Why Urban Fantasy probably doesn't get much respect. . .


Much to this subgenre's authors' chagrin, urban fantasy/paranormal romance continues to be considered low-brow and shitty material. And yet, even the most ardent detractors will admit, albeit grudgingly, that there are quality reads out there. Too few according to most for the subgenre and its writers to garner much in the way of respect, however.

To elaborate on this sad state of affairs, I invited urban fantasy author Lilith Saintcrow to write an ad lib column on the subject last year. Her piece generated a lot of discussions, and was followed by another column. Then came Carrie Vaughn's "Deconstructing Urban Fantasy."

Now, I don't mean to flog a dead horse and throw oil on the fire, but this proved to be too much for me. I received a review copy of Jenna Black's Speak of the Devil (Canada, USA, Europe) a few weeks back, and the blurb stuck in my head and won't go away. Knowing that I would likely take some heat if I posted my thoughts online, wisdom prevailed upon me not to do so. But still, that blurb kept nagging at me. So I showed it to a couple of friends, curious to see what they would make of it. Most found it so ridiculous that they thought I had made it up. Their jaws dropped to the floor when I showed them the actual novel. Since they were all men of various ages and since such a book is aimed at a female audience, I elected to try the same experiment with women. Oddly enough, their reaction was even worse. And the word that kept coming back was "trash." Moreover, the majority of the 24 girls I asked opined that they would never bet caught dead with such a book. Fortunately, thousands of women don't share that aversion, which is why this subgenre remains so popular.

Okay, so I'm acutely aware that I'm not the target audience for this sort of thing. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Nor can I judge Speak of the Devil on its own merit, for I have only the blurb to work with. For all I know, Jenna Black might be better than Jim Butcher and Carrie Vaughn put together. But with such blurbs, respect won't come knocking on urban fantasy/paranormal romance's door any time soon.

Don't let the trashy cover influence you. Most urban fantasy and paranormal romance cover art feature the same sort of crap. After all, had I let the cover fool me, I would never have read Carrie Vaughn's Kitty and the Midnight Hour (Canada, USA, Europe). And as you know, I am now a big fan of the Kitty Norville series. And though my agent says that those books are my guilty pleasure, let me assure you that there is no guilt whatsoever on my part. Vaughn writes good books, period!

So here's this blurb:

Morgan Kingsley, America’s most successful exorcist, is paying the price for an exorcism gone wrong. The victim’s family is suing the daylights out of her, the Exorcism Board has suspended her, and now she’s living on a diet of ramen noodles and bad coffee. But Morgan has a few good men at her side. One is her current boyfriend, nice-guy legal eagle Brian, who’s suddenly starting to reveal his inner bad boy. The other is Philly cop Adam White, who’s trying to help Morgan find out who sent her a little present—a severed human hand—and why someone seems determined to destroy her.

As her stalker turns more violent, leaving dead bodies in his wake, Morgan turns to the dark side of her life: a group of demons steeped in secrets, sinful eroticism, and otherworldly family feuds, including one sexy beast who shares Morgan’s body—and some X-rated fantasies. Soon Morgan must choose between her friends, her enemies, and her libido: to escape a mad demon determined to destroy her completely.

Now, that first paragraph isn't at all bad. If not for the mild "chicklit" feel, it is quite similar to the blurb of Jim Butcher's Fool Moon.

But that second paragraph literally killed me. And it had the same effect of basically everyone I showed it to. As I mentioned, Jenna Black can well be a heck of an author. I have no idea, really. But her work has been nominated for urban fantasy awards, so the woman obviously has legions of fans. Nevertheless, for all that this subgenre is a multi-million dollar business, it's awfully difficult to take it seriously with blurbs like these.

Can you imagine attributing such a blurb to authors like George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, or Carlos Ruiz Zafón? Or Robin Hobb and Jacqueline Carey?

Conventional wisdom says that urban fantasy and paranormal romance will continue to be a huge commercial success. Authors such as Laurell K. Hamilton and co. will top the bestseller lists. But I have a feeling that respect will remain as elusive as it has been thus far. . .

26 commentaires:

Dave said...

fantasy in general doesn't seem to get much respect around where I am at least. I duno how people can criticize me reading fantasy when they have read all the harry potter books, as if those somehow didn't count

machinery said...

good fantasy is believable in every setting, imo.
whether it's classic sword and sorcery or more mature fantasy.
urban fantasy is just like that, and let's not forget, while horror books are generaly in their own genre, they are mostly urban fantasy too, right ?
the problem with the new wave of urban fantasy today is that most of it involved vampires and lovely blond heroins who fall in love with them.
and while it's also urban fantasy, it's also more romantic bs that you buy in the k-marts.

Dream Girlzzz said...

Man, this blurb is brutal.

It reads like one of those cheap softcore porn flicks they air late at night...

Patrick said...

Not to mention that cover. WOW is that bad.

Cover+Blurb=No go from me.

It might be decent for all I know but there is a lot more quality stuff out there that is trying a lot harder to get me to read it.

Geoffrey Allan Plauche said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave said...

The first paragraph didn't sound so bad...

Then I read the second one.

I'll stick to American Gods, thank you.

Cindy said...

I did something similar where I showed the book to a friend and they said they didn't feel like reading X rated fantasies.

I knew the book was urban fantasy and not for me so I didn't read the blurb closely. I had the same reaction as did many others that I know.

Caroline said...

Urban fantasy doesn't really need anyone's respect. It is what it is and some people will find excuses not to like it no matter what. Just like they do with romance in general.

sbp said...

Graeme was a big fan of this book and its cover also. heh no one attempted to talk him into giving it another chance since everyone knew it was a lost cause.

http://www.graemesfantasybookreview.com/2009/07/speak-of-devil-jenna-black-dellpiatkus.html
http://www.graemesfantasybookreview.com/2009/07/which-cover-would-you-go-for.html

Gary said...

Mike Stackpole has an interesting theory on this sort of thing. Basicly, publishers identify a hot trend in the market, so they push material out there that should not have been published in the first place. People who really love the sub-genre will buy enough copies to turn a profit on it, but it serves to drag the genre down as a whole. It doesn't help that marketing people don't seem to read the genres the write blurbs and select covers for. Example: See the cover of Gardens of the Moon. Blech. If it had not been recommended so highly to me, I never would have touched it. Worst of all, I'm made to understand that the overwhelming majority of authors have no input whatsoever on their covers or blurbs. Shame, really.

Luis said...

I'm not a fan of either urban fantasy or paranormal romance (if there's a difference between the two, I can't see it) but those who love the genre, and we know there are many, should not worry if their books are respectable or not. SF and fantasy in general has been in that same position since it started and not the worse for wear. Like the late great Rodney Dangerfield said: "I never get no respect!"

OnlyTheBestSciFi/Fantasy said...

Got a good laugh out of the second paragraph. Its an experiment in what happens when you much all the worst stereotypes of a genre together...

Evie said...

Book sales in romance, paranormal romance and urban fantasy with strong romantic elements are up and leading the industry. Many authors have told me they have little influence over their covers, and on the other side of the coin, artists are only given a tiny blurb to work from and rarely have time to read books before working on the art.

I read across the board and admit to enjoying SOME paranormal/urban fantasy but I'm selective. So many of the stories these days are sex saturated. I've not read Virginia Kantra's Children of the Sea series, but I know the opening paragraph includes the word sex. It's what sells.

Fans drive the market and the money in the author's pocket is pretty respectable. A debut romance author sold her manuscript for six figures.

I'm using my library card much more these days.

Alice said...

As a female who browse bookstore regularly, I usually avoid books with covers like those like a plague. The only reason I read Carrie Vaughn's Kitty series was because of your recommendation Pat. And I agree, compared to other paranormal novels out there, their pretty decent.

Liviu said...

I have an arc in my "throw them unopened box" reserved for such but this post piqued my curiosity and I opened it at random on page 207 and it just cracked me up - if you have the book just check that page and you will see why - it's so very bad that it becomes funny like the famous B movies of the 50's - I think I will keep it around so when i am felling blue I will open it at random and have some fun since I have the feeling the whole book is like that

If you like humorous fantasy even if unintended probably this one is for you...

Anonymous said...

I read lots of Urban Fantasy and have read the previous books it this series. While they are not the best ones I have read they are not the worst by far. I can't say what this book is like but the previous books did not have that much actual sex in them and was not a major part of the plot or the books. The books blurbs seem to targeted at the romance crowd but they are not really a Paranormal Romance novel. The first paragraph probably represents whats going on in the book better than the second paragraph does.

Jackie (Literary Escapism) said...

I actually happen to love the Morgan Kingsley series (and can't wait for this to hit the shelves on Tuesday) because there is such a unique UF story behind the covers. Like the previous person said, there's barely any sex in the novels and Morgan isn't the one getting any.

I'll admit, I'm a cover junkie, but I won't let that stop me from picking up a book. Granted, the Tramp Stamp has been pretty prevalent lately, but I've also found a lot of great stories behind these covers.

Plus, I like the more flamboyant covers. They tend to be conversation starters and I've actually converted people over to reading UF/PNR because they've asked me what I was reading.

I don't get the idea of being embarrassed by a cover. It normally doesn't represent the content all that much since the people behind it either haven't read the story or are looking to marketing it.

And quite honestly, the cover shouldn't matter when it comes to the UF/PNR genre getting any respect. It should be the content of the novels. There are a lot of authors out there who can tell amazing stories, but when people look at the covers first, they can miss out. Like Pat has said, the Kitty Norville series doesn't have the greatest of covers, but the story is fabulous. The same can be true of so many others. How do you know that isn't the case here?

WyzWmn© said...

you'll note the urban fantasy sub genre only gets no respect from the people that don't read it...yet it still gets pumped out and sold large

people have scorned that which they do not understand since the beginning of time...I think we only give it credence by continuing to talk about it in a negative fashion...

Anonymous said...

graham joyce has my respect

Cora Buhlert said...

Cheesy covers and badly written or downright misleading blurbs are nothing new, both in and outside SFF.

Unfortunately, when a book is perceived to be aimed at female romance readers, there is the tendency to play up passion, attraction and sex in the blurb and downplay the actual plot. This one isn't even the worst. Take for example, The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale. It's a decent historical novel. Yes, there is a love story, there is even sex, but there also are ninjas. And now look at the blurb.

As for the cover, few urban fantasy covers reach the heights of awfulness found on many epic fantasy covers. Besides, if the US cover offends you, the UK cover is much better.

I still maintain that the true reason why urban fantasy gets little respect in the SFF community is that much of the new style urban fantasy is written by female authors, that it has female protagonists and may contain such icky girl-cootie things as relationships, feelings and - gasp - sex.

Of course, there is a lot of crap in urban fantasy, but there's also a lot of good stuff. I've only read the first book, but IMO Jenna Black's work lies somewhere in the middle.

Renee Sweet said...

The point of the blurb is to sell the book to the story's target audience, right? So, if the publisher has done their job, the story itself should appeal to readers who like action mixed with sex. If that doesn't appeal to you, you probably shouldn't buy the book. Based on the interests of the commenters here, it appears the story may not appeal to them. So, great! The blurb has presumably done its job.

UF is a very diverse genre, despite the broad characterization it's often given and the great deal of crossover between UF and paranormal romance.

I think you're doing the genre (and all genres/sub-genres) a disservice to say it doesn't get respect because a publisher chose to use a cover and blurb to sell to what it felt was the story's target audience.

You're essentially saying that readers who like sex mixed in with their action plots like to read trash and warrant the lack of respect...right? I mena that's not a big leap to make based on your statements and those of many of the commenters here. That's a pretty strong value judgment to make.

Dan Smyth said...

Urban fantasy can be pretty bad. Seems that in some cases it's become another outlet for porn instead of a fun way to lose yourself in a story.

On the flip side, if you want to read some good urban fantasy, check out M.L.N. Hanover (pen-name for fantasy author Daniel Abraham). Seriously good stuff. Yeah, the cover is a bit "flashy/fleshy", but man the guy can write a good story.

RobB said...

This cover looks like a rehash of a Kitty Norville cover.

Anonymous said...

Really, this trend of denoting these books as the genre as "urban fantasy" should stop right when it's starting to get in full swing. It's just not true that all things urban fantasy are Buffy. I thought that was more like Neil Gaiman and China Miéville.

I only found out recently that people seem to think that there is urban fantasy which is stuff like Buffy and Punk chicks. Anyway, this trend is not very interesting and already seems to be exhausted of its potential.

Jackie (Literary Escapism) said...

I don't know anyone who thinks Urban Fantasy is like Buffy and Punk chicks. We're talking about vampire and werewolf detectives, necromancers and exorcists with legal standing, supernaturals just trying to fit in - all of which are written by a wide variety of people. Yes, a prevalent theme is ass-kicking heroines, but why should men have all the fun with guns and swords?

Seriously, though, why is everyone judging the story based on its cover? You wouldn't judge a person by what they look like, right? So why are you judging a book by what it looks like?

Jared said...

I wouldn't touch that cover with a ten foot pole. It feels like the urban fantasy publishers have their market identified, and they're sticking to it, by gum!

I mean, it may be great, but the cover & the blurb are screaming a sort of chick lit/fangbang geekery that isn't my thing. (Not judging if it is YOUR thing - just saying that it is an inherently prejudicial set of visual attributes).

Kind of like Baen - the amount of good books I've not read because I'm too embarrassed of Baen's mandatory chainmail bikini covers... I mean, for every step forward that fantasy takes in foxy cover design, it feels that we get two steps back.