Is Equality a Fantasy?

It is a commonly repeated statement that fantasy fiction is written predominantly by Western white men for Western white men. Many e-trees have been cut down to fuel discussion of whether readers owe a duty to proactively read more non-white-male fantasy, whether authors owe a duty to reject all the institutional prejudices of medieval Europe upon which most Western fantasy is based, and other worthy attempts to discover why fantasy fiction might still be an Old Boys’ Club. Many discussions focus on specifics: author prejudices; reader prejudices; publisher prejudices. However, part of the answer might be that fantasy is inherently discriminatory.

There are two potential reasons for writing fantasy rather than mundane fiction:

  • A dislike of researching before writing. Writing in the real world, especially in certain historical periods, involves a lot of research; what did people eat? How long would it take to get somewhere if the only means of travel was walking? Setting the story you want to tell in a fantasy world allows you to avoid many weeks (or even months) of research.
  • A desire to write a story that could not take place in a mundane world. Magic and supernatural races are not commonly accepted in Western society, so – magical realism aside – if you want to write about a world where people’s lives are shaped by the products of magic, or where people become another species with different needs under certain circumstances, you write fantasy.

Neither of these reasons makes a book better or worse than the other, and might even overlap.

However, they are both top-down reasons: instead of treating the world as firstly a set of individuals who form into groups, they both start from the idea that the story is about a broad grouping.

This is especially embedded in fantasy which includes other races: if they do not have a difference from mundane humans they are not a different race; if they do, then the entire race is defined by a series of common traits. Even worse, for avoiding stereotyping, there are no members of the race to interview, or who have produced memoirs on their experiences, or to appear on television to discuss how all elves are not agile archers with sculpted features.

Of course this is an initial bias of fantasy, not a universal trait. A skilled author will take the differences from mundane reality and make them the background for characters every bit as individual as those of more mundane genres, and will separate character prejudices from objective value.

But, at its heart fantasy is defined by the requirement that there be an other, however similar to ourselves; a something that the reader cannot experience. If the genre requires the very thing that is held up as the core of discriminatory thought, can it (even at its most nuanced and enlightened) be as free of exclusivity as mundane fiction?

Do you believe all genre is an act of prejudice? Do you believe fantasy does not require the creation of an other?


17 thoughts on “Is Equality a Fantasy?

    1. I agree that the issue of certain genres containing a high incidence of exclusion is probably not limited to Western white men. However, not having the experience or language skills to see if it occurred in other places, I did not want to assume the issue was universal based on my personal perspective.


        1. Possibly. But the translator might function as an intermediate interpreter, leading to my experience being not that of a different group but a culturally-biased perspective of a culturally-biased perspective of the experience.


            1. While your thought is valid, my point was actually that reading in translation involves the intermediary step of someone deciding which texts to translate, and the translator deciding which nuances of phrase &c. to alter/keep.

              If I want to read more books by US Americans, I can buy any I feel like from Amazon, and will obtain the originals; if I want to read more books by Koreans, I am limited to someone else’s choice of which might sell well in English with potentially the very metaphors that best show a culture replaced with Western equivalents.


                1. I think a translation is a separate work from the original: for artistic purposes, it might be greater or lesser than the original; for anthropological purposes, it will almost certainly never be as authentic.


                  1. I once read an anthropological discussion of the Dineh concept of time, which was so different to ours, it said, that we could never understand it. The author then proceeded to explain it at length, and it made perfect sense to me. Did he just invent it? And what of his Dineh interlocutors, who explained it to him? If translation isn’t adequate for anthropological purposes, then anthropology is pointless, except as an excursion into our imaginations. I happen to have been raised bilingually, and I can assure you that translation looks a lot better for anthropological purposes than artistic ones to me. Am I deceiving myself?


                    1. Seriously, how would you go about experiencing a culture “more directly?” Learn the language? You’d never approach an understanding of it equivalent to a native speaker, so you’d end up in the translation trap again, if a trap it is. Suppose a genuinely bilingual person is the translator. Presumably, although such a person might miss some personal ambiguities, they would be competent where cultural values are concerned.


                    2. I think it requires direct experience; actually communicating with members of the culture rather than through an intermediary.

                      It is not translation per se that I think makes the barrier, but the interpretation by an intermediary. So someone from the culture who spoke my language would be probably as good as possible.


                    3. So, a bilingual interpreter from the culture would do fine, no? Then, there’s the problem of how far any individual interlocutor might represent, or indeed, misrepresent their culture. Ask a conservative in America if there’s any racism in the US, and they’ll say hell no. I still think literature, and its acceptance within the culture that spawns it, is a better gauge, translated or not.


                    4. I agree totally that what a culture values as literature is a sign of its values, and that someone who is fluent in more than one language can have a sound understanding of several cultures.

                      But that brings us back to my original point about my inability to comment on non-Western fantasy tropes: I don’t speak any languages from other continents (excluding technically American English), so cannot access directly what those cultures consider literature; and looking at what is translated is similar to asking a group and assuming they are not at an extreme of the spectrum.


    1. Research is definitely a good thing, even if it is only to better showcase the differences between history and your fantasy world. It does raise the issue of adding too much real detail though, and making the world more like a textbook than a novel, so I like authors who are not afraid to leave some things out.


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