But how can fantasy fiction offend people, the writer gasped

Apparently “political correctness is out of control!” is a theme in the UK as much as the US, judging by a recent article in the right-wing Spectactor magazine, “Writers Blocked: Even Fantasy Fiction is Now Offensive” (I’m not giving them clicks, but you can find it easy enough). The gist of it is that cries for diversity and worries about cultural appropriation have become a witch hunt, ruining the lives of authors for violating all these crazy new standards. For example the Twitter storm over Amelia Wen Zhao’s Blood Heir for racism and plagiarism (which Slate argues are dubious charges) and Laurie Forest’s The Black Witch (not named, but that seems to be the novel they’re describing) for racism and homophobia. Foz Meadows points out the “repentant racist” aspect of that book, does raise problems: “the big emotional reveal is seemingly predicated on the reader either learning from, being surprised by or sympathising with Elloren’s transformation, which means caring enough about her – caring more about her than those she victimises – to feel invested in the first place. And if you, as a reader, are one of those she victimises, then that’s unlikely to be a fun experience.”

The Spectator cites Lionel Shriver, who made a speech in 2016 defending herself against criticism that her books lacked diversity, and arguing that cultural appropriation criticism just translates into “don’t write anything outside personal experience.” As Meadows points out in another blog post, Shriver’s arguments don’t hold up: “By her own admission, whiteness is an identity, just as straightness is an identity, distinct from their respective alternatives and made meaningful by the difference. But this is an uncomfortable thing for Shriver to admit in those terms, because it means acknowledging that identity is neither the intrusive hallmark of political correctness nor an exotic coat to be borrowed, but a basic fact of human life that applies equally to everyone. What Shriver views as a neutral default is merely a combination of identities so common that we’ve stopped pretending they matter.

It’s quite possible that Zhao’s book was unfairly maligned (I look forward to reading it for myself to decide, now that it’s headed for publication again). And I’ve seen blog posts and Twitter comments that find white people writing PoCs to be objectionable, or casting an actor whose ethnicity doesn’t match the character exactly offensive (CW’s upcoming Batwoman has caught flak because Kate Kane is Jewish and the actor isn’t). But that’s not a sign debates over diversity and appropriation have gone too far, it’s a sign that there are a lot of opinions on these topics and some of them are wrong. Even if Zhao’s book was condemned unfairly, though, it doesn’t follow that these issues should be off the table or that we can’t criticize books for all-white casts or reducing women to sex objects for the male lead. Just like any branch of criticism, individual criticisms may be wrong without invalidating the whole branch.

And then there’s the title’s “Even Fantasy Is Now Offensive,” which implies a)that this is a new thing, and b)it’s ridiculous because it’s fantasy. I’m not sure why fantasy should be exempt from the ability to offend, and the author doesn’t say, but it isn’t. The author rolls her eyes metaphorically at Philip Pullman saying C.S. Lewis is racist, but Pullman’s hardly the first to criticize Lewis’ handling of the Arabic-ish Calormenes. Fantasy can offend just as easily as any other branch of fiction, whether it’s Merlin’s Godson‘s portrayal of Native Americans, the rape humor of “Coming of Age in Zamora” or the sexism in countless other stories.

Yossman might be clueless, but as someone who writes about pop culture (I Googled her. It’s something she does) she shouldn’t be. Perhaps she figures all that criticism is invalid, or perhaps she knows what sort of article the Spectator is more likely to want.

#SFWApro. All rights to Batwoman image remain with current holder.

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