Saturday, May 4, 2013

Flags and Fantasy

Several weeks ago, I came across an online opinion piece with the subtitle "Where are all the American fantasy characters?" A few weeks later, my favorite blog posted a brief discussion of it, but I still feel like I should explore some of my own reactions. If you don't have time to  read the whole article, his argument can be summarized in two sentences--
The problem is that most of our Fantasy isn't written by Americans about American culture and values.Even American Fantasy writers write like they're British. 
Apart from his capitalization of  the genre--English major pet peeve--I fail to see the problem with this situation. Yes, my favorite writers/producers are British--Lewis, Tolkien, Moffat, Neil Gaiman (though he currently lives in Wisconsin) and Jasper Fforde--but is there a problem with that? It's not like their characters go around eating scones and singing "God Save the Queen" every ten pages, even when the events primarily take place in "our" world. As for American values--er, I don't think we're doing so hot in that area either. Look at our economy, look at our crime rate, look at how causal we are about truth--modern (secular) American values are nothing to celebrate. And so many of the values celebrated by the best speculative works--self-sacrifice, friendship, strong leadership--should be INTERNATIONAL values, not merely British or American.
As for "even American fantasy writers write like Brits," my response is partially "so what?" and partially "you don't understand the genre. He mentions George R.R. Martin as a famous American fantasy writer, but dassifies him as primarily British for using a medieval-European setting. Seriously? America doesn't have hundreds of years of history to draw from--the oldest we can reliably refer to is the 1600s, which isn't old enough to have a mythic atmosphere, and records from further back are scarce, not to mention possible accusations of plagiarism from native peoples.
For "American fantasy," the article mentions two examples: Twilight and the Hunger Games. At least he acknowledges the poor quality of the former--but I'm still not sure the Hunger Games has the world-building of other famous series. Yes, it would be nice to have some American fantasy writers, but can we just keep looking for GOOD fantasy in the meantime?


  1. I was somewhat invested in the discussion on Speculative Faith; just saw your blog about it now. Of course, the most important thing that fantasy fans should look for is genuinely good fantasy, in every legitimate meaning of the word "good," regardless of what cultural material was used for the themes and worldbuilding.

    I think it's important to note that Tolkien was very proud of his British heritage, and part of his motivation for writing The Lord of the Rings was to give modern British people a national mythology with a distinctly British flavor -- or maybe more Anglo/English than generically British. The legends of King Arthur were of Celtic/Norman/French origin, even though they were set in England. Beowulf was a native Anglo-Saxon epic, but it mainly draws from other Germanic traditions. Despite the centuries of British history, Tolkien didn't feel that there was a good enough British mythos, so maybe the age of the country isn't the only consideration.

    As I said on Speculative Faith, there are many American fantasy writers. Brandon Sanderson is American, and he is the most prolific fantasy writer at the moment. And yet, reading The Well of Ascension, the second book of his Mistborn trilogy, I feel he neglected an opportunity to depict his roughly 17th-century society differently from the same period in European history.

    I do think that it is possible to evoke an American atmosphere in epic fantasy -- we Americans do have a strong narrative tradition. We appropriate the Judeo-Christian theme of a people looking for a better country, wandering through the wilderness, more directly than the British, I think.

    And let's not forget the Canadians -- they must be in the same boat, but maybe their cultural resources are still different.

    1. Hmm...I hadn't considered the "Promised Land" element as a stronger theme in American fiction. But thinking it over, the three American fantasy authors who first jump to my head are Bryan Davis, Jeffery Overstreet, and Anne Elisabeth Stengel. Davis's first series does have American MCs, but the main plot elements are dragons and the line of King Arthur. Stengel's stories are otherworldly fairy tales.
      Overstreet comes closest, I guess, especially in his presentation of the city/kingdom Bel Amica, whose moon-spirit worship combines elements of New Ageism with standard hedonism...I guess I don't think of it that way, because the series is more about the value of art than a specific society.