The OF Blog: M. John Harrison on Urban Fantasy

Sunday, March 22, 2009

M. John Harrison on Urban Fantasy

I was browsing through MJH's blog just now when I saw an interesting entry from March 14:

Urban fantasy: the domestication of a few images & behavioural tics which were barely unacceptable in the first place. It was a frisson obtained not so much by glamourising or romanticising the disordered (though it did both) as by denying or correcting the trait paradigms of some common dysfunctional behaviours. It cleaned up what it claimed to be representing & always drew its conclusions from a safe space outside dysfunctionality. A normative manouevre, defining a “good” dysfunctionality (he’s an anorexic self-harming killer elf but he’s our anorexic self-harming killer elf), urban fantasy was often described as having an edge. As a result, by the late 80s, “edgy” had become the publishing synonym for “young adult”. Later, even in publishing, it came to have the same meaning as “bland”.
There have been quite a few discussions of this mutated "urban fantasy" lately, but this one sums up much of my own unease with it. I don't care too much for tame representations of the dangerous. MJH doesn't quite come out and say it, but "sell out" has been used to represent this muting, emasculating, taming of the wild, unsettled, dangerous elements, all in the name of making it palatable and thus marketable for those, like Michael Palin's timid accountant character in a Monty Python sketch who wanted to be a lion tamer, just so they could have a "little bit of danger" (but never too much!) in their lives.

Dangerous/unacceptable>toned-down "edgy">ubiquitous>bland>ripe for mockery

I think we're fast approaching the "ripe for mockery" stage, at least in regards to the cover art. Thoughts?

19 comments:

vacuouswastrel said...

Judging by the quote, I'd be more immediately concerned about M. John Harrison's prose approaching the 'ripe for mockery' horizon - and that's coming from a philosophy student.

But I imagine that you've had that argument before, so I'll leave off.

E. L. Fay said...

"I think we're fast approaching the 'ripe for mockery' stage, at least in regards to the cover art."

Oh, I agree totally. But to be fair, I'm told that most authors themselves have no control over their cover art. It's the publishing company determining what will sell the most books. And some authors who may not even be writing urban fantasy per se may be saddled with it just for marketing purposes.

"I don't care too much for tame representations of the dangerous."

I think Stephenie Meyer's godawful Twilight series is far more guilty of that than any urban fantasy novel. Her "sparklypires" have probably ruined vampires for the next one hundred years.

Larry said...

VW,

Yeah, I've had a few rounds with people over that in years past. However, re-reading MJH's fiction (and being familiar with many of his reviews) reminds me that not only do people have differing tastes, but sometimes it takes is a willingness to consider another's point of view. Something that unfortunately isn't a strong suit of internet affairs at times.

E.L.,

Good point about authorial control over the cover art. However, one might argue that the type of story they are telling risks becoming a bland stereotype if so many of the same elements are used in similar fashions. Of course, I'm always going to leave the caveat of not being very versed in this subgenre, in part because the motifs don't interest me at all.

Anonymous said...

"I think we're fast approaching the 'ripe for mockery' stage, at least in regards to the cover art."

And this is different from epic fantasy in the 80's, or cyberpunk, or [list any genre that was popular here]?

This is nothing new. Subgenres become "hot". People snatch them up like crazy. People buy them like crazy. All the covers look alike so it's easier for someone to buy them.

Sellout? Sellout my ass. It's no more of a sellout fiction than any other genre.

PS- MJH is overrated

RobB said...

>>I think we're fast approaching the "ripe for mockery" stage, at least in regards to the cover art. Thoughts?<<

Didn't we zoom past that about a year ago?

Andrew Wheeler said...

Harrison seems to greatly misunderstand what a genre is and what it does. That "blandness" -- the tendency of all members of the set to be quite similar to each other -- is the point.

He is, of course, free to sneer at whatever he wishes, but it seems odd to sneer at something for being what it so obviously was meant to be. Regency romances are all much like each other, as are epic fantasies, as are urban fantasies.

Several of his other points that were comprehensible to me seemed quite wrong -- which may just mean that I was mistaken about their comprehensibility.

Larry said...

Anon,

When I used "sell out," I was referring to the commodification/marketing of "dangerous" elements. I see it as being little different than say, sagging or wearing hoodies indoors. When I see 5'4, 120 lbs. soaking wet people doing it, it's not a sign of something "dangerous," but rather the copycat stage has become so endemic that it's become a mockery of itself.

Rob,

Probably :P


Andrew,

I thought his point dealt more with the "taming" of the "dangerous," similar to using urban street dress/codes to sell a product, making it more palatable or less scary. I could be mistaken, however.

Anonymous said...

"I thought his point dealt more with the "taming" of the "dangerous," similar to using urban street dress/codes to sell a product, making it more palatable or less scary. I could be mistaken, however."

And how, may ask, is the act of reading dangerous in any way shape or form? How is reading his book Light any more dangerous than reading the third book in the Mercy Thompson series?

Actually, I would say the third Mercy Thompson book is MORE DANGEROUS by many means than his book, Light. Going by emotional danger, that is.

MattD said...

Larry, I am curious (following up on the previous Anonymous comment) as to what you consider "dangerous" in fiction: what are some of the recent stories you've read that you consider dangerous? (To you, if not necessarily to others.)

Larry said...

Anon, Matt,

The "dangerous" I was referring to above was that of outlaws, supernatural legends like werewolves and vampires and how in the current urban fantasy style, those have been neutered for the most part, becoming little more than "bad boys" and not always that "bad" at all.

Matt,

If I had to define a more generic "dangerous" for fiction, it would be something that threatens the reader's preconceptions. It wouldn't be a character or archetype.

The Witchfinder said...

The danger element he's referring to - or rather, the lack there-of - is exactly what kept me from ever progressing past the third Anne Rice book in the Vampire Chronicles series. It is all to harmless and soft.

If this is a trend that has carried on in newer "urban fantasy" (I personally wouldn't touch that kettle with a six foot pole; life is simply too short to read about angry women with magically enhanced powers deciding whether to screw the vampire or the werewolf or both (righteous feminism!)), then I agree utterly.

Oh, and please, no need to deride me on my shallow and unenlightened view on the genre; I am aware.

Larry said...

Good point about the Anne Rice. The little bit I've gathered about the Lestat stories from movie clips and reviews has put me off from reading those for likely the rest of my life.

And who's deriding whom here? Didn't know any of us were really doing that, so I'm a bit confused by your final statement.

The Witchfinder said...

It was intended as pre-emptive. I know how defensive people can get when it comes to their favourite genres. I know I can be! ;)

Liviu said...

MJH is one of very few writers whose opinions about other books/trends I read - not that I agree necessarily, just that he is always interesting since he does not care about "popularity"

Most writers' opinions about other books or their advice about writing are either vacuous or "polite" to put it euphemistically and for good reason if you notice the latest Adam Roberts - Greg Egan dispute regarding a Strange Horizon review of Incandescence, which is neither the first, nor most likely the last such.

Career-wise, writers usually need to be "liked" - there are exceptions as we all know, when a bad boy attitude helps sales, but usually you need to be at a Terry Goodkind sales level for that and the "average" author just cannot afford a reputation of being unlikable -

And MJH does not end his criticism of whatever (world building, urban fantasy) with "I am *** and I wrote the adult masterpiece of the genre I previously criticized" which is a big plus too...

Thomas said...

I think Harrison's making too fine a distinction between "glamorizing the disordered" and making them safe (or safe for the reader at least). I think making them safe is just one part of romanticizing them. Maybe it's a lack of familiarity with urban fantasy on my part, but I can't think of a series that romanticizes monsters without watering down their more predatory aspects.

Larry said...

Liviu,

Good points. It's baffling seeing those who claim Harrison has been "arrogant" or whatnot. From my very limited exposure, he always has seemed to be a polite and friendly person, albeit one who's willing to kick the shit around a bit to get things going. Considering I'm much the same way, perhaps that explains why I like his posts? :P

Thomas,

I agree to a point, but I'm left thinking that if "monsters" are romanticized (or made more "tame"), then are they "monsters" anymore?

Anonymous said...

"Maybe it's a lack of familiarity with urban fantasy on my part, but I can't think of a series that romanticizes monsters without watering down their more predatory aspects."

You should read Charliene Harris's books (or watch True Blood)- the vampires aren't made normal (although some of them try), they all regain the air of violence to them and you have a feeling that they're not safe. Even though they drink synthetic blood, you have a feeling that it's a lie, and that they're murdering people constnatly.

Also, you should read Patricia Brigg's Mercy Thompson books- def not watered down. You may think at first they are, but the more the books move on the more dangerous they become...the writer doesn't pull any punches tho, and the third book does involve a scene that makes most people stop reading the series all together.

Although I have to disagree with his assumption of Urban Fantasy = Young Adult. Right now Twilight is all the rage, but people have to remember that there is a huge Urban Fantasy market that has nothing to do with Young Adult what so ever.

E. L. Fay said...

Larry, you really should give Anne Rice a try. There really is quite a bit of danger element there - in Interview with the Vampire, for instance, Lestat is portrayed as a real sadist. A lot of what Rice's books deal with is the moral and spiritual implications of being an undead creature who must feed off the living. For example, the tragic character of Claudia in Interview, who was made into a vampire as a child, can never physically age and is therefore a grown woman trapped eternally in a little girl's body.

Anne Rice has a great essay on her website that you might be interested in. It's about the history of the "dark fiction" in Western literature, which, she says, follows the Aristotlian formula for great drama: "dark fiction" (i.e. Dante, Milton, Melville, Hawthorne) takes the reader on an emotional journey that they would never have been able to experience on their own. They suffer alongside the protagonist and eventually experience a transformation, or affirmation. Rice suggests that her own works are a part of this tradition. "All [my] novels involve a strong moral compass. Evil is never glorified in these books; on the contrary, the continuing battle against evil is the subject of the work. The search for the good is the subject of the work."

Now in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, by contrast, the vampires are nothing but a bunch of Mary Sues. They're gorgeous, fashionable, can subsist comfortably off animal blood (Rice's vampires try this but fail - they need human blood), and, oh yeah, they sparkle. Bella wants to be a vampire solely so she can be with her Edward forever. There is very little discussion of what this means morally, spiritually, and psychologically. She'll be eternally young, beautiful, and in love and that's it. Meyer tries to make Edward "dangerous" but he's really just an angsty 100-year-old virgin. What the hell is he still doing in high school?

Anonymous said...

"You should read Charliene Harris's books (or watch True Blood)- the vampires aren't made normal (although some of them try), they all regain the air of violence to them and you have a feeling that they're not safe. Even though they drink synthetic blood, you have a feeling that it's a lie, and that they're murdering people constnatly."

I've seen True Blood, and I tend to think Bill's a perfect example of "correcting the trait paradigms of some common dysfunctional behaviours" by creating a "good dysfunctionality." He's a dangerous vampire, but he's Our Heroine's dangerous vampire, and relatively tame around her. And though, yes, there are hints synthetic blood doesn't work, vampires still don't need to kill you to feed off you, which is already making them safer than their traditional counterparts by ignoring the fact that drinking blood is basically a symbol for stealing human life to sustain their own. However, the books may be different, and I'm not familiar with Briggs, so I won't press the point too far.

 
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