23 February 2009

Urban Fantasy: Sex & Violence. Really?

A question has been preying on my mind since a recent con. At this con, I got a preview of a few different lines of upcoming books from various publishing houses. There was a lot of urban fantasy being shown off but there was a sameness to the plots and subject matter that I found disturbing.

First, the paranormal detective thing has been done to death already, hasn't it? There were a few dozen books that featured someone who investigated paranormal disturbances. Isn't that getting old? The other big trend was the story about the "kick ass heroine written in the 1st person." Um... isn't that getting kind of tired too? I mean, the first few of these kinds of books were interesting and made a big hit, but really, do we need dozens of clones out there to bore us to death? Am I the only one who feels this?

So I got a bunch of free books at this event and settled down to read. For books that were marketed as "romance" there sure wasn't much romance -- just a lot of sex and even more gratuitous violence. And I do mean violence. Turn-your-stomach gore (well, my stomach, at least) and the introduction of sympathetic characters, getting you to like them, then blowing them away in gruesome ways a page later.

Tsk. Tsk.

Um... last time I checked, that wasn't what you call "standard" in a romance novel. Was it? Did I miss the memo?

And why did these supposed "romance" authors feel the need to make me sad every other page by intrducing a new character only to blow them away, hurting their existing characters and making me sorry I ever picked up the damned book?

I'm not a pure Pollyanna. I can take bad guys getting their just deserts or supporting characters having hard times to support the story, but this is above and beyond. This is violent destruction of every good character in the book.

Does this trend disturb anyone else? I mean, I read romance to escape the harsh reality we live with every day. I want for the good guys to win in my romance books. I want people to find love and happiness. It doesn't have to be easy, but it should be true happiness at the end of the book. Not "we're happy together, but all our friends and family have died in horrible ways because of us."

Am I naive? Old fashioned? Out of touch?

Because that's the way I've been made to feel. It seems like traditional publishers won't touch a "feel good" book. It seems all they want is sex (I'm all for that, of course, as long as there's love in there somewhere) and lots of gratuitous violence in their urban fantasy/romance stories.
Am I wrong?

I'd really appreciate some opinions on this as it's been bothering me for quite a while. How do you all think of urban fantasy romance? Does it require "gritty" death scenes on every other page? Does it require a writer to absolutely TORTURE (and I mean TORTURE) their main characters? Or can it possibly have a less bloody death toll and some characters who actually end up truly happy? Or must every supporting character be blown away like a "red shirt" on Star Trek?

I seriously want to know what you think. Comment me, baby. ;-)


Anonymous said...

I'm so with you. When did we start defining our heroines as strong when they can take out someone physically, or with weapons, or utter a constant stream of profanities, or prove they never need anyone? Actually, I'm kinda overloaded on those alpha dogs as well.

Liz Kreger said...

I have to agree with you, Bianca. I'm so tired of reading books where the main characters are made to suffer unspeakable hardships before getting their "reward". Personally, I don't feel a need to make my characters suffer in order to tell a good story, nor will I kill off a character just because. I am a firm believer, however, that if you're stuck with your plot that you either have to throw in a love scene or kill off a bad guy. LOL. But it definitely has to work and has to fit in with the plot. No gratuitous sex allowed.

Great blog, by the way.

Moira Rogers - Bree said...

I like sex, I like violence, I like romance and I like realism. I also like supernatural investigators, whether they're investigating supernatural things or the mundane ones.

This post made me sad. But I'm honest enough to admit that it's because I have a book with all of these elements coming out in a week, and now I feel just the tiniest bit like a loser. LOL There lies the risk in clicking links marked "rant" though, I suppose.

Of course I like to think my take on it would be original--I wouldn't have written it if I didn't. But I assume all of those other authors thought the same thing as well, or they wouldn't have written them either. (Unless we want to get into the possibility that they're writing them just to try to meet the market, which I suppose is possible, but it's not a tactic I can understand so I tend to discard it.)

Obviously I think everyone has the right to like and dislike whatever they want. I have my own pet-peeves that I'm sure make other people roll their eyes and wonder why I think it's worth ranting about. But one thing I hope I never do is complain that NY is just OMG-SO-WRONG about what they publish, because someone is buying them or they wouldn't keep doing it. And in this case you can blame the violent, crazy PI stuff on me I guess... I keep buying them.

Bianca D'Arc said...

Ciar - great points! Thanks for taking time to comment. :)

Liz - I'm glad I'm not the only one. ;-)

Bianca D'Arc said...

Bree - sorry, this really wasn't directed at you. Simply by the fact that you're with a small press, I assume your book has some uniqueness to it. Crazy how I've turned into a small press snob, isn't it? There was a time when I wouldn't touch a small press book, but with the state of publishing as it is now, I think it's likely that the only room for true creativity is in the small press arena.

So bravo for having your book come out in this market, in the new media! I haven't read it, of course, but I'm tempted to beleive it's probably unique among its fellows and I wish you the best of luck with it.

Anne Rainey said...

I gotta say, you are speaking to me on this one. I like a good fight scene in a romance book, if it's necessary, but the constant blood and guts just makes me throw the book at the wall.

Also, I'm getting REALLY tired of some of these Urban Fantasy books being marked as Paranormal Romance. To me there is a WORLD of difference. I DO NOT read UF, but I love PR. I wish the publishers would get it straight that they are different.

When I pick up a book and think it's paranormal romance only to find out that there's a depressed hero or heroine who has to save the world and pretty much go through hell on a daily basis, that's not what I call romance.

Let's get back to the ROMANCE! Please!

Kathleen Scott/MK Mancos said...

Hear! Hear! Bianca. I am totally with you on this.

Though,I write tough heroines, they are marshmellow on the inside with a spine of steel when needed. I have sci-fi stories where the heroines are in command of their own regiments of soldiers, or fighter pilots in some alien armed forces. I have blood and gore in my novels, as I like some grit to my books. But I must temper it with a healthy dose of love, tenderness and a HUGE HEA. I so want to see that hero and heroine happy at the end, or at least well on the road to happiness. I want to see the bad guys defeated. I want the promise of a new day peeking over the horizon with the morning sun.

And I've gotten a real bad taste on my tongue for first person. If I pick up a book and it's written in first, I won't read it. I haven't always been this way. Some of my favorite novels have been at least partially in first person, but with the proliferation of Chick Lit and those self-absorbed heroines, I got a real readers' rash from first person. I actually develop a nervous tick when I see it.

Recently, I wrote a paranormal novel that I call a "quiet" book. There are no explosions, physcial trauma to the main characters - except in the past - flashy action sequences or other "big budget Hollywood schtick." Most of the conflict is emotional. My critique partner said it was one of the best books I've written. I know, I loved my characters, that I had a tenderness for them because of "who" I had made them and how they fell in love. Not because they could take out an entire city block with some kind of paranormal weapon. It was a challenge to write, and to make interesting, but I think I've managed to do a decent job of it - save some tweaking and embellishing the end.

But I think publishers will buy what they know the readers want and what sells. If they see a shift in the market to "quieter" books with more emotion and gratifying love stories, that's what they'll contract more of.


Jody W. and Meankitty said...

I like variety in my reading material, but there's definitely a massive trend for urban fantasies with that type of heroine. I guess that female archetype lends herself to that setting, and PIs and law enforcement are popular in a ton of genres, not just UF.

I would love to see "quieter" books that are still urban fantasies or paranormal romances. But I wouldn't want this particular type of female or paranormal PIs to disappear entirely.

Bianca D'Arc said...

*thunderous applause*

Bravo, Anne!

Bianca D'Arc said...

Kat - great points all! I like your description of the "quieter" book. I think it fits with what I call "lighter" - as opposed to those dark books where people are dying all over the place and life is just HARD. ;-)

I love your books! That's probably why we're on the same page with this. LOL. Thanks for the well thought out comment.

Bianca D'Arc said...

Oh, no! It's the cat! (hee hee)

You make an excellent point - variety. I think the reason I'm fed up right now is because of the sameness. I prefer each book I invest time in to be a little different from the last. Am I nuts? ;-)

Anonymous said...

I love both urban fantasy and paranormal romance and I both read and write almost exclusively in the two genres right now.

I understand how you can get burned out on the strong "kick-ass" heroine in law enforcement of some sort, and the hell and high water she has to go through. And personally I'm reluctant to pick up new books of this type unless something jumps out at me immediately to set the book apart.

That said, I long ago burned out on the weak, weepy, woman that was saved by the hero seeing past her flaws; and the arrogant, misogynist reformed by the weepy heroine's love and spunkiness.

I'd rather read about a strong woman, but I think UF too often defaults to physical strength over emotional and spiritual strength. I also think the default of torturous villians rather than emotional and ethical struggle is a flaw to what's being chosen as well. But I still feel there's a great deal to be explored in Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance while keeping the heroine able to take care of herself, while taking care of and being taken care of by others.

I hope that's coming out in my own upcoming UF/PR.


Bianca D'Arc said...

X - Too Stupid To Live heroines don't do it for me either. I like a more realistic modern type woman. Someone who can hold her own intellectually - maybe even physically too - but still appreciates the male of the species. I want the two main characters to be partners. I don't want either one of them to totally run the other's life. Maybe it's just me. *sigh*

Thanks for the insight. :)

Anonymous said...

Bianca: In Paranormal Romance, I agree that the main characters should be partners regardless of the numbers and genders involved.

In Urban Fantasy however, male or female, the protag is the main character and everyone else is secondary, even if a relationship is a central point. That's the nature of the genre from the Dresden Files to the Anita Blake series, to the Odd Thomas and Weather Warden series. Relationships and partnership can be there, but the genre is about a singular journey which is why so much of it is in first person.

There can be respect between our heroine and hero(es), but there's never going to be a true equality. In the context of a series, the MC has to be able to go it alone as much of the story arc is in their head and off wherever they happen to roam.

This fundamental difference in the genres, if nothing else, is one of the main reasons UF and PR have to be firmly defined on the cover for the reader so they know what they're getting.


Bianca D'Arc said...

X - while I tend to agree - I think this is what got me so P.O.'d in the first place. Bringing up Dresden and the like, I totally agree with you... BUT... UF is being marketed as Paranormal Romance. The lines are blurred and a romance reader picks up a book expecting one thing and ends up with another. That's where we run into problems.

Jody W. and Meankitty said...

Oh, I think an appealing urban fantasy could be written that featured a partenership, romantic or otherwise. Just because it hasn't been done doesn't mean it couldn't :).

Anonymous said...

WC: Most certainly a partnership UF could be written. Probably has been written no less. Genre definitions change and grow all the time (when allowed) as they should. It's just not the current definition of the genre.

My UF is very political and has a multi-romance at it's center that doesn't involved books and books of angst over it. Five or ten years ago that would have been seen as unmarketable. So the genre is definitely in flux as it gains more and more popularity. :)


Anonymous said...

Bianca: The blatant remarketing of UF as PR is a definite issue. It worked in my favor in that I read my first Paranormal Romance because it was marketed as an Urban Fantasy. But the other way around is a great recipe for disaster and I'm afriad it'll end up turning off a busload of potential cross-over fans from PR.


Anonymous said...

When I first read this blog I felt like Moira, slightly offended and like a loser. I considered my first release an urban fantasy and that is what I called it upon submission. However, Samhain has it as a paranormal romance. There's sex and violence and it's written in first person, but along the way the two main characters fall in love. Is that romantic enough for PR rather than UF? I'll let the readers decide.
Personally, I believe the trend of "kickk-ass heroines" is more of a reflection of women in today's society than any trend in publishing. The times have changed from my own generation and I see them continually changing for my daughters. Women are doing so much more and aren't afraid to hide it or try to make excuses for it.
Just like any sub-genre of romance, there will be staples found in nearly every book that make it fit into that genre. The kick-ass heroine doesn't quite work as the girl who grew up in a stable family with four older brothers who protected her from harm. She won't be the one who dreamed of marrying her high school sweetheart and becoming Susie Homemaker. She has to have suffered in some way at least a little bit (though I'll admit I've seen some authors go overboard). Something in her life has to have given her a reason to fight and there has to be something worth fighting for.

Karin said...

I'm definitely with you. I want my romance to be more 'feel good' romance than something full of gruesome violence and gratuitous sex. I can deal with violence and I enjoy a good sex scene that enhances the story, but I don't want them to overpower the rest of the story. I don't want to have to worry about every character that I'm introduced to in the story. There is enough of that kind of bad stuff going on around that I don't want everything I read to have similar stuff.

That said, though, I do like the occasional book that has the gore and sex. There are times when that is just the kind of book I want to read, as long as I have the other softer stuff to read before and after. I think too much of anything gets old and sours people on it. Variety is what people need to continue enjoying things.

Kaye Chambers said...

As an Urban Fantasy author, I'm going to speak up here.

I have a UF that's against the mold and I'm having a hard time getting it considered because it's "not dark enough, not sexy enough, not..." all the points you mentioned here. I've been told several times that the book is good, but there's just not a market for it.

It's not that we UF authors aren't writing against the mold, it's that some publishers are pushing for this trend.

And publishing is a business...authors have to eat, so writing what the publishers are buying is part of it.

But you're right. Originality seems to be being pushed by the wayside and spoiling the UF market with a glut of books that seem to be the same book written in a different voice.

It's really sad.

Great blog!

Carolan Ivey said...

[[Originality seems to be being pushed by the wayside and spoiling the UF market with a glut of books that seem to be the same book written in a different voice.]]

Unfortunately, this is typically what becomes of any fresh, new trend that NY publishing houses latch onto. They mash it into a mold that, in the process, squeeze the life out of it - the very thing that made it fresh in the first place.

Great discussion!

Bianca D'Arc said...

Missy Jane - Wow. I'm sorry you took my words personally. That was not the intent. My intent in discussing my dissappointment with the plethora of "kick-ass" heroines was the sameness of every single heroine I've seen in the recent spate of novels.

I, too, like a heroine that reflects my own life. In my own life, I've been an executive on Wall Street. I've got a lot of education and know how to stand on my own feet. I also have studied multiple forms of the martial arts. So strong women don't offend me - it's the EXTREMES that annoy me. The heroine who kickes EVERYONE's ass -- including the hero's! LOL.

I was trying to point out the lack of anything new coming out of the NY publishing houses. I wasn't trying to insult anyone in particular. ;-)

Bianca D'Arc said...

Karin - Variety is exactly what I'm going for! I want lots of DIFFERENT kinds of books and I also want them labelled correctly so that when I pick up a "romance" I get a romance and not a slasher film in print. LOL!

Kaye - You have my sympathy. This is exactly what I'm talking about. It feels like the same book over and over, rather than the same genre with many different kinds of books in it, which is what I'd really prefer as a reader. But maybe that's just me. *sigh* Best of luck to you!