You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover: The Urban Novel


Something that I have been wanting to write about for awhile is the plight of the urban novel. I love a good urban romance or street lit book, but there are so many nowadays that it’s a challenge to find ones that are written up to a certain standard. Even so, there’s the common misconception that poorly written hood fiction is a direct result of the skill level of the authors who write them, but this isn’t necessarily true.

Urban novels often get a bad rap, not only because of their “hood” content but because some of them are not written well. As I have been toying with the idea of self-publishing my own books, I’ve realized that much of this has nothing to do with whether an urban novelist is less capable of forming a grammatically correct sentence than a mainstream fiction writer. Instead, it has very much to do with the self-publishing process or, in the alternative, with underfunded publishing companies who sometimes can’t afford to hire a good editor.

With self-publishing, many times, you have to be both author and editor of your book and, as every writer knows, it is difficult to catch all of your own mistakes. Nevertheless, although some urban fiction authors simply cannot write, many authors in general can’t write either. The difference is that the mainstream writers have more access to editors because mainstream content is more likely to be picked up by big publishing companies who have in-house editors or the authors have the capital to invest in good editors themselves.

Then there are the mainstream fiction writers who don’t write well but have been weeded out by not being chosen by a publishing company so their work never makes it to our eyes anyway. If these writers decide to self-publish and submit their poorly written mainstream content into the world, we tend to never hear about them because the pool of mainstream fiction is just too vast. But, trust me, I have read some mainstream, self-published fiction with terrible grammar, spelling, and sentence structure, so they are out there. Even after realizing how disparities in opportunity affect the quality of urban lit, the fact remains that many of us love these stories and just want to get through a book without having to resist the urge to pull out a red correction pen.

Another unfair judgment about urban fiction is that some people are offended by the widespread use of vernacular or slang in these books. But I think that part of writing for an audience that wants to hear about real characters who live a certain lifestyle, whether they can relate personally to it or not, requires the author to write using realistic language. That language is part of what makes it a “hood” novel. In my opinion, as long as the 3rd person narrator, if one is used, speaks in correct English, I don’t care what language the characters themselves use because that is part of what makes them who they are. I’ve even read books where the protagonist speaks “proper” English to her love interest but speaks in straight up around-the-way girl slang when talking to her best girlfriend. I like that because, for many of us, it’s real; especially because as Black people we are the kings and queens of code switching since we have to do it all the time.

So, for all of us who love urban lit and those of us who are just curious about it, I wanted to compile a list of well-written and well-edited urban novels and review them. I have read several and am still discovering more. Ideally, I would make this an ongoing series to share my findings and maybe even get some new hood novel fans.

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For now, let’s start with a review of the OG’s of hood fiction and then move on to some of the more recent books I’ve read. I consider the following three books the Original Gangsters of hood novels because they started the new wave of the urban fiction genre and they are the reasons why urban fiction is so prolific now.

Flyy Girl (1993), the urban contemporary classic by Omar Tyree, is about a girl named Tracy growing up in Northwest Philadelphia. She has an average middle-class upbringing and is beautiful, confident, and self-assured. But she and her friends get caught up in the extravagance of 1980’s hip-hop culture and she embarks on a coming of age story that is both eye-opening and relatable. Very aware of the publishing struggle, Omar Tyree had to create his own publishing company in order to publish Flyy Girl and two of his other books, which were later picked up by Simon & Schuster and critically acclaimed.

Another classic, The Coldest Winter Ever (1999), by rapper and activist, Sister Souljah, is a story about a girl named Porsche Santiago growing up in Brooklyn. She is the wealthy daughter of a drug kingpin who spoils her, her three youngers sisters, and their mother with the finest things life can offer. Their lives take a few turns for the worst and Winter must use her wits figure out a way through it all. When this book came out, it made a huge splash in the literary world and sold over a million copies. The prequel, Midnight: A Gangster Love Story, became a New York Times Best Seller. This was remarkable because the subject matter wasn’t what one would consider conventional.

Born into poverty, a graduate of Rutgers University, and the recipient of several scholarships and awards, Soulja describes her books as being very important because they tell the same tales as other books but they are set in a world that many do not believe deserves to be portrayed. She says, “[My] books are the books I didn’t see on the shelf in the New York public library when I was growing up. If you want to save a kid who’s in public school, don’t give him Romeo and Juliet – not because there’s not a powerful message in Romeo and Juliet, but because it’s in the wrong language.”

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I haven’t read True to the Game (1999), by Teri Woods, but I have heard many great things about this best seller that would have pre-dated Flyy Girl and The Coldest Winter Ever if it hadn’t been for Woods’ battle to get it published. She completed True to the Game in 1992 and shopped it to many different publishers for six years. Because she was not having success in the publishing industry, she began selling her book out of the trunk of her car and eventually started her own publishing company, which she still owns. She has written and sold many other books besides True to the Game under her company and has since signed book deals with other companies as well.

Two other noteworthy urban lit authors who emerged in the late 1990’s, early 2000’s are Shannon Holmes and Nikki Turner. Shannon Holmes wrote his #1 bestselling first novel, B-More Careful in 2001, while he was serving a prison sentence that began in 1995. He independently published the book under Teri Woods’ publishing company in 2002. Later, it was picked up by several other publishing companies and Holmes has continued writing more books. Nikki Turner has penned many successful urban lit novels, including A Hustler’s Wife (2002), A Project Chick (2003), and Black Widow (2008). She says that she writes because, “[she] want[s] young girls to be forewarned about the vicious street life. They only see the glitz and the glamour. They don’t see the dark side.” 

Most of these urban fiction authors were forced to take a non-traditional route, like grassroots marketing, self-publishing, or independent publishing, to make sure their stories were heard. Because mainstream fiction is taken more seriously than urban fiction by big publishing companies, if it weren’t for these methods, their books may never have been published. Luckily, their stories were so compelling and gained such notoriety that eventually, big companies began to take notice. It was then, sometimes many years later, that these authors received the opportunity to have their books mass-produced, sold all over the world, and given the editing attention that every book deserves.

Today, there are thousands of urban novels being self-published and otherwise every day and it’s hard to decide which ones to check out since they may not necessarily have caught the eyes of a big publisher yet. So I’ve made a list of a few good ones that I have read.

  1. The G-Spot: An Urban Erotic Tale, by Noire

The G-Spot is a book about Juicy Stanfield, the girlfriend of a notoriously wealthy hustler in Harlem, New York. Just as the title says, this is truly an erotic tale. Juicy find herself craving more than what her older and very business-oriented boyfriend can provide. When she finally gets past just dreaming about leaving him, she realizes that this will not be as easy as she thinks. The story kept me on the edge of my seat, but note that it is not for the faint of heart because it is pretty graphic.

2. The Point of it All, by Tamyra Griffin

One thing urban fiction authors have gotten in the practice of doing is writing a series of books and releasing part one at a discounted price, creating an interest in the rest of the series. The Point of it All is about Orchid, a girl who came from the hood but was promptly sheltered from it by her mother after her kingpin father was killed. Although her life is now well-removed from the streets, she falls in love with a hustler and their romance is chronicled in the story. There are a couple of big plot twists, but in my opinion, unless you really love the romance aspects of urban novels, the twists took a bit too long to come for me. However, because of the timing of the cliffhangers, you know that the rest of the series is going to be an exciting roller coaster.

3. I Should’ve Cheated, by T.J. Rose

I Should’ve Cheated is one of the few lesbian urban novels that I have read and it didn’t disappoint. It is another series opener and I can’t wait for the next book to come out. It is about the main character, Braelyn, her fiance, and her straight best friend. I really shouldn’t go any further than that or it will be spoiled, but just know there’s lots of drama, love, sex, and secrets. The story kept me engaged the entire time and it was kind of like watching a soap opera.

4. Giving You All I’ve Got: Love Me Forever, by A’zayler

Giving You All I’ve Got is about two couples, Uzoma and Jocelyn and Lonnie and Zino. All four characters are dealing with some demons that they know they need to grapple with in order to make things work with their partners. This gives their relationships a little more depth. Although several parts messed with my feminist sensibilities, I was still sucked into the story, regardless. As it went on I began to get a better understanding of the characters’ motivations and was more than ready for the rest of the series.

Though these four books are all well-written, they are not 100% grammatically correct or error free, with the exception of G-Spot, whose author, Noire, earned a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster after her other novels gained success. As you can see, the relationship between a good publisher and a good editor can be everything in the making of a well-written novel. Unfortunately, those who are up-and-coming hood novelists must figure out a way to get their work read by the masses and noticed by publishing companies all on their own.

Despite this struggle, whether you write urban fiction, non-fiction, or mainstream fiction, never give up on making sure you are able to tell your story in your voice because there will always be someone out there that needs to hear it. For those that love reading fiction, when it comes to hood novels, don’t judge a book by its cover, you just might stumble upon the next urban classic.


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2 thoughts on “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover: The Urban Novel

  1. Great post! Yes, a lot of biases out here, I’m working hard to break those down through my future childrens books that I want to self-publish. I know its a process and takes resources. I can’t wait to hold my first book .

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