Predictable Urban Fantasy Bashing – the female edition

In the SFF community, the neverending genre versus literary debate has given way to the equally persistent but not quite so enduring slugfest of “Let’s all bash urban fantasy, because it has relationships and – gasp – sex and is probably all porn anyway.”

We’re used to hearing that sort of thing from male critics and writers, but the most recent volley comes from a woman. Stina Leicht guestblogs at Aidan Moher’s site that she writes urban fantasy without sexy vampire detective and tattooed women, but about fey and terrorism in early 1970s Ireland. Which sounds pretty fabulous in fact.

Stina Leicht is understandably frustrated to be mistaken for a paranormal romance writer, just because she’s a woman, when her novel is not romance at all. Women writers often suffer from being pigeon-holed into special women-only genres, which are of course deemed inferior to the general (i.e. male) genres, whether it’s romance, chick lit, women’s fiction, paranormal romance and urban fantasy, etc… Joanna Russ called this “false categorization” in How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Being pigeon-holed in a women-only genre can be frustrating enough, when you actually belong there. It’s even more frustrating, if you don’t.

There’s also nothing wrong with women not liking romance or urban fantasy – plenty of women don’t read romance. But deciding that she cannot write about a female protagonist, because otherwise she wouldn’t be taken seriously and her book would be confused with “those books over there” is not exactly helpful in overcoming the bias against fantasy – both urban and epic, romantic or not – written by women.

It seems a lot of women have internalized the prejudices against women’s writing and female dominated genres and react by rejecting those labels for themselves, because they want to belong to the “right sort of club”. But while tearing down other women to gain acceptance from a usually male-dominated establishment may be seductive (I’ve done it myself, when I was younger and stupider), it doesn’t work. Because your status as “one of the guys” will only be at risk again next week, when you dare to like something they don’t like or reject something they do. Really, it’s better not to play that particular game, but call others (mostly men, but some women as well) out on their prejudices against certain genres and subgenres.

Besides, speculative fiction is a big genre with room for everyone. And if one subgenre is not to someone’s taste, fine, there are plenty of others. I personally don’t like cyberpunk, singularity fiction and the sort of extremely depressing and extremely violent epic fantasy that is popular these days. But you don’t hear me tearing down those genres or those who write them.

Besides, I really wonder about those people who complain that the definition of urban fantasy has completely shifted in the past few years, because it simply isn’t true. The 1980s urban fantasy by the likes of Charles de Lint and Emma Bull or the somewhat later contributions by Neil Gaiman are still part of the same tradition and continuum as the works of Charlaine Harris, Patricia Briggs, Carrie Vaughn, Lilith Saintcrow, etc… And indeed many of today’s trends date back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, e.g. the first vampire detective novel (sadly out of print and extremely difficult to procure) came out in 1987.

A blogger named Mfred has similar issues with Stina Leicht’s post and expresses them in more drastic terms. She also has a follow-up post responding to a commenter who criticized her tone.

Writer Patrice Sarath, who also had her books miscategorized as romance, offers her take here.

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6 Responses to Predictable Urban Fantasy Bashing – the female edition

  1. Hi Cora,
    Thanks for referencing my blog post. Just a couple of things: my first name is Patrice, not Patrica.

    As I mention in my post, it’s partly marketing that has made paranormal romance such a cliched genre. Marketing commissions the cookie cutter covers, marketing writes the back cover copy, etc. Because of that, the genre has become very confining for authors. And as a female writer, the danger is that it automatically places us in paranormal romance, when we are writing something very different. Which confuses readers, who were expecting something else, etc.

    If I were specifically writing a paranormal romance I’d embrace the field — of course I would. I love romance, love writing about relationships, etc. But I write fantasy, and it’s frustrating that I was placed where I don’t belong.

    Thanks again,

    Patrice with an e. ; -)

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for commenting, Patrice, and sorry about the spelling mess-up. That should teach me not to post when I’m tired. The mistake has been corrected, of course.

      I completely understand the frustration of having your book packaged and labeled as something it isn’t. And automatically linking urban fantasy/paranormal romance with female writers is annoying as well, both for female fantasy writers who don’t write urban fantasy and male writers who do and have to use gender-neutral pen names, such as T.A./Tim Pratt or Daniel Abraham/M.L.N. Hannover.

      I actually like many urban fantasy covers. The early ones were often striking and very well designed. Though the urban fantasy cover style has become cliché by now and many of the new covers are just copycats of what has come before. It’s also telling that a lot of books which were originally issued with very different covers, are now suddenly reissued with urban fantasy style covers or switch to such covers in mid series. Though it’s not as if other fantasy subgenres have never had bad covers.

      But the offhand dismissal of urban fantasy and paranormal romance by many SFF readers and critics annoys me, particularly if that dismissal is based mainly on covers and hearsay and not on actually having read any of the books in question. And I can’t shake the feeling that the reasons behind this offhand dismissal is that urban fantasy is strongly identified with women these days, that the genre is frequently read and written by women (though not exclusively), that the protagonists are usually women (though not exclusively) and that some (though not all) books place more emphasis on romance and sex than other SFF subgenres. There is a lot of latent misogynism behind this urban fantasy dismissal (and the dismissers are usually men), even though most deny it, when called on it.

      Meanwhile, male identified subgenres like sword and sorcery, certain ultra-violent types of epic fantasy or military SF don’t get nearly as much crap as urban fantasy and paranormal romance, even though the ratio of good examples versus bad examples is the same. And I don’t think anybody has ever tried to evict any of those subgenres from the wider SFF genre, while plenty of people regularly complain about all those urban fantasy and paranormal romance novels in the SFF section.

  2. Aidan Moher says:

    Another rebuttal to @StinaLeicht's post about Urban Fantasy. Looks like the Romance fans aren't too happy…

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