The OF Blog: On Tripe, Ho's, Skanks, Feys, Rants, and Other Stuff

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On Tripe, Ho's, Skanks, Feys, Rants, and Other Stuff

So Lilith Saintcrow has kicked the hornet's nest with this guest article. Spent much of the past few hours trying to organize all my immediate reactions into a coherent narrative response (and likely failing in places). After all, part of me is inclined to nod my head in agreement, while another part found much with which to disagree.

Let's start with the premise. Setting aside the fact that Saintcrow is in full rant mode (which will tend to lead to appeals to emotion, exaggerations of both good and bad qualities, and so forth), there were a few weaknesses to her argument that I think needs to be pointed out:

What defines urban fantasy?

That's simple, you might say. Chicks kicking ass. Well, leather-clad chicks kicking ass. Leather-clad chicks kicking ass in an urban environment where some form of "magic" is part of the world. There. That’s about it.

But that's not all there is to it.

Urban fantasy, they tell me, is "hot" right now. Paranormal romance (vampire/werewolf/something girl meets vampire/werewolf/something guy, wackiness or danger ensues, happy ending happens) is just as hot, but the "romance" tag keeps it from being literature. The "fantasy" tag keeps urban fantasy from being classified as Serious Literature as well.

It reminds me of Tom's Glossary of Book Publishing, where LITERATURE is "Designation applied to titles judged unsaleable", and MAINSTREAM FICTION is "The pretense that there is a group of readers who can be reached through writing that is sufficiently unspecific as to exclude no one". There's just one thing lacking from this set of definitions--the fact that Literature and Mainstream Fiction are seen as highbrow.

They're genres you don't have to act ashamed of writing in. But romance or urban fantasy? You might as well start embroidering your own scarlet letter, honey.

Paranormal romance is considered lowbrow and trashy because it's female. Despite the fact that it's a multibillion-dollar business (and every dollar a woman shells out for it costs more because let's face it, we earn a lot less), it's still that pink-jacketed crap for bored housewives. Tom Clancy is supposed to be Real and Hard-Hitting, even if his "novels" are thinly-veiled technical manuals. Nora Roberts is supposedly less Real because she writes about feeeeeeelings. While we could debate the relative merits of Clancy vs. La Nora all day--and not agree, mind you, because Roberts is just plain the better writer--the fact remains that Clancy has a better shot at being considered "serious" because his is MAN'S FICTION.

Smell that testosterone, baby.
So "urban fantasy" mostly involves female characters, mostly written by women for women? Where does this leave Charles de Lint, the New Weird writers, or others like Charlie Huston who like to use the City and its inherent thrills and kills to explore issues of identity, exploration, fear, self-discovery, etc.? (Saintcrow says she'll get to why they're excluded from her talk, but she never really returns to this, I believe.) It feels as though Saintcrow has co-opted the term "urban fantasy" (ever the vague term) for her own, specific issues (fiction perhaps similar to her own). Furthermore, her comments seem to tie this concept of "urban fantasy" to "paranormal romance" to a much tighter degree than perhaps is warranted. But I want to address something that is buried within this part (and made explicit further down her article) regarding the segregation of stories into male/female and how females are treated in each. But first, more Saintcrow:

Urban fantasy is mostly women's fiction too. (Yes, I know there are significant exceptions, like Jim Butcher, Simon Green, and Charles de Lint. We'll get to that.) There's a lot of crossover between paranormal romance and urban fantasy. I like to say that UF is PR without the HEA (that's Happily Ever After, for those just joining us.) Which touches on the thing I think separates urban fantasy from other genres, the reason why it's hot, and the reason why I think it's a direct heir to Raymond Chandler and Daishell Hammett, those masters of the gritty noir thriller.

Sure, UF is full of chicks in leather pants with big guns or special powers. But so is sci-fi or, say, some of the men's suspense series (Two words: Mack Bolan!) Leather pants and firepower do not an urban fantasy book make, but a lot of industry people have trouble defining that something-extra that makes a true UF title. Like Judge Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it--but what is it?

It's ambiguity, pure and simple.

What truly defines UF, and why the genre has exploded recently, is the moral and ethical ambiguity of its protagonists.

Urban fantasy is pretty much the only genre today exploring not only the ethics of power and consent, but also serious questions of violence and gender relations from a primarily female point of view. There are significant exceptions, to be sure--I mentioned them above; UF series with male protagonists. But the really huge bump in titles has been series and books with female protagonists, examining these questions from a female perspective.

In urban fantasy, the protagonist is dealing as best they can with a world where "good" is relative. Moral and ethical quandaries lurk under the surface, there are very few clear examples of pure unstained good. The lead character's talents and abilities either set her apart in or initiate her into a world where there is very little in the way of certainty. Friends and foes change places, and antihero isn't so much the order of the day as that old noir trope, the "decent person in an indecent world".
I'm skeptical of her argument regarding urban fantasy being the only genre exploring not just the ethics of power and consent, but that of violence and gender relations from a primarily female point of view. This is a rather bold, sweeping claim, one that in one dismissive motion denies the ability of several genres (perhaps not as much shelved fantasy as shelved SF and that darn pesky "literature" and "mainstream fiction" that Saintcrow mentions at the beginning of her essay) to explore these issues. In fact, I'm pretty much virtually bug-eyed right now at this claim, considering the wealth of feminist-influenced literature written by both males and females that populate the shelves of several parts of bookstores. I wonder what Ursula Le Guin would made of Saintcrow's argument? Or de Lint, since she mentions him in passing and yet fails to address the counterpoint to her claim above - couldn't a male write a sensitive, informed story that explores things from a female position as well as from a male? I just don't know if I buy her argument.

Part of what makes this so fascinating to me is the fact that female UF protagonists are almost without exception extraordinarily tough, and that violence is acceptable for them to use. This is a huge revolution in the type of stories our culture tells itself. Violence in our culture is a man's game. Women are supposed to be weaker and more passive--the recipients of violence or protection, instead of active agents dishing it out. In paranormal romance, nonviolent heroines--or heroines who follow gender norms more closely--is more the rule, but the exceptions are popping up like mushrooms after a week of rain in my backyard.

The responses of female protagonists to violence lies at the heart of the moral and ethical ambiguity that makes for good urban fantasy. Our culture is horrified at the idea of the Dark Feminine--the woman who demands for herself the right of violence and doesn't feel bad about it.

Or, if she feels bad, doesn't let it stop her from blowing away her enemy, whether in self-defense or because she is handing out justice. Who, let us not forget, is a woman too.

We have whole genres overwhelmingly dedicated to the male "right" of violence--military hard sci-fi, suspense, Westerns, the Executioner knockoffs and pretty much every damn movie made about a cop or an army man (or group of men, a dirty dozen) going outside the chain of command or the norms of behavior because their violence serves a higher cause of justice or protection for those same norms. Urban fantasy is the first such genre I can think of that adds another layer of tension by switching the gender of the protagonist, making it truly socially groundbreaking.

The simple move of violating our expectations by placing a woman in the position to dish out the hurt introduces a lot more gray into areas normally considered black and white. Questions like When is violence acceptable? or What is justice, and can it be administered personally? become questions with no right answer, questions we must re-examine.

It's not just in books we have this ambiguity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kill Bill, and Sympathy For Lady Vengeance all cover the same territory, with varying resolutions (including none) of the prime questions. These type of movies would be unthinkable a very short time ago. (Unless we're willing to press exploitative titillations that never made much money into service and call them groundbreaking as well. But I digress.)

Buffy, Beatrix Kiddo, and Lady Vengeance are all women with peculiar talents only brought out by the (culturally male) training for violence. The tension between their talents and training, their need to dish out justice (Buffy fights demons, Beatrix and Lady Vengeance are out for revenge against foes you can't help but understand the need to kill) and the sometimes-urges to be a "normal" female creates vast wellsprings of ambiguous tension.

I want to agree with her here, I really do. There has been a shift in how women have been portrayed, there have been writers, male and female alike, who've explored issues of violence using female characters in the active rather than the passive role. I love those stories, at least those that are well-written. But the problem I've encountered is that starting with the cover art, the "urban fantasies" of the sort that Saintcrow is discussing too often have resorted to their own stereotypes, as witnessed in this parody video:

Perhaps I'm speaking from a position of ignorance rather than knowledge, but I suspect that some of the problems that the "urban fantasies" face deal with their own now-clichéd approaches towards dealing with gender relations, specifically misogyny. Woman is "weak," so let's make her "strong." Female is "passive, always the victim," so let's make her a perpetrator of violence. Too often, however, from what I've read (and my reactions may be colored by the biological fact that I'm a male and the socio-cultural one of growing up physically strong, with the expectation of being the "head" of households, teams, etc. - not that I followed all this of course, but this is becoming too lengthy of an aside.), the "codes" embedded within the narratives don't click; too much of an imperfect inversion, not enough subversion of the cultural expectations. So Anita Blake is both a badass and someone who enjoys sex with whomever and whatever she feels a passing attraction? That is an interesting tension that many readers might have in trying to process their immediate reactions (if they bother to do so), but all too often, it is given short shrift by the authors themselves. Why not explore those tensions, delve deeper, and not settle for what appears to be little more than "male" arguments being warmed over and made by female protagonists?

That last question has haunted me for a while after reading the rest of her article (which continues in much the same vein as the first half that I quoted above). I believe Saintcrow attempts to address it, but she falls short with it, considering how she has constrained herself within the parameters of her argument. That being said, she does strike a nerve, as witnessed by a few of the early reactions to her article, both within the blog and elsewhere:

I also think there's a downside to the heroes or heroines of consistent moral ambiguity. It sort of wears on you after a while. A lot of internal monologue, a lot of whining, a lot of procrastinating. It's all very modern but ultimately, there are many times when you just want the character to get the job done and feel good about it rather than weep.
I don't see that changing the gender of the protagonist adds another layer of tension, as she seems to think. There is nothing inherently more interesting about being a female protagonist. The downside however is that the paranormal romance heroines are about ten times more unrealistic in what they do, partly because at the end of the day, they are still women and not men, and do not have the physical prowess and imagining them do the things the female authors of this subgenre have them do, takes even more suspension of disbelief. It's self-indulgent tripe. Wish fulfillment. Which is fine if you want to write that sort of stuff and you can actually find a market full of female buyers for it. After all, Harlequin sells loads of erotic romance books as well. But don't try to pass it off as anything more than that.
(PS) Another problem, most writers think 'complete, uninteresting bitch = strong female character'. A problem that eventually bit Buffy toward the end of its run and got Anita around book 7/8.
If anything, these comments quoted above highlight perhaps how despite her article's weaknesses, Saintcrow at least has a valid case to make that perhaps some of the negative bias towards urban fantasy/paranormal romances (not that I'm combining the two, mind you) comes more from sexist attitudes and expectations regarding the role of women (for another take, read this more cogently-written article by Tempest Bradford that generated a lot of discussion last week). It is a conversation that we sadly must still have today, because there obviously are still quite a few unspoken assumptions about "proper" roles for women and men in fiction that needed to be exposed and stamped out with all due haste. Otherwise, those derrogatory adjectives listed in this article's title will continue to be thought and said for quite a while longer.


Elena said...

I like your dissection of this piece. I've read a few urban fantasies as she defines the term (which I agree was a ridiculously narrow definition) and a few paranormal romances, and I have not read more than a few. As a woman who believes in strong female characters AND moral ambiguity, I find this type of book empty...a different take on the "man with tits" type of "strong female character" but in my opinion suited to that description all the same. Maybe I've just read the wrong ones (haven't read Saintcrow, for example).

I liked her point about the movies better. Let's note, however, that none of them were urban fantasy. I think, though, there is simply in general a cultural trend toward discussing the shifting nature of "right and wrong" as I think you've posted about before.

Eh. Interesting article, but I think she's very limited by her own POV

Mihai A. said...

Larry, I nominated you to Kreativ Blogger Award :)

Anonymous said...

It's worth pointing out that Lilith's use of "Urban Fantasy" is in line with what publishers and retailers would define the category as. De Lint, Mieville, Houston, et all are Urban Fantasy if you use the term as one of critical theory, but as a specific term for a publishing category (and, frankly, even as a genre) Lilith's take more accurately reflects the facts on the ground. It might have been better if publishers called it Buffy lit, but you can't change it now.

And it's hard to judge the category too harshly just becasue it follows market conventions - it's worth remembering that what we call Noir and Hardboiled fiction emerged from the market before it hit the cannon.

A lot of the tension readers have about UF can be chalked up to these marketing categories and strategies, and the writers of UF can't really blame readers for being turned off by those conventions. The challenge to UF writers who want to be read by an even wider audience is how to tweak those conventions so that they don't divide readers along gender lines. Kill Bill and True Blood seem to do it, Anita Blake doesn't.

Neth said...

nice article - I think hit a lot of the reasons that bothered me about her aritcle.

I morn the death of 'real' urban fantasy. Perhaps it's time to start calling it 'citypunk'. Afterall, if a sub-genre has punk in it's defintion, it's automatically cool.

Anonymous said...

It's ironic that the rise of the urban fantasy label may make the New Weird label more palatable to some. LOL!


Eileen said...

Big publishing phenomenon? I was first introduced to "urban fantasy" while going through Harriet Klausner's Amazon reviews out of morbid curiosity. I've also seen them on sale at the local grocery store.

I like your discussion of Lilith Saintcrow's article. Her writing reminded me of an otherwise intelligent friend of mine who tried desperately to defend the Twilight series on an Internet forum. She insisted that the reason so many people like myself criticize it is because we just like to dismiss Young Adult fiction in general (not true - I love Diane Duane's Young Wizards books). She went on to compare Stephenie Meyer to John Keats and Ian Flemming as an authors seen in their own time as "low-brow" but were later recognized as great writers. She then insisted that Twilight is another example of Tolkien's argument that the fantasy genre is constantly building upon itself. She also called it "third-wave feminist."

So basically, my point is that people seem to like to come up with "high-brow" or academic arguments to defend their fantasies. But at the end of the day, it's still just pulp.

Eileen said...

And I like Star Trek novels, by the way. But I'm not going to pretend they're anything other than fun entertainment (although Peter David has written some absolutely amazing ones).

SciFiGuy said...

The debate contnues to be interesting. At the end of the day it still seems mostly about labels.

BTW I wouldn't call my video a parody, I certainly didn't frame it with that intent, more of an homage and observation. We all know its about marketing and whats on the cover rarely reflects the contents.

Lilith Saintcrow has also followed up on her own post on her blog here -

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