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Street Lit/Urban Fiction: Characteristics

What are the Characteristics of Street Lit?

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

This text has been provided courtesy of Julie Humphrey, Durham Tech Library

Self-Published Format

In recent years, many street lit authors have begun to self-publish their books and disseminate them electronically.  According to Joe Sutton (IndieReader, 2016), "It’s an established fact that traditional publishing is a mostly white man’s world. Self publishing, on the other hand–free from the inherent gate keeping of agents and publishers–gives otherwise marginalized voices the opportunity to be heard, and read."


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.

Historical traditions

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 StreetsIt was published in 1893.

It focuses on an Irish immigrant family living in the ghetto who speak an Americanized Irish dialect.The characters struggle to survive in the 19th century world of poverty and violence.