What is urban fantasy?

Since I’ve taught a course titled Urban Fantasy for the last few years, I’ve had to answer that question a lot. It’s not easy. What I mean by the term is fantasy grounded in a modern world. The terms “modern fantasy” and “contemporary fantasy” are hopelessly ambiguous as course titles. Contemporary American Novel, for example, would denote when the novels were written, not the settings or time periods therein. A course called Contemporary Fantasy could include T. H. White’s Once and Future King or Le Guin’s Earthsea books, even Tolkien for that matter.

To further complicate the issue are the various ways folks perceive the word “urban.” If you grew up in one of the “real cities” like New York or Chicago, like most Americans haven’t, urban doesn’t include suburbia or even, let’s say, Sean Stewart’s Houston in Perfect Circle. Sarah, an urban planner, uses the term urban in a variety of ways. People live in cities in a variety of ways, but most people live in cities. It all depends, I suppose, which axis, time or space, is being emphasized. American Gods is urban fantasy to me, though if cityscape is the requisite factor, clearly it’s not. It’s not urban enough, which I suspect is a term, like “black enough,” that is fraught with peril.

As for my own work, no matter what I myself label it, editors tell me I’m wrong. All this matters to me this morning because a story I felt embodied my own notion of urban fantasy was rejected for not being urban fantasy by a wonderful editor whose work I consistently admire. Urban fantasy? Don’t ask me, obviously. If anybody says “interstitial,” I’ll slug them. Anyway, if you come to the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, you can decide for yourself. I’ll be reading the story, whatever it is, Friday, November 2nd at 5:30 pm.

6 thoughts on “What is urban fantasy?

  1. I’ve been trying to pin down Urban Fantasy for ages. I remember first hearing the term, and for once I was actually genuinely excited about hokey genre naming.

    This was back during the time when white marketing executives were using the word “urban” as a way of getting around saying African-American.

    I was really kind of disappointed when the bulk of what I saw talked about was really just…white people fantasy…in cities.

    Sorry to hear about your story. I’m sure it’s lovely, even if it isn’t about white people in cities. 🙂

  2. I love the way the word “city” is used here in Richmond to mean scary place with black folks. I’ve had county dwellers tell me, “We don’t come into the city at night.” It occurs to me that Anansi Boys would be an urban fantasy with blacks. Do they count if they’re educated and employed? Does it lose urban points for leaving London as the plot demands? I think we need to fine tune this thing a little more. Big Box Shopping Fantasy, Five-Acre Lot Minimum Fantasy, New-Urban Mixed-Use Fantasy, and (a Richmond specialty) Historic District Fantasy. The possibilities are endless.

  3. I just got out of a Spanish test and the whole time I was thinking about how wonderful it would be to have 50 Cent read Nabokov’s Ada (I did poorly on the test).

    Though personally I believe everything needs to be read by Jeremy Irons.

    Although I wouldn’t mind if we lightened the load and had all suspense/mystery/thriller books read by Edward James Olmos and Chris Walken doing Children’s and YA.

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