Tue
Feb 26 2013 12:00pm

Sleeps With Monsters: Epic Fantasy is Crushingly Conservative?

Sleeps With Monsters: Epic Fantasy is Crushingly ConservativeI’ve been thinking about a question asked by @Gollancz on Twitter. “Epic Fantasy is, by and large, crushingly conservative in its delivery, its politics and its morality. Discuss. And why? (Oh why?)” [7:20 pm DST, Feb 20, 2013.]

Following, and participating in, some of the conversation that followed—which either took the statement for granted or argued that it was an incomplete characterisation of the subgenre—several things occurred to me. The first is that we keep having this conversation, over and over again, without defining our terms. How do we define “epic”? What counts as “conservative”? (It’s a word with multiple axes of interpretation.)

Let’s start with “conservative.” N.K. Jemisin says, “Because the “fantasy” most EF delivers is of white male power & centrality, as much as dragons. That *is* conservativism, now.” [@nkjemisin, 8:00 pm  DST, Feb 20, 2013] We can agree that conservative, here, is fundamentally concerned with not changing the present default cultural narratives of who gets to hold and use power, how, and why. For our genre, for our culture(s) in the US, UK, and Europe, that’s white (heterosexual) cisgendered men. Often persons who don’t fit these criteria who hold and use power anyway are portrayed as wrong, anomalous, wicked. (There are plenty of cultural narratives floating about concerning the moral and occasionally physical degeneracy of non-straight-white-men. Plenty.)

But is epic fantasy really “crushingly conservative”? This, I think, depends on how we define “epic.” There’s a lack of firm semantic boundaries when it comes to distinguishing “epic” fantasy, the fantasy of the world-changing/saving quest, of the knight sans peur et sans reproche or its deconstruction, from “sword & sorcery”—which I think we can formulate as the fantasy of encounter*—and “high” fantasy, the fantasy of politics and kingdoms. If we consider urban fantasy as encompassing a wider range than the marketing category of that name, we also have second-world urban fantasy, even noir, city-focused fantasy. Lately we have a further modifier in “gritty” or “grimdark”—words which are sometimes used interchangeably and sometimes not.

If epic fantasy is second-world fantasy that shapes its arc in the form of a grand mythic quest (or several), that plays with tropes such as the return or re-establishment (or sometimes the purification) of a monarch, then it’s, by nature, conservative in structure, and by habit conservative in the political institutions it portrays. But it’s not necessarily conservative in its attitudes towards power, relationships, and orientation towards divinity. We can find counter-examples, depending on which part of our definition we choose to emphasise—Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts is fairly clearly epic, and so is some of Kate Elliott’s work. Alma Alexander’s Changer of Days/The Hidden Queen may qualify. Jacqueline Carey’s work, particularly her deconstruction of LOTR. Is N.K. Jemisin’s work epic fantasy, or high fantasy, or some combination thereof with other influences? How do we classify Bujold’s Paladin of Souls or The Sharing Knife quartet?

Martin Petto pointed out that there might be more than one thing at work: “a small amount of epic fantasy that deliberately subverts conservativeness of genre but also... a much large[r] chunk that has absorbed epic fantasy as one facet [of all the other fantasy influences on their work]. I think a lot of the supposed counter examples are latter.” [@nine_below, 8:40 pm and 8:43 pm DST, Feb 20, 2013.]

The quintessential epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, was itself in many ways and for all its many flaws a revolutionary reworking of myth. Patrick Nielsen Hayden points out, “[T]he arc of myth is conservative. That’s why it’s myth.” [@pnh, 2200 DST, Feb 20, 2013.]

But I’m caught, here, once again, on our lack of semantic certainties. (I’m not a strict structuralist, but I can’t quite convince myself to take post-structuralism seriously. Humans make patterns and then analyse them, it’s what our brains are for.) “Epic” in discussions like these frequently means whatever each individual participant wants it to mean: examples that don’t meet a participant’s own personal criteria are dismissed as insufficiently epic, while other participants may wish to claim them. We’re going by feel: what makes GRRM or Peter Brett or Joe Abercrombie or Sam Sykes (to pick some names that came up on Twitter) more epic than Michelle West or Kate Elliott or Sherwood Smith or Scott Lynch? Our vocabulary for discussing the distinctions and permutations of second-world “immersive” fantasy as she is writ has no easy way to discuss gradation.

Discussions and definitions of “epic” fantasy are inherently conservative, it seems to me, but I’m not convinced that epic itself needs to be, or is innately, anything other than structurally conservative. (I’m not going to digress here into epic traditions in premodernity and how we can relate them to genre, though I’d like to: I’m not sure I know enough.) We come back again to a lack of a broad consensus in definitions: I like epic, you like grimdark, they like crap.

Are we, in fact, looking at a largely post-epic landscape? Is epic a term of art that has lost its particular meaning and is now applied as a marketing category that encompasses a much wider range of thematic and structural arcs than the world-saving/changing quest and re-establishment/purification of monarchical institutions? What does that mean for our conversations?

What does that mean for the epic quest?

*To clarify my thought: sword & sorcery isn’t defined by the quest, even when quests are taking place during it. For me, it’s defined more by its tension between quest/magic as a means of making a living (or as intrusions into regular means of making a living), and its encounters with things numinous, strange, and threatening. This is not the strictest definition in the world, I admit. Petto has a brief discussion of ways of distinguishing sword & sorcery and epic at Everything Is Nice, from 2010. (I personally think The Steel Remains and its sequel hew much closer to active deconstructions of epic heroes rather than to S&S, but the two veins of traditional fantastical conversation lie very close together there.)


This sort of thing keeps Liz Bourke awake at nights, wondering.

84 comments
Shelly wb
1. shellywb
You know, the people saying that are the ones who are ethnocentric in their focus. Go to China and look at their epic fantasy. For the most part there's nary a white male to be found.

But as for conservatism, people have tended to write epics to commemorate big myths and events in their cultures, and also reinforce values that are important to them. So of course they're conservative in that way. But too, the focus of the epic is often one person who stands out and bucks the system and changes things from an older way to a better one. In that way, many epics laud radical behavior that supports current moral standards. We see modern fantasy (that some would say is bucking trends) doing just that.
TBGH
2. TBGH
No mainstream conservative group defines itself based on being
"fundamentally concerned with not changing the present default cultural narratives of who gets to hold and use power, how, and why."

Almost all people who call themselves conservatives (especially those eschewing the term republican) define themselves as being for a government that is smaller and does less and is therefore less of a burden. And yes that is going against the historical trend in this country therefore being 'backward' and 'conservative.'

Even going by your definition, I can think of just as many epic fantasies fighting the currently powerful evil (Belgariad, Song of Ice and Fire), as trying to uphold the current good power against rising evil (LOTR, Furies of Calderon). Sword of Truth kind of fits into both definitions.

Is the majority of epic fantasy male-centric? Sure. There are some very good authors changing that however. The mistborn trilogy is by any definition epic, but the main character and primary warrior is a girl, (despite the writer being a white male Mormon).

I can't think anything that bringing the term conservative into the argument does except muddy the waters.
Steven Halter
3. stevenhalter
double post
Steven Halter
4. stevenhalter
shellwb@1:That's a good point. When the discussion was going on,
Patrick Nielsen Hayden (@pnh (twitter) /pnh/status/305061637822484480) pointed out that:
"Exactly. “Conservatism” is at heart a cry of rage over privilege being challenged in any way."
(A definition I liked quite a bit.)

Exactly what is conservative varies with the society being discussed, but the essential nature is that it is a protectionist concept--protecting the privilege of whoever has it from those who don't.
Thus, in a lot of what is generally termed "Epic" fantasy we get the protection of the monarchy--the restoration of the wronged ruler/heir to the power that they "deserve."
There are many examples of "epic" fantasy that are conservative. But, as the discussion pointed out, there are many voices in fantasy where conservatism is not being supported. So, the "crushingly conservative" portion of the discussion doesn't seem applicable in general--just in specific cases.
Ben Goodman
5. goodben
Inasmuch as "conservative" = "traditional," it will tend to be that way. Fantasy, for the most part, looks backward. Science fiction looks forward and therefore tends to be more progressive. This isn't to say that you can't change things around, but those are the tropes and genre expectations.

You can't really get more conservative than ruling kings, aristocracy, and the other trapings common in epic fantasy settings.

As for the "crushing" part, I'd say that would depend on the author. A poor author wouldn't flex or play with the tropes, while a good author would.
TBGH
6. Eric Saveau
TBGH, the examples that you used above of the Belgariad and ASOIAF are examples of authors very deliberately working against conservative tradition in fantasy (and in the case of the Belgariad, I would argue largely unsuccessfully so). Bourke's use of the term 'conservative' works in exactly the way she argues; that conservatives work toward the preservation and expansion of a cultural, political, and political hegemony that favors wealthy heteronormative white males at the expense of everyone else. For examples, I now point to last year's political season in the US; virtually everyone who identified as conservative was an exemplar of said hegemony. That such conservatives may also argue for smaller government does not negate this.
TBGH
7. olethros
@TBGH @2:

They may not define themselves that way, but their beliefs and policy preferences have that result, whether intended or not.
T C
8. Freelancer
Epic adventure tales find themselves most commonly corraled into an Arthurian/Tolkienesque mold, with royal/fuedal societies, champions and dread beasts, sword & sorcery, and wicked intrigues.

To offer the reader better than a coin-flip chance of suspending disbelief in such a realm, anchors to recognizable culture have become, not only the most easily understood, but the easiest to research from history.

Basing fantasy story elements on behaviors known from history, then begs the question regarding conservative bona fides. The "old ways" are conservative by definition, and are almost impossible to escape in the genre. Attempts to do so, however, are plentiful, if not always effective. "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" by Mark Twain may well have been the first attempt at overthrowing the standard legendary tropes, and certain the most well written. Conversely, "A Knight's Tale" may be a cute movie, and a useful vehicle for Heath Ledger's career, but the story is utterly impossible to believe, even for a moment. While the writers clearly knew this, one wonders if they became resigned to the the half-parody, or intended it all along.

Finally, the phrase "crushingly conservative" leaves no doubt that in the eye of that particular beholder, there is an agenda beyond expecting a good, engaging story. How much responsibility does an author bear, either in meeting the internal prejudices of each reader, or of evading offenses? Caveat emptor.
TBGH
9. Hedgehog Dan
Speaking of Belgariad, I have always found the way it depicts the Murgos off-putting at best...
TBGH
10. soru
Conservative is a political term, politics is derived from historical change, and being set in something equivalent to a particular historical period is a defining feature of fantasy.

So I don't see how fantasy that was not in some sense conservative, in the sense of being set in a pre-capitalist society roughly analogous to the Middle Ages or earlier, would still count as fantasy.

Instead surely it would be steampunk, urban fantasy, space opera or whatever genre GG Kay's recent work fits into?
TBGH
11. Eugene R.
I wonder if the distinction that we instinctively if inchoately detect between Epic Fantasy and Sword&Sorcery is based on the split in stance toward a conservative (and/or restorative) viewpoint and a more progressive (and/or subversive) one. S&S protagonists tend to the non-normative, picaresque sorts, and their goals and ambitions are generally not in the service of The Powers That Be (or at least only unwillingly so). "Nothing with kings, nothing with crowns. Bring on the liars, lovers, and clowns!", to borrow a lyric.

I am thinking of the classical opposition of Moorcock to Tolkien, with the Eternal Champion stories (Elric, Hawkmoon, et al.) culminating in pretty much the reverse of a "return of the king", instead jettisoning the very idea of the necessity of protective deities ("Gods? We don't need no stinkin' gods!"). Moorcock's criticisms of Tolkien center around what he feels is the Professor's undeserved sentimentality for The Good Ol' Days (that never, ever were), and so are an explicit rejection of the conservative viewpoint.
TBGH
12. Steven M. Long
Really interesting discussion. The first thing that really came to me was to think of it in terms of a challenge for writers: to be aware of what elements in their writing are conservative or revolutionary and to employ them consciously, as much as anyone can.
TBGH
13. thezandyman
I posted this on twitter. But it seems conservative because by the modern definition of conservatism it is. Social issues are the definition of first world problems. If we had to worry about the survival of the human race or the end of the world or taxes being too high because of wars. Do you really think we would be arguing over gun control, gay rights, or abortion?

I don't. Most fantasy writers when writing some piece of historical fantasy bring up the politics of that time. Where famine, death and having half you children die before the age of two was not just common but expected.

To me it has nothing to do with the male power fantasy. Though it can be viewed as such if you let it. It has more to do with the historical and real life limitations that the authors set forth with in their world building. Want a more liberal fantasy? Look towards modern set pieces and urban fantasy.
Brian R
14. Mayhem
Epic fantasy in my mind is that which involves more than just the fate of a single land or kingdom. So things like Brooks, Tolkein, Malazan, ASoIaF, Midkemia, several of Moorcock's champions and so forth.

In most early cases as the genre boomed, the story is straightforward - the quest to save the kingdom from the great dark land. The books are relatively simple, the politics of the author coming through often seem based on a desire for a simpler time. Small c conservative as it were, more focussed on retaining the status quo or 'Returning the King'.
In more recent fare, the story tends to be much more nuanced. There are significant shades of grey, the scandals of the 70s and 80s cast a long shadow, and often people are writing much more politically charged works. Martin's ASoIaF doesn't really have a good or bad side for example, most of the good guys do some pretty nasty stuff. Which is characteristic of the time periods on which it was based - wars of succession were never as clean as the ballads made out.
I'm trying to think of a fantasy author writing their politics straight to the page - only ones I can really think of at the moment are SF in the Baen stable - Ringo or Kratman are particularly obvious.
Large C Conservative in the modern political sense, carefully angling a particular message through writing that trips particular emotive traps.

And then you have those that set out to actively work against genre conventions at the time - Glen Cook, Moorcock, Erikson, Abercrombie. They are steeped in history, familiar with both their genre and the ancient precedents from Homer onwards. They take pleasure in leading the mind down familiar genre roads, and then yanking the safety net away and unleashing chaos. Whether it is Cook's military realism, Moorcock's rejection of spirituality and organised religion, Erikson's playing with almost every toy in the stable or simply Abercrombie's nihilistic rejection of the traditions, each takes careful joy in promoting an agenda that is far from conservative. Each in his time actively wanted to challenge their peers and readers, to poke holes in traditions, and claim their own ground in the genre.

At heart, I think the argument comes down to word choice confusing the issue, between the relatively simple preservation of the status quo with the active capture of the word by the political Right.
In New Zealand for example, conservative is mostly used in the sense of Conservation, preservation of common land for future generations by a relatively center left department of the government. In the UK, it is utterly occupied by the political party of the Right, and preservation barely enters into it. Much the same as the word Republican means very very different things in Australia and the US. But I seem to have lost my point so I'll stop.
TBGH
15. Seamus1602
I'd say first that I am continually surprised about the number of Mormon/LDS fantasy authors. Whether that translates into an overall genre conservativism is another issue, though.

I would say that epic fantasy is generally presented in a way where there are numerous characters and storylines and, in the best, all those characters have shades of grey. As such, we get to choose the characters we like and identify with. Depending on how that falls out for you, you could see conservativism or liberalism in any epic fantasy.

Examples:

In WOT, are the Aes Sedai and their power even through the end of the story and example of conservativism (the world needs the White Tower/Roman Catholic Church even if it has done some dumb things in its history) or is it an example of liberalism (it's all women!)?

In LOTR, is the re-rise of the Dunedein an example of conservativism (everything's going back to how it was in the good 'ole days) or is the presence of the hobbits an example of liberalism (the welcoming of a previously-denigrated group as full individuals)?

In Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars, is it conservative because of the ongoing power of the church, or is it liberalism because of the heresy that transforms that church? Is that a statement that the church must change or an allegory to the changes the church experienced in the first few centuries AD?

There are many examples, of which I've only mentioned a few. Maybe you think the questions above have easy answers, but I would contend that different readers can all come up with different answers.

In short, I would say that epic fantasy is only as conservative as the reader makes it, though I do find epic fantasy authors to be more conservative than I would otherwise expect.
Jonah Feldman
16. relogical
I would yield the point on epic fantasy's implicit approval of "rightful kings" and poor farmboy heroes turning out to be long-lost princes because no actual farmboy could become a hero and so forth.

But that one aspect of "conservatism" is the one that matters least in real life, since it's a true fantasy concept of social class that has to be stretched beyond credulity to support any real-life agenda.

Fantasy morality being "conservative" is basically complaining that black-and-white, good-vs.-evil morality should never be employed, ever. But not everything needs to be morally ambiguous. If every video game forced moral complexity on us, we couldn't just go around shooting Nazis and demons. Similarly, fantasy sometimes needs simplified morality if you're telling a story where the villain's villainy is not in question because the story is primarily concerned with other elements.
TBGH
17. Eric Saveau
@relogical -
If every video game forced moral complexity on us, we couldn't just go around shooting Nazis and demons. Similarly, fantasy sometimes needs simplified morality if you're telling a story where the villain's villainy is not in question because the story is primarily concerned with other elements.
Well, not every video game does deal with moral complexity; very few, in fact. But as an example of a video game that does, to at least some extent, deal with moral complexity in a fantasy setting I offer the Dragon Age series from Bioware. Given the limitations of video game design (not to mention time and budget) I think that series does an excellent job of presenting narrative-driving moral problems that leave the player wondering not always which solution is best, but which is least bad.
TBGH
18. TBGH
Certainly one discussion on a forum such as this can't undo the divide that decades of attack ads and biased media (on both sides) has caused, but here's my try.

@4 That's a great rallying cry, but do you really believe that I'm here talking about this because I'm passionate over challenges to my white male privileges? (And for the record I'd just about max out the conservatism score on any political orientation quiz.) I want everyone to have the same basic rights. I want the government to protect those rights and our safety. And then I want them to butt out.

@6 Yes, the 2012 election was the most racially centered election in modern history. 60% of whites for Romney, two thirds of Hispanics and 95% of the African-Americans voted for Obama. The people who cited race as an influential factor in their decision to vote were overwhelmingly African-American. I don't care about race. Treat everyone the same. All these white conservatives in Florida voted in the Hispanic Rubio over the incumbent White Governer Crist in the Republican primary for senate. That suggests most of them don't care about race either. I'm not an idiot. I know that almost every minority out there sees Republicans as the enemy. And as long as that is true, the large majority of self-labeled conservatives will be white. I'm just saying that history suggests that conservatives will vote for any race if they promote conservative (read small government) values.

@7 Apparently everybody's policies do, because nothing has changed for the better for minorities no matter who's in power. Unless you count women. Their earning power and representation in company ownership has risen consistently since the 80s no matter who was in power.

Back to fantasy, maybe it's just the particular books I've read, or maybe it's the fact that I didn't start reading fantasy until countering the cliche was the norm, but to me if this idea was relevant it was long ago and not pertinent to modern epic fantasy.
TBGH
19. Eric Saveau
TBGH, that's incredibly disengenous. The Republican base supporting a handful of minority candidates who support rich white male heteronormative privilege over an incumbent who had leaned slightly away from same hardly supports your case. Also, racism is hardly the only thing differentiating conservatives from liberals in the US.

But as long as you bring race up with the hand-wringing complaint of being "seen as the enemy" it's worth touching on exactly what conservatives have done to earn being seen that way. Conservatives denigrate minorities constantly in politics and in the media. Before Obama even took office there were complaints about having someone of his particular hue in the otherwise White House, and all manner of racist caricatures flying about the conservative corners of the internet. In the last several election cycles including the last one there there have been several very open efforts by conservatives to suppress minority voting. Since you are, as you say, not an idiot, you obviously already know these things, which makes your protest above ring a tad hollow.
Liz Bourke
20. hawkwing-lb
TBGH @18:

Gollancz is a UK publisher. I'm Irish. If you want to contest the modern Republican definition of political "conservatism" with the other commenters, please take it elsewhere, or bear in mind that "conservative" as she are used in US political discourse may bear little to no relation to how the rest of the world uses the word. Also bear in mind that in the UK, whence the starting point of this discussion originated, your American Democrats pass as political conservatives.

Meanwhile, we have advanced two possible definitions of conservative:
1. concerned with preserving existing cultural and political defaults,
or
2. (US, generally Republican usage) concerned with demolishing US government "overreach"/promoting "small government."

Have we yet ventured upon a definition of epic upon which we can reach any kind of consensus?

(Have some other thoughts to direct at other comments, as well. Hope to do that soon.)

ETA:

Eric Saveau @19:

Okay, you and TBGH take that discussion somewhere else now, please. There are plenty of places to argue US politics. Let the rest of us have this one to argue epic fantasy.
TBGH
21. Eric Saveau
Understood.
Jenny Kristine
22. jennygadget
"Have we yet ventured upon a definition of epic upon which we can reach any kind of consensus?"

I'll make an attempt! I would say epic has a lot to do with scope - a grandness of scale in terms of either time or geography or both.

My question is: can the point of view be intimate and limited, while the action and consequences are grand in scope, and the story still be considered epic? Could one substitute layers of culture and society for time or geography?

As in: could a story that is about a short moment time in a particular place, but whose focus encompasses a wide variety of people, and where the effects of the action is clearly far-reaching - would that still be epic? How about a clearly epic plot, but only told through the eyes of a single person?
TBGH
23. Eric Saveau
Back on topic, I'll raise Dragon Age again as an example of something that is both epic fantasy and high fantasy with regard to the definitions offered in the OP by Liz Bourke (and the "scope" discussed above by jennygadget), and note that in its narrative structure it presents various institutions and traditions that some factions are trying to preserve and others to otherthrow. In each case, the game provides points of view that are legitimately sympathetic to either side and leaves the player to make a decisions about which side should be supported. I realize that video games are not usually thought of something comparable to literature or film as a storytelling medium, and often for good reason. But Dragon Age stands out for me precisely because it is seems aware of the "conservative cultural narrative" as discussed above, and sets out to examine it through the player's choices, rather merely assume or oppose it.
TBGH
24. TansyRR
I wonder how much of this is conservatism on the part of the readers, as well. Whenever I hear many of the usual criticisms levelled at epic fantasy as a genre, I always feel a bit of a disconnect because I don't think that's true of the epic fantasy that *I* read. But then I tend these days to only filter my reading pretty heavily, so my own perceptions are skewed.

The same thing happens with 'hard SF' where a lot of the more subversive and challenging takes on the genre get argued out of being part of it at all. The hard SF that I like tends to be the stuff that others think isn't hard enough, though I will happily defend those works as being 'differently' rather than 'insufficiently' hard.

I think I'll just keep reading Kate Elliott, NK Jemisin, Rowena Cory Daniells and Glenda Larke, so as to preserve my happy bubble of epic fantasy being a dynamic genre full of subversive, rebellious texts.
Jenny Kristine
25. jennygadget
TansyRR @ 24

Yes. And I think that may go back to the whole "define you terms" issue. I suspect a lot of what happens is that people are considering
conservative ( or * cough * white/male dominated) to part of the defintion of "epic fantasy" and therefore see anything that deviates from this as being an edge case by definition, if perhaps not by popularity. And, likewise, when stories are edge cases according to the defintion of "epic fantasy" but our understanding of conservatism, they are often held up as the "core" of the genre.

Such as: extent to which GRRM's work is mentioned as an example of epic fantasy when in reality (from what people who have read it have told me) it's attempting to deconstruct it. Yet how often in Smith's Inda* mentioned as a good example of epic fantasy?

Some of this is simply a matter of what is popular and discussed, but this mindset in turn affects what is popular, because it alters which stories we discuss when the topic is epic fantasy.

* forgive me if by the fourth book it no longer fits the definition well, I have made it through the first two so far and it seems to me to be a prime example of the tropes.
Joris Meijer
26. jtmeijer
My sole contribution to the twitter conversation was the observation that non-conservative works don't tend to be labelled epic fantasy. While of course Tansy is right that there is so much more that would fit other more objective categorization.

For some reason 'white male (anglo) author' almost seems to be a necessity to be considered epic fantasy.* It is especially noticeable with borderline works. This seems to be partly caused by almost the whole discussion on epic fantasy taking place in fan space. Due to the tendency of eligible books being part of huge series consisting of doorstoppers (itself almost part of the definition) there does not seem to be much critical attention on the field.

*a small risk of conformation bias on my side due to the places where I spend time, but it seems consistent
Brian R
27. Mayhem
@Jennygadget
For tightly written and intimate in scope, yet still retaining that Epic feel, I give you Guy Gavriel Kay.
Take a work like Under Heaven, which is fairly tightly focussed on a handful of characters - less than a dozen significant ones.
The main focus is on the various siblings of a politically significant family and the result of their choices following the death of the father.
Yet illustrated through their eyes we see how very little shifts can set armies in motion offscreen, set brother on brother and ultimately trigger the collapse of a mighty empire.
Brian R
28. Mayhem
@27
I suspect some of that dominant white male anglo voice comes from the fact that most of what people read is published in the anglo sphere, and for the last forty odd years there has been very little back translation from the various foreign publishing spheres into English. Not even much from Italy, France or Germany, which all have relatively active communities.
This has been noticeably changing over the last 10 years or so - see the dramatic rise of the translated scandinavian thrillers - or in genre, the works of eastern european authors like Sergei Lukyanenko. Who technically is still white and male. As were most of the scandianavians. Hmm, I'm sure some of the wider read commenters can name some better candidates.
I know Japanese works are increasingly being translated, but I don't know of anyone from their traditions writing what I would class as Epic Fantasy - what I've seen tends to be either urban fantasy or episodical work - or the Epic is there but the Fantasy isn't.
David Lev
29. davidlev
Just wanted to throw my two cents in about the narrative structure ending with a character being determined the rightful ruler of the fantasy nation in question (which I personally see as being only one of several narrative structures common in epic fantasy). More often than not, this character who is being raised to ruling does so because they have overthrown an unjust ruler or system to do so, and their becoming a ruler leads to a more just realm. That isn't a conservative value, that is actually a profoundly revolutionary one, way at the other end of the political spectrum I remember being taught in my political science classes (which goes revolutionary-->liberal-->conservative-->reactionary). On the other hand, often times in this case the character is a member of a former aristocracy or ruling class who was supplanted by the unjust ruler, which IS somewhat conservative, especially if the reason they have gained control is based on them having the inherent right to rule (which is downright reactionary, really). Honestly, how this story structure is politically really depends on the individual details of the specific stories and how the author makes the reader feel about them.

I'd also like to point out that in the fairy tales that are sort of the precursors to epic fantasy, the protagonist is often a commoner who is able to use their wits or skills to gain the hand of a daughter of a ruling family, essentially marrying into the power structure while being a member of the proletariat (and this common-ness is often explicitly depicted as being a reason for their fitness to rule). Again, this is a simultaneously a conservative and revolutionary action, making it hard to judge where it should be placed on the political spectrum.
Alan Brown
30. AlanBrown
I play Irish music in pubs, and much of this discussion reminds me of the talk about what makes music traditional on Irish music websites. What elements make it traditional? If it is amplified, is it no longer traditional? Or if you play something newly composed in a manner that sounds traditional, is that traditional? If it is played by folks that aren't Irish, is it as authentic as that played by folks who are? (For myself, as long as the appropriate libations are involved, I tend not to worry about those issues.)
To me, what makes a story epic is that the stakes are large, the heroes at a disadvantage, and moral strength is as important as the physical. Thus, I would call Bujold's Sharing Knife stories an epic, even though the setting is not strictly traditional. If it were not for the magic and the lack of gunpowder, the setting would be difficult to distinguish from the rivers of the American Midwest around the turn from the 18th to 19th Centuries. To me, that made the stories far more interesting than the far too many stories set in some neo-Medieval Europe with dwarves, elves and all the trappings that folks normally associate with epics. In fact, one could argue that Star Wars, with all its spaceships and robots, is a more traditional epic than many of those tales.
What makes fantasy stories less attractive to me is how they often deal with issues of power. The idea that some people are born to rule, or to triumph. That some people are meant to serve. That those who deserve to triumph are handsome and lucky and charming. That power ends up in the hands of those who deserve to wield it. I much prefer to read about someone who triumphs because of their hard work, or the amount they are willing to sacrifice. Having read far too many histories about how monarchs abuse their people, I would prefer to see that uncrowned king remain that way.
TBGH
31. Anne77
I'm kind of surprised that of all the "multiple axes of interpretation", the author chose a definition of "conservative" from a liberal, conservative-loathing viewpoint. Even the title, "crushingly conservative" suggests that a conservative viewpoint it a bad, oppressive thing, or it could have been titled "mostly conservative" or "abundantly conservative."

Personally, I *like* that there are not just liberal books, but conservative books, and libertarian books, and communist-bent books, and everything inbetween. I like having choices. I like that I can have my epic fantasy and my hard SF and my dystopias, too. Should we be having a conversation about if urban fantasy is "crushingly liberal" in tandem with this one, then?
Ian Johnson
32. IanPJohnson
@5: I think it's overly simplistic to look at SF as being "progressive", because it's about the future, and fantasy as being "conservative", because it's set in "the past". There's plenty of examples of SF being used for right-wing purposes, and there's also quite a lot of epic fantasy that happens to be *very* left wing in its outlook. (I just read Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, which one reviewer described as "LotR meets Arab Spring". You can't get much more anti-authoritarian than that, really.)

That being said, I think that *any* author who is content to stay within the prescribed tropes of genre is writing conservatively, whether they're writing epic fantasy or hard SF, or whether their political views are liberal or conservative. There's no point in saying something that's already been said before.
Jenny Kristine
33. jennygadget
Mayehem @ 28

That explains the anglo part (not really - bc why so little translation? - but I'll ignore that for now) but what about the white and male part? (also cis, straight, etc.)

AlanBrown @ 30

What I would want to know about the music is - if it's not traditional, what is it? It may very well not be traditional Irish music, but clearly it's something. And not necessarily something so very different from traditional Irish music.

Likewise, I always wonder when people argue that something is or isn't a genre - well, what is it then? In other words, I still want to know how we are defining the genre(s). No even so much what our definitions are, but more....how we conceptualize and discuss them. How do we deal with edge cases? Do we see genres as inclusive or exclusive? Do they work like dog pedigrees do or are they (as Liz has argued elsewhere, I believe) more of a conversation?

Supposedly, everyone agrees the definitions are all about tropes and themes and such. But in practice I've noticed that people like to throw around words like "core" and define genres more in terms of examples they believe belong in that core - or not. Which makes it more of an in-group/out-group thing - and that may influence the importance people place on aspects of the stories that have nothing to do with the tropes in question.

Only being concerned with whether things fit into a particular box, and not with the fullness of what they are...that's where I think it can be easy to treat labels as status rather than tools. Which leads to moving goalposts and terms like "hard science" and other tools for maintaining the status quo. And results in conversations about genres that fail to be interesting.

Anne77 @31

regarding Liz' defintion of conservatism....

"...epic fantasy is ... by nature, conservative in structure, and by habit conservative in the political institutions it portrays. But it’s not necessarily conservative in its attitudes towards power, relationships, and orientation towards divinity."

It seems abudantly obvious to me that those sentences are using a definition of conservative that has nothing to do with any "liberal, conservative-loathing viewpoint."

"Personally, I *like* that there are not just liberal books, but
conservative books, and libertarian books, and communist-bent books, andeverything inbetween."

Really? because I tend to find books that can easily be placed in categories like that to be rather boring.

"Should we be having a conversation about if urban fantasy is "crushingly liberal" in tandem with this one, then?"

Surely we can at least come up with an adequately alliterative phrase instead?
TBGH
34. soru
"I think it's overly simplistic to look at SF as being "progressive",
because it's about the future"

This is true: set something in the present, the future, or sideways in history, and you can endorse or reject the present in ways that map to conservatism, or any other contemporary political philosophy.

The other half isn't; set things in the analog of the distant past, and you tend to end up with two choices:

- fuedalism is awesome; just need a rightful king
- feudalism sucks; what we need is a revolution that will set up a money economy, an easy source of loans, maybe a way of limiting losses...

As such, both are going to be conservative, in that they are going to be an endorsement of those elements of the contemporary world that exist because of history. The difference (Tory and Republican, Tolkein and Martin) is only whether that past is 9C or 19C.

You can, of course, do some work around the edges by showing a society that has a different culture, and so different social attitudes to race, gender and sexuality. I just don't think any of that playing around with cultural issues is going to stop the work being at base conservative.

Feudalism doesn't become something different just because the King is gay.
Fredrik Coulter
35. fcoulter
stevenhalter@3 & 4: That's a horrible definition of conservatism as currently promulgated in the United States, obviously drafted by a person opposed to conservatives. Conservatives would argue that "privilege" in the United States is held by the government and its allies. Therefore liberals are protecting the privileged class, not conservatives.

At least vocally, when not in power.

The biggest issue is that whichever side is in power has tended to, with a few minor exceptions, been hijacked by the system and bring more privilege to the government and its allies. So, while conservatives (while out of power) talk a good game, when regaining power, they succumb to the same rewards and privileges they vocally opposed earlier.

One could argue that liberals tend to be a bit more consistent. They want privilege concentrated with the government when they're in power and out of power. They focus more on being the ones with the privileges rather than the existence of the privileges themselves.
Fredrik Coulter
36. fcoulter
Since politics was already raised in this discussion, especially as related to United States politics of the 2012 election, I'll respond in kind. The normal caveots apply. The following discussion is based on recent politics of the United States and may not apply to other places or times.

Eric Saveau@6: I would go further than TBGH (@18) and state that you’re correct that the 2012 election was driven by race, but more on the part of the “liberals” than the conservatives. Conservatives in the 2012 election have embraced female and “minority” candidates, choosing to vote based upon the candidates stated policies rather than ethnicity or skin color. The portion of liberals who can be defined through their ethnicity overwhelmingly voted for the candidate who shared their ethnicity. The evidence is less clear as to whether white liberals vote based upon skin color either for someone who looks like them or for a minority candidate out of skin color based guilt.

I’d conclude, based on the 2012 election results, that liberals are more racist than conservatives. (Racist being defined as taking race into consideration when choosing who to vote for.)
Fredrik Coulter
37. fcoulter
Fantasy marketing tends to be conservative, not in a political sense, but in a "let's not change what worked in the past" sense. This means that the books that are marketed tend to look like last year's successful books. Since marketing tends to increase the success of a book, you end up with a feedback loop rewarding those books which don't vary from whatever formula worked in the past. That's the classic (not political) definition of conservative.

That's why I, with my limited budget for new books, read all of the SFWA nominees. (This year all but one or two of the finalists for best novel were fantasy. Kinda depends on how you define steampunk as to whether there were one or two science fiction works.) While the Hugo tends to be a better barometer of popular, knowledgeable tastes, the Nebula is more open to non-conservative works. (Progressive has even more political connotations than conservative, so I'm sticking with non-conservative. Experimental doesn't work, because being different than last year's book is not the same as experimenting with something new. I can't think of any other words that I can use for non-conservative.) If the writers think the book is good, it's just as likely that it's because the author is doing something different.

That's how I discovered N. K. Jemisin, among others.

Going back to the original question, I wonder if the actual working definition of epic fantasy is "a fantasy book where some white guy, maybe with some friends, saves the kingdom/world/universe." If so, then by definition epic fantasy is conservative on a gender/ethnic basis. After all, if the protagonist is either a woman or a member of a different ethnic group (or, Ghu forbid, both), then the book is by definition not an epic fantasy.

There's also the "saves the world" part of the definition to look at. That's also a conservative definition. Traditionally, conservative wishes to keep the status quo. Saving something, by definition, wants to keep the status quo. Usually in epic fantasy, the other option to saving the world is destroying the world, so maintaining the status quo is the preferable outcome. But in the real world, there are far more options than just maintain vs. destroy. So the real opposite of conservative is hard to define. After all, it's not hard to come up with worse outcomes than merely maintaining the status quo as well as better outcomes than maintaining the status quo.
Steven Halter
38. stevenhalter
fcoulter@35:So as not to venture into American politics here, I think we will just have to disagree as to whom is priviledged and whom is not.
TBGH
39. Eric Saveau
I suppose it's also worth noting that fantasy can involve a great deal of psychological projection.

This is probably an inherent aspect of both the craft of writing and the act of reading. But the degree to which it occurs in each writer and reader can vary greatly.
Liz Bourke
40. hawkwing-lb

fcoulter @35 and 36:

I hate to break it to you, but America is not the world. I've asked this already, but if you want to wrangle US politics' definition of conservative, as opposed to a dictionary definition, please take it somewhere else. There are plenty of places where US politics is the focus, as opposed to epic fantasy.

@ Everyone else:

I am still hoping to find enough time to actively participate in the meat of this discussion, but alas, I have not found it yet.
TBGH
41. Eugene R.
jennygadget (@33): A suitably alliterative phrase for the opposite of "crushingly conservative"? How 'bout "licentiously liberal"?
Rafael
42. Ryamano
First, regarding definition of epic to me: it's a measure of scope, both of the threat being faced (it's not just an assassination attempt, it's a threat to the whole kingdom/continent/world/etc) and the size of the world being described or the characters involved. If we take it by the second item, the Illiad, the Twelve Works of Heracles,
Mahabharata and the Epic of Gilgamesh are epic. Regarding fantasy, a world that isn't historical or where magic elements exist is fantasy to me. War and Peace is an epic, but it's not epic fantasy because there's no magic. Lithonde by Marion Zimmer Bradley is fantasy, but it's not epic fantasy because it involves mostly just some character and is not that long.

The definition of conservative, to me, is trying to go back to the "good old days" or to maintaing what is associated with these "good old days". "Family, property, church" was the motto used here in Brazil by conservatives, "God, king and country" in the UK I think. I think this is enough to get the general idea. Conservativism isn't exactly about maintaning all things as it is, but about choosing a certain point in time and saying what worked there is what works best. I'm not saying it's bad or good, as the definition that says it's about going against sharing priviledge would entail, just saying that's how it is. Conservativism is, by its nature, kind of nostalgic.

In the political sense, most epic fantasy is conservative. Like others said, it usually is set in a context where there is monarchy and uses the myth of the good king coming back or the good king being placed in power instead of the bad king. So it's a defense of the monarchy in the broadest sense. It uses this old trope a lot (think Robin Hood tales where the evil king John is being replaced by good king Richard), so it gets the conservative bias from there. Part of it is due to Tolkien, part of it is due to old works from Romantic Historic Novels from the 19th century (Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, etc).

Regarding gender, most books genres tend to be conservative. In the choice of main characters, I think romance and urban fantasy are the only ones where female protagonists are the norm instead of male protagonists. No genre chooses mostly bi, homo or cisgendered protagonists that I know of. So epic fantasy is conservative in this regard as well. Sometimes there's some experiment in gender relations (like Crown of Stars, where basically all priests are women and almost only women learn how to read) but most of the time there's no experimentation because it's intended to evoke the feeling of the historical past (middle ages or ancient age).

Regarding race, it's mostly conservative in North America/Europe, since it depicts what is usually considered conservative there (people from Europe). In other countries this might not be the case (I'm thinking basically about Japan).

Regarding moral values, most Epic Fantasy books can't escape manichaeism. It's somehow kind of a trap, since most of them choose to put the entire humanity at risk. The enemies to do so tend to be necessarily nonhuman entities, like nonhuman creatures (orcs, trollocs, wights), human races/ethnicities that are dehumanized (corsairs of Umbar, calormans) or dark gods. So the answer to the question of surviving the epic confrontation is a question about killing these nonhuman things and not feeling guilty about it. It's getting the joy of war without getting the guilt of war. In other words, it's a discourse that was used a lot by nationalistic wars and, so, to most concerns, it's conservative. Or maybe just manichaestic, I'm not sure how this figures out politically.
Ian Johnson
43. IanPJohnson
@34: Why are we assuming that "epic fantasy" and "feudalism" are synonymous? It's true that the genre has been historically associated with European feudalism, but that's not to say that an epic fantasy universe can be constructed where feudalism doesn't exist at all. There were many historical (that is to say, pre-modern) time periods that didn't have feudalism.

Ye Olde Traditionalle Europeane Feudalysme is a trope of epic fantasy, that's true, but a genre isn't solely a list of tropes. To say that only books containing X and Y can be considered to be a part of Genre Z is intellectually lazy. In order to examine whether epic fantasy is truly "conservative", we have to look at the underlying definition, not just its most obvious tropes.

My headdefinition of epic fantasy basically goes something like this: "a story set in a secondary world completely separated from our own commonly-accepted reality, in which magic plays a strong role". There's no mention of feudalism there. Hell, there's no mention that it has to be pre-modern there. I could easily imagine a novel set in an imaginary world that has the technological equivalent of the modern world, or even with SF-level technologies. Those wouldn't be the traditional Tolkien/Jordan/Martin epic fantasies that we're used to, but they would still be epic fantasies.
Jenny Kristine
44. jennygadget
Eugene R @ 41

haha. That might work. The alliteration is useful for both emphasis and intentional overkill, I think.

Ryamano @ 42

"Conservativism isn't exactly about maintaning all things as it is, but about choosing a certain point in time and saying what worked there is what works best."

That sounds reactionary, not conservative.

"Regarding gender, most books genres tend to be conservative."

I don't even understand this sentence.

IanPJohnson @ 43

"Hell, there's no mention that it has to be pre-modern there."

Yes, exactly! Which brings into the conversation stories like Bear's Edda of Burdens, which is futuristic and scifi and well as fantasy and mythological.

And this is what I meant when I was asking if genres are exclusive or inclusive. Are stories like this really on the edge? (On the edge of what?) Or do they just interact with genre differently from how we tend to think of books doing so?
Brian R
45. Mayhem
@43
I would extend your definition to encompass greater scope a bit more, but generally agree.
And Lee Modesitt is a good example of someone who has been consistently writing fantasy that ranges in and out of the Epic definition from book to book, but which frequently involves significantly greater technology than Ye Olde Middle Ages.
The early and late set Recluce novels, and especially the Imager novels deal with the industrial revolution, or the gain and loss of high technology in a fantasy setting.

One thought I did have - the classic agrarian society is naturally a very stable and slow changing one, especially if gender stereotyped, because most of the manpower is used in growing the food to feed the populace. Combine that with historical problems with disease and sanitation issues, and you have a lifestyle that tends towards short hard lives, with a few taking the cream.
Compare that with say the Eastern traditions, where while Europe was in the dark ages, China was able to feed and house several of the largest cities in the world. Chang'an supported over a million within the walls, and nearly two million within the metropolitan area in 750AD, at a time when supplies could only travel by river, canal or oxcart. Which frankly is a marvel of sanitation and distribution.
And it meant that while the country had a highly conservative outlook (in the sense that lifestyles on the whole seldom changed for centuries) at the same time there was a huge flourishing in the arts and sciences, and due to the education systems, it was possible for people of low birth to rise high into the ministerial classes so there was a suprising amount of social mobility.
TBGH
46. TansyRR
In Australia, since epic fantasy started being published and marketed in a major way in 1995, the genre has been largely identified with and associate with powerhouse female authors. Our first bestselling epic fantasy writer was Sara Douglass, followed by the success of Kate Forsyth, Trudi Canavan, Karen Miller and Glenda Larke. Until quite recently, these names have been more recognisable than the majority of men in the same field (with the possible exception of Sean Williams and Sean McMullen). There's perhaps more of a gender balance now, but it was certainly a very female "dominated" genre for us for a very long time, and during the formative years of HarperCollins Voyager, the first publisher to establish a major and commercially successful fantasy line in Australia.

All of those women have sold successfully internationally, and in most cases are still actively in print and still writing, their works all over what bookshops we have left. So it's always a bit of a shock (though we're getting used to it now) to hear any definition of epic fantasy which only talks about male authors, or indeed male protagonists being 'the norm'.

Australia is not the only country with awesome female writers of epic fantasy, of course, but we are lucky in that a bunch of them sold a lot of books during the years when we were figuring out what epic fantasy was, and a lot of those books were far from 'conservative' in their outlook. Which means I think that we are less restricted now except that sadly we seem to have reached a point where Australian publishers have lost a great deal of faith in their local writers, and prefer to look at what is happening overseas.

Our epic fantasy may well be on the way to becoming more and more conservative, which is depressing.
Joris Meijer
47. jtmeijer
IanPJohnson @43 and followup.
I think you are touching on the crux of the issue here. Genre labels are of course used for different reasons (sales, categorization, criticism, analysis), but one important reason is as a reader filter. There is so much being published that readers have to find ways to find what they'd like, and one way is to create a label for that fiction, excluding as much as possible things that are different. The drawback of that process is that labels get more limited, and often the 'loudest groups' define the common use interpretation.

This mechanism seems to be consistent with the use of archetypical stories that is common in discussions, eg Tolkien for epic fantasy, often with a second work to narrow it down even more.

Leaving epic fantasy for a second there is an interesting development I think I've seen in urban fantasy. In recent years the archetype for large parts of the internet seems to have shifted from Buffy the Vampire Slayer towards Harry Dresden; and that shift seems to be pushing Urban Fantasy written by women, and/or with female protagonists out of Urban fantasy and often into Paranormal Romance.

So I think that many established sub-genres are conservative simply because they are often used as a system to exclude. And the big problem of course is that it makes it so much more difficult for works that don't follow that narrow definition to be noticed, and remain in the conversation.

Or basically, given it is a norm being reinforced and defining the conversation, normal privilege playing up.
Ian Johnson
48. IanPJohnson
@47: That's exactly the problem. A book today can't just be "a novel": it's got to be a "Dystopian Art-Deco Trans-Humanist Cyberpunk Post-Apocalyptic YA Novel (with a touch of Steampunk)". Or something like that.

By this point, the labeling system isn't simply a way for readers to find books that they might like. It's dictating what stories authors are telling.
T C
49. Freelancer
Epic doesn't mean >600 pages in a volume. It refers to the scope of import of the story to the cosmos of the story. Ender's Game is, in terms of characters focused upon, a very limited scope. But the import of the crux of the story is galactic. The same holds for Star Wars. LOTR told of crisis affecting all free races of the land.

I would therefore contend that the Shannara stories, while vast in quantity, are far less 'epic' than others, in that the "fate of the world" is not a an underlying concern generating continuous tension.

Epic will always be misused/overused as an attention-grab. Only the story itself will tell the truth.
Ian Johnson
50. IanPJohnson
A followup to my post at 48: I actually made kind of an interesting connection regarding the subgenrefication of SFF. The only thing that has so many distinct subgenres that I can think of is heavy metal.

It's not enough, at this point, to describe a band as a "metal" band, because there are so many subgenres that sound so completely different. Metallica isn't "metal", it's "late-80s Bay Area thrash metal". Likewise, Slipknot is "avant-garde Midwestern alternative nümetal". While there are metalheads like me who'll rock out to anything from Dream Theater to White Zombie (much like there are fantasy fans who'll read everything from Ilona Andrews to Joe Abercrombie), there are even more who stick to a specific subgenre (death, sludge, alt, industrial, metalcore, and what have you).

These subgenres do serve their purpose, of course. A fourteen-year-old who's just listened to Ride the Lightning for the first time, and knowing that Metallica is thrash metal, might want to seek out other thrash metal bands like Anthrax or Slayer that might interest her. But placing Metallica into the narrow category of "thrash metal" ignores specifically those aspects of their music that make Metallica unique. In addition, it means that any further bands that play thrash metal might slavishly imitate Metallica, without creating anything new of their own. The same is true with young fantasy writers, who imitate Tolkien or Martin or Butcher, because they want to write a particular subgenre, and so they stick to the tropes.

Categorization is the enemy of art, whether in literature or music.
Philip Wardlow
51. PhilipWardlow
Who cares I say...just answer me this, was it a good story? If not the readers will let you know as well as the sales the books make or don't make...then the next writer will come along to tweak those worlds and stories to a new status quo for the masses, the editors, the publishers, and readers looking for something "different" even they cannot define in it themselves....EVERYTHING is subjective and logic doesn't apply like we think it does...sometimes the order is in the beautiful or not so beautiful chaos going on behind the scenes you don't dont see.
Jenny Kristine
52. jennygadget
IanPJohnson @ 48

"By this point, the labeling system isn't simply a way for readers to find books that they might like. It's dictating what stories authors are telling."

Really? because I don't see that at all. Or else I don't think you would get such wonderful mash-ups in the first place. You certainly would be less likely get books like Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons or Larbelestier's Liar.

Categorization is a tool. It's usefulness is determined by how it's used as much as how the taxonomy is set up.

Back when I was a young-un and I didn't have the internet to help me navigate finding sff to read, my understanding of these genres (or, the adult, literary, versions of them anyway) was largely defined by well-known, mainstream, white male dominated stories. Because that's all any of the adults I knew could direct me to, and anything that did not fit inside that box they did not see - and I did not see - as sff. My childhood love of things like Rainbow Brite were seen only as proof I was interested in girly things, and the scifi aspects of the show completely ignored.

Detailed taxonomies can be useed to futher box things in - but they can also be used to allow for more nuanced definitions. Especially now, in the digital age, where it's easier to see things as belonging in more than one place, rather than taxonomies needing to be a series of constantly narrowing categories. So the idea of a "Dystopian Art-Deco Trans-Humanist Cyberpunk Post-Apocalyptic YA Novel (with a touch of Steampunk" is not that it belongs only with the other stories that fit that exact description, but that it fits with all of the stories that share any part of that description.

This is how I see my friends and I, and the authors and critics I enjoy most, using these labels. And I find that much more inclusive than simply lumping everything under broad categories like scifi or fantasy, because it makes it easier to allow for something to be a type of scifi without being a "typical" scifi story. Which means its easier to make the argument that Rainbow Brite is too scifi - along with being other things.
TBGH
53. JennT
I don't think it's a coincidence that a large swath of the top fantasy authors are Mormon or very Christian. It really informs a lot of their writing. It's a problem in science fiction too. I recently had to stop reading Orson Scott Card entirely because his gender politics (repeatedly pairing a poorly characterized "immature" female protagonist, who by "leading on" a male protagonist turned him evil, with a much much older male protagonist to "control" her) was just too disgusting for me to set aside and enjoy the plot. There's huge publishing houses now completely owned by Mormons who only publish Mormon authors who only write science fiction and fantasy.

I have no problem with morality semi-informed by Christian mythology in my fiction. But I'm tired of people using their politics as an excuse to passive-aggressively prosletize at me when I'm just trying to read a story.
Fade Manley
54. fadeaccompli
Who cares I say...just answer me this, was it a good story?

Well, clearly some of us care, or we wouldn't be talking about it. (Presumably you wouldn't be commenting on it either unless you cared, in some sense. It does take a minimal effort to go type up a response.) And "was it a good story?" is an interesting question about any given individual work, but not the one at hand.

We communicate with words, generally. Especially online. So when we label something as "epic fantasy," what are we trying to communicate to other people? What are they taking to be our meaning when we write that? That's why we want to be able to answer things like "How are we defining epic fantasy?" and then seeing if that definition is inherently conservative, trends towards such because of various factors, or just happens match up with conservative systems more often than not.

Any of those might be true, but figuring out which is the case is going to let us having more interesting conversations about epic fantasy. What it's been doing, what it's done, what's going on in reaction to it, whether it's doing anything new or just variations on something old, if there are cool unexplored patches that no one has touched on yet... And we can talk about how people react to this. What sorts of reactions we might try for, when we write. What we ought to go read, if we're looking to get certain reactions ourselves from the text.

I mean. This is Tor.com. We talk about books! It's one of the big things here! Of course it makes sense to have a conversation about genre classifications, and what those mean, and how people express or understand them. If all anyone could ever say about a book was "It was a good book, but that's just my subjective opinion and logic doesn't apply, so never mind," there wouldn't be a lot of point in having this whole website where we go into a lot more detail than that.
TBGH
55. Bill McGrath
This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote on C.S. Lewis's book "The Discarded Image." his look at medieval liturature which in many ways gives a good definition of the common elements of High or Epic Fantasy liturature. He called these elements "The Medieval Model" and in many ways they are what we would deem the "Conservative" elements in classic High Fantasy.

High Fantasy and the Medieval Model

What is fantasy literature? First, we should acknowledge the fact that the myriad of genre definitions in literature we see today are a fairly recent invention. (Plato had just three categories, poetry, drama and prose, and I suspect if you go a bit farther back, all tales would have simply been “stories”). The way we categorize novels with terms like, “fantasy,” “sci-fi,” “horror,” “thriller,” “techo-thriller,” etc; comes from booksellers trying to make searches easier for customers trying to find a particular type of book. I can imagine these early conversations at bookstores went something like this: “Well Mr. Renfield, if you liked that Dracula story, then you might also like the books in this new section we call ‘Horror.’”

So then what is a fantasy story? To keep things simple, I would broadly define the fantasy genre as any work of fiction that contains a supernatural element. This would include the epic fantasies of Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling, as well as fairy tales, ghost stories and horror tales that have a supernatural cause. What I would like to examine is a sub-genre of fantasy known as High Fantasy, since this has been the most popular type, (the prime examples being the works of the aforementioned Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling) and compare this to the other genre of speculative fiction that fantasy shares shelf space with at the bookstore, namely Science Fiction.

I began thinking about the contrast between the two genres (or at least how they are expressed by their most famous authors) when one of the writers newsgroups I belong to began discussing the definitions of Fantasy and Sci-Fi. I recalled reading a quote from Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in which he described the differences between the modern and the classical novel and thought that, with a bit of tweaking, his description also worked well to define some of the differences between Sci-Fi and Fantasy stories. Here’s the gist of what Solzhenitsyn said going from memory (I haven’t been able to find the full quote on the net, so if you recognize it, I would appreciate a link to the source).

The quote went something like this:

The Modern story takes place in an urban environment. Its focus is on Man the Smith, the maker of things. Its plot revolves around what an individual protagonist wants.
The Classical story take place in a rural setting. Its focus is on Man the Shepherd, the protector and servant. Its plot revolves around what the hero and his people need.

While I am going to use this definition as a starting point in our discussion, I am not so presumptuous as to try to set laws on what a sci-fi or fantasy story must have, but rather identify the common practices of the most influential authors in the two genres. To further clarify the differences, I thought it would be helpful to contrast two sub-genres of sci-fi and fantasy, High Fantasy and Hard Sci-Fi, because in many ways each is the mirror image of the other.

Here’s the definitions of Hard Sci-Fi and High Fantasy as defined by a fan of each sub-genre (from Wikipedia):
Hard Science Fiction: Hard Sci-Fi is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both. The term was first used in print in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller in a review of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Islands of Space in Astounding Science Fiction. The complementary term soft science fiction (formed by analogy to “hard science fiction” first appeared in the late 1970s. The term is formed by analogy to the popular distinction between the “hard” (natural) and “soft” (social) sciences. Neither term is part of a rigorous taxonomy—instead they are approximate ways of characterizing stories that reviewers and commentators have found useful. The heart of the “hard SF” designation is the relationship of the science content and attitude to the rest of the narrative, and (for some readers, at least) the “hardness” or rigor of the science itself. One requirement for hard SF is procedural or intentional: a story should try to be accurate, logical, credible and rigorous in its use of current scientific and technical knowledge about which technology, phenomena, scenarios and situations that are practically and/or theoretically possible, and later discoveries do not necessarily invalidate the label.

High Fantasy: High Fantasy or Epic Fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that is set in invented or parallel worlds. High fantasy was brought to fruition through the work of authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, whose major fantasy works were published in the 1950s. High fantasy has become one of the two genres most commonly associated with the general term fantasy, the other being sword and sorcery, which is typified by the works of Robert E. Howard. These stories are often serious in tone and epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces. Some typical characteristics of high fantasy include fantastical elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narratives. (This rather lightweight definition of high fantasy is the best I could find through Google and it does little more than say “stories like Tolkien and Lewis wrote,” though each author would have had some problems with the rest of the definition. A better definition would be “Epic fantasy stories based on the Medieval Model, which consists of…” the elements I am about to discuss on this article).

Now let’s look at the contrast between Hard Sci-Fi vs. High Fantasy that I’ve extrapolated from Solzhenitsyn’s definition of classic vs modern novels and Lewis’ exploration of the medieval model.

Part One Urban vs. Rural. Campbell, in his “Hero with a Thousand Faces” described the commonly seen elements in classical mythology. One such element is the “Enchanted Forest”, an important place on the hero’s journey known for healing and gifts, but also for mystery and danger. Its roots begin in the wilds of Eden and in the tended garden which lay to its east, for they are the model of all that followed. Here is the Garden of the Hesperides and the Land of Faire. The Wild Hunt sounds its beckoning call in these woods. We find this theme in medieval and renaissance literature with its castles in deep forests where great treasures are kept and perilous quests are begun. We see this in Tolkien’s Fanghorn, the most ancient of forests and in his Eden-like Lothlorean, in Lewis’ lush Handramit on Mars and the unfallen planet of Perelandra, we find it in the dark Forbidden Forrest next to Rowling’s castle-like Hogwarts school. While many fantasy stories do contain cities, most of the important action takes place and most of the important people are met in rural, if not wilderness settings. The magic of these stories is most often seen in the wild places. The wild places of fantasy stories often seem a character in and of themselves. Homes (whether castle or cottage) of important characters are usually surrounded by wild lands in fantasy. The good guys in fantasy tales are often masters of wood craft and know the secret paths through ancient forests. In the high fantasy stories of the last hundred years, cities are often the abode of corrupt politicians, traitors or thieves. In Sci-Fi much takes place in modern cities or on board space ships or other man-made vessels or structures, nearly all of which are morally neutral. If a wilderness is shown in Sci-Fi, it is there that you will find the primitives, the troglodytes, fools and Luddites. I’ve yet to find the equivalent in Sci-Fi of a powerful character regarding a rural person with the respect of Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil who, “made no secret that he owed his recent knowledge largely to Farmer Maggot, whom he seemed to regard as a person of more importance than they had imagined. ‘There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open.”

More on the subject on my blog www.theswordoffiresaga.com
TBGH
56. S.M. Stirling
The original tweet was a fairly obvious "framing attack", the sort where, if you accept the initial terms of discourse opposition automatically gets you the Bad Person label.

I tend to simply dismiss that sort of attempted discourse policing as "terminally dishonest narcissism".
TBGH
57. Eric Saveau
@IanPJohnson

As a metalhead (who also adores classical and the lush orchestral stylings of movie and videogame soundtracks) myself, your observation about subcategories resonates with me. But I disagree with your assertion that "categorization is the enemy of art"; I would say that categories and sub-categories are essentially a convenient shorthand in discourse about art (for example, I've described Mass Effect as "Babylon 5 by way of Battlestar Galactica by way of David Brin" and had the listener's eyes light up as they say "Ah," because it gave them a meaningful frame of reference) I don't dipute that they can be turned into roadblocks to discovery, whether by intent ot circumstance, but I don't think that such possible negative outcomes are what they essentially are.
Ian Johnson
58. IanPJohnson
@52, @57: I guess that I wasn't being exactly clear. (Dangers of trying to be pithy on the internet, I guess…)

What I meant by "categorization is the enemy of art" isn't that "categories are bad and you should feel bad". Actually, we need categories, in a way. It's impossible to talk about a story without referencing other related stories, and categories such as "epic fantasy" or "hard SF" are ways of discussing storytelling. What is a danger is when people assume that "category" is shorthand for "story". When they assume that all epic fantasy stories are the same, and therefore they can pigeonhole them as being (insert adjective here).

I agree with jennygadget that there's a lot of genuinely great, original epic fantasy being written today. In fact, I'd argue that we're currently in a golden age for epic fantasy. However, there's a lot of really bad stuff as well. This isn't a problem, necessarily, since there always have been and always will be bad books, but in the past, I've noticed that the writers who write the bad books are just bad writers. The bad books I'm talking about are usually well-written, compared to in previous years: they just seem a bit more content to play by the previously-defined Rules of Fantasy. That is a problem, because it means that talented writers are playing within prescribed boundaries, which I think is contrary to the spirit of fantasy, which should technically mean, "Anything you can possibly imagine".

I think part of this conversation is about the difference between "exclusive" and "inclusive" genre, where exclusive means "anything that doesn't have X, Y, and Z isn't epic fantasy", and inclusive means "anything that has X, Y, and Z is epic fantasy". By "categorization", I meant exclusive genre. Inclusive genre allows writers a vast playground to use. Exclusive genre gives writers a checklist of tropes that they're obliged to follow. That's what I meant by "categorization", not "any attempt to define anything is bad and evil and stifles creativity".

Blecch. Sorry for getting this conversation so off-topic. I've just been thinking about genre and tropes a lot recently (I just finished a major writing project), and so I guess my head's been in that sort of place. At least it got to take us some interesting places.

@57 Eric Saveau: Speaking of video game soundtracks, have you listened to Bastion's soundtrack at all? It's really good, and it doesn't rely on the modern standard of big, dramatic orchestrations for video game soundtracks (which makes sense, because Bastion's a low-budget indie game). It's been my default writing music for… oh, about three months now. If you haven't listened to it yet, GO DO IT NOW. I COMMAND YOU.
Alan Brown
59. AlanBrown
Ian and Eric, No matter what you call it, all the music you mentioned sounds like hideous noise to my tender ears. Not sure what that statement does to further the discussion, but there it is! ;-)
Ian Johnson
60. IanPJohnson
@59 AlanBrown: Some men just like to listen to their eardrums burn.
TBGH
61. Ben Moore 1-3-13-TB
I don't agree that science fiction is predominantly progressive, perhaps in the past but recently not so much. Just look at the top SF authors and search for their political views, I was quite surprised at who believed what and how little it mattered in consequence.

Unless a writer creates something of a 'Potemkin Village' in her work and assuming he or she is a talented writer, it's hard if not impossible to discern their political views from the text.

www.coffee-monster.com
TBGH
62. Eric Saveau
Fear not, Alan Brown, I shall stay off your lawn and keep the Quake II soundtrack to myself :-)

IanPJohnson, I have not heard the Bastion soundtrack (nor played the game) yet, but I've heard nothing but good from everyone. It's definitely on my list. Right now I'm still playing the Mass Effect soundtracks over and over as driving and workout music.
TBGH
63. PT
TBGH: " The mistborn trilogy is by any definition epic, but the main character and primary warrior is a girl, (despite the writer being a white male Mormon)"

"Despite" Brandon being LDS?

I was taught in church to think of women as Daughters of God. Most likely, so was Brandon Sanderson. It's not viewpoint that encourages "women can't be the hero" thinking.
Ian Johnson
64. IanPJohnson
@63: I've never bought the whole "SFF is completely controlled by MORMONS ZOMG" argument, to be honest. As far as I can tell, there's three major Mormon writers in SFF: Orson Scott Card, Brandon Sanderson, and Stephanie Meyer (and she's a bit of an edge case when it comes to the SFF world). Granted, all three have a large amount of success, but that doesn't mean that the Idea Machine™ is restricted to Mormons.

Also, you're right: Mormon doesn't equal "woman hating polygamist", just like Muslim doesn't mean "city-bombing hashish-smoking terrorist" and Buddhist doesn't mean "isolated mantra-chanting hippie". (I say this not having a religious bone in my body. I just don't like it when people make assumptions based on stereotypes.)
Monte Masters
65. quasimod
I imagine it's a natural result of building fictional worlds that feel convincingly "ancient". An OCW rally in The Shire would be a bit anachronistic.
Liz Bourke
66. hawkwing-lb
quasimod @65:

I don't know what you mean by OCW, but agrarian revolts are sufficiently common in history to have their very own Wikipedia page. Said revolts were usually quite revolutionary in character, particularly the ones we know most about. You're also forgetting the phenomenon of the Levellers and the Diggers, or "True Levellers."

Acknowledging that Tolkien's Shire is based upon an idealised landowner's vision of 18th-century English countryside (hobbits appear to practise more enclosure than commonage, and certain features of their society appear to have correlations with the phenomenon of "polite" society, rather than the aristocratic ethos visible elsewhere in Middle Earth) - no, a rally in the Shire is not at all anachronistic. (See also resistance to the Inclosure Acts.) Nor is a rally in a medieval or ancient town: chronicles of the day tend to refer to such gatherings as the mob, often with the epithet ungovernable, fractious, rebellious etc, but it is important to remember that such mobs did frequently express the will of the populace and did frequently have an effect on political deliberations.

(Many towns relied on some form of suffrage to elect their civic notables, and one must also recollect not only the systems of governance of the ancient Greek citystates, ancient Roman and post-Roman Byzantine cities, the electoral element in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, particularly within Czech/Bohemian lands, the role of election within the medieval church - Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran - particularly in regard to cathedral chapters and the papacy itself. See also: Venice and the Netherlands for states that involved large numbers - if not a universal number - of the populace in the choice of members of certain orders of the government. And political movements involving the disenfranchised are not unknown in the premodern period.)
TBGH
67. James E May
Projecting indentity gender and race politics onto other people who had no such interests is hopelessly myopic and parochial. Jemisin's comment is laughable political correctness.
TBGH
68. Ian S
@James E May. Good for you that you have the privilege to ignore such concerns. You really lucked out there. Genetics, eh? Who knew it could impact our lives so much...

Some of us, of course, are in that same position too - but we like to think of ourselves as human beings, so we're sensitive to the problems suffered by people who are not as privileged as we are. After all, empathy and compassion are basic human qualities. A lack of them is nothing to brag about.
Fade Manley
69. fadeaccompli
Projecting indentity gender and race politics onto other people who had no such interests is hopelessly myopic and parochial.

I assume this is meant as a list of three: "identity politics, gender politics, and race politics." Unfortunately, it's a rather broken statement as a whole, because it assumes that there exists a category of "people who had no such interests." And there does not exist such a category.

Now, we can certainly posit such people if we want to talk about children raised by wolves or in peculiar isolation chambers sans contact with other humans. I think it's safe to say that a human with no concept of the existence of other humans cannot--unless we postulate sentient non-human beings available for meaningful communication--have politics of any sort. But unless we're restricting ourselves purely to the "deals with the government" sort of definition of politics, we're probably speaking of "politics" in the sense that has to do with how groups of people (and individuals) interact with each other. Or, as my dictionary helpfully notes, "especially with regards to power and status."

As soon as you have two people, there are issues of power and status. As soon as you have more than one gender, there will be issues of power and status related to genders. As soon as you have more than one identity, or more than one race--well, so on and so forth. You just don't have groups of humans without gender, identity, and race politics unless you can find a group of humans that does not have more than one gender, identity, or race. (And it's funny how "race" as a concept can shift around to draw new lines in populations that would look homogenous to those from populations with "more races" in them. But I digress.) So. No. I reject the idea that there are people without gender, identity, and race politics. As a practical definition, such a group doesn't exist, much less go write books that are published and spread widely.

But! Perhaps we're just talking about people who aren't aware of such politics--wait, no. I honestly cannot conceive of a writer of any trade published work of fiction in the English-speaking world who isn't at least dimly aware that there are, in practice, some differences in power and status between some different identities. So that group of people doesn't exist either.

So now I'm left trying to define this group which is aware of such politics, but somehow "had no such interests." Which is peculiar, because how can anyone be completely disinterested in something that affects them so strongly? A person's race, gender, and identity will have vastly affected how they were raised, the opportunities available to them, how other people interacted with them, at every single point in their life. (The category of children raised by wolves/in isolation boxes is again being set aside as unlikely to overlap with the category of book authors.)

I suppose a person can proclaim a complete disinterest in a whole set of things that have affected every aspect of their life and the life of every other person they've ever interacted with. Their writing will naturally show their fervent idealistic approach. Pretending that identity politics don't exist is as much a political stance as acknowledging them, if not more so. So I suppose I can consider that set of people to be the "people who had no such interests," if anyone at all could qualify as such.

Pretending vast portions of reality don't exist takes a lot of effort. Such focused ideological constraint is bound to affect whatever such a person writes. Of course readers will notice how that dogmatic insistence on unreality permeates the text.
TBGH
70. Ginger
@fadeaccompli (69): I would quote for truth, but I'd end up quoting your entire reply, so I shall merely applaud your truth. Well-said!
Alexander Austin
71. AlecAustin
I feel like fadeaccompli's reply has that thread of the conversation covered, so I'd like to go back to Ian Johnson's discussion of "inclusive" vs. "exclusive" genre, which is a useful lens for thinking about how we think about genre, and where a lot of the tensions underlying this conversation come from.

FWIW, I'm a strong believer that genre discussions which are "inclusive" are more useful than "exclusive" ones (which I feel rapidly devolve into wankery), though I usually talk about genre in terms of it being a discourse, or a tag cloud, or formed by conversations between authors & works.

There are several reasons I feel this way, but let's start with the tendency for exclusive genre definitions and discussions to be essentialist. Either something is X, or it's Y, and there is a clear and hard line between the two. Fantasy or Science fiction. Literature or Genre. Epic Fantasy vs. Sword & Sorcery. Obviously some of these boundaries have become permeable over time, but that permeability usually isn't permitted to undermine the idea that there is a platonic form of True Science Fiction (or Literature, or Horror) which one should aspire to - or if it is, the interstitial, cross-genre works are exalted as more unique and interesting and special, for drawing influences from whereever they want (as if authors more squarely in recognized genres and sub-genres don't do just that).

This desire for clear lines is somewhat understandable - people really like clarity and simplicity, to the point of constructing binary oppositions and clear lines where there are complex continua. (e.g. Is an intersexed person male or female? Are you straight or gay? White or Black? Is this village historically part of Russia or Poland?) That said, exclusive genre definitions are also frequently accompanied by the deployment of taste hierarchies, explicit or implicit - to the point where when people start making fiddly distinctions about Science Fiction and Fantasy, many people I know wince reflexively, because they know a claim about the superiority of REAL science fiction (or literature, or whatever) is waiting in the wings.

One of many reasons inclusive discussions of genre tend to be more fruitful (IMHO) is they tend to let people side-step the toxic bickering over edge cases (is Star Wars SF or fantasy? Easy, it's both...) and the defensiveness which taste hiearchies tend to create in these discussions. When you're not trying to nail down precisely what the boundaries of "Epic Fantasy" are, it's easier to perceive that there's a set of core works that are conservative in certain dimenions, and a broad spectrum of related works that are much more varied.

To echo other posters, how conservative epic fantasy is per se depends on which dimensions you're examining, and where you choose to draw the boundaries of the sub-genre. Personally, I think it would be more interesting to look at how the discourse around the genre and its fuzzy boundaries have shifted over time. A Game of Thrones and its sequels were perceived to be much more radical when I wrote an article on Epic Fantasy back in 2002; now they're central to the discussion. Part of that is their huge commercial success and the TV adaptation, of course, but I think the perceived "core" of the subgenre has shifted - and I find that immensely more interesting than wasting bandwidth on arguments over American politics.
TBGH
72. Devin L. Ganger
I have little to add to the main discussion except to rebut @67 -- I have found Jemisin's Internet writings and published works to be wonderfully provocative and educational. She has never once forced me to think the way she does...but she constantly challenges me to see the world from viewpoints other than my own before I open my mouth. I am a better person because of her. I am far more aware now of the unconscious assumptions in my viewpoints; that doesn't mean they are all invalid, but it does mean I get to consciously decide whether I own them or not. From that standpoint, I have continued to move away from my own conservative leanings (where conservative is indeed protecting the status quo, if only of how I think about myself and the world). However, I do want to thank @58 for the excellent music recommendation. I am happily listening to the soundtrack even as I type, and it is wonderful.
Alan Brown
73. AlanBrown
I agree, Devin. We all benefit by engaging with folks with different viewpoints.
TBGH
74. James E May
I believe the replies to my statement shore up my view rather than contest it. Positing writers from 80 or 100 years ago share the same politicization of race and gender as we do and declaring that Edgar R. Burrough and R.E. Howard were, at best, clueless racists and at worst, conspicuous supremacists, is an idea that lacks merit. It's simply taking our own cultural faddism and pasting it onto people we never knew and calling it macaroni. It is further postulating a moral and intellectual superiority determined by race and gender that one can only escape by a type of "confession" if such is the case.

Further, I don't get the argument overall: either race and gender convey nothing or they do. If they don't, diversity at its heart is shallow and useless. If they do, that would be a of type supremacism supposedly hated. It is an Orwellian concept.

I like fantastic literature that is good; the identity of the characters and writers is irrelevant - reading the genre is not a political expression for me. If others like that - fine. If it was, I'd hope to have the good sense to not retroactively declare that writers from 100 years ago share my general obsession and besides that are on the wrong end of the stick - because I know better than them.

If I said Ahmed and Jemisin's work is about non-white power and centrality, and further stated it is either because they are clueless or purposeful in doing so in a racial sense, I'd have a white hood and Nazi slippers slapped on me. This mindreading thing works two ways.

.68 assuming I'm white and therefore privileged merely by my short statement is revealing, and not in a good way. It is also suggested I am not "sensitive", lack "empathy" and "compassion" and am so stupid I even unwittingly "brag" about such deficits. And that is all slapped onto me in a racial context. Physician, heal thyself. There are indeed racism, racialism and supremacy being expressed but I don't think we have to look back at Lord Dunsany to ferret it out.
TBGH
75. James E May
On a point more central to the topic I found this interesting:

"We’re going by feel: what makes GRRM or Peter Brett or Joe Abercrombie
or Sam Sykes (to pick some names that came up on Twitter) more epic than Michelle West or Kate Elliott or Sherwood Smith or Scott Lynch?"

Not only is it true we're sometimes defining "epic" by popularity but ignoring the fact that multivolume fantasy is somewhat of a financial and publishing, as opposed to a solely artistic, construct. Althoght it's not fantasy, it is helpful to note that Frank Herbert went against convention and the flow with "Dune," not with it. So did Tolkien. Who else did that? Well, not many, because it was simply inadvisable.

In the old days, writing even one very large fantasy or SF novel was inadvisable in the same sense of breaking the mold of the 3 minute hit pop song in the '60s. Publishing "Dune" was very much problematic. Today multivolume is a positive boon. So, were not always talking about artistic expression when we are talking about "epic" fantasy today, but perhaps "epic" paychecks.

Going back to your original quote, "The Nightland," (1912) by William Hope Hodgson is EF isn't it? It's very long, at least by the standards of the day, and it's a quest. But, it's not very popular, it's completely eccentric, and so it's pretty much ignored.

The problem is that we are restricted in our true comparisons and examples because long ago, word length was constrained by how the market and genre presented itself and that differs today. In this sense it is perhaps not useful to even argue about EF and instead talk simply about fantasy if we wish to discuss "conservative" strictily in an artistic sense rather than one of format determined by other imperatives.
TBGH
76. Eric Saveau
@James E. May -
"I believe the replies to my statement shore up my view rather than contest it."
Do you? Do you, indeed? How do you reach such a conclusion?.
"Positing writers from 80 or 100 years ago share the same politicization of race and gender as we do and declaring that Edgar R. Burrough and R.E. Howard were, at best, clueless racists and at worst, conspicuous supremacists, is an idea that lacks merit."
Ah, now I see what you're doing: You're lying. Howard was mentioned as an early example of someone working in the swords-and-sorcery genre, and that was it. Burroughs was not mentioned at all. And no one presented so simplistic a construction of racial and gender politics as the one that you so snidely dismiss above above. Fadeaccompli presented a very cogent and utterly non-controversial breakdown of how racial, gender, and identity issues are woven into all societies and inform interpersonal and political associations and interactions, even if only unconsciously. The only "idea that lacks merit" is the blithe and unevidenced assertion that such things do not exist.
"It's simply taking our own cultural faddism and pasting it onto people we never knew and calling it macaroni."
Studying culture and history without eliding the racial and gender factors that certain contemporary individuals are uncomfortable talking about, and examining people in the past about whom we can know a great deal due to the vast trove of historical data left to us is many useful things, none of which are"macaroni".
"It is further postulating a moral and intellectual superiority determined by race and gender that one can only escape by a type of "confession" if such is the case."
Yeah, no. It's not about "superiority" or "confession"; it's about noticing privilege and then not pretending it isn't there. It's about having a bit more introspection and self-awareness than a post.

"either race and gender convey nothing or they do. If they don't, diversity at its heart is shallow and useless. If they do, that would be a of type supremacism supposedly hated. It is an Orwellian concept."
This makes no sense, and has nothing to do with anything that anyone here has said. Whether or not race and gender "convey" (?) something is not the point: it is that race and gender have, both historically and in modern times, been employed as arbitrary justification for discrimination, bigotry, and oppression. This is a simple and obvious fact. Such justifications have been most commonly and successfully employed by whites against non-whites, and by males against females. This, too, is a simple and obvious fact. Recognizing such things is not advocacy of any sort of "supremacism", and you clearly don't understand what the word "Orwellian" means.
"reading the genre is not a political expression for me. If others like that - fine."
If you honestly thought it was fine, you wouldn't be here deriding others for talking about it. That's not even a good try.
"If it was, I'd hope to have the good sense to not retroactively declare that writers from 100 years ago share my general obsession"
For frak's sake. It's not an "obession", it's a recognition of something worth acknowledging and talking about (and declaring that not talking about it would be "good sense" reveals you immediately previous declaration that it was "fine" with you to be another lie. How 'bout that?). And what's being discussed isn't that writers from 100 years ago "shared" such an examination with modern readers, but that they often took racism, sexism, and various other bigotries for granted without any sort of examination promulgated them in their work. Surely that's a rather self-evident fact?
" and besides that are on the wrong end of the stick - because I know better than them."
Do you agree that sexism is wrong? That racism is wrong? If so, then you hardly have anything to argue against here. If you actually read anything that anyone in this thread wrote, not to mention the original article, you couldn't fail to notice that nowhere was there a tirade of stern condemnation against writers of decades past for being steeped in the prejudices of their times; rather there was discussion of how a writer's work work is influenced by such factors. Getting archly defensive about such things allows us to understand a great many things about you without needing to be "mindreaders".
"There are indeed racism, racialism and supremacy being expressed but I don't think we have to look back at Lord Dunsany to ferret it out."
You could simply have said "Nuh-UH! YOU!" without lessening the intellectual impact of your closing line :-)
Jenny Kristine
77. jennygadget
"If I said Ahmed and Jemisin's work is about non-white power and
centrality, and further stated it is either because they are clueless or
purposeful in doing so in a racial sense, I'd have a white hood and Nazi slippers slapped on me.."

If so, it would only be because phrases like "racial sense" are big red flags. (What the fuck is that even supposed to mean?) Also red flags: people who think that bringing up race is automatic FAIL and assume that everyone else thinks this way too. Why the hell would you think that any of us believe that pointing out how race and power relates to Ahmed or Jemisin's work would be a bad thing?
TBGH
78. James E May
The problem with this topic is that EF is a construct that, because of market forces, is mostly a modern phenomenon from the last 30 years. That means a useful comparison with older works in the genre of fantasy as a whole is circumvented, and the point made less useful. Market forces is not the same thing as artistic imperatives. The problem becomes conservative compared to what?

If I may then take in the genre in the last 100 years, one can say first that, in roughly the first half of that period, people who wrote fantasy in the first place were not conservative. If they were, they'd be writing mainstream literature. There'd be more money, credibility and less ridicule. In the latter part of this period, there is more money and less ridicule. The way has been eased. Fantasy starts to make the NYTimes bestseller lists.

Next, if one looks at the first half of this period, each individual work of art stands out as unique in terms of prose, storytelling and subject matter. In the latter part, conformism creeps in and there in uniformity. Conformism is conservatism.

From the early '80s to today, only one writer truly stands out as non-conformist, and that is Jack Vance - he went against the grain, did his own thing and didn't care what anyone thought about it. And his work was completely original, even as he set it within completely traditonal settings. Up until roughly that time, really the '70s, the genre of sword and sorcery had dominated modern fantasy with the resurgence of stories either from or influenced by the old pulps in the '50s and '60s in order to help fill a demand for paperbacks new work wasn't covering. Other than Tolkien himself, there was very little that was Tolkieneque. After that, the school of Tolkien came to the fore. Multi-volume epics of at least trilogy length became the norm. Robert Jordan did a lot to define that with his ambitious project.

The market, once defined by magazine length formats, changed and became more open to long works. But at the same time that happened the genre became more mainstreamed and mainstream by default will be more conservative. Unique artistic voices are stifled.

Today, EF is conformist, there is no doubt of that. There is nothing that is a gamechanger like LotR. There is no eccentric work like "The Nightland" or "The Worm Ouroboros." There are no prose stylists like Lovecraft, C.A. Smith or Vance, though there is plenty of faux medieval lingo. The closest thing we have had to a gamechanger in terms of artistry if not content is GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire. Rather than trying to distinguish themselves as an individual artistic voice, writers are scrambling to find the idea, concentrating on different content. Werewolves during the Crusades and energy vampires may be of passing interest but have little staying power. In truth Lovecraft and Vance and Bradbury could make buying a submarine sandwich interesting.

Not only is EF conformist artistically, it is increasingly conformist in a contemporary political sense, which guarantees it will be trendy, timebound rather than timeless, and anchored in reality, not in art or fantasy. Art takes a back seat in that scenario. Imagine if old fantasy writers centered their work around some topic of the time no one cares about today and the success of that work was determined by how much they addressed that topic. No one would read it; it would be considered quaint and provincial.

In an age of cookie cutter prose and storylines, EF is more conformist than it has ever been. I don't know if it is "crushingly conservative," but it is certainy conservative. That's what happens when a hard genre, once relatively unpopular and obscure, becomes mainstreamed. The irony is that there are more voices writing within the genre than ever, but with less diversity of thought and artistry than ever.

In truth there are a great deal of fantasy writers with little to say as artists and a great desire to say it and we are now in sit-com territory of endless rehashes with different actors. The thing with fantasy is it's attraction and it's problem at the same time: it is a genre. Stray too far and what is it? Become ashamed of it's easy enjoyment and you may circumvent it and subvert it. EF can't help but become more and more conservative - it's just how things work in a heavily trod field where a new and distinctive voice that at the same time stays within accepted boundaries becomes almost impossible to find.
Sharat Buddhavarapu
79. spinfuzz
I'd like to pull a Tolkien-esque move and try to move this discussion back to the good ol' days when we weren't trying to argue politics or teach people about privilege in the comments. Not that those aren't important, but that we must delimit them within the bounds of answering Liz's question if we're to be working towards the stated common goal.

But just for the record, I cannot stop guffawing at this statement, up in comment #36:
I’d conclude, based on the 2012 election results, that liberals are more racist than conservatives. (Racist being defined as taking race into consideration when choosing who to vote for.)
To a greater or lesser extent, I see heavy sub-genrefication as a marketing move. I see a general gravitatation in this thread toward a Joseph Campbellian view of an archetypal story as epic fantasy. And at least some of the qualities we're talking about (size, scope, or feudal-Europeaness of setting) seem to be things that could be greatly influenced by the market. Artistically, I think the questions are much more complex.

To return to the discussion at hand, I think the key sentence in Liz's article is this:
If epic fantasy is second-world fantasy that shapes its arc in the form of a grand mythic quest (or several), that plays with tropes such as the return or re-establishment (or sometimes the purification) of a monarch, then it’s, by nature, conservative in structure, and by habit conservative in the political institutions it portrays. But it’s not necessarily conservative in its attitudes towards power, relationships, and orientation towards divinity.
This is a complex view that I think we should all consider. I think, at face value, this specific justification has been too many times employed as a way to say that, for instance, GRRM is subverting fantasy tropes by being so grimy (rather than purely sexist, pedophilic, etc.). Though I like the series, as I like Tolkien, I am forced to admit GRRM is not subverting those tropes in his depictions. In fact, one of the things that has continually been bandied about, that for "suspension of disbelief" these pseudo-Medieval fantasies need rape, women at a disadvantage, etc., is weird to me because GRRM has played around with other pieces of world-building without uproar, ie magic, dragons, wine-growing in climates that have decades-long winters. I think more important to epic-ness is the idea of the secondary world because it implies a wealth of historical, linguistic, anthropological thought behind an author's work that belies the commitment to the work as an artist. So for me, though I agree with the referential nature of tagging systems, they never really work beyond that abstract-level of contextualization. As organization systems they're pretty rubbish once you have an enormous amount of content to tag. I think it's more interesting to define as simply as possible, and use the characteristics as quirks of the author's choices about their secondary world. Within that context, we can argue an author's political biases, gender representations, and character diversity. From article to article, the critical community develops a specific referential corpus solely for that work, I think that is much more useful.


I hope any of that makes sense?

And to answer the original question, the "crushingly conservative" bit, I have to say, they are overwhelmingly so, in terms of how blind our authors historically have been (and mostly still are) to the issues of privilege baked into the material they take in as influences on their material. Signs, from N.K. Jemisin, from Jim C. Hines' blog posts about unnatural cover poses for female characters, and John Scalzi's post on being poor, indicate we're beginning to see more clearly as a community however.
Bridget McGovern
81. BMcGovern
@James E May: Your comment (at #80) has been unpublished--your arguments are getting uncomfortably personal in nature, and sweeping, inflammatory blanket statements about the evils of political correctness aren't helping matters. Please take a look at our Moderation Policy and proceed with caution--you are perilously close to flamebaiting territory.
Alan Brown
82. AlanBrown
I am glad to hear that Mr. May's comments are being edited, and was pleased to see that folks have been challenging his remarks above. And in addition to the comments of a political nature, I am still trying to wrap my mind around the thought that Jack Vance was the only non-conformist author in the genre during the last 30 years. Certainly, he was a non-conformist, but the only one?
TBGH
83. Eric Saveau
AlanBrown, Gene Wolfe comes to mind as another notable non-comformist.

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