Appropriate Diversity and why “Historical Accuracy” is (mostly) Bullshit

Diversity in media is a subject where whatever you do, someone will complain that you’re not doing it right. Either your work has not enough diversity and you’re a discriminating bigot, or the diversity in your work is a form of cultural appropriation. You really have only two options: Cultural appropriation or cultural segregation. I think much more often than not, any such discussion is missing the point.

There really are two different diversities that need to be looked at separately. A diversity in works, and a diversity of works. Most time people talk about diversity in media, they seem to be talking about diversity in works. “Does this work have sufficient amounts of women, blacks, and Asians and does it have positive depictions of other minority characters?” And I don’t think this is the right question to ask. We don’t need black vikings any more than we need an English samurai, and we don’t need women fighting in the trenches of World War I. Looking at a viking story, a samurai story, or a World War 1 story and counting the number of characters from various demographic groups is not only pointless, it also gives plenty of ammunition to dipshits who argue that any diversity is stupid and bad.

I think what is much more important is that we have a diversity of works. I don’t have any problems with works that have a mono-cultural or mono-ethnic cast of characters if these works are set in places with little cultural and ethnic diversity. Just squeezing in token minority characters isn’t doing anyone any good. If you are interested in seeing diverse representations, what we really need is a market that provides us with works set in diverse places, made by diverse creators. I don’t know about actual numbers, but in my perception of books, movies, and TV in the fantasy and science fiction genres, it feels like 80% of creators are white American or English men, 15% are white American or English women, and the final 5% is everyone else. I don’t have any problems with any creators setting their works in places and cultures that are familiar to them and in which they feel confident to make things up that are respectful to the issues within those places and cultures. The real problem that I am seeing is that the international entertainment market is set up in a way that strongly favors certain rather narrow groups of creators. The people who create the kind of content the market demands. Which the market demands because it’s the kind of content that audiences are used to.

The thing is that it is very easy to pick one specific work from one specific creator and say “this work is almost entirely white men!” That’s not really addressing the actual problem, but where do you want to point your finger when you want to criticize a global industry for long-term statistical imbalances? What address do you send your strongly worded letter to, and what event do you complain about? I think that’s the reason why we mostly see people barking up the wrong tree. Unfortunately, there is very little that any individual can do about that. But occasionally you see efforts being made. I don’t watch superhero movies, but Black Panther seems to be just the perfect example of what I mean with diversity of works. It’s a fantastic story set in an African country with the completely appropriate African-dominated cast of characters. That’s the kind of works that I think bring diversity to world of mainstream entertainment that is appropriate to their own content. That’s what I want to see more of.

However, recently I’ve also started to gain a new perspective on diversity in works. There certainly is a place for it and you can have, and should have, a considerable amount of diversity even in a viking story or in a story set in a German trench in World War I. But I believe that when we’re talking about diversity, we’re still instinctively thinking about the representation of black characters in works set in the contemporary United States. I feel like this is where it really started that people think about diversity in media. People complained rightfully that most works set in 20th century America do not accurately reflect the reality of the setting and that considerable portions of the population were deliberately erased from the picture. And from my outside perspective here in Germany, that’s still an issue for a lot of people. But I think there is a big mistake in equating “Diversity” with “ethnic Diversity”.

There are many settings in the contemporary world, from history, or in fictional places that really just don’t have much ethnic diversity going on. At least not in ways that are immediately visible and reflect the multi-ethnic population of the United States. A medieval Norwegian village might very well have considerable numbers of Finish, Irish, and Slavic slaves. That’s a form of historically accurate ethnic diversity, but in a movie you couldn’t tell them apart from the Norwegian and Danish slaves, so we don’t consider that to be a portrayal of diversity. And I don’t see that as a problem either.

However, and I think that’s really important, even in a medieval Norwegian village that has no foreign slaves, not everyone is the same. Not everyone in this village is a physically and mentally fit man in prime fighting age. There are also the women, and the old, the sick, the mad and feebleminded, and various other people who don’t fit the ideal of the group that is in power. Every village would have them. Lots of them. Considerably more than the number of warriors in their prime. If this is your setting, all these people deserve to be included. It is completely historically accurate to have them in the story. It actually would be grossly inacurate to keep them out of the picture. In the stories they tell about themselves, the brave battle bros of course dominate everything and do almost anything that is relevant to the story. But they still have to interact with the rest of the people around them.

If you’re a white European man like me, and only feel confident to write fantasy in a setting based on medieval Europe about the activities of medieval European men without grossly misrepresenting other cultures, I think that’s perfectly fine. It is not your duty to create an ethnically diverse setting with various populations inspired by Asian and African cultures, or to transplant characters from other cultures into your historical setting. There are millions of Asian and African writers who will be perfectly confident to represent such characters and cultures in fitting and appropriate ways. (That they have a harder time finding an international audience is another issue, but not something you can do anything about with the work you’re writing.) Some people will complain about that, but some people will take offense regardless of what you write. But even then you can be expected to acknowledge the diversity of people that exist in your mono-ethnic setting.

Word Counts in Sword & Sorcery

I’ve been gone for a while and have to admit that I’ve been nothing related to writing fantasy in the meantime. But recently I’ve been feeling like trying to get back on this horse and with InaNoWriMo coming up it’s seems a good time to stretch my fingers again.

One of the first things that came up was what word count to aim for. Sword & Sorcery is my style anyway, and with the classic story format being relatively short compared to common fantasy novels it seems like a good reference point for what I might realistically be able to get written down.

Some years ago I hunted down the word count numbers for the great classics of Sword & Sorcery and some other of my favorites, and I just realized that I never put them on this site. So here they are:

Conan by Robert Howard:
  • The Phoenix on the Sword: 8,823
  • The Scarlet Citadel: 15,446
  • The Tower of the Elephant: 9,726
  • Black Colossus: 14,346
  • The Slithering Shadow: 12,897
  • The Pool of the Black One: 11,252
  • Rogues in the House: 9,676
  • The Frost Giant’s Daughter: 3,284
  • Iron Shadows in the Moon: 12,123
  • Queen of the Black Coast: 11,334
  • The Devil in Iron: 12,292
  • The People of the Black Circle: 30,890
  • A Witch Shall be Born: 16,337
  • Jewels of Gwahlur: 17,167
  • Beyond the Black River: 21,799
  • Shadows in Zamboula: 12,146
  • The Hour of the Dragon: 72,375
  • Red Nails: 30,946
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber:
  • The Jewels in the Forest: 14,215
  • The Bleak Shore: 4,272
  • The Howling Tower: 5,855
  • The Sunken Land: 6,900
  • Thieves’ House: 12,235
  • Adept’s Gambit: 31,901
  • Claws from the Night: 9,410
  • The Seven Black Priests: 9,523
  • Lean Times in Lankhmar: 15,400
  • When the Sea-King’s away: 9,806
  • The Cloud of Hate: 4,929
  • Bazaar of the Bizarre: 9,653
  • Their Mistress, the Sea: 1,316
  • The Wrong Beach: 2,267
  • The Circle Curse: 3,596
  • The Price of Pain-Ease: 4,650
Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock
  • Elric of Melnibone: 48,000
  • The Sailor on the Seas of Fate: 24,000
  • The Weird of the White Wolf: 39,000
  • The Vanishing Tower: 48,000
  • The Bane of the Black Sword: 45,000
  • Stormbringer: 71,000
Hyperborea by Clark Ashton Smith
  • The Tale of Satampra Zeiros: 4,852
  • The Testament of Athammaus: 7,309
  • The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan: 3,203
  • The Door to Saturn: 7,056
  • The Ice-Demon: 6,135
  • Ubbo-Sathla: 2,975
  • The Seven Geases: 7,785
  • The White Sybil: 3,650
  • The Coming of the White Worm: 7,109
  • The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles: 3,901
Kane by Karl Wagner
  • Reflections for the Winter of My Soul: 26,205
  • Cold Light: 29,662
  • Mirage: 10,280
  • Untertow: 11,480
  • Two Suns Setting: 9,453
  • The Dark Muse: 16,654
  • Raven’s Eyrie: 21,922
  • Lynortis Reprise: 14,220
  • Sing a Last Song of Valdese: 5,964
The Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski
  • The Witcher: 10,213
  • A Grain of Truth: 10,418
  • The Lesser Evil: 12,764
  • A Question of Price: 13,105
  • The Edge of the World: 14,395
  • The Last Wish: 18,349
  • The Voice of Reason: 12,495
  • The Bounds of Reason: 25,538
  • A Shard of Ice: 13,572
  • Eternal Flame: 16,767
  • A Little Sacrifice: 19,557
  • Sword of Destiny: 19,995
  • Something More: 17,574
Various Tales by H.P. Lovecraft:
  • Dagon: 2,216
  • The Lurking Fear: 8,164
  • The Rats in the Walls: 7,974
  • The Shunned House: 10,742
  • The Call of Cthulhu: 11,905
  • The Case of Charles Dexter Ward: 51,112
  • The Colour out of Space: 12,457
  • The Dunwhich Horror: 17,524
  • The Whisperer in Darkness: 26,624
  • At the Mountains of Madness: 40,881
  • The Shadow over Innsmouth: 27,026
  • The Thing on the Doorstep: 10,954

As an interesting fact, all the stories of Conan written by Howard combined are about as long as the average novel in the Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire series, and only about two third the length of The Lord of the Rings.

Sword or Sorcery?

How can I wear the harness of toil
And sweat at the daily round,
While in my soul forever
The drums of Pictdom sound?

Robert Howard – The Drums of Pictdom

I am a fan of Sword & Sorcery. I am a big fan of Robert Howard’s Conan and completely in love with Karl Wagner’s Kane, and there are a good number of things I really like in Michael Moorcock’s Elric. I also am not much of a fan of what is in this current decade called Epic Fantasy. (Probably going to be named something else again soon.) It’s mostly the 1,000+ page trilogy format that isn’t doing it for me. It’s not so much the number of pages, but the broad scope and also the endless cliffhangers that keep you waiting for answers for years and decades. At the same time, I have searched my feelings and know it to be true, I don’t have the ability to commit to multi-installment works that will leave readers hanging with an unfinished story when I lose interest halfway through. But in Sword & Sorcery you generally get very tight stories with a clear focus on actual stuff happening, combined with a short length format. It was actually my first reading of Conan that made me consider writing as a medium for my creative ideas in the first place. So writing Sword & Sorcery seemed the obvious choice.

But success has been very limited so far, with a long break in which I pretty much forgot about the whole idea entirely. The format of Sword & Sorcery, with it’s length and scope certainly seems like the right one for me, but I am having doubts if it might be the genre that is holding me back. Conan is fun and Kane is great. But while they are both very entertaining characters to read about, it’s more with a morbid fascination. (Which in the case of Kane seems to have been Wagner’s intention.) Everything that they stand for does nothing for me or is outright repulsive. While I consider Conan to be honorable and behaving rational in the environment he inhabits, his values mean nothing to me. And for Kane there is one simple word that perfectly describes him. Evil. Like the Joker in The Dark Knight, observing him is fascinating and I dare say meaningful, it is not the exploration of evil that fuels the flames of my creativity and imagination.

While Robert Howard was a great writer, I am not Robert Howard. The drums of pictdom are not sounding in my soul. Conan is fun, but he is not moving me. Neither daring the world to try to impose its will on me and then crushing it to assert my individual autonomy, nor struggling with living in a society that doesn’t value or respect my personal inner life are things that are reflecting my own ideals and aspirations. The craving for conflict and need to prove my worth that is so central to the Sword & Sorcery genre has nothing to do with what I value and consider meaningful.

Instead, the works that have much more relevance to me are things like Princess Mononoke, Avatar, and The Empire Strikes Back. Which now that I think about it are all about striving to be good and freeing yourself from greed, hatred, and delusion. (It’s all Zuko that interests me in Avatar, I don’t care much for Aang.) Then there is also Raiders of the Lost Ark (which I admit has a lot of pulpy action concealing a much more interesting subplot), Ghost in the Shell, Mushishi, and Seirei no Moribito. And one very significant work for me is Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher and the videogame series that expands on it. In many ways, The Witcher exists within the context of Sword & Sorcery. It has all the ingredients, but it doesn’t become a story about a great warrior displying his might and challenging the world to try and fight him. Instead, in many ways, it is a rejection of these things. Geralt is an awesome badass warrior with inhuman powers, but he is a character who looks inward is a compassionate and humble as you can expect a man to be in a world where it’s going out of style. It’s a series I have not been thinking about much in terms of my own writing because the setting has a very medieval European style with a culture in which people are deliberately thinking and acting in the terms of Europeans from the 1990s, while Kaendor is meant to not be just uneuropean but actually unearthly and I want to attempt to portray a different mindeset “inspired” by ancient peoples. But I think thematically it’s actually quite appropriate as a comparison or reference point. In its issues and meanings itis one of the closest works to what is driving my own need to tell stories. And it does so in a world of magic and monsters, which is a really nice bonus.

I am still not entirely sure what shape precisely I want to go for with A Wanderer of Kaendor. But I feel that using Sword & Sorcery (and Raiders of the Lost Ark) as my main reference point has become more of a crutch than a means to go forward. Princess Mononoke might actually be much more helpful as an example for a combination of magic, monsters, action, and stricing to do the right thing and become a better person. (And I even like the scale and scope of that story.)

5 Important Books

A discussion on Fantasy Faction raised the idea to put together lists of the most important books to your aspiration to write fantasy. As a means to get some clarification for yourself to understand what actually drives and inspires you, and to look closer at them to find clues to figuring out what is your prefered style. I first thought it would be very easy to name five books that I really enjoyed a lot, but when it comes to books that have been important and influential, this does actually become a bit harder. In the end I was able to come up with five books that left very strong impressions on me, and of which I feel quite certain that they really are the five most important.

In chronological order:

  1. Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver by Michael Ende: There are three books by Ende that we had read to us at an early age, which were Jim Button, The Neverending Story, and Momo. All three are amazing books, but in hindsight Jim Button was the one I liked the most. It’s an adventure story that has the heroes travel to many weird places and encounter lots of strange people and experience all kinds of amazing things. And how can you beat character names like Sursulapitschi, Mister Shufulupiplu, and King Alfonse the Quarter to Twelfth. It’s not as bleak and The Neverending Story and Momo, which are highly existential works, though there is still some actually quite heavy stuff going on that was inspired by the Nazis and World War 2.
  2. Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn: This book isn’t on this list because of it’s quality, but for the impact it had on me as a fantasy fan. I never make a secret of how massive an influence Star Wars has had on me, and during those great years in the 90s I was also reading a good number of books in addition to playing lots of games. I think when the new movies came out, me and my brother had read about all the novels that had been released in German up to that point, except for those written for children. And among these books there clearly is no contender for the throne other than Heir to the Empire. It was the book that laid the foundation for Star Wars being more than just three fun movies, but a massive setting with a huge body of works. And it was also one of the first that we got. And in addition to that, it also is actually a really decent book. It’s good and still quite fun to read. I’ve read it again a while back but still somehow have not turned my extensive notes I took into a proper review.
  3. Conan by Robert Howard. All the Conan stories fit neatly into a single volume which is why I am treating them as one book here. Conan is the starting point of Sword & Sorcery and set the gold standard by which any other works are still being measured. The scale goes from 0 to Conan. Despite being the first real Sword & Sorcery series (though Howard’s proto-Conan Kull did get two story released a few years earler) it set a standard that has never been reached again. Really, what can you say about Conan? It’s amazing. Reading Conan was what got me into Sword & Sorcery and also gave me the inspiration to try writing myself as it shows how great a story can be within a format that I feel I could be able to tackle myself.
  4. Death Angel’s Shadow by Karl Wagner: While Conan has never been rivaled, Kane is perhaps the one that ever came the closest. Death Angel’s Shadow was the first Kane book that I read and I was nothing but amazed by it. Reading Conan made my love Conan. Reading Kane made me love Sword & Sorcery. Hard to describe the greatness of this series in a few sentences, so I am simply linking to the three full reviews I did here.
  5. The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski: I encountered the Witcher in the first game adaptation of the series and was so impressed by it that I eventually gave a try to the books. The first one of which is The Last Wish. Like the previous two works I listed, this book is a collection of stories but one that acually has a very tight chronological order that give it more of an episodic character than a collection of different works. It’s a really damn good book. The series has the best written characters I’ve encountered in a book so far, really no contest there. Like Conan and Kane, it’s also quite existential, which makes the conflicts the characters find themselves in feel so much relevant and meaningful. As with the previous series, I’ve written four reviews about it so far.

Looking at the completed list, I noticed something that really doesn’t surprise me at all. Except for the first entry, all the others are from series that I have given their own categories for posts here. And they are the only four series that I have treated that way. Looking at the categories list on the right could have speed this up by a bit.

Fantasy novels suck at selling themselves

I love reading fantasy novels. I barely ever read fantasy novels. Not because I can’t make the time or any such excuse. It’s simply because I can’t find any books I want to read anymore. Thousands of fantasy booksmust have been written this century, but not one of them has me even the least interested in reading it. And I can’t imagine that it’s because there isn’t a single one that I would enjoy. Even with my somewhat not mainstream preferences, there still must be dozens or hundreds that would very much entertain me.

But I’m completely incapable of finding any of these. And I’ve started to blame this on the writers and publishers who are describing the content of the books on their backs. Nothing that I am reading in the descriptions sounds even remotely interesting to me or creative or original. It all blurs together in the same standard generic mush. A mush that looks different now than it did 20 or 30 years ago, but a still a mush. What I like to call the “Assassins & Politics” genre. (By the way, who had this idea of making “assassins” a description for likeable young protagonists?) It’s frequently said that a book needs to make a promise to the readers of what they are going to get from it within the first 50 pages. Readers have to know whether this is a story that has the kind of stuff and themes that they enjoy or if it’s a kind of book that isn’t for them by that point. But I think any book should give at least some kind of impression of what it’s selling points are and who it might appeal to. When I look at the back of a book or look up a description online, it should make a quick elevator pitch to me. But I don’t feel like I am getting any of that.

And it’s not like fans are helping much either. When I asked in two different fantasy forums what people think are the most creative and original books they read in recent years and why, I got a lot of replies. Which almost entirely consisted only of titles but no real information on what is actually in them.

Two of the most praised books from recent years are The Fifth Season and Prince of Thorns. I doubt that so many people can be completely wrong and so I am sure The Fifth Season is a great book. But from all my brief research, the only information about what is in the book is that it’s about a mother searching for her daughter and that it’s set in a world where wizards can predict earthquakes. Okay, but how does that help me knowing if it’s a book that I would enjoy reading? The sales pitch for Prince of Thorns and the rest of its series is that the protagonist is a psychopathic boy who leads a gang of bandits murdering and raping their way across the land. I fully admit that a truly evil child is an interesting idea to explore, but would anyone want to read three books of attrocities? The book is super popular and so I assume that this isn’t actutally what makes up the majority of its content. But then what is the content?

I think that books also need something that works similar to trailers. Some kind of highlight reel that says “If you like this, you will love this story. There’s plenty more where that came from.” Though the current fad of making stories all about central twists that can only be enjoyed if you have absolutely no idea about anything that is happening in the story is a completely different rant.

Book Review: Jirel of Joiry

Jirel of Joiry by C.L. Moore is widely considered to be one of the great honored ancestors of the Sword & Sorcery genre by fans. There are a total of five tales of the character of which four have been published between 1934 and 1936, making them contemporaries of Robert Howard’s Conan tales and some of Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea. Moore is primarily known for her science fiction work (and she wrote the first draft for The Empire Strikes Back) and build a very considerable reputation over the course of her career. I had not read anything by her before, but the name recognition alone had me go into this with pretty high expectations.

Jirel of Joiry is the ruler of a principality somewhere in “medieval” France. She’s a ruler and a warrior, which makes her the first published female hero of Sword & Sorcery (though Robert Howard wrote some which he didn’t get published), and you have to look pretty far and wide to find any other. However, I have to say I personally found her to be a very flat and one-dimensional character. She has no backstory whatsoever other than being the ruler of Joiry and her personalty consists of the two emotional states of anger and defiance. To me that barely qualifies her as a character.

The stories themselves are a mixed bag. I quite like the first story Black God’s Kiss and the last story Hellsgarde, but was hugely disappointed by the other three. One thing that Moore does get very right is the creation of atmosphere and the imagining of strange and alien sights and landscapes. This is stuff that stands up pretty well when compared to the imagery evoked by Clark Ashton Smith, who was certainly a master at this. But this is not much consolation considering that the plots all completely suck.

Black God’s Kiss stands well above the others in this regard, as it has things happening and progressing. Jirel has been defeated by an enemy general and imprisoned in her own dungeon, after having suffered the terrible insult of being forced to kiss him. This can not stand and so she calls on the priest of her castle to help her getting her revenge by leading her to a secret passage that leads into a strange nightmare realm, where she might find some source of dark magic to slay her enemy. The journey down the strange passage and through the otherworld is quite well done and I greatly enjoyed reading it. The story also ends in a quite surprising way that I found to be pretty brilliant. I’ve seen comments about people considering it misogynistic, but my impression was that there are dark forces at work and not that Jirel succumbs to some “female weakness”. I very much recommend reading this one and seeing it for yourself.

The same can’t be said for the other stories. Black God’s Shadow is pretty much part two of the previous one, but reads more like Moore was recycling all the strange sights she had cut from Black God’s Kiss to keep the story from getting too long and losing its pacing. But nothing actually happens. In Jirel Meets Magic and The Dark Land, she finds herself in different strange realms of magic that have their own weird sights, but again nothing at all actually happens. These three stories consist of nothing but descriptions of strange things seen in strange lands, but without a plot it’s hard to care about any of them. Hellsgarde is better again in that it doesn’t go to yet another strange realm and that it has a plot. Jirel has to travel to an old haunted castle in a swamp to ransom her knights out of captivity but finds it to be not entirely abandoned. It’s not a great plot, but it’s a plot, and it has a surprising reveal at the end, that unfortunately fails to actually change anything that happened before.

Another big problem I have with the stories beside the lack of character and plot, is that Moore did a pretty poor job at making things feel threatening. The stories are mostly nothing but descriptions of things, but she still managed to completely fail at following “show, don’t tell”. Pages over pages of descriptions of how things look like and how Jirel feels about seeing them, but the things she describes don’t appear to be threatening at all. The moonlight looks poisonous, the shadows look evil, and the river looks terrifying. And we have nothing to go with than taking her word for it. There’s no mention of how the moon, the shadows, or the river look different from ordinary examples and so there’s no reason why we should feel anything similar to what she tells us Jirel is feeling. In Hellsgarde we even get a man of ordinary stature with “the face of a hunchback” and “the voice of a cripple”. At the third mention of the hunchback with the straight back, I couldn’t help myself thinking: “You keep using this word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

So in my final assesment I have to say: Nay! While I think Black God’s Kiss is a good story and entertaining read, Jirel of Joiry is not a good or interesting collection at all. In fact, I think it’s really pretty bad. Moore is one of the few women who wrote Sword & Sorcery and Jirel one of the very few female protagonists of the genre, and I suspect this might be the reason of the character’s limited fame. We want more female writers and more female protagonists, and being able to find one back in the 30s we latch onto it. However, more recently we got The Copper Promise by Jen Williams which also has a female protagonist. I am currently reading it and while I am not much of a fan yet, Williams easily pushes Moore down to second place for women in Sword & Sorcery. Let’s just hope we’re going to see more competition in the coming years.