Subgenre Appropriation: First They Takes Yer Urban Fantasy, Then They Takes Yer Dark Fantasy, Then…?

So I decided to take a whole day off and wake up gloriously late at noon and then go explorin’ cross this hotbed of mystery and strangeness known as New York City. Er, I mean, this sleepy little town known as Tallahassee. I went to a 24-hour breakfast place for coffee and my egg fix. Read the NYT. Wandered on down to the local used book store and picked up a cool-looking novel titled Manhattan Nocturne. Checked myself into the angsty nihilist clinic otherwise known as Watchmen (wow. eh. wow. eh.). Ambled out and got myself a smoothie because it was now about eighty hours later and my stomach was grumbling. Decided to check out the local chain bookstore, browsed the magazines, thumbed through some nonfiction, scanned through a copy of Watchmen to see if I was right that the movie wasn’t scene-for-scene.

Then I walked by the cafe, whereupon I came upon the display pictured above. A shiny row of mass market paperbacks. I looked upon them. Much of it seemed fun but slight.

Then I saw the sign above the table, and my blood froze:

First they take urban fantasy and make it something else (no offense, but the new “urban fantasy” ain’t my thing). Then they take dark fantasy and turn it into popcorn. For shame! For shame! (Watch out, New Weird–you’re next…)

Sigh. That’s what I get for leaving the house…

42 comments on “Subgenre Appropriation: First They Takes Yer Urban Fantasy, Then They Takes Yer Dark Fantasy, Then…?

  1. Kelly Barnhill says:

    Captialism = The Crappification of Anything And Everything Cool In The Shameless Pursuit Of A Buck.

  2. Sir Tessa says:

    …are they all vampire stories? Covers and titles indicate the majority are. This is how vampires are coming back into trend, I guess.

  3. Funny. Same books and signage at the B&N in Temecula, CA. The ‘Twlightism’ of the vampire mythos is uggghhh… frakkin’ everywhere. But Predator South China Sea just arrived via USPS.. yays! Getting me a couple of Guiness and I’m gone for the day.

  4. Many of them are vampire stories, Tessa. A few aren’t. And only one, the Carey, could be legitimately called “dark fantasy” in my opinion. In a non-soap-opera or non-breezy sense. I could be wrong, of course. Once I saw the sign, I got the hell out.

  5. Larry says:

    I blame Buffy. If fungi were something that teens (esp. the analogues to the “goth”/emo girls) could wrap their minds around and sigh like they do with vampires, I’m sure some marketer would find a way to make Ambergris and other related settings into just the sort of thing displayed there.

    Fear the power of the emo kids!

  6. Larry:

    Um, this isn’t a “I wish I was there.” This was a visceral “ugh” to seeing dark fantasy used that way. (Somewhat tongue-in-cheek.) But I blame Buffy, too. LOL.

  7. Joe says:

    Yeah, Mike’s book as ‘dark fantasy’, also horror, thriller, detective and some nice bitterly dark comedic touches. Funnily enough just started reading his latest Felix Castor book on the train this morning, they are addictive. And the Jim Butcher book in the pic is part of his Dresden Files series, does have vamps in some of them but not a vamp book per se (and again quite addictive series).

    As with all such headers though, depressing as it can be I wouldn’t bother too much, every book store has to put books in sections and give those sections names and I know from long experience some people will complain about the categorisation, end of the day its just a way to make the books easier to find in the store. And yes, this is pandering to a popular trend (both among readers and publishers) but hey, among a lot of post Anita Blake supernatural female action heroes fighting for their lives with attitude generic crap someone browsing this table might pick up the Carey and think oh, what’s this… So I suppose annoying though it is, it does increase the chances of some books being noticed by browsers. Although sad it is done in this bland, corporate way, I preferred personal staff recommends stands in my SF&F sections, but that sort of individual bookselling isn’t encouraged these days. Even although it sells books and gets customers to come back again and again to ask for advice on more. Sigh.

  8. selfnoise says:

    I have kinda been waiting for Borders to split their fantasy section into “Fantasy” and “Books with a hot vampire chick on the cover, and you can see her belly button, and there’s a werewolf shadow in the background, and the title has Blood or Bite in it”.

    This would actually be very helpful to me.

  9. Joe: I largely agree. But I would argue that the use by publicists of “urban fantasy” to describe books that don’t fit what you’d have called “urban fantasy” back in the early 2000s and before is potentially harmful. I’m not commenting on the quality of the books, but a little bit of concern that the term could be so totally appropriated so quickly and easily for one strain of a subgenre of what I’d called urban fantasy. “Dark fantasy” is just B&N being B&N, largely. But it’s interesting how these things shift, because you could actually then have a scenario a few years down the road, if such changes in terminology shift where you might, shudder, actually have a very good reason to use the term “new weird”. Shudder. Oooh, make the creepy-crawlies go away…

  10. Ha, selfnoise–I totally agree. But the problem, too, is that the success of those books means you see more and more books in general in fantasy featuring a grotesquely proportioned woman with a sword or gun on the cover. No matter what their actual emphasis.

  11. Ennis Drake says:

    Just when I was comfortable labeling my work as dark fantasy . . .


  12. Larry says:


    Look on the bright side. You don’t have a dozen or more 16-17 year-old girls trying to get you to read the Twilight series. Must admit it’s been fun mocking “sparkling vampires” with them though, even as I fear for their mortal souls.

    Speaking of bookstore displays, it is indeed sad to see such groupings of interesting authors with the bland, market-driven stuff. Nowadays, if I feel the urge to go in a bookstore, I drive to the Davis-Kidd store in Nashville, as the staff there has their handwritten recs listed (with books grouped together) on a couple of displays. Bought quite a few hard-to-classify but quite good books because of them. Wished the chain stores would do that. At the worst, there’d be gallows humor in reading up “personal” recommendations of Meyers et al.

  13. Ha ha ha. But I do, Larry. See: Shared Worlds teen writing camp from last year…and this year…and next year…and the year after…eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

  14. Larry says:

    It’s never too late to sneak into a local Catholic church and steal the holy water, you know.

    Then again, you have the unique opportunity of convincing quite a few teens to read Angela Carter instead of Meyer. That perhaps can be the saving grace there?

  15. It’ll go away eventually. Good stuff tends to shine through once the saturation level overflows. Eventually. Bookstores have SOP orders about displays. Sometimes at the local B&N the employees have their recommendation section, which can be a bit more enlightening to the masses. Sometimes.

  16. Gwenda says:

    I read a fair number of the books on that table over the past year (or books in the series), because I felt like I shouldn’t dismiss the category without knowing what was up in it. (Recommended? Kelley Armstrong — esp. her YA series; Ilona Andrews; Lilith Saintcrow; and Justine Musk — though I’m not sure I see her books). Most of them actually are dark fantasy (not that they’re the only thing that’s dark fantasy, but it’s as apt a label as anything else), but any label a bookstore slaps on anything is going to be reductive at best, right? Some of them are actually light fantasy, instead. My guess is this display is inspired by not just how well these books sell in general, but the fact the Charlaine Harris books are doing so much business in response to True Blood.

    In some cases it’s warranted, but I do feel like I increasingly see dismissiveness of books in this subgenre being waved off because of their packaging. It feels too easy to me — like when people bash chick lit, or anything that’s largely written by women and perceived as being for a female audience. (It doesn’t help with this impression that the only book being defended as legitimate dark fantasy is the one on the table obviously written by a man.)

    Anyway, like any subcategory, some of it is terrible and some of it is good and a smattering of it is exceptional. A lot of these books could be marketed in an entirely different way and be taken more seriously, but they probably wouldn’t sell as well. (And I say that as someone who can’t believe the tattooed torso treatment sells this well; these are the only books I buy at the bookstore and occasionally feel the need to explain myself about.) I guess I just don’t care enough about the terms to worry about the dilution of them.

  17. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Gwenda–I’ve read or sampled many of them, too, since they come in for review. Most have not been to my taste, although I’ve been happy to promote them on Amazon because my role there is to tell readers about SF/F books they might like, not just the ones that appeal to me on the most personal level. Taste is taste. I read a lot of light mysteries that probably wouldn’t be to your taste. On the spectrum of like/dislike, you also have a much higher tolerance for pop/TV culture in your fiction, I think.

    I’ve never actually seen them marketed as dark fantasy before, even though my post was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. “Dark fantasy” was always Ramsay Campbell, Caitlin Kiernan, etc.

    I think the Carey is significantly different from many of the others on the table. I’d say that no matter who had written it. If it was a Caitlin Kiernan book on the table, I’d have pointed that out. And I don’t care who they’re written by, men or women. If we’re naming women writers who do “dark fantasy” I’d rather read Valente’s Palimpsest or Theodora Goss or Rikki Ducornet or Tanith Lee or Ekaterina Sedia or you name it.

    Joe–I do think the Dresden Files is popcorn too. And nothing wrong with that. But not the same as the Carey.


  18. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    As for the packaging, I like beautiful, sharp, intelligently designed books. I lament this trend in book covers because I think they don’t look good and they’re generic. Man/woman with gun/sword on cover doesn’t appeal to me. I think the Harris books have very cool covers, though.

    Bad covers (re my taste) at times made me hesitant to pick up books by writers I already know I like. Stupid, I know, but there are enough things to love out there that it is something I take into consideration.


  19. Gwenda says:

    Jeff — Sorry you took it that way, but it’s undeniable that Carey’s name was coming up in the comments as “legitimate” dark fantasy. I’d argue Lilith Saintcrow is pretty safe in the dark fantasy category (and those books have great covers, in the Orbit editions). But, again, I don’t actually find these sorts of terms all that useful. I love Dora Goss’s work too, but much of what I love isn’t what I’d call dark fantasy. I suspect any sort of discussion trying to figure out what dark fantasy or urban fantasy or what-have-you is will end up breaking down along personal taste lines. So be it.

    It does seem undeniable, however, that books packaged in this way aren’t ever really considered in a literary way, even though they’re some of the most popular books in the field. (As opposed to, say, mysteries, where what gets reviewed does seem to be a bit more of a balance between the two.) I find that an interesting phenomenon — and I’m certainly not the first person to recognize it.

  20. I’ll look a little closer at the Saintcrow stuff. Thanks.

  21. Kathy Sedia says:

    Soon, SF will be populated by the same books but where vampires are actually aliens or mutants or victims of a genetically engineered virus. I despair to find a category immune from lower back tattoos and exposed belly buttons. (And thansk for the mention, Jeff!)

  22. Andrew says:

    For the record, I think the Simon R. Green title in that picture is also worth defending as legitimate dark fantasy. And I have also thought that Lilith Saintcrow’s work, from what little of it I’ve seen, looks potentially worthwhile. Most of that stuff, though, is exactly as Jeff characterizes it. And yeah, I wish there was some Ramsey Campbell or China Mieville or (appropriate titles by) Neil Gaiman mixed in there. But hey, maybe this will be someone’s gateway drug, you know? We can hope.

  23. Is what we have to do is to start inventing genres so fast that the book stores can’t keep up:

    Feather Fantasy
    Hard Fiction
    Future Classics
    Men’s Lesbian Fiction

    Anyhow, in all reality, soon there will be so many sections in the bookstores that each section will only have room for one book….

  24. Cheryl says:

    I’m looking at the poster. The background isn’t very clear, but are they really claiming that The Maltese Falcon and The Invisible Man are dark fantasy?

  25. The lesson here? Stop christening sub-genres.

  26. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    well, again, i started out meaning this to be kind of a humorous post, but there are a few real issues there.

    cheryl–yeah, i think you’re right.

  27. The two-picture gag was pretty funny.
    I was thinking about finding the same table at my B&N and covering it with Winnie-the-Pooh titles (all covert-like) then sit nearby and watch the facial expressions. That’s my Dark Fantasy.

  28. Felix Gilman says:

    at least you’ll always have squidpunk, they’ll never take that from you

  29. James says:

    I didn’t look closely at the picture, so in this whole conversation, I thought the references to “Carey” were to Jacqueline Carey. Very confusing.

  30. GlenH says:

    I see the same sort of stuff labeled as horror in my local Dymocks so I don’t think it’s simply a issue of christening sub-genres so much as booksellers with little interest in SF/F attempting to market it.

  31. I insist on being stubborn, and cling to the idea that Urban Fantasy is what’s written by authors like: Miéville, Gilman, Peake, and you (Vandermeer). I guess some now call it “Dark Urban Fantasy,” but I think publishers should have left the tattoos + sexy chicks + detectives + swords + vampires + black magic formula under the header of Paranormal Romance and left our *real* Urban Fantasy alone!

  32. Well, I mean, Gwenda pointed out to me that Charles de Lint was/is marketed as urban fantasy, so in a sense that also pre-dates this current trend.


  33. Sharon Mock says:

    The Dark Fantasy table near me includes Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

    Knowing that particular B&N, it’s a statement. Probably “OSC’s about as dark fantasy as any of this stuff we’re contractually obligated to put out here.” It was a full stack of books, too, not just an accidental droppage. (To give you an idea, I bought Theodora Goss’s In the Forest of Forgetting there.)

  34. Nick Mamatas says:

    The ones with the butts on the covers are generally better than the ones with the pun titles.

    Hope that helps!

  35. Cora says:

    It’s a marketing issue, nothing more. Bookstore employees put books under strange or inappropriate headers all the time. I’ve seen “To Kill A Mockingbird” shelved under crime fiction and Marisa Peschl’s “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” in the SF section. As for books such as those on the table, I’ve seen such books shelved under SF and fantasy, horror, romance, general fiction, YA, even crime fiction. Which means that those of us who like enjoy such books have to search all over the bookstore for them. Actually, a handy-dandy table with all books in one place is a lot preferable to being forced to treck all over the bookstore, even if the table and the books are mislabeled. Are the books on that table dark fantasy? Some of them are, others are supernatural mysteries, supernatural chick lit, urban fantasy (in the current sense of the term) or paranormal romance. Hell, my local bookstore has created a shelf labeled vampire fiction only to fill it with books about werewolves and demons along with genuine vampire novels.

    The problem is that we have this big emerging subgenre of novels set in something very close to the real world with some added fantastic elements that mix the tropes and traits of several genres. And no one is quite sure what to call it. “Urban fantasy” seems to be the most commonly used term, which carries its own set of problems, because the current brand of urban fantasy is a subset of what used to be called “urban fantasy” in the 1980s/1990s. Labeling these books “paranormal romance” doesn’t work either, because romance readers have certain genre expectations when picking up something labeled “romance”, mainly that it contains a love story that ends happily. When those expectations are not fulfilled, they become angry. And publishers and bookstore owners don’t want to anger romance readers, because they buy a lot of books.

    But what really annoys me is the blanket dismissal of books like the ones on that table based on the cover design and some prejudices about this subgenre, without actually haven’t read any. Several of the books on that table are very good indeed. Some I haven’t read, but I have enjoyed other works by the authors in question. I even have to confess to looking up the books/authors on that table that I never heard of on Amazon. There is only one author represented on that table whose books I’ve read and didn’t care for. As for the cover design and titles, authors usually don’t have much influence on that. Again it’s a marketing and trend following thing, which is why we see so many chick-lit style covers featuring cartoon witches or vampires and so many “back of a tattooed woman with weapon” covers, whether they actually fit the book or not. Besides, quite a few of those “tattooed women” and chick lit covers are actually well designed. There is even one series (not represented on the table as far as I can see) which switched from chick lit cartoon style to tattooed woman in mid series.

    Echoing what Gwenda said above, it sometimes seems to my paranoid feminist mind that the main reason such books are dismissed by the SFF crowd is because they are primarily written by women, marketed at women and feature female protagonists. It certainly is telling that the three male authors represented on that table were also the ones singled out in comments as being actually good. Now I do agree that Mike Carey, Jim Butcher and Simon R. Green are good writers. But so are Lilith Saintcrow, Patricia Briggs, Carrie Vaughan, Charlaine Harris, Ilona Andrews, Kelley Armstrong, Katie McAlister and Nalini Singh. At the moment, we have a lot more women writing SFF and a lot more women reading it than ten or even five years ago. And that’s a very good thing, considering that SFF is still very much dominated by straight white men. It’s okay if this subgenre or trend is not to someone’s taste, there are a lot subgenres and trends I don’t care for either. But don’t dismiss these books without trying just because they are written by women and have a certain type of cover.

  36. Rob B says:

    Speaking of Lilith Saintcrow, I’m sure some of the posters in this thread will remember a few interesting articles on Pat St. Denis’s blog, her own about “Urban Fantasy” and “Angry Chicks in Leather”, and Larry’s blog:
    Larry’s response

  37. Cora:

    I’ll say again. I have read them. See above. I also don’t agree with the person above who mentioned Simon Green or Jim Butcher. Just so that’s clear. Also I don’t see any Carrie Vaughn (who I do like, and frequently invite to our anthos) on that table, or some of the others you mentioned. Just so that’s clear. And I disagree that some of the ones you mentioned are good authors. Not compared to the other women I mentioned. Cat Valente, Rikki Ducornet, KJ Bishop, Kathy Sedia, Caitlin R. Kiernan, and the like are just fucking brilliant. I’d take one sentence from any of them over just about anything on that table. Just so that’s clear.

    I’ll dismiss by covers as much as I want. There are too many interesting books out there for me to be bothered. That’s just the reality. If someone gives me a specific recommendation, I of course follow it up, or a trusted reviewer gives something a great review. There’s nothing to get pissed off about in that–that’s just the way it is.

    It’s not just marketing–that’s naive. Marketing terms infect literary terms and vice versa. It’s not as neat a division as you make out.

    Anyway, not to seem argumentative, but just as you don’t want to deal in binaries, neither do I. I really do appreciate you commenting.


  38. Bill Ectric says:

    All I can say is, everytime I look at that photo, the scent of new books overwhelms me!

  39. Nick Mamatas says:

    Also I don’t see any Carrie Vaughn (who I do like, and frequently invite to our anthos) on that table

    Third row, far right. (Butt cover!)

  40. Marmot Dancin' says:

    LOL! Your eyes are better than mine!!

  41. Bookstore gal says:

    Actually, in defense of chain bookstores everywhere, many display and table charts come all the way down from corporate with where we put what. Sometimes they have some downright idiotic ideas of what should be lumped together…

    But the primary thing to remember is that no matter how cool and personal and individual ANY bookstore is, it HAS to make money to continue to exist. What gets put out front and on displays and takes over sections are what sell… I live in the urban northeast and every so often get complaints about our “african american fiction” section which has, yes, Richard Wright and others, but is mostly overrun by Zane and various not-so-serious-literature looking covers. Frankly, the Af-Am Fiction section is, by looking at the titles and covers (My Manz and ‘Em would be a favorite title among my coworkers and many covers feature a large black woman’s butt covered by scrap of a thong)… The only thing we can say is that to a very large extent, what is sold is a reflection of existing culture… Sure, it also perpetuates it, and inundates the next generation, but for a store to exist in a heavily capitalist country, it has to pander to the market…

    So please don’t judge the booksellers… If you want recommendations, walk up to one of us, tell us what you like, and we’ll bend over backwards to help you, because that’s what we LIVE for…

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