Genre Talk

Urban Rural Paranormal Supernatural Historical Modern Fantasy

Guys, we need a new genre label.

I find myself getting pretty jealous of mystery writers these days. It doesn’t matter where your mystery is set: if it’s at a small town B&B and includes a granola recipe, it might be a cozy mystery, but you can still call yourself a mystery writer. You can be Tana French or Agatha Christie, and you can exist comfortably under the same label. It’s not so easy when you write…whatever it is I write. I’ve been having this conversation a lot lately:

“What do you write?”

“Well…uh…there’s this girl with these powers…and this guy with these other powers…”

“Oh, so it’s paranormal romance?”

“Well, there is a lot of sex.”

“So there’s a happy ending?”

“Well…no, not always.”

“Oh! So you must write urban fantasy.”

“Depends on what you consider urban. Is a town of two thousand people urban?”

“Not really, no.”

“Then some of my books are urban fantasy and some of them are…something else.”

The trouble with labels is, they set up expectations. Paranormal romance implies a happily-ever-after and a story told from the perspective of both hero and heroine. Urban fantasy typically implies first person heroine point of view, no HEA, and, you know, urban-ness.  The trouble is, there are LOTS of books with paranormal beasties that don’t fit any of these descriptions.

We’ve got Cherie Priest’s Four and Twenty Blackbirds series, which may be best called gothic fantasy. Then there’s Deborah Harkness’s All Souls series and Alma Katsu’s Taker series, both of which put a historical, literary spin on paranormal fiction. We’ve got Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, which some people call paranormal mystery and some people call urban fantasy. Then there’s Nicole Peeler’s Jane True series, which looks a lot like urban fantasy, but is (sometimes) set in a tiny town. And what about Gail Carriger’s clever and sexy paranormal historical Parasol Protectorate series? I’d like to just call all of these books “fantasy,” but when I say fantasy, people say, “Like with elves and dwarves and stuff?”

Not that I have anything against elves and dwarves (and stuff), but no.

What should we do? What label will cover all of the above, plus the well-established sub-genres of paranormal romance and urban fantasy? Modern fantasy? (too postmodern-y) Paranormal fantasy? (too redundant) Low fantasy? (too derogatory) Paranormal? Just paranormal? (already shorthand for paranormal romance.)

I’m leaning toward paranormal fiction. But I don’t like that, either. Not descriptive enough. And it sounds like it could be a fictionalized account of how I found a ghost in my coat closet.

Fellow genre enthusiasts, let’s solve this problem! What can we come up with that doesn’t suck? What kind of label can we chose that covers all the awesome that’s out there? And I’m not asking this rhetorically. Do you like one of the options above? Got another idea? Get to the comments and brainstorm!

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24 thoughts on “Urban Rural Paranormal Supernatural Historical Modern Fantasy

  1. Someone asked in a review of one of my books if there was a category called cozy urban fantasy. It pleased me but the urban part would still have been a misnomer. I mostly use contemprary fantasy these days, figuring the most important distinction is that it’s not epic, but I’m also sort of amused by the idea of calling it low fantasy, to distinguish from high. I think of Carringers Parasol Protectorate as steam punk, btw, but I’m all in favor of adding a few more genres. I still don’t understand why paranormal means werewolves instead of psychics. Wouldn’t they be supernatural?

    • Cozy urban fantasy! That sounds like it might be an oxymoron, but I like it anyway. Contemporary fantasy. That’s a good one–very inclusive.

      You’re absolutely write, the Parasol Protectorate is definitely steampunk. Should steampunk automatically fall under the paranormal umbrella, or only if there are werewolves involved? And I agree on supernatural vs paranormal. I read a post once (wish I could remember where) arguing that “supernatural” had “you’re going to die”, horror-like connotations, while “paranormal” has come to connote romance.

  2. I love this topic–I struggle with this every month when I’m doing my “Fiction Affliction” series of posts for tor.com–there’s a big clump of new releases every month that just don’t FIT anywhere, so I created a day to talk about “genre-benders.” But that’s too generic. Veteran reviewer Paul Goat Allen has begun using “paranormal fantasy” to describe the books such as those I write, which have elements of both urban fantasy and paranormal romance but aren’t strictly either one. My last release I’ve been calling a “paranormal romantic thriller” because it’s a thriller, with shapeshifters and romance. Where does alternative history fit? It’s usually lumped in with sci-fi, which doesn’t make sense to me. What about dystopian novels? Also usually lumped with sci-fi, even though they might have no scientific basis whatsoever. I’ve been using “paranormal fiction” on my email signature but, like you, not crazy about it. Argh! (Oh, and there are elves in my urban fantasy. And dwarves. in New Orleans.)

    • Ha! I feel your pain, Suzanne. I think the problem is there are too many tightly defined sub-genres without a loosely defined overarching “mother genre.” But it’s heartening to know these books show up every month, because that means the genre label problem isn’t stopping writers from writing genre-bending stories.

  3. Among the definitions for “phenomenal” are preternatural, uncommon, fantastic and wondrous. Phenomenal fiction kind of rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?

  4. I love Harness – she’s amazing. Love Harris too don’t know some of the others but maybe I should.
    Do we need labels? I gather we do because readers like to know something before they read the first line and publishers need to know how to market the product.
    Labels are for jars (taken from a T shirt I purchased in PEI from a mental health group)

    • “Labels are for jars.”
      That is perfect. So true.

      I think you’re right, they’re really just a way of letting readers know what they’re in for. But with the advent of e-books, we can “cross-shelve” things more easily, so the issue of which bookstore section to put the book in is getting less important. To me, it’s an issue of discoverability. How do I quickly let readers know that they might (or might not) like my book? Then again, readers don’t seem to have trouble finding the books they like, not matter what label gets slapped on them. 🙂

      • Sue and AJ,this is an interesting point and I love that quote about jars–oddly, they feature in my post tomorrow too!

        I also love this his question, AJ. I think, like it or not, the label is all about marketing and creating reader expectations. One erotica writer I follow gets a lot of flack for her beautiful, sexy erotic novel’s tragic ending, even though she never called it a romance. There is a way this question of labels crosses Suzanne’s post from last week at a precarious intersection–reader expectations and investment and artistic impulse to write something new and different and how we balance all of these realities. I wish I had something more profound to say about that, but it’s the end of a long weekend and I’m tired!

      • That sounds plenty profound to me, Amber! And yeah, I think you’re right about marketing and reader expectations. Maybe paranormal fiction is just too diverse–or maybe we’re too specific about our expectations.

    • I like the “dark urban fantasy label.” There’s a lot of awesome lighthearted UF out there, but I write darker stuff, too, and I think it doesn’t hurt to let readers know that they’re in for something less funny and more bloody 😉

      • And then what if you fall in the middle of dark and light? Do we then add Grey Urban Fantasy as an option? Dark-ish UF? I write dark-ish stuff with the occasional humorous moment/comment. And there’s often a splash of romance so do we add that, too, for, “Dark-ish Urban Fantasy Romance”? Ha, well, looks like I have more questions and no answers for you A.J.! 🙂

  5. As an afterword, while browsing the book reviews in our national newspaper, I thought of the comments in this post and realised the paper does not indicate genre. My husband reads several periodicals containing book reviews. They’re listed in the Fiction category. The book stores, except for the one Angela works in, only list broad categories, e.g. horror, literature, mystery, romance and science fiction.

    • Interesting points, Sue. And you’re right, even the newspaper bestseller lists are genre-blind, unless you count the fact that they sometimes break things down by format (hardback, trade paperback, mass market, e-book).

  6. Interesting post. And while I find the sub-label somewhat important, then you end up in bookstores that just books wherever they like (say like Kelley Armstrong in horror – guess they saw it had werewolves?). The labels are for marketing, and who knows if we’ll be able to control all of that all the time.

    Anyway, what about sp? Instead of sf for speculative fiction, speculative paranormal? That way it ties it a bit closer to the fantasy / sci fi lines and creates a bit of distance from romance.

    • I’m always finding Charlaine Harris in horror, too! But speculative paranormal is a good label. Sets it apart a little from more science fiction-y stuff.

      The whole shelving/marketing question makes me wonder what electronic books have done for discoverability. Does it make it easier to find books you’ll like when things can be electronically cross-shelved so easily?

  7. Great question. If your books are hotter than romance, but not erotica, I have seen them called romantica. You would get something like contemporary paranormal romantica. It would warn readers that it is hotter, that it is paranormal, and not in a fantasy realm.

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