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

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.

1 comment:

  1. Without denying that there are racist tropes encoded in fantasy literature and the community which tends to create it (Niels Werber's "Geo- and Biopolitics of Middle-earth: A German Reading of Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings" in New Literary History 36.2 addresses the issue pointedly), it might be worth looking into what in "a white man from the USA or UK" prompts recourse to fantasy and science fiction and what socio-cultural/economic/political constructions among the many, many other groups in the world has tended to keep their works from the attention of science fiction and fantasy communities.