Tuesday, April 5, 2011

On Genre: Urban Fantasy Versus Supernatural

Today I want to blog about something I haven’t been able to get out of my mind. On Friday, literary agent Rachelle Gardner reopened herself to queries after a several month long hiatus, and wrote a post about what she’s looking for.

In the category “Adult Fiction”, Ms. Gardner wrote that she is interested in “… Supernatural, … No fantasy or sci-fi.”

As a writer who classifies “her” genre as urban fantasy, and after a quickie research about the term “supernatural genre”, this prompted my following question in the comments section: “… I always pegged "Supernatural" in the fantasy-genre. Or at least the urban fantasy sub-genre. So basically, you're interested in fiction books about spirits, demons, ghosts, etc. - things based on myth and folklore - but don't want to see orcs, elves, vamps and werewolves? I'm just curious as to where you draw the "supernatural" line?”

To which she answered: “You're correct in your assessment. Other agents have blogged about the differences between the genres so I'm not going into detail here.“

So now I’m on a mission to find such blog posts or any other kind of information that will help me draw a line between “supernatural” and “urban fantasy”. Though I think that line is rather a widely overlapping grey zone littered with big-toothed landmines (especially if I were to add “paranormal romance” to the mix; but I will abstain - here’s  a good explanation for the difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance).

Also, I noticed in 2011’s Guide to Literary Agents, many other agents also listed “supernatural” as what they’re looking for, while not being interested in fantasy or science fiction. I’m never sure whether I can send a query for my urban fantasy novel to these agents. Of course, since I research an agent and what s/he represents before shooting her/him my query, I find out if “my” novel falls under his/her “supernatural” classification. Still, I’m now taking this occasion as a sign to further investigate the subject.

Thanks to Ms. Gardner, I have a good starting point. After researching her clients, I found she represents books like The Resurrection by Mike Duran, which features spectral manifestations, visions, curses, resurrections, altars of adoration, and an autistic child prophet. These are all elements of the “spiritual supernatural”, as I’m going to call it, based on faith and spirituality. By comparison, the typical urban fantasy critters like werewolves and vamps are probably better described as “fantastical supernatural”.

Obviously, this definition creates some overlaps. I know several urban fantasies that feature spiritual supernaturals, like ghosts, spirits and demons. Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson-series for example features ghosts and demons as well as vamps and werewolves. Necromancy and faith are also key themes in Anita Blake’s world by Laurell K. Hamilton, in which vampires and shapeshifters thrive next to ghosts and fairies.

Despite these overlaps, I feel like I understand that fine line - I mean grey zone - better than before. I can’t say that all agents define the differences this way; I’d have to do more research to be sure. Every agent is different, so thoroughly researching an agent’s likes and dislikes before querying is always a wise approach anyway, and will give me the specifics on his/her perception of genre classifications.


  1. I saw on Twitter that she was taking queries again, someone Rt'ed her tweet but I don't follow her so it didn't mean anything to me. Why had she stopped accepting queries, did she have a backlog?

    The distinctions in the subgenres of supernatural are interesting and make a lot of sense to me, though I do think the examples you cite could also be considered horror. Aren't labels such fun, lol?

  2. Yay, more comments! *happy*

    Yes, I think she was backlogged; several agents I'm keeping a "close eye" on *cue stalker Jaws theme* took a break from queries during the winter months, to catch up and have a bit of "quiet time". At least as quiet as it gets for an agent - I sometimes think agents must be superheroes. They seem to work all day every day, and seem to enjoy it all the time, too. :-)

    Horror? Really? lol - labels really are fun. And objective! For me, a book has to be VERY scary to send shivers down my spine from fear, so neither Mercy nor Anita fall under that category for me. (I can't say for The Resurrection because I haven't read that yet.)
    I like the grey areas, though - they leave room for surprises. :-)