“Keep the drama in your books, not in your life.”
– T. Styles
Welcome back to our Focus on Genres series. This month, we’ll be looking at urban fiction, also sometimes known as street lit or street fiction. Books in this genre are generally set in a city landscape, but 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, gritty, and raw and is often set in dangerous or violent urban areas, focusing on the underside of city living. Many of the books are about characters surviving at the margins of urban life, but who dream big (and ruthless). Getting rich, getting even, getting respect, and getting out -- into a stable and safe existence -- frequently motivates characters' choices, and there is a strong theme of survival by any means necessary. Many authors of this genre draw upon their own experiences for their storylines.
Urban fiction shines a light on the harsh realities of life in the city, including hard subjects such as drug use, gangs, sex, poverty, and violence. Stories are fast-paced and often focus on the protagonist overcoming adversity, surviving abuse and betrayal, and rising above hard times. The stories present realistic characters in realistic environments, often focusing on their everyday lives, their relationships with other characters and their environment. This focus on realism makes the books easily relatable for readers. As the name "urban fiction" implies, the stories generally take place in large cities, including New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and Tokyo. Not all street lit is based in the U.S., and it includes a variety of cultural, social, political, geographical, and economic aspects. Street lit set in New Orleans will differ greatly from that based in Tokyo, but the stories will address similar issues. Urban fiction primarily centers on, but is not entirely exclusive to, African American characters, however this popular genre is not defined by the color of one's skin but rather the literary content itself.
Contemporary urban fiction was (and still largely is) a genre written by African Americans, however there is now more representation from Latino writers and authors from other diverse groups. Often the cultures the authors write about are somewhat unknown to people not of that culture. As such, fiction written by people outside these cultures could not accurately or realistically depict the people, settings, and events experienced by people within the culture. Try as they might, those who grew up outside the urban culture may find it difficult to write fiction grounded in inner-city and/or African American life.
Some novels from the 1800s and early 1900s that depict the low-income survivalist realities of city living can also be considered urban fiction or street lit. Some of these novels include Maggie, a Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, The Sport of the Gods by Paul Laurence Dunbar and The Ballad of the Landlord by Langston Hughes. Given this fact, 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.
The genre, as it exists today, first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s with Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines widely considered as the pioneers of the urban fiction movement. During the 1980s and early 1990s, urban fiction in print experienced a decline. However, one could argue that urban tales simply moved from print to music, as hip hop music exploded in popularity. Toward the end of the 1990s, urban fiction experienced a revival, as demand for novels that authentically conveyed the urban experience increased. One of the first writers in this new cycle of urban fiction was Omar Tyree, who published the novel Flyy Girl in 1996. Other popular authors in the genre include Zane, Ashley Antoinette, JaQuavis Coleman, Sister Souljah, Vickie Stringer and K'wan Foye.
Urban fiction excels in its compelling portrayals of modern characters dealing with prison, drugs, violence and sexuality in ways that validate a segment of the black experience that hasn't existed much in print. Some of the most popular books are also serials with cliffhangers that keep readers returning for more. Since many adult urban fiction novels may contain content that is too mature for younger readers, a great alternative is urban fiction for teens or books that feature teens of color. Teen Urban Fiction is melodramatic, page-turning fiction about diverse characters growing up in contemporary urban America. Characters often find themselves in adult situations or making tough decisions. While influenced by popular adult urban fiction themes, teen urban fiction stays within the bounds of propriety established in the teen market. Protagonists are streetwise teens whose lives are equally filled with drama and dreams. They may struggle with poverty, drugs or violence, but they remain proud and upbeat throughout. Authors often tell the story of a group of friends, sometimes contrasting the responsible one with less mature peers. Family ties are important but they may be troubled. Glamour, crime and shocking behavior are often present in large doses.
Drop into your local branch to check out some urban fiction!