Sex, Morality and Epic Fantasy

There is yet one more response to the nihilism in fantasy issue at the Black Gate blog by someone named Theo, who is also the ultra-rightwing blogger Vox Day. Very unsurprisingly, he agrees with Leo Grin’s original point. There are a lot of – to phrase it very politely – strange assertions in this post. The comment thread is good, though.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised how often politics are dragged into this discussions – the huge political gap in American culture seems to inform almost all debates on any topic. But what I find very wearying about many of those posts is how the anti-nihilist fantasy fraction will always try to paint the other side is immoral and recast the shifting trends of fantasy fiction as a symptom of civilizational decline. People writing books you don’t like doesn’t make them immoral. And people buying books you don’t like is a sign of changing literary tastes not of the impending apocalypse.

The future (or decline according to the anti-nihilists) of epic fantasy really seems to be the topic of the moment, since parallel to the nihilist fantasy discussion there is also a discussion about gender, sex and epic fantasy going on. N.K. Jemisin kicks it off here, Shedrick Pittman-Hassett and Foz Meadows weigh in as well. Some very good points there.

The argument made in all three posts is that epic fantasy written by women is often labeled as something other than epic fantasy, because it tends to contain sex scenes, sex scenes described from a female POV at that, which make many male readers uncomfortable. I certainly agree with that point, because it is notable that a lot of SF and fantasy readers have issues with romantic relationships in general and sex scenes in particular. And most of those readers are indeed male, though you also find women who prefer their speculative fiction free of relationships and sex. Finally, the complaints against nihilist fantasy were not just limited to gratuitous violence and morally questionable protagonists but also touched upon explicit sex scenes and excessive swearing, which brings the whole argument full circle.

There is nothing wrong with not wanting to read explicit sex scenes, though at times any kind of sexual or emotional content is viewed as “Wah, it’s a romance novel” or “Wah, it’s porn” by this type of reader. Hence, hard SF novels with an unconvincing romantic subplot are labeled paranormal romances, urban fantasy with an ongoing romantic plot becomes vampire porn and a speculative TV show with some suggestive dialogue and two sex scenes in a whole season becomes juvenile trash full of gratuitous sex. Yet other works with more sexual content, often less well portrayed, are okay for whatever reason. I’ve often found this double standard baffling. Why is this work okay and that one isn’t? The male versus female gaze in sexual scenes theory laid out by Foz Meadows is certainly interesting. I’m not sure if I buy it, but it’s certainly worth keeping in mind. Though I still maintain that a certain percentage of SFF readers are simply uncomfortable with sexuality in general, since they even react to works with very mild sexual content or works by straight male authors.

Finally, on a totally unrelated note, Juliette Wade has a great post on what “home” means to different characters and how sensual cues can help to define home.

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15 Responses to Sex, Morality and Epic Fantasy

  1. Shedrick says:

    Very good points here. I especially love this: “People writing books you don’t like doesn’t make them immoral. And people buying books you don’t like is a sign of changing literary tastes not of the impending apocalypse.”

    Thanks so much for the link!

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for writing such a thought-provoking post.

      I have no idea why the anti-nihilist (and usually rightwing) fraction in the current fantasy discussion has to drag morality into this, especially since “immoral” seems to be a synonym for “I don’t like this.”

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  3. cuspid says:

    Vox Day is not right-wing – ultra type or other, just FYI.

  4. bm348 says:

    ” I am not American and the political spectrum in my country is somewhat different.”

    Cora, I am an American and I would say you were right to call Vox Day ultra rightwing. I’m right of center myself, and I wouldn’t simply label him rightwing, but yes, ultra rightwing/conservative does fit, just as someone left of center could admit that someone who is on the nutty fringes of the left is ultra leftwing. Cuspid is very obviously wrong that Vox Day is all about “liberty” and 10 seconds on his website shows that.

  5. Cora says:

    Just a reminder to keep it civil, people. Theo a.k.a. Vox Day has a right to his opinions, on both politics and fantasy, just as everybody else has a right to agree or disagree with him.

  6. Foz Meadows says:

    Nice post! I’ve read through the Theo/Vox Day article, and it’s certainly given me food for thought – not because I agree, but because it serves as a powerful illustration of just how closely wound together fantasy and politics are. Inevitably, the act of speculating about a different world will raise the question of whether its mortality is an aspiration or degradation of our own (whatever that is), even where categorising in such a binary way isn’t actually helpful. But it’s interesting to me that this current debate is so intertwined with in the origins of fantasy literature: that certain political views are being put forward under the cover of, ‘the books didn’t used to be like this, and so I can argue purely against what I think they represent in terms of that change’ – as opposed to stating flat out that, even if Tolkien had never existed and the new nihilist (or gritty, or whathaveyou) books had just arisen like mushrooms in the past few years, they would still find them morally despicable. Except, of course, that they likely wouldn’t know or care about the genre in that instance, having had no prior attachment. Which is the bigger point of distress, I therefore wonder: that such books exist at all, or that they’re seen as a threat to something personal?

    • Cora says:

      I suspect that it’s the latter, that they see something they enjoyed threatened. Because you can find the same “morally despicable” (from their POV) attitude in crime fiction, romance novels, spy fiction, TV soap operas and every other genre under the sun. Yet fantasy – and a very narrow definition of fantasy at that – is singled out for criticism and “Oh my god, the apocalypse is coming” screeds. And of course, they only cherry pick certain aspects of “fantasy as it used to be”, while ignoring those they never liked or read.

      You can find a similar mechanism at work everywhere. For example, I doubt that the Star Wars prequel trilogy would be so loathed, if it hadn’t been Star Wars but just some generic SF film trilogy. I doubt that so many old Doctor Who fans would be up in arms about new Doctor Who (at least, there were many of those when I was still active in that particular fandom), if it had been just any TV show. And a personal example, I doubt I would dislike the new Battlestar Galactica so much, if the original series had not meant very much to me at one point. I still probably wouldn’t like the show, but I would not have been as angry about the revival.

  7. Laura says:

    I’m someone who tends to watch the controversies that wrack the sf/f world from the sidelines. (I read a little in all the genres, except maybe Westerns, but mostly litfic.) Could the cause of these erratic responses be a genre panic rather than (or as well as) prudishness? Maybe they’re less freaked out about the fact that they’re reading a sex scene than by the possibility that they’re reading a romance.

    I find this ironic, because sf fans are always flying into a high dudgeon about how their genre is unfairly stigmatized.

    • Cora says:

      I strongly suspect you’re on to something there, Laura. Because to a certain subset of SFF fandom, interpersonal relationships or even – gasp – sex equals romance and romance equals girl cooties and possible – gasp – porn and we do not want that stuff polluting our pure genre.

      And yes, it is ironic. But since SF and fantasy consider themselves (and still are, on occasion) stigmatized genres, they are only to happy to trample on those genres even lower on the genre totem pole, i.e. romance and erotica.

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