I’ve been hearing a lot of grumbling on various social media sites (okay, mostly Twitter) about the Great Debate: Urban Fantasy vs. Paranormal Romance. For the most part, I’ve stayed out of the fray for a few of reasons–
1. I don’t like to comment on “politics.”
2. It makes my head hurt.
3. I think it’s a silly argument.
Today, an article written by Kim Harrison showed up on SF Signal. The title of the article directly addresses the heart of UF vs PNR debate — “Excuse me, your romance is in my urban fantasy” — and the differences between the two but also bemoans the apparent dilution of the urban fantasy genre by a rise in the romantic content. While I don’t agree with everything Ms. Harrison says, I do find some truth in her arguments.
Ms. Harrison begins by recounting a conversation with a reader in which he was lamenting the “shine fading from the urban fantasy genre” because the kick-ass protagonists we all know and love seemed to be morphing into damsels in distress and needed a big strong man (vampire, werewolf, etc.) to rescue them. She continues by saying:
The industry had a hand in causing it to a certain extent as many houses grabbed anything they could find with a vampire and sexy protagonist, thinking that was all urban fantasy was. Manuscripts that would otherwise be passed over were picked up and promoted. Books that would be stellar romances on their own were lessened by well-meaning editors trying to make them something they were not by asking their author to “stick a vampire in it! They’re hot right now!”
I disagree. This example isn’t a case of established protagonists changing. It’s not that urban fantasy is being “diluted” by a rise in the romantic content — It’s a case of books being marketed inappropriately. It’s a lack of understanding of not just one but two genres and in the end both suffer for it. (Whether they are sub-par or outstanding is not for me to decide and I will not debate the validity of one book over another.)
Ms. Harrison continues:
However, the very aspects that give it strength-the mixing of many genres-may now be threatening to eat away at it. It’s up to the authors and publishing houses to understand that having a vampire in the storyline does not make it urban fantasy.
I agree with Ms. Harrison’s observation that simply having a vampire in a story doesn’t make it urban fantasy. It can easily be paranormal romance. Or horror. The difference is in the author’s intent and the story they are trying to convey to the reader. Most “true” (and I use that word very loosely) UF novels are built on either a mystery or thriller backbone with science fiction, fantasy, romance, and horror mixed in to varying degrees. However, others may rely more on sci-fi or fantasy as the main support. Still others may lean toward romance or horror. This diversity is the very strength that makes UF so popular and yet so hard to define. It is the blurring of lines that make UF what it is.
Ms. Harrison states, “I know where that line is. The greats before me drew it very clearly in the sand.” With all due respect to Ms. Harrison (and I’m a huge Kim Harrison fan), I don’t think anyone can say there is a clearly defined line between urban fantasy and paranormal romance. She uses Bram Stoker’s DRACULA as an example: “For the time it was written in, Dracula could be classified as an urban fantasy.” I agree. It could be UF…and it could easily be read as paranormal romance or even horror. Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, for the time is was written in, could be classified as science fiction or horror. Charles Dickens’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL, for the time it was written in, could be classified as urban fantasy or horror. Jules Verne’s A JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, for the time it was written in, could be classified as science fiction or fantasy.
Arguments can be made for and against any book belonging to any given genre–and that’s the real problem. People–readers, writers, editors, publishers, etc.–become too caught up in the label game and everyone gets their panties in a wad when something is “mislabeled.” Instead of focusing on The Story and whether or not we enjoyed reading it, we focus on what is apparently lacking or what was added. Suddenly we’re back to the “You got peanut butter in my chocolate/You got chocolate in my peanut butter” argument. If the combination is delicious and satisfies whatever craving you had, does it really matter?
Stories should be weighed and validated based on their own merits and not the label someone slaps on it so bookstores know where to file it and so readers can find it. Mistakes happen and UF can be misidentified as PNR or vice versa. Here’s the kicker: It happens with other genres as well. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS can be viewed as both thriller and horror. THE DA VINCI CODE can be classified as either mystery or thriller. It isn’t unique to UF and PNR. Some stories blur the lines to the point no one knows exactly what label to give it so they make an educated guess of where it will have the best chance of reaching an audience. But it’s still a guess, and sometimes the guess is wrong.
Instead of wailing and gnashing our teeth when that happens, how about we all–readers and writers alike–make a pact to say, “It wasn’t what I expected, but it was a good story and I enjoyed it” and not allow ourselves to be caught up in The Great Debate and the Label Game. Let’s focus on good stories, good writing, and having a good time. Reading and writing books should be fun. Arguing over shelf real estate sucks away that fun and only widens the riff between authors and readers when we should be happy to celebrate the very thing that supposedly unites us:
The love of a good book.