IN PERCIVAL EVERETT’S NOVEL Erasure, Thelonious Ellison is a college professor who writes novels that are more praised than read. His work’s engagement with French post-structuralists and ancient Greek literature impresses and baffles reviewers, who wonder what those subjects have to do with the African-American experience. Frustrated by his latest novel’s seventh rejection and angered by the success of the street-lit hit We’s Lives in Da Ghetto, Ellison dashes off a novella parodying the “true, gritty real stories of [B]lack life” that he has been advised to write. This satiric tale, which is included in Erasure in its entirety, is peopled with stock characters like the perennially scowling thug and the vapid baby mama. It is sent to Random House as a protest, but to Ellison’s amazement and chagrin he is offered a $600,000 advance for his “magnificently raw and honest” account. Compromised, disgusted and rich, Ellison creates a reclusive, ex-con writer persona that the literary world celebrates as a “real! live! scary! Black male!” writer in their midst.
Although Erasure is fictional, it is dead-on about the high-octane rise of a genre often called street lit. Also called ghetto lit, urban fiction and gangsta lit—as well as hip-hop’s literary equivalent—it unofficially burst on the scene in 1999. That’s when breakaway success greeted the novel The Coldest Winter Ever penned by rapper-activist Sista Souljah. Still considered to be the one of the best offerings in urban fiction, Souljah’s tale chronicles the hustling life and times of Winter Santiaga, who stole clothes and transported drugs for a living. Now considered classics, other novels from the late ‘90s include Teri Woods’s True to the Game and Vickie Stringer’s Let That Be The Reason. Both writers published their own books and sold them from the trunks of their cars after collecting numerous rejections from mainstream publishers. Since that time, Woods’s novels have grossed more than $15 million, and she is now signed with a division of Warner Books, while Stringer has built an urban-fiction empire out of her Triple Crown Publications.
According to Essence’s bestseller lists, which reflect data from Black bookstores across the country, street lit accounts for almost all of the current top-selling paperbacks. Rachelle Williams can testify to this from when she worked at Karibu Books in suburban Maryland near Washington, D.C. “I would say about 70 percent of the customers who came into the store bought these books, either for themselves or to send to a family member or friend in jail,” recalls Williams, who is now a doctoral student at the University of Maryland and has written about the genre.
Bestseller lists can’t comprehensively capture the numbers though, because most street lit is not sold at bookstores, but at barber shops, beauty salons, sidewalk kiosks and online. And now the media moguls want a piece of the pie. Traditional publishers like Kensington Books, Simon & Schuster and St. Martin’s have created urban-fiction divisions. Nikki Turner, who started out as a Triple Crown Publications author, now has her own imprint with Random House/Ballantine. Turner has penned popular titles like A Project Chick and, with rapper 50 Cent, Death Before Dishonor. With his G-Unit Books—an imprint of MTV/Pocket Books—“Fitty” has extended his brand into print, even promoting his songs and vitamin water in his ghostwritten novellas.
Why is the genre so hot?
Look no further than Shakespeare, advises Kevin Weeks, an Atlanta-based author of street fiction. As in Shakespeare’s plays, Weeks says, “universal elements of love, sex, jealousy, betrayal, murder and revenge” make for compelling storytelling in urban fiction.
Street lit’s provenance, though, goes back to Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim (who inspired the naming of Ice Cube and Ice T, respectively). The two are widely cited as the godfathers of the literary genre. Iceberg Slim, born as Robert Lee Maupin and also known as Robert Beck, started writing in the ‘60s after his release from prison. His novels—Pimp, Trick Baby and Death Wish— drew from his own experiences in society’s underbelly. Slim’s books were, and continue to be, wildly popular among Black audiences and beyond. He even inspired Donald Goines to start writing when he was imprisoned. Goines’s prodigious output includes Whoreson, Dopefiend, and White Man’s Justice, Black Man’s Grief and the books sample from his sojourn as a heroin addict. Goines continues to be quoted by today’s rappers, more than 30 years after his murder in the streets of Detroit.
Urban fiction has been credited for converting an entire generation into readers. With the genre’s unapologetic materialism and luxury brand fetishes, explicit sex and violence, and profanities that flow as freely as Cristal on VIP nights, youth get to indulge in the age-old pleasure of alarming their elders. “The genre offers a raw, in-your-face perspective that…gives youth movements a voice that goes against established thinking,” explains Jemir Johnson, who hails from the Bronx and authored the illustrated novel 5 Shots. And David Wright of the Seattle Public Library calls the books “outlaw fables” that tell stories that seethe underneath social niceties.
Both critics and supporters of the genre are pleased that Black youth in particular are reading. But some have mixed feelings about promoting literacy by any means necessary. “To some extent, there is an exposure to a part of urban culture that has rarely been explored in a way that it is now…which can be a starting point for civic dialogues,” offers Tracey Michae’l Lewis, who teaches writing and literature at Community College of Philadelphia and Philadelphia University. “Unfortunately, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What is this costing us?’”
Lewis, who is also a writer, cautions that there is a fine line between glorification and exploration. But she believes books in the genre could develop to critical acclaim if due attention is paid to character development and plots.
Some argue that the prevalence of poorly drawn, stereotypical characters and formulaic storylines in street lit can be traced to the fact that there is little critical apparatus to determine what’s good and bad in the genre. “There are no watchdogs in it,” says Brooklyn-based author Kenji Jasper. “Now the attitude is that anyone can do it with enough time and enough money to print [a book].”
Even Daniel Marcou, who champions street lit at his review site, streetfiction.org, agrees with the common critique that some street lit is carelessly edited. And editorial oversights can inspire a chuckle or two. One novel “involved a robbery and someone running off with the ‘lute.’ It should have been ‘loot,’” he says. “I still imagine a street thug hauling ass with a medieval stringed instrument.” But Marcou, a corrections librarian in Minnesota, doesn’t believe it’s his place to dictate taste. With time and exposure, according to Marcou, reading tastes grow and mature. “The more people read, the more critical they grow of what they read,” he maintains.
People appear to be reading street lit to find themselves and escape themselves at the same time. Some readers enjoy losing themselves in portrayals of preternaturally lavish lifestyles, racy sex and ride-or-die dramas of the streets, while others enjoy the genre for its reflective qualities. It’s hard to say, though, how many readers actually have a personal connection to what they are reading. Some even insist that “keeping it real,” the towering commandment of the hip-hop era, is, well, not very real.
“Most folks ain’t living that life in the hood,” argues Constance Shabazz, who maintains an online bookstore. “And even those who are don’t see the glamor in it.” It brings up the question of how much entities like Simon and Schuster are implicated in shaping ideas about cultural and racial authenticity—and then selling them to the communities they supposedly come from. Shabazz suggests this may be the case. A negative, she says, “is not so much the lit itself but the focus that mainstream publishers have placed on it. Once again, they are trying to define who we are and what we like. I personally know of some excellent writers who lost major contracts with publishers because they did not write urban lit. It’s as if they couldn’t support more than one genre that African Americans read at one time.”
It is arguable if street lit even constitutes one genre. Its slippery, shape-shifting character is illustrated when authors are asked if they write within the genre. “In the publishing industry, there is no genre per se titled ‘street lit,’” says Weeks. “I aim to reach a wide audience with my writings.” He welcomes being filed on different shelves, be it general or urban fiction. Others, like Johnson, classify their work as crime noir and detective fiction. However, San Diego–based novelist Nikki Nicole says her work fits solidly within the street lit tradition. “My work embodies hip-hop, inner-city living and the usual associations like gang-banging, drugs and sex,” says Nikki Nicole, who penned A Little Bit of Sin.
But writing about the streets does not a street lit writer make. Classics such as Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ann Petry’s The Street are lauded as examples of nuanced, complicated treatments of Black urban life. Novelist Robert Batista maintains that street lit is characterized by its sensationalization of inner-city conditions and neglect of analysis or context. Batista contends that his use of urban themes in his novels Brooklyn Story and Street Angel illustrates that he is not a genre writer. While his books have sex and violence in them, they aren’t gratuitous or graphic, he explains.
Ultimately, street lit arouses contention because issues of race and representation have repercussions beyond book covers. Noting the spike in Black-on-Black crime in Seattle, teen-service librarian Wadiyah Nelson declares, “So it is OK to kill off Black men on the streets, in movies, videos, music and now in books.” How does literary liberty align with racial responsibility? Do the anti-heroes of street lit have a duty to be more, well, heroic? According to Kenji Jasper, author of Seeking Salamanca Mitchell, the answers may be as varied as the Black experience.
“Black America is at a point where we’re going through a lot of separation,” Jasper concludes. “We all have to make our decisions about who we are.”
And who we are in print should be represented as prismatically as who we, in fact, are. It is a shame and an irony that expansive depictions by Black writers are censored by market forces because they contradict the racist mirage of real Blacks. As Erasure makes clear—including its allusion to the Black literary classic The Invisible Man—Black folk can be highly visible and still seldom seen.
Almah LaVon Rice is a writer in Baltimore, MD.