(WARNING: If you’re hoping for a definitive definition of what exactly constitutes urban fantasy, you’re not going to find it here!)
This past weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of moderating a panel at the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto. Our topic: Defining Urban Fantasy. There we were, six intrepid authors and editors, boldly taking our seats before a packed house, determined to wrestle the urban fantasy beast into submission once and for all…
To be honest, I don’t think any one of us expected that we would pin down an absolute definition — certainly not in the hour allotted to us. While we all either wrote or edited in the genre, we did so in wildly diverse ways…and we held equally diverse opinions on what exactly constitutes an urban fantasy. As one of the audience put it to me later, my job as moderator was rather like herding cats!
Some panelists felt that the word urban automatically suggested a city setting, but not necessarily a modern one. For them, a fantasy set in London in the 1800s would still qualify as urban. Other panelists preferred urban to mean modern day or real world, but not necessarily city (think Charles de Lint and Tanya Huff, who both write modern day fantasy in rural settings). Still others pointed out the paranormal romance connection to the genre, which came about when marketers realized the voracious readership potential of the romance crowd a few years ago.
Interestingly, another panel on the following day (The Road to Urban Fantasy) digressed into much the same discussion…with much the same result. While Tim Powers (who had been on my own panel the previous day) felt that urban fantasy should have a contemporary setting, author Farah Mendlesohn from Britain noted that “modern” in UK terms was very different from American thinking — going back, in fact, as far as the year 1750.
After much discussion, about the only thing panelists (for the most part) could agree on was that urban fantasies should have a real world setting, though not necessarily a contemporary one. Beyond that, however, editor David G. Hartwell may have said it best: “Urban fantasy is a state of confusion, not a state of clarity.”
So there you have it. Urban fantasy is a huge melting pot of a genre “hijacked by the publishing industry in order to reach a wider female audience,” (Hartwell) into which we toss historical, contemporary, real-world, paranormal, city and rural settings, and pretty much whatever doesn’t fit somewhere else.
We’re all clear now, right? 🙂
(With huge thanks to my fellow panelists: Ace/Roc editor-in-chief Ginjer Buchanan; author Tim Powers; author S.M. Stirling; author David B. Coe; and author & editor Adria Laycraft.)