Urban fiction, also known as Street lit, is a literary genre set, as the name implies, in a city landscape; however, the genre is as much defined by the race and culture of its characters as the urban setting. The tone for urban fiction is usually dark, focusing on the underside. Profanity (all of George Carlin's seven dirty words and urban variations thereof), sex and violence are usually explicit, with the writer not shying away from or watering-down the material. In this respect, urban fiction shares some common threads with dystopian or survivalist fiction. Often statements derogatory to white people (or at least what is perceived as the dominant Eurocentric culture and power structure) are made, usually by the characters. However, in the second wave of urban fiction, some variations of this model have been seen.
Urban fiction was (and largely still is) a genre written by and for 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. 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) simply could not write fiction truly grounded in inner-city and African American life.
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. Other writers included Donald Goines  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. Because this 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.
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, with harsh, gritty stories such as "The Message" and "Dopeman," set to a driving, strident drum-kit rhythm. 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 is undeniably an author of urban fiction in lyrical form. Shakur also wrote a book of poetry called The Rose That Grew From Concrete.
Hip Hop lit in print form, though, is thriving. Non-fiction books from players in the hip hop realm such as Russell Simmons, Kevin Liles, LL Cool J, and FUBU founder Daymond John are also filed in this genre. Carmen Bryant and Karrine Steffans have both written blockbuster books for this audience, as has shock jock Wendy Williams. Both Steffans and emcee 50 Cent had such success with their books that they were given their own imprints to usher in similar authors. 50 Cent's G-Unit Books adds a legitimacy to a fictional genre that was previously disregarded.
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. One of the first writers in this new cycle of urban fiction was Omar Tyree's Flyy Girl in 1993. However, it really gained momentum in 1999 with Sister Souljah's bestseller, The Coldest Winter Ever. For good or ill, her books gained publicity based on comments she made during an interview that some took out of context and interpreted as advocating the killing of white people. Teri Woods's True to the Game and was also published in 1999. Along with Souljah's Coldest Winter, the three novels are considered classics in this renaissance genre.
Other writers of urban fiction include Jeff Rivera, Vikki Stringer, Shannon Holmes, Mallori McNeal, Miasha, TN Baker, Solomon Jones, K'wan Foye, Anthony Whyte, Erick Gray, Nikki Turner, Big Rob Ruiz, the writing duo Meesha Mink & De'Nesha Diamond, J.Gail, and Pamela M. Johnson, the latter of whom is becoming known in urban-fiction circles for bootstrapping a single novel sold from the trunk of her car into a publishing company and press. Other notable urban-fiction writers include Kole Black, author of The Chance She Took, which was released 2007, and The Risk of Chance, which was released 2008 by Spaulden Publishing.
In less than a decade, urban fiction has experienced a renaissance that boasts hundreds of titles. The newest wave of street fiction is urban Latino fiction novels such as Devil's Mambo by Jerry Rodriguez and Jeff Rivera's Forever My Lady.
There is also an unexpected literary wave to hip-hop fiction and street lit, which was sparked by Sister Souljah. Authors with a book or books in this offering include Sofia Quintero of the Black Artemis Novels; E-Fierce, also known as Elisha Miranda; Heru Ptah; Ferentz Lafargue; Saul Williams; Abiola Abrams; Felicia Pride; Marcella Runell Hall; and Martha Diaz. 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 the hip hop culture.
With this new wave of renaissance street lit comes a whole new ballgame when it comes 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 the 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 the follow up "Cold Summer Afternoon," both of which became instant bestsellers and proving Clark to be a fresh voice in African American fiction.
From online book groups and Web sites such as QBR, RawSistaz, Urban Reviews, and Coast 2 Coast Readers to e-zines such as The Urban Book Source, Internet sites geared toward Urban readers are making themselves felt and can often make the difference between a bestseller and a book that shouldn’t have ever been printed.
Authors in this genre such as K'wan Foye, Nikki Turner, Kole Black, and Relentless Aaron are known for bringing street teams and other musical promotion efforts to the book scene. In recent years, these authors have joined with hip-hop artists such as 50 Cent to further promote the genre by penning the musicians' real-life stories.
Many of these titles are published by independent houses, and the ones from those houses are known for their lack of copy editing. However, the mainstream publishing industry is starting to recognize the genre's potential and is signing many of these authors to contracts.
Because this genre is very popular with urban teenagers, the following reading lists should prove to be helpful for educators and librarians.