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?