"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?
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.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.
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."
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