So what the hell is Urban Fantasy, anyway?

Here’s a confession: I usually have to be told what my books are.

Well, not what they are. I know that they’re squarish piles of paper with writing on them that have been bound together in a great big factory somewhere. But I still remember the day when I was told that my second novel, The Company Man, was not, in fact, science fiction, but was instead “dieselpunk,” a subgenre I was totally ignorant of. And just the other day, I happened to mention to someone that my third novel, The Troupe, was Urban Fantasy. And the response I got was a cringe, a slow shake of the head, and: “Nnnnnnoooot really.”

I’ll be honest: Urban Fantasy has always confounded me a little, and I think this is mostly because I’ve always chosen to define it quite broadly:

Urban Fantasy: a speculative fiction story with fantastical elements in an urban setting of what is very recognizably the real world.

I asked about this on Twitter the other day, assuming my definition was more or less correct.

I then received, at last count, 132 responses.

Some of them were part of an ongoing conversation I was just copied on. But the opinions about exactly what the hell Urban Fantasy is varied so wildly that I started taking notes, like I was caught in a storm of butterflies with especially outrageous colors.

For starts, some define Urban Fantasy as having a definite style, akin, I think, to noir. Justin Landon of “Staffer’s Musings” made this point, saying Urban Fantasy must have a “thriller” structure to it, and Kristin of “My Bookish Ways” supported it by saying that in Urban Fantasy, the singular city itself – Chicago, New York, San Francisco – must have a very distinct character of its own. All very much like a noir novel with fantasy elements.

This crossed over a bit to the repeated assertion that Urban Fantasy must take place in modern times – a fantasy story set in 1870’s Chicago was not Urban Fantasy. If Urban Fantasy is a cross of Fantasy with another genre – noir, thriller, and so on – Historical Fiction is not an ingredient in that cocktail.

So far, it sounded an awful lot like modern noir with magic. Which is a lot more specific than my definition.

Stina Leicht, however, made the point that Urban Fantasy has elements of the punk music scene, and contains much of the same underground, gritty, artistic style, specifically referencing Charles de Lint and Emma Bull. She also very clearly said that Urban Fantasy is not Paranormal Romance, and many agreed that these two often get confused, when they’re actually quite distinct.

I can’t possibly go over the full conversation here (and I thank everyone who contributed), but I started to feel a little confused about some of the definitions I was hearing. Because nearly everyone had a very, very specific idea of what Urban Fantasy was, and had books and stories to reference and back up that idea. And when I checked them out, those books and stories claimed to be Urban Fantasy, even if this put them in loud disagreement with one another.

The feeling I got from all of this was that a specific appeal is now more commonly found, and more prized, than a broad one. Urban Fantasy is itself a subgenre, but within that broad definition there are hundreds of little mini-sub-genres, Balkanized little genre city-states that are, to some degree, quietly at war with one another, each claiming to be different from the next – even though, to the uninitiated, they all look more or less the same. A reader unfamiliar with SFF will simply look at it, and say, “Oh, there’s magic in it? Then it’s fantasy.” Though this might incur a long expository argument from the initiated.

Our entertainment is now created with a set of very specific reference points in mind, and our love of that entertainment is increasingly impenetrable to outsiders. In today’s time of constant information flow, we expect our fiction to be informed by that same amount of information. You must know the background of several pop culture and literary touchstones in order to begin to understand the work.

So, we don’t want a broad following – we want a cult following, an intimate, intense, historied relationship with the work. And for some, you can’t just love a book : you have to create a whole new category for it, and a history of that category, and you must compare and contrast it against the others. It’s like literary criticism on methamphetamines, only now you aren’t comparing literary movements that take place over decades, but genre trends that emerge and dissipate within months.

Book awareness is now viral – but don’t forget that viruses tend to exhaust themselves fairly quickly.

Is this a bad thing? I’m not sure. I definitely think that the internet, whose feed is so huge that people will find themselves restricted to narrow avenues of information, is going to increasingly Balkanize nearly every form of entertainment. We’re going to start a lot more conversations with, “Oh, you don’t know about _______? Really?” Soon, we’ll all be the record store clerks from High Fidelity on some subject or another.

While this does build a close bond with your entertainment, it’s obstructive to nearly everyone else. A work’s following will grow much more slowly, if it grows at all. And it’s going to get increasingly hard to figure out the lasting power of a work: do you think that audiences in twenty years will be able to look back and decipher the reasons why we laud the work we do today, untangling the history and genre qualifications that make us categorize it as we do? Is a work that is considered great within the genre system capable of lasting outside of that system? I find myself doubting it.

And writers, who probably don’t fashion a story with a specific subgenre in mind – and how could you, since they’re often so narrow, and change so much – will flounder more and more when it comes to the question of, “What genre is it?”

Whatever answer a writer might have to that question, I think they’ll be told more frequently that it is the wrong one.