3 months ago, Daniel Abraham wrote an article on historical authenticity in fantasy. A week later, Black Gate blogger Theo posted a critique of that article (and a follow-up post 2 weeks after that, to clear up some of the misconceptions created by his initial post).
Now I’m finally getting around to saying something about it. I will clearly never be one of the top bloggers, since by the time I’m ready to weigh in on the latest controversy, everyone’s forgotten about it and moved on to something new.
As I understood it, the gist of Abraham’s article is that when people criticize particular fantasy novels (usually ones “set in an imaginary medieval Europe”) for being sexist and/or racist, responding with “but the Middle Ages really were sexist and racist” constitutes an inadequate argument. None of these fantasy novels, Abraham argues, present a historically authentic picture of medieval Europe, so to say that they have to embody historically authentic medieval social mores is ridiculous. He doesn’t say that they shouldn’t (although a few of the approving comments following his article seem to). In fact, he explicitly states that, “There are legitimate reasons for racism, sexism, and sexual violence to be part of a fantasy project”. Just don’t go saying that the simple fact of a story being set in a pre-Industrial society justifies their presence.
Theo’s initial response to the article seems to be directed at the comment thread, not against anything Abraham actually wrote. “We need less authenticity in fantasy?” he asks. It’s also unclear that he gave Abraham’s article a close reading rather than just skimming for things he disagreed with. “Abraham’s second point [that many classic fantasy novels would not be improved by more historical authenticity] can’t be addressed unless he provides us with some examples,” he says. Fortunately, Daniel Abraham makes an appearance in the comments thread following Theo’s post, helpfully reminding Theo of the examples he does, in fact, provide.
Theo’s follow-up post was better, and I agreed with much of it. He agrees with Abraham that not all fantasy needs to be historically authentic, but expresses some concern over the idea that historical authenticity doesn’t matter for novels that are attempting to present some fantasy version of Europe’s medieval period more realistically (George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, for instance). But he suggests that perhaps verisimilitude is a better word than authenticity: that an author should “make a reasonable attempt to either a) get things reasonably correct, or b) provide the reader with some modicum of a rationale for departing from the realm of historical fact and plausibility.” Just because it’s fantasy, in other words, doesn’t mean you can (or should) make up whatever you like.
Although I tend to agree, I still think Theo is talking past Abraham here. Abraham is saying (my paraphrase), “Don’t defend offensive content in a work of fiction by saying that the author is just being historically authentic. If you think it’s defensible, defend it some other way.” Whereas Theo is making a case for why fantasy fiction about imaginary pre-Industrial societies should be plausible based on what we know of how similar societies actually worked (even if that makes stories set in those imaginary societies offensive to some modern readers).
Theo also laments the tendency to judge books on the basis of the political views that they appear to express:
As it is created by intrinsically political creatures, all art may contain various political biases and perspectives, but that does not make politics an appropriate lens through which its artistic value is discerned. If that is the route the genre is going to go, Tor may as well simply place donkey or elephant stickers* on its books and thus ensure that no one will accidentally read anything that offends their delicate political sensibilities.
Hear, hear! (Although the sentiment does seem a bit ironic, in light of the irrelevant attacks on Keynesian economic theory with which Theo introduces his original response to Abraham.)
The comment threads following both Abraham’s article and Theo’s original response are worth reading, though there’s more of an actual back-and-forth dialogue following Theo’s post. Most of the people commenting on Abraham’s article did so to vociferously agree with him and other commenters, and take his argument further than he did. I found many of these comments insightful, but some of them bothered me.
Here’s a sample: “Strong female role models are important.” “We like [generic Western fantasy], more than we should.” “Generic epic fantasy wasn’t forced on us, we chose it as a model … It is not bad manners to question those authors who haven’t found reason to cut away its rotten pieces, [which] we’d all be better off without.” “When you pick a few elements from the ‘default’ setting because they are right there … without examining what these elements stand for, you end up perpetuating the same old cultural hegemony, rather than making any kind of progressive statement.”
This all starts to remind me of something. The distrust of any fiction that appears to promote values that you disagree with, the skepticism about the value of any work that doesn’t explicitly advance awareness and acceptance of The Only Correct Way to Believe. As a lifelong evangelical Christian, I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been told that, as Christians, we should only support the work of writers, musicians, and film makers whose work promotes Christian values. Or heard Christian friends condemn particular books or films as morally bad. I decided a long time ago that I was going to miss out on a great deal of interesting and powerful fiction if I was unable to appreciate books that I disagreed with (going back to Theo’s comment about donkey and elephant stickers). And I don’t see why I should change, just because a different set of values is being held up by a different group as The One True Path.
Also, anyone who thinks that encouraging and promoting fiction with “the right message” will lead to original and creative work should get themself to the nearest Christian bookstore, pronto, and take a look around. It doesn’t matter what the message is: if you convince authors that they need to make the correct political or moral statements in their work in order to be read and appreciated, every book starts to sound the same.
As far as Daniel Abraham’s actual argument goes, I sort of agree and sort of disagree. I sort of disagree because I think that most people arguing for historical authenticity actually mean historical verisimilitude. They don’t really believe that “fantasy medieval Europe” is historically accurate, and they realize that the Middle Ages were more varied and complex in culture and social mores than our consensus picture of them would suggest. So Abraham is making a bit of a straw man argument here.
Also, although Abraham gives excellent examples of fantasy novels that don’t have much historical authenticity–or, arguably, verisimilitude–and don’t need it (The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Unicorn, etc.), he ignores historical and pseudo-historical fantasy, of which Guy Gavriel Kay’s secondary world novels from The Lions of Al-Rassan onward are perhaps the most pertinent example. And an example for which it’s far more difficult to make a convincing case that historical authenticity is beside the point.
I do agree with Abraham that even fantasy purporting to show the Middle Ages like they really were tends to ignore fundamental aspects of actual history (the importance of religion, the fact that not so many people lived in cities, the absence of dragons) whenever it’s plot convenient. So why is that okay, but they somehow can’t invent a society in which women and men are equal?
Though I have to say, I’m only in partial agreement here. I agree that works like A Song of Ice and Fire aren’t as historically authentic as many people say they are, which makes it questionable to use historical authenticity to justify the elements that some find problematic. But I also find it irritating when too many characters in pre-Industrial secondary world fantasy think and act like agnostic, politically liberal 21st century Canadians, Americans, or western Europeans (or, even more irritating, when only the good guys do). There is, in fact, a large percentage of the world’s population, historically and to this day, that does not share these values. Isn’t it a kind of cultural imperialism to create imagined worlds where all the sympathetic characters agree with us on all the important issues?
However, an argument is a bad argument if it doesn’t convince anyone, or even encourage them to look at the issue from a different angle, and it should be clear to those of us (including me) who have used the historical authenticity argument in the past that it isn’t convincing anyone who doesn’t already agree. Abraham should be commended for bringing this to our attention, and for encouraging a deeper and more sophisticated analysis of fantasy.
* For those of you who might be less familiar with U.S. politics, the donkey is a symbol of the Democratic Party, the elephant of the Republican. Tor is one of the biggest publishers of fantasy and science fiction novels.