The OF Blog: A roundtable discussion of "urban fantasy"

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A roundtable discussion of "urban fantasy"

Grasping for the Wind has a roundup of a few blogger trying to discuss the rise of "urban fantasy." While some of their points are pertinent to the questions asked in the introduction, I couldn't help but to notice that virtually all of their definitions of "urban fantasy" indicated a conflation of identification with "paranormal romance," which naturally is what was discussed in so many of the responses.

Can't help but to think that "urban fantasy" is a bit more complex than that and Neth is the one who seems to address that. There is, obviously, much more to a subgenre's popularity than "just a bunch of female readers gobbling up that shit," to paraphrase the attitude of some towards anything that might hint of "urban fantasy" (or to be more precise, paranormal romances). Cultural attitudes and recent historical events are obviously going to shape buyer/reader attitudes and I think he addresses that quite well.

Perhaps others here have an opinion on that discussion and on what "urban fantasy" means to you?


Kristen said...

I also noticed that most of the responses in that discussion seemed to equate "urban fantasy" with "paranormal romance." It doesn't seem to just be an isolated instance, either - lots of references to urban fantasy I have seen lately seem to really be about paranormal romance. As you said, urban fantasy is not necessarily about vampire/werwolf/were-whatever love triangles/quadrangles/whatever-angles - even if that's the type of urban fantasy that happens to be trendy at the moment.

Aidan Moher said...

I think one thing to consider, Larry, is that the majority of the Urban Fantasy that is selling is the Paranormal Romance junk that the women (and Graeme, who reads a disturbingly large amount of it, for a dude) are gobbling up, so naturally a discussion of the sub-genre is going to bend that way.

This is especially true when talking about market trends and the reactions of the major publishers.

Of course there's a lot more that can be discussed when it comes to Urban Fantasy and all of it's various sub-genres, but with regards to John's question, I don't think it was off base that most of us spoke about the paranormal romance that's dominated the sub-genre at the moment.

A Dribble of Ink

Larry Nolen said...

Aidan, I think you missed the point behind me putting "urban fantasy" in quotation marks. I've been quite aware of the term for years now and even more than secondary world/epic fantasy, it is a bloated, big umbrella-type moniker that has become little more than a throw-away term.

Paranormal Romance has evolved into a distinct subgenre in recent years and in many stores is shelved as such, separate from other books in the SF/F sections of bookstores. It is "urban" in a few senses of the word, yes, but so is New Weird fiction, so are the types of books that Charles de Lint, Kathy Sedia, and others have written over the years. Speaking of Sedia, I asked her that very question back in January in an interview here and her response is worth reading.

The thing is, if one doesn't define the term being used, one risks distorting the subject being discussed and I believe that was the case in the discussion, since for the most part, the other branches of "urban fantasy" were not noted at all. If you all want to talk about Paranormal Romance, then talk about the rise/influence of Paranormal Romance, but don't just use "urban fantasy" as the moniker, since that term is fading out of use in various spec fic circles.

Aidan Moher said...


If starting a blog did one thing for me, it was instilling within me a great disdain for the labels we all try to thrust upon novels.

I'm actually replying to some of the comments on my blog regarding my oversaturation of fantasy, and discuss the idea that urban fantasy is so much more than just contemporary novels full of detectives and werewolf sex.

It's worth checking out.

A Dribble of Ink

Anonymous said...

I don't have time to read all that discussion, but if you asked me about urban fantasy Anita Blake would be the last thing on my mind (maybe because I found the books extremely boring, maybe not...) Charles de Lint is urban fantasy and it rocks. The world with a bit of magic... and no werewolves :)

Larry Nolen said...

I'll be sure to read that article soon after it's up, Aidan, since I do check out your blog and a few others at least once daily, even when swamped with work.


de Lint is the first that comes to mind as well. His The Onion Girl is still one of the few novels that causes me to feel a great sorrow when I merely think about it, because of a very close female friend of mine who had a very similar traumatic experience growing up that Jilly had.

Joe said...

Funny enough, when I think of "urban fantasy" I don't think of "paranormal romance". I think of works like Perdido Street Station and American Gods, I think of The Light Ages and The Dresden Files(haven't read, but I think of it).

I think of novels that get into the dirty parts of cities which just happen to contain a fantasy element.

Paranormal Romances, to me, are essentially romance novels which happen to feature something supernatural / paranormal.

Different animal all together. No pun intended.

Yeah, they are fantasies set in an urban environment, but by that definition, so is The Lies of Locke Lamora.

Aidan: Calling the Paranormal Romances junk that women (and Graeme) buy pretty much allows those same women to call epic fantasy that sword-swinging shit that men buy. It's dismissive of the sub-genre without really looking at what is good there. If you don't like Terry Goodkind, Robert Newcombe or Elizabeth Haydon and don't feel that they represent epic fantasy well despite selling a lot of books, well, I'm sure some of the paranormal romance readers will be happy to point out shit on their side that sells better than the good stuff.

It's easy to be dismissive of the stuff we don't like because then we never delve in to find the good stuff. And that's fine, but it's worth being aware of.

Larry Nolen said...

Joe, I'd add Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris stories to the mix, as that city is one of the oddest but most intriguing urban land/dreamscapes I've read, with possibly MJH's Viriconium novels giving it any real competition in that regard.

John Ottinger III (Grasping for the Wind) said...

Well, let me apologize for being too nebulous in my question. When I wrote the question, I was thinking more about paranormal romance than urban fantasy, because that is where I see the rise. I'll be more careful next time, though I am glad the bloggers got what I was going for.

Still, don't dismiss the commentary just because the question was nebulous. Do you dismiss Michael Phelps answers to "softball" reporter questions? I think not.

Here's a question, what is good place to look for a generally accepted list of subgenres in SF?

Larry Nolen said...


I wasn't being "dismissive" of it; I was just disappointed there wasn't much of an exploration of the various "flavors" that fall under that umbrella term. And really, that's what it is, one that has been used as a catch-all by many for years.

As for "definitive" list of subgenres, you'd first have to find advocates for whatever subgenre might be in the processing of coalescing. Ironically, that's due to the lack of parameter defining consensus :P

John Ottinger III (Grasping for the Wind) said...

Thanks for clearing up your meaning. I got the "dismissive" feeling from your words, but your disappointment rings true.

Maybe we'll try this again in the future - with more directed questioning.

Larry Nolen said...

I remember having to write Likert Scale questions for a research methodology class and discovering time and time again that I had to refine the wording to make it more and more precise; it was quite frustrating, so I understand how you feel. No harm, right? :D

Joe said...

Larry: Ambergis is a great example.

John Ottinger III (Grasping for the Wind) said...

Nope, I take it as constructive criticism from a pro-teacher. I was one of those once, I should know better. :-)

Larry Nolen said...

I still need to plunk down the money for the limited-edition version of Shriek when I get paid in two weeks, as the extras are something else.

And John, if you could have seen the look on my face yesterday when I had just said the test the students were taking was an open book, open note exam and more than one person asked in the following five minutes if they could use their notes or book... :P

Neth said...

I was also a bit disappointed that the other answers really only concentrated on the parnormal romance with has come dominate 'urban fantasy' lately. As my answer indicated, I think it goes beyond that. It was actually a bit hard to write that response - I kept it short, but I was tempted to be really lengthy.

I must admit that much of my answer has roots in a response that Charlie Stross gave at a recent book signing I went to when he was addressing differences between British SF and American SF.

Fish Monkey said...

I railed against the artificial narrowing of the very diverse and very intetresting genre in many venues and blog comments, but let me just mention that the De Lint school of urban fantasy vs paranormal possibly originates from where the writers are coming from. It seems to me that quite a few modern urban fantasists of vampire/werewolf variety started as romance writers or at least readers, and frequently are not aware of the F/SF end of it -- Windling and De Lint and so on. Here's an example:
(My comment is the last one.)

So the genre is really composed of two halves artificially lashed together by a label, and one is more popular than another. Both produce quality works and not so quality, but the fact that romance readers buy a lot of books assures that the paranormal part is much more popular and it is beginning to represent the entire genre. I advocate separation.

Larry Nolen said...

I'm pretty much of the same opinion as you on the matter, Kathy, as I've found it harder and harder to find the urban fantasies I like to read, as the paranormal romances have taken up quite a bit of the publicity releases sent my way, not to mention in the bookstores.

Anonymous said...

Reading this with a clearer mind (I was damn sleepy the first time, hence the slightly incoherent comment) I am realizing I never even imagined people classify romance with a vampire/werewolf etc. as fantasy. For me those are romance novels with some fantasy thrown in, but definitely romance. I should try reading one to get a better idea of the thing... there's a big box with romance novels I sort-of-inherited in my basement and there's a couple with some vampirey-looking guys on the cover.

I did read a book of the related genre - romance SF - and... there's no other way to put it, it sucked immensely. Understandably, I'm not very keen to try again :P

This being said, I don't know where I'd place Anita Blake. I understand the latter volumes get more soft porn-ish, but the three I've read were just... action fantasy? Tough chick kicks ass and all that. I didn't see the *city* as an important part of the story, so why would it be urban fantasy? Now, you couldn't have de Lint's stories without Newford, could you? Or Mieville's without New Crobuzon... (although I admit I'm not a big fan of Mieville's).

I've not read Onion Girl yet, as I'm trying to go in publishing order and I only have the first 4 (available) books, but there's glimpses of Jilly's life in the short stories too. I'm sorry for your friend...

RobB said...

I talked about this on my blog back in February. What I may not have said there is this: when the Urban Fantasy label was thrown around, oh, maybe 3 to 5 years ago, I think a lot of what we meant was stuff like Charles de Lint, some of what Neil Gaiman was doing, some of what Emma Bull was doing. Stories with more of a mythic flavor that didn't quite mold to the detective story.

Now, the label is more encompassing and to me, it is used (correctly or incorrectly is up for debate) for anything that takes place in the "real" world with supernatural elements. Psychic Detectives. Wizard Detectives (Dresden). Mafia Sorceress (T.A. Pratt). Vampire Hunter (Anita Blake is only the tip of a ginormous ice berg). Mike Resnick's John Justin Mallory stories. Charlaine Harriss's Southern Vampire stories. Though I haven't read them, Glen Cook's Garrett P.I. series has been around long before most of these writers were selling these novels.

I think the explosion of writers and titles hasn't given the publishing world (or at least those who categorize these books) a chance to come up with anything better than what is now the jobber title of Urban Fantasy. This stuff is just selling and they want more of it. They being the readers and publishers, of course.

Then again, it really is only folks like us who natter on about the labels and what not.

Matt said...

It's a little frustrating that very little of the responses seem to actually be engaging with the themes of the works, beyond "It's got vampires/werewolves/hot makeouts/cities!"

I would venture to suggest a Urban Fantasy, as a very broad categorical reanalysis of many, many things written in the last decade or so, might be a response to High Fantasy's difficulties approaching urbanisation, modern work roles, postmodern pastiche/play/etc. That doesn't neccessarily mean a rejection of secondary worlds, complex worldbuilding - I'd argue that many of these actually are actually present in Urban Fantasy. Try reading LKH's later work, where it starts to disappear under a tidal wave of preternatural categories. Or New Weird-style Vandermeer, Melville, and so on, which are very much secondary-world.

Urban Fantasy seems attractive, to me, because it approaches ideas and spaces that aren't typically available to fantastic work. That was why Melville wrote Peridio St Station, for instance. If you 'hate labels', try to think of them of ways of understanding books, rather than pigeonholing them, it's a little more productive.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure some of the paranormal romance readers will be happy to point out shit on their side that sells better than the good stuff.

If anyone does know what the good stuff in there is, by the way, I'd be really interested to know.

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