Urban fantasy: a maligned name?

Urban fantasy: a maligned name?

I have a-plenty to say about the genre term “urban fantasy”. It is a much maligned name, with the purists in genre fiction rolling their eyes and sniffling with disdain. Because urban fantasy has been associated with paranormal romance and erotica – and the purists are probably turned off by the presence of too much girl cooties and perfect alpha male abs.

Now, I am writing this from the position and perspective of an urban fantasy writer. I write urban fantasy set in Singapore, about Chinese werewolves and other non-human groups I call the Myriad. The protagonist is Jan Xu, wolf and woman and leader of her clan-pack. She is also married and has three kids. And no, my books do not have a lot of hanky panky – and yes, there are elements of fantasy in the world, like elves, fae, orang bunian and harimau, elements and beings I took from the mythology of the region I am living in: Southeast Asia.

Change of term?

But with urban fantasy being now synonymous with paranormal romance and erotica, I am seriously contemplating changing how I call my fiction. There are now calls for it to be called “contemporary fantasy”, so as to differentiate itself and not to be confused with the steamy sex now seen as integral in paranormal romance.

Let me argue the fact that urban fantasy has long been there. Writers like Charles de Lint started the genre with beautiful and complex portrayals and interactions of humans and animal people, set in a landscape that is both mundane and beautiful. When I started writing the Jan Xu series, I envisioned something like that as well. I saw the politics and the differences between the diverse groups all trying to co-exist peacefully on the same island. I also saw the beauty and the mystery of the non-human groups and the interplay of legend and myth. I wanted to see how Chinese werewolves (or just wolves, in my series) cope with assimilating into the dominant human culture in Singapore

Urban fantasy =/= paranormal romance!

I do not know when exactly urban fantasy became paranormal romance and erotica. Not that I am against it – some of you might get angry and offended at my point of view. But in no way am I against paranormal romance. If you write it, power to you. If you publish it, power to you. Perhaps, it started with Laurell. K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series with hot men and even hotter sex. Suddenly, abs and perfect bodies became a thing, complete with steamy sex scenes. Suddenly, we have alpha males with smouldering looks and naked torsos. (Not to mention Twilight and its ilk…)

Then I started seeing the same thing over and over again. Then came the glut.

Sexism and lack of true diversity in publishing

Moreover, I would like to point out that urban fantasy written by men seems to be deemed superlative than women. Women do write urban fantasy, but once a man writes an urban fantasy series, it is suddenly deemed way much “legit” and acknowledged as best in the genre. Why is that so? Because he adds in noir, crime and other masculine things? Women also add in noir, crime and other masculine things. But because women are writing, the things we write are also perceived as feminine. I wanted to see change in urban fantasy. I wanted to see mothers taking charge. Mothers with children. Unfortunately, what I might be construed by the genre purists is that I am writing about girl stuff. Girl cooties! Girl cooties = no readers! I still lose out in the end.

So, as a writer, I would like to challenge certain concepts and issues.

1. Do we need to keep the term ‘urban fantasy’ as it is?
2. Why do we discriminate between the writing of men and women urban fantasy writers?
3. In the drive for diversity, do we have to acknowledge that other kinds of urban fantasy exist and all are accepted?
4. Do we blame publishing?
5. Do we blame sexism? (and other ‘isms’)

As we are pushing for diversity, this is something we have to look at, without hand-waving it away or belly-aching, because “you are so mean” or “you don’t understand me!” I also hasten to add that the push for diversity is already problematic: it is a purely US-centric affair – while you push for your diversity and dictate publishing and reading policy for the rest of the world, look beyond your boundaries. The world is already diverse!

Such blinkered perceptions have to go. Perhaps we can start with looking at urban fantasy and rest of genre fiction without that blinkered view first, before judging anyone.

Note: I would also argue that regional publishing industries seem to be heavily influenced by US publishing policies. We get many urban fantasy titles from the US and the UK, and yet our own shelves lack those by local and regional writers.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. elainefelicity
    Nov 06, 2014 @ 12:08:52

    What a fantastic post. I think the ‘urban’ part of Urban Fantasy speaks to the readers who do see beauty in the mundane. My first foray into the genre was Kate Griffin’s ‘Madness of Angels’ and it was sensational. I find that fantasy, as a whole, is sometimes laughed at by outsiders which is incredibly sad.

    I too am writing a UF series and mine doesn’t have get overtaken by the sex value. My main love story is between a married couple who’s love is soul deep, not sex deep.

    Awesome post. XO


    • jolantru
      Nov 06, 2014 @ 12:51:51

      Hi Elaine,

      Thank you! I got started with Charles’s wonderful series about animal people and how they co-exist. 🙂

      I would like to see more stories about married couples too. And regarding fantasy: that deserves another blog post, lol! 🙂


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