Perusing our morning emails and blogs, we noticed this particular article posted over at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist. The article is an opinion piece by Urban Fantasy author Lilith Saintcrow, of Dante Valentine fame, on the definition of Urban Fantasy, its detractors, and how it is more than just chicks in leather with skillz. The article has caused something of a tempest over at Pat’s blog, with comments ranging from supportive of Ms. Saintcrow’s position, to openly and wildly misogynistic. And, as reviewers that read a lot of Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance, we want to weigh in on the situation. Thea will be posting her thoughts on Urban Fantasy and Ms. Saintcrow’s argument here, while Katie (aka Blossum) will post her thoughts as they apply to Paranormal Romance at her spot.
I am an avid reader of Urban Fantasy, and Lilith Saintcrow’s article left me with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was eagerly nodding along with her points about tough gal female characters as empowering, and that Urban Fantasy (henceforth “UF”)can be so much more than just chicks in leather with big guns (or magic powers, or katanas, or…you get the picture). On the other hand, there are quite a few things I disagree with so far as her article is concerned (much like this excellent post on the article over at OF Blog of the Fallen).
Ms. Saintcrow centers her argument on the idea the UF is defined as follows:
What truly defines UF, and why the genre has exploded recently, is the moral and ethical ambiguity of its protagonists.
In urban fantasy, the protagonist is dealing as best they can with a world where “good” is relative. Moral and ethical quandaries lurk under the surface, there are very few clear examples of pure unstained good. The lead character’s talents and abilities either set her apart in or initiate her into a world where there is very little in the way of certainty. Friends and foes change places, and antihero isn’t so much the order of the day as that old noir trope, the “decent person in an indecent world”.
I like the application that UF is defined not only by a solo protagonist in a city, using magic in some way–but that a large distinction lies in the morally ambiguous issues raised in the work. I can get on board with this! In many ways, the new UF (and I’m talking the mainstream Harry Dresdens and Rachel Morgans in the POST Anita Blake literary landscape) is very similar to the hardboiled detective novel, or a spaghetti western (heck, even said Rachel Morgan books play on Sergio Leone titles!). Much like The Man With No Name, these new UF protagonists are hardly ever spotlessly pure and moral; they walk in the tenuous gray areas, wrestling with tough scenarios where solutions aren’t as cleanly distinguished between Good and Bad. This is me, nodding my head along with Ms. Saintcrow’s assertions.
But then, there’s the Gender Card, and the sweeping generalizations:
But romance or urban fantasy? You might as well start embroidering your own scarlet letter, honey.
Paranormal romance is considered lowbrow and trashy because it’s female. Despite the fact that it’s a multibillion-dollar business (and every dollar a woman shells out for it costs more because let’s face it, we earn a lot less), it’s still that pink-jacketed crap for bored housewives. Tom Clancy is supposed to be Real and Hard-Hitting, even if his “novels” are thinly-veiled technical manuals. Nora Roberts is supposedly less Real because she writes about feeeeeeelings. While we could debate the relative merits of Clancy vs. La Nora all day–and not agree, mind you, because Roberts is just plain the better writer–the fact remains that Clancy has a better shot at being considered “serious” because his is MAN’S FICTION.
Smell that testosterone, baby.
Urban fantasy is mostly women’s fiction too. (Yes, I know there are significant exceptions, like Jim Butcher, Simon Green, and Charles de Lint. We’ll get to that.) There’s a lot of crossover between paranormal romance and urban fantasy. I like to say that UF is PR without the HEA (that’s Happily Ever After, for those just joining us.)
Here’s where I have to frankly disagree. Yes, UF and Paranormal Romance are knocked around as lowbrow crap. Yes, UF has a large female readership and many women authors. Would I go so far as to say UF is “women’s fiction”? No. What about those authors Ms. Saintcrow mentions, how about Butcher and Green and de Lint (or Gaiman, or the up and coming Anton Strout, etc.)? As Larry points out in his post–she never really goes back to address these male voices in the genre. Furthermore, how about male authors who write female protagonists like T.A. Pratt or Mark Henry? Or for that matter, women who write male protagonists like Rob Thurman? Ms. Saintcrow takes a very narrow approach to UF, which in turn limits her argument.
But she does have a point that UF and Paranormal Romance are sneered upon by ‘mainstream’ readers (or readers in general, as is clearly seen in the comments section of the original post).**Note: For my purposes, I am separating UF and Paranormal Romance here, as I firmly disagree with Ms. Saintcrow’s lumping the two very different genres together.**
It is the cause of said sneering where I disagree with Ms. Saintcrow. I would argue that the lowbrow perception of UF stems not from the notion that it is “women’s literature” (although I do agree that there is a negative association especially with empowered female characters of the UF or Paranormal Romance variety–more on that later), but rather from the fact that UF is GENRE FICTION. And Genre Fiction, whether it be Military Science Fiction or High Fantasy or Historical Romance, comes with a set of stereotypes and conventions. For example, some fantasy suffers from the perception that there are Orcs and Evil Sorcerers running rampant, and One Leader of pure heart (and possibly some unbeknown royal blood) with some magical weapon or skill will staunch the Darkness thereby restoring Peace to the Land. Or Historical Romance involves a pretty heroine of lower birth (and strong spirit) faced with desperate financial/marital/familial straits, and a hero of higher social/economic status (or is in some way to help the heroine out of her troubles). The two of them hook up, have some form of misunderstanding, but eventually get married and live Happily Ever After.
Similarly, the typical (After Anita Blake) female protagonist centered UF convention involves a badass leather-clad chick, wielding magic and/or some type of lethal weapon, going about in an alternate version of some known urban locale, working a job to avert some kind of paranormal catastrophe (under some form of death threat).
As with any genre fiction, there are huge differences within the genre itself, in terms of writing level, characters, and challenging those restrictive and misleading conventions–separating the Patrick Rothfusses, Loretta Chases, or Kim Harrisons from the mediocre voices in the genre. Such as…well, to be perfectly frank, Lilith Saintcrow.
Yes, I would argue that Ms. Saintcrow’s writing falls victim to her own essay. I have read Working for the Devil, Ms. Saintcrow’s first Dante Valentine novel, and a book I *really* did not enjoy (review HERE). Why not? Firstly, because Dante Valentine fits every stereotype of the new wave UF genre: she’s a trash talking, leather wearing, sword swinging, emotionally retarded badass with magic powers (she’s even a necromancer). Dante is an Anita Blake knockoff, ready-built and packaged for the Anita Blake readership–and unfortunately, she’s nowhere near as fun as the real thing (at least Anita Blake up to book 7). That’s fine, I can deal with a paler heroine. The dealbreaker for me with Working for the Devil lay in the non-existent character development, shoddy descriptions, weak dialogue, vague worldbuilding, and mediocre (at best) writing.
In short, Ms. Saintcrow’s Danny Valentine perpetuates those same annoying stereotypes and genre conventions that give UF its bad rap–a fact that is only exacerbated by the weaksauce writing.
But enough on Ms. Saintcrow’s Dante Valentine. Let us return to the original post, and the other part of Ms. Saintcrow’s argument that really bugged me:
Urban fantasy is pretty much the only genre today exploring not only the ethics of power and consent, but also serious questions of violence and gender relations from a primarily female point of view. There are significant exceptions, to be sure–I mentioned them above; UF series with male protagonists. But the really huge bump in titles has been series and books with female protagonists, examining these questions from a female perspective.
There’s something about this that rubs me the wrong way–not that I disagree with the statement that female protagonist UF marks an examination of the ethics of power and consent from a female standpoint. No, I disagree with Ms. Saintcrow’s assessment that UF is pretty much the only genre exploring power and consent from a gendered application, and the insinuation that UF is the trailblazing pioneer of such examination in literature. I cannot agree with this at all.
I agree that this is a huge part of many female centered UF books–women empowered, able to fight for themselves, tote guns and go toe to toe with the big boys in terms of violence and intelligence. That is one of the reasons I love many books in the genre–I like reading about Rachel Morgan using her magic to save her friends and trick Demons, or Mercy Thompson outsmarting a foe that has underestimated her intelligence. This is probably the main reason I read this type of UF!
But to argue that UF is the only genre that attempts this? The first genre to attempt this?
I would have to answer with a resounding NO. For example, let’s take a look at superhero comics, which have been around for a long time (certainly before Anita Blake). Superhero comics are another example of genre fiction, often seen as lowbrow or immature. And, incidentally, these comics include a number of leather clad, weapon and/or magic toting, badass chicks. There’s the morally ambiguous Selina Kyle, the tortured Rogue or immensely powerful Jean Gray. Oh, and lets not forget the ultimate personification of empowered, sexy, kick-ass heroine: Princess Diana, Wonder Woman herself. What’s even more interesting, is that by Ms. Saintcrow’s definition, comics would be perceived as “male fiction”. Curiouser and curiouser.
These superhero comics are only one literary example of other applications of gender to issues of violence, power and consent separate from the UF genre. There are examples of this in Science Fiction (in particular, Military Science Fiction), in Fantasy (of varied subgenres), or even Literary Fiction. UF does it extremely well, but it’s certainly not the first or only example.
And yet–for all that I may disagree with Ms. Saintcrow’s limited definition of UF as women’s fiction and some of her gendered interpretations of the genre (my eyes glaze over when I read phrases like the “Dark Feminine”), she does have a valid point in that there is a stigma associated with empowered, shamelessly violent, self-sufficient heroines. This comes through loud and clear in the comments section of the post–as the first commenter states:
I don’t see that changing the gender of the protagonist adds another layer of tension, as she seems to think. There is nothing inherently more interesting about being a female protagonist. The downside however is that the paranormal romance heroines are about ten times more unrealistic in what they do, partly because at the end of the day, they are still women and not men, and do not have the physical prowess and imagining them do the things the female authors of this subgenre have them do, takes even more suspension of disbelief. It’s self-indulgent tripe. Wish fulfillment. Which is fine if you want to write that sort of stuff and you can actually find a market full of female buyers for it. After all, Harlequin sells loads of erotic romance books as well. But don’t try to pass it off as anything more than that.
As a woman, as a reader of many different genres, I am incredibly offended by this statement, and by subsequent comments on the blog. Clearly, the misogynistic attitude towards empowered women, and so called “women’s fiction” does exist–especially in the realms where female protagnoist UF and Paranormal Romance are concerned. There are a number of other remarkably bigoted comments, some assertions that it just isn’t realistic for a 5’2″ woman to possible take down a larger man no matter how intensely trained they are in whatever martial art. Any more unbelieveable than Rocky Balboa taking down the ‘roided up Ivan Drago despite being half his size? Mr. Miyagi overcoming his brittle old man bones and single-handedly whooping the collective Cobra Kai’s ass? Or in real life, how about the scrappy Manny Pacquiao annihilating the much larger and stronger Oscar De La Hoya?
Or shit, while we’re on it, how about David and freaking Goliath?
Something that also might be addressed is how many of these commenters are other genre fiction readers, with the mindset that “my genre fiction is better than yours!” UF readers are eager to dismiss Paranormal Romance (or Romance in general) as trash. High Fantasy fans calling UF crap. We’re all entitled to our own opinions, and to read or avoid what we wish. But within any genre in the universe, there will always be some trash, but there also will always be the gems. Calling an entire collection of literature, an entire genre trash?
That’s more than just a tad disingenuous.
Additional Thoughts: If anyone is looking for some excellent (post-Anita Blake), female protagonist centered Urban Fantasy, here’s my list of recommended reading:
- The Hollows (Rachel Morgan) series by Kim Harrison
- Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs
- Weather Warden series by Rachel Caine
- Succubus series by Richelle Mead
- Anita Blake series (through book 7) by Laurell K Hamilton
- Magic series by Ilona Andrews
- Women of Otherworld series by Kelley Armstrong
- Wicked Lovely series by Melissa Marr (Young Adult)
- Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead (Young Adult)
Make sure to stop by Katie’s blog for her insights on the article as it pertains to Paranormal Romance!