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Privilege and Fantasy

by Sam Kelly

This is the companion piece to Sam’s Nostalgia. The questions he raises bring to mind some of the haunting works of Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), most notably Sorrow-Acre in Winter’s Tales.

In my last essay, I talked about two forms of nostalgia, and the characterization of History within fantasy texts. This time around, it’s time for an assertion: it’s much harder for the privileged classes to write literary fantasy than it is for the oppressed and marginalized.

Let’s start with some definitions (do feel free to take issue with them in the comments—I’m not going to be ideological about them):

Literary: of enduring worth; of complexity; supporting multiple disparate readings; possessing novelty or making an original contribution. Layered and polysemous enough that it isn’t immediately accessible in its entirety. Possessing an awareness of itself as a text.

Fantasy: That Which Is Not: a change in the philosophical and/or metaphysical nature of the world, which I’ll tentatively call a diversa after Suvin’s “novum”. A desideratum, or an elegy. Passion is a necessary and perhaps sufficient condition for fantasy; there are some unpleasant words for fantasy without passion. Popular trope fantasy is perhaps the apotheosis of advertising, without any product. It’s normally impossible to tell it from pisstake fantasy.

Privileged: Possessing something inherited or innate that makes life easier for them than most people, and, in general, not aware that this makes a difference. Tending to ascribe their success entirely to hard work or luck. Generally, in the case of fantasy writers, it means “middle-class white cis urban-dwelling Western/minority-world men whose first language is English, and who aren’t disabled”, and it covers most of them.

One of the fundamental aspects of privilege is that it allows you to remain isolated from life, to an extent that others can’t. Write, as They say, what you know.

It is difficult to be sat upon all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion about them. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever. — Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, regarding horses.

Worlds are complex; even the kind that are only written about must, of necessity, contain multitudes. If one aspires to realism, or even to plausibility (which I find much more palatable in fantastika generally) then one must also know, and write, multitudes.

Knowing things is easy. What’s hard, and unusual, is wanting to know things that don’t directly affect you; being aware that there are questions, and that the questions are important. Writers are better at curiosity than most, but that doesn’t mean they’re better at knowing which questions to ask. So there’s only really one way to train that into someone: teach them that there are difficult, and important, things going on around them. Things that they don’t understand, things that people don’t want to teach them, things people have a vested interest in keeping from them.

One of the biggest examples of that—fittingly for fantasy, given how rooted in place & belonging it always is—is land. Who owns the land? Whose ancestors owned the land? Is talking about land in terms of ownership always useful? Who gets to name the land? Who has what resource rights in the land? And, crucially: who knows the histories of the land? (Disclaimer: my examples are drawn from British history, because that’s what I know.)

Narrative and naming are almost always the property of the privileged classes—not the ruling classes, because those tend to be much smaller—and are unchallenged in the popular narrative. Well, I say unchallenged. Alternative narratives tend to be subjected to the usual erasure & marginalization, because the unmarked nature of the privileged classes means that (by definition) no alternative is plausible. (Unmarked: seen as “normal”, ie. people & disabled people, people & people of color, people & gay people, people & poor people…)

The two aspects of privilege combine interestingly around the issue of the legible land; the privileged classes may hold property rights in it, but they’re very rarely experts on it, or strongly emotionally invested. Many of the land-owners we see in fantasy books are… but they’re usually invested in the picturesque or the monetary aspects, not the economic or ecological ones. And, as always, the frequency of representation in literature is no guide to reality! Fundamentally, being rich means you still eat that day if you go home without a rabbit and that all you need to know about wheat or cabbage is that the brown end goes in the ground, the other end goes in your stomach, and there are some boring processes in the middle which peasants and women deal with.

Being poor, on the other hand—or otherwise marginalized and reduced in scope—means you develop an intimate understanding of the means of production. This isn’t a symmetrical thing: it’s not that privileged people understand one set of things and non-privileged people understand another. People who have lacked privilege really do have a closer and more urgent understanding of life, being closer to the sharp end of the System. NB: I’m distinguishing experiences and understandings from the results of formal education here—obviously they overlap to an extent, but the infamous ivory tower phenomenon shows that formal education can have entirely the opposite effect.

(Food, of course, isn’t the only thing that the land gives us. There’s another, equally important resource: stories. Whether it’s stories about the time Ellis Gwyn lost two fingers to a tractor engine, or about Rhiannon easily outpacing Pwyll’s hounds, one of the most important things is that they happened Right There. There’s a whole long strand here, waiting to be unravelled, about fantasy, social mobility, and the motif of travel in portal-quest stories. But that’s for another time.)

Under the definition of “literary” above, I talked about novelty & original contributions. Here, we get to invoke Sturgeon’s Law, and I can point out that the only reason the good stuff looks so good is by comparison & contrast to the masses of tedious pabulum surrounding it. Nothing can be original or different unless there’s a mainstream to swim across, and the people who tend to swim across it are the ones whose whole life experience points them in other directions. As far as “awareness of itself as a text” goes, the World Is Text, this one and all others. Taking the text at face value is a luxury privileged people have. As for layers and multiple meanings… the idea that events & ontologies may be interpreted in several different ways is brain-bendingly difficult to internalize if you start off with the luxury of unopposed certainty. However, if you have it rubbed into you every day that you are not like other people, that normal people see the world differently and get different things from the world, then the wave/particle dualities of histories are easy by comparison.

So that’s “literary”, and as an illustration: without stopping to think, make a list of ten or a dozen 18th & 19th century novelists. How many of the list are women? Do you think the proportion is an accurate reflection of how many men & women were writing at the time?

As far as fantasy goes, that one’s easy to deal with. If you passionately want the world to be different, then you’re probably less than happy with the way of things as it is. As I talked about in “The time-binding of nostalgia”, there are two ways to desire change. You can either look forward to a golden time, or look back to a golden time. The first is a perfectly normal act of imagination, but the second always involves a regurgitated lump of plastic history and a covert appeal to the idea that things were always like that, but the forces of Darkness recently changed things away from their true course. You’re probably thinking of Tolkien as an example here, which is superficially reasonable—however, the Professor’s history is deliberately self-problematizing, including as it does its own historiography, and The Lord of the Rings is not even slightly a desideratum in that sense. It’s entirely elegiac, an extended if-only-it-could-have-been.

Of course, if you aren’t passionate about your fantasy, if you’re only proposing a diversa because it’s a vaguely interesting idea or because you need some stage setting for your Awesome Characters and Plot of Awesomeness, then that’s fluff. There’s nothing wrong with fluff, so long as it acknowledges that that’s what it is.

Another frequent failure mode is where the only diversa is that for every epic problem there is an equally epic solution, and the status quo ante is restored. This is a lazy and slapdash way to construct the framework for a story, but it’s unfortunately very common amongst privileged Extruded Fantasy Product writers. A well-constructed diversa, on the other hand, narrativises the textual world by introducing crosslinks, structural rhymes, and reified metaphors, and it’s easier to think about these—to acknowledge the possibility of them, to imagine a world with innate meaning—if you haven’t had the blithely unthinking benefit of the real world’s equivalent all your life.

This is not to say that any of these things—being female, or nonwhite, or trans, or poor, or far from urban life, or disabled, or any of the many other ways of lacking privilege—gives an author a free pass to Literary Fantasist status, or that privilege forbids it; all three concepts (literature, fantasy, and privilege) are far too complex and intersectional to be reduced to those sorts of rules. But privilege does make it harder to achieve.

Images: 1st, Mingary Castle, photo by Sam Kelly; 2nd, Rogue Roman by Frank Frazetta; 3rd, Helena Bonham Carter and Mark Wahlberg in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes.

17 Responses to “Privilege and Fantasy”

  1. Jim F. says:

    > . . .it’s much harder for the privileged classes to write
    > literary fantasy than it is for the oppressed and marginalized.

    That’s a curious assertion, in light of the fact that one
    of the most commonly heard objections to much fantasy is its implicit
    longing for a sanitized hierarchical past. I’m thinking here
    particularly of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, neither of
    whom could exactly be characterized as “oppressed and marginalized”.

    A Tolkien skeptic once said to me:

    > I long ago read a blistering denunciative analysis by Michael
    > Moorcock describing Tolkien’s loathsome valorization of feudal values,
    > Hobbits as stout hearted loyal peasants, Fuehrer-prinzip born to rule
    > lords, all that.

    I have an audiotape of a BBC radio broadcast from 1960 entitled
    “Basil Bunting and J. R. R. Tolkien”, of which I made a transcript
    a few years ago. It contains the following remarks by the
    author himself about the “feudal” values espoused by LotR:

    > BBC:
    > In this world, which you might have created had you been given
    > the power to do so, had you been one of the Valar, had you been,
    > say, the mock God, would you have created a world which is so
    > solidly feudal as it… as The Lord of the Rings?
    >
    > T:
    > Ooh, yes! Very much so! Yes, yes. Yes, I think the feudal…
    > I mean, uh… You mean “feudal” s…
    >
    > BBC:
    > In the wider sense.
    >
    > T:
    > …in the French sense, not in the strict way…
    >
    > BBC:
    > Oh, no, no, no, no, no!
    >
    > T:
    > …[?formal] land thing…
    >
    > BBC:
    > In the wider sense.
    >
    > T:
    > “Hierarchical” rather, yes?
    >
    > BBC:
    > Hierarchical, exactly, yes.
    >
    > T:
    > Yes. Yes, I think so.
    >
    > BBC:
    > I mean that… that power should descend by a line of kings,
    > to their sons.
    >
    > T:
    > Oh. Hereditary. Yes, yes, yes… I don’t know about that.
    > No, it’s… it’s a very potent, uh… story-making and
    > m… motive thing, but um… how far one says it’s really
    > worked better than any other system in the… in looking at
    > the history of the world, one doubts very much!
    >
    > BBC:
    > Uh…
    >
    > T:
    > It’s never been worse, at any rate, than the… than the…
    > the, uh… the struggle for power that always ensues when
    > you haven’t got some line of descent which can’t be…
    > can’t be questioned.
    >
    > BBC:
    > You… You’re… you’re wedded to the feudal system.
    > In a sense. Not… I don’t mean the medieval feudal system,
    > but the idea of… of… of power descending through…
    > through, um, blood, or through marriage, or…
    >
    > T:
    > Yes, I’m rather wedded to those kind of loyalties because,
    > uh… I think contrary to what most people, I think that,
    > um… touching your cap to the squire may be damn bad for
    > the squire, but it’s damn good for you!

  2. Jim F. says:

    In a 2002 _Salon_ piece “J. R. R. Tolkien — enemy of progress” (http://www.salon.com/entertainment/feature/2002/12/17/tolkien_brin) David Brin remarks:

    “Many. . . find themselves yearning for a society of towering lords and loyal, kowtowing vassals. Wouldn’t life seem richer, finer if we still had kings?”

    Quite possibly. C. S. Lewis, as he often does, seems to be getting at some (no doubt unfortunate) truth of human psychology that mere politically-correct sneering glosses over at its own peril in his essay “Equality”, from _The Spectator_, 27 August 1943:

    “And that is why the imagination of people is so easily captured by … films about loyal courtiers or … Nazi ideology. The tempter always works on some **real** weakness in our own system of values: offers food to some need which we have starved. . .

    We Britons should rejoice that we have contrived to reach much legal democracy (we still need more of the economic) without losing our ceremonial Monarchy. For there, right in the midst of our lives, is that which satisfies the craving for inequality, and acts as permanent reminder that medicine is not food. Hence a man’s reaction to Monarchy is a kind of test. Monarchy can easily be “debunked”; but watch the faces, mark well the accents, of the debunkers. These are the men whose tap-root in Eden has been cut: whom no rumor of the polyphony, the dance, can reach — men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire mere equality they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.”

  3. Athena says:

    Sam already made the point about desire for a “simple” hierarchical golden past in his Nostalgia post which precedes this one. Mind you, I don’t entirely agree with Sam’s assertion in this post, particularly because he exempts Tolkien from all categories despite what Tolkien said in both his fiction and his essays (Lewis I deem a didactic one-note bore, so his fantasy is not literary as far as my concept — or Sam’s definition — of literary goes). It’s true that Tolkien is elegiac. But it’s equally true that he is firmly wedded to hierarchies and ranks and was highly privileged along several axes.

    I think, nevertheless, that Sam is making a less obvious point: that those on the periphery, if talented and IF given enough resources to permit them to write, will write better fantasy — because they cannot help but see more (or see not in the “default” way) merely by their circumstances.

  4. Caliban says:

    True, this.

    This reminds of me of that pinnacle of privilege, Captain Kirk, who famously said “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.” It has since occurred to me that this very much epitomizes privilege–the idea that no matter what, you have at least a chance to win. I also think this is why it is often so hard for People of Privilege to truly hear People Without Privilege (see: XFail, YFail, ZFail…): because they often badly want to “win,” i.e., retain their privilege and yet be seen as Friend of the Little Nonprivileged People. And when this doesn’t happen, the PoP feels hurt and confused because he didn’t win…and whines “It’s not fair, there was no way I *could* win.” Welcome to most people’s reality.

    (Says someone who admittedly rings all the bells on privilege…)

    I will take issue with one characteristic you apply to literary: “Possessing an awareness of itself as a text.” This is a postmodern conceit. I think one can find bucketfuls of literary texts that do not satisfy this, or that one has to work really hard to justify.

    I’d also like to issue a quibble on another condition: “…isn’t immediately accessible in its entirety.” I agree about sustaining multiple readings and rereadings and deeper meanings within. One should be careful not to conclude that literary=difficult to read. I don’t think you actually mean that, but I wanted to point that out.

  5. Sam Kelly says:

    Jim F: I hear your objections, but I want to point out that Tolkien certainly considered himself marginalized – he was deeply affected by his experiences in the War, and found himself very much out of step with modern society, considered ‘backward’, and so on. Obviously, I’m not trying to deny the very real privilege he did have — but I’m also not trying to position him as the, or even an, exemplar of literary fantasy, so I don’t have a corner to defend here!

    Caliban – Thank you! Regarding an awareness of itself as a text, I was perhaps phrasing things a bit strongly there. I don’t mean the kind of metatextual/intertextual playfulness we see in, say, Tristram Shandy or Jasper Fforde’s books, but rather a simple awareness that it is Written, rather than the aggressively textuality-denying faux-realism of so many fantasies. And yes, I don’t in the slightest mean that literature is necessarily difficult, but I do stand by the position that you can’t access all a good book’s facets and meanings in one reading, because some of them (usually) require mutually incompatible readings. Well… I can’t, anyway. I’m sure there are people who can!

  6. Jim F. says:

    > I want to point out that Tolkien certainly considered himself
    > marginalized – he was deeply affected by his experiences in the War,
    > and found himself very much out of step with modern society. . .

    Yes, that’s certainly true in a psychological, if not a socioeconomic
    or Marxist sense. Tolkien was also orphaned at an early age,
    and his mother had been alienated from her own family following
    her conversion to Catholicism (Tolkien is alleged to have
    blamed the decline of her health — she died from diabetes —
    partly on the hardship of that rejection), and Tolkien’s life-long devotion
    to Catholicism is claimed by some biographical commentators
    to have been bound up with his memory of his mother. Of course,
    as an Anglo-Catholic, Tolkien was out of step with the majority
    in that way, as well.

    Tolkien and Lewis together fought on the losing side of an
    academic battle at Oxford between “Lit. and Lang.”; philology,
    in particular the study of Anglo-Saxon, was losing credibility,
    and Tolkien’s advocacy of _Beowulf_ as a story that can be enjoyed
    for its own sake, rather than solely as an object of dry academic
    interest, garnered him some scorn.

    As far as being out of step with modern society, Lewis himself admitted,
    in an interview a few months before his death in 1963, when asked
    what the next few years of history might hold, “I have no way of
    knowing. My primary field is the past. I travel with my back to the
    engine, and that makes it difficult when you try to steer.”
    Nevertheless, Lewis read (as well as wrote) a certain amount of
    science fiction. H. G. Wells, certainly, and Olaf Stapledon.
    He even had a brief correspondence with Arthur C. Clarke. His lampooning
    of some of the tropes of what he called “Wellsianity” in _That
    Hideous Strength_ is very much on the mark (he even imagined
    the N.I.C.E. as having computer technology, though he called it
    “pragmatometry” ;-> ).

    > I’m also not trying to position him as the, or even an, exemplar of
    > literary fantasy. . .

    Yes, of course Tolkien’s status as a literary author has always
    been hotly disputed (by his fans; the arbiters of literary taste have never given
    him a second glance). Though he is the undoubted **father** of the
    resurgence of “fantasy” as a mass-market publishing genre in
    the late 1960s.

  7. Athena says:

    Lewis can wax poetic sometimes, but his agenda is equally present and transparent. The “craving for inequality” (blatantly displayed in the recent British royal wedding, whose ostentatious expense could have been far more usefully directed towards the education or health system) is actually a craving for a meaningful life. Artisans, artists and scientists know this. Good gardeners and careful accountants know it. Skilled merchants and gifted horse wranglers know it.

    So I would argue that the “craving for inequality” (or heroes, if you prefer) is itself a corrupted expression of the real need: that of making a difference while doing what one loves and is good at. Being cubicle drones or fast-food slingers does not fulfill that need. And as both Sam and I said, in two very different essays, it’s one that’s not too high up in the need hierarchy.

  8. Jim F. says:

    > Lewis[‘s] agenda is equally present and transparent. The “craving for inequality”. . .
    > is actually a craving for a meaningful life. . .

    Yes, well, Lewis’s agenda, of course, was his own idiosyncratic version
    of Christianity (which his detractors have dubbed “Lewisianity”, recognizing that
    some of his views, humane though they were IMHO, might well be considered
    heretical by his own Church of England — a possibility which was the source
    of some disquiet to his friend Tolkien, who feared that Lewis’s dabblings
    in popular theology went beyond their author’s competence and authority,
    and might be dangerous to his readers).

    I’m sure many people do have a craving for a meaningful life, though the
    “sociobiologist” in me might also think that we have a built-in craving,
    left over from childhood, to submit to the authority of parental figures,
    as well as a built-in tendency to submit to the authority of the “big man” of our
    tribe (and a built-in level of discomfort in the absence of such a
    “big brother”). Stanley Milgram, of course, demonstrated the dark side of
    such automatic subordination to authority, but it’s also true that social
    animals couldn’t exist without it.

  9. Athena says:

    Well, not quite. If you look at bonobos and chimpanzees, they don’t have a built-in craving for authority and their dominance alliances constantly shift (for both genders, incidentally, and differently for each species). And if you look at gathererer-hunter human groups (inasmuch as you can, given the cultural contamination and wishful thinking of interpreters) there is no “big man” in them but several nexus points of authority and/or consensus decision making. Humans don’t have biological alpha males, that is all Hollywood and EP nonsense. Specifically for the Milgram experiment, it’s a little known fact that compliance in it shows significant cultural variance: the more pyramidal and authoritarian the society/group the participants come from, the more obedient they are.

  10. Jim F. says:

    > Humans don’t have biological alpha males, that is all Hollywood and EP nonsense.

    I’m glad to hear it!

    But speaking of EP nonsense, have you been following the recent stink
    over London School of Economics evolutionary psychologist
    Satoshi Kanazawa, and his blog “The Scientific Fundamentalist:
    A Look at the Hard Truths About Human Nature”
    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist

    I hadn’t heard of this guy until just the other day, but some of
    his blog posts are, well, provocative.

    P. Z. Myers has some choice things to say about him:
    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/03/in_which_i_concede_that_some_s.php

    ;->

  11. Athena says:

    Oh, yes. There are a few other choice bloggers at the Psychology Today site. One of them called feminism the “anti-viagra” because “studies show that gender equality inhibits arousal.” The proof? Studies in rats. I knew of this guy in different but equally creepy connection… My advice: don’t read the Psych Today blogs.

  12. Caliban says:

    “the “sociobiologist” in me might also think that we have a built-in..”

    Dear oh dear oh dear… I have to say, replacing the “divine right of kings” with “the genetic right to dominate/be dominated” is *not* an improvement.

    This is why I laugh when I see books like Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.” I mean, it’s the height of idiocy: ridiculing using made-up Bronze-age stories–that cannot be challenged because they are the Word of God– as a basis of ethics… and then replacing them with equally made-up New-age stories–that cannot be challenged because they are the Word of Science–as a basis of ethics.

    Like Athena, I’m a scientist, I work with scientists, I even like scientists, but the last thing I’m going to do is to try to derive morals or ethics from poorly designed experiments or, worse, just-so stories.

  13. Athena says:

    People are using the same “reasoning” to explain the doings of Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn. Funny how “science” seems to conclude that the fifties family and social dynamic is “built-in”!

  14. Rose Lemberg says:

    What people yearn for is not the hierarchical past per se, but personal responsibility that is idealized in feudal relationships. If you have a problem, you go to your lord, and he or she applies not only righteous, but also merciful judgment (in the ideal scenario). The reasoning here goes that government by committee has less space for mercy; that’ why the ancient Israelites, who were ruled by Judges, wanted a King. If one looks at the abundance and detail of agricultural laws, including ecological laws (such as the seventh year of rest for the land), governing Ancient Israelites, one would be hard-pressed to claim that only peasants cared for the land and only peasants were intimately familiar with it.

    Not all people yearned for hierarchical structure though, even in medieval times. Let’s take a king-less medieval society, Iceland. Most important things were decided at the Althing, but landowners had a lot of individual judgment privileges (which involved a group of neighbors for most crucial desisions). Even though landowners had privilege (over, say, thralls), their firm commitment was to the land. And yes, they worked the land and took care of livestock together with other members of their household, and were intimately familiar with this work. Ownership of the land required good husbandry. (and yes, women could be landowners in some instances, and make their own legal decisions). I am yet to see a fantasy with a legal system based on ancient Iceland, or indeed any fantasist even tangentially familiar with the Grágás, but I assure you that not all ancient or medieval models of privilege imply a disconnect from the land.

    The problem with the genre, I think, is not privilege per se, it’s simply that international people have broader horizons, built-in. A fantasist who took great care to educate himself or herself, even if privileged, will produce more nuanced texts. Ursula Le Guin, for all her problems, has produced literary SFF that is culturally sensitive and not by default hierarchical. It pays off to study languages, history, and anthro; if you’re multi-cultural and/or underprivileged, your knowledge base would often be broader, and your thinking more nuanced.

    Hierarchical structures are fun to play with, though. In my current epic fantasy WIP, two of my six protagonists come from a culture where the nobility’s prime responsibility is land stewardship in the ecological sense. Other countries are not like that, though.

    Part of the beauty of having diverse knowledge is realizing that human history at every stage is diverse in every single respect, incl. government, and the relationship with the land.

  15. Athena says:

    Rose, you touched on many crucial points. I couldn’t agree more that being aware of how many patterns have existed/still exist is vital to a fantasist.

    The way ancient Greeks or pre-contact Native Americans or residents of Indonesian kampongs saw and used the land is vastly different from the large holder/tenant farmer trope that is oppressively the norm in Anglosaxon fantasy. And, as you also indicate, many medieval societies (European ones included) were governed differently. Even within the “standard” hierarchical model, many towns, villages and guilds were self-governed by councils whose decisions were as weighty and binding as the nearby manor lord’s.

    As both you and Sam point out, you can’t help whatever circumstances you were born into but being born into a non-dominant group automatically forces you into less monolithic thinking. Regardless of initial conditions, if you want to write good fantasy, reading widely in anthropology and history is a must and being more than monolingual is also an asset. Otherwise, you end up with people saying OMG, Herbert was SO inventive!

    I think part of the problem that many SF/F writers get their knowledge from reading/watching SF/F, rather than looking into primary sources. A good history invariably is more exciting and less predictable than most fiction (Barbara Tuchman comes to mind; so does Julius Norwich, despite his predilection of following mostly the doings of kings). Which is one reason why Guy Gavriel Kay tends to annoy me, except for his really tightly woven Song for Arbonne.

  16. Rose Lemberg says:

    I think part of the problem that many SF/F writers get their knowledge from reading/watching SF/F, rather than looking into primary sources. A good history invariably is more exciting and less predictable than most fiction (Barbara Tuchman comes to mind; so does Julius Norwich, despite his predilection of following mostly the doings of kings). Which is one reason why Guy Gavriel Kay tends to annoy me, except for his really tightly woven Song for Arbonne.

    I am in complete agreement with you: there is a pseudo-history constructed by 20th-century SFF, and its readers feel his pseudo-history faithfully reflects historical development. It’s a self-perpetuating fallacy. The world’s history is incredibly diverse in every possible respect; there is no one dominant historical narrative. I am lucky, because I come to SFF writing from academia, and I spent most of my adult life doing close readings of texts in a variety of languages. I am also unlucky, because this perspective does not necessarily make my writing friendly to people who can buy it.

    Somewhat but not completely tangentially, my husband has been complaining for years that military SF writers do not know their military theory. It’s true, too; even the ex-army officers among them are more likely to draw their mil. SF. ideas from Star Wars than from reading about Suvorov or even the American Civil War.

    As for Kay, I gave up on his writing years ago, but I do have to say that in Lions of Al-Rassan he does a reasonably good job with Golden Age in Spain, and even has (non-offensive to me) secondary-world Jews.

  17. Athena says:

    Counter-intuitively, I think the lack of primary knowledge ties into failure of the imagination: the incestuous pseudo-sources, which are increasingly “fuzzy” copies of originals, become springboards for SFF writers’ imaginations. So most people can “imagine” only within those narrow dingy boxes.

    If you compare Kay’s works with Carey’s, the difference in originality becomes strikingly obvious.

    Don’t despair about your writing… worst case scenario, I may start a small press yet! *smile*