Authenticity, History, and the Making of Fantasy

Sometimes, I think I should just ignore these stupid and repetitive critical arguments that erupt in fantasy every few months. It’s stupid because nothing is ever solved, no progress made. And repetitive because these arguments, in one form or another, reemerge every couple of months. And why I jump in? I’m bored.

Anyway, this recent fracas comes about thanks to renewed arguments over authenticity and history. Daniel Abraham authored a post last week that explored whether or not fantasy needs to be historically authentic. And yesterday, Theo over at Black Gate authored a rebuttal arguing for an increased level of authenticity, the “Primacy of History,” if you will.

My own take is skeptical of the need for historical authenticity. History is always contested. Every generation rewrites history for its own reasons. So, what is meant by authenticity? Is it inspiration that matches the writer’s, or a specific reader’s, definition of what “authentic history” is? Is it a work that has an authenticity, historic or not, of its own? What is it?

Abraham’s argument takes to task certain reader’s (and writer’s) defense of works that have questionable and objectionable issues for a modern audience. That an inspiration is misogynistic does not give the writer a pass to write misogyny. That people of color may not have been in certain areas does not excuse whitewashing.

The reason, I think, why we are having this repeated debate is because of the market. With the success of A Song of Ice and Fire, there is a demand for “realistic,” “historical,” etc. fantasy. Basically, there is a subset of readership who only read ASOIAF because of its similarities to historical fiction. And these readers exert pressure to produce and market more works like ASOIAF.

Now, I get that this form of fantasy is a reaction to Tolkien and his imitators who have (and still do) dominate the genre. “Historic authenticity” plays, I think, a rallying point and bulwark for the gritty school of fantasy.

But, I think that Theo may be right. That so often “historical authenticity” is a way for some fantasy writers to get away with not exercising their imaginations to their fullest extent does not surprise me. Why create one’s own world when you can easily appropriate a historical culture, change the names, mutate some aspects of culture, and go to town?

Like Paul Cornell and Abraham have stated, what is added to a work: the characters, their personalities, the culture, etc. is the choice of the author. Using historical “authenticity” is an excuse. And not a very good one.

Personally, I don’t care about “historical authenticity.” If a writer wants to base his or her world on the Wars of the Roses, that’s great. If they want to spice it up by weakening religion or having warrior women running around, that’s great. If that author wants to merge feudal and modern Japan, that’s great, too (although Naruto has already done that). I personally don’t see any problems with women in armor, knights riding motorcycles, expies of Babylon and Hattusa connected by a train. In fact, I think that would be cool.

All I’m saying is that as long as the work is internally consistent, authentic to itself, and is excellently written, I don’t have a problem.


Posted on April 30, 2012, in Books, Manga and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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