An anecdote

Been sort of vaguely following the whole kerfuffle over that dumbass article on fantasy over at the NY Times. (I mean “dumbass” in the most respectful way.) I’m not particularly upset about it because ignorant bigotry rarely upsets me; it’s the bigotry of the supposedly knowledgeable that I find more dangerous. And this is bigotry, for all that we’ll probably use a less inflammatory phrase for it, like “genre snobbery” or whatever. The thoughtless, irrational, overly-generalized adherence to a set of wrong beliefs about a whole group of people is always bigotry. It’s worse when those beliefs cause the believer to harm the group in question — like, supporting laws and an economic system designed to hurt them — but it’s ugly even when the hate is relatively harmless, like in that NYT article. (There’s another review over at Slate that’s just as negative, but not biased against fantasy as a category. See? It’s not hard.) So even though I haven’t read Martin’s books myself and don’t have HBO so won’t be watching the series for awhile, and have no time for TV anyway while I’m in copyedit mode, I totally get others’ anger over the whole thing.

Still, the reviewer’s casual assumption that no women (or PoC, by implication; I noticed her little horrified bit about the screenwriter going from Spike Lee to this?!?1! as if the two film phenomena were mutually exclusive) could possibly enjoy swords and magic and stuff, reminds me of how I became an epic fantasy fan.

It was during middle school. Like all middle schools, it was kind of hellish; the tweens are when identity formation is at its most blatant and brutal, and I was caught somewhere between black and geek — two very, very different camps in those days, in that place. The other black kids snarked that I “talked proper” and read books all the time and didn’t seem ashamed of getting good grades. The other geek kids happily squee’d with me over Doctor Who or Galaxy Rangers, but got really quiet around me — or said unbelievably screwed-up stuff like “Oh, I just try not to think of you as black!” — whenever something racist happened at school. I went to school in Alabama, note. “Something racist” happened a lot.

(And before you get all indignant on my behalf — thanks — note that this was nearly 30 years ago. I’m over it, obviously. I’ve also spent the intervening time studying racial identity development theory, education and group dynamics, and coming to understand why that kind of behavior happens. If you’re really curious, you can understand it too. I’m not interested in rehashing all of that here, though, because Tatum does it so well, and because it’s off-topic from my point.)

All this time, I was writing. And like many women and writers of color who’ve internalized the notion that they are inferior and their stories don’t matter, all of my characters were white and male. I read lots of science fiction and fantasy, and all those characters were white guys; that was what I saw, so that was what I wrote. But around this time it started to bug me that that was all I wrote, and that that was all I saw. But I didn’t know what to do about it. I can’t remember if I’d read Octavia Butler by that point, but I doubt I would’ve gotten much out of her if I had — not enough explosions. I wasn’t ready. Anyway, caught between the philosophical/aesthetic demands of my identities, I began to feel painfully isolated.

I had a friend back then who I was slightly embarrassed by. Shames me to think of it now, but I was a shallow, confused little person back then, like most tweens. I’m heartened by the fact that I was friends with her, and didn’t ostracize or avoid her. We fit well together. She was tall and gawky; so was I. She openly enjoyed comic books and skiffery; I was more prone to hide the covers of my books so nobody would see the lurid dragons or spaceships… but so did I. Most likely I saw something of myself in her, which was why I found her so uneasy-making. She was more comfortable with a part of her identity that I hadn’t fully embraced. But she was the closest thing I had to a best friend. She was white, though, and there were things I just couldn’t talk to her about. I tried a little, but I didn’t have the language to express the problem, and after awhile I stopped trying. She never talked about it, and I figured she’d chosen to ignore the elephant in the room, as so many did.

One day she brought me something, though: one of the big, indie-published issues of a little-known comic called Elfquest.

Wasn’t my thing at all, I thought, looking at it. I wasn’t much into comics at all, really, and this one had the sort of cartoony, faux-manga art that I’d seen elsewhere and disdained. I was too nice to say to my friend, “What the hell is this?” but I suspect she could see it on my face. So — really hesitantly — she took it back and handed me one of the later issues, flipping it open so I could see. Not too far into the series, she explained, the elven protagonists travel into the desert and find a tribe of brown elves. Those brown elves become important characters. They’re not the villains or the ignorant savages who need to be civilized and saved by the white elves — quite the opposite, in fact. And yeah, she acknowledged, they weren’t black, more like American Indians or Arabs or something — but they were there. They mattered. Somehow she knew how much I needed that.

Lost touch with that friend since. I wish I hadn’t. Hope she’s OK.

Anyway.

That was my introduction to epic fantasy. No, not Tolkien; I’d tried him and bounced off. But eventually I went back, tried LotR again, and liked it. And eventually I found C. S. Friedman, and liked that more. And eventually I found Louise Cooper, and Tanith Lee, and CLAMP — yeah, RG Veda is kickass epic fantasy, ditto a bunch of their stuff — and Jane Yolen and Heather Gladney and Carol Berg and Lynn Flewelling and Nnedi Okorafor and Hiromu Arakawa and so many more. So very many more. And I followed Elfquest all the way to the end. And eventually I started writing epic fantasy myself — but with brown characters this time, not just white. And women, not just men. Who were all there, and who mattered.

There’s no point to this anecdote. Well, maybe I’m trying to say that this is why dumbassery a la that NYT article doesn’t really bother me — because I started tuning out people who were that ignorant when I was thirteen, and I’m pretty good at it now. But really, I’m not trying to say anything about that article. I don’t care about it. It’s there, but it doesn’t matter. I’m all grown up now, and I know what really does.

‘Kay, back to copyediting.

19 Responses »

  1. Well said. You’re a better woman than I as that NYT article totally irritated me. I left a “review” – is that their euphemism for comment? I have always loved Science Fiction and Fantasy (and hockey for that matter) and I am sick of being the totally marginalized market share. Though I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s more the dumbass reviewers or cultural critics that can’t seem to recognize just how diverse the people in the bleachers are…

    The part of the article I found most amusing was when she held up shows like the Sopranos and Mad Men, etc. as an example of HBO doing it right. Because we all know that the mafia, municipal government and the Roman Empire are total chick magnets. Whatever.

  2. rebecca,

    I would probably feel more strongly about the NYT article if I was a Song of Ice and Fire fan. (I’ve tried reading AGoT a few times and found it Not My Thing, but like I mentioned in the OP, sometimes it takes me a few tries before something clicks for me.) But really, how can we expect the reviewers to know that SFF is diverse when SFF fandom itself is only just now figuring that out? So again, it’s ignorance, and it doesn’t bug me much.

  3. Agreed on the ignorance thing, and full disclosure I don’t have HBO either and I’m just embarking on Game of Thrones myself. I got the recorded book version from the library and holy crap, it’s like 30 discs!

    The genre bias in the NYT piece is irritating too, you know, let’s let everyone in the room. Personally, if I NEVER see another show about mobsters (or crime scene investigators for that matter), it’ll still be too soon…

    (Currently working on a story about a mermaid, and dreaming of the day when their as big as vampires.)

  4. As someone who never played with dolls, but spent countless afternoons making staves, bows and katapults, I did take offense at the article. I like fantasy and I’m not ashamed of it. Finding someone you can talk about it with in high school wasn’t the easiest thing in the world. I lucked out in the fact that my older brothers read fantasy too. My reading tastes have gotten more divers since high school, but I still go back to fantasy. It is and I suspect it’ll always be my favorite place to get lost.

    I remember Elfquest. It was my favorite comic growing up and I was always sad that not everything was translated. (I’m dutch). I like aSoIaF, at least the first 3 books. By the fourth, I couldn’t get myself interested in the politics. Might try again now that book 5 is coming out.

  5. I had no idea, when I called for the wild unicorn herd check in, that we would need to keep pointing to it every half hour.

  6. As a woman of color who often reads fantasy to the exclusion of all other genres I completely concur with your point of view.

    I would like to send Ginia Bellafante my goodreads.com booklist and let her tell me that women don’t read or write fantasy. My first jaunt into the fantasy world was Madeleine L’Engle’s Time series. A Wrinkle in Time is still one of my favorite books ever.

  7. “Dumbassery” is a very generous way to put the elitist ignorance that is that article.

    What really stuck in my craw upon reading it was the implication that that the only fiction worthy of consideration (critical or otherwise) is fiction with social commentary–and its gotta punch people in the face with its message too.

    Otherwise, it can’t possibly be saying anything of any worth whatsoever.

    What a load of tripe.

    I’ve read many different kinds of fiction in my life, and I find that the more subtle social criticism found in spectulative fiction has more staying power than the “real-world sociology” in literary fiction of any media.

    Braveheartconveyed the “war is hell” message more effectively than “saving private ryan” or “apocalypse now”, I would argue.

  8. The followup that the “reviewer” wrote to defend the original so called review is just as full of dumbassery and genre-snobbery as the earlier piece. Bellafante is clueless and just dug in deeper with this:

    http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/19/pull-up-a-throne-and-lets-talk/?partner=rss&emc=rss

  9. I really liked this little journey into the soul. As one of the white guys who has had many geek friends who were neither white nor guys… it’s englightening to see the geek world from that perspective, and widen my own.

    Except… you really thought the Slate article was less bigoted (in terms of genre snobbery) than the NYT article? It was pretty hard to read, but it seems to me the Slate article takes some pretty nasty jabs at genre fiction and geekiness in general. (I.E. the writer canceled a date after learning the potential datee occassioned Ren Faires, for example?)

  10. Addendum to say: I’ve been reading ASoIaF – thirdish-way through book 2. I’ll finish the series. But I’ll never be a fan. Too dark, too brooding, too full of $#!7-heads (even the protagonists are often nasty folks) that I can’t relate to, just a tiny bit more sex than I’m comfortable with… It’s well written, probably even very good in some ways, just not really my cup of tea.

    Probably won’t be catching the HBO show (no HBO, heck no TV-watching in general except for the occassional Netflix movie) either.

  11. Elfquest! ^_^

    Still have the Marvel Epic reprints I started buying in school and the originals of the later series. Fantastic stuff. (Although the ones not done by Wendy & Richard Pini never appealed to me.)

  12. Jealous that you had geek friends in middle/high school. I didn’t, really.

    Hurray for college. And the internet.

  13. I think Elfquest did stuff others weren’t doing at the time, and yet because it is “cute” (for some measures of cute) and “girly” (for some measures of “girly” it was . . . well . . . I don’t want to say denigrated, but you know what I mean.

  14. Nice post. (I really don’t have much more to say than that, but I wanted to say it.)

  15. I run into some of the same sentiments when people start talking about video games. Few things make me see red faster than when people outside of gaming assume all gamers are white, male, teenage, and have poor impulse control. (Ok, so maybe that last one is a bit true, lol.)

    I saw the first episode of GoT (hooray HBO free preview!), and both reviewers may have a point – however poorly delivered. Having wiki’d the rest of the story (because there’s no way I’m going to see the rest of the series) it doesn’t get any less complex, and I don’t know if the writers did a good job of really setting everything up vs. shoving as much shock into the first ep as possible to hold on to viewers.

    I think what bothered me the most is a common issue in semi-medieval fantasy worlds: the only brown people in the show were the barbarians. And even then all of the easily identifiable PoCs were women (and naked) – most of the male extras appeared to have oveindulged in self tanner and mud. And it did not help that they were greeting their impossibly blond, pale, virginal, sacrificial queen with an orgy of violence, sex, and death. The whole thing made me *facepalm*. And after reading the queen character’s story arc it seems like she has one of the more interesting paths through the series, but I doubt I’d want to watch many more episodes of it.

  16. All this time, I was writing. And like many women and writers of color who’ve internalized the notion that they are inferior and their stories don’t matter, all of my characters were white and male. I read lots of science fiction and fantasy, and all those characters were white guys; that was what I saw, so that was what I wrote.”

    Oh my gosh, this. This for me, too. You put it so succinctly and so well.

    I never got into A Game of Thrones, and what I’ve heard of the series does not make me think I’m likely to find much appeal in it. Elfquest–I think Naamen wrote about Elfquest, too. I may have to look it up one of these days.

  17. Interesting enough, my first taste of ElfQuest was Book 2 of the TPB (issue 5-10, I think), so by then the Sun Tribe was well integrated in the stroyline and I never felt as though I was on the outside looking in, in my minds eye, people(elves?) of color were always part of the world.

    Things might have been different if I hadn’t read the first 5 issues sometime later, where the people of color were the external force.

    While I definitely enjoyed AGoT book, I wasn’t so surprised by the lack of diversity, because, well, I imagine Mr. Martin is writing what he knows. I’m okay with that.

  18. Thanks for this post. Makes me start reminiscing about all the many ways Elfquest is amazing. Cannot bring myself to click on the NY Times link, and am not watching GoT.