Prison Sentences: Street Lit and the U.S. Prison System

While Street Lit -- variously termed Ghetto Lit, Urban Lit, Hip-Hop Lit -- has been around since the 1960s, it seems the controversial class of writing is gaining increased academic attention lately. For those unfamiliar with the genre, it is generally characterized by its urban setting and its "gritty," "raw," and "authentic" portrayal of urban life. Although its history has been checkered with criticism -- everything ranging from dangerous glorification to lack of copy-editing -- its explosive popularity has caused the genre to succeed.

The appeal and profitability of these novels isn't unusual to the literary marketplace. One can look at practically any genre that isn't considered avant garde and see comparisons. What is unusual (and fascinating) about Street Lit is how it is turning conventions of the marketplace upside down on its way to that appeal and profit, by way of the U.S. penal system.

Popmatters recently published an article by Kristina Graaf, "Reading Street Literature, Reading America's Prison System," that delves into this element of the genre. Graaf writes:
A particular important facet of the genre is how it is inextricably linked to the US penal system on multiple levels. Not only is Street Lit probably the genre with the largest number of authors and readers, who currently are, or formerly were, incarcerated. Imprisonment is also a central theme in most storylines, and also the novels’ distribution and marketing have become closely connected to America’s prison apparatus.
She goes on to describe the different ways prisons function in Street Literature on the plot level. Prisons can be used to form a cautionary tale, a bildungsroman (where the character is transformed in prison not by way of rehabilitation but through their own reflection), a "stagnation narrative" (where the cycle of prison and release is never broken), or a glorifying tale. In turn, argues Graaf, "America’s prison system represents an omniscient element, structuring the narrative, advancing the plot and forming the characters. Prison, however, also plays a central role in the novels’ production, with many authors penning their stories while being incarcerated."

The prison system also functions for Street Lit on the distribution level. In one of Graaf's examples, she describes the work of Sidibe Ibrahima, an African immigrant in Harlem:
After establishing a network of bookstands mainly on Harlem’s 125th Street that specialized in the sale of Street Literature, he opened his bookstore and distribution firm Harlem Book Center. Realizing there was a demand for Street Lit novels among inmates, Ibrahima registered with various correctional facilities as a book supplier, and now regularly ships prepaid titles to the avid readers.
As with much popular literature, value always must be found in places other than the writing itself. Graaf concludes by arguing for the value of this popular genre based on its reflection and expression of the prison apparatus. It's not hard to imagine, though, given how literary critics mine the annals of popular lit from earlier ages, that future critics will find even more to value. And, by the same token, more insights into the racial politics of the U.S.

For more information on Street Literature, visit or the Resource for Librarians.
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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:04 AM

    Street Lit is also huge within the young adult readers. Because of the "grittiness," some more rural bookstores or libraries do not know how to categorize it, but none-the-less when teens and even preteens want a more truth than fantasy they have an outlet.


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