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

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.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Tales After Tolkien update

A quick update on the session I'm organising for next year's International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo. Professor Carol L. Robinson from Kent State University will be moderating. I've also extended the deadline for abstracts etc to 10th September to give people a little extra time.
My email was given incorrectly on the original listing on the conference website - the '.au' was missing from the end. It's now been fixed there, but just in case, the correct address is: helen.young@sydney.edu.au

Here are the full details:

[UPDATE] Tales After Tolkien: Medievalism and Twenty-First Century Fantasy Literature, Extension of deadline.

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

Organizer: Helen Young
Moderator: Carol L. Robinson
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, a brief biography, and a conference Participant Information Form (http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/congress/submissions/index.html) to the organizer, Dr Helen Young by Monday 10th September 2012. Abstracts etc are best emailed to Helen.young@sydney.edu.au.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Alternate History, Historical Fantasy, and Alternate Worlds

In some of my earlier posts I used the term ‘alternate history’ rather loosely. As a technical term, AH revolves “around the basic premise that some event in the past did not occur as we know it did, and thus the present has changed” (Hellekson, 2000, 247). It’s usually considered a science fiction genre, and, as Hellekson also points out “concerns itself with plausible relationships” (247). It also has, as Amy Ransom points out a “scientifical approach to mimesis”(Ransom, 2010, 260). Draconic intervention in the Napoleonic Wars – as in Naomi Novik’s books – doesn’t fit.
Magic, mythology and anything else outside the mundane world – except sometimes time travel – are outside the bounds of the genre.
AH extrapolates forward from a changed event, or series of events – a Nazi victory in World War II or victory by the South in the American Civil War are the most common divergences. Books like Novik’s extrapolate backwards from the present, asking what would have had to be historically different for the present to be altered. That they employ ‘the fantastic’ to do it doesn’t necessarily make the process less logical. As I said in my earlier post about Novik’s books, dragons make European militaries comparable with those of the rest of the world, resulting in much altered attempts at imperialism particularly in Africa, South America, and Australia. If AH asks ‘what if,’ Novik’s question is a ‘what would’ have altered the history of western expansionism around the globe.
Books that intertwine history with fantasy elements in various ratios and combinations are often, not very imaginatively, labelled Historical Fantasy – although this is more a term used by publishers and audiences than scholars. Novik’s Temeraire is currently at the top of the Goodreads Popular Historical Fantasy list, ahead of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. Guy Gavriel Kay features in the top 20, as does Diana Gabaldon, Cassandra Clare and George R.R. Martin. Historical Fantasy is really only useful as a very broad term – there are major differences between these works. Jo Walton’s article "What is historical fantasy?" on Tor.com is indicative of its very broad application as well (Walton, 2009). Moreover, scholars of fantasy don’t tend to define it, although they use it. There’s no definition in John Clute and John Grant’s The Encyclopedia of Fantasy for example (Clute & Grant, 1999).
Ransom offers Historical Fantasy as a term for works like Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan (which she invokes as an example) or Novik’s which differ from AH in that “more than one event and the plausible extrapolation of its consequences must be altered; rather everything must change” (275). I’d suggest that Historical Fantasy is a very problematic term to adopt from a critical standpoint because it is already used so widely, and in such varied ways, by publishers and audiences. John Clute lamented the tendency of publishers to mis-use ‘Epic Fantasy,’ saying that the term “has lost its usefulness” (Clute & Grant, 1999, 319), and this sort of problem is endemic in fantasy criticism – even in the difficulties of defining ‘fantasy’ itself. For Historical Fantasy to be critically useful, it would need to be disentangled from commercial and popular usage.
I would suggest that Alternate World has more potential to be useful in delineating fantasy which engages with (by altering) a specific aspect of the real world’s past, often although not always with the intent of critiquing both that past and the present. In the kinds of works I’m thinking of, something about the world is different – whether its sentient dragons or real magic or myriad other options – and this changes the course of history as we know it. This draws on the critical history of the term. Clute, drawing on Brian Stableford in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction offers this in his definition: “an alternate world is an account of our world as it might otherwise have been” (21). Clute excludes works like Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula because they intervene in and “violate” history, although as I haven’t read the book I’m not sure if I’d agree on that distinction (more on this at a later date). Alternate World resonates with AH in productive ways: it invokes the thought experiment questions that underpin AH, suggesting that an Alternate World is more than mere revisionism or nostalgia, and it can be used to separate out some of what it lumped together under the banner of Historical Fantasy.

Clute, J., & Grant, J. (1999). The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. London: Orbit.
Hellekson, K. (2000). Toward a Taxonomy of the Alternate History Genre, Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 41(3), 247–256.
Ransom, A. J. (2010). Warping Time: Alternate Histories, Historical Fantasy, and the Postmodern uchronie quebecoise. Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 51(2), 258–280.
Walton, J. (2009). What is historical fantasy? Tor.com. Retrieved August 2, 2012, from http://www.tor.com/blogs/2009/07/what-is-historical-fantasy-anyway