Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why Modern Fantasy Needs More Naked Slave Girls

Yes, I realize that's an incredibly sexist title for this blog post.  It's not intended to be taken seriously (well, not entirely), so chill out a bit and listen to what I have to say.  Substitute "naked slave guys" if you prefer.  If I'm going to be sexist, I'm willing to be an equal opportunity sexist.  It may also come across as a manipulative method of increasing blog traffic, but it's not (well, not entirely).

Rather I'm picking an old sword and sorcery trope as an example to make a point.  I think much modern fantasy, far too much in my opinion, takes itself way too seriously.  It's gotten so dark and grim, for one thing.  I don't have too much of a problem with that.  I tend to prefer a dark strain through much of my fiction. What is starting to get on my nerves is how so many authors seem to be using their fiction to push some sort of an agenda.

At least it sounds like what they're doing from blog posts, essays, and tweets.  I've gotten in the habit of following some writers whose work seems interesting or who are up and coming or major figures in the field.  Some of them are coming across as such ideologues that they've killed any interest I have in reading their work and I'm about to stop following some of them on Twitter. While these people are a minority among those I follow, there's enough of them that I can no longer pretend they don't exist.

I follow these people because I'm interested in their writing, or at least think I might be.  I don't follow them to hear their political opinions to the exclusion of just about everything else.  Now, I'm not objecting to someone airing their views on Twitter or a blog or anywhere else.  What I do object to are bigoted, personal attacks on groups or individuals who have different philosophical views, politics, or religious beliefs.  Especially when those being attacked are being accused of the same things the attacker is guilty of.  I've been seeing a lot more of those recently.

It's hard for me to believe that these attitudes won't show up in their fiction.  I've said it before, but it bears repeating.  The first job of a fiction writer is to tell an entertaining story.  Period.  Everything else, whether it be moral instruction, insight into the "human condition", or to further some political or social agenda should be secondary to telling a good story.  There's nothing wrong with those things, but they are secondary to the story.  The best storytellers will incorporate secondary objectives into the work to add depth to the work, not make them the central focus of the work with the story the mechanism for the sermon.  If I want to read a sermon, I will.  And do from time to time, but it's never disguised as a work of fiction.

What does this have to do with naked slaves girls?   Quite a bit actually.  I stated a few paragraphs ago that too much of modern fantasy takes itself too seriously.  I think it's because too many authors think they have Something Important to say.  Sometimes that includes either actively or passively slamming older fantasy, particularly sword and sorcery, and trying to remove the elements they find offensive from what's currently being published.  Including but not limited to naked slave girls.  This can be done through editorial policies, reviews, or critique groups and workshops.

What happened to adventure and fun?  Yes, I realize it's still out there, but some days it's mighty hard to find.  That's why I often go back and reread the older stuff, in spite of there being so much new material available.

Robert E. Howard is near the top of the list of classic S&S authors, at least that I read.  One of the things I like about Robert E. Howard is that his stories are fun.  And while they're also stirring adventures, Howard was a skilled enough writer that he could introduce serious themes and ideas in his fiction.  Howard's work, particularly the Conan stories, had a sense of the exotic to them, but the societies in them were also modeled after real historical periods, which gave them a sense verisimilitude and just enough familiarity that readers could relate to them.  This is not as easy as it sounds, and not nearly enough of today's crop (at least the ones I've read) can pull it off.

Yet Howard is often attacked for his attitudes on race and women (whether they were naked slave girls or not), and he's cited as an example of the type of writer newer writers are trying to distance themselves from.  The problem is that Howard's views on race and women aren't that simple. (That's a topic too big for this post.)  Many of the tropes of older fantasy, especially sword and sorcery, that Howard and other writers used are out of favor these days.  And lumping those tropes into broad categories such as "racist" or "sexist" isn't that simple, either.

I'm not saying we need more fiction that pushes a deliberate racist or sexist agenda.  We already have John Norman for that.  I think we could use a few more Robert E. Howards, though.  A fully realized society will have elements that are racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive to contemporary sensibilities.  That's just the way the world works.  And what is or isn't offensive varies from person to person.  Ignoring those things doesn't lead to good fiction.  Neither does focusing on those elements to the exclusion of a good story, especially in adventure fiction.

Many of the things that made the good old stuff so fun would be considered politically incorrect today.  But there is clearly a market for it.  If not, why else is the New Pulp movement doing so well?  Let's keep modern fantasy, especially sword and sorcery, fun.  Bring on the naked slave girls.  Or whatever trope or plot you enjoy that's fallen out of favor.  It can be done in ways that don't glorify or advocate negative attitudes and still be fun. 


  1. The problem is that Howard's views on race and women aren't that simple. (That's a topic too big for this post.)

    I've basically decided to refer to these posts from now on whenever those subjects are raised:

    Regarding the main point of the post, I'm.... unsure. I'm more of the opinion that variety is important in S&S literature, which means modern and archaic mixed in. Howard's S&S is essentially old heroic sagas retold in the style of two-fisted hard-boiled pulp - a merging of the old and the new. Certainly many of the conflicts in S&S narratives involve ancient evils and new civilizations.

    To be perfectly frank, I'd be happy if naked slave girls never made a comeback. Let's face it, we had plenty of them back in the pulp heyday and in the boom of the '60s and '70s: I don't know if there's that much new ground to tread. It's also one of my bugbears when people criticize S&S as being Puerile Adolescent Wish Fulfilment, since so few employers of Naked Slave Girls do it well. But if a story has a decent enough justification for it, and it's at least written well enough, then by all means. I just don't trust many authors to pull it off.

    1. Al, thanks for posting. I appreciate your comments. They are always well-thought out. You're welcome to comment any time. And thanks for the links on Howard's views. I didn't have time to look them up when I wrote the post.

      I think you're taking some of the comments about naked slave girls (NSG hereafter)too literally. Either that or I wasn't clear (probably the latter). I decided to use NSG as a metaphor for much of the things that get a lot of flack in sword and sorcery. I could have used muscle bound barbarians, magic swords or rings, or any other trope that shows up a lot in S&S.

      I'm not against new things in S&S. In fact I very much support expanding the boundaries of the genre. We don't need more Clonans. What I'm most objecting to in the post, or at least attempting to object to, is how serious and grim things have gotten and how so many writers are trying so hard say something they feel is important that they tend to forget that one of the main reasons people read S&S is to have fun.

      Whether that includes NSG or no NSG or any other thing associated with traditional S&S is really immaterial, as long as the authors tell an entertaining story and tell it well. Anything else is secondary to that. Maybe I'm judging too much by the content of blog posts, tweets, and reviews rather than fiction, but some of these folks need to lighten up a little. If all they blog about (or all reviewers focus on) is whatever axe they have to grind, I'm not going to want to read their work because I'm afraid I'm going to get a thinly disguised sermon or political screed.

      No, not every work needs NSG. You're right about many authors not being able to pull it off. But every now and then, it's good to return to the tropes and try something fresh. As long as it's well-written, entertaining, and fun.

  2. Great post! Sorry I missed this a week or two ago when my system was down.