Urban Fiction

If you're an avid reader who chooses what to read depending on your mood, you may sometimes have 'cravings.' Some days, you may crave a bloody, gory murder mystery. Other days, perhaps you crave a feel-good romance instead. But, what if you want to be wow-ed from the comfort of your own reading spot by a big city that you have always dreamed of visiting or living, say, San Francisco, New York, or Tokyo? Is there a 'name' for this genre? Yes, there is! What you're looking for is Urban Fiction.

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Table of contents

    Urban Fiction: Meaning

    Defining any literary genre can be a tricky endeavour. This is also true for Urban Fiction. While scholars and experts have divided opinions, they largely agree on the 'urban' and 'fiction' part of this genre. That means the backdrop is usually an urban setting such as a big city neighbourhood, multiple neighbourhoods, or even the entire city!

    'Urban', here, refers to the quality of life in these locations where life is fast-paced and crowded. Urban settings lend a degree of anonymity to their citizens, and everyone must watch out for themselves. It's easy to feel lost in these cities, and this feeling is often mimicked in works of Urban Fiction. The 'fiction' part simply means that, while these stories may be based on or inspired by true stories, they are largely works of fiction in which the characters and events are dramatised.

    While there is no agreed upon definition, Urban Fiction largely refers to fictional narratives set in major cities. This could include the entire city or one or many neighbourhoods of the city.

    Other names for 'urban fiction' include 'street fiction' or 'street lit'

    History of Urban Fiction

    It's not easy to pinpoint the precise beginning of this literary genre. However, there is a consensus on how Urban Fiction has developed over the years. Consider some books from the 19th century, such as Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (1837) or Stephen Crane's Maggie : A Girl of the Streets (1893). While both of these books were written in different time periods and feature different casts of characters and settings, there are some overarching similarities between the two, such as the troubled socio-economic conditions of the people living in the 'underside' of the big city.

    A strong desire to explore the social, economic, and cultural nuances of the myriad of people living in urban environments is what fuelled authors to write Urban Fiction. This is especially true of African American authors due to the obstacles that African American and other minority populations in the big cities of the United States have had to overcome on a daily basis. African American populations in the big cities of the United States who have had to overcome numerous obstacles on a daily basis simply to make ends meet.

    Urban Fiction, as we recognise it today, was developed as a literary genre by Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim (the pen name of Robert Beck) in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly during the peak of the Black Power movement. We'll learn more about them in the section below.

    Although the movement has many aims, Black Power as a political movement campaigns for the self-determination of Black people and the right to foster their own identities free from racial oppression.

    Urban Fiction: Authors & Books

    Below are urban fiction authors and their books

    Iceberg Slim (Robert Beck)

    Iceberg Slim was imprisoned in Cook County in 1961 after operating as a 'pimp' for over 24 years. After being released from prison, Slim wrote a book inspired by his experiences and published it in 1967 under the title Pimp. Although it is a memoir, the book elaborates on Slim's gritty and often dark 'street life' experiences as a pimp, thus making it an exemplary work of urban fiction.

    Donald Goines

    Inspired by Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines wrote numerous novels to support his drug addiction. The settings of Goines' novels were big cities, often featuring Detroit, Kansas City, and Los Angeles as settings for the lives of his fictional characters inspired by real-life street criminals that Goines was acquainted with. Among his most popular works are the Kenyatta Series (1974-1975), Never Die Alone (1974) and Dopefiend (1971).

    Fun Fact: Goines' work and life has inspired numerous rappers including 2Pac and Ludacris.

    Further examples of Urban Fiction books written by African American authors include:

    • The Coldest Winter Ever (1999) by Sister Souljah
    • Flyy Girl (1993) by Omar Tyree
    • A Hustler’s Wife (2003) by Nikki Turner
    • True to the Game (1994) by Teri Woods

    Urban Fiction: Characteristics and Types

    Today, most works of fiction can be labelled as a blend of genres rather than being confined to one genre category. A book featuring a romance, for example, could also be a comedy, tragedy, or even feature supernatural or paranormal tropes. Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938) combines elements of Gothic and Romance genres. The blending of genres is also prominent in works of Urban Fiction.

    Urban Fiction can be mixed with romance, erotica, sci-fi, horror, mystery, grit, and violence among many other genres. Typically, you should be able to tell whether a narrative is a work of urban fiction if it includes some of the following features:

    • Urban Fiction is set in the backdrop of a city or urban environment. It features the social, political, cultural, and economic ongoings of the various groups living in this environment.
    • Urban Fiction typically features a young or young adult protagonist from a socially poor background and often includes violence.
    • Urban Fiction is usually fast-paced. The story also features flashbacks and flash-forwards to maintain the pace.
    • Urban Fiction is largely character-driven. The reader follows the relationships and struggles of the main character(s).
    • The 'street' (or the 'city') plays a significant role in works of Urban Fiction, with surviving or becoming a dominant force on the street being the main objective of the character(s).

    The number of features (including but not limited to those listed above) and how they are combined, determine what type of Urban Fiction the narrative can be classified as. While Urban Fiction is not formally divided into types, it may be also known as street lit, hip-hop lit, or ghetto lit, among others. As the names suggest, street lit focuses on 'surviving the street'. On the other hand, hip-hop lit features characters aspiring to become hip-hop artists and often engage in various (and sometimes illegal) actions to accumulate wealth or fame. Ghetto lit includes poor and/or violent neighbourhoods that character(s) aim to either rule or escape.

    Urban Fiction: The Street

    The street is an important aspect of urban fiction. The street is where most of the events of the narrative take place and where the characters interact. The street can sometimes play the role of the antagonist, making life incredibly difficult for the lead character(s), who must try to survive life in the street or attempt to control it.

    By elaborating upon life in the streets, the work of Urban Fiction can take a gritty, dark, or comical role. The street also adds features of realism to the narrative as authors try to accurately depict life in these neighbourhoods, sometimes to explore and dismantle stereotypes. The language of Urban Fiction is also given 'local flavour' by featuring specific dialects or colloquialisms unique to the urban environment and its population.

    Realism is a genre or a mode of writing that tries to imitate real life by portraying believable characters and everyday events. Realist narratives are largely character-driven.

    Colloquialisms demonstrate the use of special terms and phrases used in a specific culture or geographical location. Another word for colloquialism is 'slang.' For example, 'Lol' or 'YOLO' are colloquialisms native to internet and meme culture.

    Depending on the street depicted, the author may highlight certain aspects that are unique to the geographical location, especially concerning the social and economic standings of the characters in these locations.

    For example, in Pachinko (2017), the lives of Korean immigrants in 20th century Japan are depicted. The main characters live in a Korean ghetto in Japan and experience hardships because of Korea's status as a colony of Japan. This setting and background is vastly different from that portrayed in A Hustler's Wife (2003) by Nikki Turner, another work of Urban Fiction centred around the life of a woman married to a drug lord from Virginia, who is eventually incarcerated.

    Urban Fiction: Conclusion

    Urban fiction today is a popular genre with a large readership, especially among adolescents and young adults. It grants a voice to marginalised groups at the fringes of society, elaborating upon their rich and diverse lives and cultures. Although many authors of Urban Fiction have self-published their works or worked with indie (independent) publications, the genre has become popular enough to infiltrate mainstream publishing across many different formats, including illustrations and comic or manga-like strips.

    Urban Fiction - Key Takeaways

    • Works of Urban Fiction are set in an urban environment, spanning one or multiple neighbourhoods or even an entire city.
    • Urban Fiction highlights the social, economical, cultural, and political aspects of the place(s) the main character(s) come from.
    • Urban Fiction subgenres include street lit, hip-hop lit, or ghetto lit.
    • Pioneers of urban fiction include Iceberg Slim (Robert Beck) and Donald Goines.
    • The street plays an important role in works of urban fiction, and it often takes on the features of the antagonist.
    • Works of Urban Fiction are fast-paced and character-driven.
    • Some examples of Urban Fiction include A Hustler's Wife (2003) by Nikki Turner, Pimp (1967) by Iceberg Slim, Dopefiend (1971) by Donald Goines, The Coldest Winter Ever (1999) by Sister Souljah.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Urban Fiction

    How do you write urban fiction?

    Typically, to write a work of urban fiction, you need to:

    • Determine an urban location (street, city) where the events of the novel take place.
    • The location plays an important role, as its social and cultural features are highlighted through the lives of the characters.
    • Identify the motives and goals of your characters - do they need to survive life in a difficult neighbourhood? Do they need to escape someone or something? Do they aspire to leave the street behind as they move forward in life?
    • Add local flavour to your language by including dialects and colloquialisms of the location. Also include different types of characters, hailing from various backgrounds, and belonging to different age groups and communities to enrich your narrative.

    What are the 3 types of fiction?

    The 3 types of fiction include:

    • literary fiction
    • mainstream fiction
    • genre fiction

    Who started urban fiction?

    Iceberg Slim (Robert Beck) and Donald Goines are seen as pioneers of urban fiction. However, novels from as early as 19th century featured elements of urban fiction, such as Dickens' Oliver Twist (1837).

    What are urban fiction books?

    Books of urban fiction are set in an urban environment - they could span a single or multiple neighbourhoods or even an entire city. They are character driven and follow the struggles and relationships of these characters.

    When did urban fiction start?

    Contemporary urban fiction is credited to have been pioneered by Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, who wrote their works in the 1960s and 1970s. Elements of urban fiction can be found in novels from as early as the 19th century.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is a work authored by Donald Goines?

    Who of the following was NOT inspired by the works of Donald Goines?

    Where is a work of urban fiction typically set?


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