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June 4, 2012 8:31 AM   Subscribe

"It’s Amazing the Things We Know, That Are Actually Wrong” by Kate Elliott [A Dribble of Ink] Fantasy write Kate Elliott on the subject of diversity.
posted by Fizz (85 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Like that comma?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:44 AM on June 4, 2012 [25 favorites]


I have no idea what she is trying to say in the essay.
posted by empath at 8:48 AM on June 4, 2012 [17 favorites]


Me either. One of the things that she knows that are wrong seems to be that she knows how to make a point.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:53 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I can't tell if she's saying there doesn't need to be diversity because the very idea of diversity is a Western construction and it'd usually be used to make white people feel better/exposed to different minorities and that doesn't make sense in a fantasy environment that isn't based on Western/European history. Or if she's just speaking out against tokenism.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:54 AM on June 4, 2012


I think she's saying: Write with more diversity, not to make people think in terms of a diverse world, but to show that you already do.
posted by rebent at 8:54 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think she's saying Joseph Campbell didn't care about diversity.
posted by The otter lady at 8:56 AM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think I sort of understand the intention, I just couldn’t follow the words. I’m glad it wasn’t just me.
posted by bongo_x at 8:57 AM on June 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


"an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency adventure fantasy"
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 8:58 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think this sums up her point:
Kate Elliott is the author of the Spiritwalker Trilogy, an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency adventure fantasy with swords, sharks, and lawyer dinosaurs.
posted by fatbird at 8:59 AM on June 4, 2012 [10 favorites]


I hate you, Premises.
posted by fatbird at 8:59 AM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


I kind of think she's saying that diverse writing comes from assumptions you make about the world (i.e., women were or weren't great composers) rather than something you sprinkle in to liven up your default white male world.

Which is worth saying, but she certainly did not say it clearly. So much so that I'm not even certain that's what she meant, I'm extrapolating from her one relevant anecdote.

So in summary, diversity needs to come from your basic assumptions about the world, and some writers really need editors.
posted by emjaybee at 8:59 AM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Whatever her point, she turned me off instantly by using that gratuitous and condescending "we." I readily admit to being ignorant in a wide variety of fields. There's no cause for her to assume that her areas of ignorance are also my areas of ignorance.
posted by Longtime Listener at 9:00 AM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


I probably agree with what she's saying, and I probably have things to learn from what she's saying, but she's a writer, and if her books communicate with similar precision and eloquence as this article, I'll pass on those thanks.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:13 AM on June 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


Boy, I will never get tired of listening to my fellow white people explain to me how all the rest of the white people are do being an enlightened white person wrong. I wish this article had led with the fact that it was by an author of "Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency adventure fantasy with swords, sharks, and lawyer dinosaurs" so I could have stopped reading it before I started.
posted by nanojath at 9:14 AM on June 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


"are do being"? Ugh, high ground lost.
posted by nanojath at 9:15 AM on June 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


There's no cause for her to assume that her areas of ignorance are also my areas of ignorance.

She didn't. She assumed, that you like her, and pretty much everyone else on the planet has some assumptions about the world that you think are true, but if you investigated them, you would find out that they are wrong. She did not say that everyone had the exact same incorrect assumptions that she did.

I, also, got lost, but I think she was saying "If you want to write more diverse books, then you need to question your assumptions about how the world works/worked as you undoubtedly have some false assumptions."
posted by nooneyouknow at 9:16 AM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


She's trolling, right? This is like the Sokal Hoax but directed at the participants of racefail '09?
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 9:17 AM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Writers! All of your choices about diversity are conditioned by that initial choice to write in English instead of, oh, Ifara-Mele.
posted by jfuller at 9:24 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think she made that point, about English, in there somewhere. I'm not going back to look again.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:25 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I had trouble understanding the essay; it's got the same meandering, each sentence makes sense but the whole argument doesn't mesh problem I've seen in a number of essays on cultural criticism on the web. I think it's that they have good ideas, but are not thinking about a web post as an essay which needs the same careful planning that any story or novel does.

But Kate Elliott's SF and Fantasy is amazing - and she deserves to be more famous than she is (as good as Robin Hobb, better than GRR Martin). Her Jaran series is one of the most thoughtful SF I've ever read, and her Crown of Stars is at once working in the tradition but also pushing the barriers of epic fantasy. I'll happily seek out her latest work.
posted by jb at 9:35 AM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Her last paragraph seems to be her main point:

Stories reveal something of what aspects of the world are visible to us and who and what we deem important. That is why I believe it is such a simple but profound act to truly stop and think through—and then think beyond—the foundational assumptions out of which one creates a narrative.
posted by nooneyouknow at 9:36 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, I've had the shit confused out of me, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

Also:

an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency adventure fantasy with swords, sharks, and lawyer dinosaurs

Oh. Oh, Lord.
posted by magstheaxe at 9:42 AM on June 4, 2012


POC = people of color.

POCs = people of colors?
posted by eyeballkid at 9:43 AM on June 4, 2012


POCs = people of colors?

It's an awkward/incorrect acronym once pluralized like that, but the alternative would be: PsOC, which is even more awkward.
posted by asnider at 9:46 AM on June 4, 2012


It's an awkward/incorrect acronym once pluralized like that, but the alternative would be: PsOC, which is even more awkward.

Not sure "people" needs to be pluralized.

But Kate Elliott's SF and Fantasy is amazing - and she deserves to be more famous than she is (as good as Robin Hobb, better than GRR Martin). Her Jaran series is one of the most thoughtful SF I've ever read, and her Crown of Stars is at once working in the tradition but also pushing the barriers of epic fantasy. I'll happily seek out her latest work.

Good to know. I see her books all the time, never picked one up. Guess I'll grab some Kindle samples today.
posted by eyeballkid at 9:49 AM on June 4, 2012


As for the issue of diversity in fantasy: as a genre, traditional fantasy is strongly influenced by European fairy tales, and authors like Tolkien and Fritz Leiber (and his sword and sorcery stories). The settings for all of these are a pseudo-medieval northern Europe. We don't even see that much fantasy set in a southern European flavoured settings - though there are wonderful exceptions (GG Kay's Tigana and many other novels, Bujold's Curse of Chalion and followups, and the fantastic Golden Key by Jennifer Roberson, Melanie Rawn), and Kate Elliott.

I have long read and loved books set in non-European settings, but I think we have to acknowledge that in the case of fantasy, "write what you know" is "write what you have read" - and contemporary fantasy writers and fantasy fans have long been steeped in a pseudo-northern European setting. (though it's funny that the more actual European history you do, the more some of the fantasy conventions seem very pseudo).

I would love to see more diversity in my fantasy and SF. I have adored books like Bridge of Birds (need to read the sequels) and Wild Seed (by Octavia Butler); as a child, I happily devoured historical novels set in China, Japan, Burma and India. (and I've bookmarked AskMetafilter this thread).

But I think that more productive than lambasting our existing corpus of fantasy would be for writers to simply write fantasy that has that diversity they (and many of their readers) want to see -- and for those in the industry with good recognition to work together to actively promote new authors working in new settings.
posted by jb at 9:51 AM on June 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


Diversity in "fantasy" is actually something I have been thinking quite a bit about lately what with GOT and the associated cultural fallout... Perhaps as a result I am much more sympathetic to this post than many of those who have already commented. What I see in Kate's post is an intense frustration about the way in which "we" the "english speaking" sf/f world depict any culture which is not our own.

But - let's not beat around the bush - for a novelist the prose of the OP is pretty horrible... Not only is it hard to read but anyone who uses phrases like "cultural hegemony" when I can read bestselling and acclaimed translations of César Aira, Haruki Murakami and Juli Zeh- too name 3 in my local bookshop - is not reading enough non-english sf/f fiction...

But terrible blogposts full of hyperbole won't fix the problem she is arguing against... And I don't mean to be rude but a novelist who thinks: Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency adventure fantasy with swords, sharks, and lawyer dinosaurs is a good blurb? We don't need a "white saviour novelist complex" to add to all the others!
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 9:51 AM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


There are way too fucking many lawyer dinosaurs in fantasy literature already.
posted by drlith at 9:57 AM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency adventure fantasy with swords, sharks, and lawyer dinosaurs



...Conall Mamadou Mac Diouf eyed his potential opponent across the oaken table laden with smoked reindeer, gravlax, hákarl, cheeses, and great stacks of circular flatbread. Lifting his mead horn to his lips with one hand, he slowly dropped his other, his fingers brushing the assegai at his side. He felt a small clawed hand on his shoulder, and looked up into the gleaming teeth of Marius Gabangaye. "Conall Mac Diouf," the Eoabelisaur said in a rumbling basso voice, his grin radiating around the longhouse, "as your lawyer, I would advise caution in this matter."
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:58 AM on June 4, 2012 [46 favorites]


as good as Robin Hobb, better than GRR Martin

Talk about damning with faint praise.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:01 AM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


So.... where do we find some good English translations of Wuxia?
posted by b1tr0t at 10:12 AM on June 4, 2012


Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency adventure fantasy with swords, sharks, and lawyer dinosaurs is a meme
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:13 AM on June 4, 2012


an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency adventure fantasy with swords, sharks, and lawyer dinosaurs

Oh. Oh, Lord.


Oh come on. This is awesome. Lawyer dinosaurs!
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:13 AM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


She lost me at that comma.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:14 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


And yet my story about the time traveling ghost of a robotic boxer who possesses an apprentice ninja languishes in the slush pile!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:15 AM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


This may be the best worst SL FPP in Metafilter history.

Bravo, Fizz?
posted by IAmBroom at 10:22 AM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have no idea what she is trying to say in the essay.

She means the way we represent the typical Eurocentric, only white wealthy people exist, lets glorify strength of arms and damsels to be subjected to use as rewards or scenery fantasy fiction cannot be solved just be gluing brown, female or gay people on top of our assumption of how the world works, and for that matter that the view we have on How Things Were is a cultural construct not aware of the fact that Great White Europe is not a monolith, or for that matter all that white in the southern bits with Moors in, indeed various bits of Europe would be less than impressed to be treated like they lived in ye olde medieval theme park.

The essay doesn't touch on the problem of adding diversity but making the diversity the big point of the story, for example the 'exceptional woman' tale where just one woman is able to overcome immense gender biases and be a knight/mage/doctor/king/whatever or the whole habit of inserting an 'exotic' ethnicity with all the problems calling someone with more melanin than a northern inclined ethnicity strange. Real Europe has always been a busy soup of people of all orientations and genders doing stuff, and much of the time quite convinced of the differences and diversity inherent even between distant enough villages, the isolation involved allowing problems in language comprehension in which are now countries smaller than some American states.


I think she was drawing the example of an absence of female composers in people's perception of reaity because she wanted to remind us that Eurocentric stuff is plenty stuffed with diversity too, and that dismissing whitepeopleland as a setting just full of white dudes in castles perpetuates the idea that the past only had white powerful dudes in it. She is advocating mining every setting to its full potential rather than letting the "yaye, dudes in castles!" crowd win.
posted by Phalene at 10:23 AM on June 4, 2012 [10 favorites]


When I was in college, I remember being told by a guy that there were no women composers before the 20th century.

I guess the best way to refute such a claim would be to ... actually name a few women composers. FWIW, randomly clicking a few does indeed reveal that there were only few before the 20th century, but somehow I don't find that very surprising. I was aware of Fanny Mendelssohn, though.

The invisibility of women as well as his ignorance and dismissal of any musical tradition outside of Western Classical Music constituted part of his world view.

And I suppose that "what must not be true, cannot be true" constitutes part of the author's world view.
posted by sour cream at 10:23 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's an awkward/incorrect acronym once pluralized like that, but the alternative would be: PsOC, which is even more awkward.

Not sure "people" needs to be pluralized.


Kind of a derail, but as someone who works with way too many acronyms in my daily life, I've found that the sane way to think about acronyms is to completely divorce their syntactical context from the syntactical context of the individual words that created them. So saying "America's AT&T telephone company is one of the world's largest" is not redundant in my mind, because AT&T is not the same thing as the phrase American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Following the rules as if the acronym is always unpacked automatically by someone reading the text is not really reasonable because in many cases people just read an acronym as the acronym itself.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:25 AM on June 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


Or just write the freakin words out and don’t use so many acronyms.
posted by bongo_x at 10:27 AM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dude, folks, this is a really smart essay. It actually says one totally new-to-me thing and one very useful thing (which I think is sort of relevant since I've been following all this stuff since before Racefail 2008).

She quotes and expands upon the idea that "diversity" is basically the idea that it is useful to white folks to see some POC in their fiction - like, I don't go to Nalo Hopkinson and say that she should write more white people, I don't go to Nnedi Okorafor and tell her that she needs to inject some white people into her stories set in Nigeria. More, I don't expect Nnedi Okorafor to think to herself, "it would be morally valuable for me to insist on white folks in science fiction stories!".

In a sense, when you're talking about the value of diversity you've already accepted the idea that the audience is white folks, and that the existing stories are mostly white already. You're not talking to POC writers or readers. This is unconscious, and as a white person I can say that it's a really common mental trap - you're white, you imagine yourself speaking mostly to white folks.

And implicit in that is the idea that white folks treat 'diversity' as a moral imperative rather than an emotional or lived imperative.

You can believe in a casual way that white folks should read more authors of color; you can even act on it in a casual way. But that's different from deeply believing it and feeling it and being mobilized by deep, visceral belief - like you might if people run down your favorite author because her characters of color aren't "universal" enough, or if your friend the writer can't seen to get her stories published if they're set in the inner city or something.

So then she goes on to say that when we write diversity, we have to get our heads right or it ends up being tacked-on details (or tokenization, we also call it), and the way we get our heads right is to learn to see the world anew. If you don't really, viscerally get that people of color are real, full human beings and readers and writers and that they exist in the world all around you even if you're not paying attention, you're going to be like "oh, I would like to include a black character!! But how? I don't know, maybe the main character's best friend could be black....and also sassy!" You'll write gay male characters who have no gay male community. Women characters who have no women friends and fail the Bechdel test. You'll miss the political logic of your own stories.

The point is, to write "diversity" you have to open yourself up and pay attention to the world, instead of walling it out.*

*IMO, white folks learn unconsciously from childhood on to wall a lot of stuff out because otherwise we would be less willing to be complicit with racism. Part of not being complicit is to be open to the pain and reality of the world.
posted by Frowner at 10:32 AM on June 4, 2012 [34 favorites]


Phalene, your comment was far more coherent than her essay. You should maybe think about writing a scifi novel.
posted by empath at 10:35 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Frowner, your comment was far more coherent than her essay. You should maybe think about writing a scifi novel.
posted by nooneyouknow at 10:42 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think Frowner's take is right. The reason for the confusion may be the massive difference in scale between the means and end. The end is to write more diverse fantasy stories. The means, in essence, is to become a more sensitive and open-minded person who has greater awareness of the diversity of humanity. That's a pretty tall order for someone who doesn't "get it" already -- and it is such a laudable goal in itself that characterizing it as a means to writing more inclusive fantasy books seems incongruous.
posted by brain_drain at 10:44 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nothing against diversity, but that essay was not very well-written.

I think her point was that you shouldn't write stories that are non-diverse or "about" diversity, but rather that your stories should be organically diverse in a way that doesn't put beads of sweat on your brow. You should either explore the diversity that was present even in those eras which we deem to have been wholly dominated by white men, or you should just plain make up a society where diversity is just a given and not some foreign concept. Even stories about minorities proving themselves against stodgy old cultures can be problematic, as they still Otherize minority characters, show that symbols of the patriarchy are that which represent strength, and reinforce the patriarchy as the natural status quo.

A story where our social order is not the patriarchy as we recognize it might be harder to concoct, but it might also be more worth it in the long run, especially if you think diversity in and of itself is an important feature to have in storytelling.

If this is what she's saying, then I basically agree with it wholeheartedly.

She seems to be saying that, even in fantasy lands that are mostly drawn from an idealized version of Late Middle Age Europe, you should be paying attention to how women and people of color had had active roles even in those societies. This isn't a bad point, but it seems awfully limited and self-contradicting. The fact is, generally speaking, women did not have a very active role in that era, at least not officially, so your choices are to either make your fantasy land more equal in that respect, or to have your female characters be those exceptions and not the rule.

This is why her remark about female composers seems out of place and somewhat self-contradictory. While her friend was wrong that there were "no" female composers before the 20th century, he was right in the limited sense that there were very few female composers before then. (I like Hildegard von Bingen, but that's the only one I could have named off the top of my head.)

She herself is correct that there were undoubtedly female composers before then, but to deal with those composers, we still have to deal with how they were the exception, not the rule, and not merely due to the fact that we're not talking about these women after the fact. The sweeping majority of women at the time did not have the social and economic ability to pursue musical composition as a career.

As for people of color in the Late Middle Ages, that can backfire as well. Of course the West generally undersells the importance that of the Moors and everyone else, but it's probably not a hot idea to base your diverse fantasy land solely on ethnic divisions that once existed in a certain place and time, especially since those divisions were often hostile. For your own writing, you can either just make stuff up...or, and this means more homework, read up on how other societies have handled diversity through the ages, and from there see what you like or don't like from those histories.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:53 AM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Mark Twain covered this a long time ago:

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you in trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:55 AM on June 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


From what I gathered from the essay, she's saying that many people complain that the addition of diversity in the sci-fi/fantasy worlds isn't realistic because of their cultural baggage. To say that there would not be strong female characters or POC in Middle Ages derived fantasy world because there were no strong independent female or POC at that time is a huge mistake. She is encouraging both writers and readers to think beyond the limitation of what might be "realistic" and include characters that show a broader spectrum of human experience.

I think.

And I agree. One of the more annoying issue I have with a large number of fans in science fiction, fantasy, and the comic book realms is that they can buy into the idea of flying dragons, wizards, space ships, monsters, and superheroes but they are incapable of accepting a black character that is not distinctly racialized, or a female character that goes against norms. The crazypants backlash against the character Rue in the Hunger Games movie is prime example of this. Apparently many fans didn't realize while reading that the character was dark skinned, because she didn't "act black" and therefore when the movie came out they were convinced her casting was merely a PC move.
posted by teleri025 at 11:32 AM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


The fact is, generally speaking, women did not have a very active role in that era, at least not officially, so your choices are to either make your fantasy land more equal in that respect, or to have your female characters be those exceptions and not the rule.

Women did have an incredibly active role in that era -- but not a PUBLICALLY active role. If you are writing about a knight, what about his lady who has to organize the whole productive household? If you are writing about court politics, why not the Queen and her ladies and all the machinations that took place out of the sight of men?

In the middle ages, women spun, wove, brewed, harvested, weeded, and also ran businesses, estates, convents. Ken Follett's World without End (set in 1327-1360-ish) has four main characters - two men, two women - and the women are arguably more important than the men (a serf and a merchant's daughter/nun respectively). Both are depicted as remarkable, but in the way that they worked within traditional roles.

But if you want to write about women in historical eras, you have to do a lot of research on the lives of women and construct plots that are centred in a woman's world. Quest-novels aren't going to work, but novels of survival, families, relationships -- these were all big parts of women's lives. Women dressing as men to join the army/find a job/travel safely also happened in the middle ages and early modern -- we have fascinating historical evidence of this. It just was usually much more mundane than as depicted in fiction.

Of course, fantasy exists as NOT-historical for a reason, so you can write stories about women becoming knights and changing their worlds, because it is fantasy. And the best of this genre talks about what it means to be exceptional and what impact this would have on non-exceptional women.

-----------

back to the diversity thing: yes, I think that diverse fantasy fiction needs to go into non-European culture, rather than just shoe-horn POC into existing European worlds. I'm curious about talking about non-white medieval European populations -- they would be important in southern Europe, but very small in northern Europe before the 16th century.

But I think it would be more interesting to me to read fantasy set in pre-modern Africa, Asia or the Americas, in which the majority culture were non-European and in which the fiction is imbued in the myths and magic of another place.
posted by jb at 11:37 AM on June 4, 2012 [9 favorites]


Thank you, Phalene and Frowner, for distilling the message down to where I could read it and grasp the point Elliott was trying to make. I think the point that diversity in a fantasy novel shouldn't exist for its own sake or to fulfill a moral obligation, but just as an organic part of the story (like flour, eggs, and sugar are all organic parts of a cake). And that involves being open and curious and seeing how people really are, not how you think they would or should be.

Too bad the original essay is so jargon-filled and garbled that the message gets lost while trying to figure out what the writer is trying to say. I don't want to shoot the message because the messenger talks with a mouthful of marbles.

I would love to read, for instance, a fantasy series along the lines of "A Song of Ice and Fire" but with gender-egalitarian underpinnings - just for instance. And fantasy/alternate history give much more freedom to explore (What if the Vikings and the Iroquois became allies, intermarried and borrowed from each other's societies to create a culture of their very own?). I don't think there is any kind of moral imperative or obligation to stick in non-white or gay (for example) characters just for their own sake; I do want to see writers who are open and curious and write interesting, believable, and, yes, diverse worlds to explore.

On preview - what Teleri said about how dragons and spaceships are more easily accepted than women or persons of color who don't act "the way they should" (the way the reader thinks things ought to be). Readers need openness and curiosity, too.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:37 AM on June 4, 2012


I hate to break it to her, but Ursula K. Le Guin has been writing Science Fiction and Fantasy novels along these lines since before Kate Elliott was born.

Le Guin's approach works especially well, because it's not preachy. When asked about it, she usually offers a noncommittal response along the lines of "Statistically speaking, humans tend to not be white, so that's why my characters aren't white by default." I think this passive and silent acknowledgement of diversity is going to be significantly more effective than preachy articles such as the OP (even though I think that this may have been part of her point). Honestly, it will be a big deal if we simply just acknowledge that nonwhite/nonhetero/etc characters exist, without making a big deal about it. Otherwise, your book starts to sound like an afterschool special.

Le Guin also took the time to properly craft a unique and believable fantasy world, rather than creating a ridiculous mashup of unrelated historic themes and current popular tropes, as the author of the OP did (she describes her book as "an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency adventure fantasy.")
posted by schmod at 11:40 AM on June 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


I think Martin's point in having gender-inequality was to highlight that gender inequality is just about universal in Eurasian pre-modern cultures - and gender division in roles is universal in all pre-modern societies. Further more, in the early to high middle ages, political power was closely tied to the ability to personally control violence. The strong queens of the 16th century may not have been able to gain or hold a throne in c1000-1200, when the king still headed his own army (though Maud did try). I don't think that was a failure of imagination, in his case, but a conscious choice.

I did start reading a similarly pre-modern novel in which a woman went to war - openly as a woman. But I ended up putting it down because I did find it unrealistic: female soldiers today have serious problems with sexual harassment and assault, and I suppose I had been reading too much history to find her acceptance believable. You can't just shoe-horn gender equality into a pre-modern culture, you have to re-think the culture from the ground up. For example, you could chose to make a culture matrilineal (as with Iroquoian cultures) -- Bujold borrows on this for the Lakewalkers in her Sharing Knife series. And yet women are still not the primary warriors, as they are the ones who get pregnant -- so they appear as elders and healers, but not often as commanders (until their menopause years).
posted by jb at 11:47 AM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


On the subject of LeGuin, her father (Alfred Kroeber) was a noted anthropologist, so she had that advantage when she created her (yes, well-crafted and believable) stories. I wonder how many fantasy and/or alternate history novelists have studied anthropology? LeGuin's anthropological background was a tremendous asset to her storytelling, IMO.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:49 AM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Women did have an incredibly active role in that era -- but not a PUBLICALLY active role. If you are writing about a knight, what about his lady who has to organize the whole productive household? If you are writing about court politics, why not the Queen and her ladies and all the machinations that took place out of the sight of men?

That's exactly why I said "at least, not officially." If you're able to write your story about how women were able to exert influence in the roles that they had, then that's great, but much of the stock and trade of high fantasy is more in the derring-do mode, some excellent exceptions notwithstanding.

Many of the less-excellent stories about women in either that era or a fantasy land based on that era often idealize the passivity, manipulativeness, and other stereotypically feminine qualities that women were forced to adopt in that time period. Even stories that ostensibly criticize this social order often wind up reinforcing it nonetheless.

While there's nothing inherently wrong with stories like that, it is unduly limiting to only conceive of story universes where women must act in this way. Queens aren't uncommon in fantasy stories - we don't really have a Queen shortage - but why can't the monarch's advisor or chief wizard or seneschal or whoever just be a woman, and have that be that? Women would generally not have held such positions in Late Middle Age Europe, but this is why it's all the more important to unshackle ourselves from that era.

I did start reading a similarly pre-modern novel in which a woman went to war - openly as a woman. But I ended up putting it down because I did find it unrealistic: female soldiers today have serious problems with sexual harassment and assault, and I suppose I had been reading too much history to find her acceptance believable. You can't just shoe-horn gender equality into a pre-modern culture, you have to re-think the culture from the ground up.

This is a very good point, and again, I think it goes to the broader point that we shouldn't just keep returning the same cultural wells in order to derive our fantasy worlds.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:51 AM on June 4, 2012


The fact is, generally speaking, women did not have a very active role in that era, at least not officially, so your choices are to either make your fantasy land more equal in that respect, or to have your female characters be those exceptions and not the rule.

Because god forbid we have magical lands that are based on an imaginary history of a fake Europe that have magic and dragons and fairies but also gender equality. That would be weird. How can I possibly suspend disbelief that much?

I know we all have our issues where we cannot suspend disbelief. I can't do it with the financial system in Harry Potter. Other people had issues with the viscosity of the lava in Mount Doom. But I think it says something that so few people can suspend disbelief to imagine women effectively wielding power in a fantasy land.

(I agree that you cannot use Ye Olde Fakke Europe and easily add in gender equality, but I don't think it's impossible to do so. I also would be perfectly happy to read books set elsewhere.)
posted by jeather at 11:57 AM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


tl,dr: Your fantasies suck.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:01 PM on June 4, 2012


Metafilter: think through—and then think beyond—the foundational assumptions out of which one creates a narrative.
posted by herbplarfegan at 12:05 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Because god forbid we have magical lands that are based on an imaginary history of a fake Europe that have magic and dragons and fairies but also gender equality. That would be weird. How can I possibly suspend disbelief that much?

I said absolutely nothing about being unable to suspend disbelief. I don't think any person in this thread has. You're not responding to anyone.

I was talking about having your fantasy universe have diversity as a given, and how if you are beginning from Ye Olde Fakke Europe, then you need to understand the reality of Ye Olde Real Europe so that you can more effectively build a fantasy world with healthy diversity, and that towards both that end and the end of better world-building, it might also be a good idea to move away from only basing your universe on Ye Olde Real Europe in the first place.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:06 PM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


I really don't think there are many (any?) bad ideas in fiction - just poorly executed ones. I think a good storyteller could make a gender-egalitarian, or at least less misogynistic, Olde Fayke Europe work. It might be harder to pull off the willing suspension of disbelief, but I don't want to say it "can't" be done.

Even in ASOIAF, there is Dorne, which, while not exactly egalitarian, is much less misogynistic than the rest of Westeros. It is Arianne, not her younger brothers, who will inherit the Sunspear, because she is the eldest. Likewise she seems to have a lot more freedom than the other princesses and highborn ladies (at least until she runs afoul of her father and his plans!). Her cousins the Sand Snakes seem to do whatever they damn well please (again until Prince Doran locks them up to keep them out of mischief - and this has nothing to do with their gender). There is a lot more sexual freedom in Dorne as well. So even in Ye Olde Fayke Europe, there is wiggle room.

I really think it has to do with the skill of the writer rather than the goodness or badness of the idea. A bad writer can Waste a Perfectly Good Plot; a good writer can "Plot a Perfectly Good Waste" (this page seems to have vanished from TVTropes) and make a seemingly unacceptable idea work.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:21 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


> It’s amazing the things we know, that are actually wrong.

For me the problem with that statement is that it ought to be followed with lots of specifics. She missed the perfect example of the sheer number of female artists, brilliant ones, usually unacknowledged in the traditional view of art history: see Figuration Féminine (particularly the RH sidebar chronological list).
posted by raygirvan at 12:38 PM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


I really don't think there are many (any?) bad ideas in fiction - just poorly executed ones. I think a good storyteller could make a gender-egalitarian, or at least less misogynistic, Olde Fayke Europe work. It might be harder to pull off the willing suspension of disbelief, but I don't want to say it "can't" be done.

It can be done and it's probably been done well more than I'll ever be able to count. That said, it's not just to the end of diversity that you'd go beyond Late Middle Age Europe. If you're writing your book with the explicit mission that it shall be diverse, then it'll probably be weaker than if the diversity comes through more organically from your creative process.

It's better world-building in general to think beyond the usual source material, especially since many fantasy universes are copies-of-copies - idealized versions of other idealized versions of Ye Old Fakke Europe.

Of course a good writer will be able to write inside the universe of your more typical fantasy universe, but it doesn't mean it's out of place to ask people to think beyond the usual limits.

...

I've only just begun Season Two of Game of Thrones, so I'm behind on ASOIF. That said it does seem to be an interesting example of having your cake and eating it too: it depicts Ye Olde Fakke Europe (and Ye Olde Fakke Mongolia) with some realism as far as gender equality is concerned, while also giving the female characters equal time, interest, and importance. Generally speaking, both the men and the women are locked into gender roles which would have been appropriate in the Late Middle Ages. The series also does a good job of highlighting when people are straitjacketed into certain roles: Sansa Stark seems useless, but she's also stuck between a rock and a hard place due to her position, whereas the "cowardly" guy at the Wall is a solid example of a decent guy who, because he isn't a warrior or particularly aggressive, isn't seen as a worthy man.

The series is far from perfect when it comes to gender equality, but it's also far from bad.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:47 PM on June 4, 2012


Phalene, your comment was far more coherent than her essay. You should maybe think about writing a scifi novel.

/preens

Actually in my own fiction writing I've been rather rocked to discover that even what I was trying to do was not passing the Beshcdel test. Since, like many writers, I started with embarrassingly bad self referential shlock, I generally put in female protagonists, and that was for the most part okay with me. I disliked the 'girls don't do X except for ME' plot trope and avoided it, but I found myself writing women who existed in places dominated by men, male fighters, male magic users, male mentors, male professional friends, etc...

So I took my long running (since I was twelve) fantasy epic, and subjected it to re-write #6. as a purely pleasure exercise, taking the generic fantasy world and wherever there was no justifiable reason for a character to be male or female, to make sure that things showed both women and men everywhere doing stuff like it was normal. I kept a culture that perceives gender, but suddenly half the characterization/world building work was done for me, and it was a real thought provoking exercise for how I perceived the limits on gender. For example as purely set dressing, I'd described the nannies as women- but why did kids in the stories need to have women, when in real life I'd seen equal competence in both genders? Suddenly it stops being "quiet women in muted dresses, whispering commands to peacock clad children" and one of the upper caste characters has a 19 year old asthmatic, who couldn't cut it at a soldier but who was picked by his employers because his background instills the right sort of love of glory they want hammered into their kid, and I get to show boat why the character turned out full of excess courage and chivalrous. This is why real diversity of the mundane rules, not as a moral message but because lazy writers like me can just use a world's internal logic to do what they want. Heroes can still be exceptional, its the unexceptional parts you don't want to whitewash.

Elliott's point is that Ye Olde Fakke Europe is not Old Europe. What it is is a distillation of our understanding of the period based on biased documentation- for example compare talking about Elizabethan England from a popular Victorian era kids' history versus a modern kids' history- the Victorian version I'm thinking of reduces Queen Elizabeth I to "ha, ha women are stupid and vain, nothing of note here!" We all know that's twaddle, but to the original audience that was okay.

Or another thing- not in the period of discussion but an example of historical perception, compare Jane Austen's contemporary to her, stuffy as hell settings in her fiction and her lifestyle choice in reality and frankness in her letters to her brother.

If you have chatelaines running around with their keys keeping the store house levels topped up, she has to be involved with a lot, understanding her accounts, knowing the lay of the land, talking with her employees, taking an active role in household defence- she's not a non-entity, she's the assertive leader who pushes to prosecute you for cheating her on the grain deal, the person who needs to organize the allotment for eight tunics of sacrean dye blue for your honour guard and the person managing the housing of your new squire. And she's going to have male and female minions, and maybe even more practical power and understanding of her home castle than her husband, if the guy's been off crusading a lot. Women were absolutely everywhere, as we have always been, you basically have to be exploring places free of human habitation to escape us. And obviously we've been doing stuff. But we get rubbed out just like many fantasy epics don't concern themselves with John-the-Turnip-farmer, women don't exist the way poor folk don't exist.

Remember that not only do we have sexism, we have a history of pretending women aren't there, didn't say anything and have no opinion- and yet they've been essential from anything from the mass expansion of Christianity to the colonization of Canada (funded in part by women!). And yet what is the highlights of Christianity? A bunch of men in the bible. Of colonizing New France? Coureurs du bois, a few missionaries (but not the people paying them!) and filles de rois, but not the essential role marrying native women played in trade alliances with the local First Peoples population. Ye Olde Fakke Europe doesn't have women because it's fiction written by people who don't like women, or were cribbing from the notes of people who don't like women. Even modern misogyny fests manage bandit queens and heads of state.


female soldiers today have serious problems with sexual harassment and assault, and I suppose I had been reading too much history to find her acceptance believable.

Many militaristic cultures, from Samurai to English Knights, have a strong history of homosexuality in the ranks. One can infer that it's perfectly possible to accept someone you considered a potential sexual partner onto the battlefield purely on that- if rogering your brother-in-arms happened I think there's more wiggle room in the human character to tolerate objectifying someone for sexy times and giving them a sword.

But are you saying female soldier have problems right now or that it's an insurmountable issue inherent in gender? Because various countries have more or less success with female soldiers today and there are plenty of historical examples throughout history when women were an accepted fixture on the battle field. for example if you get a chance to see the terracotta warrior exhibit that's travelling around museums, take a look at some of the other sculpture they have, which include a mix gender mounted cavalry archers. This is what Elliott meant about the diversity inherent in the past. By your argument a gay soldier wouldn't fly because Americans are funny about the idea today.

Of course bad writing is bad writing and maybe they just -sucked-. I haven't read the book you did.
posted by Phalene at 12:55 PM on June 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


AAaaaaaAArgh.
"He felt a small clawed hand on his shoulder, and looked up into the gleaming teeth of Marius Gabangaye. "Conall Mac Diouf," the Eoabelisaur said(...)"

An Eoabelisaurus. It "probably reached 6.5 metres (21 ft) in length." This is a relatively accurate comparison, based on skeletal remains.

Point #1. I'm confident in saying that regardless of this character's cultural background and/or skin tint, notice that the Eoabelisaurus has pretty bitty arms and would have to come so far past you to touch your shoulder that you would see its head. That is if you missed a TWENTY-ONE FOOT CARNIVORE in the room when you FIRST SAT DOWN.
Point #2. It's a big lizard. Its brain? Probably bitty. Its adaptation to (I'm guessing icepunk means cold stuff?) cold environments? Awesome if you think that dying in 3 minutes is awesome because they're cold-blooded.
Ok. maybe it has a big brain and wears sweaters. IT DON'T GOT LIPS! How can it say anything without lips? You can't fake not having lips! Really! aaaagh. i mean it's not even really science, just common sense. why do i do this to myself.
posted by Zack_Replica at 1:32 PM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Zack_Replica,

Your points are valid but Eoabelisaurus mefi.
posted by nooneyouknow at 1:39 PM on June 4, 2012


Yeah I know. I left that as a suprise for anyone following the link. heh.
posted by Zack_Replica at 1:40 PM on June 4, 2012


It was totally a surprise. I thought the picture was a joke. I had to check Wikipedia to be sure.
posted by nooneyouknow at 1:42 PM on June 4, 2012


"It isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so." - Will Rogers
posted by blue_beetle at 2:00 PM on June 4, 2012


Zack_Replica,

Valid points, but the Eoabelisaurs of the Roman colony at Montevideo tended to be much smaller than their Jurassic ancestors. Marius Gabangaye doesn't so much talk as he does growl or rumble from the esophagus- this gives him some difficulty with plosives and m/n sounds, but he can generally make himself understood. As a hatchling, Marius was carried across the ocean to South Africa, following the destruction of the colony, where he was adopted by a Zulu family. As a result, he can growl fluently in Zulu, Xhosa, English, and Afrikaans; as well as some Portuguese, Spanish, and French. During the episode I quoted from, Marius had been warming himself by the fire at one end of the longhouse, when he noticed the potential altercation. Earlier that day, while out on the glacier, he had been wearing a large fur robe.

*SPOILER ALERT*

The dandy who confronts Conall Mac Diouf in the longhouse at the Hardangerjøkulen glacier is, in fact, Bastien DeVries, an ex-gladiator now working as an agent of the nefarious Lord Alastair Brightfin, the 4th Earl of the Marianas. What none of them know at this point, is that Van Wijk's parents (who died when he was a child) were actually comrades of Gabangaye's during the struggle against Apartheid.

To find out more, you'll have to read Assegai & Gladius: A Conall Mac Diouf Adventure

Other books in the Conall Mac Diouf series include:

Harpoon & Kalashnikov
Trident & Knobkerrie
On A Blood Red Tide
A Dry Scaly Season

posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:09 PM on June 4, 2012 [9 favorites]


Sorry, that should read *DeVries'* parents. We don't meet Van Wijk until the incident on the Bonnie Prince Charlie.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:12 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I find this author made some good points, and that maybe the "LOLhuh?what?LOL" party ran a little long in the thread, but ANYWHO...

One of the good points was the anally hetero-pasty-normative subtext that a "call" to "diversity" announces (and fuckin' perpetuates), however it might happen to be expressed. This is why I really hate to hear the word at all. It's approaching the matter in such a backwards way. That goes double for "tolerance." Tolerance? Oh, because other people's biology and culture actually are legitimately innately taxing to your reality? It almost endorses naive enmity and adds that it's okay if you just hide it. It's just a shitty rut to be in. Call it "harmony," or better yet, just call it "humanity."

The other side of the same coin is anyone's "pride" or "power" in things that they didn't decide on, develop, or work for: pigment/gender/immunities/sexuality.*

And let's not leave out "hate." A "hateful" (whatever-centric) person is just an unrealistic and unintelligent (as well as unintelligible, often enough) one who doesn't have any valuable offers for the mouths and ears of, uh.. you know: sentient, naturally (and don't forget arbitrarily) widely varied humans.

Understanding/aknowledging/upholding "diversity" is really just
Understanding/aknowledging/upholding reality.

If you simply approach things with an interest in describing things as they are, you'll find your "diversity" quotas are all in check. It's not a moral imperative-- it's just clear, reasonable thought about the world as it presents itself.

This is why I will always write over "diversity" with "equality." Equality is no respecter of anyone's genes/language/memes-- that's what the term means-- whereas "diversity" is a fallacious, colloquial bonehead initiative to respect everyone's genes/language/memes, while, most importantly, leaving, oh, say actual character and competence (where "pride" and "power" are in fact rightfully derived) out of the picture.

When equality is axiomatic, competence can be judged on the basis of the individual, as it always should be.

*And before you say that pride and power are already wrongfully withheld from unprivileged groups, hence it must be crystallized in those terms to give it back to them, so to speak: The core of that isn't even controversial-- those changes are overdue the amount of time that is equal to when they were first disrupted (IOW forever)-- of course you're right about that. You know racist/heteronormative/sexist when you see it. I'm just saying to evaluate it in the interest of being objective, not because of a "call" to anything; not your righteous bumper sticker version of it.

Equality eschews racism, homophobia, sexism, and ageism emergently. Succeeding in that, we have nothing to get emotional about in the first place.
posted by herbplarfegan at 2:22 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


But are you saying female soldier have problems right now or that it's an insurmountable issue inherent in gender?

No, I was finding it unbelievable that the character wasn't being harrassed or assaulted because the culture was itself already established as very patriarchal (she was escaping a forced marriage). I have read other medievalesque fantasy books with mixed gender armies (eg Tanya Huff, Mercedes Lackey) but they worked because gender equality was established as the norm in the society. I was thinking, wow, if even American female soldiers have problems, this isn't feeling realistic to me. Also, I may have been reading too much about rape in war around the world at the time, so it was on my mind.
posted by jb at 2:26 PM on June 4, 2012


I came here to grouse about a comma and now I want to read TheWhiteSkull's fantasy oeuvre.
posted by TonyRobots at 2:39 PM on June 4, 2012


You can't fake not having lips!

But you can fake having them. See: Bush I.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:30 PM on June 4, 2012


"Conall Mac Diouf," the Eoabelisaur said in a rumbling basso voice, his grin radiating around the longhouse, "as your lawyer, I would advise caution in this matter."

Mac Diouf shrugged off the claw and stood up, tightening his grip on the weapon. "Damn it, man, I've got to dump a load and there's shit sharks in the bloody loo."
posted by pyramid termite at 3:52 PM on June 4, 2012


Dude, folks, this is a really smart essay.
But Frowner, Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency adventure fantasy with swords, sharks, and lawyer dinosaurs! Come on! Lawl with us!
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 4:17 PM on June 4, 2012


typo, should be 'loll'
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 4:17 PM on June 4, 2012


I dunno, I kind of like "Lawl".
posted by nanojath at 4:49 PM on June 4, 2012


TheWhiteSkull, I love you and want to have little Eoabelisaur babies with you now.

Some time ago, I read a review of Kate Elliot's "Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency adventure fantasy with swords, sharks, and lawyer dinosaurs" fantasy epic, and even though the review was positive, I was mostly impressed with how incoherent the whole "Afro-Celtic Roman Regency Ice Age steampunk" world-building concepts sounded. If the world became dominated by a strange Phoenician-Roman Afro-Celtic culture mash-up, why do people still have contemporary western names like Beatrice and Catherine? And why would a Regency culture even exist, given the history of this alternate world? In terms of world-building, it sounds a little bit like a really clunky modernized version of L. Sprague de Camp's classic "The Wheels of If."

I mean, it could be awesome, but it doesn't really grab me... Honestly, I'd rather read TheWhiteSkull's opus.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 5:33 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


The primary result of this essay is that I now believe it likely that Kate Elliott writes bad books for reasons completely unrelated to diversity. That was completely scattered, makes whatever point it is trying to get across quite poorly, and presents us with a professional author who doesn't know what "begs the question" means. No thanks.
posted by Justinian at 6:23 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


But Frowner, Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency adventure fantasy with swords, sharks, and lawyer dinosaurs! Come on! Lawl with us!

You know, I didn't highlight that to say LOL, I think it actually does make her point more effectively than her essay, which is that diversity needs to be baked in, not tacked on.
posted by fatbird at 6:43 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I was mostly impressed with how incoherent the whole "Afro-Celtic Roman Regency Ice Age steampunk" world-building concepts sounded. If the world became dominated by a strange Phoenician-Roman Afro-Celtic culture mash-up, why do people still have contemporary western names like Beatrice and Catherine? And why would a Regency culture even exist, given the history of this alternate world?"

As soon as I read the description, I was pretty sure it's just an elaborate set-up for Amazon to punk me.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:17 PM on June 4, 2012


The really important question that no-one here has answered is: what the hell is "icepunk"?
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:08 AM on June 5, 2012


Am I the only one who thinks her description of her novel is a joke meant quite deliberately to emphasize her point?
posted by bardophile at 4:55 AM on June 5, 2012


what the hell is "icepunk"?

I came; I saw; I spunk.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:13 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Icepunk is a term that Kate Elliott, author of the aforementioned book, coined to describe the world she set her fantasy in. Effectively, it’s a steampunk world in the grips of an ice age.

Basically it's a one-woman "genre", sounds like. And though I tease, you know, I understand that this author is undoubtedly using the term tongue-in-cheek, which is just fine, and one shouldn't necessarily simply dismiss the work because it happens to come with a weirdy-buzzy-cutesy kinda made-up genre description. Although I personally am totally going to do so.
posted by nanojath at 7:21 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Awesome if you think that dying in 3 minutes is awesome because they're cold-blooded."

Except that dinosaurs probably weren't cold blooded.
posted by klangklangston at 12:01 PM on June 5, 2012


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