Part 2: Choosing the “Best”
In my last blog post I wrote of my difficulties as a new fantasy fan trying to find something “like Tolkien, but with more women.” Because this was the late ’80s and early ’90s, I had no vast and wondrous Internet to guide me, no Goodreads or Library Thing or genre-specific websites like Reddit Fantasy, Fantasy Cafe, or SFFWorld. Resources like this might have proved a huge help to me when I was starting out, yet even with them I could have run into a difficulty, a thorn in the foot of readers in search of high-quality fantasy literature in which women play central or at least important roles: outdated notions about “target audience.”
Put simply, too many people cling to the idea that stories centering on female characters will only appeal to female readers, while stories with male protagonists have universal appeal. Women readers can be engaged with equal ease by men’s and women’s stories, but boys and men are only interested in reading about other boys and men. Evidence of this notion in action is painfully easy to find. Author Shannon Hale, whose The Goose Girl I’ve enjoyed, describes on her blog the notion’s roots and the way libraries, teachers, and especially parents unconsciously water this poisonous plant. Then we have the recent brouhaha over the teaser trailer for the upcoming film Star Wars: Rogue One. Evidently, to a noticeable number of male Twitter users, two Star Wars movies featuring female heroes are too many, and the highlighting of female characters leaves the poor male viewers out in the cold, with no one awesome to latch onto.
This in a toxic nutshell is holding us back, keeping the number of active, capable female protagonists comparatively small. Until we find a way to root it out and burn it, progress will be slow.
Recommendation lists abound, purporting to point newcomers to fantasy toward the best the genre has to offer. If you want to know just how amazing and thought-provoking fantasy fiction can be, the list-makers claim, these are the books you must read. Yet take a good look at such lists. On this one posted by “Cory Novah Fifi Stars,” female authors are conspicuous by their absence, and, a likely consequence, stories of men dominate — male Chosen One heroes, scruffy male anti-heroes, male villain-protagonists. The most female-positive series listed here is probably Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive, which does place a woman in the central role in the second book and does not subject its female characters to threats of rape or other forms of degradation every five pages.
Here’s another “Best Of” list which is a bit wider-ranging. A few female authors do make the cut, but on a list of thirty they are substantially outnumbered by men, and female protagonists, while better represented here, remain a distinct minority. quartzen, a friend of mine on Twitter and Library Thing, puts it this way: “How to write a ’10 fantasy novels…’ list: 8 books by men with male protags, 1 by a man about female protag, 1 by a woman about male protag . . . (Note that you can swap out one or two series about sprawling ensemble casts heavily skewed towards male characters for any entry above).” (used with permission) When the number of choices increases from ten to thirty, the ratio remains much the same, if not worse. Yet sometimes, when somebody remembers that female readers enjoy fantasy, we get lists like this. The choices aren’t the problem; this list includes some very good ones indeed. The problem is that in the title of this list we see yet another repetition of the idea that fantasy novels with complex and intriguing female protagonists must be “for women.”
Such lists leave me wondering: are fantasy stories about men somehow better — more riveting, more challenging, more imaginatively constructed — than those about women? Do authors both male and female magically write better when they’re writing about men? If the answer is “yes,” that’s the most disheartening prospect I’ve come across in a long time — so disheartening that I refuse to accept it. Rather than questioning the worth of women’s stories and authors’ ability to write them well, I question the biases, conscious or unconscious, of those who make the lists and their judgments of which books deserve a place in the “fantasy canon.”
If we want to come up with a more woman-positive fantasy canon, the first thing we have to accept is that works don’t have to be cut out in order to make room for others. Do Robert E. Howard’s highly testosterone-driven “Conan” stories need to be erased in favor of C.L. Moore’s tales of the sword-wielding heroine Jirel of Joiry? Why not read both, for double the rollicking adventure? (Confession: I haven’t read either — yet.) I’m not here to suggest that the works of Gene Wolfe, Fritz Leiber, Mark Lawrence, and R. Scott Bakker don’t belong on anybody’s Best-Of lists, though it’s doubtful they would ever make mine. Rather, I want to see a little more acknowledgement of the quality of female-centric fantasy novels, a quality that should appeal to all readers, not just women. Recently Brandon Sanderson delighted me with an article in which he honored the middle school teacher who recommended the book that changed his life. That book? Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, which tells of the adventures of witch Jenny Wayrest.
Coming Soon: Part 3 — Nominees for inclusion in the fantasy canon