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.