Subgenre Woes (Urban, Modern Pulp & Comp Titles)


Last week I talked about trying to reconnect with some of the newer titles in fantasy (with a pinch of neglect for sci-fi too).

Since then I’ve been adding to my list of prospective reads. But this isn’t just about the old adage ‘a writer reads’. If you’re a writer like me, then  this is also research.

What I need to work out is:

1. What subgenre am I working within so that I know how to present my work when querying.

2. What are comparable titles so that the publisher/agent has an idea of style and sales.

Of course, this isn’t just about the big leagues, but I’m going to give it a try before I think about self publishing.

And even if that’s the route I take, it’s still worth figuring out.

So let’s start with my first question.


Previously I’d been presenting my work as Urban Fantasy because, well, my novel takes place in a city. I thought that much was obvious. But as I searched WordPress for related posts I got lots of real world-with-a-splash-of-fantasy stuff, or Twilight-a-like fantasy romances.

So, just what the hell was I writing? I began ruminating on this problem as I sat down with a fresh cup of coffee and an idea about writing it up as a blog post. I’d better do a bit more digging, and lo and behold! Right there in the feed was a post titled: Genre In Depth: Urban Fantasy.

Serendipity smiles once again.

In the post the author, Fictionally Sam, writes:

“…it isn’t until 1997 when Urban Fantasy would be officially be given its name by both John Clute and John Grant in their Encyclopedia of Fantasy and would be defined as: “texts where fantasy and the mundane world interact, intersect, and interweave throughout a tale which is significantly about a real city.”

This was a start.

However, there are other on-line definitions that state simply that UB takes place in a city environment. BUT! There is one problem with sticking to that notion: if the majority call themselves Urban and are dealing with majoritively real world cities and fantastical elements, with a lot of focus on romance, then I’m going to on the fringe of a fringe.

Not only does it feel incompatible, but also self-defeating.

I scratched UB off the list, along with those others that didn’t apply: Dark Fantasy, certainly not Swords & Sorcery, and most very definitely not High Fantasy. But just what should I call it? Is it science-fantasy because it’s got technology and fantasy? It didn’t quite feel right because there isn’t much emphasis on the science as such.

No, the fantasy is the world setting and the weird elements aren’t really sciency, so I felt that something else would be more fitting.


With this dilemma on the go I wondered if I should simply revert back to my original feeling that this story was (for the most part) inspired by much of the old school fantasy and sci-fi that I read. Many of those authors churned out quite a few adventure stories that earned them the monika of ‘Pulp’.


(Moorcock – History of the Runestaff and Elric were amongst his most well-known, but there were many more like the Ice Schooner. And love those cookie cutter covers like the Mahars of Pellucidar – I have a copy of Jack Vances Blue World which is almost identical. Lastly, Camelot In Orbit – I just had to put that in there for the name.)

I tried searching for a definition, and noted that Goodreads uses it as a subgenre. Then I came across an old blog post where the author gave this description:

By and large, “pulp fantasy” stories are those written before 1970 and the adventure of what we now consider fantasy literature. They have a very different cast to them than Tolkien or his legions of imitators. Firstly, these stories feature characters that are, by many standards, morally ambiguous. While rarely outright villainous (though there are exceptions), few are what could be called “heroes” without qualification. To put it another way, pulp fantasy protagonists are very human, full of foibles and flaws that lend a kind of rough verisimilitude to their adventures. Such characters are motivated at least in part by the quest for wealth and power – just as D&D characters clearly are. That’s not all these characters are about, but it’s an important component to them. Likewise, pulp fantasies are very character-centric. That is, the threats these characters face are usually quite personal or, at least, possess an immediacy for the character without too much emphasis on the wider world.

So why not call it “Modern Pulp Fantasy”?

MPF is both a throw back to the sort of stories that I used to read, like Fritz Lieber, Jack Vance and Leigh Brackett (some of which are later than the 70s but still…..) as well as being a nod to the modern styles – think of something such as Pulp Fiction, a film that was a big revelation when I saw it in my teenage years (yes, it really was that long ago now).

Pulp Fiction, with its emphasis on the grimy underworld told through multiple narratives took old tropes, threw them together, and made them new again.

So, with my own morally ambiguous characters (not ‘heroes’), and their worldly interests in wealth and revenge (no chosen ones saving the world), I felt that I’d found the right title.


But here comes the hard part. I can say, yeah, my work is a lot like the old pulp I liked to read. It’s like Jack Vance perhaps. But that doesn’t cut the mustard in terms of just what is going to sell. The question is therefore “what is popular that I can compare myself too?”

And I don’t have an answer for you as I’m writing this. I’ve been digging, but it’s a slow week and although I’ve dug up one or two titles that are fresh they still don’t feel quite right. It’s still an open field when it comes to those authors associated with “pulp”, but I’m not giving up on this.

For now, the search continues…….


Watch out for posts about the query letters I’m writing, and my novel solution to writing a creation myth. There’s also a few shorts and oddities waiting in the wings, but with easter holidays here for two weeks I don’t want to make any promises.

If you have any questions, recommendations or thoughts, then please feel free to leave a comment.

That about wraps it up, so until next week, take care of yourselves.


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