Flashing Swords 6: A Deeper Cut

The past couple of days have seen controversy over Flashing Swords! #6, the revival of Lin Carter’s Sword and Sorcery anthology series by his literary executor, Robert M. Price. When pop culture site Bleeding Cool revealed that Price’s foreword was a screed excoriating feminists and trans people, slipping in a racist dogwhistle while he was at it, authors lined up to withdraw their work. In a statement regarding the decision to withdraw his story “Godkiller” from the collection, Cliff Biggers summed up his views:

This introduction does not reflect my beliefs, my feelings, or my philosophy of tolerance, understanding, and acceptance. I still believe that sword and sorcery is a fine genre that has room for people of all races, genders, lifestyles, and beliefs, as it has from the early days when women like C.L. Moore and Margaret Brundage played a vital role in developing and popularizing the genre.”

Margaret Brundage’s cover illustration for Weird Tales, September 1934

Frank Schildiner, Paul MacNamee and Charles R. Rutledge likewise withdrew their work, making it clear that they had been unaware of the political context in which it would be published, with MacNamee stating that, “A request to remove the introduction [had been] refused.”

In light of all this, it’s interesting to revisit Lin Carter’s foreword to Flashing Swords! #1, which – as the title’s original exclamation mark implies – is exuberant, enthused and most of all, dedicated to the idea of a genre as a community. Carter tells of the formation of SAGA, the Swordsmen and Sorcerers’ Guide of America, Limited, which would give birth to the first anthology: “Think of it: an author’s guild with no crusades, blacklists, burning causes, or prestigious annual awards! A far-flung legion of kindred craftsmen, with no fees, dues, tithes, or weregilds”

The tone evokes the fellowship you find at conventions when everything’s going right; in short, when you find your people. It couldn’t be further from Price’s attitude.

Lin Carter (1930-1988) at Iguanacon, the 1978 Worldcon

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m grateful to be part of a community where authors step up and defend what’s right, even when it means the loss of an outlet for their work. But they shouldn’t had to. They should never have been put in the position of finding their work in a collection whose foreword seeks to exclude so many of their colleagues and readers, because in 2020 we should be well beyond prejudice and gatekeeping. Of course, we’re not. And contrary to popular belief, the problem is not confined to the actions of some old guard, jealous that they’re no longer the vital centre of things.

As I write this, social media is awash with discussion of the Hugo Awards, where it seems that inclusion has been an afterthought instead of the foundation it should be. Instead, what was centred was nostalgia for a mythical time when men were men and writers were whiter. Campbell and Lovecraft came up. But diversity in Sword and Sorcery, as in SFF in general, is not a new thing, regardless of whose names have been most prominent in the past. Women have always been here. And indeed, Margaret Brundage and C.L. Moore are as much at the foundations of the genre as Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. And to use a Sword and Sorcery anthology to add to the extensive media pilloring of trans people is not only cruel, it is absurd when our imaginations live in the worlds that Jeffrey Catherine Jones painted.

Jeffrey Catherine Jones’ 1975 cover for “The Sowers of the Thunder”

When they reviewed The Red Man and Others, the Rogues in the House podcast dubbed our stories New Wave Sword and Sorcery, and Remco and I found that hugely encouraging. But the representation of lesbian, bi and disabled women in the world of Ymke and Kaila isn’t revolutionary, as these themes have been with us in fantastic fiction from the ’70s. And while we aim to be inclusive in our stories, it’s not a box to tick to score woke points: we wrote along the demographics of our own social world, and these are our friends and our colleagues we represent, and also ourselves.

At the same time we’re limited, as people often are at our age, by nostalgia. We know we’re not the crest of the genre wave, and that somewhere, some twenty-year-old is writing stories that will wash Sword and Sorcery up on a new and exciting shore. That should fill us all with anticipation, not defensiveness.

Even when we use our stories to subvert conventions, literary or societal, we still find ourselves reacting against tropes that aren’t confined to the past. Kaila follows a trail blazed by Dark Agnes and Jirel of Joiry, but still she encounter people (including her future girlfriend) who are surprised to meet a short, female swordmaster. And maybe that’s because progress, social or literary, has not been linear. If we’re a New Wave, it’s one that echoes that of the 60s and 70s, when Michael Moorcock and Tanith Lee, whose works still influence us, transformed Fantasy. Successive waves never entirely wash away what came before, and that includes the bad as well as the good.

Catherine L Moore’s Jirel of Joiry in “Hellsgarde” (1939)

It would be easy, and tempting, to lay the blame for the Flashing Swords #6 controversy entirely at Price’s door. Discussion among fans and pros on social media yesterday made clear that his remarks don’t represent where Sword and Sorcery is going, or at least not the part of it that has a future. We could bury the whole thing as yet another case of King Canute railing hopelessly at the incoming egalitarian tide. However, as I said earlier, such ugliness is not unknown to us, and such rants are written with the assumption of receptive readers. Publisher Bob McClain of Pulp Hero Press delisted the collection and released a rather odd, limp statement:

When Bob Price sent me the manuscript, I assumed that he had shared his introduction with the authors, given the controversial content. I don’t agree with much of anything in that introduction, but I also don’t like to censor other viewpoints – so, on the assumption that all the authors were on board, I published the book. The problem, of course, is that the authors didn’t know what Bob had written in the introduction. Surprise! And of course they don’t want to be seen as implicitly accepting or endorsing Bob’s opinions by having their work appear in his book.”

McClain behaves as if he were a shocked bystander at a road accident, when in fact he had chosen to publish the foreword in the first place, and it’s interesting that he evades the implications of his own complicity: by publishing Price’s words, he apparently was satisfied to be seen as accepting or endorsing those words. Had that foreword not become common knowledge pre-publication, we must assume he would have gone ahead and published it, adding to the hostility experiences by women and minorities while standing on his principles.

As a woman working in the genre, I’m grateful for the solidarity of authors who said in no uncertain terms that Sword and Sorcery is for everyone, and I equally understand perspective of those who just want to tell stories, and had not expected or wanted those stories to be plunged into a political context of any kind. It is telling though that three major S&S-themed podcasts, The Cromcast, Rogues in the House and Appendix N Book Club, have a great love for the genre and its old staples, but are also progressive and richly analytical of the genre’s shortcomings.

This genre went through a major schism not so many years ago. People made statements, chose sides, left discussion groups, and in some cases ended friendships. You’ll get no finger-wagging about echo chambers from me; I support people’s right to avoid people and places where they are made to feel unwelcome in the world of escapist fantasy. The real world being what it is, many of us have had an awful lot to escape. Speaking personally, having spent most of my life fighting a disease that’s proved impervious to both blades and magic, I’m in Sword and Sorcery for enemies I can run through with a sword, for courage and wit to save the day, and for bands of allies of all kinds who make it worth splitting up the rewards.

(ABA)

4 thoughts on “Flashing Swords 6: A Deeper Cut

  1. Pingback: C.L. Moore

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