The politics of sword & sorcery
As a writer and a long-time reader of fantasy I like to take a look sometimes at the state of the genre in the place where I live – in part because it’s a good strategy to keep an eye on the market, in part because this is, after all, my tribe, and I like to see what the tribesmen are doing.
Being irremediably old, I have no problem mentioning the fact I find the current over-excitement of a juvenile part of the public for what Ian McShane called Tits & Dragons somewhat tiring. When somebody pops up and tells me they like Robert E. Howard for the relentless violence, the explicit sex scenes and the obscenities peppering the dialogues, I despair about the state of the genre and for literacy in general.
But together with the fixation for “fantasy of hard knocks” – basically an alibi for writers to write to the minimum common denominator – there is a new trend that is not new but is positively scary: the derailment of fantasy on the part of politics.
As I said, it’s nothing new – back in the ’70s in Italy we had Hobbit Camps were Tolkien and far right politics were liberally mixed. And the debate to decide whether fantasy as a genre is aligned to the right or to the left has been on for decades, a general perception in my country being “fantasy is right-wing, science fiction is left-wing.”
Because anything can be politically tagged with a modicum of effort.
One wonders about crime novels and cookbooks.
I think I already mentioned in the past as my Aculeo & Amunet stories got me labelled as “fascist” – because there is a Roman centurion, Mussolini liked Roman imagery, sword & sorcery is “obviously” right-wing, and there you have it. Which would be ridiculous were it not offensive.
And when I say offensive is because we would like to be judged – if judgement has to be – for what we write, not for a set of prejudices by someone who did not bother to open the book.
My slight consolation is that something similar happened back in the day to Harry Turtledove, whose Lost Legion novels were presented as a vindication of Italian imperialist politics of the ’30s.
And right now, we have a right-wing political party in Italy trying to hijack fantasy – they sponsor events about sword & sorcery and identity politics, and have even cloned the Game of Thrones look and rhetoric for a campaign against the “Outsiders” pressing on our borders; the campaign was up for 12 hours, just as Episode Three Series Eight was being broadcast, then the sense of ridicule prevailed and was cancelled (and this is the reason why I wasn’t able to find an image to show you – but then again, look below).
In the Italian translation of the show, “Estranei” (Outsiders) is the word use to describe the White Walkers.
The idea these people are promoting is, if you like fantasy, you should vote them because you are already aligned with their side.
Which is dishonest – but hey, let’s go for all those Harry Potter (and LotR, and GoT, and D&D) fans!
Now my point is as follows: being human, writers have their own personal sympathies, philosophies, tastes and political leanings, and it is natural that some of these will seep, willy-nilly, in what they write.
We can exercise discipline and skill and control over our writing, but our worldview will always inform our stories.
In some cases this is explicit, in some cases it is not.
The same goes for the readers – they have their own ideas, that act as a filter when they read, and possibly when they choose what to read.
My personal view as a reader – that also determines my attitude as a writer – is that the quality of the story is paramount: if the story is good, and as long as the author does not clobber me page after page with his political or philosophical agenda, I’m fine.
And there’s some leeway – if I am reading an explicitly philosophical novel, I can stand more clobbering than when I am reading a swashbuckling adventure yarn.
But trying to hijack fiction and entertainment to politically tag a sector of the public is dishonest and offensive, and it is not good for the fiction and the entertainment, and it is disrespectful of all the people involved.
It leads to misrepresentation of the writers, the stories and the characters, and short-circuits any attempt at a serious critical discourse. It often means that those writers that cannot be painted in the right political color are removed from the scene or described as “irrelevant” just because. Readers are pushed to make “the right choices” or – much more sinisterly – to accept the fact that “if you like this sort of fiction then you are obviously sympathetic to our political agenda”.
It is horrible – especially considering there is a lot of teenagers coming into the genre that might be targeted by such strategies.
And it might be pointed out, correctly, that similar strategies have been used – and are being used – by the left for the same purposes. Endless articles about the socialist ideals in Tolkien, Conan as anarchist icon and what not. This is equally insufferable, because again it tries to hijack the author’s creation after the fact, for a rather unsubtle political purpose.
And “but they are doping it too!” is no justification.
Turning fiction and entertainment into a political battleground is unpleasant, dishonest, and smells a lot like desperation.
So what now?
On my part, I can only try and keep talking about the books and writing the stories, and try to defuse any attempt at distorting my work or the work of the writers I like – writers that have their worldview, that sometimes I do not share and remains a great topic to discuss, but not as part of an attempt at gaining political leverage with the public.
In the end, quality and honesty are the only answers.
ADDENDUM: internet has a long memory…The text reads: “Invaded by masses of outsiders? Not Today. Naval blockade right now. Let’s defend our borders.” It would be ridiculous were it not so disturbing.