K’wan Foye’s silver M-Class is idling in the parking lot of the Frederick Douglass housing projects on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and he is getting anxious. A black flat-brimmed Yankees cap is pulled low over his eyes, “Write 2 Eat” tattooed on his right hand. A police car rolls slowly past and parks just up ahead. “You think he pulled in this lot by chance?” says Foye, who is among the most popular authors of “street lit”, or “urban fiction”, a genre written mainly by, for and about African-Americans.
Foye’s pulpy thrillers are concerned with the travails of wily working girls and ruthless pimps, code-bound gang-members and hustlers on the make, roughneck dope fiends, righteous drug dealers and lovelorn molls. They are rich in the argot of hip-hop and Foye trades in the lurid details of underworld life: graphic, sticky sex; bloody, teeth-spitting violence; the machinations of gangland realpolitik. His covers — displayed at stalls and bodegas in black neighbourhoods — depict fancy cars; thigh-high boots and fishnets; dollar, dollar bills.
Most authors of street lit draw on their experiences of growing up amid the rough-and-tumble of the inner-city. Foye, 38, was raised mostly in Frederick Douglass by his grandmother after his parents — and many other relatives — succumbed to the 1980s crack epidemic. Back in the day, he sold weed, faked cheques and dabbled in robbery. It was, in the late 1990s, after serving six months for firearms possession and grand larceny in a prison in upstate New York, that he decided to turn his life around. On his release, he found a job at a downtown broker that involved cold-calling Wall Street investors hundreds of times a day to pitch stocks. He didn’t last long, quitting a few months later to start hustling again. But then, in 2001, after learning that his mother was dying of cancer he got back in touch with her and began writing what would become his first novel.
Gangsta, published under his first name only like the rest of his books, is the semi-autobiographical story of an aspiring writer who has lost his mother to cancer and is trying to find a way out of his life as a gang lord. Using the email address on the back of Let That Be the Reason, a self-published book written by Vickie Stringer while serving a seven-year sentence for selling a kilo of cocaine to an undercover cop, Foye contacted her. She offered to publish Foye’s book under her new imprint, Triple Crown Publications — named after her former drug crew — and the pair sold copies of Gangsta out of the trunks of their cars, and through street vendors, beauty salons and barbershops in Harlem and black neighbourhoods on the east coast. The book had been out a year and had sold 80,000 copies before it saw the inside of a Barnes & Noble. The success of Gangsta and Foye’s next book, Road Dawgz, led to a deal with St Martin’s Press, a prestigious New York-based publishing house.
Today, Foye has come to his old neighbourhood to show me the places that inspired his 30-odd novels. But when his younger cousin gets in the car, speaking evasively about someone he’s planning to meet, Foye tells him he’ll “leave him to it”. In one of his books, this would be the point at which the driver gets dragged back into his former life. But Foye balks.
“I have an internal timer when I’m in the hood. If people start whispering and mumbling and talking in code, I get out,” he says. “You’re still out in the hood doing hood shit, and I have moved on.”
Street lit is an immense moneymaker for the handful of authors at the top of the genre, who can command six-figure advances and routinely sell 100,000 copies of their major works (Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, one of this year’s biggest releases, has sold 230,000 copies to date). And yet, despite a boom in the mid-2000s, the publishing industry has largely ignored it. According to Marc Gerald, the agent who represents Foye and a number of other top street-lit authors, for many of the mainly rich, white publishers, the genre “was always slightly embarrassing — the books were slightly downmarket and hard to explain”.
Sometimes the writing can be overly expository, clunky or inelegant. Adverbs abound. But the best authors write stories that swing. Plots hurtle forward in the style of James Patterson, romances sweep like Jackie Collins and chapters cliff-hang like Dan Brown. As Gerald says, street lit is “never the type of genre that gets critical praise”. But, he continues, the books are often “the biggest and most compelling reason for a lot of people to turn to reading who otherwise wouldn’t. Urban lit really did open a new pathway into literature for an under-represented group of people” — namely, young black people.
Without access to major publishers, young authors have instead sold their books in barbershops and beauty salons. “I sold 1.2m books independently before I took my first [seven-figure, multi-book] deal” with Hachette, says Teri Woods, whose self-published 1998 novel True to the Game, a gangland love story between a streetwise teenager and her kingpin boyfriend, helped kick off the latest street-lit wave. She sold her first book, hand-bound with Krazy Glue, at the 46th and Market train station in West Philadelphia. “I was a self-made millionaire before they [the industry] came and gave me a deal.”
Many of those street vendors and small independent shops have, however, suffered in the years following the financial crisis, and with the demise of Waldenbooks, which was more prominent in black neighbourhoods than other chains. Walmart and Amazon are now the biggest drivers of sales, although a new release by the biggest authors will still draw crowds to those street stalls that are left on 125th Street in Harlem and other black commercial strips.
Street lit has its literary roots in the work of Chester Himes, Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim. Himes wrote Harlem detective fiction and was a contemporary of hard-boiled writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Goines was an ex-con and heroin addict who published 16 books in five years before his body was found riddled with bullets in a Detroit apartment in 1974. Slim, whose legal name was Robert Beck, was a charismatic Chicago pimp whose gritty 1967 memoir, Pimp: The Story of My Life, is a quasi-anthropological look at street life that contributed to the vernacular of hip-hop and whose alias gave Ices T and Cube their noms de guerre.
It was Goines and Sister Souljah (née Lisa Williamson), author of The Coldest Winter Ever (1999), who inspired Ashley and JaQuavis Coleman, the husband-and-wife team who are the genre’s biggest stars. “They were writing our reality, they were writing about characters that looked like us, thought like us, that hustled the way that we did,” says Ashley, 30. “Before that I was reading about blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls — I had never read about girls who thought like I did or grew up in the circumstances that I did.”
The pair grew up in Flint, Michigan, the Rust Belt town north of Detroit whose crime rate has exploded in the decades since globalisation decimated the auto industry. They met in 2001 when JaQuavis, then 16 and with the police in hot pursuit, threw a “quarter-brick” — or nine ounces — of cocaine into the bushes of 15-year-old Ashley’s back garden. She grabbed the stash before the police circled back to scoop it. They’ve been together ever since.
The pair had their first date at a bookstore and quickly moved in together. In 2002, Ashley had to terminate an ectopic pregnancy and afterwards suffered from depression. To cheer her up, JaQuavis tapped into their mutual love of reading, challenging her to a writing contest.
They decided to combine their stories, emerging two weeks later with a novel. She was 17; he a year older. The result was Dirty Money, which opens with a scene based on the couple’s own street version of a romcom meet cute. It was published in 2005 by Urban Books, an outfit founded by Carl Weber, best-selling author of Up to no Good, Something on the Side and Baby Momma Drama. “I sold crack cocaine . . . I’ve been selling drugs since I was about nine years old, and the day I stopped was the day we got our first publishing cheque,” says JaQuavis with something of the entrepreneurial swagger that permeates the genre.
“I understood that we gonna make this our hustle — this is the new selling drugs,” says JaQuavis. “They give you a contract and say we’re going to give you X amount of dollars for X amount of books, so it was simple math: if we want this amount of money we have to write this amount of books.”
The Colemans have since published more than 50 titles — either together, as Ashley & JaQuavis, or individually. They, too, sold their early books out of the back of a car but since have sold more than 2m books and regularly feature on the New York Times bestseller list. Ashley says what separates them from “anyone, not just in black fiction but in fiction — period — is our grind and our work ethic”.
They have each written 5,000 words roughly 335-days-a-year for the past 10 years. They meticulously outline every plot point before they begin writing, and then alternate writing chapters until it is done. They usually finish a book in just two or three weeks.
The result, says Ashley, is that when you pick up a book by the Colemans — Murder Mamas, Moving Weight, the (so far) six-part Cartel series or Luxe, Ashley’s first book on a recently inked deal with St Martin’s — it will be “the best thing that you have ever read in your life”. “We’re not even where we want to be yet,” says JaQuavis. “We want to be considered not the best African-American writers in the country; we want to be respected as two of the best writers of all time.”
JaQuavis describes the appeal of street lit using the vernacular of his old profession: “You’re getting it pure in our books — it’s never stepped on. We keep it real — you never get a brick in our book that costs $40k because that’s not what it costs on the streets,” he says. “We know what we’re talking about, we know the consequences of some actions; we know how you approach a drug sale or a murder or grieving, because we’ve seen it.”
Keeping it true to their experience means, however, that their books must change. They have swapped the streets for a comfortable life in suburban Detroit. “When we’re 40 years old we’ll be writing about something else, maybe we’ll have a line of business books. But at 29, 30, we write about that street shit.”
Foye, who is older than the Colemans, has already moved on. Like them, his major titles — such as Animal IV: Last Rites, which street vendors in Harlem eagerly asked after when I accompanied him on a recent visit — cause a stir on the street. But he has also begun writing dark fantasy novels under a pseudonym. “Marketing K’Wan as a fantasy writer just is not going to work, so I had to rebrand myself as a Caucasian writer,” he says.
He prefers to think of himself as a crime writer rather than a street-lit author. The term “street lit” can bring to mind, Foye says, “poorly packaged books . . . that aren’t edited.” He worries it limits his audience. It also suffers from the criticism that it glorifies violence and devalues the lives of its — mainly black — readers. It is the same criticism that has frequently been levelled against hip-hop.
Keenan Norris, who edited the 2013 scholarly anthology Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape, says the books function as both an escape from and a chronicle of the poverty, violence and despair that characterise inner-city life. “I don’t think you’ll find another genre of literature outside of academia that deals so extensively with the prison industrial complex; with the lived experience of mass incarceration; with the impact of the drug laws that came out of the 1980s; mandatory minimum sentencing; the disparity between crack and powder cocaine convictions.”
In Foye’s Gangsta, the female love interest, Satin, explicitly addresses the concept of gang culture: “Young blacks and Latinos killing each other over bullshit, colours and property that neither side owned.” The protagonist, Lou-Loc, tells a white woman he has just saved from a gang: “What I did was for those kids . . . There are enough of my li’l brothers behind the wall as it is over some dumb shit and they would’ve been four more, so save your thanks.”
Justin Gifford, a University of Nevada-Reno professor whose recent biography of Iceberg Slim, Street Poison, was published by Doubleday, says that critics miss the point. The lurid packaging belies the grim fate that awaits many of the hustlers and roughnecks within. Slim’s “message is clear throughout . . . I’m telling you about the terrible things [I did], and the only way this ends is in the penitentiary, death or drug addiction,” he says. The latest crop of authors are “not glorifying that violence or lifestyle, they’re trying to warn you. Now the actual literary product will give you the nitty-gritty details, from which some readers will get a vicarious thrill. This is the thing about most literature — it can be didactic but the content itself may be sensational. This is literature going back to St Augustine’s Confessions — these are all the terrible things I’ve done and these are the consequences.”
Back at Frederick Douglass, Foye is sitting in the courtyard. The housing project was named after a slave who taught himself to read in secret at a time when to do so was illegal. The slave went on to escape and write one of the era’s defining pieces of literature. “Most of that criticism [of our work] comes from people who never lived in the inner city — this is what we see out the window. Why should our creativity be stifled because we come from a place that’s not so nice?
“There was a time when we were hung, shot or beaten for trying to read, let alone write,” he says, pulling on a cigarette. “So to get to where we have African-American writers who are writing about black life and making money . . .”
He leaves the thought hanging there, and exhales deeply.
Neil Munshi is an FT reporter based in Chicago
Photographs: Martine Fougeron; John Ricard