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

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Barking on Goodreads

It might have been true once that on the internet no-one knows you’re a dog, but sometimes people make it their business to find out. Particularly if they don’t like what you’ve been barking. I’ve been following the controversy around supposed bullying on Goodreads on Twitter and various blogs in the past few days. Basically, a group of authors who didn’t like critical reviews of their work anonymously started a website, Stop the GR Bullies, which aggregated information about reviewers and warning readers that their reviews shouldn’t be trusted (a very sanitised description). I haven’t seen all the screen-shots, and it seems that quite a few posts have been taken down, so I don’t know the details of who said what and when. Foz Meadows has a good post about it here.
Most of the blogs I’ve read about it are along the lines of what John Scalzi had to say last week: “Bad Reviews: I Can HandleThem, and So Should You.”  The situation isn’t directly related to my research, but it reminded me a lot of RaceFail 09 with the ‘outing’ of anonymous users. It’s all about power: who is allowed to have a voice, and what they are allowed to say. And who decides. All those questions are connected to issues around race and gender and class. The social and cultural systems that privilege certain voices offline aren’t suddenly erased in the virtual world. Even on the internet, some dogs bark louder than others, and some get muzzled.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Research Ethics

It’s been a week of ethics, which is not always that same as an ethical week, but I would like to think it was both. I put in the first human ethics approval application I’ve ever had to do for my own research yesterday. Working on medieval literature where the authors have been dead for 700 years or so – and are mostly anonymous anyway meant that there were some things I just didn’t have to think about. But now I’m working on contemporary fiction, written by people who are (mostly) still alive there are new dimensions to consider. Interviewing authors, people who are public figures and have engaged with the issues I’m interested in either through their work or by commenting in public, officially comes under the category of “low risk.” If I weren’t planning to go overseas to do some of the interviews I wouldn’t have had to apply to my university Human Research Ethics Committee at all. It was a long and fiddly process (have I ticked ‘no’ in all the right boxes – are you secretly taking photographs of or recording subjects? No). 25 pages of form, plus attachments. It was also an interesting one in some ways because it started me thinking about research ethics more broadly.
For most of my academic life, ethics has been about issues like plagiarism, not about what and who get included in my research, and how. I’ve mentioned in earlier psts that part of my research is looking at fan-forums, blogs etc (Twitter is becoming a big part of it now as well) to find out what makes people talk about race in relation to fantasy texts, what they say, and how. In a project like this it’s very important to include the voices of people of colour, but one of the challenges is how to do it. And, on sites where almost everyone uses pseudonyms and doesn’t have information about their background or identity, it’s often impossible to know who is speaking. One of my research questions asks what information people will give about themselves in online conversations about a topic like, say, “Is [insert name of MMPORG] racist?”[1] So it is sometimes possible to know who has said what – people will quite often say something like “I’m Chinese and…” or “I’m African-American and…” or on the other hand “I’m a straight white male and…” Then there are blogs, which often give personal details. The important (an important) thing then is not assuming that one person of colour speaks for every person of colour. And not assuming that because someone is from a Chinese or Caribbean or Malaysian or Indigenous or any other minority background that they are only interested in ‘minority’ issues, or that their voice only has value when those topics are raised.
The second part of my week of ethics was a flyer in my inbox about an inter-university “Ethics and Human Research” seminar in Melbourne at the start of August. I’m hoping to get travel approval to go down for it. Social media research is such a new field – and it changes so quickly – that the sorts of ingrained assumptions about how to do ethical research that we now have aren’t necessarily sufficient. And the ideas many of us have about the web can be problematic too if we don’t think about them carefully. I read this article in The Economist a little while ago on how one of the problems with psychology research in universities is that it often relies on undergraduates participating in experiments for results – they tend to get course credits. As the article points out, this means that what gets defined as ‘normal’ tends to be young, white, people from middle-class, reasonably well educated backgrounds. Some researchers are now ‘crowd-sourcing’ their psychology surveys online in attempts to get a much more diverse sample. This makes a lot fo sense as far as it goes, but as with any internet research, its important to remember that not everyone has equal access to the internet, or to any given site.
I’ve taught the concept of ‘digital divide’ to undergraduates for years at more than one university, and it’s very difficult for people from educated western backgrounds to understand the concept. My students could grasp the idea, and accept that there were some parts of the world where internet access was not a given – “in the African desert” was a favourite – but struggled with the idea that it might be an issue in western countries, or that something like ethnicity might be a factor. They loved to say “anyone can write anything” on the internet, but had a lot of trouble with the idea that not everyone has access. And the concept that not everyone has equal power online was an even bigger struggle - I mentioned earlier that a lot of fan-forum discussions of racism get locked or taken down by site moderators. How do we, as researchers, taken into account these kinds of issues? I’m hoping that the seminar in Melbourne will help me figure out some answers.

[1] These kinds of topics tend to get locked if they are on the official websites of game publishers, but the dynamics of what’s locked and what’s not is another post.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Medievalism and Colonialism

I have been thinking about colonisation, medievalism, and fantasy all at once in the past couple of weeks. One of the things I’ve noticed is that fantasy stories that critique colonisation and imperialism very rarely do it in medievalist settings. Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik whose work I’ve mentioned in other posts don’t use them. Neither do Terry Pratchett in Nation or Snuff (which is in part about indigenous peoples), Nora K. Jemisin in her Inheritance trilogy, or (from memory) any of the authors in Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan’s So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. This is a quick, and definitely not exhaustive list. And there are a lot of people whose writing isn’t part of the western publishing genre that I’m working with.
Hobb, Pratchett, and Novik all use nineteenth-century-type worlds; the latter two creating alternate histories (in Nation for Pratchett, Snuff is a Discworld book). There’s some logic to this: the nineteenth century was the heyday of European imperialism around the globe, what better time to draw on for a critique of the practice? None of the works I’m thinking about – or have mentioned here, are Steampunk as such, but the discussions that have been going on around that sub-genre and its ability to critique and be transgressive are reasonably applicable. Like medievalism, Steampunk has been accused of having inherent racist nostalgic leanings – of yearning for a time of ‘white power’. And not without some justification. Although I won’t link to them, there are white supremacist web-forums which praise both for their supposedly monochrome visions. But Steampunk also has its defenders. Probably the most active is Jaymee ‘Jha’ Goh, a self-described steampunk postcolonialist who blogs here.
The decision not to use medievalist settings is uncommon enough to rate comment. Readers who reviewed Hobb’s Soldier Son books on Goodreads, for example, often commented on the unconventional setting. I wonder how much the use of non-medievalist setting to critique imperialism is a deliberate tactic on the part of the authors. Whether they turn to a ‘Victorianist’ setting or not, they certainly tend to turn away from medievalist conventions. Looking at my list of examples in the first paragraph, this probably isn’t surprising – none of those authors are genre hacks; most if not all are known for being unconventional. Even if none of them made conscious decisions to be non-medievalist, the settings are telling. They work against genre expectations on multiple levels. I’d really like to know if there are books out that use a medievalist setting but are significantly engaged in critiquing colonisalism.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Tales After Tolkien: Medievalism and Twenty-First Century Fantasy Literature

I am organizing a panel for the 2013 International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

CFP: Tales After Tolkien: Medievalism and Twenty-First Century Fantasy Literature

Panel at the International Medieval Congress, Kalamazoo. May 9-12, 2013 http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/congress/

For a work of contemporary fantasy literature to be compared with those of J. R. R. Tolkien can be either compliment or condemnation; the juxtaposition might suggest a major, original contribution to the genre or imply a work is merely derivative. Yet if Tolkien had one of the first words on fantasy and medievalism he did not have the last. Author Steven Erikson recently described himself and other writers of epic fantasy as “post-Tolkien” in The New York Review of Science Fiction and lamented the tendency of some scholars to not realise that “we’ve moved on.” This panel seeks papers which explore the ways in which twenty-first century fantasy literature deploys ‘the medieval’ with all its relics, forms and incarnations. Papers may or may not directly contrast and compare with Tolkien’s practice. The panel asks, for example, how contemporary trends in technology, society, politics, and culture intersect with and influence contemporary writers, readers, and critics in their re-imaginings of medieval material. Are there shifts in the genre as a whole? Tolkien drew largely on the European Middle Ages as do his imitators; is this changing as Eurocentric views become increasingly problematic and the world is ever more globalised? How do technological developments and the explosion of multi-media fantasy products including film, television and video-gaming engage with literature? How do representations of race, gender, and class intersect with medievalism in contemporary fantasy? Is the idea of an ‘authentic’ Middle Ages important? How do writers research the past and approach their sources? Papers which address these or any other topic related to the theme of the panel are invited. They might address short stories, novels, comics and graphic novels, series, authors and/or their oeuvres, or the genre as a whole, as well as adaptations for or from film, tv, gaming, and fandoms including fan-fiction.

Please send a 250-300 word abstract for a 20 minute paper, and a brief biography, to the organizer, Dr Helen Young by 1st September 2012. Abstracts are best emailed to Helen.young@sydney.edu.au but may also be posted to Helen Young, John Woolley Building A20, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.

Prolonged absence

Obviously I haven't posted in a while. Quite a while. I haven't been completely absent from the blogosphere though as I've been reading my way through the parts of the interwebs known as Racefail 09. Or sometimes Mammothfail. It's hard going partly because of outright offensiveness of some of it, partly because of the rage, partly because of the hurt, partly because of the posts taken down or locked away behind passwords. Putting it mildly - and as the name suggests - Racefail was a mass (network) of posts where some science fiction and fantasy writers, publishers and readers committed (and I use that word on purpose) epic fail when talking about race, and then by refusing to talk about it. Summaries - and there are no unbiased ones because such a thing is frankly impossible - here and here, although there are lots more out there. 
This episode of racefail was a fairly short discussion in the long history of SFF not engaging well, again putting it mildly, with non-white perspectives and experiences, although more than one person has suggested that it's led to some positive changes. Nora Jemisin's post here is one of the more detailed.
From my perspective as a researcher Racefail 09 is a very strong reminder that what I'm working on has some very real manifestations and implications. As far as I can tell no-one has written about Racefail 09 in an academic forum, perhaps because its so emotionally charged that even a veneer of scholarly objectivity is hard to maintain. Also, there is a lot of truly excellent meta-discussion, eg in the second summary I linked to above. And, of course, given that a lot of posts aren’t available anymore, it would be hard to be comprehensive. But I don’t think any of these are a reason not to try. I don’t have a plan for how to do this in detail – a book chapter or article or even a whole book. But it’s a major part of the world(s) I’m working on, and is relevant in so many ways to what my project is about. Including the article I’m currently trying to write on some quite recent fantasy engagements with colonialism and imperialism. Naomi Novik’s work that I wrote about way back when will come into that article (and Novik made a well received if brief contribution to Racefail), but at the moment I'm working on Robin Hobb's Soldier Son trilogy which is an interesting and sustained critique of colonisation and imperialism.