M. John Harrison's take on Urban Fantasy

Thanks to Larry for pointing this out!

Since I brought you guys Lilith Saintcrow and Carrie Vaughn's takes on the urban fantasy subgenre, here are M. John Harrison's thoughts on the subject.

Taken from his blog:

Urban fantasy: the domestication of a few images & behavioural tics which were barely unacceptable in the first place. It was a frisson obtained not so much by glamourising or romanticising the disordered (though it did both) as by denying or correcting the trait paradigms of some common dysfunctional behaviours. It cleaned up what it claimed to be representing & always drew its conclusions from a safe space outside dysfunctionality. A normative manouevre, defining a “good” dysfunctionality (he’s an anorexic self-harming killer elf but he’s our anorexic self-harming killer elf), urban fantasy was often described as having an edge. As a result, by the late 80s, “edgy” had become the publishing synonym for “young adult”. Later, even in publishing, it came to have the same meaning as “bland”.

As was the case with Saintcrow's piece last December, I'm sure that not everyone will agree with Harrison. . .

34 commentaires:

Aidan Moher said...


RedEyedGhost said...

Meh indeed.

It shows just how irrelevant MJH is when it takes Larry a week to find that "interesting entry" (in Larry's words).

Larry Nolen said...

You people amuse me. Rather than commenting on whether or not his observation has any merit, ad hominems I see are already being dropped.


Do you agree or disagree with the statement on urban fantasy?

And for the record, I haven't had time to read any author blogs but one the past few weeks, so are all the rest "irrelevant" just because of that? :P

Anonymous said...

He's right on, but just about urban fantasy. All genres are simply normalization mechanisms for what were once a collection of anti-normal conventions.

RedEyedGhost said...

Were MJH's blog relevant, his point would have been picked up by somebody else would have stirred up an internet shit-storm, and it wouldn't have mattered that you haven't read any authors' blogs in over a week.

Of course his point is just white noise that he nerded up.

We all know that Urban Fantasy is neutered, otherwise it wouldn't be palatable to the legions of horny housewives that read it in place of their normal romance novels, and they wouldn't read it.

So as Aidan stated, "Meh."

Aidan Moher said...

I did comment on his observation, Larry. It just so happens that my entire opinion about MJH, and his pretentious statements, can be summed up in one word.

Unknown said...

I think he certainly sums up the way the marketing comes across to me, but I can't speak to the actual quality or interest of that type of book, having never read one (they don't appeal to me at all).

RobB said...

If I understand MJH's point correctly (and that is doubtful) is that by all these things becoming edgy, a lot of things were becoming edgy and so became the norm. Its all over the place now and has lost its distinctness?

Anonymous said...

I can't see MJH's comments applying to much of the urban fantasy I've read. John M. Ford and Neil Gaiman certainly break this mold. Does anyone really think Charlie Huston's Joe Pitt stories depict safe dysfunctionality or target horny housewives? (If so, where can I find these housewives....)

Maybe MJH has a different perception of urban fantasy than myself. I agree with Colinhead in that this may be more of a remark about marketing than actual content.

Anonymous said...

Because urban fantasy sells well, let's go after it and the horrible people that buy it, yeah that works. All he did was put a well written spin on the statement that he does not understand the popularity of urban fantasy, so there must be something wrong with it and the people who read it. For a mind of his ability, this is silly and low class. The popularity of urban fantasy isn't hurting anyone, and it is what certain people want for entertainment, so just let it the freak go! His take and many other takes are a hostile reaction that deals with far more than just the content of urban fantasy, so I would prefer that Harrison use all that brain power on taking fantasy where he thinks it should go on paper than in whiny attacks on a whole genre that get no one anywhere. Challenge writers in print with your work, not on the internet. Childish, no matter how well written.

Aidan Moher said...


Just to make something clear, big words and complicated sentences do not automatically make something well written. In fact, Harrison would probably have more impact if he tried to articulate his points without all the verbal diarrhea.

Otherwise, I agree with most of what you said.

A Dribble of Ink

Anonymous said...

As my daughter always says: Why use big words when little ones will do.

Jeanne Ryan said...

That's about as informed as my 12 year old daughter's best friend who insists that all vampires are like the ones in Twilight.

Larry Nolen said...


More impact? Helping run New Worlds during its heyday? Influencing quite a few authors, including Miéville, VanderMeer, Swainston, and now Mark C. Newton? Winning multiple awards?


And as for the "big words," I viewed it as MJH using cerulean when he wanted to use cerulean, rather than just "some shade of blue."

Now about his comments themselves:

He's discussing how it seems that in current urban fantasy (something he might be familiar with, since he does review for the Guardian and the NYT, among other places), the vampire/werewolf/other supernatural entity has had its "danger" removed, leading more and more to a neutered, mostly-harmless, emo version of something badass.

So...who disagrees with that notion of said supernatural beings having much of their danger/threat removed in contemporary urban fantasies?

Aidan Moher said...

What I mean, Larry, is that (as RedEyedGhost) pointed out, nobody cared about this article. It was around for a week before you picked it up. Why? Because Harrison's attitude and writing is so obtuse most of the time that most people can't be bothered to try to understand what he's trying to get across.

I don't care what he's done in the past, or who he's influenced, I just don't like the guy or how he portrays his ideas. I can't imagine I'm an exception, either.

As for the topic at hand. I think the answer is that too much schlock is being published. It's not a fault with the genre itself, but rather with the inept authors producing fiction right now. Stoker's Dracula is no less compelling now because Meyer created Edward the emo Vampire. A new author, with a well-drawn, badass Vampire character isn't going to be held back in their accomplishments by the market, it'll be a good book regardless.

On top of it all, many of the great Urban Fantasies are far removed from the vampire/werewolf/furries. I'm not sure how Harrison's argument holds up in the face of Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Carroll or Tim Powers.

A Dribble of Ink

Jeanne Ryan said...

If these characters are so neutered, then who does the chick in leather fight? Who is a match for her romantically?

Even in YA, I wouldn't say the Strigoi or the vamps of Morganville aren't dangerous.

This danger is part of the appeal of the genre. These creatures are still dangerous. I wouldn't want to piss off Jean-Claude or Richard, not to mention Adam, Samuel or Charles. They are just thinking monsters.

And maybe that is his problem with what has happened to these monsters. They aren't less dangerous. They are capable of rational thought, for the most part. That means they are dangerous when they want to be.

If I wanted unthinking monsters, I'd read horror.

Larry Nolen said...


Do you really believe it's that simple? Consider the posts you and others have made over the past few years on how fantasy works are viewed by others. Then look at the contemporary urban fantasy scene and its portrayals. And keep in mind that Gaiman, Powers, et al. that you mention aren't being marketed as being "urban fantasies," but rather as fables or "contemporary fantasies."


I would suppose the chick in leather would fight a less terrifying, more "emo" character ;)

Anonymous said...


How are you drawing the conclusion that vampires/werewolves are becoming less "dangerous" in urban fantasy? If you are talking about books geared to kids (e.g., Twilight) you could make the same generalization about any genre where a book is geared to kids.

I claim that in a world where supernatural creatures live amongst us they would need to be less violent else they get wiped out by their much more numerous prey. This is a theme in Charlie Huston's books but it makes sense if his vampires overreach themselves then the millions of prey around them would not tolerate their existence.

It seems to me to create a world where these creatures exist as part of society, blood-crazy evil beings with no capacity to interact wouldn't be realistic.

Aidan Moher said...

Yes, I think it's that simple. If it's not, then I must be missing Harrison's point (which is certainly possible, given that it's M. John Harrison).

A Dribble of Ink

Larry Nolen said...


They're becoming less "dangerous" because authors are creating elaborate mythologies, rules, regulations, etc. that drain their mystique to almost nothing. Fear of the unknown is almost always much greater than that of the known.


Look at the comments inside MJH's post. Not only have there been earlier Linkbacks to his post (as I said earlier, I was busy last week, which is why I missed reading it then), but MJH also goes a bit further in talking about how urban fantasy has digested certain "threat postures" and has made them palatable. That I think is key here, although very likely there can be much more made of it.

Aidan Moher said...

I think part of Harrison's problem (and part of my problem with Harrison) is that he thinks everything has to be hard to digest and cutting edge. What I want to know is what is wrong with schlocky, easily digestible Urban Fantasy if someone enjoys reading it.

As for the discussion on his blog, there are 3 comments + 2 linkbacks. Not exactly setting the world on fire, from what I can tell.

As a youth who's grown up more or less with the Internet as a part of my life, I fully understand the concept that what used to be edgy is now considered ho-hum (4Chan and Something Awful have forever ruined me), but can't that be applied to all media? Black Sabbath and KISS used to be considered the spawn of the devil, now they're laughed at; Debbie Does Dallas used to be lewd, now you can find that stuff on your TV; hell, women showing their ankles used to be considered scandalous and now we wouldn't blink an eye. This isn't news, so why is Harrison singling out Urban Fantasy?

Also, WTF is a 'threat posture'?

A Dribble of Ink

Larry Nolen said...

*Pulls up hoodie, has his pants sagging, throws up a few signs*

There, feel threatened by that yet?

That's what I see everyday at work, students emulating gang members in dress, speech, and signs. They are meant to be "cool," "edgy," and perhaps "threatening" to some, but it depends on who's doing the perceiving.

Now here's a question: Have you tried reading any of his fiction?

Aidan Moher said...

If I get your point (which I think is the same point I'm trying to make), you're saying that 'edgy' is something left up to perception. What's edgy to me (hoodlum teenagers, apparently, despite the fact that you described my teenage years to a tee), may be benign to you (kids looking for acceptance, possibly afraid of themselves).

From that angle, Harrison probably doesn't see many 'edgy' attributes to Stephanie Meyer's writing (not that he necessarily should), but his 13-year-old niece probably thinks Edward is edgy as fuck. Sally Shopper, fresh off the latest Shopaholic book, probably had her mind blown when she picked up her first Anita Blake book.

Just because you, Harrison or myself aren't impressed by the portrayal of these characters doesn't necessarily mean they're less valid to those who do enjoy reading it.

As for Harrison, no, I've not read any of his work. I'm not interested, either, for reasons stated earlier in this conversation (Kool-aid, thesaurus, yadda, yadda, yadaa.).

A Dribble of Ink

Larry Nolen said...

Yes, but turn it around. Why should our vantage points be the privileged ones? Why shouldn't people be challenged to reconsider things from another point of view? MJH's musing (which is really what most of his blog posts are about) presents something to consider. Is what is now transpiring in the recast "urban fantasy" little more than something akin to the NKOTB or Backstreet Boys/N'Sync crazes? Is the "edgy" some want little more than rehashed wish-fulfillments that carry the weight of cotton candy? Or is there something else to it? That's what I'm curious to see.

As for you not reading him, I consider that your loss. Perhaps it's because a re-read of his Viriconium omnibus is fresh on my mind (with two reviews of individual stories now up on my blog), but there is a beauty to his fiction prose that very few writers of any genre or century have matched or surpassed in the English language. I sometimes regret linking to interesting blog entries of his because instead of debating a point and perhaps checking out his fictional output out of curiosity, some readers seem to be even less inclined to give him a chance.

Jeanne Ryan said...

Any writer who writes to be "edgy" is full of themselves. Any writer who expects others to be "edgy" is even more full of himself.

We write the story the muse tells us. As Stephen King so eloquently put when asked for the one millionth time why he wrote horror, "You say that like I have a choice."

Urban fantasy is not about the big bad monster and physical danger. That may define the genre, but it isn't what the stories are about. That isn't why people read them.

They are first and foremost stories and stories are about characters. Urban fantasy tends to be character driven, rather than plot driven. We fall in love with characters and series are built on them. The physical danger that Faythe/Anita/Elena/Mercy/Kitty/Riley/yada yada is in is interesting and propels the book forward, but what we really care about is her emotional state.

And to be perfectly honest. Mr. Harrison's take completely misses what's important about the genre, why it is outselling everything right now. Forget the drivel that is Twilight. Charlaine Harris doesn't write drivel and her entire back catalog is still on the best seller list. Every week, a new UF/paranormal romance book comes out and debuts on the Bestseller lists. Recently, Kelley Armstrong's Men of the Otherworld. I wouldn't call Clay not dangerous. Patty Brigg's Bones Crossed. Again, what Adam did in Iron Kissed, not so much with the tame. Nalini Singh's Angel's Blood. Her archangels bring new meaning to the word dangerous.

but the thing is none of these books are about who is the biggest baddest thing on the planet. Kelley, Patty and Nalini are at their best when they are dealing with emotions.

And maybe that is what Mr. Harrison has a problem with. UF doesn't focus on physical power, but emotional power. I'm not saying emo. I'm saying the emotional strength of Jeremy dealing with an ass for a father and raising Clay, the strength of Mercy and Adam as they deal with her being raped, Elena's resistance to being another notch in Raphael's bedpost.

This is why these books do well. This is why people count the days until the sequel is out.

MatsVS said...

There has been a clear shift in recent year, and thanks to Buffy and Anne Rice, vampires and werewolves are now household concepts with little intrigue left in them. The entire concept has slid from being pure genre, to being a contemporary pop-lit fad for gawky eyed, dark dressed teeny boppers and middle aged housewives who've decided that they only needed so many books with Fabio on the cover both (and many in-between, I'm sure).

Still, that there is no dark esoteric mysticism left in the imagery, which is what once made it so alluring, is undeniable.

Unknown said...

urban fantasy is pulpy trash, i'd never heard of the genre before that one post about it ages ago and the niche is too damn small to carry any of the significance some authors seem to harp on about; not least because their ideas of "female empowerment" cater to all the usual sexist depictions of women just with whatever traits "KICK ASS, LEATHER" nudge out.

Aidan Moher said...

Based on the last few posts, it seems like Urban Fantasy has become a misnomer for all Paranormal Romance/trashy-fantasy-that-takes-place-in-modern-day. Perhaps the 'problem' lies with what people label (or refuse to label) as 'Urban Fantasy.'

You wouldn't label the same inherent issues at George R.R. Martin's [b]A Game of Thrones[/b] as you would against David Eddings' [b]Pawn of Prophecy[/b], despite sharing the same general genre. To that same it's hard to label the same criticisms against Neil Gaiman's [b]American Gods[/b] as you do against Kelley Armstrong's [b]Bitten[/b]. Does Emma Bull's [b]War of the Oaks[/b] deserve the same criticism as Jim Butcher's [b]The Dresden Files[/b]?

So I ask, is an argument about semantics really worth having? Instead of labeling [i]all[/i] of Urban Fantasy as having a particular problem, how about we at least call out certain books/authors by name.

~Aidan Moher
A Dribble of Ink

William Lexner said...

MJH is a pretentious douchebag.

I'm sure that surprised everyone.

Jeanne Ryan said...

Can some of you get more elitist and insulting? Talk about ad hominem attacks. Insulting the readers of the sub-genre just shows how little you know about us. If you don't know about us, how can you say why we read something?

Which seems to be where Mr. Harrison's comments are coming from. Why do people read UF, as opposed to other forms of escapist literature? Mr. Harrison has reached one of two reasons (I'm not sure which, probably a combination of both).

1. People think it's edgy. Looking at the goth sub-culture supports this.
2. People like the whitewashing of danger. Looking at the vamp sub-culture supports this.

That isn't why I read it or any of my other friends do, especially ones that never touched anything fantasy/sci-fi related before.

In these hard economic times, it is normal for people to turn to escapist literature. The question then becomes why is UF doing so well and not other forms of fantasy/sci-fi.

1. The names of characters and places in other sub-genres can be off-putting. What creates atmosphere for lovers of fantasy can turn others off.

2. The distance of time and/or location in other sub-genres can be off-putting. Even if a reader has never been to Atlanta, Chicago, upstate NY, rural Louisiana, these places exist and some readers prefer that. Again, what creates atmosphere to lovers of fantasy can turn others off.

3. Vamps and weres are forms the archetype for sexuality takes. As our attitudes about sexuality changes, so does these characters change. This is more appealing than sub-genres who hold tight to older conventions.

For example, take weres. They are not neutered to make them more appealing to the masses. They have changed because social mores have. Weres aren't dangerous because we don't see sexuality as dangerous. Weres represent freedom and their sexuality is celebrated.

UF isn't "edgy." It is representative of the society that writes and reads it. It is popular because it is just enough fantasy to escape to, but not so much that people who normally aren't into fantasy reject it.

And I didn't have to vomit the dictionary to say any of that.

Larry Nolen said...


While your points do make some sense in regards to why certain groups of readers are attracted to the new form of urban fantasies, the issue of the "taming" of the formerly monstrous is still looming large here. What is it about having the vampire, werewolf, fey, etc. appearing in a fashion that goes against the grain of their legenda? Are these stories little different than romance/relationship novels that have been popular for decades, with supernatural elements/beings being but an added "spice"? UF supporters often don't elaborate on the key differences, so I'm still wary of this form being little more than a mish-mash of prior romance/relationship and fantasy genre treatments. But I'm not making definitive claims here; that is rarely my wont in any discussion, online or face-to-face.

I would be careful about interpreting sales numbers, as I referred to the boy band groups not as a form of derision, but rather to note that they sold a ton of records, but barely made a dent in popular musical awareness even five years after their greatest successes. Is that the fate of current UF, to be a series of bestsellers whose prose, style, ideas, etc. fail to spark popular imagination a decade after release? I don't know. The jury is still out, but I suspect what is happening is that the market will be flooded soon and that there will be burnout, just as there was in the horror market by the early 1990s and to a lesser degree to Tolkien-influenced epic fantasy by the turn of the century.

But the issue, I believe, revolves around that of the idea of these supernatural characters. The word hasn't been said yet (although perhaps it has been thought), but could it be that some who are reacting much more vehemently than I am to UF viewing the treatment of the supernaturals (almost always male, right, although I know there are exceptions, like in the case of Carrie Vaughn) as being "feminized" or "emasculated" males. I know this is not a universal, but there is enough of it out there, it seems, to merit some consideration as to why there is a division on it. Not to mention the apparent male/female divide in reading UF, which perhaps is a topic for another time.


Semantics is the driving force behind so many things! It's a natural thing to argue (if it weren't, then I wouldn't have been able to earn a grad degree in cultural history :P)!

Jeanne Ryan said...

Mr. Harrison mentions "romanticising the disordered", but that's where the answers to your questions lie. Not as romantic as in kissy kissy, but as in Romanticism of the late 18th to mid 19th centuries because that's its origins.

1819 Polidori wrote the short story "The Vampyre" and changed vampires forever. His Lord Ruthven is based on Romantic poet Lord Byron. Take the vampire legends and put Lord Byron on top of that and you get Lord Ruthven. Why Polidori did that is anyone's guess, but the answer will partially lie in Romanticism.

Is modern UF an evolution or a rebirth of Romanticism? What traits do they have in common? Why? What are the differences? Why?

Looking at UF through this lens is infinitely more interesting than belittling the entire sub-genre and its readers.

There are so many areas that can be explored.

The role of women as authors, main characters and readers.

The reemergence of interest in the supernatural and human psychology, ala Poe and Hawthorne. Must of this so called taming is a humanizing of the monsters with psyches as complex as any human.

The role of sensibility both as a trait of the supernatural creatures and in what the authors chose to write.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Larry, I love your blog and everything and respect you for defending your opinion but it seems you're not defending the statement itself but the person that made the statement. You're a Harrison fan, ergo you feel inclined to argue the merits of what he says.

But what is he saying? I read the statement and it seems one his patented masturbatory musings, full of generalisations and dismissals of what he deems inferior.

MJH is an arrogant asshole that uses the internet to generate the atention that he doesn't get from his books, and I have no problems dismissing him and his work regardless of the people he might've inspired.

Anonymous said...

'It cleaned up what it claimed to be representing & always drew its conclusions from a safe space outside dysfunctionality.'

This sentence really hits the nail on the head. The 'safe space outside dysfunctionality' is the insincere aspect that makes Urban Fantasy so deplorable. The 'cleaning up' is a desperate plea to be accepted by the mainstream. The implication is: of course you can be different, but only different in a way 'we' (that abstract mainstream the UF dysfunctional so wants to be a part of) find safe. The fact is, everyone has the potential to be dysfunctional, and NOT in a safe way; and this is what most UF most denies. There is nothing interesting or engaging about it as a result.