from which she came. "That was major mainstream," she says of the train-station sighting. "I'm so used to being underground, marginalized in a certain way."
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, K'wan Foye, Toy Styles, Roy Glenn, Kwame Teague, who many believed penned Teri Woods' Dutch, 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. 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.
Authors in this genre such as K'wan Foye, Nikki Turner, and Toy Styles are known for bringing street teams and other musical promotion efforts to the book scene. 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, Cash Money Content. However, Cash Money Content's last book, Animal 3, was published in November 2014.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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 representing urban life.
- "68% of the world population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, says UN | UN DESA | United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs". www.un.org. Retrieved September 14, 2022.
- Miller, Donald L. (1996). "City of the Century". Simon & Schuster.
- "Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk". www.bartleby.com. Retrieved January 9, 2021.
- Lehan, Richard (1998). The City in Literature: An Intellectual and Cultural History. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520920514.
- The Readers' Advisory Guide to Street Literature (2011)
- "British Library". www.bl.uk. Retrieved April 9, 2022.
- "William Burroughs - the original Junkie". the Guardian. February 1, 2014. Retrieved April 9, 2022.
- L, The Ballad Of The; lord. "The Ballad Of The Landlord by Langston Hughes". allpoetry.com. Retrieved April 9, 2022.
- "Urban fiction (or nonfiction) would not exist without Langston Hughes". Retrieved April 9, 2022.
- Heise, Thomas (2011). Urban Underworlds: A geography of twentieth-century American literature and culture. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 978-0-8135-4784-8.
- "Iceberg Slim: biography, bibliography, filmography and links | Biography Project: An Independent Reference Resource for counterculture|subculture|underground". www.popsubculture.com. Retrieved January 9, 2021.
- "INTERVIEWS: Kendrick Lamar CONFIRMS Engagement To Whitney Alford, Calls Tupac Shakur A Prophet, Discusses J. Cole Trying To Sign Him". Retrieved February 23, 2016.
- PINTO, C. "Urban lit blazes off bookshelves." Gannett News Service. 2009, August 31
- 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.
- (Morris, Hughes-Hassell, Agosto, & Cottman, 2006)
- (Morris, 2011)
- 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.
- Trøkk, Daniels, Lee 1959- Fletcher, Geoffrey 1970- Sidibe, Gabourey 1983- Mo'Nique 1967- Carey, Mariah 1970- Sapphire 1950- (2010), Precious, Star Media Entertainment, OCLC 1028456952, retrieved April 9, 2022
- Powers, William (August 6, 1996). "SAPPHIRE'S RAW GEM". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved April 9, 2022.
- "A Message from the Penitentiary". The Huffington Post. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
- Smith, Jessie Carney (2010). Encyclopedia of African American Popular Culture [Four Volumes]. ABC-CLIO. p. 507. ISBN 9780313357978.
- "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. August 29, 2008. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
- "K'wan Animal III:Revelations set to release Nov. 4th!". Cash Money Content. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
- 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.
- Gibson, Simone Cade (2009). Critical Engagements: Adolescent African American Girls & Urban Fiction. pp. 23–4. ISBN 9781109198478.
- "HARLEM GIRL LOST by Treasure E. Blue". Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
- Gibson, Simone Cade (2009). Critical Engagements: Adolescent African American Girls & Urban Fiction. pp. 24–5. ISBN 9781109198478.
- Morris, V. I. (2011). The Street Lit Author and the Inner-City Teen. Journal of Young Adult Library Service 10(1), 21–24.
- Morris, V.I. (2010). Street Lit: Before you recommend it, you have to understand it. In Urban Teens in the Library: Research and Practice. (pp. 53–66). Chicago: American Library Association.
- Brooks, W. & Savage, L. (2009). Critiques and Controversies of Street Literature: A Formidable Genre. The ALAN Review, 37(3), 48–55.
- Hill, M.L., Perez, B., & Irby, D. (2008). Street fiction: What is it and what does it mean for English teachers ? English Journal, 97(3), 76–81.
- Morris, V. I., Hughes-Hassell, S., Agosto, D. E., & Cottman, D. T. (2006). Street Lit: Flying off teen fiction bookshelves in Philadelphia public libraries. Young Adult Library Services, 5(1), 16–23.
- Triplett, L. (2018) Urban Fiction Novels: Az We Ride We Die Series. (1) Grant Street, (2) The Search Continues, (3) Friends to the End. FREE Read online on Amazon.
- Morris, Vanessa Irvin (2011). The Readers' Advisory Guide to Street Literature. American Library Association. ISBN 0838911102.
- Honig, Megan (2010). Urban Grit: A Guide to Street Lit. Libraries Unlimited. ISBN 159158857X.
- Ratner, Andrew. (2009). Street Lit: Teaching and Reading Fiction in Urban Schools. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0073378437.
- Lit Up: Keisha Ervin's gritty tales of the St. Louis streets have made her one of the nation's hottest purveyors of urban fiction Riverfront Times. April 2009.
- Readers Embrace 'Ghetto Lit' Genre, National Public Radio Morning Edition, January 20, 2004.
- Publishing Company Called Out over 'Ghetto Lit', National Public Radio All Things Considered, October 12, 2007.
- New literary genre emerging from underground authors, San Francisco Chronicle, October 19, 2003.
- Nick Chiles: Don't call this smut 'literature', Dallas News, January 8, 2006.
- StreetFiction.org: An Urban Fiction Review Web Site Archived July 29, 2019, at the Wayback Machine
- Street Literature: Poundin' the Pavement to Bring You The Word On Street Lit, blog site by Vanessa Irvin Morris.
Because this genre is very popular with urban teenagers, the following reading lists should prove to be helpful for teachers and librarians.
- Resources for Street Lit: Books, Blogs, & Lists by Vanessa Irvin Morris, Drexel Univ., Phila, PA Archived March 7, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
- SpeakEasy: Articles About and/or Related to Street Lit by Vanessa Irvin Morris, Drexel Univ., Phila, PA
- Urban/Street Fiction Title/Author List by Miranda Doyle, San Francisco Public Library Archived October 7, 2016, at the Wayback Machine
- African American Book Club Urban/Street Fiction List
- Crazy Quilts Blog with Urban Lit for School Library Collections by Edith Campbell, Arlington High School, Indianapolis, IN Archived March 28, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
- Library Journal. Library Journal