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Urban Fantasy

When does a genre, formula or recognisable diegesis become a legitimate area of research? After a spirited discussion in a seminar about whether Hustle the BBC television series was crime, thriller or just contemporary drama, the students became interested in the aesthetic pleasures of telling the story of the con game. Earlier that morning Yannis Tzioumakis had told me about a new book series on contemporary film genres by a major publisher, where the editors had enthusiastically received his proposal on the Con Artist Film but thought that the publisher would not “go for it” as they were not quite decided upon the validity of the genre. Tzioumakis argued that the generic labels of crime and the suspense thriller were overstretched when applied to this group of media narratives.  Moreover, the discourses, internal structure, motifs, narrative trajectories and expectations of the audience were distinct, therefore genre as a critical category could be used effectively to explore this form of popular cinema. The con game is an urban fantasy which will gain in popularity during the recession but it is also an emerging commercial category in its own right.

Urban fantasy is definitely a recognisable commercial category, with publishers urging romance, horror and crime writers to take up its wise-cracking gritty realism.  There is a debate about the actual ur-text but Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series, which was published in Britain in the mid-1990s, both integrates paranormal beings into a investigative narrative structure and engages the reader through speculation on the civil rights inherent in their legitimate acceptance into human society.  As well as paranormal romance, holding the range of texts together is a re-evaluation of heroic engagement with crime, reconfigurations of the monstrous (such as those created by Anne Rice in the 1970s) and the politics of identity taken to fantastic extreme.  An emerging diegesis since the end of the last century, the paranormal as part of everyday life, bolstered by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is recognised by audiences, retailers and publishers alike, although it does have a tendency to roam around the bookstore in search of a permanent home.  Currently Waterstones’ marketing has settled on ‘dark fantasy’, but you still have to go to the back of the store, where romance has currently been relegated, to pick up certain authors in the genre.

There is a lot of flexibility in this category, from its setting, attitude to crime and violence and the range of supernatural beings encountered – werewolves, magic, demons, witchcraft, necromancy, vampires, genies, elementals, genetic enhancement, faerie, shapechangers, ghosts, angels, shamanism, dragons, divine beings, parallel planes of existence and the cybermage – all co-existing with mobile phones rather than alembics.  The covers for popular authors in this category, such as Kim Harrison, Charlaine Harris, Patricia Briggs and Jim Butcher, are an interesting study in themselves, with each reprinting repositioning the narrative as romance, horror, thriller, fantasy, crime, chick-lit and contemporary fiction as publishers search out new audiences amongst readers of popular genre.  Now that the fiction is moving from print – which can be dismissed as for young adults – to television for adult audiences who may not be telefantasy regulars, it might be time to look at the dynamics of this section of the market and its ability to articulate concerns about marginalisation. There are also questions to consider about the interpellation of audiences for urban fantasy, especially in relation to the audience for fictions gathered under the label of paranormal romance. The concept of repositioning, whether of the subjects in the narratives themselves or the generic spaces appropriated for these texts by publishers, retailers, commentators and fans, offers many possibilities for researchers in this field.

Urban fantasy is already receiving academic interest, with articles in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts dating back to the 90s and regular slots on the annual conference for the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.  There is an increasing visibility of postgraduate students showing an interest in this fiction, especially those working in gender and disability studies.  These studies are particularly interested in the way that the commercial genre interrogates cultural practices associated with popular fiction, women’s writing and reading, the representation of citizenship, and critical analysis in the field of creative writing.   In 2008 ARPF had a series of seminars which culminated in the ‘Supernatural Diegesis in Popular Fiction’ conference.  Cross-overs between studies of Victorian fantasy, consumer culture, intergenerational exchange of knowledge, disability and the British bestselling ‘urban fantasist’ Terry Pratchett made for good interdisciplinary discussion.  Providing a bibliography for sub-genres of commercial fiction is common practice in the States and proved very useful when I was a postgraduate, so a fledgling one on critical works for this genre is now up on the network page for Gothic and Urban fantasy on this website.

Urban fantasy is culturally resonant for more than its dramatisation of gendered politics which are present in the romantic adventures of its paranormally enhanced heroines.  Urban fantasy posits an account of governance and ethical decision making.  Critical Studies in Television posted an interesting cfp from the Blackwell Philosophy and Popular Culture Series “written to engage the intelligent reader”.  Its wish list for essays on True Blood included ‘the ethics of reading minds’, ‘the nature of humanity’, ‘the responsibility of vampire creation’, the potential ‘social contract between humanity and supernatural beings’ and contrasts and continuities between ‘the moral codes in True Blood and Twilight’.  Fortunately, there are a range of conferences where this debate could continue during 2010, though Blackwell’s topics may not be exactly what we will choose to discuss.  We start in Liverpool with Alex Tankard’s seminar paper ‘Body Modification and Dangerous Intimacy in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse Novels’ on Monday 15th March.   There is also room on the Urban Gothic programme (LJMU, 24th April 2010) which focuses on localised gothic, phantasmogenetic centres and the urban underworld.  The cfp is still open and details of this event and others being held across Britain on vampires (the Hertfordshire vampire conference had an enormous response to its cfp), werewolves and angels and demons are currently posted on the network page for Gothic and Urban Fantasy.  By creating this combination of genres I am possibly denying the importance of the commercial typology that frames urban fantasy, but I am acknowledging a continuity of fin de siècle fiction concerned with gender, corruption, technology and the mysterious powers of cats.

Nickianne Moody, ARPF Convenor, Liverpool John Moores University.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 22nd, 2010 at 4:27 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “Urban Fantasy”

  1. Andy Sawyer says:

    I reckon Urban Fantasy is this year’s r’n'b — whenever someone under the age of 30 talks about r’n'b I show myself up as a curmudgeon by affecting surprise that they don’t mean Muddy Waters, the Downliners Sect and the early Rolling Stones. But there’s a lot of interesting earlier UF — Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, as you say Terry Pratchett, Michael de Larrabeit’s Borrible books and China Mieville are all there in the mix.

  2. Convenor says:

    Thank you for reminding me about the Borribles, that is a really interesting example of UF especially in relation to the experience of recession. Mieville and de Lint are exemplars on the bibliography which is on the network page for Gothic and Urban fantasy. Emma Bull isn’t but I agree that ‘War for the Oaks’ is a very important UF text.


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