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April 23, 2014

Posted by Patrick at 07:43 AM * 53 comments

The danger of linking to someone else’s post as a short-cut way of explaining what you think about a particular issue is that you may wind up having all of their subsidiary opinions attributed to you as well. When I said I basically agreed with this post by John Scalzi, I meant that I agree that there’s no evidence (as far as I’m aware) that anything on the now-endlessly-discussed 2014 Hugo Awards ballot is there because of “ballot-rigging.” But it appears some people think I was also signing on to the entirety of John Scalzi’s approach to deciding what to vote for in the Hugos. Short answer: No, I’m not.

To be clear, I think John’s approach is fine for him. I also think it’s fine to ignore and not read a work when you have adequate reason to believe it will just make you unhappy. For that matter, I think it’s fine to ignore and not read something because the author has called for harm to you or to people you care about. Art and politics can’t ever be completely separated. As a general rule of thumb, when we think our approach to something is politics-free, that generally means the politics are so normative as to be invisible.

I’ve said before that I value some work by some very right-wing artists, for instance Ezra Pound. I’ve pointed to Chip Delany’s point (in his introduction to Heinlein’s Glory Road) about the royalist Balzac being Marx’s favorite novelist. None of this means that I think everybody’s obliged to give some kind of Olympian “fair shake” to anyone’s art just because it’s art. The world is full of art. It’s not that special, and making it doesn’t get any artist off the hook for being a terrible human being. If you’re a terrible human being, lots of people are not going to want to pay attention to your art even if it’s the best thing since Dante on toast. I can’t imagine that any of this is actually news to anybody.

Comments on Clarification:
#1 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 08:37 AM:

Special rule, for this thread only: You can discuss the work of any artist, and/or their public statements and behavior, so long as they aren't a living writer currently published by Tor Books. Because jesus are we tired of asking people to show some common sense about that around here.

This leaves you with only about 5000 years of artists from all of world history to use to make your point. I realize it'll be tough.

#2 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 08:42 AM:

Dante on toast

Dante al dente?

#3 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 08:57 AM:

Does any urban fantasy (as it is currently defined) ever make it to the Hugo finals?

#4 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 08:58 AM:

I agree with what you say @0, and apologize for the times I've lacked the common sense you mention @1.

#5 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 09:14 AM:

Serge: I dunno, how broadly do you define it? Several novels by China Mieville which I would call "urban fantasy" have been on the ballot.

#6 ::: Becca Stareyes ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 09:21 AM:

Serge @ 3

Last year, both of Seanan McGuire's novelettes on the ballot were from her urban fantasy universe, though one was set during the Great Fire of London. I've noticed that short fiction about fantastical things in our world is not uncommon on the Hugos, even if it isn't standard urban fantasy. Less so for the novels. I could argue that Among Others had some of the tropes of urban fantasy.

#7 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 09:25 AM:

Serge: Which current definition? Do you mean all fantasy set in the modern (and usually Western) world and generally in an urban setting*, with (Usually) hidden magical creatures -- or do you need Something more specific to the current sub category of that which is also sometimes defined as paranormal romance**?

* Though at least one, Megan Lindholm's Cloven Hooves, was set firmly in RURAL Alaska and De Lint ranges out of cities on occasion.

** Which need not include an actual romance, for all that is the cliche, and as often as romance, and just as insufficiently consistently, include crime investigation.

#8 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 09:27 AM:

Patrick and Becca... I was thinking of the likes of Carrie Vaughn's "Kitty" novels, and Seanan McGuire's "Toby Daye" and "Incryptid" series. Yes, McGuire's shorter-length tales made it to the finals, but not her Urban Fantasy novels. Her zombie novels did though. I personally prefer her other series, but, heck, if she gets the recognition, it's all good to me.

#9 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 09:40 AM:

Sharon Lee's "Carousel Tides" and "Carousel Sun" are not urban either, being set in a small East Coast town and the author agreed that they belong to the Beachpunk subgenre.

#10 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 09:59 AM:

My own reaction to Scalzi's approach is that it's very, very New Critical (making no assumptions about whether Scalzi has ever read, say, Cleanth Brooks or William Empson) -- view the work of literature as an artifact apart from the artist.

Of course, New Criticism has been the target (as in, "had arrows shot at it") of multiple schools of thought since the 1970s, including all those generally labelled "post-Structuralist".

I have some sympathies with New Criticism, but I also have sympathies with New Historicism, so I suppose the best I can say of Scalzi's approach is that it's (in the technical sense) "naive".

My own test case for reading great works by problematic authors is Louis-Ferdinand Celine.

Regarding urban fantasy: I do note that not only do the Toby Daye books seem to fall off short lists; so do works by Ben Aaronovitch. Kate Griffin, and Benedict Jacka, all of whom are very good writers. On the other hand, Little, Big, which fits generally in that domain (except that it's more rural than urban) made the shortlist in 1982.

#11 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 10:04 AM:

A case could also be made that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, winner of the Hugo Award in 2006, is "urban fantasy" in some meaningful sense. It's not "contemporary", but it's certainly a novel about magic and cities, among many other things.

#12 ::: Sumana Harihareswara ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 10:06 AM:
"As a general rule of thumb, when we think our approach to something is politics-free, that generally means the politics are so normative as to be invisible."

I particularly like this phrasing. Thank you. I'm dealing with tyranny of structurelessness right now in my open source community and oh dear. Those nerds who came to our particular nerdisms hoping to escape ambiguity, collective action problems, status play, whatnot -- well, we didn't leave it behind. It's waiting when we show up anyplace that we make...

More directly on-topic: I've been trying to dig at my intuition for what particular blehness in an artwork or in the creator's other actions will cause me to change my behavior towards it (love it less if I've already read it, borrow instead of buy, abstain from reading, read but talk and think much more critically or quietly, etc.). I think I particularly feel ill-disposed to read a work if I have reason to believe the author thinks I'm a chump, scornworthy, especially because of my gender, ethnicity, or work ethic/style. There are authors whose writings imply that people like me exist to be NPCs, non-player characters. (I'm particularly thinking of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Paul Graham here.)

#13 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 10:07 AM:

(Someone will inevitably note that despite my ukase in comment #1, we're discussing some living writers published by Tor. I should have been clearer: I meant that any discussion of the whole "artists with problematic opinions or personal behavior" issue should avoid citing living individuals published by Tor. Not, obviously, discussions of whether any urban fantasy has been shortlisted for the Hugo Award.)

#14 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 10:10 AM:

Sumana, #12: "Those nerds who came to our particular nerdisms hoping to escape ambiguity, collective action problems, status play, whatnot -- well, we didn't leave it behind. It's waiting when we show up anyplace that we make." Gosh, it's almost as if these are characteristic problems of being human. So very yes.

"I think I particularly feel ill-disposed to read a work if I have reason to believe the author thinks I'm a chump, scornworthy, especially because of my gender, ethnicity, or work ethic/style. There are authors whose writings imply that people like me exist to be NPCs, non-player characters." That also makes a truckload of sense.

#15 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 10:15 AM:

I like the works of Steven Boyett but have some reason to think I wouldn't approve his politics. I thought Mark Helprin's Memoir from Antproof Case was an excellent read but his politics and narcissism are revolting. I finally had to give up on Larry Niven when the politics overcame his writing skill, but it took a long time. I have not read Céline's Journey to the End of Night or Death on the Installment Plan but am assured both are utterly brilliant, despite his racism, antiSemitism, and collaborationism.

#16 ::: Sumana Harihareswara ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 10:24 AM:

Patrick, #14: I feel bound to mention better phrasings of the ideas I stated, and the authors from whom I'm borrowing those ideas. Of the many useful articulations quoted in your Commonplaces sidebar, one of my favorites is:

"Young men and women, educated very carefully to be apolitical, to be technicians who thought they disliked politics, making them putty in the hands of their rulers, like always."
(Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars)

which I recall often in Wikipedia-world.

On scorn or dismissal: I often remember Chinua Achebe's critique of Heart of Darkness:

"As a child, you see, you automatically identified with the good people, with the missionaries, with the explorers, because that's the way the story was arranged. Now, the moment you realize that you were not really of the party of the white man, but of the party of the savages, the moment you realize that, if you read Heart of Darkness, you were not on that steamer with Marlow and his crew, but you were one of those jumping on the shore, that's the moment when you knew that a new story had to be written."
#17 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 10:28 AM:

It's logical to say that "urban fantasy" is any contemporary story with fantasy and an urban setting. That sweeps up Charles de Lint, Madeleine Robin's The Stone War, various series by Tonya Huff including the Smoke books with a male wizard, Seanan McGuire's Toby Daye, and so on. I think that common usage of the term has come to mean "contemporary fantasy with a female protagonist who is young, definitely tough, and can be portrayed on the cover in tight fitting clothes—preferably with a wide belt slung low over the hips". I think that narrower category is born out of recognizing a niche that currently sells nicely.

#18 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 10:44 AM:

Is Return of the King urban fantasy? Well, it's fantasy, and there's a city . . .

#19 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 10:54 AM:

If Nick & Nora Charles along with their familiar Asta fought the supernatural, it'd be an urbane fantasy.

#20 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 10:56 AM:

janetl@17: I'd say rather that a few fitting that bill sold well, and publishers decided it was A Thing, and now books that have to be shoehorned to be so described are being shoehorned left and right, because if you can give a publisher a recognized "thing" to hang your book off of it's more likely to be published.

There are plenty of authors currently publishing really interesting stuff that has neat things to say about the whole SFF genre ... but the only people willing to pay them are Harlequinoids, and then only if they recenter the book a bit to be a 'paranormal romance'.

Which a lot of serious, Hugo-nominating voters will write off entirely as obvious ignorable trash ...

#21 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 11:51 AM:

Sumana, #16: Re "apolitical = vulnerable", I've always liked "Orbital Resonance" by John Barnes for an example. The children being raised on the space station have been carefully taught not to bully, but not given any tools to recognize or push back against a bully -- so when they get a transfer student from Earth, it's ridiculously easy for him to polarize the entire class into cliques; the kids know something is wrong, but not how to stop it.

janetl, #17: I agree with your definition, which also picks up things like Jim Hines' Libriomancer books, the Young Wizards series, and the Harry Dresden series. I would argue strenuously against anyone trying to define it as requiring a hot young female protagonist.

rea, #18: No, because it's not a contemporary-Earth setting.

#22 ::: Jamie ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 11:54 AM:

Now that I'm long out of academia in general and literary analysis in particular, I find that my native mode of reading doesn't allow me to separate the art from the artist. There are some texts I've read precisely because the author was so horrible. There are books that are just lousy I've read because I was interested in the author as a person. And of course there are delightful books by delightful people that I adore. But especially in fiction, I'm always interested in who the author is.

I do think there is a class of books that are written by people I know to be horrible, for which I do not have any hopes that their fiction will make me more interested in them or explain anything about them to me, and for which I harbor little hope that the book will be all that good.

I see no reason to bother with those.

#23 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 12:23 PM:

Lee, # 21--"Contemporary Fantasy" works better maybe than "Urban Fantasy," because the point of the subgenre is not that it takes place in a city, but that it takes place in something resembling the modern world. Patricia Briggs can send her characters on a camping tip without engaging in genre-bending.

#24 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 12:23 PM:

Just to spread things out a bit--

Gesualdo? Carravaggio?

#25 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 12:30 PM:

There's one writer I nominate every year for the Hugos even though most people probably don't know him. I discovered William Preston in the March 2010 issue of Asimov’s with novelette ”Helping Them Take the Old Man Down”, a homage to Doc Savage who made it to the 21st Century and who has become the target of the authorities for moving his HQ from the World Trade Center *just* before 9/11. Here is how one of his aides described his first encounter with the Old Man.

"Stories – the pulpy ones I read as a teen, passed to me by my father, and the news pieces the wire services ran in our more global age – had provided me a picture, but actually being in his presence made the stories look like mere hand shadows, cast dimly on a wall, aimed at telling tales of the gods."

#26 ::: Steve Downey ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 02:43 PM:

Just to confuse things, Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence books fit well into Urban Fantasy, even though they take place in a secondary fully magical world. The outlook of the characters is essentially modern. They have jobs. Worry about paying bills. There are lawyers, bankers, etc.

#27 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 03:05 PM:

I'm not sure what you mean by a secondary world-- I'm pretty sure Gladstone's novels take place in our world after a magical apocalypse.

#28 ::: iliadawry ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 03:15 PM:

It's easier for me to read Horrible People of the Past than Horrible People of Today. Probably for a lot of reasons, including that I can reasonably tell myself that the overarching views of society influenced their views of people like me and other minorities, and that I can be reasonably certain that Ezra Pound is not commenting cogently on the issues of our day and personally exhorting people to remove my rights or keep me from ever gaining them.

#29 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 03:27 PM:

In my mind "urban fantasy" means "a story something like Emma Bull's War for the Oaks," because that's the book that always seemed to be mentioned the first few times I encountered the phrase.

Not long ago, Livejournal user "Jayblanc" offered an alternate term, "Kissing Cryptids," which other correspondents seemed to like.

#30 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 03:36 PM:

Bill Higgins (29): It sounds as if your definition of urban fantasy matches mine. I have a broader category of 'contemporary fantasy', which includes but is not limited to (what I think of as) urban fantasy.

#31 ::: David Eves ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 05:31 PM:

Serge @19,
Check out Frank and Sadie Doyle in the "Beyond Belief" segments of "Thrilling Adventure Hour" (

#32 ::: Steve Downey ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 06:37 PM:

Nancy Lebobitz @ 27
That's the way he described it on a panel on urban fantasy at New York Comic Con last year.
There certainly was a magical apocalypse in the recent history of his world, but I think it was more a move from one type of magic, dominated by gods, to a magical technology.

#33 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 07:21 PM:

There is a thing called beachpunk? I must find out more about it.

#34 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 07:47 PM:

Allan Beatty... 'Beachpunk' is another of my literary 'inventions', unfortunately. It does have cinema antecedents though. One of Frankie & Annette's Beach Blanket movies involved an actual mermaid.

#35 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 10:21 PM:

I'd say that much like "cyberpunk", "urban fantasy" depends as much on the attitude as the actual setting.

Is the plot inextricably twined with the concentrated resources (physical, cultural, and presumably magical), dense population, and occasionally-cramped quarters of an actual urban area? That to me is "urban fantasy". If the city is just where the characters happen to live, and especially if they need to get out of the city to do anything interesting... then, it may be contemporary but not urban. And if the real action is happening in an "otherworld" where there's plenty more room to move and no pesky neighbors/bystanders to worry about, that's yet another portal fantasy.

#36 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2014, 10:50 PM:

Nancy @27, I’m only a bit of the way into Three Parts Dead, but I noticed that when Tara Abernathy caught a glimpse through the Crack in the World, “She saw other worlds where the God Wars never happened, where iron rules and men flew without magic.”

#37 ::: Chris A ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2014, 03:43 AM:

For the purpose of defining/renaming urban fantasy, I like the "kissing cryptids" description a lot.

Beyond "magic in a contemporary, urban (or possibly not, as rea #23 points out) setting," we could probably throw in a few other often-but-not-always commonplaces of the genre: a first-person or limited-third person PoV that sticks with a single protagonist; generic cross-pollination with romance, the detective novel, or both; the presence of the aforementioned cryptids; a protagonist with a past.

Steve Downey at #26 is also probably onto something in pointing out the genre's obsession with a subset of the realities of modern life, which I would say embraces both the jobs and bills Steve mentions, as well as motor vehicles, firearms, and law enforcement. Usually this preoccupation is more aesthetic than anything else.

#38 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2014, 07:40 AM:

So, is Linda Haldeman's Esbae an urban fantasy?

#39 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2014, 09:38 AM:

C. Wingate (38): I'd call it a contemporary fantasy but probably not an urban fantasy. Although my memory of it is rather fuzzy after ~20 years, so my definitions could be off. I should re-read that.

#40 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2014, 04:56 PM:

In my reading experience (which, of course, isn't everyone's), Charles de Lint's 80s-era novels defined the genre of urban fantasy, and discussion of them coined the term.

So for me, the sentiment that "well, if you define 'urban fantasy' that way, it sweeps up Charles de Lint" is like hearing "well, if you define 'epic fantasy' that way, it sweeps up Tolkein."

On a distantly related note, I do get a little grumpy that, for The Kids These Days, the phrase "urban fantasy" is spelled with a silent "paranormal romance."

#41 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2014, 05:43 PM:

Serge@34, while I have not actually seen Surf Nazis Must Die!, I assume it has to be part of the canonical definition of beachpunk.

#42 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2014, 06:44 PM:

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little (40): To my mind, urban fantasy* and paranormal romance are two separate but related genres, with a very fuzzy line in between them. The difference is whether the emphasis of the story is on the fantasy or the romance.

*in the usual sense of the term--in other words, what I would call contemporary fantasy

#43 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2014, 08:33 PM:

Lee @ 21: That's only one way Orbital Resonance gives that message. Barnes really went to town on that book.

#44 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2014, 10:04 PM:

Nicole / Mary Aileen: IMO, urban fantasy and paranormal romance are partially-overlapping genres; it's possible to have either without the other, but they're frequently found together.

Do most people think it counts as "paranormal romance" when both parties have supernatural attributes, as with Toby/Tybalt? I've been thinking that the term only applies when one of the parties is full-human, but I could be mistaken.

#45 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 03:02 AM:

Different question: has a media tie-in literary work ever made it to a Hugo final ballot? (Not thinking of non-fiction or dramatic presentations.)

#46 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 03:04 AM:

I haven't gone back over the lists of nominees but I'm about 99% sure the answer is "no".

#47 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 09:23 AM:

Lee (44): I would call that a paranormal romance, *if* (and it's a big if) the romance was paramount. So Toby/Tybalt wouldn't count because their romance is not the point of the story, not because they're both non-normal-human.

#48 ::: Lin Daniel ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2014, 12:24 PM:

In my recent perusal of the "for sale" shelves at the library, I found that the books that had "paranormal romance" on the spine also had as a cover a bare chested man clutching an almost bare chested woman, both in flowy fabric costuming.

#49 ::: D. Eppstein ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2014, 08:25 PM:

I thought My Beach was the canonical example of beachpunk.

#50 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2014, 11:44 AM:

No media tie ins have ever made the list. The closest I can think of is Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald", a Holmes story, which was nominated and won.

#51 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2014, 12:44 PM:

Where, I wonder, would Earth Girls Are Easy fit?

#52 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2014, 10:21 PM:

Fragano @ 51: wrt which spectrum? It is intrusive, but tries to be SF (cf The Day the Earth Stood Still rather than fantasy, and I find the romance much less central than in the one Gini Koch book I've read. The setting strikes me as more Endless \r\e\m\m\u\S Suburban rather than real City -- but I've never lived in SoCal and so can't guess what they'd consider a cityscape.

#53 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: May 20, 2014, 11:38 AM:

Patrick @ 0: Chip Delany’s point (in his introduction to Heinlein’s Glory Road)

I think I might just need that edition. Which one is it?

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