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Author Topic: Is fantasy a bit fixated on culture politics?  (Read 4284 times)

Offline eclipse

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Is fantasy a bit fixated on culture politics?
« on: April 07, 2018, 06:31:37 PM »
Reading an interview by https://civilianreader.com/2016/12/28/interview-with-k-m-mckinley/

One of the questions by the civilian reader

What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

Answer by K.M.McKinley

Oh man, what a loaded question. I think we’re perhaps a little too focused on inclusivity over telling honest stories, if you see what I mean? I’m no rabid puppy here, but last year I read three novels, one after the other, written by white people, whose protagonists were black lesbians. That’s cool, and one of them was an excellent book. You know, the world is so canted toward established elites it’s natural for folk to want to redress the balance, but I do think we have a tendency to get a bit fixated on culture politics in the genre and in some ways it makes the problems worse. Like, Donald Trump worse. Sadly, I think liberal culture has become weirdly intolerant in its quest for tolerance, and blind to its own failings. As geek culture is a part of that, we suffer too. It makes me sad.

If we all just tried to be who we are and respected each other for it, we’d reach a natural equilibrium far more quickly. That’s kind of happening anyway, I think. SF and fantasy is broadening its appeal year after year. In the West, we’re hearing so many more unforced voices from further afield that we perhaps ignored before. Over the last year I’ve read stories from Africa, Latin America, Russia and China. Good writing gets me, wherever it is from or whoever it is by. The oldest story in the world can be amazing all over again when retold well. I like a diversity of opinion. I enjoy stories by left wing writers and right wing writers and people who can cleverly use all points in between in their work. No human being has all the answers. That way lies fanaticism.

What I don’t like is bad writing, clichéd stories about princesses who think they are so ugly when really they are drop dead gorgeous, or lazy world building, especially ones fixated on complicated magical systems to the expense of all else. I like a bit of grimdark, if the grimdark is the flavour, and not the point of the story. Naturally, I level all these criticisms at my own work and feel dead inside as I see them in every word I write (apart from the princess part, you’d never catch me doing that).

As to my work, I’m just glad that it fits in at all. I am humbled that people buy it. When they like it, I get all giddy and feel weird. I jokingly say writers are cowardly show offs, only I’m not joking so much. We need validation, and we’re all scared we’re rubbish. I suppose I get imposter syndrome. On the one hand, that is massively self indulgent, a form of ugly egotism all itself, on the other, it stops me from being unbearably pleased with my life in a more direct way. I have a good life. I thank everyone who has ever bought my books for it.


« Last Edit: April 07, 2018, 06:40:35 PM by Eclipse »
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Offline Nora

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Re: Is fantasy a bit fixated on culture politics?
« Reply #1 on: April 07, 2018, 07:27:32 PM »
Meh. What's her point? She likes good books and doesn't like bad books and would rather read a book by a black lesbian than a book by a white guy about a black lesbian. Fair. She doesn't like Sanderson either me thinks. And what? She does sound a bit puppy. Too hung up striving towards diversity? What a harsh problem.
I've not read a single book about a black lesbian in my life, so it's all in the material we pick up.
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Offline Yora

Re: Is fantasy a bit fixated on culture politics?
« Reply #2 on: April 07, 2018, 08:17:08 PM »
One of the fantasy sites I frequently read has a lot of great content, but some of the writers have a tendency to get admonishings about lack of diversity into every article about whatever topic. I can read past it, and in many articles it's a valuable point that adds to the subject, but when it's not it's still kind of nuisance. It certainly is something that is present, but what actually bothers me is that it almost always seems to be preaching to the choir. It takes a form that is not conductive to winning over new people, especially when it's in places that lay it on so thick that anyone who isn't already full on board is never going to read anything.

In my opinion the whole subject comes from honest intentions and applaudible goals, but I feel the discourse about it is off the mark. When we're talking about a lack of diversity in fiction, it's probably always about a entertainment landscape dominated by white creators writing for a white audience. This is a real problem as it creates a significant entry barrier for other creators who have new things to say but have a hard time to get noticed because their new things seem not mainstream enough. And I am fully on board with the notion that a normativity implied by our fiction had a real impact on how people perceive normality in their actual wold and life. (In university I encountered the wonderful German term Lebenswelt (world of life) that sociologists and ethnologist actually use a lot. :D)

But I think a demand that all works should portray a positive wide diversity of character is the wrong approach. Especially in a type of fiction that tries to mimic places and periods of very low ethnic diversity. I think it might be difficult for American readers and critics to fully understand how uniquely extraordinary their own culture is in that regard. Of course you did have the occasional foreign visitor passing through and sometimes hanging around and even integrating into local society, but to my knowledge we did not have immigration of whole groups deep into Europe and retain their ethnic and cultural identity and community until the late 20th century.
I think what we need is not "works of diversity" but a "diversity of works". All white casts in all white settings are not a problem anymore than all black or all asian works. The problem exists when we have only these all white works to the exclusion of any other. What should be encouraged is to have the space of discussion about works, that is news, audience forums, and also publishers (I'm sure we have a word for this in German too), pay more attention to works that are/have been perceived as being special interest and of no mainstream interest because they don't emulate European settings and casts. And at least as far as I can tell, this has actually been happening for the last decade or so. Fiction has become much richer because of the efforts of people who have actually pushed for it despite persisting resistance.
And it's not as if it's in any way hard for white audiences to get into works in non-white settings about non-white characters. Other people have been fantast fans for ages even despite the white dominance of works that was close to exclusive, and nobody had any troubles getting into Japanese fiction, which is massively succesful in Europe and America. There isn't anything keeping anyone from getting into any kind of fictional settings, except for just straight up racism.
But this idea that every individual work in itself should be diverse doesn't sit right with me, and I very strongly suspect that a considerable amount of resistance and aversion to diversity in fantasy is directed against this "specific diversity" instead of a wider "general diversity".
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Offline Peat

Re: Is fantasy a bit fixated on culture politics?
« Reply #3 on: April 07, 2018, 08:24:29 PM »
Don't think fantasy is any more or any less fixated on culture politics than the rest of everything tbh. Which maybe doesn't answer the question. I guess my answer would be maybe? Art holds up a mirror to the world and right now, this is what the mirror shows.

Wish she'd said which book was the excellent one featuring a black lesbian. That would have been really interesting information!

Offline ScarletBea

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Re: Is fantasy a bit fixated on culture politics?
« Reply #4 on: April 07, 2018, 09:40:58 PM »
I'm with Nora and think it depends a lot on what books you pick up at a certain point in time. At least I've had issues in the past where every book I read (published in multiple years) seemed to have many points in common, and it was annoying me a bit.

Wish she'd said which book was the excellent one featuring a black lesbian. That would have been really interesting information!
Well, I don't know if it's the one she means, but Jen Williams' Winnowing Flame series does have a black lesbian ;D At least at some point it mentions Vintage's 'dark skin'.
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Offline cupiscent

Re: Is fantasy a bit fixated on culture politics?
« Reply #5 on: April 07, 2018, 09:46:53 PM »
I get a bit annoyed about people who say things like "we need to write honest stories" and then imply "you can't write an honest story about someone who doesn't represent you as an author". I mean, I am not in this game to write stories about people like me. I am in this game to explore people who aren't like me. But no, if I write a story about a protag who isn't a white cishet woman (and possibly Australian? I mean, how does that work in fantasy??) it's not "an honest story", but "focusing too much on identity politics". I honestly want to write this story. Rack off. (I also honestly want to focus on identity politics because it's fascinating but that's a separate issue.)

This one, for me, is right up there with "selecting for diversity over quality!" claims. There's a presumption that diverse stories can't be good quality that is very insulting.

Anyway, to be less annoyed in general and more engaged with the actual quote, I'mma pick on this bit:

"If we all just tried to be who we are and respected each other for it, we’d reach a natural equilibrium far more quickly."

Saying this while dismissing all the hard work that goes into making this concept a reality when starting from such a tremendous and deeply-rooted inequality is a bit disingenuous. It's a little like people who say, "I don't see colour!" That's nice, but colour--and the harsh and complicated consequences of it--are a reality for a lot of people, and when you don't see it, you don't see their lives as they are.

Saying, "Can't we all just be nice!" is a lovely sentiment that I 100% agree with, but it dismisses how damn hard people have fought to get us to this level of being nice. And we aren't at "all being nice" yet, so no, we can't stop fighting.

Offline Skip

Re: Is fantasy a bit fixated on culture politics?
« Reply #6 on: April 07, 2018, 09:59:31 PM »
This is a leading question. I didn't have to read the post (though I did) to know what the answer is. It's someone complaining in the guise of not complaining.

It's also a non-question. Fantasy cannot be fixated on anything, as it's an abstraction. It's a whole genre of literature whose boundaries are not at all sharply delineated. You can say a particular author is fixated, and it might be possible to find some, though I'd advise you not to say it to their face. The fixated are usually pretty adamant about them not being fixated.

The sub-text is clear enough. Someone is saying there's too much of it. Too much culture politics. By which they mean too much for them. It's fine to feel that, but just say it. Don't wrap yourself in hedging and disclaimers, doing the dance of the seven veils. Don't make me decode.

As for me, I've got my prejudices. I dislike present tense. I'm deeply skeptical of first person. Grammar errors will drive me out of your story. So will sexual violence. No vampires and no werewolves. Ham-handedness in all its forms. There. See? It's not so hard. Say what you mean.

Offline Nora

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Re: Is fantasy a bit fixated on culture politics?
« Reply #7 on: April 08, 2018, 12:35:40 AM »
I've got my prejudices. I dislike present tense. I'm deeply skeptical of first person.

Wow. Well, I guess I'll never snag your vote xD
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Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Is fantasy a bit fixated on culture politics?
« Reply #8 on: April 08, 2018, 03:48:46 AM »
To my mind, art with a mission never accomplishes the mission. Impactful art is excellent art that changes the world along the way. A sure way to fail to achieve excellence is to put mission first, ahead of the art. It leads to ham-handed, distracting content, noble aims aside.
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Offline Lady Ty

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Re: Is fantasy a bit fixated on culture politics?
« Reply #9 on: April 08, 2018, 04:12:15 AM »
Basic answer, no. But the author was certainly honing in to beat her particular drum despite the broad theme of the question.
Quote
You know, the world is so canted toward established elites it’s natural for folk to want to redress the balance, but I do think we have a tendency to get a bit fixated on culture politics in the genre and in some ways it makes the problems worse.

The new ability to address cultural politics is  not a fixation which is 'an obsessive interest in or feeling about someone or something'. There will always be a few who campaign continually and continuously about cultural politics and are obsessive but this is not overall.
It seems clear to me through my past several years reading that rather there has been a genuine and good hearted effort to redress the cultural  balances which have been missing and can only now be addressed openly and realistically in our modern world.  Diverse characters and cultural situations have slipped in naturally and appropriately more often, making aspects of fantasy as realistic as it can be- which is almost a contradiction.  ;)

Quote
I’m no rabid puppy here, but last year I read three novels, one after the other, written by white people, whose protagonists were black lesbians. That’s cool, and one of them was an excellent book

That is a hardly an example of fixated cultural politics. The fact that the author chose to highlight this rather than accept as part of modern fantasy indicates slight obsession.
Simply because white writers wrote non-white characters? That is not new but at least they are no longer the servants, slaves, or villains of past centuries.
Or that they were lesbian? Hardly new, but only recently legal, and certainly not universally so. Writers have been writing LGBTI characters through history sometimes overtly but more often disguised because of social and legal constraints. It is only nowadays that in many parts of the world diverse characters are safe to read and /or write about, again not everywhere.

Quote
If we all just tried to be who we are and respected each other for it, we’d reach a natural equilibrium far more quickly. That’s kind of happening anyway, I think.

That is never going to happen, but we can work towards tolerance at least, but better still acceptance.

Quote
In the West, we’re hearing so many more unforced voices from further afield that we perhaps ignored before. Over the last year I’ve read stories from Africa, Latin America, Russia and China.


I don't believe they were available to be ignored. Perhaps because all those places have been dominated for centuries by repressive government regimes. Writer who dared to express thoughts ideas or opinions, even exclusive of political content, but deemed in any way  unacceptable to the regime was promptly and forcibly suppressed or eliminated. Writers are among the first to suffer in those circumstances. Even now any of those writers who address gender diversity in Africa or Russia, and to some extent in China, are tempting fate.

Quote from @cupiscent

Quote
I get a bit annoyed about people who say things like "we need to write honest stories" and then imply "you can't write an honest story about someone who doesn't represent you as an author". I mean, I am not in this game to write stories about people like me. I am in this game to explore people who aren't like me. But no, if I write a story about a protag who isn't a white cishet woman (and possibly Australian? I mean, how does that work in fantasy??) it's not "an honest story", but "focusing too much on identity politics". I honestly want to write this story. Rack off. (I also honestly want to focus on identity politics because it's fascinating but that's a separate issue.)

Support this viewpoint with one proviso, that when writing about a diverse human character other than yourself (non Australian ?????) you meet such real life characters, talk with, interview and run your final past them to make certain you have got it right and truly understanding their thinking and also some of the practicalities of their life. Even in fantasy which can stretch facts and boundaries, that basis seems the only fair way to work.  This also protects to some extent against any complaints of cultural appropriation, but I don't think that should apply to writing diverse characters, and is another tricky subject.
I know this would not apply to you, cupiscent, but when a writer tries to address a cultural issue thinking they are doing something supportive and only considering it from their viewpoint they can get it disastrously, terribly wrong.
« Last Edit: April 08, 2018, 04:38:15 AM by Lady Ty »
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Offline Peat

Re: Is fantasy a bit fixated on culture politics?
« Reply #10 on: April 08, 2018, 05:41:43 AM »
I'm with Nora and think it depends a lot on what books you pick up at a certain point in time. At least I've had issues in the past where every book I read (published in multiple years) seemed to have many points in common, and it was annoying me a bit.

Thing is, we can control the books we pick up, right? And while some things you don't know when you pick it up, details about the MC are usually something that pop out pretty quick if you do research. Not always, but usually. So... if you don't wanna read books by white dudes about black lesbians, don't read them?

Its a broad church and getting broader. If you want fantasy that shrugs at the notion of culture politics, we've got you.

Quote
Well, I don't know if it's the one she means, but Jen Williams' Winnowing Flame series does have a black lesbian ;D At least at some point it mentions Vintage's 'dark skin'.

Huh, I managed to completely miss this. I might have read dark skin, but I'd assumed she looked like someone from Sicily. Just goes to show little it can matter.

I get a bit annoyed about people who say things like "we need to write honest stories" and then imply "you can't write an honest story about someone who doesn't represent you as an author". I mean, I am not in this game to write stories about people like me. I am in this game to explore people who aren't like me. But no, if I write a story about a protag who isn't a white cishet woman (and possibly Australian? I mean, how does that work in fantasy??) it's not "an honest story", but "focusing too much on identity politics". I honestly want to write this story. Rack off. (I also honestly want to focus on identity politics because it's fascinating but that's a separate issue.)

There's another angle to this too. For a lot of people, even those without significant skin in the game, an honest story reflecting the world they live in touches on a lot of culture politics and includes a lot of people who have significant differences to them. I get that's not everyone, but equally the people who grew up in mono-cultural, mono-ethnicity environments should get they're not everyone either. That's respecting people who are just trying to be who they are, right?
 
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Offline Nora

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Re: Is fantasy a bit fixated on culture politics?
« Reply #11 on: April 08, 2018, 09:53:57 AM »
I'm with Nora and think it depends a lot on what books you pick up at a certain point in time. At least I've had issues in the past where every book I read (published in multiple years) seemed to have many points in common, and it was annoying me a bit.

Thing is, we can control the books we pick up, right? And while some things you don't know when you pick it up, details about the MC are usually something that pop out pretty quick if you do research. Not always, but usually. So... if you don't wanna read books by white dudes about black lesbians, don't read them?

Yes and no. Depends on the type of reader you are, I guess? I get caught by the concept, or heavy recommendation. I also DNF easily. I never pick up books because the author is "such and such" or because the MC is such and such...
I'll never pick up black lesbian stories or stories by black lesbians if they sound bad. inversely if the blurb sounds good, I'll give it a shot, usually without knowing anything about the author.
So yes we do control books we pick up, but keeping away from certain types or digging others for the sake of a political agenda seems like a pure hassle to me.


But overall I think this specific author is widely lacking in range in her observations. She says "I'm not puppy but.." and goes on to prove that the obsession is mostly on her side and not others. I could give her a list of books by non cis white males published in the last 5 years to some acclaim, most of which have good average representation or toss the gender/race war out the window or swap it for alien politics.
The books are out there, and as peat says if she wanted a broader view of SFF atm she may just as well start looking better at what she picks up.
She does say she read foreigners (good), but she doesn't seem to care about the nature of english books beyond the political range.
Seriously who goes to check what "wing" the author is when reading about dragons or spaceships? I mean sometimes it's obvious or interesting to know, but seriously, she may want to look at gender before political colours, no?

Also she says:

Quote
Sadly, I think liberal culture has become weirdly intolerant in its quest for tolerance, and blind to its own failings. As geek culture is a part of that, we suffer too. It makes me sad.

She says that and does nothing to prove or explain her point. She also does a lot of "but...".
Like seriously :

Quote
You know, the world is so canted toward established elites it’s natural for folk to want to redress the balance, but I do think we have a tendency to get a bit fixated on culture politics in the genre and in some ways it makes the problems worse.

HOW?? How does it make it worse, how does it pollute geekdom? I think it's a load of crock, since her ultimate point if you retrofit her sentence is that we ought to write less against the established elites. Lest every other book ends up being a little Trumpey?
Because featuring black lesbians is the same as voting trump to power I guess. Sigh.

If I ever end up published (likely never) such interviews would terrify me. I'd have nothing to say. I certainly would be afraid of using so many words to say so little, and the little said being stuff like "let's not try diversity too hard it's giving me a puppy attack".
We forget how basic humans writers remain. Just because you could assemble a story and brave publishing doesn't mean you have interesting views or well rounded opinions on non-fictional, real world things.
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Offline Rostum

Re: Is fantasy a bit fixated on culture politics?
« Reply #12 on: April 08, 2018, 11:19:23 AM »
Tell your story. Do not pander and don't apologize for doing so. Everyone has an opinion the trouble arises from those whose opinion are fundamentalist and claim all the right all the time. It is your story write it well and push it hard and it will be read regardless of the opinions of others. You will not ever please everyone and do not allow your story to be determined a vocal minority. Be true to your writing a reader can always stop reading if they find it dull, uninteresting, horrific or entertaining, but it is more likely be be these things if you are constrained by the controls put in place by others.




Offline Yora

Re: Is fantasy a bit fixated on culture politics?
« Reply #13 on: April 08, 2018, 11:45:26 AM »
That's what I meant with a "diversity of works". The problem I see is not with the writers and what they write, but with which writers and which works are getting any attention by readers, reviewers, and publishers. Any diversity problems are issues of the market, not of the works.
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Offline JMack

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Re: Is fantasy a bit fixated on culture politics?
« Reply #14 on: April 08, 2018, 12:39:15 PM »
I think the biggest objection I would have to what I understand to be modern correctness is the idea that a black lesbian can’t write about a straight white male, and the SWM can’t write about the bisexual Thai, and the bisexual Thai can’t write about the black lesbian, and ad nauseum. Plus the underlying division of everyone by sexual orientation and ethnicity.

Language about ally-ship and micro-aggressions and cultural appropriation is very off-putting to me. (That said, there are good reasons for me to work to understand the underlying points.)

It’s piling on to say that good writing is good writing. N.K. Jemison writes great stuff. She chooses to delve into themes about oppression of classes of people by other classes. For me, it makes her books powerful. And guess what, Charles Dickens did the same.

So, if the article writer believes that publishers are over-emphasizing a current trend, then she needs to write or champion works she thinks are being passed over. And make them fantastic reads.
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