This is sorta off-topic, but it’s also my blog. (So deal.)
Okay. A bit of a preamble here. I’ve been agonizing over whether to post this here for pretty much the entire time I’ve had this blog. But since I’ve gotten pretty serious about finishing this project (described below) in the last few months, I think I owe it to myself to make this post rather than keeping my doubts to myself, despite that I’d honestly rather scoop my own eyeballs out with a rusty spoon.
(Also, I realize that all of this sounds horrifically cliche in less than 100,000 words, but I’m honestly not setting out to rip off Tolkein or the legions of Tolkein knock-offs. Honestly, I can’t stand Terry Brooks and authors like him. I’m not about to summarize the plot because that would be boring, so you’ll have to trust me on this.)
Full disclosure – I’m a middle-class white ciswoman, so despite the ranting I do here I certainly have a fuckton of privilege. I was brought up in a very conservative community full of pretty much every kind of fail ever, but especially classism and racism, and as such am painfully aware my own fail-worthy tendencies. The last thing I want is for this to sound like “oh I am a white woman with white guilt and I’m trying soooo haaaaard and I’m afraid the evil anti-racists will be meeeeaaaaaan to meeeee and I feeeeeeeeel so baaaaaaaaad”. This whole thing shouldn’t be about me, and I recognize that. However, I realize that silence doesn’t help anything. So despite that I grew up in a place where Good People just Didn’t Talk about Those Things and that I have more than my fair share of (ex)Catholic Guilt, I want to give this a try.
All of this is an incredibly long-winded way of saying – hey, I’m trying. Please let me know if I fail, and please accept my apologies in advance since I know I probably will.
Okay. So one of the things that I’ve been doing during my soul-cripplingly long period of unemployment has been finally putting serious effort into the fantasy novel that I’ve been working on for … <ahem> waytoof*ckinglongnow.
Now I recognize that SF and Fantasy are genres with a disproportionate amount of fail of all kinds, be it gender fail, race fail, orientation fail, what have you. Tanya Huff in particular has been one of my favorite fantasy authors for a long time particularly because of her efforts to address some of these various types of fail. Similarly, while Ursula K. LeGuin’s purple prose tends to turn me off, I did read and enjoy the Earthsea Trilogy and wish that her writing was more up my alley, since I would love to support her more. So when I sat down to do my world-building, I made sure to engineer things so as to avoid the most basic types of fail that so many fantasy authors seem to fall into time and time again.
My protagonists are not all white – it’s a mixed group. Nor are the villains all brown. (That’s the basics of the basics, and yet people still manage to screw that up all the time, sadly. I’m looking at you, M. Knight Shayalaman!) Neither are my protagonists solely members of the aristocracy fighting to uphold a feudal monarchy. And I am certainly not pretending gay people don’t exist, nor am I demonizing them or portraying them as two-dimensional stereotypes. However, there’s something that I’ve been quietly angsting about.
My book has elves.
I freaking love elves. Maybe it’s being a visual artist, or a former anime freak, or having grown up stuffing my face with fantasy, I don’t know. But I loves me some elves. And I know, I know, I know that elves are one of the most problematic things in fantasy ever. They’re super-perfect, beautiful, slender, immortal, aristocratic, super-white people. (There’s a recent post on Ars Marginal that sums this up much better than I can.) So I get it. Elves are bad (not to mention lazy writing in about 99% of instances). But I adore high fantasy – I adore elves, and dragons, and mages, and especially romance set with elves, dragons, and mages – and the book I’m writing has all of this.
It’s important to me that even working with such cliched material that I find new things to say that aren’t just ripping off Tolkien and the legions of Tolkein knock-offs, and that I do so in a responsible manner. I’m not about to pretend that Fantasy Doesn’t Count, because haven’t I been railing against that argument here? I also don’t want to write a love letter to classism, or have this turn into “White People Are Awesome The Fantasy Novel”, because I would consider that a failure in every sense of the word. It sounds schmaltzy when I say it in less than 100,000 words, but I’m trying to make this my love letter to anti-isolationism, “being the change you want to see”, and “thinking for yourself”.
But the thing I keep coming back to is this – does making elves central to my story set me up for inevitable failure? Are elves just one of those things it’s not possible to redeem? I’m doing everything I can to portray elves as imperfect and flawed rather than the Platonic Ideal of Whiteness, but is that enough?
Some of the things that I’ve done in an attempt to controvert the worst fantasy stereotypes make me worry that I’m just setting myself up to fail in different ways. The main character of the story is an elf woman, because I’m fucking tired of the Great Male Savior. (And because, again, I freaking love elves.) The other main character is a nonwhite male human, because Jesus Christ I’m tired of nonwhite characters being relegated to sidekicks. And because I love romance there is of course a romance between the two, only then I can’t stop angsting about how OH GOD YET ANOTHER BLACK MAN WHO GOES FOR WHITE WOMEN SHITSHITSHIT. And honestly everything I think of to try and fix that just makes things worse.
I’m at a point where I’m not going to give up writing the novel, because I’ve been unemployed so long I’m beginning to entertain serious doubts that I’ll ever find traditional employment that’s not Tim Horton’s. (What can I say, unemployment makes you gloomy.) My economic situation is the primary motivation in finally putting my nose to the grindstone, as it were. But I don’t want to throw my hands in the air and say ‘fuck it, I’ve done the best I can’.
So here’s me asking for opinions and really wishing I wasn’t. Thoughts?