What is Urban Fiction?

Urban Culture
Originally uploaded by ratpat13

Interesting article at the NY Times about the inclusion of urban fiction in some branches of the Queens Library.

From the Streets to the Libraries

Urban fiction’s journey from street vendors to library shelves and six-figure book deals is a case of culture bubbling from the bottom up. That is especially true in New York, where the genre, like hip-hop music, was developed by, for and about people in southeast Queens and other mostly black neighborhoods that have struggled with drugs, crime and economic stagnation.

Writers like Mark Anthony — who at 35 is Ms. Miller’s contemporary and the author of “Paper Chasers,” based on his youth in Laurelton — found themselves being rejected by agents and publishers. So they paid to self-publish their books, with rudimentary designs and cheap bindings, and sold them on 125th Street in Harlem, or on Jamaica Avenue in Queens, around the corner from the borough library’s main branch. Soon, a stream of people — high school students, first-time library users, the library’s own staff — were asking for the books. And the librarians went out on the street to buy them.

Complete article can be found here.

Honestly, I have no problems with the writers who declare themselves “urban fictionists” and produce the product that that they feel their readers want to read (if I have heard their argument correctly). I do have an opinion about one writer that I heard at a at a Harlem Literary Fair writer’s conference, and this writer declared that (s)he have already self-published five novels and have 25 more novels on their hard drive ready to go to print just as soon as (s)he can secure a good endorsement deal from a designer clothing brand. And once that deal is struck, (s)he will go in copy-n-paste in that particular designer’s apparel logo on the front cover and change all clothes references in the book to match. Ditto if (s)he can get a luxury automobile endorsement. If ya didn’t guess, I wasn’t feeling that this one person had a whole lot to offer the literary community.

What I do have a problem with is the fact that “Urban Fiction” is a tool for national book chains to try to push one narrow genre to a diverse block of readers. I’m hella urban, and I love me some fiction, and I have no desire what so ever to pick up a book that is gonna tell me:
a) The protagonist failed to conquer their own inner demons, or as his say here in the Sexy Loft, “Brutha shouldn’t have done dat.”
b) The protagonist can not marshal up the strength to defeat the insurmountable odds that society/religion/nature places in her path. “Stay strong, sistah. Stay strong.”
c) The protagonist’s intricate plans for world domination fall short when those he wronged in the past get their just due in the end. “Mira loco, don’t try to hustle other hustlers. ¿Tu sabes?”
d) The protagonist is not the protagonist, it is all metaphor and simile. The world is not the world but is. “Say what?!”

I would have much more respect for it all if the “Urban Fiction” table also included these classics then maybe I would pay some mind to the “recommendations” for other books.
Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas
Push by Sapphire
Always Running by Luis J. Rodriguez
When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmerelda Santiago
The Autobiography of Leroi Jones by Amiri Baraka

And that’s just for starters from me. (If any of y’all want to add your own urban classics and urban new classics, jump on in.) But until that awakening happens, I’ll just take it on myself to put together my own list of what is urban fiction.

Join the Conversation


  1. Junot Díaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” could be added to this list of urban classics. As well as N. Scott Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn.” OK, two more: Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” and “On Beauty.”

  2. HOly Sh*t, Sapphire’s PUSH was another one of those traumatic pieces of literature to read, and I think it surpassed the trauma of reading Toni Morrison’s THE BLUEST EYE and is up there with BELOVED.

    My question though, re: the label “Urban literature,” is whether the genre you describe above ought to have a different label? My immediate reaction to setting PUSH et al down on the table with the above “brotha shouldn’t’ve done that” genre is the cheapening of PUSH et al. But I get what you are saying – the titles you mention, and that Guillermo mentions are substantial pieces of urban fiction, and to globalize the list I’d think of adding Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, Bino Realuyo’s The Umbrella Country for Manila lit, and R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the R’s for Honolulu.

  3. Eh, sorry to hog your comment box, but I gotta add Louis Chu, EAT A BOWL OF TEA for NY Chinatown, and Faye Myenne Ng’s BONE for SF Chinatown.

  4. Guillermo: Thanks for the recommendations. I haven’t had a chance to read Oscar Wao yet but recently revisited Junot’s Drown and have no doubt that it will one day be regarded as an urban fiction classic.

    Barb: Your other City recommendations are dope and should definitely be added. I’m really hoping to read Hagedorn’s work soon.

    As for PUSH sharing space with the “brutha shouldn’t have done dat” titles, I think it would actually help elevate a work like PUSH and set a new bar for the burgeoning urban fiction writer to aspire to. That’s one of my biggest disappointments, writers not looking to classic texts for inspiration and instead settling for the “prestige” of a chain book store label.

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