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

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Tales After Tolkien: Medievalism and Genre in the Twenty-First Century

It's been an even longer break between posts that usual for me here. This is a very quick one to advertise a collection of essays on genre and medievalism I am editing. Here is the call for papers.

Contributions are sought for an edited collection titled Tales After Tolkien: Medievalism and Genre in the Twenty-First Century. The collection explores the ways popular genres engage with the history and literature of the Middle Ages, and with the very idea of ‘the medieval.’ What are the intersections of medievalism and genre in modern popular culture?

The questions chapters might ask include, but are not limited to: how genre conventions shape the use of medieval material and vice versa? In what ways do contemporary social, cultural and political issues intersect with the medieval in popular genres? How do authors approach the Middle Ages and medieval material? What is the role of audience expectations and beliefs? Is historical authenticity important, to whom does it matter, and how is it defined?

Chapters may focus on any popular genre, but contributions exploring romance, horror, mystery, science fiction and historical, westerns, cross-genre works or comparing genres are especially welcome. They may focus on works in any medium, e.g. fiction, film, television, graphic novels, and games, or consider multi- or transmedia medievalisms.  Chapters exploring fan communities, audiences, and adaptations are also welcome. They should focus on works first published in the twenty-first century, although series which began before that date could also be considered, as could comparisons of recent works with earlier publications.

Chapters will be 6,000 to 7,000 words, including all footnotes, references etc, with first drafts due 1st June 2014, and final versions on 1st October 2014. The volume will be offered to Cambria Press, which has expressed interest in seeing the manuscript proposal.

In the first instance, an abstract of approximately 300 words along with a brief CV should be sent to Helen.young@sydney.edu.au by 8th January, 2014. Any queries may be directed to the same address.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Tales After Tolkien Kalamazoo 2014

I'm organising a session for the Tales After Tolkien Society at the Kalamazoo International Conference on Medieval Studies, May 8-11th 2014. Here is the CFP.

The Real Genre Middle Ages
How does twenty-first century genre-literature engage with the history and literature of the Middle Ages? This session invites submissions which explore genre medievalisms from any angle. How do contemporary social and cultural trends and concerns intersect with the medieval in genre fiction? Are shifts within a genre or across genres discernable? How do genre conventions shape the use of medieval material and vice versa? Do modern works reflect medieval history or literature? How do authors approach the Middle Ages and medieval material? What roles do audiences and/or publishers play? How important the idea the a work reflects historical reality, and to whom does it matter? What is the role of research? These are just some of the questions papers might consider.

Papers addressing works first published in the twenty-first century, including ongoing series which may have begun earlier, are sought. They may address individual works or series, the corpus of any author or broad trends in any popular genre including, but not limited to: fantasy, science fiction, crime, westerns, children and young adult fiction, horror, historical fiction and cross-genre works.

The session is sponsored by the Tales After Tolkien Society www.talesaftertolkien.org which supports all scholarly work on medievalism in genre literature.  All submissions should be directed to Dr Helen Young via Helen.young@sydney.edu.au by 31st August 2013. They should conform to conferencepolicies and be accompanied by a Participant Information Form, available here,

Monday, 10 June 2013

The Weekend's Reading

I read some interesting pieces this weekend. The LA Times had 'Beyond "Game of Thrones": Exploring diversity in speculative fiction'; the Guardian had a review of Australian SFF last week, and N/ K. Jemisin's guest of honour speech from Continuum 9 in Melbourne. I'm annoyed that I missed hearing the last of these, being in London not Australia at the moment. 
The Guardian piece doesn't sit immediately obviously with the others, although it does talk about how the SFF market is a little more open to Australian - as opposed to British or US authors - than it used to be, which is one kind of diversity. It mainly caught my eye because there has been quite a lot of discussion on the IAFA listserv this weekend about how to decide an author's nationality and if it matters for academic work. My take on the issue is that unless the argument you're making - or question you're asking - is directly to do with nationality, then it's probably either irrelevant or not the best category to be using. And it is central to the argument/question, then you should think - and write - carefully about the ideological implications of using 'nation' as a category are, and about where the labels attached to an authors come from. Who decided that x person - who might be born in one country, raised in another, and having their work published globally - is of y nationality? 
Jonathan Strahan, who runs the Coode Street podcast (nominated for a Hugo this year), is quoted in The Guardian article suggesting that Australian SFF is characters who are "alienated from landscapes – they see themselves and the places they come from as being outside the mainstream of events" and the impact of the colonial experience. This is the kind of argument that does make sense out of using nation as a way to group authors together so that you can compare work. The tendency towards alienation from the landscape has been part of non-indigenous Australian culture since colonisation. 

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Tales After Tolkien Society

It’s now almost a month since the Kalamazoo IMC, and an update on what were a couple of excellent ‘Tales After Tolkien’ sessions is long overdue. Thank you to everyone who was involved – giving papers, presiding, and turning up to be part of great discussion with the audience during question time! The panels went so well participants were keen to do it all again next year, so we’ve formed the ‘Tales After Tolkien Society’ to sponsor two (proposed) sessions and a round table. I sent off the proposal tot conference committee last week, so fingers crossed it all goes ahead as planned.

The sessions this year were focused around fantasy - with a little bit of science fiction thrown in - but the Society expands on that and is interested in medievalism in all kinds of popular genre fiction: fantasy, sci-fi, horror, westerns, romance, YA, children's, historical writing, crime and cross-genre work as well. The proposed sessions for next year's Kalamazoo will include speculative and non-speculative genres, so watch this space for full details.

See our website www.talesaftertolkien.org  for our mission statement – we have sights set on more than Kalamazoo 2014! The website exists through the efforts and generosity of Associate Professor Carol L. Robinson from Kent State University Trumbull, who was one our presiders and first suggested a society. There’ll be plenty of cross-posting between TAT and here, but if you’re interested in being a member and on our mailing list please contact me on Helen.young@sydney.edu.au

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Racist Discourses in Fantasy Fandom

Amid the usual flurry of other things – not least organising session proposals for the 2014 Kalamazoo IMC – I have been thinking about inclusion and exclusion and how they work in fandoms. It seems to me that being a fan is not the same as being part of a fan community, or that at the very least, being the former doesn’t guarantee membership of any given iteration of the latter. In Textual Poachers (1992), Henry Jenkins wrote about the conventions of interpretation common to fan communities, and those conventions have been shown to be the basis of identity work within those communities – reading the ‘right’ way means you are in (e.g. Bury 2005). I’ve been looking at the ways that discourses which exclude people from fan communities get attached to discussions of race and racism on westeros.org. When threads which raise problematic issues around race in either George Martin’s novels or HBO’s Game of Thrones are raised, community members tend to respond by challenging the fandom of the original poster using discourses that align very closely with those identified by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in his Racism Without Racists (2006). The eurocentricity of the fictional world is justified in a few main ways (in varying order):
1)    the personal choices of Martin as the creator of that world – the OP is constructed as not a real fan for criticising Martin’s choices.
2)    the monochrome Middle Ages argument which says that the works are based on medieval Europe which was populated by whites and that therefore only a majority white cast of characters should appear – the OP is not a real fan because s/he is more concerned with political correctness than the authenticity of the story.
3)    dismissed as unimportant without a reason, or on the basis that it’s made up and not ‘the real world’ – the OP is pathologized as an over-zealous, ‘rabid’ fan who cares too much.
4)    said to be non-existent – the OP is constructed as ignorant, or as having not paid enough attention to the text, and is, in either case, not a real fan because s/he lacks knowledge.

The first  and second fit very closely with Bonilla-Silva’s Abstract Liberalism framework which, he says, consists of “using ideas associated with political … [and] economic liberalism in abstract manners to explain racial matters” (28), “the idea of individual choice is used to defend whites’ right to live and associate primarily with whites” (36). This argument is used to justify writing and reading about whites and cultural heritage – the Middle Ages – which is identified as white. The second is a clear example the “Anything but Racism’ rhetorical strategy Bonilla-Silva identifies; history, rather than racism or exclusion, is used to explain eurocentricity. The third and fourth fit closely with the framework of Minimization. For Bonilla-Silva this “suggests discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities’ life chances” (29); on westeros.org, minimization suggests that the experience of the OP, or any who takes that perspective, is either not important, or not real.

Westeros.org is far from the only fan site where this happens – I’ve found very similar patterns in other fantasy fandoms, especially on forums for games like World of Warcraft and Dragon Age. I’ve written before about using Bonilla-Silva’s work to explore RaceFail 09 – a project that’s on the backburner right now but will come to the front later this year I hope. It’s not that there are no voices challenging eurocentricity as the default setting in fantasy and the racism that results, but the arguments are ongoing, and in some places they are being fiercely resisted.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. 2nd ed. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Bury, R. 2005. Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online. New York: Peter Lang.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Diverse Game Characters

While I catch up the great things that happened at Kalamazoo, here is a link to a video from GDC of Jill Murray talking about writing diverse characters in games. Some interesting insights into the process of writing race in games.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Going to the (Kalama)zoo

In less than a week I'll be off to the Kalamazoo International Medieval Congress - my second visit. It's been a very busy lead-up in the month between when I got back from my last trip and now. I re-visited a couple of the Middle English romances I worked on in my thesis for an undergraduate course, which was great. Looking at Of Arthour and of Merlin and Guy of Warwick - both in the versions from the Auchinleck MS - was, I think, a challenge for the second-year students who hadn't read a lot of Middle English before, but they seemed very engaged. When I asked a couple who were whispering in the lecture if they had a question, it turned out the two of them were arguing about whether the translations of "hores stren" I'd put in my Powerpoint slide was correct. They were right that it was a loose translation not a literal one on my part. After not doing a lot of teaching last year as I was getting my research project really up and going, it's been great to get back into it. I'm also supervising a PhD project - on Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy and Frank Herbert's Dune - which is different to Middle English romance, but a lot closer to the research I'm doing now.

But Kalamazoo is on the horizon now - not quite literally until I'm on the Amtrak next week - but close enough. I'm really looking forward to it. There are the two panels I organised on "Tales After Tolkien," and all the panelists I don't know yet to meet, as well as some medievalism panels, the roundtable I'm in, and the general round of sociability that is Kalamazoo.

My paper, as they are often wont to do, has developed from what I originally had in mind. Perhaps evolved would be a better word. With some focus on my part, it will still fit the session though. I've been thinking a lot about medievalism, and neomedievalism, and if there are really differences that can be pinned down. And about what 'the Middle Ages' really means, not just to scholars, but in popular culture, and in which sections of popular culture. Is it the same to fans and authors and publishers and game-makers? Or to the different groups within those groups? The obvious answer is no, culture is just not that homogenous. But if that's the case, how can medieval references possibly be so powerful and omnipresent right now? If there aren't some core similarities, certain 'things' (and I really do lack a better word right now) that are common to all invocations of 'the medieval' wherever they occur and whoever uses them, how can those invocations have any meaning? 'The Middle Ages' is like any other linguistic sign - it can have multiple overlapping and sometimes contradictory meanings. But are there constant denotations among the connotations? Or vice versa? My paper at Kalamazoo (8:30am on Sunday morning for anyone attending) will try to answer these questions.

Medievalism - neo or otherwise - never happens just for its own sake. It's always attached to, or deployed in the service of, some other discourse. My research focuses on racial/ist discourses, but there are multiple, multiple others. Medievalism is so adaptable, and so are the Middle Ages.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Medieval and modern racisms

Right now I am in the middle of the first of two international conference and research trips I’m taking this year. My first stop was the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, a great event down in Orlando, Florida. My paper there worked through some aspects of fan medievalism and its links to racist and misogynist discourses around ‘Game of Thrones.’ It was interesting to test it out in a space where there are a lot of authors and fans, as well as the regular conference crop of academics. I got some interesting responses – and I use interesting in a genuine, not-euphemistic way.

The Popular Culture Association/ American Culture Association conference is my current stop, in Washington DC this year. It is huge by my standards – for you medievalists, the book/program is about twice the size of the one for Kalamazoo. My contribution to this behemoth of scholarship seems rather small, but is hopefully still a worthwhile one. It’s a paper that explores exploring how ‘race’ was constructed in Middle English romance – the popular culture of the Middle Ages – comparing and contrasting how ‘race’ as a category is represented in contemporary fantasy. The ICFA paper is about how whiteness is constructed as Self, but the PCA paper is about how non-whiteness of all kinds is constructed as Other. In the PCA paper I draw on work that’s been done in the past 10 years or so which challenges the long-held assumption that the Middle Ages used religion as opposed to race as the most significant framework to account for human difference. Geraldine Heng’s “race-religion” construct is, I think, a useful one because it foregrounds the interconnectedness of biology and culture in medieval thought (Heng, 2003). Modern race theory takes race as a concept based purely on biology. This is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy because by this definition, any approach which considers the concept to have any other dimension is not talking about race at all. Therefore, race is a feature of modernity, but one which can now be left behind because science has demonstrated that there is in fact no biological, genetic, empirical basis for it.

But race is no less real to people’s experience of the world because it is a social construct dependent on thoughts, actions, experiences and ideologies rather than biology. Medieval formations, Heng argues, overlapped race, religion, and nationality significantly; my paper argues that this is happening in contemporary times as well. It looks at how the ways orcs – conventionally a racialised Other – are constructed in fantasy from the past decade or so. Tolkien thought about where orcs came from, their culture, why they served evil and a lot more, but he didn’t write about it much in Lord of the Rings. The various imitations of them – the faceless hordes of evil’s footsoldiers – that featured in genre fantasy for decades, and still sometimes do, are monsters onto which social fears and racial hatreds were mapped. Although books like Stan Nicholl’s Orcs trilogy and Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals challenge many of the conventions significantly, they don’t explore orc culture in any depth at all. Games are more likely to do so, eg World of Warcraft and the like, but they still, as Tanner Higgin and Jessica Langer have shown, deploy biological constructs of race (Higgin, 2009; Langer, 2008). Even a recent game, Of Orcs and Men, which castes orcs as the good guys, a forest-dwelling indigenous-type people resisting the evil human empire  thinly disguised as the capitalist West does the same. My paper argues that works like these use a formation in which culture and biology overlap in ways that are very similar to those identified by Heng in her race-religion construct. I suggest that looking to broader definitions of race than just the now discredited race-as-biology formation constructed by Enlightenment pseudo-science will help us understand some of the dynamics of modern Western society better.

Heng, G. (2003). Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press.

Higgin, T. (2009). Blackless Fantasy. Games and Culture, 4(1), 3–26.

Langer, J. (2008). The Familiar and the Foreign: Playing (Post) Colonialism in World of Warcraft. In H. G. Corneliussen & J. W. Rettberg (Eds.), Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader (pp. 87–108). London: MIT Press.



Tuesday, 5 March 2013

TV interview

Here is the link to the TV interview I mentioned in my last post: "Racial Representation in Games" It was on Australian TV so may not work for anyone who's international.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Busy but absent

It's almost three months since I've posted here, which is FAR longer than I'd planned to be away. In my own defense, I haven't just been lying in a hammock the whole time. Among other things, I've been watching the Oscars, and writing about it. This piece on Quvenzhané Wallis, misogyny, and racism in Hollywood got quite a few people who rad it worked up, but that's part of the territory, and part of the point. I'll also be making my TV debut this week on the ABC (in Australia) as a talking head in a segment of racist stereotypes in video games on their Good Game program (link to follow when it's up).
Besides being good for my ego and (I hope) my career, doing these kinds of media things is important because they challenge people. Race and racism are topics that lots of people find really difficult and confronting to talk about, and if the comments on the piece I linked to above are anything to go by, some people don't always want me to talk about them either. But as academics we have a responsibility to engage with the world outside the pages of scholarly journals. Researching pipular culture means I have a responsibility to be part of it too. Which is one reason I am planning to post here more requently than I have been!