I’ll start by positing an hypothesis (H0), and its logical alternative (H1):
H0: Epic fantasy is dominated, if not by male authors, then by a “masculine” aestheticism, ethos, and structural focus (it’s “the hero’s journey”, not the heroine’s). And, as with other male-dominated bastions “threatened” by egalitarianism (a.k.a. feminism and femininity), it systematically defends this masculinity with great vigor.
H1: Epic fantasy is already egalitarian in its aesthetics, ethos, and structure, and its domination by male authors is just a reflection of greater society. There is no reaction, positive or negative, against feminine encroachment. The more the merrier, we can all just get along, Kumbaya, etc.
I know this is a terrible hypothesis setup, by the way, for those of you familiar with social science and statistics. It’s facetious, far too complex, and not remotely neutral. (I think the “Kumbaya” might giveaway my bias… if, uh, the entire rest of this blog hadn’t already done that.) Please don’t take it seriously.
Do, however, consider the idea I’m putting forward. I’m willing to be swayed on it, which is why I’m putting it forward as an hypothesis rather than a bold declaration; it’s still an open question for me. But here’s some context: This popped into my head after a conversation about the genre with fellow fantasy writer Rajan Khanna last night, as we sat stuck on a train for 20 minutes after our Altered Fluid meeting. When I mentioned that (a minority of) readers seemed put off by the sex scenes in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms, he pointed out that he’s seen any number of equally-or-more explicit sex scenes elsewhere in fantasy (he mentioned Richard Morgan, whom I haven’t yet read), and didn’t think they’d gotten the same reaction. I could think of just as many, which makes me think the problem isn’t explicitness; there’s something else going on.
It could certainly be the case that I just didn’t do as good a job of depicting the weirdness and wildness of the whole godsex thing as I’d intended. It’s also possible that it just didn’t suit some readers’ tastes. But one notable difference was also that all those more explicit scenes I could think of were written by men, and featured for the most part the male gaze. That is, the sex scenes were written from a man’s point of view, and focused on things that ostensibly male readers would like to see, whatever those might be. The only exceptions I can think of are Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books and Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu books — both of which also took heat over their sex scenes. (It’s debatable whether “female gaze” applies to Constantine’s books, since the characters in Wraeththu are hermaphrodites who started out as men, but let’s toss it in for discussion.)
I’m keeping the definition of epic fantasy fairly narrow, note. One of the first “more explicit” examples that popped into my head was Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s A Companion to Wolves. I’d personally label that one epic since it clearly emulates some of the epic tales of the Vikings, but I don’t think it was marketed as such. So let’s stick with things that are marketed as epic fantasy. Drop the Wraeththu example, above; my copy of it is just labeled “Fantasy” on the spine, and it’s described as “sci-fi” at Wikipedia, so clearly there’s some controversy as to whether that one counts despite its world-spanning, mythic scope.
…Then again, that’s something else to consider: not just the rejection of sexuality but the… hmm, what to call it? The rigidity, or not, with which genre labels are applied. I’ve seen a number of epic fantasies by female authors dismissed as such by fans for reasons that don’t make much sense. How is Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series not epic fantasy? Carole Berg’s Rai-Kirah? (I haven’t seen her later fantasies quibbled over as much as that one.) I’ve even seen some people complain that C. S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy — reality-changing doorstoppers set in an explicitly quasi-European quasi-feudal world — aren’t epic fantasy; they’re actually a “buddy story”. (I don’t have my copy of that trilogy handy, but if I recall, the books are labeled “Fantasy/Science Fiction” on the spine.) All of these tales fit easily within the strictures of epic fantasy… but even for me, they’re not the first tales that spring to mind when I toss out examples of the genre. I think there’s some reason that part of me resists calling a spade a spade.
I can think of a few other story elements or tropes that seem to get pushback from traditional epic fantasy readers — first-person or single-character PoVs, for example, which are common to female-dominated subgenres like urban fantasy — but I think I’ve tossed out enough to start the discussion. Granted; not all people are going to agree on anything as subjective and arbitrary as a genre classification. Still, I think I’m seeing a pattern here — one that suggests epic fantasy itself, as a genre, resists the inclusion of any elements (or authors) it deems “too feminine”.
Do you see this pattern? Discuss!