wrap up

January 8, 2009

Thanks for all the links and comments on my urban fantasy posts, and indulging the fact that I’m constitutionally unable to consume any kind of entertainment without analyzing it. That’s part of the fun for me, though it did lead to my brother yelling at me when we went to see The Lion King and I insisted on explaining how it was just like Hamlet. “You’re ruining it!” he said. “Nuh-uh!” I said. “I’m making it better!”

Shara asked why I write urban fantasy, and the simplest answer to that is, I don’t. I wrote the first Kitty short story in 1999, and it was published in Weird Tales in 2001. I wrote the first novel in 2003. The current urban fantasy phenomenon was just getting started when the novel sold in 2004. In my first conversation with my editor, she asked, “Have you read Kim Harrison? Kelley Armstrong?” And I, embarrassingly, said, “Who?” They were just starting to hit the bestseller lists at the time. I started looking around and noticing how many books like this were out there. My first thought was, “Crap, everyone’s doing this kind of thing, I’m totally screwed.” But as it turned out the phenomenon was just getting started.

The way I look at it, I write stories about a woman dealing with life, and she happens to be a werewolf and her problems happen to be on the bizarre side. Because of that bizarreness, my books are clearly urban fantasy, but someone had to tell me that. And clearly, there’s a whole group of authors who had similar ideas about supernatural fiction at about the same time (kind of like all the people who read Tolkien started writing epic fantasy and inventing Dungeons and Dragons and so on, all about the same time). If they’re anything like me, these authors grew up with Ripley, Sarah Conner, Linda Carter’s Wonder Woman, and the Bionic Woman; they had mothers who worked; saw women become astronauts and Supreme Court Justices; and we knew without a doubt that women could have rockin’ adventures and be the stars of their own stories. And clearly there’s an audience hungry for their work.

And holy shit, I just realized I’ve been writing Kitty stories for 10 years!

23 Responses to “wrap up”

  1. Todd Says:

    And we fully expect you to write them for ten more years! Please?

    It was amazing watching the Sci Fi Book Club’s offerings explode after 2005 with U.F. titles, many of which appear in the Romance section of a bookstore. Needless to say, after reading a few of them, I stay the hell out of that aisle. Some aren’t bad, but most fall into your pet peeves category. Yucko.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading your articles on urban fantasy. Thanks fer posting. Lookin’ forward to February for more Kitty adventures.

  2. Marissa Says:

    I almost didn’t buy Kitty and the Midnight Hour when I saw it in Barnes and Noble a few years ago. Truthfully, I saw the cover and figured ‘great, another book about a werewolf and their sex drive’. I’m thrilled to be wrong ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. You know, I hate that urban fantasy has been so generalized, even hijacked, into “books about women.” I tend to write male protags, some of which are urban fantasy, and I know several other folks who write and publish male protags, too. Can’t help but feel a bit left out. I think you’re straight on target with urban fantasy that centers on women, but what about those books that center on males? They often feature strong secondary female characters, minus the angst.

    (My caveat is that I don’t usually enjoy, as a reader, female protags because of the romance, angsty issues, and apologetic atmosphere.)

    Good to find you online, Carrie. (We met at Mile Hi Con this fall.)

  4. carriev Says:

    Betsy, you’re absolutely right, and that would probably require a whole new set of essays. I think why male protags get overlooked is because they share so much in common with male protogs who have come before them in other genres, like mystery, noir, thriller, etc. Whereas the female urban fantasy protag, all the angsty issues included, are something kinda new. I haven’t read much with male main characters, Jim Butcher and Mike Carey pop into mind, but I’d love to get thoughts from folks who know more.

  5. Dan Says:

    Ten years. Hot damn, that’s impressive. I tip my hat to you, Carrie, I sincerely do.

    Just finished Washington, and I’m fighting not to start Holiday until tomorrow or I’ll never get to sleep.

    If you’re more curious about all these author’s doing the same thing at the same time, look for Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious- that all humans share the same themes in their unconscious minds, which explains why there are many things that happen about the same time yet are unrelated (also explains similarity in myths in cultures that never interacted).

    Also, I’ve been trying to insist to a coworker that the Lion King is Hamlet with a happy ending. She doesn’t believe me.

  6. Eric Honaker Says:

    Warning: Multipurpose comment ahead.

    First of all, I would love to have been in the discussion about Lion King vs. Hamlet. Personally, I think the major themes of Hamlet are missing (“incest,” infidelity, insanity, and the self-destructiveness of revenge), but I can definitely see similarities as well. I think I’d have come at it more from the angle that both works would be part of a wider set of works about power struggles between brothers, or something.

    Secondly, thanks for your work. I was introduced to Kitty while my wife and I read one of your books aloud on a long road trip. It was a great way to pass the time, and I enjoyed it. I particularly appreciated the way you seemed to avoid the rather worn-out trope of the supernatural being inherently superior to regular people (aside from the obvious physical/magical advantages.)

    I have to agree with you about analysis of the things you write or like. For me it helps me to be sure I am on top of what I am creating, and also to find more things of a similar nature so I can enjoy (or avoid) them more effectively. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Jenn Says:

    Betsy: There actually isnโ€™t as wide a selection of works by men about men done in this style. Iโ€™d have to double-check some things, but women may well have done it first and been writing female protags here first.

    Of both men and women who write male main characters in this subgenre, Carrie is right: stories about men echo and reinterpret earlier styles of noire (Jim Butcher, PN Elrod), and thrillers (Charles Stoss). Women writing women are usually drawing on a different literary heritage: gothic (which includes a large componant of mystery) and romance.

    As a personal observation, men have dominated the scifi/fantasy market for decades. I donโ€™t have any numbers, but based on the explosion of this subgenre, as well as that of paranormal romance, and the foundation of a publishing label that only markets fantasy โ€œfor womenโ€ (ie with a female protag), Iโ€™d say the number of female scifi/fantasy readers is going through the roof, so publishers are focusing on luring in these new readers. Women really want to see women as leads in books. Publishers are giving the market what itโ€™s asking for, doing lots of publicity on things for women to grab up all these new readers, and leaving the established market (books with male protags) to fend for itself. Eventually the field will level out again, but for now the market is correcting itself to represent the readers. Itโ€™s also doing some correction to bring in homosexuals, particularly in this subgenre where everyone has a gay best pal and vampirism/lycanthropy rights can be a metaphor for homosexual rights.

  8. Robert Says:

    It is a great step forward now that women can write as women.

    So many great authors of the past had to hide behind male pen names just to be published and who can say how many others were just squashed because of stereo typical gender roles.

  9. Elliott Says:

    Eric Honaker @ Jan 9, 8:14:

    I agree, infidelity isn’t there, but the others all exist in Lion King.

    Incest — you have to be looking at it with adult eyes, but Scar is definitely skeeving on Simba’s mom. Especially if you’ve seen any nature documentaries on lions at all, you know what happens to lionesses when a new male takes over. Killing existing cubs is overwhelmingly common, for one thing.

    Insanity — aside from the hyenas, Scar definitely loses touch with reality over time, finally undergoing a psychotic break. On the other hand, SIMBA seems fairly sane, though he does have a lotus-eater thing going on.

    Scar’s revenge is shown as self-destructive, and Simba is saved from some of the consequences of his wish for revenge by Disneyism, but that doesn’t mean the theme is totally absent.

  10. carriev Says:

    It all depends on what you think Hamlet is about. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ll grant my reading of Hamlet is a little idiosyncratic. But the basic plot of both Hamlet and Lion King are the same: prince is usurped by his uncle, retreats from the situation, and has to figure out what to do.

    I think Hamlet is about fathers and sons — the play has three sets, and each son has a different relationship to his father. Fortibras exceeds his father’s expectations by conquering Denmark when the elder Fortinbras couldn’t; Laertes becomes exactly the person his father Polonius expects; and Hamlet doesn’t live up to his father’s reputation. He’s a different kind of person than the great war hero, and much of his dilemma comes from having to live up to this impossible image when he’d rather just go read a book.

    But that’s getting off topic… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  11. Doruk Says:

    Oh, there is definitely incest going on somewhere in the background in Lion King, especially in the ultimate question of ‘who is Nala’s father?’

  12. Women really want to see women as leads in books.

    I think it’s probably true, based on sales of writers I know. But I find it a shame that so many stories seem to have exactly the same feel. It reminds me of all those epic fantasies with a fifteen-year-old boy as a hero. In a way, both character types feel like bitter Mary Sues. I wish the market (and tastes) would mix it up a bit–noir women protags, maybe, and maybe some angsty guys with something to prove. ๐Ÿ™‚

    While we do use popular fiction to measure and forward cultural issues, I sometimes wonder if it isn’t holding us back, too.

    Itโ€™s also doing some correction to bring in homosexuals, particularly in this subgenre where everyone has a gay best pal and vampirism/lycanthropy rights can be a metaphor for homosexual rights.

    Totally agreed, and these things take time, but I’d like to see more mainstream and genre homosexual protags–as long as their main issue isn’t their homosexuality. Such casual handling of character also means we’re making real headway in erasing boundaries and prejudice.

    (Disclaimer:) The first story I ever sold had homosexual changelings in it, so that’s a characteristic I’m personally drawn to. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’m waiting for the woman character in urban fantasy who doesn’t have something to prove. On that note, I’d ask, of the urban fantasy genre in particular, what’s next? When women readers have no need of “tough chicks” to dream of will the entire genre die out? I think it would be a sad thing, because I see urban fantasy as having potential for so much more.

  13. Jenn Says:

    Urban fantasy was around long before the kickass chicks thing. I sound like a broken record, but it distresses me to see the work of a huge body of authors ignored in order to annoint the current trend as the one true way. I believe the date I turned up for urban fantasy’s birth was in the 1920s. Tough chicks with vamp/werewolf lovers are a 1990s phenomenon.

    As to afterwards, my guess is the whole urban fantasy thing will cool off for a while after this peaks. It will be interesting to see how Twilight impacts things: will young girls reading those books now reach for a Kitty book in the future, or will they become disillusioned with the whole genre as they age? Flowers in the Attic and LJ Smith’s Vampire Diaries, along with Christopher Pike’s Vampire series, had a huge impact on the reading tastes of the girls I went through school with.

  14. carriev Says:

    Jenn, what term would you suggest using for the current trend? I’ve been using it because the marketing stuff has been using it. And I think something different is going on with the current stuff, even though there’s definitely a line of inheritance.

    I don’t think anyone’s trying to anoint the current trend as the one true way, it’s just that people are trying to find a convenient shorthand in order to talk about it and “urban fantasy” is what stuck.

    Contemporary fantasy is a term I’ve used for stuff that isn’t the “tough chicks with vamps, etc.”

  15. Jenn Says:

    Urban fantasy sticks because it is correct as a broader category. Things look like this:

    Fantasy>Urban Fantasy>Trend You Want a Name For>Female Version

    I don’t care if it’s called Pink and Purple Ponies. It’s just that calling it Urban Fantasy leaves all of the Things Formerly Known As Urban Fantasy without a label. That and to specify heroine, you’d need to do that separetely anyway, since whatever you decide to call the Kitty novels, the Jim Butcher’s Dresden files go in the same category other than the female thing.

    My personal picks would be Urban Gothic showing derivation from both Urban fantasy and Gothic, or Gothic Noir, showing bleakness, corruption, hardbitten characters, and the frequent mystery plot. I’d even be happy with supernatural in modern usage instead of Gothic. Just don’t reuse something that’s already in use.

  16. Rob B Says:

    Hi Carrie,

    This was a really great series of posts, very well thought out and honest. Illuminating for both readers of the genre and for people who want to ply their trade in the genre.


  17. drey Says:

    Carrie ~ I loved these series of posts. I’m still processing what I’ve read. I’m also really impressed with your writing – why else would I love the Kitty books? Please don’t stop writing!

    Also, for how thoughtful & informative your blog is, I’m passing on the Premio Dardos Award. The details can be found here.

  18. carriev Says:

    Ooh, I like Gothic Noir…

    And ooh, thank you for the award! I accept but it’ll take me a little time to put it together. I like it!

  19. Nanettte Says:

    Before I realised what “Urban Fantasy” meant, I thought “Chick Horror” would be a suitable appellation, as historically, vampire and werewolf stuff was put there.

    I read across genres and literature for a:characters and b: ideas/plot. If the characters aren’t likable or interesting, why keep reading? That’s why I keep reading the Kitty books; the characters are great. Plus there’s the added bonus of skilled plotting. Such a pleasure!

    Speaking as a voracious reader, it’s easy to tell pretty instantly when a writer has only read romance/horror/fantasy. There is a narrowness and mediocrity which is immediately apparent.

    Apropos of nothing at all, I recently read Winston Churchill’s “My Early Life” and it is an absolutely thumping good read. (It came to mind while reading Carrie’s comments – can’t think why). I honestly cannot remember if it was an early inspiration for Lois McMaster Bujold, but if it wasn’t, it should have been! If you like Miles Vorkosigan, you will love this book!

    AND then you can show off at parties. Anyone who hasn’t read it will be impressed. (Anyone who has, will know that it’s a bit like boasting about drinking coffee or eating Ice Cream. Oh, the sacrifice!)

    Resonances with Hamlet!? You’ve actually got me interested now – must go and have a look at it (There’s a ghost!? And a brothel scene? Cool). There ‘s an interesting father/son thing going on in My Early Life btw.

  20. My term has always been BuffyLit for kickass female urban fantasy because Buffy is the mother of most of these heroines, and few of the authors have actually read fantasy.

    Any popular trend attracts authors who have read nothing and know nothing about the genres these books have cross pollinated from, and their novels show it.

    I just finished an urban fantasy with wizards, (NOT Jim Butcher!), where the author knew so little about how a magic system should work that I groaned through the whole novel. Boy, would I love to have had her in one of my worldbuilding classes so she’d have at least attempted to get it right.

    As one literary analyst to another, I loved your overview of urban fantasy. I agree with most of it.

  21. Shara Says:

    Carrie, congrats on writing Kitty for ten years! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Jen, I like your breakdown, but there’s the other fine line in the category you want to find a name for before leading the the female version, because really, the female version ALMOST comes first, and you can thank the romance genre for that, because that’s where the term paranormal romance started.

    I’d break it down like this:

    Fantasy>Urban Fantasy>Female Version>Paranormal Romance OR the thing you want to find a name for.

    So many people think paranormal romance and the thing you want to find a name for is the same thing, but it’s not. Yet people tend to think it is because the covers, regardless of where it’s shelved, all look the same. I know quite a few guy readers who ignore Carrie Vaughn’s work (despite my telling them not to) because it looks like paranormal romance.

    Granted, the Romance genre uses the term paranormal romance to describe ANYTHING that’s not realism (so horror, SF, and fantasy all apply as paranormal). And I’m also debating the idea of splitting the male and female versions before you get to the NAME of what you want to call this movement, but the paranormal romance element is a huge influence, I think, when talking about the genre. I like Urban Gothic or Gothic Noir, and I have to laugh at Marilynn’s use of BuffyLit, though if I’d heard that term before I started reading the Kitty books, I would’ve never read anything in the genre ever.

    On Urban Fantasy Land’s blog, they once asked if there were an award for urban fantasy, what would it be. So many were like, “The Buffy Awards!” that I wanted to vomit, because so many don’t realize the genre is more than what it’s being defined as.

    I’m rambling. I’m going to stop now. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Carrie, thanks again for this series of posts! ๐Ÿ™‚

  22. Jenn Says:

    I see nothing wrong with Buffy Lit, or Buffy Awards for that matter, though I thought the Hugos, Nebulas, and Saturns had it covered.

    I like your table, Shara. The kickass trend does seem to be related to the rise in paranormal romance though. Sort of like twin daughters, one of whom is determined to settle down and get all of her friends completely settled as well, and one of whom is still trying to decide if settling is what she wants.

  23. Jared Thaler Says:


    As some one who came into the genre with Gaiman (Neverwhere), Lackey (Diana Tregard and Serated Edge), and even (god help us) Feist (Faerie Tale, this guy should no longer be allowed to have sex as a subject in any of his books, ever, after that travesty) not to mention the entire urban fantasy role playing genre (most popularly White wolf’s World of Darkness) I too would be sad to see “Urban Fantasy” coopted for a (relatively tiny) subset of the genre.

    (And I would equally be sad to see buffy become the face (and publicly perceived founder) of the genre, given that the tregarde Novels predate her by like 4 years.)

    I know that the high fantasy equivalent is sometimes dubbed “Chicks in Chain Mail” (sometimes with tongue in cheek.)

    Maybe Chicks in Hot Leather?

    Urban Gothic Heroine is a bit of a mouthful, but it is at least accurate.

    Anyway, just my two cents, and I will go back to waiting for the next Kitty book to come out.

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