Also known as urban lit, street lit, street fiction, gangsta lit, hip-hop fiction, ghetto lit, and hood lit, urban fiction is a subgenre of contemporary African American literature and emerged in the late 1990s. Omar Tyree’s Flyy Girl (Tyree 1999, cited under Important Primary Sources), Teri Woods’s True to the Game (Woods 1998, cited under Important Primary Sources), and Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever (Souljah 1999, cited under Important Primary Sources) are considered the inaugural novels for the amazing flood of urban fiction titles that followed. Typical characteristics are the settings in African American socioeconomically deprived, urban neighborhoods, action-driven plots that focus on the often brutal fight for survival in the underground economy, and the usage of urban vernacular. Nonstandard grammar and curse words are used not only in dialogue, but also in the narrative text. The titles of the books often point to the urban underground; see, for example, Illegal Ambitions, Deadly Secrets, Corrupt City Saga, Natural Born Hustler, and Payback Ain’t Enough. Book covers often feature photographic images of young women in sexualized poses. The majority of the authors either grew up in such urban neighborhoods or they are familiar with these settings because of their work with the community, as has been the case with author Sister Souljah. Some authors have their own experiences with jail. Victoria M. Stringer, for example, wrote her semi-autobiographical novel, Let That Be the Reason (which she self-published in 2001) while serving a seven-year prison term (Stringer 2009, cited under Important Primary Sources). Publishing history for this genre is somewhat of a phenomenon; most of the authors share an initial frustration about repeated rejections by mainstream publishers before turning to self-publishing. These authors all have tales of selling their books in barbershops and beauty parlors, with street vendors, in church basements, or out of their car trunks. Some of these authors were so successful that they started their own publishing companies and signed on other authors. Vicky Stringer’s Triple Crown Publications, for example, sold about 300,000 paperbacks by fourteen different authors in just sixteen months. The same mainstream publishers who initially had rejected the manuscripts as “too ghetto,” offered now very lucrative contracts to Urban Fiction authors because they realized the potential for commercial gains. Today, ironically, they celebrate the genre as a wonderful way to reach the young urban men and women who did not read before. While academic discourse, at first, largely ignored the new genre as it was considered pulp fiction, commentators have begun, in recent years, to pay some attention. Nevertheless, opinions about the quality and the value of the literature remain highly divided.
Several important book review magazines, such as Publishers Weekly, the New York Times, and Black Issues Book Review, addressed the phenomenon of urban fiction as early as 2001, and they continue to keep it on their regular agenda with author interviews and important publishing news. Fleming 2001 can be considered one of the inaugural texts that brought information about the new genre to a mainstream readership. The September–October 2004 issue of Black Issues Book Review is dedicated to urban fiction, offering not only an overview, but also a first-time discourse about the genre’s controversial aspects. Venable, et al. 2004 addresses the decision by black-owned bookstores to favor urban fiction writers over so-called serious or high-art African American writers. Other overviews, such as Stovall 2005, zone in on the actual content of urban fiction books, addressing the obvious celebration of different aspects of the literature, such as brutality, promiscuity, misogyny, and underground ethics. Graaff and Ha 2015 is a valuable source for understanding the development of the genre from a street vending entrepreneurship to several successful publishing businesses. The most comprehensive overviews available are offered by librarians: trying not to judge the mainly young, urban readership and their fascination with the genre on the basis of nonurban, middle-class reading conceptions, librarians, informed by their own work in urban communities, began to defend urban fiction in offering detailed overviews that also included guidance and advice for parents, teachers, and acquisition librarians; Honig 2011 and Morris 2012 offer the most detailed and valuable overviews in this regard. Brooks and Savage 2009 includes an analysis of reader responses extracted from Amazon.com, suggesting that the genre offers more valuable merits than critical voices want to admit. Norris 2014 includes a collection of essays that cover a wider range of topics, such as the genre’s place in African American literary traditions, its past controversies, and current developments, from a critical perspective. King and Moody-Turner 2013 includes a variety of critical essays that not only inquire about the genre’s place in the tradition of African American literature, but also discuss the literature’s relationship with hip hop’s other cultural expressions.
Brooks, Wanda, and Lorraine Savage. “Critique and Controversies of Street Literature: A Formidable Literary Genre.” ALAN Review (Winter 2009): 48–55.
Offers a short overview of literary and publication history; provides details on controversies; suggests ideas for possible theoretical discourse; examines reader responses extracted from Amazon.com.
Fleming, Robert. “Despite Recession and War, the Black Book Market Seems to Keep Growing.” Publishers Weekly 248.50 (10 December 2001): 25–30.
Can be considered one of the very first articles that covered the phenomenon; provides a good overview of the different facts and controversies that seemingly took the literary world by surprise.
Graaff, Kristina, and Noa Ha, eds. Street Vending in the Neoliberal City: A Global Perspective on the Practices and Policies of a Marginalized Economy. New York: Berghahn, 2015.
Collection of essays that looks at street vending as a practice that seemingly comes from the economic margins of particular societies but that has grown in economic importance to such a degree that it cannot be disregarded; looks at a variety of global urban centers; includes urban fiction in the US urban economy.
Honig, Megan. Urban Grit: A Guide to Street Lit. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2011.
While primarily intended as a guide for librarians, it offers a very thorough overview of the genre’s history, specifics, and controversies.
King, Lovalerie, and Shirley Moody-Turner, eds. Contemporary African American Literature: The Living Canon. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.
Includes a variety of critical essays on urban fiction; some essays discuss the genre’s place in the tradition of African American literature; other contributors investigate the relationship of urban fiction with hip hop’s other cultural expressions.
Morris, Vanessa Irvin. The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Street Literature. Chicago: American Library Association, 2012.
While a guide for librarians and educators, this volume presents a comprehensive overview; provides helpful details about related genres such as erotica or urban-detective novels; offers title suggestions for special-interest groups such as lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual (LGBT) readers or young Christian readers.
Norris, Keenan, ed. Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2014.
Presents a collection of twenty-two essays that cover a wider range of topics, such as urban fiction’s place in the African American literary tradition, its past and current stage, and its ongoing controversies; includes also a variety of critical essays. Foreword by Omar Tyree.
Stovall, TaRessa. “Parental Guidance: Gangsta Lit—Do You Really Know What Your Teenager Is Reading?” Black Issues Book Review 7.4 (July–August 2005): 56–57.
One of the first articles that focused on content and the controversial topics that urban fiction authors write about, addressing the seemingly trivial celebration of aspects such as brutality, promiscuity, misogyny, and underground ethics.
A blog maintained by Vanessa Irvin Morris; announces all new publications; includes all reviews, articles, or any other related material in newspapers, magazines, or websites. Very good source for constantly updated material.
Venable, Malcolm, Tayannah McQuillar, and Yvette Mingo. “It’s Urban, It’s Real, but Is This Literature?” Black Issues Book Review 6.5 (September–October 2004): 24–27.
One of the first detailed overviews; provides first thoughts about the awakening debate concerning urban fiction and high-art African American literature; includes a short interview with Walter Mosley about this aspect of the topic.
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