John R. Fultz
IT'S ALL FANTASY
Updated: May 1
Moving Beyond the "Sword-and-Sorcery" Argument
One of the frustrations when you write fantasy fiction is that people, publishers, and media outlets tend to classify your work, even when you're trying specifically to avoid being classified. But that's how the publishing industry works. Everything must be put in its proper place.
I tend to avoid labels as much as possible. Fantasy is fantasy. Harlan Ellison once said that even science fiction is a sub-genre of fantasy, meaning that both are born from the human imagination. That applies to ALL fiction. In a practical sense, all fiction is fantasy, i.e. it's made up by someone, somewhere. Yet our modern world demands that all fiction be classified, labeled, and relegated to its specific niche.
For more than ten years I've heard (and sometimes joined) arguments about what constitutes the "Sword-and-Sorcery" sub-genre. I'm so tired of arguing about this--for many obvious reasons--so I'm content to let people argue away and politely ignore it (most of the time). Some people are what I call "purists," who believe S&S fiction should stick as close as possible to the original pulp-era style and flavor, warts and all. These folks will tell you that you "must" have this and this and this or it's not "Sword-and-Sorcery."
Fie on your rules, I say.
On the other end of the spectrum are those folks I would call "progressive," but sometimes they are now referred to as "New Edge Sword-and-Sorcery" proponents. These people want to jettison all of the outdated aspects of the pulp era, while retaining the spirit of wild imagination and wonder that has always made pulp fantasy so entertaining and enduring. They, too, will tell you how to write your fantasy, generally by demanding the opposite of the purists: You must not have this or this or this. In other words, there are two schools of thought, both of them trapped in an endless loop arguing about what is "worthy" and what is not. Each one seems determined to conquer the "Sword-and-Sorcery" genre and enforce their own definition.
I say again: Fie on your rules.
Should all types of people be represented in your fantasy? Why, yes, especially if you want all types of people to read it. Should you avoid racist and sexist tropes? Yes, if you're a decent person you don't want to be racist or sexist, and you make sure you're not by writing your fantasy in a manner that is inclusive and respectful of humanity in all of its forms and diversity.
Yes, there are people who consciously write racist/sexist stories, but they're going to have limited appeal--if you want to reach a big audience of human beings, you have to write about human beings in a way that doesn't exclude, demonize, or simply ignore giant swathes of humanity.
I've always leaned toward the progressive side of life, but I also don't want to tell other people what to write. I don't seek out racist, sexist, or homophobic works to read, although there are probably people who do. But I don't think it's a writer's place to pass judgment on other writers--that's the job of the fans, the market, the readership.
If racist/sexist/homophobic novels don't sell, nobody will publish them anymore. If we all "vote with our wallets" by supporting the work we believe in and refusing to support work that we find objectionable, the situation will naturally correct itself. People writing for a small niche of racist/sexist/homophobic readers will stay trapped in that ugly little niche. People writing for the greater portion of humanity will continue to thrive as more and more readers discover their work.
The frustrating part of being a "progressive" thinker is that you can lose sight of the past if you're not careful. Only a fool ignores the past because what has come before is a map to what might come again. We learn from the mistakes of history so we don't repeat them.
A healthy respect for the origins and early works of the fantasy genre--including "Sword-and-Sorcery" --is a good thing. If you enjoy the classic work of Robert E. Howard or any other pulp-era fantasy writer, that doesn't make you a mouth-breathing racist or a sexist or a homophobe. What makes you any of those horrible things is your behavior, the way you treat people on a daily basis, and the way you choose to live your life. Don't be an asshole.
New Edge proponents want to keep the exciting and imaginative parts of S&S, while jettisoning the baggage of early 20th Century culture, including prejudice, ignorance, and sexism. It's very easy to avoid those things in the fantasy you write, especially if you are conscious of them in the old stuff. So write that way!
You don't have to redefine and reappropriate a genre--you don't have to reinvent genres either--you don't have to worry about genre at all--just write your story the best way you know how. If it's good, the world will let you know. If it's full of outdated sentiments and close-minded bullshit, the world will let you know that as well.
The world is very good at putting people in their place. Writers don't have to do that for other writers because the market--i.e. the readership--will always do it for them.
All of which is to say: Let's stop arguing about what writers "must do" to be considered Sword-and-Sorcery, or Heroic Fantasy, or Dark Fantasy, or Epic Fantasy, or any other goddamned labels. The market is going to label you as the market sees fit, and your job as a writer is to WRITE A DAMN GOOD STORY. That's it. It's really that simple: Write what you want to write, knowing that you'll reach more people and enjoy more success if you're including, representing, and acknowledging the diverse complexity of life that constitutes the human race. A writer's work should reflect humanity, not simply deny it. This is no less true for a fantasy writer than any other kind of fiction writer.
One more point to make here... Never judge an author by that author's characters. Characters represent certain viewpoints, and most of the time those viewpoints are not directly related to the author's view. You wouldn't expect a writer of murder mysteries to go out and murder people would you? There is a tendency to confuse an author's world view with the world view of his/her/their characters. Yes, there's a blood-drinking sexist vampire in my story, but that doesn't mean I'm a blood-drinking sexist. Characters should be compelling, and sometimes that means they will be offensive, deplorable, despicable, and/or downright evil. ("Evil" is a simplistic concept, but nevertheless still a valid force of nature.)
You can (and should) judge an author based on their style, their imagination, their technique, their sheer storytelling ability. But if you confuse a distasteful character with the author who created it, you're making a huge mistake. You're judging someone on a tiny slice of their imagination, which taken out of the context of the story/novel, says nothing at all about an author's personal character.
I empathize with the New Edge Sword-and-Sorcery crowd because I'm old enough to remember the 70s, when S&S was actually a popular genre, but I expect modern fantasy fiction to explore new ground, not simply repeat tired old formulas (and tired old mistakes).
I believe a writer should strive to represent ALL of humanity in his/her/their fantasy fiction, not just a tiny slice of mankind. Any genre that limits your imagination, that limits your exploration of the human condition, that limits your growth and evolution as an artist--any genre that does that deserves to be abandoned and left behind. So I understand those who want to move S&S into the 21st Century. But here's my final point: We don't NEED that label.
We don't need to marginalize and classify ourselves and our fantasy creations. We simply need to write and strive to fulfill our creative vision. We need to write stories that reflect the glorious diversity of human existence in all its forms. Don't label yourself. Don't limit yourself. Far better to challenge yourself. Expand your vision. Perfect your craft. And don't be an asshole.
Don't worry about what genre or sub-genre your work falls into--let the agents, publishers, and booksellers decide that. They're going to decide it anyway, whether you like it or not. It's how the publishing industry works--everything has to be classifiable and labeled so it goes on the proper shelf in the proper aisle. (Or the proper digital category, with regard to ebooks.)
So I am done with "Sword-and-Sorcery" as a genre label. I'm tired of the arguments about what is worthy and what is not. Vote with your wallet.
Judge me on my style, my imagination, my technique, and my storytelling ability. Those are valid elements to critique. Don't assume anything about my work based on my race, gender, sexual preference, or other irrelevant data. Likewise, don't assume anything about me based on the characters in my work. I'm a real person; they are merely literary constructs.
We don't need genre or sub-genre labels, we just need to write great stories that explore the complexities of the human condition. Yeah, I may throw in a few broadswords, demons, and warrior-maidens. So what?
It's all fantasy.