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Street Lit / Urban Fiction: About Street Lit

This guide highlights many of the novels in the Durham Technical Community College library collection that fall into the category of "street lit" or "urban fiction."

What to call it

Street literature may go by many names:

  • Street lit or fiction
  • Urban lit or fiction
  • Black books
  • Hip-hop lit or fiction
  • Ghetto lit
  • Gangsta lit

The term "urban fiction" is used more often than most of the names for these kinds of books, but this guide and other reference sources will use the name "street lit" because it includes fiction and nonfiction. Also, "urban fiction" tends to include subgenres that include books that are not street lit.

It's been around a long time...

Street lit has been around for a long time. Consider an example from the late 19th century: Stephen Crane's Maggie: A GIrl of the Streets. It was published in 1893, so it certainly isn't what you think of for modern street lit, but it focuses on an Irish immigrant family living in the ghetto (lower socioeconomic status) who speak an Americanized Irish dialect (they talk like they're from the streets and wouldn't blend in with more wealthy people). The characters struggle to survive in the 19th century world of poverty and violence.

Criticisms of the Genre

Some people claim that books in this genre are not well-written, but many claim that they have as much literary merit as books in other genres. There may be "bad" books in this genre just as there are "bad" books in others.

The covers and content of some street lit books have been criticized for objectifying the female body and glorifying male attitudes of machismo. Critics complain that these representions emphasize stereotypical assumptions about individuals and oversexual characters. There seems to be a trend of moving away from these kinds of images.

These books often contain explicit sexual content and graphic violence.

The Street is...

the nemesis.

The street is the thing to be conquered, to fight against, to overcome by any means necessary.

In street literature, the street itself (also called "the 'hood") is the challenge and the source of problems and drama.
                                             

                                                                            Image from Pixabay

Characteristics

Street lit looks at the lives of people living in lower-income city neighborhoods.The stories present realistic characters in realistic environments, often focusing on the characters' everyday lives and their relationships with other characters and their urban environment. This focus on realism makes the books easy for readers to understand and relate to or understand.

As the name "urban fiction" implies, the stories take place in large cities, including New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and Tokyo. Not all street lit is based in the U.S., and it includes a variety of cultural, social, political, geographical, and economic aspects. Street lit set in New Orleans will differ greatly from that based in Tokyo, but they will have similar issues.

Other common characteristics of street lit include:

  • fast-paced stories, often including flashbacks
  • vivid descriptions of the urban environment, including a lack of societal resources, poor housing, and poverty
  • the street itself as a place where action occurs or as a cause of action, like characters meeting on the street to conduct business
  • protagonists are often young adults, often in the age range 19-25
  • a focus on relationships, including surviving abuse, betrayal by friends, plans to take revenge
  • a focus on name-brand items or accumulation of tangible wealth, like with bling or name-brand shoes
  • surviving street life and overcoming the street lifestyle, trying to move up and out of the streets

Since street lit can blend with other genres, there may also be aspects such as:

  • romance or erotica
  • mystery
  • science fiction
  • gritty themes like drug use, domestic violence, or stereotyped gender roles

Subject Guide

Julie Humphrey's picture
Julie Humphrey
Contact:
humphreyj@durhamtech.edu

Main Campus Library
Educational Resources Center, Building 5
919-536-7211 ext. 1602

Guides to the Genre

Language

Most contemporary street lit focuses on African Americans and so often includes African American Vernacular English (AAVE), hip-hop slang, and American regional dialects.

Titles of these novels often have more than one meaning. Sister Souljah's The Coldest Winter Ever, for example, refers to the season of winter as well as Winter the character. Similarly, Shannon Holmes's B-More Careful can stand for "be more careful" but also refers to "B-More" as another name for the city of Baltimore.