Urban Lit is Dead!

by Joey Pinkney
December 2008


Yep, I said it… Urban Lit is dead. Done. Finito.

Flatline…

Who am I to say that? I don’t have the same status in the Urban Lit industry as Nas has when he said the same thing for his music. I don’t have to. I read a lot of Urban Lit, and it’s dead.

Why do I speak such blasphemous words? This sentiment stems from an email conversation I had with Therone Shellman after reading and reviewing his novel No Love Lost. (Read my review of No Love Lost, click here.) His novel was atypical and his approach to life after the streets was refreshing. Another one that comes to mind is Erick Gray’s Crave All Lose All. (Read my review of Crave All Lose All, click here. Read my interview with Erick Gray.)joey pinkney

In brief, we discussed how Urban Lit doesn’t do justice to the situations that people are relegated to in hoods across America and beyond. The immorality and reality of the streets isn’t present in a lot of stories on the market today. Without going into detail, that book was the first one that I read in a long time that actually shined the light on the side of the game that most people see but few want to talk about.

Call the Coroner…

The Urban Lit genre is pumping out books with the same book covers and the same stories. Most of the authors have to boast their jail experience to get the attention and respect they think they need to sell their stories. (Sounds like rappers who have to talk about their hood exploits in order to be respected, instead of being lyrically proficient.)

The Urban Literature landscape is taking the natural life cycle of all cultural trends. It’s just like Hip-Hop, born from desolation and neglect. Just like the Hip-Hop that influenced its current direction, Urban Lit has gone from being an obscurity to being shunned to being assimilated into popular culture. That’s why the larger publishing houses are following suit and creating imprints to cater to ravenous readership that Urban Lit definitely has. That’s why you can go to Barnes and Nobles or Borders or even Wal-Mart and see the latest and greatest in the (unofficial) Urban Lit section. It’s selling.

Before it got it’s name, authors like Omar Tyree (who recently stopped writing Urban Lit), Sistah Souljah and Teri Woods wrote books that spoke to a group of people who couldn’t get the time of day from the larger publishing houses. The prevalent thought at the time was that “those people” don’t read. Urban Lit has now been digested and regurgitated by the large publishing houses just like Master P did to rap music during his hey day. And just like his albums covers, words are blinged out, the men look mean and the women look horny.

From the Cradle…

With a “for us, by us” mentality, what would later become Urban Literature was strictly a person-to-person enterprise. Authors were printing up there own books and selling them out the trunk, on the corner, mom-and-pop stores and beauty salons. Full of sex, violence and grammatical errors, these books and the readers who loved them were looked down upon by the mainstream book industry.

Then the book industry got hip. “Those people” were buying those books terrible books. “Those people” were requesting sequels and anything else their favorite hood author put out there. Why? Because those books were entertaining, but they also had an underlining message. Readers could relate.

Fast forward a couple of decades. Now every book cover either has a young black dude with braids, two ear rings, tattoos, sagging jeans and a mean mug or the book has a young female in her early twenties wearing something that makes it easy to figure out what the birthday suit is like. The stories are still about the hood, but nowadays there is a twist. The money, clothes, hos, jewelry, expensive cars, huge houses and the swagger runs the stories.

Urban Lit authors still have to get on their grind, print up the copies and sell them by any means necessary. The difference now is that they have to compete for shelf space with the larger publishing houses. A lot of times, they have to compromise the integrity of their story to fit what the readers will buy. It’s no longer a novelty to have a book with the hood as the backdrop.

To the Grave…

The immorality and reality of the streets isn’t present in a lot of stories. This article actually stemmed from an email conversation I had with Therone Shellman, author of No Love Lost. Without going into detail, that book was the first one that I read in a long time that actually shined the light on the ___ side of the game. (Another one that comes to mind is Erick Gray’s ___.) Shellman is a person who has been there and done that, and it shows in his approach to his story.

A lot of people complain that most of the Urban Lit books are the same three or four stories with a different title and character names. For that matter, most of the authors have the same felonious background story in their bios. It’s just like Hip-Hop nowadays. You could take a black male between 16 and 36 (because you know we stay young looking for a while) and give him a grill, some tatoos, a fitted, a throwback (or white tee), some sagging jeans (and boxers), a gold necklace with some goofy pendant, a diamond encrusted watch, and some Air Force Ones. Then put him in front of a mansion with a couple of Lambourghinis and Escalades with a buch of women in their early 20s in bikinis. Throw on some music, let him pose and point around aimlessly showing off that goofy pendant. Oh yeah, I almost forgot let him rap…

That’s similar to what you see in Urban Lit. Most Urban Lit books has the guy that’s a drug dealer with all the name brand clothes and cars. He has enough jewelry to finance a small army. The problem is that that guy gets robbed and/or killed in real life. A perfect example is all of these rappers getting their chain snatched left and right. They talk all that stuff on the albums and still get robbed when they leave the studio. Where are the guns? Where are your boys?

On top of the hood watching you, the cops are watching harder. Most of the dudes that make it to BET’s American Gangster get an episode because of one big mistake, being too flashy. Make a solid gold crown if you want, the cops will do everything they can to take that and everything else, including your life.

Eulogy…

I understand what’s going on. People don’t read Urban Lit to get the scoop on reality. Like my girl Davida Baldwin said it, “You don’t read Street Lit for self-help and motivation, you don’t read street lit to help out the community, you read it for entertainment.” If you put the average thug or hoodrat on the book cover, it wouldn’t sell. It would probably make it hard to sell the book right next to it, too. (LOL!) If it takes a model on the cover to get noticed, then sex has sold again. To be honest, authors don’t spend months and years to write a book for it to sit in a book store. They write it to hopefully put money in their pockets.

The larger publishing houses are in the game to sell units. If you like it, they love it. Business is business, but we the readers should expect more from Urban Lit authors.


Joey Pinkney is a freelance writer and book reviewer. He spends most of his time with his family and friends. At night he burns the midnight oil putting together articles for your reading pleasure. For more information visit: www.joeypinkney.com


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