Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

MLN Hanover on Urban Fantasy

10.14.10
by Daniel Abraham

I don’t know where to start.

This is the third time I’ve started writing this little essay, and it seems like no matter what I begin with — how MLN Hanover was born of Buffy and Anita Blake, whether the root word from which ‘religion’ sprang was religare or relegare, or Who Censored Roger Rabbit (the book that became Who Framed Roger Rabbit) — it all winds up coming out in a clot.

But that’s the point of writing, isn’t it?  It makes me put my thoughts in a line.  It’s just so hard to know where to start.

We’re coming up on the publication of Vicious Grace, the third book in The Black Sun’s Daughter, and I’ve been thinking a lot about urban fantasy.  What it is, what it isn’t, how and whether it can be defined, how and whether any genre can be defined, and what makes genre genre.  And I have a hunch.  It’s just not something I’ve ever been called on to explain exactly.  Intellectually, we’re looking at a work in progress here.  Hope that’s all right.

I started reading urban fantasy before it was urban fantasy.  I saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she was Kristy Swanson.  I had Guilty Pleasures when it had the little bat logo on top.  Back then, there wasn’t a term for it.  Anita Blake in particular had the trappings of horror, but the structure of a mystery and the emotional safety of a cozy or a romance.  And put together that way, they worked.

Not every mixing of genre works, though.  Who Censored Roger Rabbit, for instance, was a brilliant peice of work, and spawned a movie that’s a classic in its way, but not a body of following work.  There are other instances of plays on the idea of cartoon characters beaching the line of reality (Cool World, that A-ha video, etc.) but by and large, it didn’t take.  Urban Fantasy did.

Why, though, is an open question.  I don’t actually think it’s got anything to do with horror or mystery or even romance, but it has to do with what horror and mystery and romance (and science fiction and any genre, really) *do*.

And here’s where religion comes in.

There are two common etymologies for the word religion.  Pretty much everyone agrees that it comes from the Latin religio, but where *that* came from is open to more debate.  The one I’d always heard was that it started from religare — to bind together.  A few years ago, though, I came across another suggestion.  Relegare.  To re-read.  Religion, then, would refer to the stories we go back to time and again for comfort or wisdom or to see what the same tale means to us now that we’re older and more experienced than the last time we went through it.  (Romeo and Juliet, for instance, is a radically different play if you’re 13 and hitting your hormone rush or 40 with kids.)  I like this second version better.

So let’s go back to genre.  The thing that makes genre generic (to appropriate the sneering term of its enemies) is that it reimagines and retells a story you know going in.  In this way, genre is in a real tension with the novel-as-novelty.  But that’s a side point.  I didn’t mean to go there.  What I was trying to get to is this:  we go to romances for a particular story because that story is important to us.  We go to horror because there is something in the ur-horror story, the deeper story that both The Stand and The Exorcist retell, that we need.  We go back to mystery because there’s something there that comforts us.

I think that if we look at it, the genres in a popular culture form a map of its collective psyche (or at least the collective psyche of the part of it that reads).  And in particular, I think genres form around our vulnerabilities.  And even more, the forms that those genres take, they take for a reason.  I’ll talk about Ty’s take on horror stories as a reflection of their particular culture of origin sometime.  Or make him post it.  It’s convincing.

Urban Fantasy doesn’t take its power from having roots in other genres.  It didn’t bloom into one of the most important areas in publishing because it was horror or romance or mystery.  It took root because the story it’s telling matters to us, and it’s a story that wasn’t getting told elsewhere.  So, in fact, urban fantasy exists as a genre because it’s not horror and not romance and not mystery.  It gives us something else, and it’s something we as a culture are hungry for.

It is the narrative a woman with power.  It is where we are struggling with sexuality and intimacy and violence and gender and fear.  It is where we are retelling old stories about romantic love and trying out new ones about taking on traditional masculine forms of power.  Buffy Summers and Anita Blake — whether they meant to or not — touched a nerve, and all of us who love this new genre are still squirming from it.  And we’re coming back to it, rereading it.

And in my case — MLN’s case — writing it.

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13 Responses »

  1. Daniel, I have to admit that I’m a little reluctant to define “urban fantasy” in such a way that it means “fantasy/horror novel with romance elements and a female protagonist.” I tend to think of Charles DeLint, China Mieville, and Jim Butcher as working in an urban fantasy vein, and I don’t think their work can be reduced to that trope in particular.

    • We disagree on the use of terms here. Of the three you list, I only think of Butcher as writing urban fantasy as I’ve come to understand the term.

      Charles de Lint is absolutely writing fantasy set in contemporary times, and while that makes his (and Emma Bull’s and Neil Gaiman’s) project look a lot like the urban fantasy genre as I’m talking about it, I don’t think it’s mining the same vein.

      China Mieville didn’t make any damn sense to me until Jeff VanderMeer started talking about the New Weird as an offshoot specifically of horror. China’s early works — and I’m thinking here specifically of Perdido Street Station — is also genre bending, but I think it’s crossing traditional second-world fantasy with a horror sensibility. By comparison his new work — and I’m thinking here of The City & the City — is still second-world, even though it looks more and more familiar to us. Again, I think he’s doing some excellent work, but I don’t think he’s writing in the same vein as Buffy and Anita Blake.

      Butcher, now, I agree is writing urban fantasy, and I haven’t got all my thoughts in line about his stuff, but I think the Dresden Files is still in reaction to and in conversation with the Anita Blake-style work.

      That said, taxonomy is always a bitch. Building a definition of any genre such that every project out there is either clearly covered by or clearly outside it is doomed. What I’m seeing (and working with and trying to make sense of) are folks like Charlene Harris and Kelly Armstrong and Patricia Briggs and Carrie Vaughn and Laura Bickle and Laurell K. Hamilton who seem to be engaging with the same core project in different ways. Whatever you want to call it (and whether there are other similar projects nearby in literature-space0 it’s that complex core project that’s caught my interest.

      • I’m not out to define a genre, but of the books that fall in the cloud of things that get tagged as urban fantasy, the ones that work best for this reader are the ones that have lifted big bits of Noire and imported it into Fantasy. I’m not the first to make that connection, of course. Jim Butcher is the most obvious example. His protagonist is literally a male, wise-cracking private eye. Other series, that not only import Noire into Fantasy, but also change the protagonist to a woman, then do those interesting things with women and power and violence and independence.

        But for me its important that they keep those Noire patterns. Its the story of an under dog. The protagonist is potent, but they are not the biggest, baddest around, and they are outsiders. They get beaten up, literally, by both the cops and the underworld, or the humans and the supernatural. They have an allergy to authority they can’t suppress, even, literally, to save their lives. Their independence is more important to them than their survival. And the climax of the stories usually involves a fight, where they are out gunned, where any reasonable person would give up, and they are just too stubborn to die. When they get up that one last time and cut the knees out from the bad guys, its the climax of the action, and the defining moment for the character. That’s who they are, the stubborn git with the cards stacked against them, but just won’t give up. I love that character, male or female.

  2. It’s fun that you are posting material like this on your web site, again. I greatly enjoyed your series you did a few years ago, after your informal symposium on Epic Fantasy.

  3. I posted on your lj too, didn’t know which you’d prefer…

    The things I try to get across to people who are trying to figure out urban fantasy — especially the ones who seem actively belligerent toward it:

    1) The genre is massively popular because lots of people read it and love it and can’t get enough. It’s not a top-down publishing conspiracy.

    2) The genre takes its tools from everywhere: mystery, thriller, romance, horror, fairy tales, procedural, political… For books that are so pigeon-holed they’re rather oddly universal.

    Not sure this adds anything to your excellent comments except to say “yes.” I wish more people would pay attention and realize this all _means_ something.

  4. I love the Black Son’s daughter first book for the simple reason that as a Colorado resident the setting caught my eyes along with some of the places. Denver metro area is rich in locations that cry story like Richtoffen Castle on the parkway and the fact of that family investiture in Denver in 19th cedntury to Westminster University that gave that city its name and the historical redstone building seen from anywhere in the metro area. Denver may not have many places good for stories but the metro area as well as the near mountains can stir imaginations to dark creations. I am good with spooky place descriptives but it takes talent i lack to make story in those places. Urban fantasy meets Urban sci fi and its not exactly a new meeting its more of editors struggling for categorizing.
    ~Sknt odoffed his hat wondering if the area wards had dropped to let in unwanted spirits or what the odd feelings were that had overcome him as he gazed over the writing…. riders is only ants at the top of a mountain….~

  5. When I look at urban fantasy, I see almost none of these things. I disagree with all of your main points: namely with what people like, why they like it, and what exactly it is that they find in urban fantasy. A rare beast, because most of the time I just disagree with 99% of peoples’ comments.

    Readers are drawn to these stories you mention, *because* they are familiar. That doesn’t mean necessarily ur-mythic. Rather because they are formulaic, derivative, repetitive, safe, and relatively throwaway pieces of fiction. Homogeneous, often anodyne entertainment. There, I’ve said it – but hold on, I don’t think that’s all bad. This isn’t new either; it’s been the backbone of pulp, now reaching out of its grave and plunging both fists into the hearts of modern romance and horror.

    It’s certainly nothing transgressive. People have been blending elements of all the genres you cite, for a lot longer than there has been a publishing category to clearly define it. It has taken root because it is timely, other media were already spinning the mishmash into commercial gold. It’s TV ripened, media savvy, and promo gravid, and that’s all before it went nuclear with writers and readers.

    You’re on shakier ground labeling it supportive of gender equality, however. If one of its key facets is retooling genre, free or in opposition to traditional “masculine forms of power” it’s done a shite job of it. Seems like the Whedon-as-feminist-by-way-of-Buffy argument, stretched to fit a whole shedload of authors, only some of whom are either female or the least bit concerned with feminist theory. Urban fantasy isn’t alone here, neither fantasy or romance has exactly covered itself in glory in this aspect.

    Gender subversive, it rarely is. Not entirely its fault, because re-cycling back to the beginning here, it’s a familiar mishmash. Elements plucked from different corpses, galvanized by the whiff of strong sales figures, and sent shambling forward into Waterstones et al.. It sells well in part because it doesn’t challenge, doesn’t subvert but conforms to our expectations. It sells well because it takes a lot of juicy bits from other genres, and says “here, have a triple heaping and none of the damn fiber.”

    And that’s fine, at least as popularity goes. No one needs only one kind of book. Pulp and a broad spectrum dose of entertainment has the right to exist and the market gets what the market wants. I also think you’re trotting out the old paranoia of genre here. The literary world doesn’t so much sneer at ‘generic genre,’ but if anything, lusts after its sales figures. But that’s the way the deal works, best sellers are not typically written with an eye to the ages. Even historically, they can form the less good bits of a brilliant author’s larger oeuvre. And only recently do we cut a fat check for our literary geniuses while they’re still walking around and breathing.

    Anyway. You don’t make an entirely new type of book by ripping out pages from three different, older versions and pulping them together. You make a new type of book, when you do something innovative. It takes more than just recycled plots, themes, or paper. And people have been doing this for a long time in drips and drabs. It took seeding by other media to really make the whole thing take off as it has. Romance and horror and sci-fi? Hasn’t everyone read Frankenstein? That had a female author as well. Way ahead of the curve.

    And no wonder people like this stuff! You’re giving them three times more of the same thing they already know that they like, and with one third of the words they have read through in order to get it. Fabulous. Of course they want it, it’s book-crack. It’s YA’s big, less choosier sister.

    You may disagree. Even strongly disagree, so strongly that inanimate furniture is imperiled, but your next claim I’m even more sceptical regarding its validity: that urban fantasy represents strong female empowerment in genre.

    UF’s largest social virtue other than helping to keep publishers afloat in hard times, which is for what it’s worth a minor miracle no matter what the contentious source, is that it *seems* to be a genre dominated by female writers. That’s a Good Thing.

    Hard to tell because of the eagerness shown by a lot of male authors with double barreled initials in their nome de plumes, to muscle in – and talk about how wonderful it is for the wimmens. But why should the women get all the pennies that people want to shovel their way? I know, I know. So I’m going to stick to saying, it *seems* like a healthy shift away from the bad numbers we see in other genres and sub-genres of fantasy and SF, but even here, I’m not sure.

    On the challenging sexism front, beyond the covers with their gender unspecific authors (not to mention the covers! themselves! generally! I mean. Looking above, for example, I just want to say “That’s no way to hold a shotgun or stretch your rotators, lady!”), I think there is far less evidence for something positive going on. Jim Butcher, anyone?

    Why can’t we just say that people like more of the same thing, slickly pumped out, and made easily accessible to shove into their e-readers and kindle-holes? What exactly is wrong with that? Except of course, for all the lazy gender politics, sexual violence, and exploitative titillation that often goes with it? Other than that. Why shouldn’t they have it?

    The market has spoken. Give the market what it wants and slowly back away.

    So. As you can see, I’m not sold on urban fantasy being either innovative or particularly misogyny free. I really hope it’s not our best effort at producing ‘narratives about women with power’ (sic).

    I’m not trying to set your book on fire here, but I do worry that you’re overlooking some less flattering tendencies by the writing and buying public when it comes to urban fantasy and genre in general. I haven’t read any of “MLN Handover(fist?)” novels, so perhaps I’ve missed out on a sudden jump forward in standards. Having stuck my foot in this far, I’ll at the very least now go buy some and so there’s a tarnished silver lining at the end of this ranty-rainbow.

    And perhaps urban fantasy will someday become all that you wish it to be and more, but that’s not going to happen if we ignore its warts now. Seek treatment early and often, I’ve always said.

    So best of luck with the novels, and with that shotgun and all the physiotherapy that model’s going to need for her back. Let’s hope for all involved that it’s a bestseller.

    • I’ve got to say I really enjoyed this post and, in particular, this reply! I particularly enjoy how everyone on this post doesn’t really want to admit their gender, though some do let us know eventually if it seems necessary to stomp on their point.
      Anyway, bravo on laying down some philosophy about the genre, and BRAVO for reminding us that it is just literature, and pop-literature at that.

  6. Love the Black Sun’s Daughter Series, and can’t wait for book 6 to come out (If you have a book 6… seriously hoping so. Have so many unresolved questions.)

    But Urban Fantasy as a genre is just that. It is addicting and fun to read because it contains parts of real life and the life that we like to pretend is there (but know really isn’t…. or is it… ). The mythical creatures thrown into how they live with the modern day world instead of the little fantasy not Earth worlds that they are commonly thrown into and the ways it’s hidden. The way it’s all like planning a crime and the way that some people know the secret and some people are in denial, and some people just don’t have a clue.

    As such, this is what we crave, real life in unrealistic scenarios, and the way that it all seems normal. The escape from reality into the world that we wish exists. I look forward to more of M. L. N. Hanover’s work, your work, in the future. 🙂

  7. Regarding Jim Butcher’s Dresden … It seems like he fits into your genre if you cast the books as being a search for the woman that doesn’t have to be afraid of Harry. Harry is the good but dangerous guy. He is drawn to powerful women, but a strong theme is his fear of hurting them because none of them.
    So I think, with Dresden fits into your taxonomy with a perspective shift.
    What do you think of the Eddie Drood, though? Is that Urban Fantasy?

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