My name is M Harold Page and I recently sold a short story with a dragon in it.
As I wrote the story, I could hear the voices of snarky snobbery in the back of my head:
"Oh look, LOL, you could reduce all Fantasy maps to a blotchy version of Europe but swap in Orks for Mongols.... OMG another book about E'lves and D'warves... (chortle) Historical fiction for authors too lazy to do research."
"Sigh. Isn't it time to explore other cultures?"
Yes it's pretty easy to snark at -- call it - Traditional Fantasy, and also to give it a political
kicking critique. It is, after all, a genre in which everything is possible, and yet where it usually delivers European-style secondary worlds and archetypes.
I think the snarks and critiques rather miss the point. However that's for a different blog post. Instead let's consider the short defence of Traditional Fantasy, which is the starkly simple:
"Go [redacted] a [redacted]! My reading time is my own."
To me that's a pretty unassailable position.
Clever people with loud views on genre often forget that most of us consume books in the ragged gaps in our lives - on a train or bus to work, while watching over a sleepless baby, or just before keeling over exhausted at night. Nobody is entitled to our reading time.
They also forget that it's not a zero sum game with other literature, writers, or sources of information. Having Traditional Fantasy as a go-to precludes neither reading other kinds of books by other kinds of people, nor engaging with the political world through other means; Sometimes I put down my Conan to read the Guardian. Nor does a love of Traditional Fantasy necessarily imply any sense of entitlement that might, just for hypothetical example, manifest in wanting to hijack a popular speculative fiction award. (Blackgate Magazine, for whom I blog, likes its Traditional Fantasy, but spurned its puppy-soiled Hugo nomination just as soon as the editor could find a big enough poop-a-scoop.)
However, as I said, the clever people forget, and in forgetting feed a casual snobbery against Traditional Fantasy.
This matters because snobbery against a genre really means snobbery against actual people; those who create and consume the genre in question.
Sure, who cares if you tease my wife for binge-reading almost the entire Wheel of Time while on maternity leave?
But stop and think about the result when a High School English teacher slaps down a teenager who writes a book report on the latest Joe Abercrombie. And, consider the practical professional implications when those in charge of the various literary pork barrels - festivals, grants, residencies, teaching gigs - exclude Fantasy writers because what we write doesn't really count as literature
The snobbery against Traditional Fantasy also matters because it feeds a more general snobbery against Speculative Fiction, that snobbery really being part of a nasty little power struggle between the old and the new middle class tribes.
The old tribe gets its culture from the private ("independent" as in "posh") school system, from certain sorts of degrees from certain kinds of institutions. Its members often come from established middle class families, passing privilege down the generations via contacts and inside knowledge as much as actual resources.
Members of the old tribe like smart clothes and typically get their spirituality from expensive yoga retreats. They are suspicious of intellectuals, but aspire to refined tastes and defer to a tribal intelligentsia that likes post modernism, "serious" literature, and opera, that dabbles with champagne socialism, and claims to enjoy "crucial" plays about the underprivileged in which nothing much happens.
The new tribe are the Geeks. Us.
At our best we're as meritocratic as we are inclusive. We come from all backgrounds. Our sense of style veers wildly between practical and playful, and is always more semiotic than fashionable. We get our spirituality from fire festivals and Yoda memes. We aspire to being an intelligentsia. Many of us are hands on activists. We prefer screen to stage, and insist on stories where things happen (like that bit in Firefly where Mal...). We like all sorts of books, but, historically at least, have a soft spot for those with rockets and elves on the covers.
And we are the new technocrats. Not a lot goes on in business or academia without a card-carrying geek making the computer side of things work, or handling the bewildering maths or abstract concepts. We may not have taken over the world yet, and we're certainly not overrepresented in the 1%, but our rise is as inevitable as that of the 19th century factory owners and industrialists.
Normally, the old tribe would just absorb or overawe us - hand out knighthoods and teach us to eat with a knife and fork. However, we see mainstream culture as just another set of options, and we play very different games of social dominance:
"You do improv theatre? That's cool! Did you know I'm a GM?"
It's like watching Sparta and Athens come to grips... infantry versus navy.
A good way to win a war is to move it onto a battleground of your choosing and then define the interaction so yours is the most powerful side - our King Robert did that to the English back in 1314. And that's how I see what's happening: By a sort of collective unconscious reflex, the old tribe pushes back, dismissing geek culture, ignoring it in their arts columns and literary festivals, writing grant rules to exclude it, putting down the things that give us pleasure: "You may be clever, but your tastes are childish. Get back to work, techno-peasant!"
And we often buy into it enough to say;
"Oh no, not MY tastes. I read [Your Genres Here]. But those tastes over there? Those are childish."
Oh that was the other good way to win a war; Divide and Rule.
This is why Traditional Fantasy deserves a more systematic defence than just that of mere personal preference, which is what I'll get to in my next blog entry.
Oh, and that dragon story?
I told those voices to go to hell, and for good measure put in skeletons, elves and dwarves. When I settled to my next gig - a franchise short story about battling wizards in a ruined city - the snarking snobbish voices in my head had stilled forever.
Or.. (shameless plug)... perhaps I just can't hear them over the remembered sound of Jutes and Ostrogoths clashing in the breach at Orleans while Attila's archers storm the parapet and bring down an arrowstorm on the mercenary shieldwall...