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megwrites ([personal profile] megwrites) wrote2010-03-26 11:24
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Genre Talk: Urban Fantasy

I've been trying to make this post for, like, a week now. I keep deleting it and re-writing it because I haven't felt I've really articulated my opinions as well as I want to.

But I think I've gotten close with this post.

I read and write urban fantasy. The draft I'm trying to get through at the moment is urban fantasy (complete with vampires!). But if any of you have followed my reviews, you'll see that I'm often quite critical and very harsh on urban fantasy/paranormal romance novels. Moreso perhaps than I am on any other genre of books, even science-fiction or straight up fantasy.

When I go into a bookstore or browse online booksellers, the selections I see disappoint me greatly, and I'm frustrated by the current output in urban fantasy/paranormal romance. I firmly believe in Sturgeon's Law (99% of everything is crap), and that goes for books. So there is no genre that is either completely perfect or completely terrible. But right now, as it stands, the UF/PR genre seems to have a higher-than-normal proportion of shitty books.



There's no reason I can think of (outside of marketing and publishing realities) why this should be so. I, as a reader, am desperately hungry to find the kind of tales that this genre could be telling. I am ravenous for tales of the magic and mundane swirling together, showing how ordinary the not-ordinary is, how much is unseen even when we look straight at it. I long for stories of secrets places where there might just be a ghost on the subway or a goddess stuck in traffic. I want to read of unlikely heroes, of people who's greatest magic is not a spell or amulet or super strength, but the abliity to twist and turn and shape themselves around whatever is strange and dangerous and true.

As for paranormal romance? It's like that kid who you know is a genius, but they just won't do their homework so they get D's when they could be acing the class. I am so ready for that really great story about what it would really be like to love someone who is sometimes a wolf or drinks blood and can't touch daylight. I'm ready for someone to show me how amazing it is when love - which is its own super power - can put people together against steep odds. I want to see how you'd make it work with a vampire or a witch or a demon, and why they'd fall in love with a human. Why a human - a smart human with actual self-esteem - would fall in love with them.

I'm ready for an attraction between the magic and the mundane that transcends the "well, he's basically a blood-drinking Abercrombie model and she's wearing leather pants, ta da, it's true love!" I want to read the stories about people who thought they were done with love or couldn't/wouldn't be loved. I want to hear the tales of how sometimes, in the midsts of the worst places, people find and create something spectacular.

Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance have some lofty literary parentage. They borrow from SF and Romance, respectively, though you can find dashes of noir and detective fiction and mystery in the mix, the way a kid might have their's uncle's nose or their grandmother's smile.

Romance is a lot of live up to, because some of the greatest cultural works we have stem from that genre. It's something that has permeated into our TV shows, movies, songs. The tales this genre comes out with are important ones. It's also a genre where women writers can stake a claim the way they often can't in other places. In this genre get to talk about life, about love, about how it works (or doesn't), how it hurts, how it isn't easy, and how sometimes life really is exciting. How individual human being spark and shock and fight and fuck and exist so beautifully sometimes even when the rest of the world is ugly. Romance is where we talk about the things that make life worth living. What makes all the boring bits worth it.

Fantasy is all about inventing new things, shining light into dark corners, inventing the place that aren't but making you, the reader, feel as though they're as real as the book in your hands. Fantasy lets us talk about things we can't say openly, it lets us parse our world through alternatives and contrasts and opposites. We can define and even shape what is by talking about what isn't (yet), what can't be, what shouldn't be, what should be.

But these are not the stories being told, these are not what I see when I browse shelves and websites.

What I see staring back at me is a sea of sameness. I see, over and over again, just one tale being told. I see covers that show only one image: the cutoff image of a thin, white, cisgendered, able-bodied, twenty-something woman's body. Her skin is meant to tantalize me somehow, as though it is beaconing me to see what I could imagine myself to be, because of course to be thin, able, white, and twenty is the ideal, this is the body women ought to have when talking about themselves as powerful and free and liberated. Who would want to be PoC, after all? Or disabled? Or fat? Or fifty? What woman in her right mind would see a body of color or a disabled body or a fat body or a transwoman's body an old body and think, "This is a powerful, free body? This is the body of a warrior, a heroine, a person with a tale worth telling?"

I tell myself, "Cover art isn't everything." I think of the examples of bad covers on good books (think Justine Larbalestier's "Liar" or Jaclyn Dolamore's "Magic Under Glass").

Then I open the books, and I find that the covers are not so inaccurate. The tale told to me seems always the same, always a disappointment. The story is told in the first person by the same self-absorbed, conventionally attractive, twenty-something, blandly heterosexual, aggressively cisgendered, emotionally needy white woman. I am expected, as a reader, to sympathize with her because of her shoes or her clothes, of which she speaks often and sometimes at length, never mind if such clothing is usually not made for my body or that I may not even be able to afford such things. Because I identify female and so does she, it is expected that her material possessions will elicit a bond between us.

I am then expected to relate to her ill-considered attraction to an equally conventional, aggressively heterosexual man who's body matches her in it's dominance-affirming perfection. His scars, like hers, are never deforming. I am not supposed to question his actions too much, whether following her home makes him a stalker rather than a lover, whether an immortal creature repeating high school endlessly is not creepy rather than charming. It is my fault as a reader if I examine and analyze this relationship too close, asking rude questions and wondering why they're together or why their relationship - the meeting of two perfect, white, straight, thin, attractive bodies - should matter to this fat reader. Obviously, thin white bodies are of interest to everyone, whatever their size, color, orientation, or ability.

The story told to me winds around, a barely functioning plot that reads like a weakly written episode of a detective show with a witch or a vampire or werewolf thrown in. The heroine's adventure takes usually a week or less and is paced too quickly to be believable, all the while she makes crack and quips designed to be witty but which are never really funny. Clue after obvious clue is laid down, leading to a cardboard villian who seeks to destroy the world or kill the heroine for reasons that are as thin and flimsy as the shirts she wears on the cover. During this plot many friends and allies and even rival suitors appear to woo her, help her, lay down their lives for her cause as though they have none of their own, no lives or responsibilities that might cause them to prioritize other things or themselves above this perfect, enchanted white woman. These minor characters (many of them only PoC, GLBT, PWD, or fat people to be found) are merely smaller bodies that rotate around the gravity well of the heroine, who is more important than all else.

After a scrambling, clumsy battle at the end, the heroine has accomplished her goal and come out intact. She is never killed, never loses a limb, never scarred, never left damaged. She and the Love Interest are closer but here is room left for a sequel so it isn't a perfect "Happily After Ever" and there the tale ends.

I am told by reviewers and book blurbs that these are supposed to be fun stories, that they're supposed to be "sexy", "fun", "wild", "hot", "sizzling", and I wonder - to whom? What if you're bisexual (I am), lesbian, gay, or otherwise queer-identifying? If the story of perfect woman-on-perfect man doesn't excite you, what is the purpose of this book?

And then I wonder where the books for the rest of us are. Where are the urban fantasies and paranormal romances for PoC, PWD, fat people, GLBT folks, or those of us who just want something different, something else? Where are the urban fantasies and paranormal romances for those who have nothing to do with and are nothing like the sea of perfectly sculpted whiteness in front of them?

I know this isn't just the fault of authors writing these things. I know there are a long line of agents, editors, publishers, and marketing professionals who push the material, who push the suspicion that nothing else will sell, who take the giant pool of submissions and select only these things, who press authors to twist around their material. There is no one person to blame, just one terrible system that keeps telling and transmitting this same story. Whether it is profitable for the writers, publishers, editors, and agents involved, it leaves me, the reader, feeling very lonely and disappointed and longing for something more, something else, something different, something better.

[identity profile] corinneduyvis.livejournal.com 2010-03-26 15:57 (UTC)(link)
I tend to lurk more than comment, but I very much feel you here. I think I love the idea of urban fantasy more than how it's often executed.

And I have to say, the more I read of your journal, the more I'd love to read your fiction - so good luck with the agent hunt. It'd be fabulous to have more diverse voices in the genre.

[identity profile] takumashii.livejournal.com 2010-03-26 17:32 (UTC)(link)
Have you read Caitlin Kiernan? Murder of Angels wasn't a perfect book, but it had impressive prose, a real sense of wonder (and terror), a Vietnamese-American protagonist and a central lesbian relationship. I haven't yet read Dia Reeves's "Bleeding Violet," but the heroine is bipolar and biracial, and it's been getting some very nice reviews.

And I would be remiss in not mentioning Karen Healey's excellent "Guardian of the Dead," which has the first asexual-identifying character I've ever seen in fiction, a fat heroine (who knows martial arts!), and important characters who are Maori and Chinese-Australian, and handles its potential cultural appopriation issues with aplomb.

Sometimes genres get very narrow, when they get down to trying to press the same button over and over again, in this case the Laurell K. Hamilton button and the Charlaine Harris button (and the Stephenie Meyer button, for YA -- I don't think she's really had much influence on the adult market, though I could be wrong.) Secondary-world fantasy went through that in the 90s and I think that's why the market is not so good for it now. And what happens then is that the books that fall outside the narrowest confines of the genre get published by small presses, or they're shelved in 'mainstream,' or they don't get published at all. It takes more aggressive looking to find them, but I think they're out there. More and more I'm not picking books from the SF/Fantasy shelves, but looking for magical-realism stuff and weird fiction on the mainstream shelves.

[identity profile] handyhunter.livejournal.com 2010-03-26 20:14 (UTC)(link)
Oh, yes. I've been feeling very put-out with the paranormal romance/urban fantasy genre for a while now, for the reasons you state. It also made me wary of Buffy comparisons because they'd inevitably be about how the heroine could kick ass, but without much depth. They'd all be 'strong' in the same (physical) way, which I found boring and sometimes problematic.

[identity profile] mercwriter.livejournal.com 2010-03-27 00:06 (UTC)(link)
*nods in general agreement with much of your post*

I want more DIFFERENT in mah urban fantasy. (Personally I'd like to see more MMCs who are also different. Actually... I have a laundry list of things I want to see more of in urban fantasy, including more of a hard line between UF and paranormal romance, because dude, if I want romance, I will LOOK for a romance, m'kay? When I want UF, I want less mush and more action and blowing things up. ;))

... this kinda makes me want to go back to my UF, in which I mess around with a lot of the "conventional" tropes and stereotypes of the subgenre. (Because, shockingly, not everyone in the monster fighting business is white and/or straight.)

(I have a secondary world fantasy to focus on first, though.)

I've now forgotten what I meant to say in the first place, because I was reading the great comments... anyway. Off to see if I can find some of those book recommendations. :)

*putters off to read some more*
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[personal profile] manifesta (from livejournal.com) 2010-03-27 05:37 (UTC)(link)
The story is told in the first person by the same self-absorbed, conventionally attractive, twenty-something, blandly heterosexual, aggressively cisgendered, emotionally needy white woman. I am expected, as a reader, to sympathize with her because of her shoes or her clothes, of which she speaks often and sometimes at length, never mind if such clothing is usually not made for my body or that I may not even be able to afford such things. Because I identify female and so does she, it is expected that her material possessions will elicit a bond between us.

Yes. This. You also reminded me that often times these heroines are frequently able to afford or in the very least covet (from the perspective of potentially one day owning) x brand of stilettos, or some other material object, and that this classist bias is consistent throughout the genre. (I especially appreciated your point that's it's in part an attempt to create a bond with the female reader.) Even if they're portrayed as being "poor," they still manage to materialize guns or other weaponry, which would cost a small fortune to obtain legally OR illegally, and do not mention how they were able to do so.

I recently posted on urban fantasy, actually--it's in the context of Phillip Palmer's article on whether urban fantasy is all about sex, but there's also some discussion on UF as a genre, especially in the comments.

[identity profile] baka-kit.livejournal.com 2010-03-27 10:25 (UTC)(link)
I love you!

This is what I'm working with, what I'm trying to do. Why I changed City of Sun and Darkness from first person to third. (And that was an education; stripped of the I and me, Shannon was boring.)

It's still not perfect and I don't think it could be. Shannon's still white and 22 and I can't make myself think of size 16 as fat no matter how many times the fashion industry tells me it is. But she dresses modestly and generally unobtrusively and has no tattoos because she's Jewish (even if she doesn't keep Kosher because she likes her Big Macs too much).

But anyway.

Rewriting it into third person -- taking Shannon out of the center of the universe -- is making the story a lot stronger. It's not just Shannon moving the plot, it's this orrey of intersecting plot-orbits and how they all interact with each other.
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[identity profile] kitrona.livejournal.com 2010-03-28 10:28 (UTC)(link)
Out of curiosity, how do you feel about Butcher's Dresden Files? I'm currently reading them, and I find them intriguing because a. Harry worries about money, b. his love interest is actually somewhat realistic, c. during the adventures, he actually GETS TIRED (which I've found missing in some UF), and d. he does things for stupid but noble reasons, but he KNOWS they're stupid.

Another good series I've found, though it still doesn't address the lack of diversity re: sexual orientation and skin color, is Seanan McGuire's Toby Daye series. The pacing is frenetic, but Toby is likable, wears sensible shoes, gets tired, makes mistakes... I just generally really enjoy them, though of course nothing is without flaws.

Also, thank you for this entry. I plan to read it again when I'm actually awake, and definitely plan to go through the comments for book recs. :)

[identity profile] zahrawithaz.livejournal.com 2010-03-29 16:58 (UTC)(link)
I'm not particularly familiar with urban fantasy or paranormal romance (though I think I read a lot of books that are on the edge of or maybe in the genre), but I wanted to let you know how much I appreciated this post, and the comments, which are utterly full of win. I think a lot of what you have to say applies to other genres, especially those that are somehow built or premised on escapism, and the flattening of all of us to this one white/cis/owner-class/straight/thin norm in this context is very disturbing.

[identity profile] glass-icarus.livejournal.com 2010-03-29 17:16 (UTC)(link)
Here via the flist, and... yeah. I'm not as into urban fantasy as I am SF/F, but you've nailed the exact things that have kept me from jumping in wholeheartedly. (Which, admittedly, are true for SF/F as well, except that I'd already taken the leap for those.)

Here via glass_icarus

[identity profile] ruffwriter.livejournal.com 2010-03-30 03:12 (UTC)(link)
Thanks so much for this. ♥ I'm an unpublished writer currently shopping my urban fantasy story to agents, and if there's one thing I learned, it's that on an agent's submission guidelines, they'll say they're looking for "urban fantasy" and they actually mean "paranormal romance between two self-absorbed Abercrombie and Fitch models."

But your post reminded me of what great potential the genre has, and as you said, how fascinating stories are when they explore "how sometimes, in the midsts of the worst places, people find and create something spectacular." Here's hoping for a different, wildly popular book that will open the floodgates for all the other voices we've been craving.
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Cheers for this post

[identity profile] jazzypom.livejournal.com 2010-04-02 14:38 (UTC)(link)
I've always had this (up until now) unknown hatred for such novels and yes, this is it. Cheers.