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.