Fantasy Writing is not just for Guys

by Rachel Baker on April 10, 2014

Below is link to a wonderfully written, short commentary about how we stubbornly stereotype books by Laura Miller, who is a senior writer for Salon. She is also the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventure in Narnia.

I agree with Miller that we all too often pigeon-hole ourselves into genres we think are the end all be all without ever venturing out into other “worlds”. For the most part, we are incredibly stubborn in this way. However, reading new genres is a very difficult venture, really, as there are specific things that make each genre great; and to get the most out of what you are reading, one should understand what these things are. So, daunting task, yes.

That said, I don’t understand why the fantasy genre has for so many been considered a man’s genre. A good fantasy novel has everything for everybody. There’s war, there’s power struggles, there’s adventure, there’s a quest. Then there’s a love story, there’s the romantic love, the love between two friends, the love between two family members, the love of country, the love of community. The list goes on and on and on, and all the ogres, elves, goblins, hobbits and what nots are very simply metaphoric. There is no man on this earth who gets to have the monopoly on the epic fantasy story. There’s just not. There’s stuff in these stories that men love and hate, and equally things that women love and hate; and I suspect, if people are honest when questioned, those things would surprise people.

In her own article “Bring Me My Dragons!” Maureen Dowd, actually said shes not interested in the murky male world of hobbits, ogres, elves, goblins and dwarves that Tolkien created. I don’t understand why an intellectual with a BA in English Lit who spends time assessing the underlying meaning of all the incredible stuff that goes on in the murky male world of politics would think (and actually say) this. It seems the argument she’s making is not about the quality of Tolkein’s literary achievements but instead about political gender views in literature.

I thought the article Laura Miller wrote was interesting because though she does say something about Dowd’s feminist remark about the murky male world, even though that’s the exact world she covers; and the review by Ginia Bellafante about how Game of Thrones is boy fiction, she moves on to discuss how stubborn readers are when it comes to what we read. Miller was kind, and probably smartly decided not to spend too much time wallowing in the outrage provoked by Bellafante’s review. But…honestly, I think that’s exactly what this is about – the murky male world of the fantasy epic. Its perfectly okay to have political views and to feel strongly about them. Sadly, most people don’t look at the world as it was when an author wrote something; or consider the author’s own experiences for that matter.

The way women were viewed, while it may not have been right, was what it was in the 1930s and the fact that the first Tolkein book was written between WWI and WWII is probably one of the most important factors to why there aren’t too many women in powerful positions to these stories. That said, when Game of Thrones was published in 1996, the world was different and women were allowed to be all they could be (for the most part); and if that meant there was the woman that was the crazy and domineering type (Cersei), or the tactically superior type (Daenerys), or the subtly scary type (Arya), or the romantically stupid type (Sansa) or even the stand by your man type (Catelyn Stark), well then, so be it. We are all represented in the 1996 epic fantasy of The Game of Thrones. And let all the women rejoice, because…why?

Bah! We should really not eschew literature because women were not represented well enough. History is what it is. I truly don’t believe that Game of Thrones is appealing to women because of the female characters, and both Dowd and Bellafante imply this to be the case. I believe Game of Thrones is appealing to everyone who watches it, because it touches on very dark areas of our psyche that we only like to watch as long as we don’t really really have to contemplate it later, but instead can talk about the cinematography instead. And, its the reason why we like watching the show, but will never ever open the book to read it – reading is a solitary activity which forces you to contemplate. Watching the series on TV is a social thing, and one never ever has to venture down the dark path of what turns Arya into a killer, unless they specifically and truly want to.

I really hope that maybe, because of the popularity of Game of Thrones, people will maybe begin to explore the fantasy genre in hopes of finding really great complex literature that’s been overlooked by mainstream readers. More importantly, I hope that people can overlook their own biases about what they think fantasy is and explore literature in the realms of fantasy and science-fiction with a more open mind than maybe they’ve had in the past.

Maureen Dowd had to get the flu to discover that she likes dragons. In an otherwise fairly silly New York Times Op-Ed column last Sunday on the pallidness of Washington, D.C., power plays compared to the bloody rivalries in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” Dowd begins by explaining her initial resistance to the series, based on the novels of George R.R Martin. “I’m not really a Middle-earth sort of girl,” she writes. “I had no interest in the murky male world of orcs, elves, hobbits, goblins and warrior dwarves.”

The idea that epic fantasy is somehow a “male” genre is apparently entrenched at the New York Times. Most notoriously, critic Ginia Bellafante wrote a disgusted review of the series’ premiere in 2011, implying that “the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic” has no place in a high-class venue like HBO. “While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s,” Bellafante wrote, “I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to ‘The Hobbit’ first. ‘Game of Thrones’ is boy fiction.”

As the author of a lengthy profile of Martin (the same one Dowd references in her column), I can offer eyewitness testimony to contradict that. The Martin book signing I observed in Pasadena, Calif., drew a crowd of about 300, and it was the most diverse group of readers – in race and age as well as in gender – of any bookstore event I’ve ever attended. (I wonder how Lorrie Moore holds up in that department.) But let’s not rekindle the preposterously operatic outrage that Bellafante’s misbegotten review provoked among fantasy fans. “Game of Thrones” has since proven itself a palpable hit with all kinds of viewers, HBO’s biggest since “The Sopranos.”

Here are the articles referenced:

Maureen Dowd on “A Game of Thrones” for the New York Times

Ginia Bellafante reviews the first season of “Game of Thrones” for the New York

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