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Urban Fiction: Definition, Books & Authors

Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

Urban fiction represents the voice of the inner city. In this lesson, we will learn about what it means for a novel to be labelled as street lit, and also explore some of the genre's greatest writers and most popular works.

What is Urban Fiction?

You may have heard it called street lit, gangsta lit, urban lit, even ghetto lit or hip hop fiction. Stories within this literary genre feature life on the streets, usually in American cities. The characters in urban fiction stories are almost always African American. As such, the authors and consumers of the stories are also generally African American.

The setting in most works of urban fiction takes place in the inner cities. The story material is usually pretty heavy and tells about the hardships of street life and about the neighborhoods that suffer under extreme violence, gangs, sexual gratuity, and poverty. The prose are typically littered with profanity in order to reflect the common street language. Realism plays a major role in urban fiction. You wouldn't expect a hardened gang member to show mercy, and writers of urban fiction treat their material with the same vein of logic. The stories are sometimes difficult to read because they are meant to mirror the harsh reality of urban living.

If you're looking for a fairy tale with a happy ending where the good characters do good things and the evil characters do bad things, you should shy away from urban fiction. Life is not a simple battle between good and evil, the lines between the two are blurred and survival becomes the goal. Most of the stories within this genre are tragic, and many of them are autobiographical, based on personal, real-life experiences.

Authors and Works

Urban fiction as a collective fringe genre emerged in the 1960s and 70s. The true to life gritty stories initially found a strong voice with authors like Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, who are widely considered the pioneers of the movement.

Iceberg Slim (August 4, 1918 - April 28, 1992)

Iceberg Slim, birth name Robert Lee Maupin, was born in 1918. Slim's father abandoned him as a child. He got into pimping at age 18 and didn't stop until he was 42. He was incarcerated several times in his adult life; in fact, it was his last stint at Leavenworth, where he spent time in solitary, that motivated him to get out of the criminal life. He moved to California, changed his name to Robert Beck, and started his career as a writer.

He may have started his adult life as a pimp in Chicago, but he went on to become one of the most renowned and influential urban fiction writers. His books have sold over 6 million copies, have been adapted into films, and his words are reflected in modern-day hip-hop music. Ever hear of Ice-T? His rap name is homage to Iceberg Slim.

Notable works:

Pimp: The Story of My Life

Slim's first autobiographical novel was published in 1967. The book pulled no punches, and Slim narrated his true to life tale of being a pimp in the city of Chicago for 25 years. The novel has been described as ruthless. It is not a tale of morality, and it was not written to provide a lesson for its reader. It is about Slim's survival in 'the game,' and how he made his way through the ups and downs of being a criminal. The book did well commercially, selling over 2 million copies throughout the world.

Trick Baby

Slim's follow-up novel was also published in 1967. The story is about two Philadelphia con men. The book was adapted for the big screen and released in theaters in 1972. Despite its lack of Hollywood star power, the low-budget movie was a success at the box office.

Other notable works from Iceberg Slim:

Mama Black Widow (1969)

Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim (1971)

Long White Con (1977)

Death Wish: A Story of the Mafia (1977)

Airtight Willie & Me (1985)

Donald Goines (December 15, 1936 - October 21, 1974)

Donald Goines was a prolific writer who published 16 novels. At one point, he had to use the pen name Al C. Clark because he was writing at such a fast pace; reportedly, he could finish a novel in a month. This rapid pace was fueled by his addiction to heroin, a habit he picked up while fighting in the Korean War.

Although Goines came from a middle class family living in Detroit, he was constantly in and out of prison for criminal activity, like armed robbery and pimping. His involvement in crime was largely due to his drug addiction.

Iceberg Slim had a great influence on the work of Donald Goines. Motivated and given confidence by Slim's novel Pimp, Goines wrote his first book from behind bars. It was called Whoreson, a semi-autobiographical tale.

In 1971, Goines wrote a novel that depicted his daily struggles as a smack addict called, Dopefiend: The Story of a Black Junkie. Goines' writing style is rough and rudimentary, and his prose consist of street language, commonly called Ebonics. His oeuvre preaches about the harsh life in the ghetto, crime, and the struggle to just survive another day.

Goines completed five books under his pen name Al C. Clark. The tone of these novels is different from his previous publications. The Al C. Clark stories feature a black revolutionary protagonist named Kenyatta. Clark's hero, Kenyatta, is not a street thug mixed up in crime, but the leader of a Black Panther like organization dedicated to cleaning up the inner city.

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