wrote in response to my last entry:
My sense, based on the books I've seen self-identified as UF, is that few UF readers would recognize any of these three as Urban Fantasy, or at least as "their" urban fantasy. Am I correct? If so, where's the line? If not, whence this perception?
There's a lot of marketing that going into defining genres. I was heartbroken when Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
came out and was shelved in the fiction section at Barnes and Noble, rather than in fantasy where it belonged. Michael Chabon supposedly commented to someone at a conference that he's delighted he's been getting away with writing genre fiction for years, and people think he's writing literary fiction. (While searching for an exact reference to that, rather than a memoried retelling, I came across an article
explaining why Chabon is both literary and
genre fiction, comparing him to Michael Connelly. In this case, it's a murder mystery being discussed.)
The truth about urban fantasy is that it's a handy replacement phrase for anything set in a contemporary world, which may be divergent from our own or may be twisted due to a magicopalypse of some kind. It encompasses everything from Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, and Emma Bull (who are sometimes considered progenitors of the current genre) to the current trend of sexy vampires and werewolves and covers featuring women with tattoos on their lower backs. Any genre that can include both Neverwhere
without people blinking is a genre so broad that its label is almost meaningless.
The same could, of course, be said of fantasy in general (or, worse, the fantasy/SF designation used by most bookstores and libraries). I think Josh Jasper's
division between UF and horror is, perhaps, the best designator I've seen -- the major difference between the two is the purpose
of the setting. Otherwise, how do you determine that vampires, which for years belonged in horror (or, thanks to Anne Rice, the general fiction section), are now a UF trope?
The term literature might be treated in the same way. There may or may not be a handy definition out there of what "literature" actually means (since, if it means "worthy of being discussed in a college classroom," Buffy
and Patricia Briggs's "Mercy Thompson" series are among the titles I've seen on course syllabi). If there's an official definition inside the publishing industry, I'd love to hear it! My own associations with the term are somewhat troubled (in no small part due to the condescension with which the literary establishment, whoever that is, addresses genre fiction on the whole, which Genreville has covered in other entries
-- that sort of attitude seems geared to make genre writers go on the defensive). In a conversation
over on sartorias
's blog, I commented:
[Literature] as a word tends to leave a bad taste in my mouth. It conjures up assigned reading, a list of white-male-dominated classics, and books that are read because then you can say that you've read them (rather than books that are read because the reading of them is worthwhile). "Literary fiction" seems to be synonymous with "depressingly hopeless" in some circles.
If by literature here, however, we mean "good stories that somehow reach toward a greater meaning and enrich the lives of the readers" -- well then, perhaps even those of us who are hoping to entertain may be striving for that in the end.
In the case of Michael Chabon, it tickles me that he feels he's getting genre fiction past the literary establishment on the sly -- that he's really "one of us," but is walking in "their" world without "them" realizing it. In the case of may really excellent fantasy novels that end up getting published as "general fiction" instead, it typically makes me irritated -- the idea seems to be that "normal" readers will only pick up books from the fiction section, so we can pass off this book, which is really fantasy, as "normal" and appeal to the general (or possibly literary) market, when really, the fantasy section is where it would find readership. (It seems to me that the greatest disservice I've seen in this scenario is to shanna_s
's Enchanted Inc.
and sequels. They were published to hit the chick lit audience, which dried up, but they remain helplessly shelved in fiction, where fantasy readers, who would really enjoy them, won't necessarily find them.)
What I tend to look for in fiction, in terms of depth, thinking about "big thoughts," or making me question my assumptions about how I understand the world (things one assumes that literature is supposed to do, while "hack fiction" is not), tends to revolve around my interest in how people/characters deal with concepts of the divine, or deal with their own mortality. I've found people writing about those topics across all sorts of genre lines, from the novels of Charles Williams; to the exceptionally wonderful collection of artificial intelligence stories by Jeff Duntemann (jeff_duntemann
), Souls in Silicon
; to, both surprisingly and delightfully, several of the novels published in the roleplaying world of Eberron.
Stylistically, of course, there is a shift from one to the next. But stylistically, I see the novels of Catherynne M. Valente
and Caitlin Kittredge's Street Magic
in particular being written in a poetic, metaphoric style -- which I simply call beautiful language, but others might call literary. Is it the depth of meaning that brings the sense of literary, or is it a stylistic quality?
Really, rather than a death match, it makes more sense to me to acknowledge that the boundaries between the world of literature and the world of genre fiction -- like the barriers between this world and the next at places like Glastonbury -- are thin. If there's a herm that stands between literary and genre fiction, Hermes is guiding writers right past it all the time, and the folks who are leaving him libations are finding an audience on both sides of the "us vs. them," "pop culture vs. establishment" divide. To them, I offer my heartiest congratulations.