Street lit, ghetto lit, urban fiction, gangsta lit—these are the various names given to the genre that exploded onto the literary scene starting with rapper Sister Souljah’s 1999 debut, The Coldest Winter Ever. Since then street lit has become one of the fastest growing book genres in the U.S., according to the urban fiction website streetfiction.org. Almah LaVon Rice reports for Colorlines that street lit’s meteoric ascendance over the past decade has cultural critics debating its merits and mainstream publishers salivating over its sales potential.
Urban fiction consistently appears on Essence magazine’s bestseller list, which tracks black bookstores, although Rice reports that even more street lit is sold via barber shops, beauty salons, sidewalk kiosks, and online. Characterized by “unapologetic materialism and luxury brand fetishes, explicit sex and violence, and profanities that flow as freely as Cristal on VIP nights,” street lit has been credited with drawing formerly new communities into reading. It’s become so popular that even rapper 50 Cent has his own imprint, G-Unit Books.
But critics contend that the line between representation and exploitation is blurry, and that street lit could be feeding stereotypes and promoting a destructive way of life. Still others point out that, as with hip-hop, many consumers of street lit have no direct experience with the urban lifestyle it chronicles.
It’s not surprising that publishing bigwigs like Kensington Books, Simon & Schuster, and St. Martin’s now have their own urban fiction divisions, which begs the question that Paul Chaat Smith raises in his essay “Why Indians Love the Movies So Much”: What happens when mainstream media controls and defines the images of marginalized groups?
Here’s a video of wildly popular street lit author Teri Woods, talking about how she hustled her books into bestsellers: