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.
The sound you just heard was the grinding of my teeth. It's just the old resistance; I grew up with the old UF that was really fantasy set in a modern, urban setting. It was bad enough when any urban setting got lumped regardless of time period (cuz no high fantasy has been set within a city?), and worse still when paranormal action adventures, not actually having a genre of their own with that title, became UF, but leather clad chicks kicking ass...Basically none of the original UF is UF. Fine for De Lint...he's long called his work "mythic fiction" rather than urban fantasy, but what about the...others who wouldn't give a damn to know that I'm defending their honor? On to what really got me to post...
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.
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.)
I know that's a really long block of text to quote, but I really don't want to chop it up and remove context for anyone who chooses not to open the link (which, of course, you should do). Let's ignore my own Clancy vs. Roberts opinion. We can even ignore that I nearly fractured my jaw grinding my teeth on "UF is PR without the HEA." (What. The. F...no, I said I'll ignore and I'll genuinely pretend to.) The women's fiction bit hits the same "dude, what?!" bell with me as "no one reads any more" and "men don't read."
No one reads any more. All the bookstores we city dwellers pass all the time, and Amazon plus all the lesser known online bookstores are entirely products of our imagination. If no one reads, no one buys books, so there are no bookstores. (Of course, this has nothing to do with what Saintcrow wrote. In fact, my rant at her text is nothing that changes my adoration for her work. Like I said, though, it all rings the same bell.)
Men don't read. Those genres aimed specifically at men as well as those rumored to (like sci-fi) are place holders in the imaginary stores that don't exist because no one reads.
Those false facts have bugged me for a long time. I'd hear--or worse, read--someone going on about nobody reading and want to shake the silliness out of them. Now, lots of people don't read (er, beyond what's necessary to function). I don't understand these folks, but they exist. And while Jason Pinter wrote a really good article on why men don't read, if the actual words were true, how could there women's lit? Wouldn't it just be...lit?
Of course Lili's (it's how she refers to herself, it's how I think about her...'til I'm disagreeing and distance myself in case she reads it and gets annoyed) statement that urban fantasy is mostly women's fiction isn't as senseless. But it is...disempowering.
On the one hand, OK, a lot of it is written by women and/or marketed to women, so what else would you call it? On the other hand...WTF? I've written and deleted the following, rewriting it differently, many times over. I think I can divide it into two more hands...
1. There is an unfixable wrong in naming romance women's fiction. I come from a speculative fiction background, as do many of the woman who write UF rather than PR, and the fans who read one over the other. We have tits and ovaries. We're demonstrably as female as the women who read PR interchangeably with UF or who prefer all manner of romance, but a good amount of us hate that stuff. Unfortunately, it wouldn't do to start calling romance "fiction for a large group of women and a handful of men." It's irreparably labeled as it is.
2. A lot of men like UF and other spec. fic. with female leads. It's anecdotal, but I want to use one of my brothers as an example. He was, for a long time, a scary dude. I'm not going to put all his business out there, but ...yeah, scary dude fits. He turned his life around and followed in our dad's footsteps to become a big, burly fire fighter. He is, in short, one of the alpha males that most romances require. Hanging out at my place, he glanced at a certain book, and later couldn't get it out of his mind. He had to read it, then he had to have the whole series. With no one telling him it was women's fiction, his testosterone had no need to keep him in his usual non-fiction mode.
Why shouldn't he? Great characters, fantastic action, and being UF rather than PR, there were deep and complicated relationships beyond the romantic ones.
Aaaand (since this really isn't about Lilith's post so much as my angst each time I see these labels; she just happened to write in a way that allowed me to examine the reaction), does money from men have cooties? On the off chance that my fiction doesn't suck and I get over the issues that keep me from sending it out, could we please not convince men that the genre isn't for them until after I get my royalties? I'm just saying.
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...
Bat Girl. Rogue. Storm. Marvel Girl (though I've always thought that such an unfortunate name). Firestar. They and countless other comic heroines who don't make my list because they aren't mostly good (like Cat Woman) or are fall to late in my awareness 'cause I'm thinking pre-UF (Witchblade) or because the list is long enough (Scarlet Witch, et all)... all tough females for whom violence is acceptable for them to use. All from a "classically male" genre.
It's not that I think there is no room here to talk about the marginalization of women or that I don't think that's still a very real thing in this day and age.
Every genre sucks. The day I moved beyond See Spot Run, I dove into spec. fic., augmented by the occasional good mystery, and that has barely changed in the decades since. It's how I'm wired. That same wiring gives me a huge distaste for all non-paranormal romance and most mainstream. All spec. fic. lovers have had to deal with highbrow lit. fic. lovers lecturing about the useless escapism of their genre, and none of us like lit. fic. either. And while we make obnoxious comments about one another's genres, those who prefer non-fiction think we're all filling our minds with junk.
Hmmm...maybe it's time we all stop alienating one another and focus those who can't appreciate a well written fiction of any type.