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Some urban lit authors see fiction in the Oscar-nominated ‘American Fiction’

NEW YORK: Omar Tyree, author of such urban lit narratives as “Flyy Girl” and “The Last Street Novel,” recently went to see the Oscar-nominated movie “American Fiction.”

“I loved the emotions of the family,” Tyree said of the comic drama starring best actor nominee Jeffrey Wright as the struggling author-academic Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, Leslie Uggams as his ailing mother and supporting actor nominee Sterling K. Brown as his troubled and unpredictable brother. “I love seeing how Monk tries to bring the family unit together and just seeing Black people trying to work things out.”

But when asked about the film’s featured storyline — Monk finds unexpected success when he publishes a crude novel under the assumed identity of ex-con Stagg R. Leigh — Tyree laughed and gave a nod to “creative license.”

“The whole idea that he’s going to sell a lot of books by keeping it raw, in real life it doesn’t work like that,” he said. “That kind of book would have been stronger in the early 2000s.”

“American Fiction,” nominated for a best picture Academy Award and in four other categories, was adapted from Percival Everett’s “Erasure,” a 2001 novel that came out when a genre alternately called “urban lit,” “urban fiction,” “street lit” or “hip-hop fiction” was peaking, especially among young Black readers. Novels like Sister Souljah’s “The Coldest Winter Ever,” Shannon Holmes’ “B-More Careful” and Teri Woods’ “True to the Game” were selling hundreds of thousands of copies while major publishers, who had initially ignored the genre, were offering large advances in search of the next hit.

The urban lit genre dates back at least to 1967, and the release of the memoir “Pimp,” written by Robert Maupin, who was in jail when he began writing under the name Iceberg Slim and built a large word-of-mouth following. He inspired another street lit pioneer, Donald Goines, author of the Kenyatta urban crime series and other works from the 1970s that influenced such hip-hop stars as Tupac Shakur, who would famously declare, “Machiavelli was my tutor, Donald Goines my father figure.”

Urban lit is still around, but no new releases approach the heights of 20 years ago. According to Circana, which tracks around 85% of the print retail market, the genre sold around 380,000 copies in 2023, far less than the total sales for “The Coldest Winter Ever.” Many leading urban lit authors these days are either independently published — among them Black Lavish and Mz. Lady P — or released through Kensington Publishing Corp., which still has cut back over the past decade.

“At one point, the majority of the books on our list that were written by Black authors would have been categorized as urban or street lit,” says Vida Engstrand, Kensington’s director of communications. Because of changes in the “retail landscape and reader interest,” Kensington now offers a much broader selection, with “very few front list titles that fall squarely in the category of urban lit,” she says.

Everett, an award-winning author whose novels include “The Trees” and the upcoming “James,” was unavailable for comment, his publisher said.

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