Social Justice Saturday: But Why Aren’t Men Writing Urban Fantasy?

10 Dec

A recent observation that very few women had recently won a Clarke award (British SF award) and that a publisher’s list of “Future SF Classics” had selected no women sparked a lot of discussion in many places that has, extraordinarily, been really very thoughtful. Torque is now having a focus week on women SF writers of the last decade and if you read blogs about science fiction at all you’ve probably seen some discussion of this (I highly recommend the comment thread in the first post I linked, but put the kettle on first as it will take some stamina!)

Anyway. I haven’t read much science fiction (as opposed to fantasy) for many years but there was one tiny segment of the discussion I do feel prepared to comment on, and that was a question in one thread that I’ll paraphrase: “Women are by far the bulk of the writers in the urban fantasy genre, why don’t we view that as a problem?”

The first answer, of course, is that plenty of people are interested in that question. A very large number of these novels overlap with the romance genre, which is overwhelmingly read in and written in by women (although there are also plenty of men writing it under pseuds), and of course the paucity of men reading romance is a problem. Romance and SF present two side of the same dilemma, except that there are quite a few more women reading SF than men reading romance (but the same couldn’t really be said of the proportion of writers, IMO). The second answer that it’s not quite fair to compare an across-the-board relative paucity of women getting contracts in SF generally to a specific genre within fantasy – after all, the bulk of people writing epic fantasy are men.

The third answer goes like this:

She came into the room like a candle burning with a cold, clear flame. Her hair was a burnished shade of auburn that was too dark to cast back any ruddy highlights, but did anyway. Her eyes were dark, clear, her complexion flawlessly smooth and elegantly graced with cosmetics. She was not a tall woman, but shapely, wearing a black dress with a plunging neckline and a slash in one side that showed off a generous portion of pale thigh. Black gloves covered her hands to above the elbows, and her three-hundred-dollar shoes were a study in high-heeled torture devices. She looked too good to be true.

And like this:

Hank tried to rise but the movement brought a white-hot flare of pain that almost made him black out again. The girl went down on one knee beside him, her face close to his. She put two fingers to her lips and licked them, then pressed them against his shoulder, her touch as light as a whisper, and the pain went away. Just like that, as though she’d flicked a switch.

Leaning back, she offered Hank her hand. Her skin was dry and cool to the touch and she was strong. Effortlessly, she pulled him up into a sitting position. Hank braced himself for a fresh flood of pain, but it was still gone. He reached up to touch his shoulder. There was a hole in his shirt, the fabric sticky and wet with blood. But there was no wound. Unable to take his gaze from the girl, he explored with a finger, found a pucker of skin where the bullet hole had closed, nothing more. The girl grinned at him.

All he could do was look back at her, stumbling to frame a coherent sentence. “What . . . how did you . . . ?”

“Spit’s just as magic as blood,” she said. “Didn’t you ever know that?”

He shook his head.

“You look so funny,” she went on. “The way you’re staring at me.”

Before he could move, she leaned forward and kissed him, a small tongue darting out to flick against his lips, then she jumped to her feet, leaving behind a faint musky smell.

And also like this:

A rich female voice asked from the darkness, “Hss. Any idea when the next market is?”

She stepped into the light. She wore silver jewelry, and her dark hair was perfectly coifed. She was very pale, and her long dress was jet black velvet. Richard knew immediately that he had seen her before, but it took him a few moments to place her: the first Floating Market, that was it – in Harrods. She had smiled at him.

“Tonight,” said Hunter. “Belfast.”

“Thank you,” said the woman. She had the most amazing eyes, thought Richard. They were the color of foxgloves.

“I’ll see you there,” she said, and she looked at Richard as she said it. Then she looked away, a little shyly; she stepped into the shadows, and she was gone.

And I’ve given myself away with that last one: but the first quote is from Storm Front by Jim Butcher, the second is from Someplace To Be Flying by Charles de Lint, and the third of course is from Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.
So is the question: why aren’t any men writing urban fantasy? Or is it: why don’t we notice when men write urban fantasy?

I don't know ...

... maybe this has something do to with it?

The fourth answer is: this is a classic derailing tactic. People are talking about problem A (lack of women’s representation in one area) and other people decide that we definitely have to talk about another problem, B (perceived lack of men’s representation in another). While in this case the problems are connected enough that the questions can be part of the discussion, in general, if you want to talk about problem B? Go and write your own blog post about B and solicit discussion.

There's hope for us all, anyway.

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7 Responses to “Social Justice Saturday: But Why Aren’t Men Writing Urban Fantasy?”

  1. Cara Marie 11/12/2010 at 7:32 am #

    Ah, but didn’t those men all do it first? They just set it up so all the ladies could take over … or something … we’ll pretend they’re all writing more noble genres now.

    Thinking about my own collection, while most of the urban fantasy novels I own are written by women, the vast majority of the urban fantasy comics are written by men. So it’s not even the genre as a whole.

    Tangently, when I was at the Hachette Roadshow, they gave out a little booklet which included a list of paranormal romance. Under which they had included Mike Carey and Jim Butcher, along with all their other urban fantasy, romantic subplots or not. The genres are not the same thing! I can tell the difference, I swear.

    • Tui Head 11/12/2010 at 9:11 am #

      1. Ha ha, I’m glad you asked that, because I deliberately picked men who’d all put out books that I’d read for the first time in the last year. & Butcher and de Lint, at least, have not changed specially, these were just the books that sprang to mind. Meanwhile, although de Lint did start publishing books in 1983-ish, War for the Oaks was in 1987, the first Anita Blake book was 1993, and Neverwhere came out in 1996. SO THERE (OK, I know you weren’t making that point seriously, but I had an answer all prepped and ready to go just in case, so there you go).

      Robin McKinley is someone I forgot, but I think Sunshine is pretty fine urban fantasy.

      Speaking of your collection, um, can I borrow Feed off you? I will return the books that are yours that I have right now, if that helps, ha ha (sigh).

      As for urban fantasy and comics – this is a good point: even the vast majority of superhero comics can slot pretty handily into urban fantasy, and of course those are disproportionately written by men. Batman certainly has that vibe, even if it would only qualify every ten issues or so when something flat-out magical happens (Poison Ivy or whatever…)

      You know what, I think if Anita Blake and that count as paranormal romance, I want to say that Jim Butcher does too. Same amounts of sex; same on-again off-again relationships (although I only ever read one of the books and couldn’t stand it, but you know.) There seems to be an inclination, I have it too, to sneeringly put badly-written books in paranormal romance and allow well-written books to call themselves urban fantasy; but I personally am only really willing to call a book a paranormal romance if it otherwise has the romance-novel happily-ever-after structure. Loads of sex is not a qualifier (otherwise what is Heinlein…alien romance?) (But note I’ve never read a romance novel in my *life*, so.)

      But then, of course, in a way we already use quality to distinguish between romance novels and novels, which have romance. So … I don’t know. But I do know that I feel there is some genre-cringe going on that’s related to sexism.

      • Cara Marie 11/12/2010 at 10:24 am #

        Oh, well, can’t argue with dates :p And absolutely you can borrow Feed.

        Yeah, I was thinking of all the Vertigo stuff, but superheroes too. I always have huge dilemmas about tagging superhero comics, but there is sadly no genre called ‘pseudo-science fiction’ and I am thinking you are right.

        I don’t know if I would personally call Anita Blake paranormal romance either? Mind you, the only thing I know about them is their reputation for sex, ha ha. I can see why someone would put something like Tanya Huff’s Blood series in a paranormal romance list, because Vicki’s relationships are vital, but the books don’t follow a romance structure at all. They are ‘adventure urban fantasy’ rather than romance or crime. I probably have the same definition as you. (Though my general guide is to look at whether or not it follows the same character through the series or not.)

        I don’t know if you read there was an article on some novel that is apparently the next best thing, which I had never heard of and cannot recall the title of, which they were initially going to publish as romance, but then all the guys at the publishing company were like, hey, we liked it too! So they didn’t.

        … yeah.

    • Tui Head 11/12/2010 at 10:33 am #

      (So I have to reply here because replies don’t continue threading which is insanely frustrating.)

      “I can see why someone would put something like Tanya Huff’s Blood series in a paranormal romance list, because Vicki’s relationships are vital, but the books don’t follow a romance structure at all. They are ‘adventure urban fantasy’ rather than romance or crime. I probably have the same definition as you.”

      And of course there are financial reasons to put a shove a book in the paranormal romance section: it sells well. And there are definitely people who aren’t writing classic paranormal romance who would appeal to that market, so that’s financially good for them. But it’s like the comments people were making over at that post about something like Walking the Tree: in the short term, if fantasy is selling better than science fiction, it makes sense to package borderline cases as fantasy. But in the long term it’s bad for science fiction as a genre as well as for the perceptions of women (who are writing the edge stuff) and their relationships with science fiction. (Which doesn’t matter to people at Penguin, I suppose; on the other hand, people working at spec fic imprints ought to have a vested interest in keeping their genres viable.)

      “I don’t know if you read there was an article on some novel that is apparently the next best thing, which I had never heard of and cannot recall the title of, which they were initially going to publish as romance, but then all the guys at the publishing company were like, hey, we liked it too! So they didn’t.

      … yeah.”

      OH PUBLISHING, YOU’RE SUCH A GREAT INDUSTRY, I CAN’T WAIT TO WORK IN YOU. I mean of course you can understand why these decisions are made, and yet every time someone makes another one it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  2. Eavan 12/12/2010 at 5:44 am #

    By answer three, do you only mean to suggest that men are in fact writing urban fantasy? Or was there additional commentary implicit in your choice of passages?

    • Tui Head 12/12/2010 at 8:41 pm #

      I intended it to mean only that they are, but there might be something worth unpacking in my choices. I deliberately picked people who I have on my bookshelf, who I could remember passages from off the top of my head, and who were still publishing even if the books I picked were a little older – I think they all had new books out in 2010, and if not 2009.

      Is there something worth unpacking there … OK, Gaiman and De Lint are both acclaimed within the genre. Butcher is extraordinarily popular and people are fans of his work without necessarily giving him the props that Gaiman gets – I certainly would say that his work is on the same level as someone like Seanan McGuire, who coincidentally is writing very similar stuff with a female protagonist (in my little comparison-covers bar, she’s on the far left and Butcher is beside her – very similar – so clearly marketing knows that as well, although I think various things about the book’s production detract from the artistic similarities.) Meanwhile, do I think it’s a coincidence that De Lint is a byword for excellence while Hamilton etc are frequently mentioned only to be sneered at? No.

      What else did you think might be going on? You’re probably right …

      • Eavan 13/12/2010 at 6:29 pm #

        So, I’ve read very little urban fantasy. When it’s gritty or when it’s romantic, it’s just never pushed my buttons. So if I see a commonality among the passages you chose, it might be that this just is common in urban fantasy and I hadn’t known.

        Anyway, what struck me about those three passages is that they all feature women; at least two of them are written from a man’s point of view; all three of them describe the woman’s appearance or actions in terms of their attractiveness or potential sexuality. The women all seem fairly powerful in their ways… although it’s in terms of what they do for the character with the POV.

        I haven’t read Butcher, I’ve only read one book by Gaiman (Stardust), and although I’ve never much liked De Lint’s work, he’s easy enough to avoid. So I have no idea whether the passages you chose represent their work, or whether they represent preoccupations of men writing urban fantasy, or whether they represent preoccupations of people writing urban fantasy, or whether they merely represent what you happen to remember.

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