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This is really a lot of open questions and food for thought than a fully developed thesis. It just struck me, in my - admittedly somewhat limited - experience of urban fantasy, that the "urban" in "urban" seemed to reflect a somewhat limited and romanticized view of the "street."

Just to put my thoughts into a context here, my exposure to urban fantasy rests mostly on Charles De Lint, most of whose works I have read, Emma Bull, Will Shetterly and Neil Gaiman, whose Neverwhere I include in the genre. I would, or could, also include Justine Larbalestier's "Magic" trilogy and there are one or two others that I have forgotten. Amongst Emma Bull's work, I have read and enjoyed both War for the Oaks and her and Will Shetterly's Borderland novels, and my comments and questions here relate to all of those.

Anyway, it seemed that among these works, there is a common sympathy for and interest in the marginal, the scruffy, the downtrodden. Not that this group is in any way undeserving of sympathy or interest, but it struck me that these works definitely downplay the disadvantages of life among the disadvantaged and - yes - romanticize life for the homeless and the income-deprived. What I wonder is, is this some intrinsic part of a greater literary tradition? Are the authors riffing on folk-tales, whose heroes, if not princesses, tend to be clever thieves, disadvantaged or displaced innocents and so on? In some ways, what I'm asking is whether in fact this is the opposite side of the "Fantasy of Manners" coin - Fantasy of Bohemian Manners?

Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere is the only somewhat anomalous example - its hero, if I remember, is an average guy who gets lost in a strange alternate or parallel world. And as far as that goes, I guess it's not really "about" magic or fantasy in an every-day urban setting. Does anyone write about magic among the stockbrokers? Or ER, except with magic?

Anyway - that's my pitch. Any thoughts?

Comments

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(Deleted comment)
intertext
Aug. 9th, 2008 11:08 pm (UTC)
Well, in the books I'm talking about, often the poor alcoholic street person mumbling to himself is portrayed as being a faery in disguise, or in the state he is because he's been bewitched.

It may be true that some of the traditions of bewitchment come from an attempt to explain mental illness or general inability to cope with "real life" - but these works are being written in today's world, where we know about the "real" explanation for such phenomena. So what's the fascination? And is it a kind of blinkered wish-fulfillment to portray them thus?

Edited at 2008-08-09 11:08 pm (UTC)
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kgbooklog
Aug. 9th, 2008 10:18 pm (UTC)
I think what you're seeing may be a combination of high fantasy's "shepherd with Special Powers and/or Secret Birthright" and hard-boiled mystery's acknowledgment that street people exist in the first place. Mind you, I haven't really noticed such a trend myself; the only books I've read that dealt much with the homeless were Lindholm's Wizard of the Pigeons and Lindskold's Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls, and neither seemed the least bit romanticized.

Does anyone write about magic among the stockbrokers? Or ER, except with magic?

I can name two different werewolves who own security companies, and any vampire (who isn't recently undead) can be expected to have a wide and varied stock portfolio (if not an actual financial empire). Cops, PIs, and auto mechanics are also popular occupations for the supernatural.
intertext
Aug. 9th, 2008 11:00 pm (UTC)
Well, the characters in the books I mention are not all homeless, necessarily, though most of the young people in the Borderlands books are run-aways. They live in squats and eke an existence by working part time.

I haven't read Lindholm's Wizard of the Pigeons, but isn't it one of the pretty much canonical urban fantasy texts?

Edited at 2008-08-09 11:04 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - weatherglass - Aug. 9th, 2008 11:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
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gillpolack
Aug. 9th, 2008 10:28 pm (UTC)
I sometimes suspect that a lot of women's fiction and chicklit is urban fantasy. Less gritty and more females around, basically, with love interest.
intertext
Aug. 9th, 2008 11:03 pm (UTC)
Yes, and there's a pretty small collection of what could be called "fantasy chick lit" by the likes of Mercedes Lackey, that could also be termed "urban fantasy" but lacks the "street" cred of some of the other novels.

Edited at 2008-08-09 11:03 pm (UTC)
squirrel_monkey
Aug. 9th, 2008 10:39 pm (UTC)
Part of it, I think, is the attempt to assuage the guilt of the affluent when faced with the homeless -- if we imbue them with magical powers, cast them as protectors of our comfortable existence, then we don't have to feel bad for them or DO anything about it.

At the same time, from a writer's POV, it IS convenient to have a character who can operate on the fringes of the society, who doesn't have a job to go back to and can be portrayed as free from mundane concerns of mortgage and money.
intertext
Aug. 9th, 2008 11:09 pm (UTC)
Yes, good points.
(no subject) - matociquala - Aug. 10th, 2008 01:29 am (UTC) - Expand
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forthright
Aug. 9th, 2008 10:49 pm (UTC)
I agree, absolutely. I don't read a lot of urban fantasy these days, but the most recent place I've seen it is in Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, which I remarked to curtana reads like what would happen if someone dared Doctorow to write a Charles de Lint novel.

I don't know whether Neverwhere constitutes that much of an exception, since, while the protagonist is middle-class, many of the 'others' he encounters are homeless or 'street' in their 'real-world' incarnations.
pdlloyd
Aug. 9th, 2008 11:59 pm (UTC)
Are the authors riffing on folk-tales, whose heroes, if not princesses, tend to be clever thieves, disadvantaged or displaced innocents and so on?

I think you may be hitting the nail on the head here. The strong tradition of fairy tales is one that includes a lot of sympathy for society's rejects, whether the youngest child who might be disinherited on the death of a parent of moderate to high means, the only child of a poor widow, or the simpleton.

But, I also think that most, if not all, of the authors whose urban fantasy looks at this population have a genuine interest in the homeless and dispossessed. The homelessness is just one of several themes you'll frequently see in urban fantasy. Some characters are of middle class or higher means, but find their lives trite and limiting; the encounter with magic helps to engage them in the real world again. Another very common trope is that of the abused child. The story may center around the child at any age and, depending upon the age, the issue may be one of several different tropes. For infants or children, the focus may be rescue or punishment of abusers (typically by someone from outside, or possibly by another family member), or of the child's discovering his or her own ability to extricate themselves from an intolerable situation. For older teens or adults who are no longer trapped in the original abusive situation, the focus may be on learning how not to reengage with abusers, on forgiving the abuser, or of protecting someone left behind who is still in the relationship.

Okay, I guess I strayed rather far away from the main topic here. In this subgenre magic is often used as a metaphor for things in the real world. So, the magical outsider may be the thought or insight you've rejected, but they are also a homeless person you may have treated kindly or unkindly last week. There's a lot going on in these stories and they're not easy to categorize.
intertext
Aug. 10th, 2008 12:48 am (UTC)
Yes - those are very good points, thank you! The notion of the characters or situations being a metaphor for real life is of course important.

I think, though, that one way I see these novels "romanticizing" real poverty or social distress is that the protagonists rarely seem to have much difficulty getting by (or surviving for that matter). When they do get part time jobs these jobs are always in a bookstore or a funky cafe, which in real life are probably not that easy to get. If they live in a squat they might be robbed but not badly assaulted or raped - that is somewhat unlikely, too, sad to say. It seems to me that someone reading De Lint or the Borderland books might think it would be cool to be a street person. However, the message that we should be more tolerant and considerate is of course very important.
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(no subject) - asakiyume - Aug. 10th, 2008 01:28 am (UTC) - Expand
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(Anonymous)
Aug. 10th, 2008 12:07 am (UTC)
Yes, my comment was anonymous and off-topic (in the same way that superfoo's was), and as it's your journal you have every right to delete anything you don't want here. But, I think it's a shame that you would leave superfoo's original, off-topic, and highly objectionable post, however much he or she might say they didn't really mean it, and delete a comment which was not slanderous in any way, but a heartfelt post intended to address his comment. I don't feel your decision was fair to me, or to those engaged in this discussion.
intertext
Aug. 10th, 2008 12:36 am (UTC)
I hesitated over deleting your comments and do respect your wish and right to be heard. Perhaps the fact that you posted anonymously tipped the scales. It did occur to me to delete superfoo's comment, but perhaps my decision to leave it was coloured by the fact that she is a long time LJ friend and a friend in real life. I do recognize that her remarks might have been offensive to some (and obviously were to you) and I think she regrets them now.
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asakiyume
Aug. 10th, 2008 01:35 am (UTC)
Outsider characters can act as connectors to some other reality or world. I really, really need to read a bunch of the stuff I've seen referenced this Bittercon session, but given my scant reading, what popped into my head was the tramp character in The Dark is Rising.

Liminal characters can be messengers, and they move back and forth between worlds more or less with impunity, although they may have sacrificed their sanity (or some other thing) in the bargain.

pdlloyd
Aug. 10th, 2008 01:38 am (UTC)
Liminal characters can be messengers, and they move back and forth between worlds more or less with impunity, although they may have sacrificed their sanity (or some other thing) in the bargain.

Yes. Excellently expressed. *g*
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lidocafe
Aug. 10th, 2008 02:16 am (UTC)
I risk a lot by writing about something Intertext knows I have no knowledge of, as I can count on one hand the number of fantasy novels I've read. However, this fascinating discussion has got me thinking about romanticization of all sorts of marginality, not only street life but also drug culture, rural poverty, war trauma, and so forth. This makes me wonder if we have a doubled attitude to such experiences/arenas. On the one hand, we suspect that life at the margins or in extreme situations has more freedom, more intensity, and more authenticity or "magic," and even that those very margins exist because of our inability to honour those who don't fit into our world but perhaps see things more clearly. On the other hand, maybe it's partly an expression of a cultural pyschological trauma. I believe that most of "us" are extremely traumatized and terrified and sorrowful about the pain and loss that street people, among others, manifest in their very existence. Perhaps romanticizing this culture (or even "explaining" it) allows us to transform that pain into something that will not annhilate us spiritually. Not to relieve guilt, necessarily, but to cope with the horror of just how broken our civilization actually is.
pdlloyd
Aug. 10th, 2008 03:15 am (UTC)
Oh, I'm very glad you spoke up, you've made some really astute observations. :)

Thinking about it, isn't one of the reasons we often turn away from street people the guilt we feel when we see them? We know that what we can do, or maybe what we are willing to do, isn't going to make a real difference in their lives. We're not going to bring the homeless person home, and if we did, there are thousands more like that one, so, it's easier to cope with our response by turning away.

In urban fantasy, we can look at the problem, but in a less threatening way. We can feel sympathetic, but we can't bring the characters home, except in the imaginary sense. Which isn't to say that the sympathy we feel might not help us to modify our response to someone on the street. It's just that we don't have to face that guilt head on.
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faeriemusicsmom
Aug. 10th, 2008 04:09 am (UTC)
I've just come home from an excellent local production of Rent that my daughter was in; she commented on the similarity between Rent and the Charles de Lint books she's been reading. And of course Wild Swans could be the same people as Rent 15 years earlier. I'm wondering, how much difference does it make whether it's fantasy or not? Do many of these comments apply equally well to non-fantasy like Rent?
intertext
Aug. 10th, 2008 04:35 am (UTC)
It's funny - aberwyn and I were having just such a conversation here! Rent is a very good example of exactly the kind of atmosphere I've been thinking about.

Edited at 2008-08-10 04:37 am (UTC)
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sartorias
Aug. 10th, 2008 04:56 am (UTC)
I noticed during the nineties that Elfpunk romanticized being runaways, but I think adults were reading those, not kids.

Certainly it seemed that as long as you were beautiful and had cool scruffy clothes with glitter, you'd come out just fine, and discover magic and a posse and everything.

Holly Black did a beautiful job with the grit of being on the streets in Valiant. Non romanticized, convincing.

I do think that city streets in genre can get romanticized...even aside from fantasy, the sf does it: everyone is a twenty or thirtysomething, cool, no inconvenient jobs or parents or kids, everyone has a mod bod, etc etc.
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