Diverse folk diversely they demed;
As many heddes as manye wittes there been.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Squires Tale

Monday 16 June 2014

Historical authenticity. Again

After a longer than usual (even for me) break between posts, I've been inspired to revisit some things I've written about before, on this blog and elsewhere,  to talk about racism and historical authenticity. I follow the 'People of Color in European Art History' Tumblr, aka 'medievalpoc' (here), an excellent, and important, resource which challenges the assumption that everyone who lived in Europe during the Middle Ages was white. A few months ago, someone asked a question on the Tumblr page about whether a video game which was making big claims about being historically authentic could realistically include people of "other-then-white descent," and asking for books or academic sources that might give answers. The Tumblr post response in full is here. In short, it suggests that suggestion that the game could include characters of colour realistically, and a short aside that the makers were not interested in representing either women or racial minorities. When it was posted to Reddit under a dismissive and prejudicial headline, there was an enormous wave of vicious abuse in response, covered, among other places in The Daily Dot. A recent post at the Tumblr site, here, shows that this includes continuing death threats.
This is the most serious incident of something like this that I'm aware of - but I know of an awful lot more that approach it. The idea that everyone in Europe (including travellers) was white for the entire Middle Ages, and that this (fundamentally incorrect and anachronistic) assumption means that ALL modern re-imaginings of them should thus only have white characters, is an incredibly pervasive one. It crosses over different genre fandoms. I've written about this idea in the Year's Work in Medievalism, and have a couple of other articles about it forthcoming too.
It's important for us to remember that 'which anachronism in Game of Thrones annoys you most' game can be fun at conferences, but academia is actually a fairly safe space. Looking outside it can show up just how seriously some people take the idea of historical authenticity. Which is, I think, ultimately one of the things that makes articles like the one I posted on a few days ago at the Tales After Tolkien blog important. I don't think that reading it would change the mind of anyone who might make death threats or write abusive comments about the issue, but if we let inaccuracies pass unchallenged, we perpetuate ideas that support them.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Tales After Tolkien: Medievalism and Genre in the Twenty-First Century

It's been an even longer break between posts that usual for me here. This is a very quick one to advertise a collection of essays on genre and medievalism I am editing. Here is the call for papers.

Contributions are sought for an edited collection titled Tales After Tolkien: Medievalism and Genre in the Twenty-First Century. The collection explores the ways popular genres engage with the history and literature of the Middle Ages, and with the very idea of ‘the medieval.’ What are the intersections of medievalism and genre in modern popular culture?

The questions chapters might ask include, but are not limited to: how genre conventions shape the use of medieval material and vice versa? In what ways do contemporary social, cultural and political issues intersect with the medieval in popular genres? How do authors approach the Middle Ages and medieval material? What is the role of audience expectations and beliefs? Is historical authenticity important, to whom does it matter, and how is it defined?

Chapters may focus on any popular genre, but contributions exploring romance, horror, mystery, science fiction and historical, westerns, cross-genre works or comparing genres are especially welcome. They may focus on works in any medium, e.g. fiction, film, television, graphic novels, and games, or consider multi- or transmedia medievalisms.  Chapters exploring fan communities, audiences, and adaptations are also welcome. They should focus on works first published in the twenty-first century, although series which began before that date could also be considered, as could comparisons of recent works with earlier publications.

Chapters will be 6,000 to 7,000 words, including all footnotes, references etc, with first drafts due 1st June 2014, and final versions on 1st October 2014. The volume will be offered to Cambria Press, which has expressed interest in seeing the manuscript proposal.

In the first instance, an abstract of approximately 300 words along with a brief CV should be sent to Helen.young@sydney.edu.au by 8th January, 2014. Any queries may be directed to the same address.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Tales After Tolkien Kalamazoo 2014

I'm organising a session for the Tales After Tolkien Society at the Kalamazoo International Conference on Medieval Studies, May 8-11th 2014. Here is the CFP.

The Real Genre Middle Ages
How does twenty-first century genre-literature engage with the history and literature of the Middle Ages? This session invites submissions which explore genre medievalisms from any angle. How do contemporary social and cultural trends and concerns intersect with the medieval in genre fiction? Are shifts within a genre or across genres discernable? How do genre conventions shape the use of medieval material and vice versa? Do modern works reflect medieval history or literature? How do authors approach the Middle Ages and medieval material? What roles do audiences and/or publishers play? How important the idea the a work reflects historical reality, and to whom does it matter? What is the role of research? These are just some of the questions papers might consider.

Papers addressing works first published in the twenty-first century, including ongoing series which may have begun earlier, are sought. They may address individual works or series, the corpus of any author or broad trends in any popular genre including, but not limited to: fantasy, science fiction, crime, westerns, children and young adult fiction, horror, historical fiction and cross-genre works.

The session is sponsored by the Tales After Tolkien Society www.talesaftertolkien.org which supports all scholarly work on medievalism in genre literature.  All submissions should be directed to Dr Helen Young via Helen.young@sydney.edu.au by 31st August 2013. They should conform to conferencepolicies and be accompanied by a Participant Information Form, available here,

Monday 10 June 2013

The Weekend's Reading

I read some interesting pieces this weekend. The LA Times had 'Beyond "Game of Thrones": Exploring diversity in speculative fiction'; the Guardian had a review of Australian SFF last week, and N/ K. Jemisin's guest of honour speech from Continuum 9 in Melbourne. I'm annoyed that I missed hearing the last of these, being in London not Australia at the moment. 
The Guardian piece doesn't sit immediately obviously with the others, although it does talk about how the SFF market is a little more open to Australian - as opposed to British or US authors - than it used to be, which is one kind of diversity. It mainly caught my eye because there has been quite a lot of discussion on the IAFA listserv this weekend about how to decide an author's nationality and if it matters for academic work. My take on the issue is that unless the argument you're making - or question you're asking - is directly to do with nationality, then it's probably either irrelevant or not the best category to be using. And it is central to the argument/question, then you should think - and write - carefully about the ideological implications of using 'nation' as a category are, and about where the labels attached to an authors come from. Who decided that x person - who might be born in one country, raised in another, and having their work published globally - is of y nationality? 
Jonathan Strahan, who runs the Coode Street podcast (nominated for a Hugo this year), is quoted in The Guardian article suggesting that Australian SFF is characters who are "alienated from landscapes – they see themselves and the places they come from as being outside the mainstream of events" and the impact of the colonial experience. This is the kind of argument that does make sense out of using nation as a way to group authors together so that you can compare work. The tendency towards alienation from the landscape has been part of non-indigenous Australian culture since colonisation. 

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Tales After Tolkien Society

It’s now almost a month since the Kalamazoo IMC, and an update on what were a couple of excellent ‘Tales After Tolkien’ sessions is long overdue. Thank you to everyone who was involved – giving papers, presiding, and turning up to be part of great discussion with the audience during question time! The panels went so well participants were keen to do it all again next year, so we’ve formed the ‘Tales After Tolkien Society’ to sponsor two (proposed) sessions and a round table. I sent off the proposal tot conference committee last week, so fingers crossed it all goes ahead as planned.

The sessions this year were focused around fantasy - with a little bit of science fiction thrown in - but the Society expands on that and is interested in medievalism in all kinds of popular genre fiction: fantasy, sci-fi, horror, westerns, romance, YA, children's, historical writing, crime and cross-genre work as well. The proposed sessions for next year's Kalamazoo will include speculative and non-speculative genres, so watch this space for full details.

See our website www.talesaftertolkien.org  for our mission statement – we have sights set on more than Kalamazoo 2014! The website exists through the efforts and generosity of Associate Professor Carol L. Robinson from Kent State University Trumbull, who was one our presiders and first suggested a society. There’ll be plenty of cross-posting between TAT and here, but if you’re interested in being a member and on our mailing list please contact me on Helen.young@sydney.edu.au

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Racist Discourses in Fantasy Fandom

Amid the usual flurry of other things – not least organising session proposals for the 2014 Kalamazoo IMC – I have been thinking about inclusion and exclusion and how they work in fandoms. It seems to me that being a fan is not the same as being part of a fan community, or that at the very least, being the former doesn’t guarantee membership of any given iteration of the latter. In Textual Poachers (1992), Henry Jenkins wrote about the conventions of interpretation common to fan communities, and those conventions have been shown to be the basis of identity work within those communities – reading the ‘right’ way means you are in (e.g. Bury 2005). I’ve been looking at the ways that discourses which exclude people from fan communities get attached to discussions of race and racism on westeros.org. When threads which raise problematic issues around race in either George Martin’s novels or HBO’s Game of Thrones are raised, community members tend to respond by challenging the fandom of the original poster using discourses that align very closely with those identified by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in his Racism Without Racists (2006). The eurocentricity of the fictional world is justified in a few main ways (in varying order):
1)    the personal choices of Martin as the creator of that world – the OP is constructed as not a real fan for criticising Martin’s choices.
2)    the monochrome Middle Ages argument which says that the works are based on medieval Europe which was populated by whites and that therefore only a majority white cast of characters should appear – the OP is not a real fan because s/he is more concerned with political correctness than the authenticity of the story.
3)    dismissed as unimportant without a reason, or on the basis that it’s made up and not ‘the real world’ – the OP is pathologized as an over-zealous, ‘rabid’ fan who cares too much.
4)    said to be non-existent – the OP is constructed as ignorant, or as having not paid enough attention to the text, and is, in either case, not a real fan because s/he lacks knowledge.

The first  and second fit very closely with Bonilla-Silva’s Abstract Liberalism framework which, he says, consists of “using ideas associated with political … [and] economic liberalism in abstract manners to explain racial matters” (28), “the idea of individual choice is used to defend whites’ right to live and associate primarily with whites” (36). This argument is used to justify writing and reading about whites and cultural heritage – the Middle Ages – which is identified as white. The second is a clear example the “Anything but Racism’ rhetorical strategy Bonilla-Silva identifies; history, rather than racism or exclusion, is used to explain eurocentricity. The third and fourth fit closely with the framework of Minimization. For Bonilla-Silva this “suggests discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities’ life chances” (29); on westeros.org, minimization suggests that the experience of the OP, or any who takes that perspective, is either not important, or not real.

Westeros.org is far from the only fan site where this happens – I’ve found very similar patterns in other fantasy fandoms, especially on forums for games like World of Warcraft and Dragon Age. I’ve written before about using Bonilla-Silva’s work to explore RaceFail 09 – a project that’s on the backburner right now but will come to the front later this year I hope. It’s not that there are no voices challenging eurocentricity as the default setting in fantasy and the racism that results, but the arguments are ongoing, and in some places they are being fiercely resisted.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. 2nd ed. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Bury, R. 2005. Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online. New York: Peter Lang.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Diverse Game Characters

While I catch up the great things that happened at Kalamazoo, here is a link to a video from GDC of Jill Murray talking about writing diverse characters in games. Some interesting insights into the process of writing race in games.