Monday, July 12, 2010

Reasons for Reading Urban Fantasy

The popularity of urban fantasy and paranormal romance is due to the escapism provided by the heroine. Readers of these genres enjoy imagining themselves as the heroine, and therefore the heroine must be strong, attractive, and supernaturally powerful. She must also get the guy in the end, and the guy must be equally strong, attractive, and powerful.
Whenever I come across a statement like that, I begin to feel annoyed and uncomfortable. The statement above (the Quote) is a paraphrase of many, but the latest instance, the one that spurred this post, comes from I've seen the same kinds of attitudes and statements coming from a number of people, in a number of different roles. 

Why do these statements bug me? It's complicated, but I'm going to try to deconstruct the reasons, because I refuse to believe I'm the only person who feels this way. Given how infrequently I run across opinions like mine, I suspect it's a marginalized attitude, one held by people who don't to speak up out of fear, insecurity, or shame. And I think we need to speak. (I'm not ordering from biggest reason to smallest, though. They'll differ from person to person.)
  1. Feminism. The Quote is a blanket statement. All women must read urban fantasy because they want to be like the heroine. First, to any blanket statements, there are exceptions (me). Second, this is basically saying that a major drive of women is being attractive, and that if they're not actually attractive, they read books that allow them to pretend they are. I thought we as a society had gotten past the stage of assuming that.
  2. I don't read for the heroine. I don't imagine myself to be her. Occasionally, I don't even like her*. I read urban fantasy for the mysteries, the magic, the world-building, and sometimes because I need a lighter read than the book I just finished. The series I continue with, and the ones I press onto people, are the ones with the best integration of magical elements into the real world, great characterization across the board, good mystery or adventure plots, and all-around good writing. I have no desire to be a sexy 6' werewolf cop, thank you very much.
  3. I don't imagine myself getting with the Love Interest. Heck, I've skimmed sex scenes to reach the "good stuff" faster. Of all the urban fantasy I've read**, I've never once read a physical description of a male I found attractive, and I've met a grand total of two men whose personalities I'd go for. This might be because most Love Interests are alpha males (as pointed out in the link), and I find alphas a turn-off.
  4. I want to see heroines who aren't strong, sexy, and powerful. I want to see women who aren't conventionally beautiful. I want to see women who are middle-aged or older. I want to see humans without supernatural powers. I want to see women who don't own guns, whose first reaction to "vampire in alley" is to run off screaming rather than beat it up, and who still manage to take out the vampire nest. I want to see weak women who become strong over time, not women who start strong and get stronger. Or, I want to see strong women break and rebuild, with any number of hiccups as they cope with the trauma. This is all out of a desire to see writers break away from clichés, and a desire to see more inclusive writing.
  5. The Quote implies that, for a series to take off, it's got to play into the desire to be the heroine. I don't like being told what to do. I want to write a thrilling and funny mystery set in a magically interesting and complex world, with an interesting person as a protagonist. I don't want to make it so people will imagine themselves as my heroine. I want them to like her, of course, and if they want to be her, that's their right, but I don't want to write a character whose main purpose is letting readers be her. And I don't want my Love Interests to be alphas or heartthrobs. Why can't I have one with adult acne and powers that fritz whenever he gets scared?

I guess maybe in a way you could say I see myself as the heroine. After all, I want my protagonists to be intelligent and not charge into dangerous situations knowing they're dangerous, without as many weapons and bits of backup as they can manage. However, I think it's more likely that this reflects a general belief about humanity, because real people doing dumb things also gets me mad. And I still don't want to be a sexy 6' werewolf cop, even if she's a tactical genius.

And yes, as I admitted in Point 2, I do sometimes read for "escapism", because if I read lots of dense, info-heavy, thought-provoking books back-to-back, I go crazy. I sometimes need something fun. I get that urban fantasy fulfills a similar role to chick-lit in that sense, and that chick-lit also gets the "escape and be the heroine" vibe. I know some women do imagine themselves as the heroines, and that some read for the Love Interest and the sexy times. I simply don't want to see a genre I love be discarded as "just fluff", and I don't want all readers of it to be seen as "in it for the sexy times". We're not that shallow.

Points 4 and 5 are probably the biggest beefs for me. I hate seeing clichés in fiction unless they're subverted, and I love being the person who does the subverting. I want to see more equality, different types of characters, people who feel more real somehow. I think world, plot, and characterization should be a writer's primary concern at all times, at least in urban fantasy, and that our characters shouldn't be just sex objects. I know we all have to play to the audience a little if we want to be published, but ramping up the sexual aspects doesn't have to be the way to go. 

To the people who say the Quote: Readers and writers of urban fantasy aren't identical, and we read and write for any number of reasons. Don't tell us who we are and how we should be. Stop it. Stop it right now.

*at which point I stop reading the series
** I know I've just scratched the surface with the 10-15 authors I've picked up, but my tastes are broader than just one genre and there's no time.

Edit to clarify: I wrote the quote I lead with. It seemed quicker than pulling a handful of similar comments off other sites, when they all said pretty much the same thing. Don't hate on the "quotee", because there isn't one. It's just me, paraphrasing an opinion.


Stacia Kane said...

Excellent post, I totally agree.

As a reader, I object to quotes like that for all the reasons you listed. As a writer I object to them because it seems like yet another "all those urban fantasies are just hot chicks in leather sleeping with nightclub-owning vampires," statement. You can't lump all readers together like that, and you can't lump all books together like that.

Not to mention it implies that readers of UF--female readers of UF--aren't capable of reading a novel and enjoying it for the worldbuilding, plot, creativity, setting, or writing quality. They lack the intellectual capacity required to read and interpret a book as anything other than one of those "The Story of Me!" books companies print up for very young children, where their names are inserted into the text (I have nothing against those books, I think they're quite cute, but I believe most readers move beyond needing to pretend the story is about them). In other words, they imply that female UF readers are not intellectually developed enough to read in order to experience different worlds or characters or situations, but read purely as wish-fulfillment and are incapable of liking or understanding a book outside of their own narrow worldview. That pisses me off, again as both a reader and as a writer.

And not to pimp myself out here, but plenty of readers seem to be enjoying my Downside books quite a bit, and I seriously doubt any of them are enjoying them because they secretly wish they could be a drug addict with a history of vicious childhood abuse who is terrified at the very notion of being physically intimate with someone she actually cares about--in a world without vampires, weres, or whatever else. (I could be wrong there, but that's just my guess.)

Women are not stupid. Women are capable of reading and enjoying all sorts of books, and they enjoy them for all sorts of reasons, and I'm tired of the lazy, sexist cliches.

David said...

I agree with everything said, but I would add one thing that seems to be glossed over. The qoute implies that urban fantasy is a genre intended only for women. While I can accept this for paranormal romance, I would hope that UF writers would want to reach a broader audience.

As it is, like you I end up skipping scenes or dropping series because the cliches get too much for me to take. I've read a lot of UF over the past year and most romantic story lines I come across make me roll my eyes. The worst make me shake my head in confusion. I'm just glad to find out it's not just me.

Cameron Haley said...

Fantastic post, and great comments by Stacia and David. The Tor piece completely conflated urban fantasy and paranormal romance. I'm glad we have both, but I hope there's still a distinction between them.

Stacia Kane said...

Duh, yes, David, I can't believe I missed that, especially since growing my male audience and writing UF that I hope both sexes will really enjoy is very important to me. I'm ashamed I didn't pick up on that myself.

Anonymous said...

Well said, and I definitely agree with you on all points. Everyone has different reasons for reading, and I actually highly doubt most people would want to be the heroine of an urban fantasy. I mean, a lot of those characters (the ones in the good books, at any rate) go through hell.

That quote also ignores all the urban fantasy with male protagonists. Why, I ask that quote-writer, do so many women enjoy reading about Cal Leandros in Rob Thurman's series? He's a snarky, sexually inexperienced young slob who goes a bit evil when he uses his superpowers and makes an unfortunate number of disgusting boy-jokes, and I pity the reader who wants to be in his shoes.

Also, re: point number four, have you ever read Kelly Armstrong's Living with the Dead? I adore that book because it's about an ordinary human woman who's grieving for her recently deceased husband being thrown into supernatural goings-on. She freaks out, and then, while continuing to freak out internally and simultaneously cope with her "ordinary" human loss, handles herself more than capably. And unlike most books that begin with this premise, she doesn't end up having some suppressed supernatural power that she needs to tap in order to save the day. She saves the day with pure human determination and ingenuity. So. Much. Love.

And now I'm going to stop saying things, because minus the book recs, you've said them all.

Anassa said...

Stacia: Thanks! I'm glad to hear I'm not alone in thinking this way. I definitely don't like when dissimilar things get lumped together, especially if I'm including in the lump. What gets me with this particular issue is that it seems to be largely publishing professionals giving these opinions—as with

And a "yes, exactly!" to your points about intellectual capacity. I haven't met any dedicated readers who think that shallowly, and I'm inclined to believe they don't exist.

And no worries on the pimping. You're already on my list of Authors Whose Books I Should Read Someday. :) Once I get through the current stack…

David: Heh, like Stacia, I can't believe I missed that! I know it's not a women-only genre, and that there's plenty in it that appeals to men. My apologies!

I've done the eye roll, groan, and dropped series at the romance story lines. Oh, have I ever, for a few books. And I'm glad it's not just me.

Cameron: There is still a distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, as I see it. It's a matter of emphasis. I think a lot of people combine the two because they either don't see the distinction, don't care about it, or want to have more elegant rhetoric. I'm guilty of that last count in this post.

Elena: Thanks. I'm glad you agree. It seems like there's a number of people who get upset with blanket statements like the one I gave in the post. I highly, highly doubt anyone would want to be the heroine either, though maybe if someone thinks only about the adventure, rather than the actual, physical details… *shrugs* And yes, the Quote does ignore the male protagonists. I guess the folks who make these statements would say, "Oh, well, readers treat the men as love interests", which sits just as poorly with me, because of men like Leandros and Dresden.

I haven't read any Armstrong—yet—but I think once I'm in the mood again, I'll pick up Living with the Dead. It does sound right up my alley! I've been wondering what the best book to start with would be, so thanks for the recommendation.

The Ink Gypsy said...

So glad to read this post and see your 'minority' opinion. Apparently I'm in that minority too. :)

One of the reasons I keep coming back to UF and hunting for the good stuff is it can work on multiple levels.

Yes it can be read for escapism and there should be nothing wrong with that. It's a great way to let your brain rest a little while you're awake to let all the real life stuff get processed - like waking dreams you (sort of) get to choose (I say sort of, because unless you've read the book before, hopefully there are some surprises). People who scoff at escapist reading also don't tend to realize the importance of dreaming. Studies show that people forced from not having REM sleep cycles (when dreaming occurs) start to become unstable. I believe reading for escapism can fulfill a similar role and while it shouldn't be the only thing we do (we can't sleep our way through life) it should still be encouraged.

(I got booted off by the comment form for writing a thesis so please excuse me but I'll post multiple comments instead - please see the next as a continuation...)

The Ink Gypsy said...

(Continued from previous comment)

Next point (before I turn this into a thesis - too late!): UF contains great mythic elements simply by definition - man vs the supernatural - which isn't really as weighty as it sounds. We all know - at least subconsciously - that weres, vampires, ghosts, magic of any kind etc represent 'other'/not normal/out of our control, just as they have since the beginning of time. It's not something you need to be educated to know either. I'd argue that one of the reasons people like reading these stories is NOT identification with the hero/heroine but the OPPOSITE ie. you go do battle, face that 'thing', get in trouble while I watch and learn. It's rarely a conscious thing and UF, like any other story, tends toward epic fail if it tries to be didactic. Like with the big classics, it has the potential to act as a safe experimental ground for your personal development. The fact that good UF can be read without this in mind is testament to it's potential. Fantasy is the same way - perhaps obviously - but UF has an edge today simply because it's one step closer to us - it's in our world (or a version of our world) and usually in a time period we can understand. It's not completely alien like with created-from-scratch worlds of fantasy or gotta-stretch-my-imagination-a-lot to the sci-fi future. Just like with kids and fairy tales, they take away from the story whatever they're ready for. (Fairy tales when originally told took place in the 'now' of that time.) Kids understand Red Riding Hood should NOT talk to strangers and as we grow that evolves to an understanding of a person's vulnerability to sexual predators and that it's best to listen to wise advice and be prepared. (Originally Red got eaten - no big summary of what she should have done nor any sign of a huntsman to rescue her - the story was just the story. It was only later when the tales were specifically rewritten with children in mind that they got 'preachy'.) In this way UF is a modern equivalent of fairy tales. Simple on the outside but containing much more than sometimes even the writer is aware of. I love that. Writers and readers can tap into universal questions and truths that that resonate across peoples and times.

That sounded lofty didn't it? But it's something that UF does better than almost any other genre around today (IMHO).

(and yes - one more comment coming so I can finish up...)

The Ink Gypsy said...

(continued from previous and the final one I promise!)
At the same time I think the identification aspect IS there for both men and women, but in a broader sense than "I wish I could get that totally hot werewolf to take me seriously". We live in a post-feminist age where lots of women AND men are confused about their 'roles' and how to be good strong (whatever the heck that means) people. UF deals with these issues in extreme ways and serves as a fabulous outlet for us as writers and readers. eg. Women get to express anger in ways society still doesn't fully agree with (perhaps rightly so) and a development and branching can be observed in UF as time goes on. At first it was unusual (and enough) for women to be so strong and a force to be reckoned with. Now you see more examples of more complex characters who, while they can kick ass wonderfully find that to ultimately be somewhat hollow when they're always left alone at the end of the day. UF does a great job of reflecting our confusion and struggles to be the people we think we're meant to be and how that changes. Sometimes it even offers suggestions.

I could go one (seriously!) but I won't. I love the multi-level potential of UF and I think it's a big reason for its popularity, though most couldn't articulate - and that's fine -they shouldn't have to - that's the whole point of stories. You tell a 'real' story and people take what they want to/need to.

If nothing else, my little points here would suggest that UF writers and readers are anything but shallow. Heck - maybe we're even better adjusted than average. ;D