Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Anita Blake Conundrum

By Meghan B

As urban fantasy week winds down, I'd like to pose a question to you, our lovely readers. Yes folks, it's discussion time!

What I would like to know is do you think urban fantasy belongs in the sci-fi section or should it be moved to romance?

Why are you in the sci-fi section?!
I will give you one name to consider as you form your answer: Anita Blake. Anita Blake has effectively ruined most urban fantasy for me and I'm stunned those books are in the sci-fi section of my local bookstore. While the books started out with the promise of zombies and mystery solving thrills, it quickly turned into nothing much beyond Anita banging every dude she came across. They just happened to be were-animals and vampires. That is considered urban fantasy and sci-fi?

Where do we draw the line? So much of urban fantasy seems to be nothing more than a set-up for the protagonist to screw the attractive immortals in the city. Sure, they may solve a crime or two along the way, but mostly it's just about the supernatural sex. Look at some of the covers on the urban fantasy novels in the sci-fi section. Don't they seem out of place next to, say, George R.R. Martin or Cherie Priest?

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't mind a bit of sexytimes in my novels. It just seems to me that many urban fantasy novels I've seen and read are less about the urban and the fantasy and more about the sad yet devastatingly handsome vampire who only needs the equally as pretty protagonist to heal all his ancient wounds. Nakedly. Sookie, I'm looking at you!

So what's the cut off? What makes a novel be more sci-fi and another be more romance? Why is Anita Blake shelved in sci-fi but other urban fantasy like J.R Ward is not?

Let me know in comments what you think! Is Anita Blake urban fantasy? Where does sci-fi's urban fantasy end and romance's paranormal romance begin? Does it matter?
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  1. Anita Blake started out as Urban Fantasy but sadly now it is just super trashy romance/erotica. In fact she takes it so far these days that I actually feel uncomfortable reading them. The fact that the lead character has to have sex every couple of hours or she'll go crazy is one of the dumbest story lines I've read.

    They need to make an Urban Fantasy Romance section so those of us that actually want to read urban fantasies and not erotica wont have to worry about accidentally buying a romance novel.

    I'm not saying you can't have a love interest in an urban fantasy book but if the main story line is about getting someone into bed it belongs in the romance section. I have no desire to read a 5 page graphic sex scenes, thank you very much.

    Anyway, that's just my two cents. Thank for writing this article, I'm glad to know other people feel the same way.

  2. I'm so with you, Meghan. I get so annoyed when I pick up a fun sounding book from the store or the library and dive in when I get home only to find it's just one sexcapade after another only loosly strung together with a storyline. BORING.

  3. That is a good question actually! I haven't read any anita blake, so I have nothing to say on her, but generally? Hm, I think it helps if there is a plot beyond just the two characters getting to know each other and falling in love. Tho that alone isn't sufficient, because "the thing that prevents the characters from falling in love immediately" can often be a murder investigation or something equally interesting on its own. So part of it may be how cleverly that non-romance plot is handled and whether it would be interesting enough to keep me engaged if the romance story wasn't there. It also helps if the author does a good job with the setup - what kind of creatures make up the fantasy part, what are the groundrules for the magic? - and as a bonus maybe knows a bit (or a lot!) about whatever mythology or folklore said magic is based on. I'm not sure I feel like that's a complete answer, but maybe a start?

  4. I miss the Anita who snuggled with toy penguins and fretted about turning into a monster. She was a cool chick. Today's Anita? Not so much.

  5. I actually didn't start reading the Anita Blake books until well after I'd gotten into urban fantasy. My aunt, who is a librarian and fellow fantasy/sci-fi book lover, provided me with many of the first books in all the series I love... and eventually gave me her (signed) copies of the first eight Anita Blake books. She hadn't liked them after that and actually became worried when I devoured all 19 of the current paperbacks and LOVED them. She said L K Hamilton seemed like a very unhappy person to her and was afraid that my enjoyment meant I would be too.

    I've always understood why fans of the early books stopped liking them; the later books are very different. Lots of sex, less mysteries and more political problems, and to my eyes, they become much darker. One of my favorite (due to the pure terror of it) scenes in any book is the one in Obsidian Butterfly where Anita chases a zombie through a hospital and into the nursery.

    But I still don't think they should be shelved in romance just because sex is a major part of the book. Don't get me wrong, I love romances too, but the genre is partially defined by tropes that many sex heavy urban fantasy books just don't have. Romances are often a two partner story; there might be a triangle, square, etc., but in the end our two main characters end up together. Relatedly, romances often aren't first person narratives like most urban fantasy is. Instead, they are limited third person, focusing mostly on the two main characters. Finally, while sex and romance may take up a sizable portion of some urban fantasy books, they are the real point of a romance. That point is trickiest, since it is partially in the eye of the reader and especially when we care about the characters, we care about their relationships, sometimes more than we care about the threat of the Big Bad.

    A really great illustration of these differences are Karen Marie Moning's books. She has two series set in the same world- in fact, the same characters appear in both. Both series are shelved in the romance section, but I believe that is mostly because the first series was romance and publishers didn't want to lose an established fanbase. Series #1 involves time travel and hot Scottish heros. Series #2 involves the rending of walls between dimensions and monsters taking over the world. Both involve hot sex. But #1 has third person narration, two lovers per story, and all dangers to the world take a back seat to the real story- falling in love. #2 is first person, and the End of the World is the primary focus. Okay, I admit that while there is a triangle, it does get resolved and we do end up with a two person couple, but it's not too obvious which lover will win until they do so.

    And despite all of these distinctions I make, I actually am all for breaking genre boundaries, especially those around romance. While the genre has been empowering for women, a market dominated by female readers and writers, I think it has also been used to limit and demean us. The attitude "Romance isn't Good Literature! It's only for women!" still hangs around. And if we excise Anita Blake and Sookie Stackhouse for being too romantic/sexy, how long is it until fantasy/sci-fi is a "boys' genre" again?

  6. Anna,

    Thanks for such a thoughtful and thought provoking argument. You bring up a really good point. By discounting a series like Anita Blake, are we really working against ourselves/making speculative fiction more of a boys club?

    I have no beef with romantic storylines in sci-fi and fantasy books. Almost all of my favorite scifi and fantasy books are chock full of 'em.) I'm pleased as punch to see them on the shelves right next to the military scifi (which, btw, bores me to tears but is just as much of staple in the genre as urban fantasy.) However, I get very bored when books are just a series of sex scenes; I want a solid story.

  7. Anna, I love your points there, too! I don't disapprove of recent Anita Blake novels because of the sex. Any Urban Fantasy is made better with a strong central romantic relationship, in my opinion. Stacia Kane's Chess Putnam series is a great example of this. There's wicked sexual tension in those books that I found positively irresistible. But that romantic yearning and confusing is wedded to interesting and scary storylines that move the book along.

    My problem with Anita Blake is that Laurell K. stopped bothering to give Anita much of anything to do in between the ardeur scenes. She wasn't raising the dead, she wasn't fighting zombies, she wasn't squabbling with her mom. The layer of plot icing between the slabs of sex cake were just too thin and drab for my taste. To be fair, though, I bailed several books ago and haven't been back. If she's picked up the plotting around all the sexy sex, I'd be tempted to pick it up again.

    Also, I was Team Richard. Nathaniel always seemed like a poseur.

  8. I would like to see the Anita Blake series (and a few others) moved to a different section, be it romance or erotica. I don't find them offense, but I know when I was a child and as a teenager I read "adult" fantasy and sci-fi, I don't need my daughter coming home one day having purchased erotic lit. that she isn't ready for, but has already read. (Yes, I do screen her books now, but I'm thinking about when she is out and about with her Grandmother, who would have no clue what Anita Blake is about.)

  9. I think it would almost be useful to have ratings like you find on movies that show what a book contains. Say if you have a X rated book that contains sex, you know it is going to be paranormal erotica rather than ass-kicking UF adventure.

    I like many different authors who fill the spectrum, but it would be nice to know what I'm buying.

  10. Anna you put my thoughts into words exactly!!!

  11. "While the genre has been empowering for women, a market dominated by female readers and writers, I think it has also been used to limit and demean us. The attitude "Romance isn't Good Literature! It's only for women!" still hangs around. And if we excise Anita Blake and Sookie Stackhouse for being too romantic/sexy, how long is it until fantasy/sci-fi is a "boys' genre" again? "

    But that's the thing right there. As a man, I have no interest in books that are essentially porn in writing. The later books go:
    1) Problem!
    2) Sex
    3) Sex while thinking about said problem
    4) Problem solved by sex, or solved during sex
    5) New ability X uncovered
    6) Sex

    Last book I read, I did a small experiment: skip over the pages with sex scenes in them; I was hoping the story would still make sense. I think I ended up with about a third of the book - and it still made sense. So it really did nothing to the story that couldn't have been done by making the sex 'offscene'.

    Point being, if the book is about random sexual encounters - whether they include weres or vampires or zombies - then put it in the correct category. The first 6-8 books? THAT is Urban Fantasy. Hands down, and very well written to boot.
    The books following are pretty much trashy romance novels with a bit of story tacked around it.

    And I am glad you bring up Sookie Stackhouse as those books are a good example of how it COULD have been done tastefully. Yes, there is sex in the book; but it isn't even a couple pages total when put together (how you even compare this to Anita Blake is beyond me).

    Sookie Stackhouse novels are a good example of what a female author can do when not preocupied with sex. Another exampl is Kelley Armstrong (Women of the Otherworld series, among others): same thing. Lots of Urban Fantasy books, sexual scenes - if any - are relative to the story and do not interfere with the plot. What about Patricia Briggs? Plenty of examples.

    Lastly, Urban Fantasy is not a female-writer-only, or even majority category. Jim Butcher, Simon Greene, Neil Gaiman, Terry Brooks, Mark Henry to name just a few of the "stars" of Urban Fantasy.