I had never heard of Urban Fiction before moving to Illinois and volunteering in Champaign’s County Jail. During my first two shifts as a Jail Librarian Volunteer, I witnessed requests after requests for this genre that seemed to be the hottest thing in print. Little did I know, this genre has been booming since the 2001 and has history since 1960/70s!
Urban Fiction, also known as Urban Lit, Street Lit, Gansta Lit, and by other names, is fiction that takes place in an urban setting, with urban characters, and with themes that typically effect those living in an urban region. Authors of this genre are primarily black, some writing while they are imprisoned. Sexual acts and violence are no stranger to this genre, nor to the lives of its authors and readers. Some of the highest population of Urban Fiction’s audience are those currently in prison. Urban Lit is a counter narrative (a (re)telling that offers a different perspective to what is usually published, collected, etc.) to many books.
Scholars have differing opinions on Urban Fiction. Some believe that it is low reading, like a trashy book, that is not of high quality. Those who believe that think that prisoners should be reading more elevated works. On the other hand are scholars who believe that prisoners have always favored books that appeal to the outlaw and therefore Urban Fiction is a newer genre with longstanding, appealing themes.
I just picked up a copy of my first piece of Urban Fiction, Donald Goines’s Dopefiend. Only reading will tell what I think about the genre beyond exploring research. From other volunteers I’ve heard that they find the genre poorly written and ‘low brow’, but I’m leery of that. I recently read that Urban Fiction is now becoming canonized through a Norton anthology (unfortunately I don’t remember where I read this at!). In a university literature class taught by Bruce Franklin, author of Can the Penitentiary Teach the Academy How to Read?, some of his students “went on to complain about Goines’s limited vocabulary, short sentences, lack of metaphors, and even errors in grammar. But someone else retorted that his descriptions are so vivid that ‘you not only see the scene, you can smell it'” (Franklin 647). Renee Gladman adds an interesting perspective on the text: “I see the sentence as this thing you are moving through. You encounter words and punctuation the same way you would see a building or turn onto a street.”
In the future, I will explore two key figures (the father and queen of Urban Fiction) and why prisoners enjoy this genre & how it engages them as readers.
Resources On Urban Fiction:
- Franklin, H. Bruce. “Can the Penitentiary Teach the Academy How to Read?” PMLA. 123.3 (2008): 643-9.
- Honig, Megan. Urban Grit: A Guide to Street Lit. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2011. (This guide, while has a short introduction to the genre, is primarily chapters of sub-genre annotated bibliographies with further sub-sub-genres within each chapter. Sub-genres include crime, coming-of-age, erotica, prison, etc. Books are rated with a key to indicated level of violence and sexual content.)
- Morris, Vanessa Irving. The Readers Advisory Guide to Street Literature. Chicago: American Library Association, 2012. (This guide is aimed towards libraries to further understand the genre of Street Lit/Urban Fiction. Morris covers the genre’s appeal, history, literary motif, collection development, and provides a list of the genre broken down into subgenres such as GLBTQ, Tween, Graphic Novel, etc.).
- Wikipedia’s Urban Fiction Page (What is nice about this Wiki article is not only do they provide a nice background, but also a list of authors and they also provides links to The Library Journal’s The Word on the Street book lists.)
- Small press author and publisher Renee Gladman, a Vassar alumna, to discuss urban fiction. Thursday, March 27, 2008