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.