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

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.