Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Urban Sprawl

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." 
      - Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking Glass

How do you define Urban Fantasy? 

Now before you answer, a couple of ground rules: We are talking Urban Fantasy as a literary sub-genre, not Urban Fantasy as a marketing niche.  Also, be mindful that I do not regard Wikipedia as an authoritative source. 

At first glance it seems very straight-forward.  Urban.  Fantasy.  A work of Fantasy that takes place in an urban setting. We're done here. Right?

Alas, it appears not. 

At risk of being called an East coast snob, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Bon Temps, Louisiana is not an urban center.  In fact, I think it's fair to say the regulars down at Merlotte's Bar and Grill would take umbrage if I were to question their 'just folks' bayou bone-fides. What with Bon Temp being the setting for Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mysteries, said umbrage would be exceedingly hazardous to my health.  So, with all due deference to the fans of Charlaine Harris, one could say that Southern Vampire Mysteries fails the most basic test of Urban Fantasy.

By the same token, Buffy Summers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer resides in Sunnydale, a small town on the California coast. While Sunnydale does sit atop a supernatural nexus that gives it a surprisingly high creature to human ratio, it's decidedly non-urban. Now, it would be fair to point out that the movie of the same name was set in Los Angeles. However, true Buffyphiles hold that the movie is non canonical and not part of the Buffyverse, having been disavowed by Joss Wheadon for the many departures it took from his original story and the framing of his characters.  While I am as brave as any man, I don't mess with the Buffyphiles, and must disallow Buffy the movie as an argument for Buffy's urban fantasy credentials.

However, despite their lack of what would seem to be a requisite urban setting, both Southern Vampire Mysteries and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are cited as examples of Urban Fantasy.

Buffy and Sookey are only the more prominent examples of what I regard as an unfortunate bloat in the sub-genre's definition.  Largely for marketing reasons, Urban Fantasy has become a catch-all category. Almost anything that is not categorized as 'High' or 'Epic' fantasy appears to have been stuffed into the Urban Fantasy box.

As a result, 'What is Urban Fantasy?' is becoming a question with no wrong answer.

Over at The Creative Penn, British author Joanna Penn defends this excessively broad definition:
"Urban fantasy has been defined by the places in which the fantasy (magic and or strange creatures, usually) is set – i.e. the urban environment. It gives flexibility in terms of the time period; the city could be in the Victorian, Tudor, post-American civil war – whenever.  As long as the fantasy is rooted in the city, it’s urban fantasy.

Whilst I can see the sense of this, I don’t like to chain what I consider to be urban fantasy to being set in densely populated cities."
Now, while I respect Ms. Penn's desire for creative latitude, this is little more than Humpty Dumpty reasoning.  It's rather like saying one doesn't like to chain what one considers to be vegetarian cook-books to collections of recipes that don't include meats.  

Ms. Penn goes on to provide her more inclusive definition of Urban Fantasy as:
 [M]agic and weird stuff creeping in at the edges of a world in which magic is not the norm.
I like this definition. It has elegance. It is spare, clear and concise. Unfortunately, it is the precise definition of Low Fantasy ('Low' not denoting of quality, but of the sub-genre's contrasting relationship with 'High' Fantasy which occurs in worlds such as Earthsea or Middle Earth where magic and 'weird stuff' are the norm) and not that of Urban Fantasy.

While Urban Fantasy fits within the broader definition of Low Fantasy, the relationship does not flow both ways. Much of Low Fantasy is not urban. The same is true of Contemporary Fantasy if we restrict our definition to Fantasy works set in the here and now.  While the majority of Urban Fantasy works are contemporary in their setting, a work of Contemporary Fantasy in which the urban environs play no part cannot reasonably be called Urban Fantasy.

Why then such unreason?  Why have seemingly rational people like Ms. Penn, who no doubt expect their ham and cheese omelets to contain both ham and cheese, their Bordeaux wine to come from Bordeaux, and their romantic comedies to at least take a stab at both romance and comedy suddenly gone fifty shades of Humpty Dumpty on us when it comes to Urban Fantasy?

I suspect it comes down to money and street cred.

Urban Fantasy has the benefit of sounding kind of cool. When asked what one writes, answering 'Urban Fantasy' has a sort of gritty elan to it.  It's as though you get to snap up the collar of your trench coat and draw down the brim of your fedora as you say in a low and mysterious voice, "Me? I write Urban Fantasy,".  Contemporary Fantasy, on the other hand, sounds somewhat less dramatic; more like a line of sofas at Crate and Barrel than a happening literary niche. 

And of course, that whole 'cool' vibe is just cat-nip for marketing weasels, which is why you see publishing houses pushing as Urban Fantasy scores of titles that aren't vaguely urban, and are all too often Paranormal Romances attempting to cash in on Urban Fantasy's cache'.  If that means the Urban Fantasy moniker is diluted to the point of meaninglessness, it's no never-mind to the hucksters as long as the cash registers keep ringing.  When they stop ringing, after all, the hucksters can simply move on and never mind the mess they've left behind.

If there is no wrong answer when someone asks what Urban Fantasy is, then there is no right answer either.  However convenient and inclusive it may be in the short term, a sub-genre without boundaries has no future.

At the end of the day, words that mean whatever we choose them to mean have no meaning at all.  

- J. D. Popham


  1. To be fair, English is not my primary language, but honestly as far as the meaning of the word "urban" is concerned anything where the roads have proper sidewalks counts.

    1. Ramarren - Alas, sidewalks in and of themselves are not sufficient.

      Per Merriam-Webster:
      Urban adjective \ˈər-bən\ : of or relating to cities and the people who live in them.

      From the Latin urbanus, from urbs city

      While different countries vary in the way they define Urban Areas, the US, Britain, Canada and France all use a formula in accord with UN recommendation for such measurements.

      Per the US Census, an urban area comprises one or more places ("central place") and the adjacent densely settled surrounding territory ("urban fringe") that together have a minimum of 50,000 persons. The urban fringe generally consists of contiguous territory having a density of at least 1,000 persons per square mile.

      For the 2000 census a new term, urban cluster, was added for areas that don't meet the 50,000 person threshold, but pass a 10,000 person threshold and have a population density of 1,000 persons per square mile.

  2. Why must you make me think all the time?

    I wonder what Urban Fantasy makes of China Miéville. King Rat and The City and The City yes. Perdido Street Station? No, it's "New Weird" despite taking place in New Crobuzon which is about as urban as you can get. That's just one author. The cities of speculative fiction are legion.

    Surely any definition of "Urban" Fantasy should work for any definition of "urban"? I find Urban Fantasy a misleading term without context but Low-Urban-Contemporary-Supernatural Fantasy would be ridiculous.

    Lets not even touch the definition of fantasy. I'm reading Terminal World. So far it's pretty urban and fantastic but it's not Urban.

    It's not just marketing that's the problem, it's the human desire to summarize in labels which is a useful talent in brief but has gotten us into no end of trouble pretty much everywhere once the label becomes a truth rather than a mnemonic. I'll pass on the philosophy and instead offer you a challenge. See how far you can get into producing a taxonomy (domain-kingdom-phylum-class) of speculative fiction without it annoying you.

    I got off topic there. See the first line of the comment. Enjoyed it anyway. Thanks!

    1. It's more a venn diagram than a taxonomy tree. I'll put that on my to-do list ;)

      If the fantasy isn't urban, it isn't Urban Fantasy. Full stop. That's a point of exclusion for the genre.

      Now, a work can be urban, but not be Urban Fantasy. The rules for inclusion once you get past the 'urban' qualifier are, as you point out, a bit messy and can be controversial. I decided I'd go after the low-hanging urban qualifier first and take on the rough stuff in a subsequent post.

      At the end of the day, if one doesn't like being constrained by genre definitions one shouldn't label one's work a genre to which, by the most basic definition, it doesn't belong.

  3. Labels are useful in that they help organize, as long as it is understood that one work may have multiple labels at once, with varying degrees of applicability. With that in mind, I have no problem with a work being filed under its predominant label, even if it doesn't fully apply.

    For example, I have spent the last year getting caught up on an Urban High Fantasy series, which at times dipped its toes into the waters of Paranormal Romance (luckily not too much). Right now, I'm reading a book from an Urban Low Fantasy series, which could also be described as Paranormal Hardboiled.

    We may have to wait until all the hucksters have moved on, before we can sensibly define what is or isn't "Urban Fantasy".

    1. There will always be the points of overlap you describe. 'Penny Dreadful', for example, combines Urban Fantasy, and Steampunk Science Fiction. This sort of mixing of types is endemic to the form and your predominant label approach is quite standard.

      What I am taking issue with in the post, however, is not genre overlap or predominant labeling. It is the wholesale appropriation of a genre label by authors and publishers whose works do not meet the basic genre qualifications. It not is predominant labeling, because such works in question haven't the requisite elements needed to qualify, even in part, as Urban Fantasy.

      It's true that we could wait until the hucksters and poseurs have have finished debasing the sub-genre before we speak up. But that would be wrong. If we aren't willing to stand up for a thing we value, then perhaps we don't value it as much as we think.

  4. Does urban fantasy need to be a subset of low fantasy?

  5. Wanted to comment few weeks ago but did not have time. Couldn't help notice Jim butcher storm front pic. Do you read his books ? How is Skin Game?

    I could not help but noticed most of urban fantasy the main characters are either law enforcement or amateur sleuth. Any take on that ? In my opinion it's the whodunit aspect the fantasy part is just the wrapping

    1. Jim Butcher was my point of entry to current Urban Fantasy and I've continued reading him as I explore the sub-genre. Skin game awaits my return to DC and I'll be reviewing it shortly thereafter.