Gender and the shifting definitions of epic and urban fantasy

The hot topic of the moment certainly seems to be the differences (and commonalities) between male and female written speculative fiction.

Tansy Rayner Roberts offers her take on the issue at the FableCroft blog.

This post really struck a chord, because like her I have always been drawn more to the quieter character moments (such as chatting over breakfast) than to the big battles, though I enjoy a good fight scene as much as the next girl. But if a fantasy novel is nothing but battle, battle, landscape, some more battle, deep philosophizing, some more battle with not a single glimpse of character beyond deep philosophizing about important issues, it just bores me silly, no matter how many battles and daring escapes and torture scenes and executions the author sticks in.

And yes, Tansy Rayner Roberts also rightly points out that both types of novels, those with lots of big battles and those with lots of nice character moments, are written by authors of both genders.

While on the subject of big battles, at the Orbit blog Daniel Abraham muses that epic fantasy is basically a genre of novels about war.

I have a lot of issues with this post. To begin with, epic fantasy is not going through a renewed period of popularity. The Lord of the Rings movies are almost ten years old by this point and they did not result in a wave of epic fantasy movies. The TV adaption of A Game of Thrones may well be a success, but since it hasn’t aired yet, we cannot know. As for books, the peak popularity of epic fantasy was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when there was almost no fantasy other than big fat multivolume quest fantasies on the shelves. Nowadays, there is still epic fantasy on the shelves and it sells, though the most popular epic fantasy looks different from what was popular in the 1980s and 1990s. However, we also have other fantasy subgenres now, e.g. urban fantasy, steampunk, New Weird, mythpunk, etc… And though the SFF community does not want to hear or believe it, urban fantasy still outsells epic fantasy.

Oh yes, and romance is not about fear of love, it is and has always been a genre of finding love and forging new relationships, families and societies, even if the occasional romance protagonist is hampered by his or her fear of love.

Besides, epic fantasy is traditionally not necessarily a genre of war stories, though wars often feature in epic fantasy. However, a given epic fantasy novel is far more likely to be a quest story or a coming of age story than a war story, though there will probably be a battle or two and maybe even a war in there. What has changed in the past ten years or so, however, is that epic fantasy has become steadily darker and that it is far more likely to feature war and huge battles than before. This is also what lies at the root of the recent “nihilism in epic fantasy” debate (my posts on that subject can be found here), namely that epic fantasy has changed and not everybody is happy about it.

And why has the genre changed? Partly – and here I agree with Daniel Abraham – this is due to the success of A Game of Thrones, which opened the doors for other grittier and darker fantasy novels. Partly it is a reaction to the prevalence of big fat quest fantasy in the 1980s and 1990s, which made many readers and writers turn elsewhere, namely to New Weird, urban fantasy and the new grittier epic fantasy. And the fact that war has been very much on the Anglo-American mind for the past ten years thanks to Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on terror also plays into it, though I don’t like the school of thought that blames each and every cultural trend of the past ten years on September 11th and the war on terror. Never mind that I’m getting very weary of thinly veiled war on terror analogies in SF and fantasy.

Paul Jessup responds to Daniel Abraham and wonders why epic fantasy has come to mean “epic war stories with some magic” in recent years. He also has follow-up posts here and here. Some very good stuff there. I agree that the new “gritty” epic fantasy (of which I am no more a fan than Paul Jessup, it seems) no longer has many of the elements that used to make up epic fantasy and in fact looks more like sword and sorcery than what would have been recognized as epic fantasy in the 1980s and 1990s.

And of course we still have very different stories told inside the epic fantasy paradigm, though those usually are not as popular and well known as the heavy hitters such as George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie or Patrick Rothfuss. For example, Tamara Siler Jones wrote a series of novels that clearly fall into the “gritty epic fantasy” paradigm, yet the novels themselves are police procedurals set in a fantasy world after the big war to end all wars. I enjoyed those books a lot, though it’s perhaps telling that Tamara Siler Jones seems to have fallen off the face of the Earth – neither website nor her blog exist anymore.

While epic fantasy is considered the “manly” genre these days, urban fantasy is definitely considered the “girly” genre since it is dominated by female writers, features many books with female protagonists and even includes – gasp – sex. And the protagonists even enjoy it.

This post is a bit older, but still relevant in the light of the recent gender and fantasy discussion: Stacia Kane wonders why urban fantasy is considered the “girly subgenre” and just why many (male) SFF fans seem to have such problems with it.

However, while urban fantasy is female dominated, there still are several male authors of urban fantasy. One of those male authors is J.A. Pitts, who explains why urban fantasy appeals to him at Grasping for the Wind. Found via Jay Lake.

Personally, I suspect that the reason why urban fantasy is more popular these days than epic fantasy is simply because it tells a wider variety of stories. Urban fantasy still dishes up stories of huge wars with the fate of the Earth and the universe itself at stake, but urban fantasy also offers crime and detective stories, love stories, coming of age stories, quest stories, etc… Urban fantasy can be both light and humourous as well as very dark, though the dark mode is dominant of late and even humourous books are packaged like very dark novels. Finally, urban fantasy features a greater variety of protagonists. Not every urban fantasy protagonist is a straight white man (though many are), but there are also many female protagonists, protagonists of colour, protagonists who are not American, GLBT characters, etc… Urban fantasy is still a very US-dominated genre and still very white, but there is more variety than in epic fantasy.

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9 Responses to Gender and the shifting definitions of epic and urban fantasy

  1. Pingback: Some thoughts on thoughts that others think that I thought « Paul Jessup

  2. Gender and the shifting definitions of epic and urban fantasy –

  3. Matt H says:

    “…this is due to the success of A Game of Thrones, which opened the doors for other grittier and darker fantasy novels…”
    I’d argue that this is partially correct. Glen Cook brought the Black Company to us at least a decade before A Song of Ice and Fire, though I’d say his books garnered more of a cult following rather than the broad impact GRRM eventually developed.

    Interesting thoughts.

    • Cora says:

      I agree that both Glen Cook’s Black Company novels and Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Chronicles could be considered gritty epic fantasy and both predate A Song of Ice and Fire by more than a decade (nearly two for Thomas Covenant). But though both Cook and Donaldson got there first, GRRM was the one who set the trend.

  4. Pingback: More plagiarism allegations and more epic fantasy debates – yes, it’s one of those days | Cora Buhlert

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  6. tambo says:

    Thank you for saying such nice things about the Dubric books. I’m actually still here, only in a different capacity (long story, very boring) and keeping a blog as well as a Facebook page. 🙂 And, I’m working on Stain of Corruption (Dubric #4)

    Again, thank you!! {{huggs}}

    • Cora says:

      I’m glad to hear you’re still around and still writing. I really enjoyed your Dubric books and wondered why the series suddenly stopped.

      Anyway, thanks for commenting. I’m looking forward to Stain of Corruption.

  7. Pingback: Taste Hierarchies and Genre Talk | Cora Buhlert

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