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World Fantasy Con: What Are the Taboos in Fantasy Today?

Wow, this won the poll in a landslide. So:


What Are the Taboos in Fantasy Today?
They shift with the times. Is the writer ever really free to write about ANYTHING?
Sharyn November (m), John Grant, Tom Doherty, Steven Erikson, Lucienne Diver

November (sdn) is Editorial Director of the YA line Firebird. Grant is a novelist and co-authored the Encyclopedia of Fantasy with John Clute. Doherty is in charge of Tor and Forge (I'm not sure of his precise title). Erikson writes the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Diver is a genre fiction agent.

November started by asking what taboos had been breached in the last few years.

Erikson: all of them. The first line of Jeff Carlson's The Plague War is about sympathetic cannibals.

And then people started talking about fictional treatment of taboos generally, not specific recent examples:

Diver: if writers are going to break taboos, they are risking backlash from readers and the people the publisher is going to sell the book to; they lessen their chances for selling the book, so be extremely careful & aware.

Doherty: there are exceptions to everything, but by and large breaking taboos will restrict your distribution. For instance, many people won't handle books about child abuse, no matter how well handled. If writers have commercial rather than artistic goals, they should be aware of the community where the books are being placed.

Example: Wal-Mart believes that buyers shouldn't have too close a relationship with a supplier, so publishers may well be selling to someone who last month did luggage! They have no basic knowledge of books, and don't want to be criticized. Wal-Mart is often the only store in small communities. So, is it necessary?

Grant: "do I want to play it safe, or do I want to write the book that should be written?" Then I think a comment about how authors should be writing about child abuse, judging by the next remarks.

Doherty: it's not a problem in anything BUT that the book may reach a smaller market; that doesn't mean don't do it, just be a realist.

As far as child abuse: there are very many ways that writers can approach it, and in some very good novels, the abuser is sympathetic; and the more an author does that, the less commercially acceptable the book is.

Diver: is the book really about breaking taboos? If it's just being shocking or outrageous for their own sake, probably it's already been done, and also that's not the way to go about it from a writing POV. Also, there is a difference between taboos & conventions.

November: in the children's & YA market, there's a lot that writers used to be able to do that they can't any more, which is very interesting. For instance, in the 1970s Norma Klein wrote a book about a character who had an affair with her biology teacher in which they got married & had a baby. Today there is a lot of sensationalism, in the reinvented problem novel; the genre is a lot bleaker than it's been.

She's often asked, "What can't I do?" in the YA genre? No explicit sex. (It's not only hard to write and she doesn't like reading it, but often it doesn't move the book forward.) But books can have non-explicit sex, drug use—if they also have morality (which is not necessary in adult books), and cursing. Also gay and lesbian characters; you know that a taboo no longer exists when it's not interesting, when gay and lesbian characters are just unremarked, and the genre is getting there.

Erikson: there are gay characters all through his books. At the same time, there are characters doing rephrensible things, and he's not particularly interested in making them sympathetic. But he's surprised that writers can't do things, he thought they just treated topics fairly with consequences and let the readers decide.

November: as long as they are honest consequences and the writer doesn't make up a fairy-tale ending. One last thing about kids: when she read fiction as a teenager, she always thought it was true: so the ending can't be tacked-on.

Doherty: great genius can take great liberties.

Grant: Lolita.

Diver: re: YA publishing: it's more aware now, maybe, cynical & subversive; don't sugar-coat things or pretty them up.

November: she prefers books not to have a bleak ending, because nothing's worse than finishing a book and wanting to slit your wrists.

Erikson: "it's even worse when you're the writer".

November: are there different genre taboos?

Erikson: doesn't think so; everyone's writing about the human condition anyway. Interested in moral/cultural relativism. (November: that's changed.) Erikson: yes, I want to be absolutist and make judgments. For example, female genital mutilation: I'll give the cultural background and so forth, but also someone will show up and kill the character off!

[Which, actually, is what anthropology does these days, at least according to the Urban Fantasy panel right after this. Well, not the killing people off.]

November: interesting comparison: there are a few books about FGM from perspective of the girl or an outsider; a friend did a book for 8-12 year olds. Writers can do it if they're very delicate.

Diver: she handles many genres. In romance, there are still lines: no bestiality, no animal forms (at most, the characters run off into the woods). Someone: not two wolves? Diver: you won't see that in a romance novel, you just won't. She does have an author that's broken that taboo, and for good reason, but generally not.

Doherty: from a publishing POV, different audiences have elevated consciousness to different things; in a romance novel, there will be more consciousness of women's issues, because the majority of the market is female. The science fiction audience is still male-dominated, and "men will probably not be as conscious of *pause* subtleties."

November: "I think I'm a man."

November: any taboos broken that you wish hadn't been?

Diver: rapists being sympathetic.

Grant: it's the job of a writer to see if it can be done. To a writer, nothing should be taboo. Whether it goes further than the writer's desktop, that's a different matter.

Doherty: re: rapists being sympathetic: said something about copycats, but I'm not sure what.

November: what about new taboos? Examples: ways of depicting "ethnic" characters & of looking at women. Then there are logical taboos, things that don't make sense (implicitly, I think, that audiences are no longer willing to overlook).

someone: would it be hard to promote Gone with the Wind today?

Doherty: yes, it would be attacked immediately upon publication today.

November: Valley of the Dolls is only still successful because readers are looking on it very ironically.

November: (I think directly to Doherty): are there any taboos you've encouraged writers to breach because you think it's a good idea?

Doherty: *long silence* Don't think so. They think first of the story, and they're not a pulpit that preaches with fiction. But different editors have different priorities, and the freedom to express themselves with what they acquire, so it would vary among/between them what they considered supporting for purposes other than story.

November: she's interested in publishing houses with their own agenda, like religious houses. "So I bought [a book from one], but I still remain Jewish." It's intersting to watch authors play with the agenda, where the story is secondary, like Mormom YA.

Diver: it's almost taboo to have a political or religious agenda, in mainstream publishing, because (readership, politics, society? I lost my noun here) is so polarized and limited. You can be sneaky about it, or have different characters with different POVs.

Grant: he did think of that when panel was introduced. For instance, in the Vietnam era, writers had responses. Today U.S. fantasy & science fiction "seems to be incapable of responding"—also said something about "a coherent response"—even though movies, graphic novels are, and the Brits seem to be.

Erikson: think responses are as polarized among writers too. Much military sf is "fairly fascistic".

November: true, but there's nothing worse than walking into someone's political agenda and watching the story go to hell. That's just bad story all the way around.

Audience member: what about "can" versus "should"? Is there a reason why there should be a good book addressing cannibalism?

Doherty: at what point do you limit expression? Try to make informed, hopefully responsible judgments, thinking first of the story, then "do no harm".

November: added, jokingly, that's what fanfiction is for! People are writing this stuff all the time, just not getting published. Mentions male pregnancy stories: "uh, rock on, I guess!" Okay, they're writing and being read, rest of us don't have to.

Same audience member: is having a venue the important thing, or getting mass market exposure?

November: Venue.

Audience member: no sex at all in YAs?

November: just not explicit sex.

Audience member: what about retroactively changing books because of change of taboos? For instance, the Dr. Doolittle books now have an introduction by the author's grandson saying that he decided to make changes because he thought the author would've have wanted it that way.

November: this comes up a lot in children's books. She would rather have an introduction explaining the context. A book is a document that exists in time. Example: Ellen Klages' The Green Glass Sea is set in the 1940s, and she's gotten letters because it had characters smoking (and none that said anything about using "negro").

Audience member: isn't there a movement towards books being universal across time, which could be a reason for politics not being discussed? Doesn't 1984 seem dated now?

Erikson: doesn't think it matters. If issues are relevant to the story, they should be included, no matter when the story takes place [I am extrapolating this sentence slightly from my cryptic notes].

Doherty: we will see Iraq dealt with in fiction. Much of the good stuff on Vietnam came out much latter.

November: she's always leery of anything that comes out right away.

Grant: disagreed at length about 1984 being dated.

Audience member: there are no different taboos across genres? Don't genres create taboos? Question: does speculative fiction have a responsibility to break taboos? [I'm not sure I fully understood this question at the time.]

Doherty: sf gives you more freedom.

November: sf helps you avoid didacticism when dealing with complex moral issues. In mainstream fiction, if you have an evil person, and you say "you must kill them," that comes off as didactic; in genre fiction, you can kill them!

Diver: also, a fantasy world puts things at an emotional remove that a reader can deal with.

Tamora Pierce (tammypierce) from the audience: re: whether American writers are addressing political issues: there is a decided trend in YA in dark-goverments and anti-authoritarian sentiment.

November: she thinks that started a long time ago, with Watergate—a lot of books about censorship at that point—this is the extreme flowering of it.

Diver: there's always a certain level of authority = bad in YA generally.

Pierce: yes, but now it's stepped up considerably.

Audience member: are there uniquely American taboos?

Diver: there are possibly fewer; except in films, where blood is okay but sex isn't; she has far less trouble with sexual orientation here than in overseas markets.

Grant: in response: "Speechless!"

Audience: are there any genre conventions that have the weight of taboo?

Diver: there are very compartmentalized genre conventions, which are breaking down but are still there; she thinks readers care less about labels and pigeonholes than marketers & bookstores and such.

November: see The Tough Guide to Fantasyland for takes on genre conventions.

Diver: or Chalker's River of the Dancing Gods.

November: there are certain subjects writers can't be funny about, even though it's not realistic. "Even crackheads make jokes". That is a taboo.

Audience member: in your recent experience, have you encountered books that you actually refrained from doing something with because of a taboo?

November: no. There was a book with bestiality, but the book wasn't very good (though someone actually published it).

Diver: there have been books in which the breaking of a taboo turned her off, but she didn't pass on the book because of the taboo itself [I think].

Doherty: can't imagine not publishing a book if they wanted to, though might offer less money for it.

Grant: in the early 1970s, couldn't do a book for young kids about pigeons pooping on people's heads.

November: that's not a taboo any more!

Audience member: I've thought of two genre-specific taboos. In science fiction, there's a taboo against anti-intellectualism (November: then it wouldn't be sf!); Blindsight is a notable exception. In fantasy & YA, there's a taboo against portraying conformity as good.

November: WHAT? See the House system in Harry Potter; lip service is being paid to non-conformity there, but there are unexamined problems with the setup [I'm paraphrasing liberally]

Audience member: has there been any market research to show that there really are lower sales for things that break taboos?

Doherty: judgments are being made on experience; there's almost nothing publishers see in a year that's totally unique, and decisions are based on these similarities.

November: publshing is such gut-instinct business at heart; if sales could be predicted then we'd all be bazillionaries.

Doherty: it's easy to do market-research on Coke, but to do it on a hardcover that's having 5,000 copies printed? There are limited resources, and it's not economically possible to intelligent statistical research.

And then we were out of time.

Anyone got any more taboos to offer? I'm sure there are, but the nature of the things is that it's hard for me to think of them.

Oh, nice notes!

For Tom Doherty's title, God Emperor works as well as anything. ;> (Technically, I believe he's the Publisher. Or that's what he was the last time I looked.)

I have run head-on into a reader rather than editor/agent taboo--as reflected in sharp drops in sales. This spreads from 1987 to now, so it's not just a factor of the current political climate (then again, 1987was also a very right-wing period, wasn't it?).

Sympathetic portrayals of Muslim characters, as main characters--protagonists. Not as terrorists. Readers in the US are Not Interested. Now that the Evil Commie Reds are gone, that's our communal bugbear.

It's also one that no one wants to talk about. Rape, child abuse, oh yeah, they're big, splashy, ugly. Teh gay, too. But our deeper racism and culturalism? Not so well acknowledged.

Our genre is very parochial at heart. Also very white and Westernist (pagan, Xian, whatever). It's hard to sell anything that isn't Western Europe, and a narrow slice of that. I've been told this in so many words, within the past three months. "Nobody wants to read about Egypt/China/Japan/Africa. Write about something familiar. Britain is good. Nobody ever gets tired of Britain." So basically, not-Western Europe is a taboo. This may be why urban fantasy is so huge now--it's totally familiar to the American reader. The further away from US-suburban norm you go, the more the sales tend to drop.


*considers, adds more r's*

I'd noted that the non-Western, non-Native urban fantasies on the prior panel list ( http://kate-nepveu.livejournal.com/265977.html ) were either small press or more romance-oriented, but I'd hoped they were the leading edge of a trend.

Clearly, we shall just have to make them be so.

Or something.

Sympathetic portrayals of Muslim characters, as main characters--protagonists. Not as terrorists. Readers in the US are Not Interested. Now that the Evil Commie Reds are gone, that's our communal bugbear.

I'm seeing this in YA, though perhaps in realistic YA rather than genre YA.

(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-09 02:49 pm (UTC)(Expand)
I've been told this in so many words, within the past three months. "Nobody wants to read about Egypt/China/Japan/Africa. Write about something familiar. [...]"

When I told my US agent I wanted to write a Chinese fantasy, she said almost exactly this, that it would be impossible to sell in the States. I wore her down, and she got me a good deal for it, and we'll see - but I think she's still pessimistic about sales, simply because it's not within that standard mediaeval/European core setting.

(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-09 02:50 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - desperance, 2007-11-09 03:06 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-09 03:10 pm (UTC)(Expand)
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(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-10 01:07 am (UTC)(Expand)
Thanks for typing that up! While there's nothing new here, it's kinda cool to see impressions gathered from all over listed like this.

But I do wish the moderator had gotten onto how such things are handled and when they work, specifically techniques of quiet subversion.

Any thoughts on that end to start it here?

(no subject) - sartorias, 2007-11-09 07:02 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-10 01:17 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sartorias, 2007-11-10 03:07 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-10 03:21 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sartorias, 2007-11-10 03:42 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-10 10:34 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sartorias, 2007-11-10 11:07 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-11 01:32 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sartorias, 2007-11-11 01:44 am (UTC)(Expand)
this is such a large topic, sherwood! i did what i could.

(no subject) - sartorias, 2007-11-09 07:03 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-10 01:08 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sdn, 2007-11-10 05:28 pm (UTC)(Expand)
I'm gobsmacked that someone would think 1984 is dated. I reread it just a few months back, and it's more relevant now than it was when I first read it in 1983. It's timeless. It'll still be relevant a thousand years from now.

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I do get a little annoyed at people who speak of it as prophetic--well, actually it is prophetic, but in the truer sense of the word, the allegorical-jeremiad sense rather than the fortuneteller sense. Orwell was writing about stuff that was in his world and is in ours.

(no subject) - desperance, 2007-11-09 03:09 pm (UTC)(Expand)

Anti-intellectualism in SF

The traditional form that anti-intellectualism takes in SF is disdain for the humanities.

Re: Anti-intellectualism in SF

Oh, good point. It's like conformity, it seems to me; things that the genre thinks it's resisting but is often giving in to in unexamined ways.

(Deleted comment)
He was probably thinking about Huckleberry Finn every step of the way.

You're right--the sharpest edge of the new taboos that November mentioned.

I don't know Turtledove or his writing processes from a hole in the wall, but I will also speculate that he had the effect on the everyday reader in mind (as opposed to the ones deciding whether it should be in a school library). I don't remember, at this point, what you did about anti-Semetic slurs in _Farthing_; but if I were reading Turtledove's book, *even knowing* what kind of setting it was and that the term would be accurate, I think I would still be very jolted to see it on the page. (I get jolted to hear it in a song that I like, where it's being used in a very sarcastic way.)

(no subject) - fledgist, 2007-11-09 04:00 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-09 04:56 pm (UTC)(Expand)
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(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-10 01:21 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - rachelmanija, 2007-11-10 02:25 am (UTC)(Expand)
I find it fascinating that our society is rapidly approaching a point where the old sources of vulgar language (namely, body parts/bodily function and religion) no longer carry much impact at all -- but "terms of prejudice," if I can group them under that header, are acquiring quite a powerful degree of taboo. Right here in your comment, you're doing what I tend to do: talking about "the n-word." I really and truly don't feel comfortable typing it or saying it, and when I read it I get an unpleasant jolt. Hence the euphemism.

Yet I have been in public discussions, in print and conversation, about the many grammatical uses of the word "fuck."

Slurs aimed at race, gender, ethnicity, orientation, and so on really do seem to be gaining power as our new sources of language-level taboo. Which is not precisely the same thing as subject-level taboo, but the two interact in interesting ways. (You can write about racism, but if you use that word . . . .)

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(no subject) - al_zorra, 2007-11-10 09:03 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-10 10:44 pm (UTC)(Expand)
I don't think that's why. And not just because there actually are a lot of books in the library where "nigger" is used in dialog to establish realism, or to mark a character. (there are even quite a few that use the word in narrative, to establish the voice of the narrator)

Without having read it yet, I'd say the more likely reason for referencing the word without writing it is to make the word more prominent, more shocking, more resonant, by its absence. To make people think about the word. Especially in these times when people say "nigger" all the time and congratulate themselves on reclaiming the word when they haven't at all.

You take fantastic notes.

My thought on seeing the panel topic was, not so much that there are subjects we cannot address, but certain portrayals of those subjects are taboo. So, you can talk about rape, but portraying rape as okay . . . ? Nnnnngh.

I often think one of the idiotic mistakes made by those who try to ban (especially children's/YA) books is, they don't want fiction to address those topics at all. They are trying to enforce taboos of subject matter. Far better, in my mind, to pay attention to how the topics are being addressed.

I cheat at panel notes by typing them on a portable keyboard + PDA. =>

This ties into something I was thinking about, the reasons behind taboos. Some taboos, one can see that there would be concrete social ramifications if they were generally dropped--like the taboos against saying that sexual assault and abuse are okay, or against being racist. Others seem less to, at least to an outsider--the one that comes to mind is that when we were in Japan, I stuck my chopsticks in a bowl of rice to free my hands for a moment, and Chad reached over and immediately pulled them out. I was taken aback until he explained that that's Just Not Done (IIRC, because only food for the dead gets chopsticks stuck in).

Breaking either in fiction is going to make me wary, but for different reasons; obvious ones in the first case, and "are you deliberately being an asshole for no good reason?" in the second.

I'm also trying to figure out what U.S. culture has that falls under the second category, with no luck--fish, water, etc.

(I realize I am probably teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, here. Sorry. If you have more formal ways of talking about the wheels I am reinventing, feel free.)

(no subject) - swan_tower, 2007-11-09 05:09 pm (UTC)(Expand)
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It's hard to write a story palatable to American audiences wherein the main character sacrifices their own individual freedom for the good of conformity and the community, and have that truly be presented as a good thing.

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(no subject) - ex_greythist387, 2007-11-10 07:47 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - al_zorra, 2007-11-12 01:33 am (UTC)(Expand)
This is me pretty much nodding along with not much to add.

(Except, _The Last Seduction_. => )

Steven Erikson here. Fascinating follow-on to the panel. This was ten in the morning and I'd had about two hours sleep, hence my fade for the second half. It's curious to see the various taboos being discussed here, and alarming to realize how many I've broken in my Malazan series and in my other works. There's a protagonist who rapes two women (within a cultural context that 'permits' it); in my Bauchelain/Korbal Broach series the two principal characters are sociopaths, one of them a serial killer (the point of view is from their manservant) -- and neither one gets their just rewards (just a lot of bad karma and bad luck). And overall, principal characters can be gay, bi, or in one case maddeningly celibate, and none of it is an issue. One 'taboo' we didn't get to talk about is one of the most subversive I can think of right now, and that's gender roles. When you're stuck with medieval-sourced fantasy you get princesses and tomboys and not much else. You would not believe the stir caused by my having women soldiers in my novels. Comments? (gotta run right now but I'll be back)

Partly that's an outgrowth of people having a bad understanding of real medievalism. Pop culture presentations smooth over a lot of the messy edges and nonconformist types.

(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2007-11-10 02:02 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ex_greythist387, 2007-11-10 07:49 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - swan_tower, 2007-11-10 07:53 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Hello and welcome.

I haven't read your books, because I'm not your kind of reader, but my husband Chad (orzelc) has read the Malazan books, really likes them, and has told me a lot about them. (One of the ways we keep awake on longish car rides is him telling me the plots. => )

So I can't talk with certainty here, but I'll venture some comments:

Sympathetic rapists: I look at what stance the story overall takes on rape, and whether there's any indication of a broader societal statement. So, for instance, once I realized that Anne McCaffrey's early Pern books (a) contained rape [read them young and it goes *right* *by* you] and (b) romanticized it, well, it's brain-scrub time. I can't think of any examples at the moment, but I can imagine reading a story in which a rapist is portrayed sympathetically but the entire story, as a whole, leaves me thinking that the author understands and portrays the problems with this. It's my impression that your Malazan books have a lot of dark stuff happening, which are portrayed in a corresponding tone; so that may be one reason that you haven't heard comments on it (if you haven't, which I'm inferring, possibly incorrectly).

(I realize I have just slid from talking about the story to talking about authorial intent. I usually try not to do this, but it is the way I think about this issue.)

I'm not convinced that sociopathic protagonists are a taboo, just hard to do well; again, I'm not likely to enjoy a story where I feel like the entire story is about how sociopathy is the way to live your life, but there's a lot of room outside of that. (Though, as I said to leighdb, there is _The Last Seduction_.)

Re: sexual orientation, sartorias (Sherwood Smith) said it already: http://kate-nepveu.livejournal.com/267146.html?thread=2598794#t2598794

Your comments on gender roles, now, those really interest me. It would never have occurred to me to call those a taboo--but of course I'm coming from my own context, where as a feminist I try to seek books that are either feminist or at least not likely to offend me, and so my sample of books and reactions both are skewed. I think of much of that as subversive, but not of anything that rises to a *taboo*. So I'd be interested to hear whatever else you have to say about this.

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