discussions genre stuff

The Fantasy of Development

A couple of interesting debates have been doing the rounds recently. N.K. Jemisin wrote an excellent post on Feminization of Epic Fantasy:

I’ll start by positing an hypothesis (H0), and its logical alternative (H1):

H0: Epic fantasy is dominated, if not by male authors, then by a “masculine” aestheticism, ethos, and structural focus (it’s “the hero’s journey”, not the heroine’s). And, as with other male-dominated bastions “threatened” by egalitarianism (a.k.a. feminism and femininity), it systematically defends this masculinity with great vigor.

H1: Epic fantasy is already egalitarian in its aesthetics, ethos, and structure, and its domination by male authors is just a reflection of greater society. There is no reaction, positive or negative, against feminine encroachment. The more the merrier, we can all just get along, Kumbaya, etc.

There has also been a fairly neutral and causal assessment of the fabric of recent SF awards submissions, which is interesting and worth taking a look at, but generally suggests to us that the the SF genre is dominated by white straight males writing books about white straight males. (I know it’s about SF rather than Fantasy, but it prompted the thought.)

These things have, in other forms, been discussed across the genre scene for years, and this is kind of my point: we’ve been talking about minorities and equality in fantasy fiction for a long time yet, when I look at the top-selling epic fantasy titles or read some reviews of what’s currently being released, I realise that our genre still seems to be rather conservative.

What can we conclude from this? Either the blogosphere has less of an effect than we’d like to think, and/or the commercial bottom-line still has a preference for conservative stories over those which are more experimental.

Does is matter that more books don’t address minorities or gender equality? I’d suggest that there are an awful lot of people who read genre books; for many of them to be exposed to such a narrow range of society will not bring about an enlightenment any time soon.

Should editors play a greater role in this? Should they be the ones to intervene in a story and point out a lack of variety? Should authors contemplate, well why is Character X the way he/she should be in a genre where we can do anything? Is it a crime to represent dark-skinned people as being evil and white people saving the day? I read an interesting review of Nights a few weeks ago which mentioned, in passing, that they didn’t understand why the gay character was chosen to be gay – which I found interesting, because my response to that is, Well why do we choose characters to be straight?

I’m not criticising individuals for not choosing to engage with issues in the text – because this is a question of numbers and volume rather than anything else, and I can enjoy conservative stories very much. Perhaps it goes back to what N.K. Jemisin said about such things being ‘a reflection of greater society’. I think this rather meandering post has just brought about more questions. It started off with me thinking that, despite all these online discussions, the notion that fantasy fiction had developed remained a fantasy. I’m not sure we’ll ever do much to address that.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

27 replies on “The Fantasy of Development”

I wonder if the next five years of fantasy releases will have books that have a ‘token gay’ in the cast, just to make em’ more edgy. Makes me think of how Billy Dee Williams nearly turned down the part of Lando Calrissian in Empire Strikes Back for some reason. It’s a shame really.

Hey John – this is true. I guess my fear is that quite a few award winners are read by so few people, that how far does this extend out into the mass market?

Den – heh, good point. I think I remember some author suggesting that some gay characters in urban fantasy tended to be of the accessory nature to get the token coolness (though I’m not well-read in that genre to really know). What was the story behind Billy Dee Williams then?

“Should editors play a greater role in this? Should they be the ones to intervene in a story and point out a lack of variety?”

That way lies madness.

Ultimately, it’s your choice what you want to write, and no one should ever feel an imposition to pander to demographics they’re simply not interested in (so long as they’re not writing related non-fiction, obviously).

That said, it’s a fairly humbling, if not quite depressing, picture being painted. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why a lack of diversity is still the norm, except to put forward the notion that a lot of these guys are 40+, and grew up in a different generation to me and you. You and I. Whatever.

That’s a blanket stereotype, I confess, so even I wonder how much water it holds.

Yo, Aaron. Madness perhaps. What if an editor pointed out that all the black people were written as bad characters, and all the white as good? Still the writer’s responsibility, of course, though I’d prefer the editor to point such stuff out to me – it’s still bad writing.

“Does is matter that more books don’t address minorities or gender equality?” Yes absolutely so. I’m female, and a minority, and I’ve wrestled with this (blogged about it here). I think it’s important to remember that what we leave out of our stories is as telling of our cultural values, as what we put in.

I’m encouraged by what’s been going on in the blogosphere, and I’m hopeful it will eventually trickle up to whomever really has the power to change things. I don’t know if it’s the readers, writers, publishers, or editors, that have the power. It might be a combination of all those elements.

Hi TSB – thanks for sharing that post of yours (and good debate it generated). I like your phrase of it being as telling of our cultural values.

I think it’s positive, certainly, but perhaps it’s something that has a very slow trickle-down effect. Or is it simply a generational thing?

A quick look at Wikipedia (I know, I know) doesn’t confirm the story I heard that he didn’t want to be the token black in SW:ESB (this was in 1980)… however the Wiki entry does say he auditioned for Han Solo. Can you imagine how freaking awesome that would have been? I love me some Harrison Ford, but Billy Dee Williams was one smooth talkin’ hustler back in the day.
Back on topic though… I realise I’ve made one of the characters in my story gay, and I need to ask some hard questions about whether it serves the story, does fit the personal story of that character, or have I, as you say, just accessorised the novel with a gay character to show how achingly progressive (Warning: sarcasm) I am.

“Does is matter that more books don’t address minorities or gender equality?”

Absolutely. I’d link to a blog entry or column here, but they’re all ridiculously long, natch. So instead, I’ll put it this way:

The status quo is segregation. It’s a state of segregation in which black, queer and members of other abject groups are not deemed to belong as main characters. This is the segregation of not being able to sit at the front of the bus. They may be allowed in as an exception if it “serves the plot” (c.f. your reviewer’s expectation of a *reason* for the character’s gayness.) This is the segregation of being stopped in a white neighbourhod and challenged on your purpose in being there. They may be allowed in as Gay Best Friends or Magic Negros in service of the straight, white protagonist. This is the segregation of travelling into a white neighbourhood to work as a cleaner in someone’s house.

It’s segregation for the readers too. They may be able to go to a little corner of the genre where they can find stories that speak direct to them (a gay spec fic mag like Icarus, say.) This is the segregation of the ghetto. While this holds, as much as the abject may appreciate much of the narratives they’re written out of, the constant awareness of their erasure from these narratives is a barrier that prevents full enjoyment, a sign that says, “No Blacks” or “No Gays” (or whatever) that they must choose to ignore. This is the segregation of water fountains at which the abject cannot drink and be refreshed as the non-abject can.

There’s no requirement on an author to engage with the issues of race or sexuality or whatever as subjects; an author’s thematics is their choice. The desire for inclusion is not a politically correct demand for quotas whereby X% of seats at the front of the bus are allotted to the abject, such that some poor old lady who deserves that seat will be forced to stand; that’s a straw man of the committed segregationist. Nor is it a trivial petition for “diversity” that can be met with perfunctory tokenism; that’s a complacent delusion of the unwitting segregationist. It’s a desire for integration, plain and simple — nothing more, nothing less.

Your own use of a gay character is, I might add, *exactly* the sort of practical integrationist steps required to dismantle that state of segregation.

I’ve not been able to stop thinking about this, as it’s a subject pretty dear to my heart.

I think my baseline presumption about the topic is a generally optimistic one. For my part, I reckon it’s a problem that’ll erode with the passage of time – as more (newer) writers rise to the fore, winning awards and becoming bestsellers, it’ll show that the landscape is already changing as a byproduct of the cultures those writers live in, rather than highlighting a need to force any kind of change by artificial “token gay guy” means.

My confidence in this comes from how much more accepted homosexuality has become in the last 20-30 years, as well as how much more prevalent the notion of sexual equality has become. Talk about a sea change, right? Now, when a government votes down gay marriage, they’re often seen as repressive and unfair by a wide swathe of the population, and that’s a sign of the times. Obviously, individualism counts for more than anything else, but people in their 20s and 30s are children of a different mindset to those in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

In short, as it’s become more common and natural for us to attribute sexism and homophobia as “something idiots and grandparents do”, the same attitude will eventually filter through to the genres, once those people in their 20s and 30s now are wielding widely published, massive back catalogues in the future.

In my humble opinion, time will tell.


Hal, you aren’t on the market for children, are you? I would kind of like to have yours. Just sayin’.

May I quote an excerpt of your comment, on my blog? That whole segregation analogy/truism is just so spot-on.

[…] big epic fantasy discussion is also still going on and branching out. Here, Mark Charan Newton wonders why speculative fiction in general is still such a straight white m… Though I’m not sure if the Arthur C. Clarke Awards longlist is the best possible data set. […]

You know, reading all these blog posts has-once again-brought up feelings of anger, rebellion, and me wanting to wrap my hands around history and choke it.
As an African-American man, I tire of the majority of conservative white male Fantasy fiction and the underrepresented mixed Fantasy fiction. For this year’s Nebula, I’m happy that Nnedi and Jemisin are on that list, but did we really need to wait that long for African-American women to get on his list?
I agree with Jemisin’s thoughts on Fantasy fiction being a reflection on society yet, in my terms of today’s Modern Fantasy, I believe it reflects America than the world as a whole. Why else would Arabs be the enemy, Black people as the enemy, and the White man still a dominate factor?
I’ve never been one for sexual preference, as I really do not care what you love, but I’ve never given it consideration in the role of SFF. “Token Gay Guy?” First, why does he have to be “Token” and not normal like the conservative straight white man.
A bit of a rant, but a novel I’d been expecting, now released, has sent me into a state of confusion, despression, and anger. Why? Because the novel seems similiar to current American society and what I percieve of that through these eyes; a world dominated by White males.
That’s all I have to say, but in the end, Fantasy should be equal.

Den – I’m not sure you need to ask whether or not the gay character fits the story per se. Well, no more than you would if it was a straight character at least.

Hal – what NK Jemisin said (well, apart from the babies thing, which I can’t do). Put very splendidly. To add to the debate on that, whereas segregation is usually enforced, who or what do you think is placing the barriers for the genre?

Aaron – I get what you’re saying there and, yeah, it’s certainly very much something that’s happening at a cultural level over time. To be honest, I would question whether or not the genre (at least of epic fantasy) has caught up with culture? Equality can be enforced at a cultural level, with laws, but that can’t happen in the arts. Perhaps it is all down to Time…

Brandon – thanks for stopping by. I can well understand your anger (even though I’m only half-Asian) – and tiring seems a fine word to use. It should be equal – for a genre that can potentially write about anything. Perhaps if we all complained and ranted enough, development might speed up?

Given sci-fi often has inter-alien sex, i’m surprised that sexual orientation remains an issue in sci-fi – if anything it should have been the genre that allowed such things to be metaphorically explored in a time where it wasn’t “allowed”.

I think I tend to side with NK Jemesin on this one but it’s definitely a two way thing. Authors need to write the “non-standard” fantasy to see whether it can find a market. If it can’t find a market then it really isn’t the author’s fault (and by extension the traditional authors can’t be held as accountable). I’m sure that ten years ago people were complaining there wasn’t enough paranormal romance out there but it’s now a bestselling genre. So I guess what needs to happen is that a publisher takes a chance on a really good alternate take on a fantasy that then becomes a bestseller. If one of those things fail then it’s very hard for it to get a foothold as i suspect publishers aren’t inlined to risk the same thing twice.

This is a great discussion.

I absolutely agree that we aren’t getting anywhere with integration until the presence of (to use Hal’s term) abject characters isn’t met with a demand for justification. Because ‘why the hell not?’ ought to be justification enough. There’s an underlying assumption that ‘white straight middle class man’ is the norm, and that any deviation from the norm needs a reason. It’d be nice to get away from that.

As to ADB’s point about the changing times. Agreed, but its important to remember that this process is an active, rather than a passive one. Attitudes change *because* the things people are hearing and reading and watching change, *as well* as those media changing in response to attitudes. Its important to keep the cycle going.

I know a writer who, when he’s finished outlining an MS will, on a whim, flip around the demographic characteristics of half of his cast, just to see if it makes a difference to the story. If the story isn’t changed significantly by this, then he generally leaves it that way, because again – why not? If it *is* then it means that the story engages with political themes in a way he hadn’t considered, so he spends some time thinking about the ramifications of that.

It’s absolutely *his* choice to do that. I wouldn’t demand that anyone else did it, and neither would he. But I think it’s an interesting technique.

Just wanted to clarify: I was speculating we may see a trend of writers who employ a ‘token gay’ in their cast of characters just to pay lip service to progressive SFF, rather than strip down the segregation that Hal so eloquently speaks about. The fact that very expression has the word ‘token’ in it flags up how false (or just hollow) the concept is.

As a straight, white would-be writer I think we need to be sensitive of how we portray these characters and don’t just think ‘oh, cool, I’ll totally make this character gay and then the marketing team will be able to say how amazingly progressive I am when the review copies go out.’ That’s a pretty extreme and brazen example of what I’m talking about, but you get my drift.

Anyway, I think Aaron summed it up best with:

“In short, as it’s become more common and natural for us to attribute sexism and homophobia as “something idiots and grandparents do”, the same attitude will eventually filter through to the genres, once those people in their 20s and 30s now are wielding widely published, massive back catalogues in the future.”

We can but hope, and sooner rather than later!

I must be reading all the wrong books (or all the right ones), because I haven’t seen this problem in quite a while, particularly as regards race… not since my reading diet stopped consisting mostly of people who wrote before I was born, that is. The books I’ve been reading lately seem to feature a wide variety of cultures/skin tones/cultures/etc., but then, I largely read secondary-world fantasy where there is no Africa/Asia etc. to be represented, fairly or otherwise.

But my focus lately has been on recent debut fantasy, and if I had to randomly guess at analogs to the cultures represented in the three I can most clearly remember at 2 in the morning, I’ve seen an African-European paladin, a half-Native American heir to a European throne, and a war between Scandinavians and Mediterraneans in which the Scandinavians are more or less the “bad” guys but the whole thing is very morally ambiguous. (This would be Merciel, Jemisen, and Durham, respectively.)

As far as sexuality goes, I’ll admit that epic fantasy has tended toward the straight side, but I attribute that to the settings, which are based generally in time periods in which straightness is the overwhelming cultural norm. In science fiction, particularly the television version, I’ve seen quite a bit more gay/bisexual content than I have seen reflected around me in real life, which makes sense given that we tend to assume that in the future the “closet” will become a thing of the past.

If there is still an issue with racial/sexual balance in fantasy fiction, it is most likely a problem of balance in the writing population. Speaking from experience: white authors get raked over the coals more often then not when they try to write even about -analogs- to cultures other than their own; there is no “A for effort.” As frustrating as I find this, I do understand it. I often get annoyed at the way men write about things like childbirth and female sexuality, so I imagine the same goes for anyone seeing an “outsider” trying to get under their skin.

So… is it any wonder that people mostly write about the cultures and sexualities to which they belong? As far as I know, the majority of fantasy/science fiction writers are still white males, so there’s your problem right there. The ones who aren’t white males are most certainly not writing white-male-dominated fiction, and bless them for that!

My proposal: let’s generate more fantasy/science fiction authors of different races and sexualities, if we want the fiction to represent Earth’s demographics more accurately.

N.K.: For sure; quote away. No need to ask, really. The more we talk of it in those terms the better, I reckon, because… well, that’s what it is. It’s not even an analogy really; I honestly think we’re *literally* dealing with a form of segregation which is abstract where it’s happening within the material culture (in terms of what representations are conventional where,) but entirely practical, *actual*, in terms of audience.

Mark: The main barrier here’s simply complacency, I’d say.

I mean, we can see active segregationism in Hollywood, where you get the whitewashing of The Last Airbender, and a rom-com, to take one example, Falling for Grace, which *is not a rom-com* (as far as Hollywood is concerned) but rather an “Asian-American movie,” by dint of the ethnicity of its writer/star, Fay Ann Lee. Out of fear that a mainstream audience will not accept an Asian-American lead in a romantic comedy, studios simply said, “No can do,” for the latter — Asian-Americans don’t get to sit at the front on that bus. That’s beyond complacency and into complicity (if it’s not just outright prejudice, racism *and* classism bound into a chickenshit attitude that “I’m not racist, but the proles will object!”)

Here? Largely I’d say it’s more that we just don’t think of it *as* segregation. We think of it, *if* we think of it, from a white straight able-bodied male (etc.) perspective where obviously it’s *nice* to write some diversity into your work and a bit *rude* maybe to forget to do that. If we don’t see segregation for what it is, we don’t afford the problem the import it deserves. Hence we don’t see it as a really *pressing* need to deal with the state of affairs constructed by active segregationism in the past (back when the magazines would knock back a story with a black protagonist.)

Once segregation is installed, it becomes the norm, and it’s (mostly) only visible to the abject, so it enforces itself via expectations, preconceptions, assumptions. We’re so trained to *not* expect a gay character at the front of the bus, for example, that we express surprise when we see it: why are they there? We unthinkingly accept the notion that this is exceptional rather than think: why the fuck not? And that mindset leads to art that reinforces it.

An intriguing discussion — and a fight in which I (a soon-to-be debut author with an Islamic-tinged epic fantasy on the way) have a big, slobbering dog.

A few points:

– I think we might get further if we break down the ‘epic fantasy’ of the OP into component parts. Do we mean readers? Editors? Writers? I think we come to pretty different conclusions re: the hypothesis depending on where our emphasis is.

I think there’s undeniably an editorial bias toward the conservative/’familiar’ right now, though happily not a universal one. When we were shopping my book, more than one editor explicitly mentioned that a quasi-Muslim epic fantasy would be a hard sell to fanboys. I’d like to give a shot out here to Betsy Wollheim at DAW, who bought both WHO FEARS DEATH and my trilogy in part BECAUSE they were doing something a bit different.

As far as writers go, I’ve been thrilled at the supportive response my own work has met with from other writers, even those who themselves write more traditional epic fantasy.

And as to readers… Well, I suppose the numbers will tell. To be continued, and all that rot.

– Re: Hal Duncan’s brilliant response. I agree with everything, except perhaps (and I truly mean ‘perhaps’, as I’m genuinely conflicted on this) the line “It’s a desire for integration, plain and simple — nothing more, nothing less.” I think one of the conflicts liberation movements have always faced has been the issue of equality vs. integration. They aren’t the same thing of course, and some rather brilliant writers from Malcolm X to Michael Warner (“The Trouble With Normal”) have made the argument that the former is much more worth fighting for than the latter…

I think it has to come from within, that there are minority characters in your work because… well, you couldn’t NOT imagine them there. I don’t try and fulfil quotas when I write, one of my protagonists is bisexual because… well that’s what he is, and the other is an 82 year old woman because I think there aren’t enough 82 year old female action heroes in fantasy. I try not to think about it, except when it comes to revision. And even then, I’m not thinking “am I representing this minority correctly” as much as I’m thinking “is this character fully developed and realised”.

I’m don’t hold any prejudices (although I am capable of ignorance) so I believe this will naturally flow into my work.

Saladin: A very good point. I’m sort of collapsing nuance here, to be honest. For me there’s a distinction to be made between integration and assimilation, with the former as a practical project aimed at tackling specific mechanisms of separation that perpetuate abjection. I don’t see that as requiring the reconstruction of my queer identity a la assimilation, but rather aimed (ultimately) at changing the relationship between queer and normative.

Actually, I’m sort of with the radicals in so far as I see assimilation as compromise with inequality. Like, assimilation is faux integration where it parses to a bunch of accepted abject roles (GBF, Magic Negro) which basically mean “you can sit at the front of the bus if accompanying your master.” And it’s *still* faux integration if the queer (by whatever marker of deviance sets them as such) has to downplay difference, adopt a mask of normativity to be accepted. That means, “you can sit at the front of the bus if you’re in whiteface.”

So I can totally see where a queer politics might reject the focus on gay marriage in the present liberation struggle, for example, if the underlying thesis is that the “happily married gay couple” are sufficiently “normal” they can’t reasonably be denied the right of official validation of their relationship. “Their whiteface is *perfect*! Of course, they get to sit at the front!” It’s not equality, just an *exception* to the inequality; they’ve jumped through the right hoops, eschewed behaviours that signify deviance, assimilated. The basic relationship of inequity remains though, with the queer abjected by the normative. For me, that means it doesn’t actually count as integration.

Still, I can certainly appreciate contrary views here: that integrationism practically ends up as assimilationism; that it’s treating symptoms rather than root causes; and so on. I just thought it was worth clarifying that for me integration means unconditional inclusivity for the queer *as* queer. If that makes sense?

@ Hal: Makes perfect sense. I suppose part of *true* equality is the freedom to integrate without assimilating. And I think *that* functions as an excellent test of equity in our genre: Will epic fantasy that *doesn’t* assimilate to the norms of the genre ever be integrated (sales-, marketing-, etc-, wise) into the genre? Or will we “simply” see the Same Ol’ Quests modified to feature brown/queer/etc. protagonists become more acceptable? Honestly at this abysmal point in history, *either* would feel like a victory, but the former certainly seems a more complete victory than the latter…

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