Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

April 27, 2011

Privilege & fantasy

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 3:32 pm

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.


  1. I may not be well versed in literary fantasy as opposed to generic fantasy, but I can’t help thinking that an authentic piece from a position of privilege can be of enduring worth. I’m thinking of Malory, for instance – a fantasy in which the payoff for reading it is that you get to share the lives of kings and ladies.

    Comment by Pat Bowne — April 27, 2011 @ 4:10 pm

  2. Mm. I must confess, I’ve not read Malory properly! I’m fully on board with the idea of literary worth, but I think that my theory breaks down when it comes to classics, especially those from the eras when scholars and other scribulary people were a class unto themselves.

    I’m not sure “sharing the lives of kings and ladies” fits my criteria, though… I can see half a dozen fluff fantasy books which do that without turning my head! Malory brings in (as far as I’m aware – see above disclaimer) a novel synthesis of legend, history, and contemporary culture, so his work is definitely of historiographical interest as well as being (I presume) enjoyable to read as fantastika. I know Herodotus and Geoffrey of Monmouth are!

    Comment by Sam — April 27, 2011 @ 10:01 pm

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