Thursday, February 23, 2012

Towards a Definition of Urban Fantasy

I almost want to start this post with "Back in my day ..." like a grumpy old man. Because, when I first started reading urban fantasy, it was the kind of stuff Charles deLint wrote. Or it was Bordertown, or Emma Bull's War for the Oaks.

There days, there seems to be an interesting division in what, exactly, "urban fantasy" means. There are the old codgers like me, for whom it includes anything set in the here-and-now with a hint (or a wallop) or magic, and for whom Charles deLint pretty much started the whole thing. Then there is the other bunch, who mostly seem to be younger, or at least more recent, readers, for whom urban fantasy is primarily the "tough supernatural chicks kicking ass in the city" type, with some male protagonists thrown in to round things out.

For that second group, the sort of fiction Charles deLint and Terri Windling and Emma Bull (and a long list of others I'll get to in a future post) write/wrote is something called "contemporary fantasy." And for them, one is a sub-genre of the other. Usually it's UF is a sub-genre of CF, but a few people have it the other way around.

Now I'm the first to admit that language changes, and definitions change, and generally that's not a bad thing. Because when things stop changing, they die. But I'm also a scholar (never got a PhD, but I do have an MA), and for scholars, precision in definitions are important. You can't talk about something if you don't define what it is you're talking about. So over the next few posts, I'm going to look at "urban fantasy" and "contemporary fantasy" and see if I can come up with definitions that work. At least for me. I wouldn't dream of insisting anyone else use what I come up with, but if you want to know what I'm talking about, you'll be able to refer to my definitions.

One aside before I shut up: I find it interesting that the world of folklore scholarship also has a similar dilemma in the use of the terms "urban legend" and "contemporary legend" only in that case, they're not debating what is included in each, but only which term to use. Though I haven't kept up on the scholarship in recent years, I think scholars went with "contemporary legend" (because many of them aren't urban), while popular culture went with "urban legend" (replacing the really, really inaccurate "urban myth").

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