The first literary and cultural history of African American crime literature, unveiling the untold story of black pulp publishing since the Civil Rights era

Pimping Fictions

African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing

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Justin Gifford

A title in the American Literatures Initiative.

"Pimping Fictions deftly shows the scholarly significance of the early ‘street lit’ authors by decoding their profound artistry while giving insight to the culture that gave it birth."

"Lush sex and stark violence colored Black and served up raw by a great Negro writer," promised the cover of Run Man Run, Chester Himes' pioneering novel in the black crime fiction tradition. In Pimping Fictions, Justin Gifford provides a hard-boiled investigation of hundreds of pulpy paperbacks written by Himes, Donald Goines, and Iceberg Slim (a.k.a. Robert Beck), among many others.

Gifford draws from an impressive array of archival materials to provide a first-of-its-kind literary and cultural history of this distinctive genre. He evaluates the artistic and symbolic representations of pimps, sex-workers, drug dealers, and political revolutionaries in African American crime literature—characters looking to escape the racial containment of prisons and the ghetto.

Gifford also explores the struggles of these black writers in the literary marketplace, from the era of white-owned publishing houses like Holloway House—that fed books and magazines like Players to eager black readers—to the contemporary crop of African American women writers reclaiming the genre as their own.



Read the Introduction (pdf).



"Gifford’s groundbreaking study of the 'art and business of black crime literature' is ingenious in its embrace of elements of street literature from historical and literary perspectives along with the culture of the writers who produce it, the commercial enterprises that publish it, and the 'white-controlled spaces' they occupy and must negotiate.... In exploring how these writers, little noticed by academia or mainstream media, negotiate the connection between white-controlled spaces in urban centers, prisons, and publishing, Gifford makes a persuasive case for their importance."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"An important book on a little studied subject, Pimping Fictions brings sharp critical attention to the tradition of African-American literary expression inspired by Iceberg Slim. As the first major scholarly consideration of the literature of pimping and hustling, Gifford's book offers both a valuable account of the marketing and publishing factors behind the growth of a new popular genre and keen critical insight into the artistry and innovation that the literature's authors brought to its conventions."
Sean McCann, Wesleyan University

"Gifford aims to inject greater awareness of black crime fiction into the history of African American cultural production, and his analyses of Chester Himes, Robert Beck, Donald Goines, and Players magazine fulfill that ambition. His book clarifies this popular yet understudied topic.... Summing Up: Recommended."

"Gifford is particularly interested in characters such as pimps, sex workers, drug dealers, hustlers, and criminals as representations of African American resistance to American establishment as well as the harsh living reality of street corners, prisons, and the urban environment. Gifford is equally interested in the role of the publishing industry.... One of the book's strengths exists in touching upon the formation of African-American identities in the late twentieth century. Although Gifford's main focus is in pulp fiction, he also argues that publishing was an effective way to establish African-American culture and identity within the US.... Pimping Fiction is easy to read. While the book can be adopted as an introductory text for understanding a particular African-American writing genre, it can also serve as an extensive case study of a genre contextualized within a specific American and African-American time period and political context."
Journal of American Culture

"Drawing on an expansive archive of pulp paperbacks, prison novels, autobiographies and interviews, this timely study positions black crime fiction within a rich literary and cultural history of black pulp publishing over the past 50 years.... Gifford offers a compelling argument for the significance of black crime fiction as a literary and political response to white-sponsored methods of containment fostered by urban renewal policies, federal housing authorities and mass incarceration, whilst at the same time highlighting the deeply contested position of black pulp writers within the literary marketplace."
Journal of Popular Culture

"Pimping Fictions certainly jump-starts the conversation about why scholars should pay more attention to commercial black fiction, and by extension, the reading preferences of the black masses."
Resources for American Literary Study

"Justin Gifford's new monograph is impressive. He writes about a genre that historically has been both popular and met with strong critical condemnation. While acknowledging the reasoning for the latter, Gifford argues for understanding well why black crime (i.e., pulp) fiction has had and maintains a robust mass readership.... That dialogue is important for recognizing frankly the complicated legacies of our national past and present. For all the ways that forging a coherent cultural community over time has worked to give succor and strength to blacks in America... Gifford argues compellingly for giving critical consideration to black pulp fiction as a complex literary resource for understanding the complexity of racism and its lingering influences in the United States."
Clues: A Journal of Detection



1. “He Jerked His Pistol Free and Fired It at the Pavement”: Chester Himes and the Transformation of American Crime Literature
2. Pimping Fictions: Iceberg Slim and the Invention of Pimp Literature
3. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Donald Goines, Holloway House Publishing Company, and the Radicalization of Black Crime Literature
4. Black in a White Paradise: Utopias and Imagined Solutions in Black Crime Literature
5. “For He Who Is”: Players Magazine and the Reimagining of the American Pimp
6. The Women of Street Literature: Contemporary Black Crime Fiction and the Rise of the Self-Publishing Marketplace


About the Author(s)

Justin Gifford is Associate Professor in English, and he holds the Jean Sanford Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Subject Categories

African American Studies
Literature and Drama
American Studies



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