The Best Urban Fiction Books to Explore

Delve into this gritty genre.


The concept of urban fiction is one with a long and tangled literary history. The basic definition is that of works set in city landscapes, but that has grown over the decades to encompass so much more.

What are urban fiction books?

Urban fiction is often dark, focused on socio-economic difficulties and marginalized communities, and candid about topics such as poverty, sex, violence, and race. Encompassing everything from Dickens to Tupac, urban fiction is dense and varied and never less than fascinating.

Here are eight novels in the urban fiction genre you should read now.

zipper mouth, an urban fiction book

Zipper Mouth

By Laurie Weeks

Long before she became a celebrated novelist, Laurie Weeks was best known for writing the screenplay of the Oscar-winning queer classic Boys Don't Cry, a retelling of the murder of trans man Brandon Teena. 

Her literary debut Zipper Mouth won her a Lambda Award for debut lesbian fiction as well as the praise of icons like Eileen Myles. The nameless protagonist deals with myriad drug addictions, including heroin, her obsession with her straight best friend, and her increasing mental instability. 

She writes ranting letters to the late Sylvia Plath, gets wasted in nightclubs, and falls into junkie life with a mixture of shame and chaos. A life of debauchery on the streets of New York soon begins to lose its thrall but getting out of the hole she’s dug for herself is a much tougher task.

amerikkkan justus, an urbna fiction book

AmeriKKKan JustUS

By DeLena Slayton

AmeriKKKan JustUS is the story of a young Black man’s journey through the legal courts and its endless prejudices. Rilei has lived a sheltered life that has left him unprepared for the realities of life on the streets of Akron, Ohio. 

One mistake leads him into the labyrinth of the so-called justice system, which he quickly discovers is heavily rigged against people like him. Is there a way to beat the system, and for Rilei to tell his story without being judged by those who have deemed him to be guilty since birth?

hide fox, and all after, an urban fiction book

Hide Fox, and All After

By Rafael Yglesias

For decades, Rafael Yglesias has written works of dense psychological realism. Hide Fox, And All After is an autobiographical novel that was completed on the author's 16th birthday. 

It documents the life of teenager Raul Sabas as he tries to find his own way in life after dropping out of a prestigious Manhattan private school. It's 1969 and the tumultuous decade is coming to a close, but leaving behind a divided America that Raul must navigate without losing his sense of self.

last exit to brooklyn, an urban fiction book

Last Exit to Brooklyn

By Hubert Selby Jr.

Over the course of his long and controversial career, Hubert Selby Jr. was prosecuted for obscenity in the United Kingdom and banned in Italy, inspired the likes of Morrissey and David Bowie, and influenced multiple generations of writers. 

His Beat-inspired work delved into the seedy realities of the lower classes, including sex workers, drug addicts, the homeless, and queer folks. Last Exit to Brooklyn helped to define an era of American fiction when it was first published in 1964 thanks to its uncompromising portrayal of Brooklyn's underworld and frank depictions of rape, drug use, domestic violence, and queerphobia. It's a book that has lost none of its potency over the following 60 years.

fourth street east, an urban fiction book

Fourth Street East

By Jerome Weidman

Jerome Weidman was a Manhattan-born writer and playwright who won a Pulitzer prize for the political musical Fiorello! His work focused on life in New York for those who were stuck at the bottom of the ladder and had little hope of climbing upwards. 

Fourth Street East chronicles the coming-of-age of Benny Kramer, the child of immigrants growing up on New York's Lower East Side in-between the two world wars. His life is chaotic and defined by the endless goings-on of the neighborhood he calls home, from dramas involving the mob to shocking murders to the terror of the Great Depression.

at-risk, an urban fiction book


By Amina Gautier

Amina Gautier, Ph.D. is a Professor of English at the University of Miami and the author of three award-winning short story collections. At-Risk won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and also received an Eric Hoffer Legacy Award and a First Horizon Award. 

This collection of short stories explores the lives of young African Americans in Brooklyn who are classified as "at-risk" individuals, be it for reasons of poverty, violence, drugs, or otherwise. Gautier digs into the quieter moments of their lives, from a teen spending summer with his grandfather to a scholarship girl at a posh Manhattan school teaching her classmates how to dance.


The Coldest Winter Ever

By Sister Souljah

Author and activist Sister Souljah may be best known to some as a featured guest artist with the legendary hip-hop group Public Enemy, but she's also a celebrated novelist with multiple best-selling titles to her name. Her second book, 1999's The Coldest Winter Ever, was one of the best-selling novels of that year. 

Winter Santiaga is the adolescent daughter of a notorious Brooklyn drug-lord, which has made her infamous in her neighborhood. After her dad is arrested for drug trafficking, Winter is sent to a girls' home and forced to learn the skills to survive without her familial clout. She decides to follow in her father's footsteps and sell illicit items in the girls’ home to make money. But there are perils to be found in repeating the mistakes of the past.

push by sapphire, one of the most banned books


By Sapphire

Writer and poet Sapphire's debut novel Push was an instant phenomenon upon publication in 1996 and inspired a firestorm of controversy. To this day, it's still a frequently banned and challenged book in American schools and libraries. It also inspired an Oscar-winning film, Precious

Sixteen-year-old Claireece Precious Jones is an illiterate teenage girl who is pregnant with her second child following sexual abuse by her father. She is sent to an alternative school where the students are given the freedom to find their own voices. For Precious, it's a race against time to find peace and stability in her life for her future child, all while her abusive mother berates her and all hope seems lost.