Urban Fantasy, From Whence Came You? And Where Are You Going with That Trope?!


(Image taken from this Ecstatic Days post.)

The magnificent Carrie Vaughn, whose writing I really like, posted a timeline of the development (or transference) of the term “urban fantasy”. It’s an interesting timeline, but as I mentioned to her in an email, I seem to clearly remember around 2007 a couple of publicists or editors at major houses making a concerted and deliberate effort to introduce the term “urban fantasy” in a new context, in place of terms like “supernatural or paranormal romance,” probably to make it more palatable to an even wider audience. Am I wrong? Somebody fact-check me.

But, yes, that’s around the time you had to stop calling Mieville, K.J. Bishop, or even Charles de Lint writers of “urban” fantasy, because the words suddenly meant something else.

I don’t say this as a positive or a negative development–just saying I believe that’s how it happened. I also believe that just like “YA” is an umbrella for a wide variety of things, “urban fantasy” now no longer means just “paranormal romance.” But, for me, as with YA, it’s a category that doesn’t hit my core sweet spot, and therefore I’m not willing to wade through it to find the books that I might really enjoy. (Frankly, these days, I’m to be found in the general fiction section for the most part.) Someone who comes from the old-school urban fantasy and an appreciation for it–Damien G. Walter, I nominate you–should investigate and report back.

P.S. If you come back at me saying I hate current urban fantasy and how unfair that is, I will hand you your head. Be nice, k?

44 comments on “Urban Fantasy, From Whence Came You? And Where Are You Going with That Trope?!

  1. Paul Smith says:

    In regards to the other post, the biggest remaining bookseller chain in this country (Waterstones) has recently started to market the paranormal romance urban fantasy as “Dark Fantasy” as well. Perhaps there is a coordinated effort to shift the genre title once again?

    I can usually be found in general fiction myself, as it tends to steal whoever it wants anyway (found Ballard there the other day).

  2. Yes–that’s what I said in that post linked to in the photo caption. It’s odd.

    Jeff

  3. Nathan says:

    Almost completely off-topic, but since I see THE DEVIL YOU KNOW in the picture — I find it bizarre that there’s been no word yet of Carey’s sixth (and last, in this sequence at least) Felix Castor novel, considering how quickly the first four sequels followed each other.

    More on-topic: It’s not a genre in which I’m that interested in, either. Too much of it looks too samey, and I’ve been burned enough times on even enthusiastically recommended titles that I mostly steer clear unless word of mouth is really good or the author’s a pseudonym for someone I know I like.

  4. Sarah says:

    Wow, maybe I’m really out of the loop but people market China Mieville as urban fantasy? I can’t quite wrap my head around that one.

  5. Nathan says:

    Well, King Rat and Perdido Street station were definitely very urban. Haven’t read the next to New Crobuzons, but City & the City was also very urban, although the fantasy aspect of that one’s more questionable.

  6. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    No, I’m saying that if you said the words “urban fantasy” around 2002, it would be perfectly correct to include Mieville. But the meaning of the term has changed drastically in a very short time.

    Dark fantasy used to be basically horror literature, as opposed to pulp. Now it’s another word for the modern usage of urban fantasy, which is not horror literature.

  7. I have been feeling the same way. I’m glad someone else is also. I am a metrophile, and I love weird fantasy novels/stories that have the city as a major character, just like in Mieville’s and your writing. I started getting into this right when the name was changing, confusing the hell out of me. To me ‘Urban Fantasy’ will always be that type of writing – just a simple clear name for it. Though I do like New Weird just a much. Now, I just mentally categorize what I think Urban Fantasy writing is as New Weird and hope to find what interests me in this world of search terms.
    I know pigeonholing is not “in”, but it sure helps when the world is made of search engines.

  8. Laurie says:

    Personally, I consider urban fantasy to be a very big umbrella incorporating all those things – the “weird shit in cities” category like Bishop, the “artsy folks in contemporary cities with fairies” category like de Lint, and the paranormal romance stuff with all the vampires and werewolves and sex going on. If it’s urban and it’s fantasy, obviously it’s urban fantasy, right? But more and more people seem to use it only in reference to the vampires and werewolves and sex stuff.

    I do consider this to be a bad thing. I mean, I’ve got no beef with the paranormal romance genre, but what are we supposed to call the *other* fantasies in urban settings now? Because now, if you tell someone that something’s “urban fantasy” and it’s not paranormal romance, they’ll come away with entirely the wrong idea.

    (…Also, I’m not really sure if re-branding something with a different name to reach a wider audience makes any sense, considering that people will just come to associate that different name with the same old thing. If you had an aversion to it to begin with, why would it be any different with a new name? But I’m not in marketing, so what do I know.)

  9. J. T. Glover says:

    $#%$^8 rebranding. Dark fantasy was an iffy term in the 90s when people started using it for “no, really, it’s not horror, and we’ve been writing this stuff ALL ALONG,” but it’s come around to actually meaning something. Making it a synonym for UF? Gag. My proposed new bookstore taxonomy:

    Monster books
    Books About Beneficent Things with Pseudopods
    Political Books
    Garfield Books
    Cookbooks
    Novelty Books

  10. jeff vandermeer says:

    dark fantasy helped distinguish supernatural/fantastical/non-contemporary horror from naturalistic horror in the late 80s, early 90s. That was somewhat useful.

  11. J. T. Glover says:

    Agreed–definitely helped to highlight that distinction.

  12. Cora says:

    I’ve never heard the term “urban fantasy” applied to secondary world fantasy set in fantastic cities such as the sort of thing written by China Mieville, K.J. Bishop and yourself. I always knew those books classified as New Weird, though for a while there were attempts to find other labels (like “Next wave”, which I shudder to recall).

    Meanwhile, urban fantasy used to stand for fantasy set in cities in the real contemporary world or a place very much like it, i.e. Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Neil Gaiman, etc… In that respect, the books currently labeled as urban fantasy do fit into the old sense of the label, since they are fantasies set in the contemporary real world or a place very much like it. It can still be a misnomer, though, since urban fantasy implies urban settings, but several books currently marketed as urban fantasy are not set in cities. Charlaine Harris’ books are set in rural small town Louisiana, Rachel Caine’s Weather Warden series tend to move around road movie style.

    Carrie Vaughn’s point makes sense that urban fantasy in the current sense was introduced to differentiate those contemporary set romantic fantasies that do not have a clear-cut happy ending for the romantic couple in every book from those that do, i.e. paranormal romance. Because to romance readers, a happy resolution to the romantic storyline in the same book is of paramount importance and they tend to get very cranky if a book is labeled as a romance, but does not have such an ending. So there simply was no way that books be writers like Laurell K. Hamilton (who was sold as horror initially, as far as I recall), Charlaine Harris, Lilith Saintcrow, Rachel Caine, Carrie Vaughn herself, etc… could be sold as paranormal romance, because in the eyes of romance readers those books are not romances. Whether they had to be labeled urban fantasy is not really clear, especially since we also have a whole lot of books with little to no romantic content that are also labeled urban fantasy. Personally, I think we need a new label for contemporary set fantasy, often with strong romance and/or mystery elements.

    And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with not caring for urban fantasy in the current definition, there are plenty of SFF subgenres I don’t care for myself. But what gets my hackles up and those of others who do happen to like current style urban fantasy is the wholesale bashing and dismissal of the subgenre in the SFF community. Especially since there is often, though not always, an element of sexism involved in the bashing.

  13. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Cora: I’m going to have to disagree with you about what urban fantasy has been used to describe, although it has also been used to describe the work of de Lint, Gaiman, etc. I think that’s the more commercial side of it, and why a term like New Weird came into being, to differentiate, but at some point “urban fantasy” did also describe New Weirdish stuff, too.

    I’ve also haven’t seen much discussion of how the term changed–was it a marketing move? Was it more organic? (Although as I indicate, it doesn’t matter to me either way.)

    Yes, you absolutely can not care for urban fantasy in the current definition without being sexist. (Ignoring the fact that any generalization either way is a falsehood to begin with because we’re talking about so many different books.)

    I’d rather not go down this road of bashing/not bashing, though, because once you start talking in those terms the whole conversation goes down the drain. I’m purely talking about the origins and applications of the term.

  14. I’m also of the opinion that there’s good and bad in all subgenres, and that subgenres branch out and mutate. I know I like Carrie Vaughn (who I’m featuring soon on Amazon) and some books from Juno, ergo there must be other stuff out there. But it’s such a big fiction world, and I’m about half-way to being dead, so I must draw the line somewhere in terms of what I prioritize. And the weirder stuff needs more help in terms of publicity anyway.

  15. TNT-Tek says:

    I like the tag “magic realism” to describe the New Crobuzon, Ambergris, Etched City kind of stuff. I think it differentiates them properly from the urban/dark/heroic/epic fantasy genres. I’m not much for those formulaic titles. While they are definitely quality products, they tend to be very similar and constrained by the plot devices they must carry to belong to the genre.

  16. Magic realism has a specific, South American, origin–there’re whole books on the subject.

  17. TNT-Tek says:

    Also, I’ve seen some of these titles (Perdido Street Station especially) labeled steampunk as well. Seems anything set in a pre-electric society draws that classification.

  18. TNT-Tek says:

    Hmm, I’ll have to look that up. Back to the drawing board then….

  19. LOL!

    Oh–Steampunk? Yeah, that kills me. Steampunk is like New Weird’s lighter, less socially-aware cousin most of the time. Nothing wrong with that, but the two would probably not get along too well at a party.

  20. But, here’s the thing–I’m not bemoaning urban fantasy meaning something else. It’s just interesting how it happened.

  21. Actually, that book makes an argument for it being more than just South America. It’s an interesting book. I read it too long ago, obviously.

    Jeff

    Magical realism is often regarded as a regional trend, restricted to the Latin American writers who popularized it as a literary form. In this critical anthology, the first of its kind, editors Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris show magical realism to be an international movement with a wide-ranging history and a significant influence among the literatures of the world. In essays on texts by writers as diverse as Toni Morrison, Günter Grass, Salman Rushdie, Derek Walcott, Abe Kobo, Gabriel García Márquez, and many others, magical realism is examined as a worldwide phenomenon. Presenting the first English translation of Franz Roh’s 1925 essay in which the term magical realism was coined, as well as Alejo Carpentier’s classic 1949 essay that introduced the concept of lo real maravilloso to the Americas, this anthology begins by tracing the foundations of magical realism from its origins in the art world to its current literary contexts. It offers a broad range of critical perspectives and theoretical approaches to this movement, as well as intensive analyses of various cultural traditions and individual texts from Eastern Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, the Caribbean, and Australia, in addition to those from Latin America. In situating magical realism within the expanse of literary and cultural history, this collection describes a mode of writing that has been a catalyst in the development of new regional literatures and a revitalizing force for more established narrative traditions—writing particularly alive in postcolonial contexts and a major component of postmodernist fiction.

  22. TNT-Tek says:

    I propose Surrealist Fantasy. That should be enough to keep the night elves at bay. :)

    I will definitely check out the magic realism book, they have it at my library. Sounds fascinating.

  23. What about Suburban Fantasy? Not enough people talk about that. Or Magical Disease Fantasy. Or Meteorological Weird.

  24. Larry says:

    You keep this up and I’m going to sit down and pin a work examining the (ex)(sub)urbanization of fantastical motifs that will touch upon commercialization of Weltanschauungen into commodities that bear little spiritual relationship with their forebears. Oh, and there would be a chapter on Marxist pixies discussing proletarian urban fantasies and the plight of the working class being victimized by sparklies.

    Does that cover most of the bases here?

  25. Dibs on Meteorological Weird!

    Wait, we are calling dibs right?

  26. JB says:

    I find it a little disorientating. 20 years ago, Weaveworld and The Great and Secret Show were Dark Fantasy. Now ‘Weird, Female and Cashing In’ is Dark Fantasy. I’m wondering whether to stop telling people I write ‘Dark Fantasy’?

  27. If Buffy only knew….

    As a former romance author, I do believe it was marketing. The word *romance* on the spine lost readers. It’s funny, Dodd’s book were moved to the main section in a lot of stores and the books are still paranormal romances. This sub-genre is my least favorite of the romance hybrids. The dark brooding hero of old is now a vampire or werewolf or similar, the heroine is a Buffy clone in high heels but she has no heart aka character development. And then there’s Bella and Edward, a romance with no sex, a horror with no horror or blood. Enough said. LOL!

  28. JB–your new definition of ‘dark fantasy’ stinks, as opposed to Jeff’s point about it’s usage further up the page. Anytime you try to summarize your work into a word or two you’re asking to be conflated with works you want nothing to do with, which is why I generally tell people I write fiction, and if they press for details bore them to tears with minute details of whatever I’m working on at the time.

  29. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Yes, JB is now epitomizing exactly what Cora was saying.

    I don’t believe, either, that *any* writer out there, commercial, literary, or whatever you want to call it, is not writing out of the love of it. Or if they are, it’s rare. It’s just too hard a field to go into, and in general too unprofitable.

    It’s not a big deal, but when I posted this I was fairly sure eventually it would become “I hate this stuff, and people who do suck” and “I love this stuff, and people who don’t suck.” A discussion that doesn’t interest me at all, for two reasons: (1) it’s proceeding from a basis of generalization rather than specificity of detail, usually from received ideas about the way genres work and (2) then it just becomes an argument about people’s tastes.

    I guess the bigger question, ignoring this other stuff is: can you appropriate a term to the point where even if the new usage is legitimate and everyone involved is sincere, those who used to use it have a right to be a little upset about it.

    I self-identify as a fiction writer, like Jesse, so my interest in this subject is mostly with regard to how these shifts happen, etc. There is a lingering irrational irritation because the terms have changed, but that’s not an indictment of what they mean now.

  30. Harry Markov says:

    You have no idea how much time I have spent trying to distinguish between books labeled as urban fantasy. I have started reading US releases [and in English] after the rise of women slayers, who do the most awesome stunts on high heels. These women are also featured in paranormal romance, a genre, which seems to mimic this incarnation of urban fantasy or it’s vice versa. Fact remains that this genre become more ambiguous by the second. And you are brilliant for using the UMBRELLA GENRE as a term, because when one talks about urban fantasy, one talks about Harris, Black, but also about Gaiman and Mieville.

  31. Jason Block says:

    I guess some people thought ‘urban fantasy’ sounded better as a marketing term than ‘paranormal romance’ which might scare some religious readers (I’m positive it does). I’ve met a couple of women who just call it ‘fantasy’, and this confused me (a genre fan since I could read) because what they mean is ‘Sookie’ and ‘Twilight’. Which I still think of as ‘Buffy Pastiche’.

    But you know, Borges is just ‘literature’.

  32. Paul Jessup says:

    I think the next big fad will be screwball fantasy- all the best of screwball romcoms combined with urban fantasy!

    It’s vampire boy meets undead slayer girl and wacky hijinks pursue! It’s like American Pie meets Buffy! Nosferatu is Ducky from Pretty in Pink! It’s all cra-a-a-a-zy!

    Or maybe vomit fantasy? Were various people ingest and the vomit up all sorts of bizarre creatures? What will they puke up next? Maybe a dolphin! Or a whale! Or a donkey?

  33. Ellen Datlow says:

    I’ve got a big urban fantasy anthology coming out from St Martin’s next year, called NAKED CITY. But only a few of the stories fit into the current definition of “urban fantasy”–ie dark fantasy, paranormal romance, etc. My antho is a deliberate taking back of the term to mean fantasy that takes place in urban areas. Of course, I’m pushing against the tide, so we’ll see if the book makes an impact on the continuing evolution of the term.

  34. JB says:

    Jeff you’re absolutely right. I shouldn’t have been so reactionary. I agree it’s important not to generalise and I have no active prejudice about any kind of book. Six shelves in my local bookshop of vampire romance novels does strike me as a tad excessive but I appreciate that the new Dark Fantasy has its audience and those authors have as much right to write as anyone, whether writing to a trend or not. When agents and publishers ask me to be as specific as possible about genre when submitting works, I do find the shift in terms a little confusing. Clearly I need to update my perspective on this but discussions like these certainly help.

  35. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    JB–you don’t have to like the stuff. I just think it’s poor form to diss the creators the way you did.

    Ellen–heh. If I wasn’t such a dipshit I’d’ve sent you something. I think that’s a fairly big push-back, and probably will create the right sort of conversation when it’s published.

  36. JB says:

    It was poor form and I apologise. It does make sense that everyone writes for the love of it. I’ll keep an open mind when it comes to genre in future.

  37. Felix Gilman says:

    there’s something awfully clinical-sounding about “paranormal romance”, isn’t there? Something sort of awkward and euphemistic. If I were trying to sell a bunch of “paranormal romance” I’d be looking for something else to call it too. “Urban fantasy” sounds much cooler.

  38. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    paranormal love autopies?

  39. Ellen Datlow says:

    Jeff V: yup ;-).

    Your post and this discussion has opened my eyes as I’d no idea why/how urban fantasy was co-opted by other types of fantasy. It all makes perfect sense, but I hope there’s room for what (I guess) I’d call traditional urban fantasy and the fangled urban fantasy;-).
    In fact, Butcher and Patricia Briggs are both in my antho.

  40. Rob Davies says:

    This is fascinating to me because I am going to be on an Urban Fantasy panel at Context in a few weeks. While I was prepared to talk about the New Weird/Paper Cities brand of urban fantasy, I suspect that the newer use of the term is going to be given more play, which leaves me quite at sea. I just haven’t read much paranormal romance/urban fantasy. (I like True Blood, but I don’t know how representative of the genre those books are, or how faithful the show is to the books.)

    In ridiculously broad general terms, I think that most New Weird urban fantasy explored and tweaked the different layers of “civilization” (social, political, racial, sexual, etc.) for the purposes of “estrangement”, while many paranormal romance urban fantasies could be seen as essentially an attempt to domesticate the “monster/other.” Clearly, I need to delve into this some more.

    Like most genre labels, I think the term “urban fantasy” works best when viewed as a spectrum, perhaps with the ur-urban fantasy GORMENGHAST on one end and HOLLY GOLIGHTLY AND THE WERESTUDS OF DOOM on the other.

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