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

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Publication plans

Last week I was at the Cultural Studies Association of Australia annual conference, which is conveniently on my home campus in Sydney. As far as I can remember,  it was the first time I've been to a conference on my own campus in ten years of tertiary studies and work. I gave a paper about RaceFail 09, using Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's schemas from Racism without Racists to explore the dynamics of the blog posts and comments on them.
This week I've gone back to a conference paper I gave a few months ago to try to turn it into an article for publication. I went to a couple of research planning days given by my school earlier this year, and one of the things they talked about was how important it is to get the most out of each piece of work/writing you do. I realised that only one of my publications (articles and chapters) began life as a conference paper. I'm not sure how many conferences I've been to over the years but it's more than 20, and possibly more than 30. Even if I'd only converted 1 in 5 of those into a publication I'd had a much stronger track record. I like to think what I have is OK, but more wouldn't hurt.
There have been three main topics I've given paper on this year: representation of orcs/monsters (this includes my Shakespearean digression); the idea of an authentic Middle Ages in online discussions of fantasy racism; and the Racefail dynamics I mentioned before. The last one is still too nascent to be ready to write up properly, and may turn out to be a chapter in the book I'm planning, but I aim to have the other two sent off as articles by February (which is when my next conference is). I'm in a position at the moment where I don't have a lot of deadlines imposed on me from outside, so this is, in part at least, a challenge to myself. I've called life as a full-time researcher 'living the dream' before, and for me it really is.But I still have to make sure it heads in the right direction.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Radio guest spot

Last week I was part a radio show called "Common Knowledge" on the ABC's Radio National. It's about popular culture, and we talked about Tolkien and The Hobbit movie, and Tolkien's influence on fantasy. The podcast can be downloaded here: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/commonknowledge/
It's the show titled 'Soft Power and Tolkien's World,' and I'm on in the second part.

Monday, 26 November 2012

A post/human digression

This week is another departure for me – and one that’s related to what I posted about at the end of September. Tomorrow I am going to the ANZ Shakespeare Association conference in Perth, WA – it’s themed Shakespeare and Emotions. The paper I’m giving argues that Caliban offers an emotional template for the kind of monster used to work out/on post/human anxieties in fantasy. I compare Caliban with Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the truth may be that I really wanted to write a paper about the musical episode from Buffy). It’s not about the singing episode – although that would make for a very interesting paper at an emotions conference, one which I still hope to write. I talk about Spike’s emotions – and Caliban’s of course – as indicative of humanity. A monster that feels the right things stops being a monster and becomes more and more human the more it feels. Caliban mostly feels anger, and fear, but he also has that beautiful speech about the “thousand twangling instruments.” Can he be a monster (he’s called one more than 40 times in The Tempest, although never by Prospero) when he cries to dream again? Spike’s equivalent speech might be the one about people “walking around like billions of happy meals with legs” but the sentiment is, literally, the same: it’s love. Love for another person isn’t the point, although Spike of course feels that, it’s the feeling that matters not who inspires it, or what. The core of humanity in these texts is the ability to feel love.
Many fantasy texts work through post/human anxieties with this type of approach. I've also been thinking about the ways the dragons in Robin Hobb's Rain Wilds Chronicles slowly develop character and a particular kind of emotion. Science Fiction gets a most of the attention with its robots and cyborgs and hyper-ration Dr Spock and the rest, but fantasy offers a different perspective, one without that obvious overlay of technology. It engages with anxieties that existed long before modern technology made us worry about genetic manipulation and biotechnology and cybernetics and... and... and... I think what really interests me, and what is perhaps important to my bigger project as well as this paper, is that all the monsters which have become more humanised in fantasy over the past decade or more - vampires, orcs, werewolves etc - get closer to humanity, less threatening, when they are given not just agency or a backstory or a voice, but the right kind of feelings, love in particular.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

More Thoughts on Genre

With some interruptions, I’ve been working more on the conference paper I was putting together last week. Really what it’s about is the dynamics of Racefail 09 and many of the other debates around race that I’ve been working on this year. I see them as contests over the genre – and as reflecting similar situations in culture and society more broadly. Fantasy has a bad reputation for being racist. Like any generalisation that ignores the diversity of the texts and people who are part of the genre, but it also hasn’t come from nowhere. The World Fantasy Awards were announced recently. For the second year in a row the award for best novel went to an author who wasn’t a white man from the USA or UK: Lavie Tidhar, who is Israeli-born won for his novel Osama. Last year it went to Nnedi Okorafor, an American woman with Nigerian heritage, for Who Fears Death. The awards started in 1975 and have gone to white Anglophones 32 times by my count (I’m basing this on online photos and biographies of the winners so my sincere apologies if I’ve miscounted or misrepresented anyone – please let me know so I can correct this if I have). 26 times they were white Anglophone men. Patrick Suskind, born in Germany, won for Perfume in 1987, and Japanese author Haruki Murakami won in 2006 for Kafka on the Shore. I wonder if it’s significant that neither of those works was marketed as fantasy or would ever have graced the shelves of the fantasy/sci-fi section of a bookshop?
Fantasy texts, authors, publishers, marketers, critics, awards and audiences have a habit of whiteness (and I can’t exclude myself from that as my photo attests). It’s a habit that’s being broken more often in recent years than it was for a long time. Racefail 09 seems to me something like an intervention; habits can be addictions as well as traditions. The argument, the contest, is as much about defending long-held positions of privilege as much as anything else – sometimes by flat-out denying that they exist. That privilege is multi-dimensional, it’s not just about race or ethnicity or diversity (or lack of it). I’m suspicious of generalised claims that the internet has changed everything by making culture participatory, but it’s certainly added new dimensions to occurences like Racefail. Authors, editors, and publishes have historical been somewhat insulated from audience reactions, but blogs and fan forums and the rest change all that. The voices of intervention aren’t so easily marginalised or ignored. It’s time for fantasy studies to catch up with contemporary thinking on genre and recognise that ‘fantasy’ isn’t just a set of texts to be read and interpreted, but is also cultural systems, groups, individuals and their interactions.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Thinking About Genre

I’m currently working on a paper for the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia conference at the University of Sydney in early December. It’s partly an attempt to solidify, and articulate, some of the ways I’ve been thinking about fantasy as a genre in this project. Being from a literary studies background means I come to it from a perspective which depends very heavily on texts, and on critical theory about them. This is problematic – it’s widely acknowledged that fantasy is more tricky than most genres to define this way. Or at least that critics have struggled to do so, which isn’t necessarily the same thing. Right from the beginning of this project I knew that just doing textual analysis wasn’t going to be sufficient to really understand all the different ways in which race and fantasy intersect – I’ve always planned to talk to authors and fans and have spent a lot of time this year reading blog posts, fan forums etc.
Reading and thinking around fan studies has been useful for me lately. Even if fantasy fans haven’t been the subject of a major work (yet, it’s in my head for when the current project ends), science fiction fans have always been a significant topic. I’m thinking of Celia Bacon-Smith and John Tulloch here, although there are plenty of others. What I’m finding most helpful at the moment though, is work on popular music genres. Jason Toynbee’s term ‘genre-culture,’ from Making Popular Music (2000) offers a framework for thinking about genre as a process that is socially constructed, not a fixed category. Studies of popular music also tend to take into account or at least acknowledge the role played by marketing and publishers, as well as fans and artists. Literary critics of fantasy – even those who defend it – tend to make derisive comments about boy wizards and vampires and have little else to say about the mass-market side of things. And as Steven Erikson pointed out in the New York Review of Science Fiction earlier this year, scholars have a tendency to fixate on Tolkien, but there’s far more to the genre, even to genre fiction, than that. It seems likely to me that a disjunction between critical engagement and what’s actually being written and read, is one reason it’s so difficult to taxonomies fantasy. Form and content necessarily depend on what is written, published and read, particularly in a genre that is as popular as fantasy at the moment.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Worth the Trip

For the past two days I've been at the International Society for Studies in Medievalism conference in Canton, Ohio. By the time I get home I will have spent more time in transit between here and Sydney than I was actually at the conference, but I feel like it was worthy the trip. I've had a habit of jut missing major conferences that are themed perfectly for my work - and were important to it. I began my Phd on postcolonialism in Middle English romance a year or two late to go to a conference here in the USA on postcolonialism in the Middle Ages. The 2010 International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts was themed Race and Fantasy, and was just at the start of my thinking about my current project, before I'd put in my first funding application, let alone had the second succeed. The conference I've just been at was themed Medievalism(s) and Diversity. It would have been hard to come up with a theme that worked better with what I've been doing this year.
I gave a paper titled " 'Yo! It's the Middle Ages': Talking about Race in the Fantasy Genre." I looked at the ways fantasy fans claim that the 'real' Middle Ages (European of course) were exclusively white: no diversity (racial or any other kind) allowed. It's not a completely new theme for my work obviously, although in this paper I looked mainly at various thread on the Bioware Social Network. Dragon Age is an interesting example because the game has been both criticised for not having enough diversity, and praised for its inclusiveness and attempts to address themes around prejudice. If Bioware aimed to please everyone they failed (surprise), but they did get people talking (and flaming each other) about diversity - in terms of gender and sexuality as well as race - as well as privilege and the assumptions both players and the wider community make about fantasy RPGs and the their fans.
There were some really interesting parallels between what I was talking about and another paper in my session: Elizabeth Emery from Montclair State University speaking on 'Goblets, Tankards and the Green Fairy: Inclusion and Exclusion in the "Medieval" Cabarets of Belle Époque Paris.' Both then and now, the 'real' Middle Ages were constructed to suit the needs and desires of particular contemporary groups, in ways that often had little if anything to do with historical fact. The 'medieval' has been more about feeling than fact for centuries apparently.
I've come away from the conference with at least four different ideas for research and publication that I didn't have when I got here, which is the other reason it's been worth the trip. I'm just about to leave for the first flight in my journey home, oping I can remember any, or even all of them, by the time I get there.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Medievalism and Colonialism Revisited

In the past few days I’ve been revisiting a topic I’ve written on before: the connections – or lack of them – between medievalism and colonialism in fantasy. I’d originally thought it was a negative correlation, that works which explore and critique processes and practices of colonialism don’t, for various reasons, do it in conventionally medievalist settings. I’m giving a paper next week at Melbourne University and it’s made me rethinking this. In the paper I’m talking (briefly) about 5 works/ groups of work which have colonialism and its legacies as a theme: Terry Pratchett’s Nation; Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy; Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series (having grown up loving C. S. Forester and Anne McCaffrey I love this amalgam of the two); N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, and the Dragon Age game franchise (I read the narrative of elven slavery to humanity as distinctly linked to colonialism).

The first three are all set in analogues of the nineteenth century; Pratchett and Novik use Alternate Worlds and Hobb a secondary world that is very clearly and deliberately inspired by the heyday of European imperialism. Sailing ships and guns are the forefront of technology in these worlds, not swords and castles. All three engage with colonialism (I’m using this a an umbrella term, the details in each vary) as it’s happening, in the narrative present. The other two use pre-industrial worlds. Dragon Age has a reasonably conventional fantasy setting: ‘Europe in the Middle Ages’, while Jemisin’s is distinctly non-European and is more a fall of empire and the aftermath thereof than the conventional fantasy ‘epic struggle against evil.’ Both of these works are interested in the long-term social and cultural impacts of colonisation, and in both the actual process happened long ago. Even with pre-industrial settings, and a medievalist one at that, colonialism still can’t happen in the Middle Ages.

I think there’s more than one reason for this. For a start authors (and I include game-makers here) who are interested in social justice and critiquing European colonialism in any form are also, I’d suggest, more likely than others to shy away from cookie-cutter ‘sort of the Middle Ages’ settings – or not be drawn to them in the first place. Critiquing colonialism, or history at all, isn’t that common in a genre known for its nostalgic tendencies, and perhaps breaking one convention is connected to breaking others. But there’s more to it than that, and it goes back to something else I’ve written about before: the influence of Alternate History.

So far as I can tell there is, quite simply, no Alternate History story where the nexus event which changes the path of history happens before Columbus’ arrival in America in 1492. This implies that the Middle Ages are too far back, too different to today, for any change in the past to alter our present. The texts I’m talking about here are trying to imagine, or at the least imply, a more just future for their worlds, but the Middle Ages – fantastical or not – are too far removed for that implication to carry weight, so setting inspired by the more recent past are needed. This works for the pre-industrial settings as well. Both reference empires fallen from former glories, and the temptation is to read these are referring to the Roman Empire because of the pre-industrial present of the narratives. Both can just as easily invoke the British Empire, and the ways that both engage with contemporary issues stemming from that aspect of history suggests that they do. 

Sunday, 23 September 2012

A slight departure

I haven't blogged here much lately, but I'm not completely absent from the internet. Today I have a guest post "Caliban: On the Edge of Humanity" appearing at 'Performing Humanity,' an Early Modern blog. The post is about the humanity - or otherwise - of Caliban in The Tempest and the ways Shakespeare is influenced by medieval material. It's a departure from my usual time-periods, but is part of what I've been thinking about for a conference paper I'm giving at a conference on Shakespeare and Emotions in a couple of months. That paper will look at Caliban as an emotional model for hybrid figures in modern fantasy, not just in works that reference him explicitly like Tad William's Caliban, but more broadly. Hybrids are a staple of all kinds of fantasy - from Elrond Half-Elven in Lord of the Rings on - and Caliban with his combination of rage, fear, and love for his island with its "noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not" (The Tempest, III, 2, 148-9) is an literary antecedent for many of them.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Game of Thrones, Authenticity, and Mass-Production

Today I’ve been trying to write an abstract for a roundtable on Game of Thrones at a conference next year. It’s about the idea of authenticity, something I’ve written about before, but a topic which gets bigger and bigger every time I do. Fantasy is obviously not authentic in some ways – the whole point is that it’s not this world, or its history – and scholars of medievalism often aren’t interested in it for that reason. But consumers are, and producers are. It’s struck me that there are multiple layers of authenticity surrounding the novels in A Song of Ice and Fire, and the TV spin-off and all the other franchise material as well. Most of them are interconnected, and most of them have something to do with ‘the medieval’ if not the Middle Ages.

The writing process is constructed as authentic in contrast – or challenge – to the mass-market habits of a lot of genre fiction. George Martin writes at his own pace, sometimes to the incredible frustration of fans and no doubt his publishers, so the story seems to be told organically, rather than simply being churned out for the sake of best-seller after best-seller, all timed for release just before the Christmas sales rush or the summer-reading lists. Even the massive sales are constructed, at least in their origin story, as non-commercial. I’ve read a few different versions about how Martin struggled to find a publisher, how it the first novel was sold by independent bookshops and gained popularity by word-of-mouth. All of this creates an aura of authenticity in a world where big business drives consumer decisions about what is good, what is read, what is in.

None of this is immediately obviously connected to the Middle Ages, however, I think the fact that the books – and their spin-offs – are so closely linked to the pre-modern era is important. Whatever its origins were, the whole franchise is now a substantial part of popular, mass-produced modern contemporary culture. And in that culture, there is value in appearing to be outside it. Just think of all the ‘artisan bakeries’ and ‘traditional insert foodstuff here’; as a culture we are soaked in the constructed, the mass-produced, so we value things we think - or are told - are real, authentic. We’re prepared to pay more for them, but they also have symbolic meaning to us, and we often use them to create out own identities, whether it’s being the person who buys the artisan sourdough not the packet white bread form the supermarket, or whether it’s being a ‘real’ fan of a ‘real’ TV show. The medieval aura of Game of Thrones adds another dimension to those kinds of tendencies because the Middle Ages were by definition pre-modern, and therefore pre-mass-production.