Every so often, the opening line of a book review smacks you so forcibly around the temples with its galaxy-brained perception of SFF that you have to take several moments to recuperate. Such was the case when, after seeing the headline of Tom Shippey’s review of Sarah Kozloff’s Nine Realms series for the Wall Street Journal floating about on Twitter, I decided to investigate. Says Shippey:
Perhaps seeking to take advantage of the ever-increasing gaps between volumes of George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” series, sci-fi publisher Tor has decided on a different marketing strategy for the four volumes of Sarah Kozloff’s “Nine Realms” tetralogy. “A Queen in Hiding” (496 pages, $12.99) came out in January, followed by “The Queen of Raiders” (509 pages, $16.99) and “A Broken Queen” (446 pages, $16.99) in February and March, with “The Cerulean Queen” (509 pages, $16.99) bringing the whole sequence rapidly to a climax in April.
Having now recovered from the psychic damage dealt by this stunning opening paragraph, here is some relevant information to aid the casual reader in parsing it:
• George R. R. Martin’s series is not published by Tor, but by Bantam and Harper Voyager;
• The series in question is called A Song of Ice and Fire; the TV series based on that series is called Game of Thrones, and while this might be a pedantic point to make, as the names are often colloquially interchanged, Shippey has put me, shall we say, in something of a pedantic mood;
• The last volume in A Song of Ice and Fire, A Dance with Dragons, came out in 2011, which is to say: nine whole years ago;
• Tor doesn’t publish exclusively sci-fi as distinct from fantasy like Kozloff’s, as Shippey’s description implies. They publish in a wide range of subgenres, including but by no means limited to both science fiction and fantasy, and have been doing so for quite some time now – but even were that not the case, citing the publication of one (1) fantasy series in 2020 as being in response to the nearly decade-long gap between Martin’s last volume and now would seem to be wildly out of step with reality.
Shippey then goes on to refer to Kozloff as “Ms Kozloff” throughout his review – which is, admittedly, positive, if written so blandly as to be easily mistaken for gruel – while calling various male authors by their full names. His piece ends as follows:
Fans have spent decades trying to organize the adventures of Conan into some kind of consistent chronology—a task which Ms. Kozloff, a professor of film at Vassar, and her publishers have spared them. Just the same, the “Nine Realms” sequence has the scope and much of the gusto of Robert E. Howard’s famous Hyboria. Its characters, however, in particular its scarred but defiant heroine, have emotional range and emotional depth as well. It’s good to see that, like Cerúlia in this final volume, fantasy has grown up.
Fantasy has grown up! I’m so glad Tom Shippey, whose last experience with the genre appears to have been in 2011 at best, is here to tell me so! No need to think about any of the amazing, groundbreaking work that’s been produced in the last decade alone, both from Tor and elsewhere! Honestly, it’s such a relief to know that an old white dude I’d never heard of until today believes that the modern genre I’ve been reading, critiquing and working in since before the publication of Martin’s last novel has now graduated from childish pablum to being worthy of his notice!
The irony is, of course, that fantasy began the process of growing, not up, but away from its narrowly white, straight, Eurocentric and overwhelmingly male conventions quite some time ago. That Shippey appears not to realise this – or, if he disagrees with the sentiment, to be sufficiently aware of that longstanding discourse to be in conversation with it – is a serious strike against his credentials as a reviewer. Do I care that the man is evidently a Tolkien expert? Not especially, no, as this isn’t the same as his being a good critic – a fact to which the life of Tolkien himself can attest, as his brilliance at creating languages and mythologies was hardly reflected in his lecturing. As Diana Wynne Jones, who attended Tolkien’s classes, once amusingly noted:
When I was a student I imagine I caused Tolkien much grief by turning up to hear him lecture week after week, while he was trying to wrap his series up after a fortnight and get on with The Lord of the Rings… I sat there obdurately despite all his mumbling and talking with his face pressed up to the blackboard, forcing him to go on expounding every week how you could start with a simple quest narrative and, by gradually twitching elements as it went along, arrive at the complex and entirely different story of Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s tale” — a story that still contains the excitement of the quest narrative that seeded it. What little I heard of all this was wholly fascinating.
As SFF seethes with ongoing revelations about serial harassers and predators; as publishing across the board reckons with deep-seated racial inequalities and biases thanks to the What Publishing Paid Me hashtag; in a year where we’ve already seen both the racefail and scandal around American Dirt and the functional implosion of the RWA due to systematic abuse and double standards around race, there is something both egregious and maddening about Tom Shippey’s decision to tell us all that the genre is only just now Grown Up. Worse still, he appears to think of fantasy as being functionally Eurocentric, claiming, in praise of Kozloff’s evidently European-inspired fantasy setting, that:
It is, however, a general rule in heroic fantasy that you have to combine two elements in your world-building. First, a medieval world, with swords and halberds, battles and executions, but along with it, a magic strain, spells and witches, amulets and curses.
If I don my most charitable glasses for the reading of this statement – if I squint just so – I can allow the construction of an argument to the effect that Shippey is simply trying to define fantasy as belonging to a pre-technological era where magic is also present; that the Eurocentric terms he uses to make this case are merely meant as examples and not his desired parameters. I can allow the creation of this argument, but I don’t for a second think it holds up; partly because it’s lazy and reductive as hell, as it ignores the many fantasy works which take place in more imaginative settings than this, but mostly because words have meanings, as any professor and professional critic should know. The history of mistaking the European for the universal – both in literature and elsewhere – is long and terrible enough that Shippey cannot possibly be unaware of it, and even if his invocation of it here were to be characterised as a “lapse” of some sort, that doesn’t excuse him for defaulting to it here.
Is it any wonder that marginalised writers of all stripes are frustrated with the state of SFF publishing in particular and literature in general, if Shippey is representative of what publications like the Wall Street Journal is looking for? In the words of exasperated Australians everywhere: mate, f–king spare me.
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