For the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking hard about the genre I’m writing in.
Perhaps that’s a curious way to open a blog post. You’re welcome to read it again.
It’s a sentiment that might seem a little odd, a little obvious, maybe even a little expected. But while there’s always a few sparks of fantasy to be found in my mind, lately it’s been a raging inferno. By the time the same fire burned out and I had a chance to sift through the ashes, I came to a single, disturbing conclusion.
I’m terrified that my words won’t matter.
You might wonder exactly what I mean by that. As always, I’m going to take a roundabout way to explain. But first, I’m going to have to ask you to kneel.
You take another breath and stare at the altar in front of you. The stone, polished and white, is the only thing not covered in shadow. The candles the priest lit hours before have long since fallen asleep, leaving the room stuffy-dark, warm and cold at the same time. Your knees groan where they meet the stepped floor and you grimace, pray that soon they too will slip into slumber. The nightlong vigil yawns, drags, whispers a promise that it’s not long ’til dawn. And when the sun does rise, you know you may yet rise with it. A tap to either shoulder-that’s all that’s left to be done. You stare at your robes; the white, red and black cloth spills freely onto the floor. You wonder for a moment about the significance of colour, then sighing, you return to your prayers.
Social justice is a concept that has always found its ways into writing. As far back as Ancient Greece, Plato was wondering about the ideal state, a promised land of equal opportunity. That same idea, veiled by language and time, cropped up all over the world. The French Revolution, the Suffragettes, the Great March on Washington. All of these movements were born in hearts, then in pages, then finally out on the streets. Ideas, not all of them similar, were grown, documented and distributed by writers, many of them writers of fiction. Some were even writers of fantasy.
Today, multiplied in the information age, social changes are moving faster toward us, sounding different by the time they rush past. It’s becoming a sort of doppler effect, a wheel accelerating so fast that we’ve bought more personal freedoms in the last 200 years than we had in the previous 200,000. At the same time, this progress has left tension between generations in its wake. And though much ground has been gained by writers, it could be argued fantasy found it hard to keep pace.
Part of this is due to the fact that up until fifty years ago, nobody would have considered it a genre to start with. The big names-the Tolkiens and the Le Guins and the C.S. Lewis’-changed all that, defined something that we now recognise. All the same, the genre was largely ignored by the popular masses until the turn of the millennium. But then the 2000s brought film deals and Rowling and the Game-of-Throne-lead surge of a grittier kind of fantasy loved by readers and TV producers alike. Suddenly the social justice of fantasy worlds was being debated. Long unchallenged (long ignored), they found themselves sadly outdated.
That’s not to say there aren’t fantasy novels out that broke the wheel while it was spinning. If you’d like a list, here is just one place you could get started. But many of the names here aren’t household (even by fantasy reading standards), and that’s where the genre gets shaky.
It’s only now that we see big fantasy novels emerging that challenge gender, race, sexual orientation etc. Long kept at the fringes of the campfire, these novels are now bathed in light, shining for all to see. In terms of the role of women, for example, one could argue that the biggest steps were made by urban and post-apocalyptic fantasy first. The Hunger Games, Divergent, Twilight. All of them, merited by critics or not, made huge steps in terms of women both reading and writing fantasy, a genre long considered the boys-club of the literary world. More importantly, they littered the fantasy universe with characters these readers could identify with. Slowly but surely, ground is being made with other marginalized groups too.
I suppose why I wrote this blog is that ultimately, facing into editing a novel, I know the time for voiceless pages is over. A first draft has to have a plot, characters, maybe even a twist or two. But edited work ought to have more than that (surely). By the time Mist Rock (and I) come out the other door of the chapel, I’d be hoping to see challenge, strength, meaning. I’d be hoping to see voice.
A lot of that, as it always does, will mean writing for the times. I often think that’s the wall fantasy writers have to climb: talking about one world when they’re in another. But all fiction (hell, all art), has to say something. And if it can say something relevant, something lasting, that’s enough to make a few words matter.
I guess that’s why I’ve been thinking about my genre a lot lately. Kyle has a world to re-visit, and he knows now that the characters have to speak not only for themselves, but for the reader, for the world that they can’t see through silver-glass. They’re going to have to fight a lot more battles than they expected to. Oftentimes, they mightn’t win. But I’ll ask them to fight them anyway, even if only because there’s plenty out there who’ll oppose them. After all, some people are still growing up in a world where to ask for reasonable social change makes them an enemy of the state, a vigilante, a rebel. These “social justice warriors” have hardly a banner between them. What they will have, I hope, is armies of people to flock to it.
We can’t drown the worlds we create in the troubled social politics of our own. Even so, the very best fantasy is rooted in reality. That’s why Harry longed for his parents. It’s why Ned Stark kept to his honour. It’s why Frodo wasn’t destroying a ring.
It’s why Frodo was saving the Shire.
Understand, the pen is not mightier than the sword; it is the sword, and you’re the writer who is wielding it. And though you have fought many battles with a fist closed round its handle, there was once a time it was new to you, a time you picked it up warily and tried to bleed a few scratchy lines about the whereabouts of dragons. But blunt though those first words were, right there and then, (though you wouldn’t know it for some time), that silver sword gave you a voice. A silent, shivering voice. A voice you hoped would grow louder.
And while there are no vows as a writer, there’s a wide world to fight for all the same.
So if you do rise, rise well. Arise a knight.
And should your sword prove as sharp as you hoped for, remember the promise to give a few voices back.