I was at an independent bookstore a year or two ago, and I
noticed that the store owner had separated his book sections even further than
just the major genre breakdown that we’re used to seeing at every bookstore and
library. The science fiction and fantasy area, for example, was separated into
high fantasy, urban fantasy, space sci-fi, Earth sci-fi, and so on.
When I saw the little signs explaining the breakdown, I was
delighted. My tastes are pretty specific: I’ve never much cared for high
fantasy or hard sci-fi, but to me, urban fantasy is the rich delicious comfort
food of literature. When I sat down to look for a new book, however, something
felt weird about the arrangement. Certain authors were missing – authors who
were popular enough to be in any bookstore worth its salt. It took me a minute,
but I finally realized what was bothering me: every single title on the urban
fantasy shelf was written by a man.
I checked and double-checked, but I was right: there was no
Charlaine Harris, no Patricia Briggs, no Carrie Vaughn. I got up to go ask the
clerk about this oversight, but on my way to the cash register I passed the Romance
section, and one of those subsections caught my eye: Paranormal Romance. I took
a closer look, and sure enough, they were all there: Briggs and Vaughn and
Harris and Harrison. The store carried female UF authors, but their books had
been designated a subsection of Romance instead of a subsection of
As a reader, I was disappointed. How could I find a new book
when they were all mixed in with books I wasn’t interested in?
Now, in the bookstore’s defense, I do understand that the
line between these two subgenres has been blurred in recent years, since the
supernatural got so popular and romance writers began to incorporate vampires,
shape-shifters, and other creatures into their work. Meanwhile, urban fantasy
authors with female protagonists seem to be sexualizing their heroines more
than their male counterparts. Just look at poor Anita Blake, once a pioneer of
the genre, who in later books was infected with a weird magical disease that
requires her to have sex many times a day. Seriously? Just thinking about it
makes me tired.
Urban fantasy vs.
Despite the blurring of subgenres, though, there is still a
difference between paranormal romance and urban fantasy, and it has to do with
storyline priority. In a romance novel, the most important storyline is always
the tale of a couple and how they (almost always) end up together. A paranormal
romance, therefore, is just a romance novel where at least one half of the
couple happens to be a vampire or a werewolf or something. The most important
aspect of the plot is still the story of their love.
An urban fantasy, on the other hand, may or may not have a
romantic element. What it does have, however, is worldbuilding. Like comic books or historical fiction, the idea
behind an urban fantasy is to create a specific, complex world that’s different
from our modern reality, and tell a smaller story within that world. Good urban
fantasy authors can even build an allegorical connection between the
fantastical world and our real one, like when Charlaine Harris uses vampires
“coming out of the coffin” as a parable of various gay rights debates, or when
Patricia Briggs’ werewolves face the same chain-of-command moral complexities
as modern soldiers.
Those are two female authors, you’ll notice, with female
protagonists. And even though Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse does have a lot of
sex, her books feature some of the richest, most wonderfully thought-out
worldbuilding I’ve read.
Of course, it’s one thing to agree that there’s a distinction
between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, and another thing to require all
bookstore owners to read every book they carry so they can shelve it properly.
They have to literally judge these books by their covers, and that’s another
area where female protagonists are often overtly sexualized. Maybe we need to
rethink the way we do book covers, or reevaluate categorization in general. I’m
not sure. But I’m positive that the answer to this genre confusion is not sequestering female urban fantasy
heroines away from the boys. After all, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about
good female protagonists, it’s that they would never stand for that. -- Melissa Olson