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What Is Urban Fiction?

By Sandi Johnson
Updated May 23, 2024
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Urban fiction is primarily an American literary genre focusing on stories set in metropolitan locales, predominantly US cities. The genre is also referenced as urban lit, gangsta lit, street lit, or Hip Hop lit. Aside from city settings, urban fiction is also characterized by its recurring themes, racial inclinations, and certain cultural similarities. Typically, urban fiction features African-American characters involved in dark story lines involving sex, profanity, urban violence, poverty and other aspects considered by some to be the underbelly of inner-city life.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, published works and novels by Iceburg Slim, Malcolm X, and Claude Brown provided an insider's view of true life for inner-city African-American men. Essays appeared during this time, discussing how only those living in inner-city conditions could truly capture the essence of urban life. Thus, urban fiction became indelibly associated with autobiographical tales and fictional depictions of those who lived in predominantly African-American urban communities.

In the publishing industry, street lit is often viewed as a genre written by African-Americans for African-Americans, based on stereotypes. Mainstream publishing, since the 1970s, has viewed urban fiction as a fringe genre, with few large publishing houses printing or promoting such novels or writers. As such, most urban fiction is produced under small independent publishing houses or through self-publishing and word-of-mouth advertising. Increasing popularity is gradually changing mainstream views of urban lit.

African-American novels are not the only form of urban fiction. Late in the 1990s, Latinos also began contributing stories, novels, and prose in similar urban narrative form. Like African-American urban fiction, Latino urban fiction typically involves the darker side of inner-city life as told by a particular community demographic. Stories are typically dark in nature and mood, with a strong focus on Latin culture, beliefs, and experiences. Neither African-American nor Latino urban fiction seek to alienate readers based on race but rather show an accurate portrayal of inner-city life and culture.

The growth in popularity of street lit has not been consistent since the 1960s and 1970s. As music became the overriding voice of urban life in the 1980s, the interest in fictional books based on urban life waned. With the growth in popularity in self-publishing in the late 1990s into the 21st century, the genre experienced a resurgence in interest. Much of the culture of urban life places more stock in word-of-mouth advertising than in commercial marketing, providing an ideal match for self-publishing options. Just as musical artists distributed urban music from neighbor to neighbor, separate from an organized commercial outlet, writers of inner-city fiction follow a similar path through self-published novels, ebooks, and other media.

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