[GUEST POST] Mia Marshall on Whether Men Are From Mars and Urban Fantasy is From Venus


Mia Marshall spent time as a high school teacher, script supervisor, story editor, legal secretary, and day care worker before deciding she would rather spend her days writing about things that don’t exist in this version of reality. She has lived all along the US west coast and throughout the UK, during which time she collected an unnecessary number of degrees in literature, education, and film. These days, she lives somewhere in the Sierra Nevadas, where she is surrounded by her feline overlords. You can follow Mia at her website, on Twitter, Facebook, and GoodReads.

Men Are From Mars and Urban Fantasy is From Venus. Or Not.

by Mia Marshall

When I tell people I write urban fantasy novels, there’s often a pause in the conversation. It’s a long pause, during which I wonder if they expect more information, or perhaps an explanation for how this can be an actual career.

At last, they speak. “What’s urban fantasy?”

“Fantastic elements in our world. You know, myth or magic or…”

“Vampires?” This is when I hear it. The smile in the voice. The hint of smugness. “Like Twilight?”

There is a second pause, longer than the first, while they wait for me to disavow all sparkly vampire books, to insist that mine are different, and therefore worthy of being read.

My books are different, of course. They have their own magic system and own mythology, and there are no vampires in sight. They also have a female protagonist and a romantic subplot, and while the person I’m speaking with might sneer at angsty glitter vamps, I can’t help thinking they’d be equally unimpressed by those qualities in my books many would perceive as “feminine.”

The other person waits. The unasked question lingers in the air. Do I write real fantasy books, or do I write fantasy for women?

Once, I might have offered an explanation, or possibly some self-effacing comment for writing fluff. After all, I knew my books weren’t going to be considered for a National Book Award anytime soon. When they smirked, I almost believed they were right. More than once, I caught myself starting to apologize for spending months at my desk, eyes glued to the screen while I battled all the demons of procrastination to slowly become the one thing I’d always longed to be: an actual, bona fide writer.

**********

I write urban fantasy. I write stories with loud-mouthed, powerful women and the men they love. The stories also have mystery, mythology, action, and no small amount of snark, but sometimes it feels like those qualities don’t matter. It’s urban fantasy, in keeping with the more recent definition of the genre. It’s told from a woman’s point of view, it’s a multi-book series, and, as I mentioned before, there is a romantic subplot.

What this seems to mean is I write books for women. At least nineteen times out of twenty, when a new reader discovers my books, she’s a woman.

This trend was clear from the first book. The original cover of Broken Elements had an illustrated design, without a single shirtless hunk or sword-wielding leather babe in sight. In the story itself, I only hinted at the romantic subplot I planned to develop in future books. Nothing about Broken Elements screamed “Chick book!” It didn’t need to. It was categorized as an urban fantasy, and that was enough. Unless an urban fantasy novel is marketed as written by a man, and/or is full of manly characters with extra doses of testosterone and, quite possibly, large amounts of body hair, it’s a book for the ladies.

This is, of course, ridiculous.

It’s ridiculous because, last I checked, men cared about romance and finding love as much as women do, even if there are fewer embarrassing magazine articles written about their search. A romantic subplot (or hell, main plot) should never be held up as a reason men collectively won’t like a book.

It’s ridiculous to assume that men who love reading about badass heroes would be bored when it’s a woman’s turn to save the world. It’s ridiculous because, even if the above points are incorrect and only women want to read urban fantasy series, it still isn’t a valid reason to dismiss the books.

It’s ridiculous because, in being dubbed a genre for women, many bookstores have no idea where to shelve the books, and a tale of a woman battling a horned (but not horny) demon often finds itself squished between a light-hearted historical romance and a tale of small-town love reignited. Writers struggle enough with the belief that we’re all secretly frauds. It would be nice if, at the very least, our books knew where they belonged.

It’s ridiculous because it’s assumed urban fantasy writers inhabit a space closer to romance than “true” fantasy. Doors close that remain open to other fantasy authors are closed for us. A handful of publications treat us with the same respect they do other genre writing. The rest… well, on a good day they ignore us. On a bad, we’re told we’re not real fantasy writers. We just write girl stuff.

I made a choice, somewhere between the first and second book. As ridiculous as I found the whole thing, I wasn’t going to waste my time worrying about people who wanted to dismiss my books without reading a page, all because they featured a powerful heroine who, on occasion, kissed people.

If men want to read my books, that’s great. If they don’t… well, women still buy plenty of books. I’ll be okay, and I won’t sell out the women who read urban fantasy by apologizing for writing what we love.

It’s the perception of urban fantasy that needs to change. Not the books, and definitely not the readers.

**********

The other person is still waiting.

I shrug. “No vampires, but yeah, I write books for a mostly female audience.”

Again, there’s a pause. I make no effort to fill it. I have nothing to explain, and nothing to apologize for.

I write books for a mostly female audience, and I don’t have a problem with that. No one should.

7 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Mia Marshall on Whether Men Are From Mars and Urban Fantasy is From Venus”

    1. Agreed. I don’t have evidence at my fingertips; however, it’s my understanding that (similarly) men who write romance use women’s names or initials.

  1. If the romance plot powers the story, then you are writing a paranormal romance. The TWILIGHT series is young adult paranormal romance.

    If a mystery plot powers the story, then you are writing urban fantasy. A romance subplot may or may not be included.

    Both men and women read and write urban fantasy. Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” and Kevin Hearne’s “Iron Druid” series with their male protagonists and romance subplots are just as likely to be read by men as women. So are series by Patricia Briggs, Kat RIchardson, and Ilona Andrews with a female protagonist.

    To denigrate yourself or your readers or put yourself in a gender ghetto does no one favors.

  2. Hi Marilynn,

    It’s not scientific, I realize, but I sold urban fantasy mostly to women°° when I worked at a book store recently, so Mia’s thinking makes some sense to me. I long for days when men are (as a whole… not referring to specific men, of course,) as comfortable reading books with female protagonists as they are reading books with male protagonists. We’re definitely seeing more of it lately, though, which is good!

    °°I should also note that I sold more UF to men when it was by men (i.e. Jim Butcher, Nicholas Kauffman, etc.).

  3. Those illustrated covers are seriously badass. As someone who totally judges books by their covers, I’m sold no matter where they get shelved (of course, that brings up the whole face-out/spine-out issue…)

    1. I love them, too. I completely get why she has the two types of covers, given the marketing knowledge, but I really dig the paper cut covers.

      (Disclosure–I am working with Mia to publicize the books, but I like to think that doesn’t preclude me enjoying the art. :))

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