One debate I’ve encountered with increasing frequency lately strikes at the very definition of urban fantasy. I find it healthy to engage in such discussions. As with most things, literature evolves over time. Genres and sub-genres also shed vestigial organs as they adapt to the dynamic world around them.
If the nature of reality is constantly changing, then a corollary would be that fiction, too, should continually shift. Since fiction is meant to help interpret and reflect reality. Urban fantasy, as a relatively new phenomenon within the broader realm of publishing, should follow the times. It needs to change when needed. To suit the needs and demands of average readers.
Of course, in context, one might need to ask a bevy of questions to even begin an informed discussion. What is urban fantasy? What was urban fantasy? Who reads the genre? What trends might be developing that impact it?
If we accept that literature needs to change when necessary, then we must ask: is it time for a change?
My opinion: no.
So Is There A Debate About Harry Potter In The U-F Universe?
I recently encountered a well-spoken bibliophile who only vaguely smelled of stale body odor and old laundry. This affable gentleman informed me that Harry Potter fits in the urban fantasy bag. I disagreed. One of the fundamental tenets of urban fantasy, according to the consensus, should be common sense: an urban setting. Urban fantasy often exists in a gritty city setting.
Think noir. However, the interlocutor possessed some level of logic, no matter how misguided it might be perceived. The insanely popular Harry Potter series, of course, held many elements of fantasy. The setting was a relatively contemporary place here on Earth, and many of the characters were humans. We saw magic in spades.
Harry Potter may have even been set in an urban-like place.
Stretch your minds around that one for a second.
Analyzing The Core Components
In order to define urban fantasy, one probably should separately examine each of its core components, then analyze them in conjunction. Here, we have urban and fantasy. But, what, exactly, does urban mean? Yes, the obvious choice is a city. Some bustling mass of creatures amalgamated in one place, surrounded by buildings and spires. Of course, there are literal “cities,” with zero or few residents and shuttered buildings. All it really takes to make a city in the real world are articles of incorporation and a charter from a state or other relevant political entity.
There are modern warships that essentially function as cities. They have large populations (bigger than many “cities,” here in Oregon) centralized in one area, shops, restaurants, bathrooms, etc. Many universities, also, can be viewed as their own de facto cities, distinct from the population centers around them. Yet, few would credibly argue that an urban fantasy novel could be set on a warship. It might be worth questioning why.
This diversion was not a mere tangent, though I am often guilty of digressing. The gentlemen I spoke with at some length in a local bookstore challenged some of my assumptions about one of the many literary divisions I have come to love. The conventional truth is that Harry Potter is contemporary fantasy. Or just fantasy. But, while I do not agree that it is urban fantasy, also am not on board with seeing Harry Potter as hard-boiled, classic fantasy.
Location, Location, Location
One of the core reasons for believing that Harry Potter is NOT urban fantasy is the fact that it is not set in a city. Yet, my interlocutor pressed home the -valid- point that many colleges and universities can be viewed as cities. Bustling islands of humanity distinct from the areas around them.
Languages and literature evolve. This is not inherently bad, or good. It is simply a fact. Evolution normally involves outgrowing obsolete appendages or tools that prove to be hindrances in light of external changes.
While I do not agree that Harry Potter was/is urban fantasy, or that it is time for the genre to change, I do think it might be time to ask the question: when is urban urban?