Author’s note: When I talk about the sections that books live in, I’m talking specifically about the shelving standards at Barnes & Noble booksellers, because that’s where I work and am therefore most familiar with their classifications. I recognize that it’s different at libraries, in some cases, and even in different bookstores, but all those different classifications do – for me – is confuse the issue further. In my mind, there’s no planet on which Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series should be shelved in FICTION. Books-A-Million and Richland County Public Library, I’m looking at you. And while I know that genre pigeonholing is stupid and pointless, I’m using it to discuss genre versus aesthetic, so, for the following post, that’s a moot point.
I also want to give mad props, as the kids say, to Christian McGrath who, while Harry Dresden does NOT wear a hat, not ever, does some of the best mother-f’ing cover art in the fantasy genre. Cover art credits include Jim Butcher, S.M. Stirling, Seanan McGuire, Rob Thurman, and Kat Richardson. Check out his website at http://www.christianmcgrath.com and be awed.
There’s a lot of talk these days that steampunk is an aesthetic, not a genre. The argument is steampunk romance, steampunk mystery, steampunk alternate history, steampunk YA (thanks, Scott Westerfield!), steampunk and magic, steampunk in America, steampunk in Europe, steampunk in…
Yeah, so you see what I mean here. When you think “steampunk,” what do you see? Gears and gouts of steam, blaster goggles and men in toggle-button riding coats, dirigibles and women in dresses that have bodices, people doing SCIENCE!, sepia tones. But you don’t see a universal plot arc like you do in mystery or romance or, dare I say it, literary fiction (which is usually intellectual masturbation; er, I mean, self-discovery). And it doesn’t matter if a steampunk story doesn’t have gears or dirigibles or bodices, it’s what you think of. Check out the cover of Gail Carriger‘s CHANGELESS. You’re hitting most of your major requirements right there. Never mind the fact that self-published steampunk guru Emilie P. Bush doesn’t have a blaster goggle within 20 feet of her protagonist, well, ever. It’s part of the aesthetic, damn it.
And that got me to thinking – there are lots of lists and jokes on websites out there, lots of eye-rolling genre fiends who sigh about it, but there’s something to be said about the tatted-up chick with a sword/shotgun/crowbar on the cover of an urban fantasy book. (You can probably thank Mercy Thompson for this. And that’s another thing – urban fantasy is a mostly female-protagonist genre. That might explain my reluctant admission that I prefer male protagonists in the genre, and my subsequent difficulty in finding books that I LOVE. Anyhow.) And what if that “something” is that Urban Fantasy is an aesthetic rather than a genre? I think it’s more than a What Covers Will Sell issue, and more of an issue of what is intrinsic to the genre/aesthetic.
But beyond the cover art (which also features mysterious men in hats and/or trenchcoats in questionable areas of town), you’re looking at a few things – fast pacing, gritty urban environments, probably some rain or bad weather, a beaten-down protagonist who’s really had the screws put to him/her, someone/something/everyone trying to just kill the shit out of your protagonist, protagonist eventually uncorking to show everyone there that he/she is a towering badass and can kill the shit out of you right back. Oh yeah, and paranormal elements and world building. The world building is very important – it’s our world, even if it’s twisted some: in Laurell K. Hamilton‘s Anita Blake and Merry Gentry series, Kalayna Price‘s Alex Craft series, Faith Hunter‘s Rogue Mage series, Nancy A. Collins‘ Golgotham series, Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, magic is well-known; in Jim Butcher‘s Dresden Files, Rob Thurman‘s Nightlife series, Kate Griffin‘s Matthew Swift series, Cassandra Clare‘s Mortal Instruments (and Infernal Devices) series, Kevin Hearne‘s Iron Druid Chronicles, and Nancy A. Collins’ Sonja Blue series, magic is secret. So it doesn’t matter there, what you choose. But these are all real places (Chicago, New York, London, etc.), or at least fake places in the real world (Price’s Nekros City, Collins’ Golgotham). They’ve all got werewolves (or, as Thurman describes hers, were-people), vampires with varying degrees of sparkle, faerie elements, and, obviously, magic. It doesn’t have to be Harry Potter magic, but there’s an argument to be made that anything abnormal can be described as magic. It’s an argument that I can get behind.
Anyway, the point is, Urban Fantasy has also had paranormal mystery and paranormal romance lumped under it. Though, and I have no problem saying this, I don’t see how something like Mr. B’s Dresden Files, which is just Phillip Marlowe Uses A Blasting Road, ISN’T paranormal mystery. Or how LKH’s Merry Gentry series, which is just Faerie Princess Has Sex To Somehow Nebulously Further The Plot, ISN’T paranormal romance. But Casey Daniels‘ Pepper Martin books are technically paranormal mystery and J.R. Ward‘s Black Dagger Brotherhood are technically paranormal romance and Harry Dresden and Merry Gentry are both technically fantasy. Urban fantasy, even.
Then there’s the question of horror. Clive Barker and Stephen King go in Fiction. Why? Clive Barker writes about demons and Stephen King writes about vampires and aliens. These stories often take place in cities, or somewhere vaguely urban. And Anne Rice is firmly in Fiction – even her Sleeping Beauty trilogy are there, which is just silly, and sort of inappropriate.
What about Brent Weeks‘ Night Angel trilogy? Rachel Aaron‘s Legend of Eli Montpress? Alison Goodman‘s Eon and Eona? Phillip K. Dick‘s The Adjustment Bureau (which, let’s face it, should just be retitled “Sidereals: The Short Story”)? Neil Gaiman‘s Neverwhere? Terry Pratchett‘s Discworld series, for the love of God? Where does it stop? What defines “urban”? What defines “fantasy”? Because even though it’s in Fiction, and pardon me while I vent, Dan Simmons‘ Black Hills is about the ghost of Custer possessing a young Sioux boy, and if that’s not fantasy, I will eat my hat.
Is it, then, about the reader base? Are the covers and protagonists of Thomas Sniegoski and Seanan McGuire and C.E. Murphy and Richelle Mead (who, by the way, has a series about a succubus shelved in Fiction, and a series about the fae in Sci-Fi/Fantasy) and Simon R. Green meant to pander to a certain audience? An audience of gamers and anime fans? Whereas Felix J. Palma‘s Map of Time and Isaac Marion‘s Warm Bodies and Jonathan L. Howard‘s Johannes Cabal books are supposed to appeal to a higher readership? Jesus, is that why they always hide the fantasy section back in the corner, near the Star Trek ship plans and role playing books and manga? Because we’re not functionally capable of anything else?
Here’s what I think happened. I think Roc (Penguin group) found Jim Butcher and bought the Dresden Files and proceeded to make a metric shit-ton of money. And because publishing houses are, above everything else, businesses, they decided to take the business model and run with it. Roc now has more series than I can count about paranormally-enhanced private detective types. And some of these series are really, really good. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I worship at the altar of Rob Thurman and I do not care who knows it. But some of them are questionable, the writing shaky, the protagonist unexceptional, but they follow the formula, and they’re selling. In trade cloth. And that’s a big deal, especially in a genre where most titles go straight to mass-market paperback. But that’s sort of the point: I think Jim Butcher, unintentionally, and Roc, specifically, have created an Urban Fantasy Aesthetic that’s quite a bit different from the first urban fantasy novels on the scene.
You know. Like Dracula.