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.

The State of Sword & Sorcery

A few years ago it seemed like a couple of people were making attempts to bring back Sword & Sorcery, with the release of a few new anthologies. Now it looks like nothing came of that, and I think in part that’s because those anthologies were not very good. I mostly hated them, really not being what was looking for and seeing in the old classics.

So I have come to the conclusion that Sword & Sorcery at this point is clearly dead. And it has been since the 80s. At least as new releases are concerned. Of course, the old classics are all still around and they are still great, and fans still love and reread them. Just like the skeleton of the king in his tomb that is discovered by Conan, Sword & Sorcery may be long dead, but it’s still magnificent in all it’s glory.

And of course, it does not have to stay dead. Fans waiting for someone to come along and bring us new Sword & Sorcery didn’t work out. Just saying that you want it does not make it happen. If Sword & Sorcery fans want to read new tales of the classic style, it is Sword & Sorcery fans who will have to write them. Who else could? Commercial writers who spot an abandoned niche and think there might be some money to make? They might produce something and declare it Sword & Sorcery, but it will only have the spirit of the old classics if the spirit of the classics is inside them. Sure, the first attempts will probably be pretty bad, but with practice and dedication results will improve with time.

My new writing space.

“That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die.”

Remember, remember, it’s again November

What better time to get off my bum (or rather on my bum) and actually start putting some words down again.

I’m not going to do the whole Nanowrimo game, but it seems like a good opportunity to finally get something done. And I very much doubt getting anywhere close to the 50,000 words. But we’ll see.

I am actually going to try tackling my Awesome Future Novel Idea #5: Scouts of the Eldritch Wilds. Though I don’t think it’s going to be a novel, but rather something more episodic like classic Sword & Sorcery series or the first two books of The Witcher.

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.

Lightweight plots and weird tales

Let me tell you something. Trying to write stories that stray from established conventions is hard.

The standard for fantasy adventure stories in the 21st century so far seems to be complex plots with multiple character arcs revolving around mysteries and escalating series of unexpected twists and reveals. I think Marvel movies and Game of Thrones are certainly not without blame in this, but I think you find it also in the other big stories of our age like Lost, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, or the Star Wars reboot. Shocking surprises are the name of the game and these tend to rely on multiple competing factions with unclear plans. Which isn’t a bad thing in any way, but not something that I care much for personally.

But when you set out to create your own work with an ambition for depth, strong themes, and cerebral content, it can be very difficult to not instinctively fall into this pattern that we encounter everywhere in contemporary media discussions.

As a critic, and when discussing writing with others, I have pretty clear ideas of what I consider high quality stories. Plots should be simple and effortless to follow. The core of a story really is the relationships between main characters. Twists and surprises are vastly overrated and generally only obscure the aspects that really matter. And as a reader I also know what I am really looking for. Evocative and wondrous places and creatures. Mythical encounters and situation. Abstract and surreal magic. And characters who display an insightful awareness of themselves and the situations around them. (Yeah, I think Princess Mononoke gets the full score here.)

But then I look at my current outline and it does not do any of these things. It’s just been three weeks since I wrote about how my appreciation of Sword & Sorcery with it’s short and simple plots has been a weight at me feet for years now, misleading me to try to make my ideas fit into a structure that is very much unsuited for them. You’d think putting my thoughts into writing this way would cement them into my brain, but apparently it didn’t. Not sure if I consider that particular outline to be still salvagable.

But all is not lost. Instead I see this as an opportunity to once more take a good look at my earliest ideas for what I really would want to write. Plot has always been my great bane while I see my greatest strengths in setting, locations, and creatures. Over the past half year, I had frequently been investigating the idea of writing stories that are not really about plot. But this very notion goes straight against conventional wisdom what story is. And it would be the complete opposite from the kind of storytelling that is currently dominating.

However, this weekend I did remember one very highly regarded, though today somewhat obscure writer, who did just that. Clark Ashton Smith wrote a sizable number of stories set in different strange worlds, like Hyperborea and Zothique, that consistently lacked anything worth mentioning regarding to plot. You can sum up almost all of them as a character walking through a strange place and then suddenly getting eaten by a grotesque monster. I like Hyperborea much more than Zothique (and have to admit never read anything about Averoigne) but they are all without a doubt some of the most imaginative and fascinating things you’ll ever come across. It doesn’t really matter that there isn’t any real point to any of it when the sights alone cause wonder and amazement.

While Smith was one of a kind, there is another important one of a quite similar type. Lovecraft also wrote lots of stories that only have the barest excuse of a plot and instead rely entirely on the unique and unsettling strangeness of the places, events, and entities that the main characters behold. They do all end in a big twist, but over 80 years later the same ideas have been repeated thousands of time and when you read them now you know exactly what kind of story you are reading and can spot the reveal at the end  from miles away. But even without the twists having any impact left, they are still really entertaining and compelling stories to read. Simply by experiencing the places and events the protagonists are encountering.

Like Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock are the quintessential writers of Sword & Sorcery, Lovecraft and Smith are really the core of what they called the Weird Tales (which also was the name of the most famous magazine that published them, as well as Sword & Sorcery).  While Lovecraft is today more usually described as Cosmic Horror, the horror label is much less fitting for Smith, though his stories were also usually gloomy and grotesque, but also much less serious. Many of them are genuinely funny, and not just in a macabre way.

It makes me wonder if perhaps the genre of the weird tales might be a better guideline for a way to put the ideas from my mind into a story form. Plot is not the be all end all to a story. Relying on revelation of setting seems to be a viable way of writing a readable story, though the question remains open whether this also works for settings outside of the general horor sphere. I am also interested in the reveal of character through actions and I think the two should combine very well into Man Against Nature narratives. The biggest challenge I see with this form is how to get to a propper resolution at the end. Both Smith and Lovecraft never really figured that out either. Their stories simply just end at some point with nothing really having been resolved.

Is there even an audience for it? I guess to get people interested in such types of stories in this time they would have to be really good. But then, if they are good, when you write it, they will come. But what it really makes it a very inviting idea to me is that it should help me getting out of the outline hole and maybe finally getting some actual story written. Even if it just ends up practice, it would still totally be worth the time and effort.