Once upon a time the heroic fantasy genre was – with a few notable exceptions such as C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett – the sole domain of male writers like Robert E. Howard, John Jakes and Michael Moorcock. Those days are long gone, and it seems that more and more women writers are having their heroines suit up in chain-mail and wield a broadsword. Who are these new writers embracing a once male-dominated field, and how are their books different from those of their literary predecessors?
PANELLISTS: Trudi Canavan, Laura Anne Gilman, Robin Hobb, Juliet E. McKenna, Gaie Sebold, World Fantasy Convention, Brighton 2013
To quote Juliet McKenna, ‘I agreed to do this panel expressly to give the lie to any notion that strong female characters in fantasy are anything new, or that the only way for a woman to be a strong character is to take up armour and blade and essentially pretend to be a man. I’m also not about to give an inch of ground to the tedious misconception which still persists in rearing its hydra-heads that epic fantasy is only written by blokes for blokes.’
The panel started by dismissing the panel’s title and synopsis as rubbish, much to my relief. As Robin Hobb said, ‘To base your judgement of a book on the author’s gender is like asking if they’re vegetarian’. Women have been writing fantasy for decades, and strong female characters aren’t particularly new either. The modern fantasy genre has evolved from its literary predecessors, obviously, but this is an inevitable increase in the sophistication of both tropes and readers. There are many more shades of grey in modern heroic fantasy – a trend that started to creep in from the early 70s – but it’s highly doubtful this has anything to do with the gender-balance of authors.
You can read the full write-up of the panel here, because I’m afraid I walked out after twenty minutes. Asking five heavy-weight female authors, at an international fantasy convention where the audience was roughly 50% women, to discuss this sort of issue felt little short of insulting. I’ve talked about gender in fantasy before, and there are still some kinks to be worked out in the general perception of women in history, but to suggest that women writing in the modern era is strange made me fairly angry. With panellists like that, there was an opportunity to have a really interesting discussion about world-building, or character development, or creating coherent systems of magic, or sub-plots, or so on. Instead, they had to spend time repudiating the idea that what some of them have been doing very successfully for many decades is ‘new’ and ‘different’.
To quote McKenna on her blog again, ‘I think the only thing that could have improved that panel was having at least one male perspective on these questions – but WFC sees no need to avail itself of the benefits which panel parity brings to programming, alas.’
This is not a political blog, it’s a blog about writing, so I’m not going to go any further into a feminist rant. Suffice to say that, as a female writer who grew up reading fantasy written by women, I was very disappointed to see that the WFC considered this to still be a subject worthy of discussion.