Over at Grasping for the Wind, John rounded up some bloggers (myself included) and posed them a question:

In recent years, there has a been a rise in interest in the urban fantasy genre, even prompting some publishers to republish older urban fantasy works, such as Pyr’s recent publication of Stalking the Unicorn by Mike Resnick. What is your explanation for the recent rise in the popularity of this subgenre?

Secondly, since the rise and fall in popularity of fantasy and SF subgenres tends to be cyclical, what subgenre of fantasy do you predict will see an upsurge in its popularity once urban fantasy is on the wane?

I felt it would be prudent to post my reply, along with further expanding on the thoughts with regards to some of the reactions, particularily Larry’s.

My response:

Being about 50k words into writing an Urban/Contemporary Fantasy myself, this subject is near and dear to my heart, and so I’ve been watching as this shift in focus has spread through the industry. To that end I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, rolling it over in my head and contemplating just why Epic Fantasy’s been pushed to the wayside in favour of urban sprawl, werewolves, modern dialect and a ton of sex.

Over the course of this low level philosophizing I’ve come to the conclusion that there’re three reasons that have led to the ‘fall’ of Epic Fantasy and the rise of Urban Fantasy.

The first is simple. Epic Fantasy ruled the roost for decades, from the time Tolkien first published The Lord of the Rings (and one could easily argue that its reign stretches well before that, to the works of Homer), and it’s simply hard to keep atop the hill for that long. Even the mighty Roman Empire finally fell to pieces, right? The same stories can only be told to the same people for so long before they start looking for something new. The market was becoming oversaturated and publishers started to look elsewhere, to see what was selling.

So what was selling? Thrillers and Chick-lit. Wait a second… doesn’t that sound a little familiar? Like, perhaps, two of the major elements that drive those Urban Fantasies which are selling like hotcakes these days? Which brings me to my second point: Women.

Women like to read, no one will be shocked to hear that. But consider who (anecdotally) make up the largest contingent of fantasy fans: overweight, sweaty mouth-breathers with neck beards. Now, of course this is a major generalization (I don’t have a neck beard, nor do I breathe heavily through my mouth; I’m not overweight, either), unfortunately this is how the fan base is perceived by the general public; not fair, but hard to deny. Women (for good reason) generally don’t like to be associated nerds like us (unless they’re nerdy, too).

Working at a bookstore (and generally haunting the Fantasy/Science Fiction section while on shift) taught me one thing: for every female to wander into the section, there were four to five males. Of course it doesn’t help that the publishers have been marketing fantasy to males for decades (swords, dragons, scantily-clad princesses, and all that other cool junk one might see airbrushed on the side of a bitchin’ van), and 50 years of that is hard to overcome.

The publishers, realizing they’re missing out on 50% of their potential audience, wise up and release the likes of Laurell K. Hamilton, Stephanie Meyer, and Kelly Armstrong -and suddenly there were novels on the shelf of the ‘Fantasy’ section that doesn’t make women feel like they belong in the basement of their parents’ house with a scattering of dice before them, sixteen empty cans of Mountain Dew littering the floor and a ‘Dragonforce’ album blaring in the background.

This phenomenon spreads further (away from women in general, and to a wider market) when one considers authors such as Neil Gaiman, Jim Butcher, Charles De Lint and Sergei Lukyanenko, who take fantasy out of the needlessly complex secondary worlds and drop it into a world we can all understand: our own. We know the rules, we know the language, we know the places. People, however, are endlessly fascinated by watching those things we are so comfortable with being twisted and played with by a skilled writer, by having another perspective of the world thrust upon them.

The third reason, then, is that Urban Fantasy is just easier to read and thus has the potential to reach a wider audience. No confusing maps, no archaic dialogue (hopefully), no endlessly nuanced magic system to digest, no otherworldly politics and wars being waged by make-believe countries. I think a lot of people who read fantasy (and especially those who are just getting in via the Urban Fantasy trend) are the type who read for escapism – to get whisked away from their daily life into something exciting, something new, something dangerous. Urban Fantasy is grounded in real life, but also reveals to readers that there can be so much more; that there is magic lurking out there, just waiting to be discovered.

Publishing trends, like almost everything, are cyclical. Urban Fantasy is the hot thing at the moment, but that won’t always be the case. I expect we’ll see the rise of Epic Fantasy again, but whether that is sooner rather than later is hard to tell. It’s a tried and true genre and (despite all the drawbacks mentioned earlier) I feel that with the likes of Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, Brandon Sanderson and George R.R. Martin still thriving in this new market, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could consider Epic Fantasy to be unhealthy… maybe just not as healthy as Urban Fantasy at the moment.

Larry, in response, brought up a very good point:

Can’t help but to think that “urban fantasy” is a bit more complex than that and Neth is the one who seems to address that. There is, obviously, much more to a subgenre’s popularity than “just a bunch of female readers gobbling up that shit,” to paraphrase the attitude of some towards anything that might hint of “urban fantasy” (or to be more precise, paranormal romances). Cultural attitudes and recent historical events are obviously going to shape buyer/reader attitudes and I think he addresses that quite well.

This attitude that Larry’s talking about reared its head a few times in response to my article on feeling oversaturated with Epic Fantasy. Several people mentioned how they have an aversion to ‘Urban Fantasy’ in general:

Its a shame because I absolutely detest Urban Fantasy

urban fantasy with female lead detectives are making me physically ill

So I’m not the only one who can’t get into the whole Urban Fantasy / Paranormal Romance hype.

What worries me is that with the incredible deluge of success surrounding the Jim Butcher/Laurell K. Hamilton/Kelley Armstrong-style of ‘Urban Fantasy’, causes many people to forget just how broad and deep the genre actually is. Like Larry says, it seems people are often too blinded by the Harry Dresdens, Anita Blakes and Rachel Morgans that they forget about the Shadows (American Gods by Neil Gaiman), Brendan Doyles (The Anubis Gates) and Vincent Ettrichs (White Apples by Jonathan Carroll).

One thing I mention in my reply to the aforementioned comments is that one shouldn’t always confuse ‘Urban Fantasy’ with ‘Contemporary Fantasy’. By my estimation, ‘Urban Fantasy’ is a very broad blanket that more or less covers every Fantasy story that takes place in an Urban Environment. Take The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, which takes place entirely in one city, or The Anubis Gates, which takes place in 19th Century London, two novels which one could easily argue fall under the ‘Urban Fantasy’ blanket.

But then again, these issues of semantics are what got us into this problem in the first place.

I suppose, what I’m trying to say is don’t hate the label, hate the books you’ve read. If you think you don’t like ‘Urban Fantasy’ go to your local bookstore/library/whatever and pick up something from the list below.

  • Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere, American Gods)
  • Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates, The Drawing of the Dark)
  • Jonathan Carroll (The Land of Laughs, White Apples)
  • Emma Bull (War for the Oaks)
  • John Crowley (Little, Big)
  • Charles de Lint (The Onion Girl, Moonheart
  • Tad Williams (The War of the Flowers)
  • Carlos Ruiz Zafon (The Shadow of the Wind)

These authors are masters at showing readers the wonder and the magic found in our world; let them take you on a journey and tell me afterwards that you still aren’t interested in ‘Urban Fantasy.’

I dare you.

  • KS Augustin August 26, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    Don’t forget Simon Green’s Nightside series.

  • […] Ruminations on Urban Fantasy […]

  • Rob B August 27, 2008 at 6:39 am

    I see you’ve picked up the “essay meme,” too. I responded a bit here and talked about it back in February

  • Ellen Datlow August 27, 2008 at 8:44 am

    Fyi, I’m currently editing an anthology of urban fantasy called NAKED CITY with all new stories by (so far)Kit Reed, Lavie Tidhar, John Crowley, Richard Bowes, Matthew Kressel, Elizabeth Bear, and Christopher Fowler. I’m expecting stories by Naomi Novik, Elizabeth Hand, Jim Butcher, and Sherrilyn Kenyon, Jeffrey Ford, Pat Cadigan, Caitlin Kiernan, Garth Nix, and maybe others.
    It won’t be out till 2010 though.

  • Michelle Muenzler August 27, 2008 at 11:37 am

    I always feel a bit odd out on discussions like this as they seem to require a degree in History of Readers in (Sub-)Genre X or awareness of a mysterious thousand-question survey asked of every reader but me, but I do want to say a little something at least as this has been poking at me all day.

    After reading the blog post, I having trouble with the connection between the rise of Urban Fantasy and female-targeted readers and the death of Epic Fantasy. Why must Epic Fantasy be the bastion of men only? Dragons? I purposely picked books during my teenage years solely for the existence of a dragon on the cover. Swords? Nothing wrong with swords. Princesses? Okay, I do admit I would like to see the swords in the princesses’ hands a bit more often. But seriously. It seems that the reading public changes over time, and if a specific genre fails to appeal to the readers’ changing tastes, is it truly the fault of the change in taste, or the lack of adaptation in the genre? There doesn’t seem to be any reason why only Urban Fantasy can draw “teh mysterious womenz” in SFF. I am not quite buying into the sweaty hordes of neck-bearded men and the faint assumption that only nerdy women dare the shelves against them, but now Urban Fantasy has magically handed a stick of deoderant to everyone in the SFF shelves.

    There are some other points that have that same hollow feeling to me, but as mentioned far above, I don’t have a degree in genre history and nobody had me take the survey or showed me the all-encompassing results.

    So avoiding those, can someone please educate me with some more solid details on why its my fault Epic Fantasy is dead?

  • edifanob August 27, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    I’m not really interested in vampires and werewolves which part of the “urban fantasy” hype. That’s the world of my wife and a lot of other women. They like it, Ok let them buy and read. There are still a lot of people who like “epic fantasy”.

    Don’t forget there are a lot more fantasy subgenres:

    I started to enter the world of steampunk:

    I bought several books like
    Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliasotti
    Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters
    Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt
    The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia
    The Alchemy of Stone
    Pax Britannia: Leviathan Rising By Jonathan Green
    The Light Ages by Ian R. MacLeod
    The House of Storms by Ian R. MacLeod

    Is steampunk also a kind of “urban fantasy”?
    If yes then add these books to Pat’s list.

    “All we have to decide is
    what to do with the time that is given to us.”
    J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
    British scholar & fantasy novelist (1892 – 1973)

  • Rob B August 27, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    I don’t think anyone was blaming you for the death of Epic Fantasy. Seriously though, I think this is a case of genre tastes shifting a bit.

    I don’t have hard and fast numbers (or access to them), but a lot of the conjecture about swords, dragons, and predestined orphans being male targeted has been anecdotal. (I suspect somebody will step in soon with the numbers).

    I think, in general, there has been a (at least by my perception) that Paranormal Romance is not quite Urban Fantasy, though there is a lot of cross-pollination.

  • aidan August 27, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    Michelle – Very good question.

    What I was trying to get across in the original article was that I think a lot of the fault regarding the ‘death’ of Epic Fantasy (an idea that I still have a hard time swallowing, considering the success of people like Patrick Rothfuss, Gail Martin and Joe Abercrombie), lies on the laps of the marketers, rather than the readers.

    I actually think you’re right when you say that the rise of Urban Fantasy might not really be the cause of the decline in Epic Fantasy. Rather, as I mention in the article, Urban Fantasy’s rise is riding on the back of the immense success of one of its sub(sub?)-genres: paranormal romance. This, coupled with a fewer number of high-profile releases in the Epic Fantasy field, gives the illusion of Urban Fantasy stomping all over Epic Fantasy.

    The fact of the matter is, publishers can only put out so many books a year. If Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance are selling like hotcakes, then publishers are going to lean towards publishing those types of novels. Hell, it could just be happenstance that not very many good Epic Fantasies are being written right now, and publishers are trying to fill the void with something else. Women aren’t responsible for the fall of Epic Fantasy, so much as they are responsible for the recent upsurge in Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance.

    As I mention in the piece, everything I mention is a purposely gross over-generalization. Of course not everyone who reads Fantasy is a slobby male, that’s just my point. For too long, Fantasies been marketed towards this type of individual, it took a kick in the ass from Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance for marketers to realize that there was a whole other demographic out there who is willing to spend their hard earned cash on good novels.

    It would be interesting to hear from some people within the marketing departments at some of the major publishers and find out the differences between how they approach Epic/Secondary World Fantasy and how they approach Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance.

  • Andy August 29, 2008 at 3:44 am

    I’m forty years old. I found Middle Earth at around fourteen (1982ish). Since that time I’ve been to too many places to mention.
    I have always read epic fantasy, but also read other stuff as well. My interest in fantasy has always had a natural bio-rhythm
    However in the last ten years writers such as Erikson, Martin, Abercrombie and Lynch have re-invigorated my interest and pleasure in reading fantasy.
    I haven’t read urban fantasy and know nothing about it, but I am concerned that (as I saw it) an renaissance in fantasy is being stopped in it’s tracks.
    – for the record, I shower everyday and have never worn a beard on my neck or otherwise.

  • Gabriele August 31, 2008 at 10:40 am

    Lol, I don’t have a beard because I’m female; I don’t live in the basement but have a nice flat in the second floor of a six appartment building, I like Spanish red wine and single malts, and I have a complete collection of RE Howard’s stories, among others. Where does that leave me? :) I want my big battles and epic quests and heros with swords, or axes. A sappy love story between an angsty vampire and a TSTL werewolf-ine just doesn’t work for me. ;)

    I’ve read a few Urban Fantasy books, but I rarely get that sort of escapism out of them epic Fantasy and S&S gives me, because they take place in our time and I don’t want to read about our time for fun, it’s such a sucky place.

    The rise of Paranormal Romance that obviously triggered the popularity of Urban Fantasy among women came to because the decline of Historicals (those badly researched love stories in historical settings), though it’s a bit difficult to tell what came first, the decline of Historicals or the rise of Paranormals. They surely require even less research than the Historicals, and it seems some readers got fed up with the lack of research in those and therefore stopped reading them. They’ve now turned to the werwolves and vampires. It’s the Exotic factor (Vampires are as much fun as Scottish clan chiefs) and the fact girls can have Glocks. :D

  • Pamela Freeman September 2, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    I’m fascinated by any assumption that Epic Fantasy is mainly for boys because in Australia, at least, there are a lot of women writing it! Sarah Douglass, Karen Miller, Trudi Canavan, Fiona MacIntosh, me… and I think we assume that our audience is pretty evenly divided, maybe even weighted towards women. Is this an Australian phenomenom?

  • aidan September 2, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    It could have to do with marketing in North America, but Australia does seem to produce some of the best Female fantasy writers out there.

    So I dunno!

    I’d be really interested to find out some more hard numbers about readership. It could be that I just happened to meet the wrong type of women in my life! What I’d give if more of them read Fantasy.

    For the record, my love of Fantasy and Science Fiction was passed down directly from my own mother, who’s an avid fan of the genre. So I know better than anybody that those types of stories can appeal to anyone, I just sometimes worry that marketers forget that!

    Pamela, just wanted to let you know that Blood Ties has worked its way into the small pile of books I’m bringing with me to Europe.

  • ec September 3, 2008 at 3:50 am

    There is some overlap between paranormal romance and urban fantasy, but publishers tend to separate these sub-genres into separate lines, and some of the authors who write both use different names to avoid confusion.

    PR are, first and foremost, romance novels, and they follow the conventions of that genre, including a happily-ever-after ending. Urban fantasy of the tough-gals-with-guns/magic variety can include a romance subplot or at the very least some sexual tension, but the focus is usually elsewhere: a mystery, a quest, a thriller plot, and so on. When sex happens, it’s generally a part of life rather than a pillar of the plot. (There are exceptions, of course, most of them written by Laurell K. Hamilton.) Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackpole has paranormal boyfriend problems, but that’s not what the series is about. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden had a girlfriend, is currently getting cozy with a fellow Warden, and harbors carefully banked feelings for his friend Karen Murphy, a Chicago cop. These things help develop the character, but they don’t define the series. I’ve read mysteries and thrillers that gave more emphasis to sex/romance than do many urban fantasies. I guess all those covers showcasing the south side of a north-bound female, invariably clad in leather or tight jeans, tends to skew people’s impressions of this sub-genre.

  • Clary Fray November 20, 2008 at 7:02 am

    city of bones is the best