June 7th, 2011


Women and Fantasy: tell me why.

The mistress-works of fantasy is growing apace and now has a wonderful array of books and writers. We are light on books first published in other languages than English, and on writers of colour -- there are so many good women of colour writing fantasy now, but there seem to be far too few before 2000. There are sure to be writers I've missed. Keep the names coming, please.

Plus I have a new challenge for you. Tell me about the writers you love. Tell me why you put their name forward. Tell you what they mean to you. Tell me why you love them.

I put together my initial list from memory and from a brief skim of my bookshelves. Those were my automatic names, the women I instinctively want to belong there. These are my touchstone writers, the writers who, to me, make up what fantasy means. Let me tell you about just one of them.

Judith Tarr (dancinghorse) was one of the very first names I thought of. I was 23 or 24 when her first book, The Isle of Glass came out in 1986. (1987 over here in the UK) and towards the end of my PhD (mediaeval history, specifically 11th century Wales.) Before I was five chapters in, I knew that this was going to be one of the books of my heart. Here was a writer who got it, who sensed the same nuances and colours and textures that I sensed in my historical studies, who saw beyond the panoply and Hollywood-shiny popular view of Merrie England. Here was a book with characters who belonged in their mediaeval setting, who were not all high nobles and fated heroes.
It's hard to explain what this meant to me. I'd read a lot of fantasy by then and met a lot of characters and worlds I loved. But somehow, however much I loved and admired them, how much I hoped one day to write as well as them, they all felt a long way away from me. The reigning fantasy writers of my childhood were men -- Lewis, Garner, Tolkien, Andrew Lang, Carroll. They were academics, scholars, important figures who were talked about on television and radio. My 10-year-old self thought I had to be like them, achieve their levels of knowledge and significance to write. Or else I needed to spring forth, a fully-fledged Great Talent, by 17 or 18, as I imagined Tanith Lee to have done, or at least be being published in pulp magazines in my late teens and early twenties. The only other route into fantasy success seemed to be by becoming somehow part of that mysterious American world of sf cons and contacts -- hard to achieve from rural Leicestershire.
And then I wasn't pretty or confident. I wasn't brilliant. I was just a misfit who liked books and always did her homework. I went to university and went on liking books and doing my homework. I joined the sf society and the fantasy society, and discovered that, as a writer, I was good for a girl (and for a non-scientist. Ah, young men. How tactless you are).
I'd written a lot of words by 1986. Fanfic, through my teens, and random stories that occurred to me. Papers for class and the bulk of the 120K of my PhD. I was working on a novel (Illuris -- the tale of Gaverne Orcandros and the first Allandurin kings, which eventually turned into the back-drop of Living with Ghosts), but I didn't have real faith in it.
Then I discovered Judith Tarr.
She was like me, or so I thought. She too was trained as a mediaevalist. She wrote about the sort of world I studied, the middle ages I knew. She wrote about magic and monasticism, about what religion really meant in that context (and not the straw man of 'pagans good, Christians bad' that riddled so much other fantasy), about relationships that weren't fated or easy but needed to be worked at, about political expediency, dynastic breakdown, poverty and battles that hurt people. She wrote about a world very like the one I was researching without shortcuts or simplifications or fakery. She was the real deal. I loved that first book of hers with a passion.I still do. I have all her books, a long shelf of them, much loved, much read, much recommended. Later on, when I'd finished the PhD and was teaching in universities, I used to recommend several of her books to my students as a way of getting a true sense of what the 8th, the 9th, the 12th centuries were really like. She's the finest writer of mediaevalist fantasy we have in English.
And she encouraged me to write, back in 1987. She showed me that there was space for women like me.
Thank you, Judy. You're priced above rubies.

I thought this might never happen

The second draft of The Grass King's Concubine is finally done. I was beginning to think that this was the book that would never end, but I got there. Stuff has been added, stuff has been shuffled, stuff has been deleted and rewritten and reshaped.
I am ded.
Tomorrow I get to print it, and start with the red pen for typos and such. Then, hopefully, off to Nice Editor by early next week at the latest.

In other news, experts claim that cats never purr at other cats, except in terms of mother-kitten behaviour. All I can say is, Horus has just walked up the stairs that are over my head and burst out purring because he found his Ish at the top.

Skirt of the day: new peacock blue floral.