Urban Fiction Shapes Culture. Why Isn’t It Considered Serious Literature?

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Urban Fiction Shapes Culture. Why Isn’t It Considered Serious Literature?

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Last week, I sent a text to a friend: “For Colored Girls Who Read Urban Lit When Shakespeare Wasn’t Enuf.” I was riffing on the landmark play written

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Last week, I sent a text to a friend: “For Colored Girls Who Read Urban Lit When Shakespeare Wasn’t Enuf.” I was riffing on the landmark play written by Ntozake Shange after listening to an episode of Traci Thompson’s podcast, The Stacks, in which a familiar discussion about Black literature cropped up. Thompson asked Cree Myles, her guest and the founding editor of All Ways Black, Penguin Random House’s imprint dedicated to Black writers, to share a book people would be surprised she loved. 

“Is there a stupid book that I love?” she asked. “I mean, I love The Coldest Winter Ever.” Thompson went on to say that lots of people might agree with her—that Sister Souljah’s 1999 debut novel is a common “problematic fave.”

Though I didn’t interpret Myles’ comment as intentionally pejorative, it was still a dismissal of what’s great and worth taking seriously about that book and other “urban fiction” or “street lit” books like it. The Coldest Winter Ever didn’t feel stupid to me during the days I spent buried between its pages when I first read it at 14, holding the red-stained lips emblazoned on its cover close to my own. The characters felt like people I saw every day, which I couldn’t say for the books that were required reading at my high school. 

In the 90s, politicians and the media used crime statistics to cast Black youth as “superpredators,” but urban fiction humanized the people on the wrong side of the headlines. Sister Souljah’s coming-of-age story follows Winter Santiaga, the daughter of a notorious Brooklyn drug dealer, as she’s forced to navigate the harsh consequences of her parents’ decisions. The book’s themes and plotlines are endemic to urban fiction, which traditionally chronicles the gritty underbellies of inner cities. The “ghetto realism” of the genre contextualized why crime, or the escapism of drugs and sex, felt necessary for survival. 

Over the decades of its enduring popularity among Black people, street lit has consistently been treated like second-class literature. The comment Myles made on The Stacks is one of many others like it—critics have long pointed out the qualitative differences between urban fiction and other work of the Western literary canon. In a 2004 piece for The Washington Post, Linton Weeks wrote that street lit “venerates grams over grammar, sin over syntax, and excess over success.”  

But what is he really favoring here? In a recent study conducted by The New York Times, publishing houses, both authors and editors, remain overwhelmingly white. Five percent of fiction published by “the big five” publishing houses since the 1950s has been written by people of color. That number, of course, doesn’t account for the bulk of urban fiction—the genre is largely sold through independent markets. 

Growing up, I didn’t realize that the spread of urban fiction titles I saw arranged for sale on subway platform floors was a result of a lack of interest from or access to the publishing industry. It seemed natural to me that books filled with hustlers would be peddled by hustlers, with vendors setting up shop in communal spaces like barber shops and hair salons. Without established publishers behind them, these books, [with titles like B-More Careful and Welfare Wifeys: A Hood Rat Novel], were often printed quickly, without editors. Mix that with the “if you know, you know” jargon heard on street corners, and urban fiction stood out from the industry. It broke the rules of what was acceptable in written language, whether it wanted to or not. In doing so, it achieved something closer to familiarity for the people reading it, even as outsiders derided it as unintellectual. 

The hypocrisy of reducing urban fiction to “stupid” while promoting Black literature is based in not just a lack of access, but in adhering to the respectability politics access comes with. Sister Souljah wasn’t interested in whether white people could newly understand Blackness through her work. She wrote the way hip-hop felt: raw and direct. In Winter Santiaga’s world, bad bitches are revered, and profanity is just a part of how people talk. The book reached cult classic status not just by capturing the hearts of generations of Black Americans waiting for a story as thrilling as Winter’s, but by earning the readership of audiences who were otherwise overlooked, like city teenagers and people who were incarcerated.  

Sister Souljah was following in the tradition of Black storytellers before her. A closer look at the origins of urban fiction reveals the genre as a foundational part of the Blaxploitation era, confessional-style gangsta rap, and drug cinema that turned films like Paid in Full and Belly into cult classics, and by examining that history, we can trace it to one of the dominant influences on contemporary pop culture even now. 

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Image by Cathryn Virginia | Photos from Getty, Kensington Books, Holloway House Books, Simon & Schuster

Chicago pimp Robert Beck, better known by his pen name Iceberg Slim, is considered the forefather of street lit, and the language of his memoirs is still closely reprised in works of written and onscreen fiction today. As the story goes, after a harrowing and abusive childhood, Beck started pimping, which eventually led him to incarceration. After serving 10 months in solitary confinement at Cook County Jail, he spent years trying to find work legally. When he started a family, his wife Betty encouraged him to write a memoir about his days in “the life.” 

In 1967, Beck released Pimp: The Story of My Life with Holloway House, a publisher focused on stories about the Black experience. The debut positioned Beck as a businessman who was able to break down the economics of prostitution and a smooth-talking gatekeeper of Chicago’s streets. Written in the colloquialisms of pimping, Holloway House asked Beck to add a glossary of AAVE terms like “trick.” 

By 1972, Beck’s second book about a biracial con man who leverages his passable racial identity to hustle, Trick Baby, was adapted into a film. “Iceberg Slim was the guy who was actually living the life he was writing about,” USC Cinematic Arts professor Dr. Todd Boyd said in the 2014 documentary, Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp. And that guy’s perspective was formative to the sex and drugs of the Blaxploitation era in the 70s.

Suddenly, there was power and allure in writing about unsavory stories, and readers clamored for more books representing the harder edges of crime, sex, hardship, and triumph, all delivered in a style that suggested lived experience. Writers like Donald Goines, whom Beck took under his wing, began adding their narratives, fictional and otherwise, to the tapestry of Beck’s street legends. Goines’ 1971 debut novel, Dopefiend, was marketed with a provocative tagline: “The desperate rage and suffering of a hardcore junkie.” The Village Voice endorsed the book, writing that it was “written from ground zero… the voice of the ghetto itself.” What once would have been a condemnation had turned into praise.

Beck and Goines’ legacy includes the misogynoir that runs in tandem with pimping, and despite The Coldest Winter Ever becoming a New York Times bestseller decades later, many women who wrote street lit lacked visibility or support. Still, in the 90s, women like True to the Game’s Teri Woods and author-turned-publisher Vickie Stringer not only wrote about street life from their perspective, but transformed the industry. After an onslaught of rejections (Woods was turned down by six publishers and Stringer received 26 rejection letters), the two sold their books out of the trunks of their cars, even as mainstream publishing embraced Jackie Collins, a white author who sold 500 million copies of her books of erotic fiction. In an interview last year, Woods cited Collins as one of her writing heroes, but noted the disparities in their reception, “I don’t hear anybody bashing her and she is smut all day,” she said. “Good smut too, but in bookstores my books are treated differently, and they can’t sit with hers.”

The respective successes of Woods, who sold one million books independently, and Stringer, who eventually founded Triple Crown Publications (which only sells urban fiction), helped bolster the urban fiction’s independent book scene into the early aughts by expanding their audience to more women. Bypassing a publishing deal meant writers like Stringer, who wrote her 2001 debut novel Let That Be the Reason while serving five years in a federal prison, were an example that women could thrive too. 

The imagery in these books weren’t just page turners. It became clear that these plots could function onscreen, too—even if it wasn’t a seamless transition. The Coldest Winter Ever was pitched as a film to HBO (but never made it to production), and it took nearly 20 years before the film adaptation of Woods’ True to the Game trilogy was released. Still, their work only brightened the spotlight on the genre, and hip-hop’s marriage to urban fiction only grew stronger as rappers transitioned into actors at the start of the millennium, as seen in Cam’ron’s role as Rico in Paid in Full, the drug drama about three ambitious Harlem kingpins. 

The reciprocal relationship between hip-hop, movies and TV, and urban fiction is still in full swing. It’s hard to think of Goines’ Dopefiend without thinking of the crack epidemic that hit Detroit a decade later, which was led by Black Mafia Family kingpins Demetrius and Terry Flenory. Now, STARZ’s latest crime drama, BMF, produced by the rapper 50 Cent (who started G-Unit Books, an urban fiction imprint, in 2007), retells the story of how the Flenory brothers built their drug empire in the Motor City. In a twist on the “lived experience” device so common to street lit, Demetrius “Lil Meech” Flenory Jr. plays the role of his father. 

A more recent indicator that urban fiction’s DNA still runs through all of pop culture, and not just pop culture that predominantly tries to reach Black audiences, is Lil Meech’s cameo in the season two premiere of Euphoria, where he plays Travis, a guy way too old to still be at a New Year’s Eve party with high schoolers. Euphoria is a platonic embodiment of suburbia, and the showrunner’s decision to implant a figure like Lil Meech in that world is a crossover moment symbolizing that urban fiction, and who those stories represent, are solidly part of the commercially viable and narratively popular mainstream.

Even if street lit never crossed over, its worth is all its own. These books gave agency to the stories that the mainstream tried to vilify: pimps, hoes, drug dealers, and everyone who lived alongside them. It legitimized language and underground economies built from the burden of need. Urban fiction was never pretentious. It straddled the line between glamorization and cautionary tales like an elder might—reminding us all that we are all one decision away from a different life. 

Loving The Coldest Winter Ever means loving it without shame. It means loving that those pages are written in the blueprint of Pimp (which has sold over five million copies) and carry an echo of Iceberg Slim’s voice. What I love most about urban fiction is that, in a way, it’s become an heirloom for Black America. My oldest niece got her copy of The Coldest Winter Ever a year shy of when I first read it, and last month, I got a call about the latest addition to our family: a baby girl named Winter. Urban fiction honors all Black stories, no matter how unpolished. There’s nothing “stupid” about that.

Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.

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