Did Buffy Destroy Urban Fantasy?

First off, let me preface this by saying I adore Buffy. I adore Joss Whedon. I adore Urban Fantasy.  So this isn’t a post geared toward stirring up any major sort of controversy or anything – just some general obeservations.  (And it’s not meant to be all encompassing – just my thoughts…)

I was doing a fair amount of thinking of genre over the weekend (in between revisions, of course. As one does, when you have a deadline looming over your head. >_< )

(Also, I should note this is going to get rambly and without purpose, as so many of my posts often do. Sorry about that.)

But anyway – when I was younger – my early and late teens – I was a pretty big reader of fantasy and sci-fi. Urban Fantasy as a genre didn’t really exist, but there were a few authors/books that fall under that umbrella. UF, of course being one of those genres where hey – it’s fantasy! But it takes place in an urban setting – so elves in New York, or whatever.

But back in the day it wasn’t as cut and dried as that. Everything was still labeled as “Fantasy.” I’m thinking “old school” UF – like Charles de Lint’s Newford series, for example. Or Emma Bull or Terri Windling or Tanya Huff.  Or Mercedes Lackey and her Bedlam’s Bard series (which I suppose could now be categorized as “Elfpunk,”) or her Diana Tregarde series. Or even Tom Dietz’s Windmaster’s Bane books (which started out in 1986 – and probably a huge influence on my own writing to this day.) Or Clive Barker’s Imajica. Or any number of other fabulous authors out there.

Stories where the setting was often as much a character as the characters themselves, and many had a sort of mystery that needed to be solved. A monster on the loose. Magic gone awry. Humans with or without special powers. Maybe a little bit of romance. Elves. Vampires. Faeries. Aliens.

UF was a “respectable” half-sister to the Fantasy genre.

And then Buffy came along. And all of a sudden, this entirely new “thing” was born – the literary generation of leather-clad, demon-slaying, kick-ass women. Vampires. Werewolves. Demons. And empowered young ladies  dating or destroying the things that go bump in the night.

Which is pretty cool.  Not that there weren’t books about vamps or vampire slayers/hunters before then. And to do a brief timeline – the Buffy movie came out in 1992…but it was a bit of a flop at the time. It didn’t really take off until the series in 1997. Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series started with Guilty Pleasures in 1993…and Tanya Huff’s own vamp books, starting with Blood Price, came out in 1991. So you can see there’s definitely a bit of overlap there…but for some reason, Buffy made women protagonists in supernatural settings acceptable.

And boom! UF was reborn – with stronger women characters everywhere. Buffy had seemingly paved the way for hipper fantasy stories with snark and sex appeal and this was a Good Thing.

But you know that old adage of how familiarity breeds contempt? I sort of feel that way about UF some days. And that’s not me crapping on the genre I write in – it’s just that with every trend, eventually the market gets saturated until it’s really difficult to find the things that truly shine.  After all – when all the covers start to look alike, it’s easy to become pretty jaded about the content inside. (I know it’s a marketing thing, but I sometimes really wish book covers could give us a better hint as to the story. Body parts and tattoos stopped being “edgy” about 2 minutes after that particular trend was born.)

And not every UF book out there is written by women – but there’s no denying the majority of them are. And unfortunately, that means that UF is now often pigeon-holed as “women’s fantasy.”  Which you’d think might be a good thing, but it’s really a rather dismissive opinion that gets bandied about by “real” fantasy purists.  (Writers or readers.)

Like somehow UF is ruined because it’s different now. (All those female gazes, y’all.)

I get really frustrated by that because fantasy writing in general has often been dominated by male writers and male protagonists. (And this is not to say one is better than the other – writing is writing, as far as I’m concerned.) Most of the sci-fi/fantasy books I read growing up were written by men, with mostly male characters.

At the time it was the status quo – I didn’t know anything different because I hadn’t *seen* anything different. (I was limited by whatever I could find at the local library and whatever my aunt had in her basement.) And yes, there were *some* that were written by women (eg. Anne McCaffrey, etc.) but for the most part, women characters were usually seen as something to be rescued, or bedded, or basically crapped on in some fashion.

A prize to be won.

So it’s not any big wonder that Buffy held the appeal that it did. As a character she had her flaws, she made her mistakes, she fought hard, she loved hard, she made terrible sacrifices and she saved the world.

(Which is a pretty big step up from some book I read when I was 13 and the woman  referred to herself as “merely a slut with a hot cleft.” Mmm. Hot damn, but where do I get in line for that?)

So I think one of the reasons post-Buffy UF exploded the way it did was because it was now okay in the mainstream to allow women characters to be who they were…and not have to apologize for it.

And yet sometimes it feels like I have to apologize for not writing a “real” book in a “real” genre. (Oh, it’s just Urban Fantasy, nothing major. Not like Game of Thrones, or anything cool like that.)

And that really, really sucks.

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17 Responses to Did Buffy Destroy Urban Fantasy?

  1. Great post, Allison. I never really watched Buffy the series because I was one of the few who actually loved Buffy the movie. But yeah, I guess she’s the godmother of UF.

    I hear ya on the ‘looking for something different’ thing. Maybe that’s why I haven’t read the mainstream authors in UF. (Laurell, Sherrilyn, etc.) I’m constantly on the lookout for something new. Give me Seanan McGuire or Laura Bickle or Sonya Bateman… or well, you. And as for guy UF writers, other than Jim Butcher, they’ve been pretty absent. But they’re making a show of it. James Tuck, your fellow word whore, for one. Or Larry Correia and Justin Gustainis are also up and comers, imo. I just hope the genre – whatever others may think of it – is still going strong by the time I get my foot in the door. =o)

    • allison says:

      I think too, there’s a big overlap between UF and PNR – both of which are marketed very similar and often have the same types of world building and character tropes. (Just different end goals) – but they’re often lumped in together and that tends to muddy the waters a bit as far what book is in what genre. (And because they often have similar cover-types, some readers will avoid picking up a UF simply because it might look like a PNR and vice versa.)

  2. Never apologize. You write books every bit as legitimate as any other genre. (And yes, Literary is a genre)
    And your books are hands down in the top level of the field. Well-written and superbly crafted.

    If anyone is too ignorant to see that then to hell with them.

    • allison says:

      Aww, thanks Tuck. I know my books aren’t anywhere close to the top of the field, but I appreciate your words. It just gets frustrating sometimes. 🙂

  3. Darchala says:

    The thing that repels me from the genre as a whole is that it’s presented in such a way as to seem utterly homogenous. “Oh look, it’s hot chick in leather strutting around a graveyard, just like the other two hundred protagonists leering down at me from this shelf.”

    It doesn’t help matters much that the blurbs and review snippets focus so much on “edgy”, “sexy”, and “cool” so much that I just want to shove everyone involved into a Claire’s and sit grumpily on the bench outside until they get it out of their systems.

    • allison says:

      *spits*

      Sure – but things like covers aren’t usually controlled by the authors. A trend takes off and everyone rushes to copy it because they want people to buy things things that look similar. (Hey you liked X? This looks just like X. You should try X.)

      (And there are reasons upon reasons marketing-wise for this – brand recognition, genre labeling so that readers know what sort of book it is right off the bat, etc. Which makes sense, especially in today’s market where people make snap decisions on purchases.)

      So even though I don’t have vamps or slayer sorts in my books, I’m going to get one of those strutty hot chicks on my cover, simply because I’m writing UF.

      • Darchala says:

        I know–and it kind of kills me because it’s so inappropriate for some authors, and because it’s friggin’ lazy and unimaginative on the art direction side of things. Fantasy novels have a huge range of covers, but for whatever reason, UF gets that cookie-cutter photomanip treatment.

  4. I think UF got marginalized by the confusion with PNR. A lot of publishers/marketers pointed UF releases at romance readers, hoping to get a piece of the romance market. When those readers were disappointed by the nearly inevitable failure to deliver an encapsulated romance, I think it created a general sense that UF wasn’t delivering.

    Incidentally, when I began reading LKH in the early/mid-nineties, she was shelved in horror.

    • allison says:

      I don’t think I found LKH until closer to 2000? She may have been shelved in horror then too, but I want to say I found it in the Fantasy/Sci-Fi section at one point. (I also remember NOT buying the books at first because the first-run covers were really, really bad. I know – it’s hypocritical, but I just couldn’t pick them up.)

      That being said, I think your point about the PNR confusions is probably very apt.

  5. Urban Fantasy has been bastardized by cliche, not by being written by women. The earliest years of the genre–ca. 2004-2006, which was years after Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended–were new and innovative. Around 2009-2010, Urban Fantasy became derivative of itself, and the shift of authors and readers from paranormal romance forced the genre into a new mold (“kick-ass” women and the multitude of supernatural hotties lusting after her, as opposed to a female protagonist solving mysteries and discovering herself in a paranormal universe). Urban Fantasy lost its “fantasy”, or re-imagining of society, in the same way vampires and werewolves lost their horror in an effort to fit romance genre expectations. I love the romance genre and always will, but it has to meet the definite expectations of its readers, which tend to be a wrong fit for non-romance genres.

  6. KansasBard says:

    Great post! Personally, I think Buffy did a good thing by sparking UF into the collective consciousness. The roots were already there, but Buffy gave it fertile soil to grow. What came next were countless imitators who failed to bring something new.

    And you’re right that familiarity breeds contempt. But authors who don’t write to “formula” are often ignored by agents and publishers because they don’t fit into a neat little box. So what we get are cookie-cutter stories with familiar heroes, packaged up in covers that all look the same.

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  8. Synde says:

    Wow great post Allison.. You made me remember my great love for Tom Deitz and Emma Bull’s Finder..( tic tic is the ultimate punk chick)
    I think I shall reread them.. I was a minimal Buffy fan but I think you make some valid points..
    Thanks for getting the gears grinding again!

  9. bungluna says:

    Great though-provoking post. You make several valid points about female fans and the development of UF. I guess any genre that becomes popular gets immitated into banality. I never watched Buffy, but I’m conversant with it’s rules through the fans who crossover unto UF reader forums. As a female reader, all I can say is that I want to read about an pro-active female, not a victim/villain/decorative piece of tail.

    I’m a readaholic who has been addicted to UF for the past 20 years. Before that I read mostly romance and mysteries. Since I read an average of 3 new-to-me books a week, I’m always in the hunt for something new.

    I discovered UF through Laurell K. Hamilton in the early ’90s and went from her to Tanya Huff, Emma Bull, Mercedes Lackey and then on to the PNR writers like Sherrylin Kenyon et al. Lately, I’ve been actively seeking male writers and have fallen in love with a few, like Kevin Hearn, Jim Butcher and Bennedict Jacka. I’ve also had some unfortunate experiences of males writers who only write females in the madona/whore category. I much prefer the mteenth version of the kick-ass heroine to reading a new idea with no female characters for me to relate to.

  10. Excellent, thoughtful post. I never really thought about Buffy having an influence on literature, but yeah, definitely! And yes, like you I’m tired of all the stories having similar elements. It’s very difficult as a reader to find something fresh and new.

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