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This book illuminates the racialized nature of twenty-first century Western popular culture by exploring how discourses of race circulate in the Fantasy genre. It examines not only major texts in the genre, but also the impact of franchises, industry, editorial and authorial practices, and fan engagements on race and representation. Approaching Fantasy as a significant ele This book illuminates the racialized nature of twenty-first century Western popular culture by exploring how discourses of race circulate in the Fantasy genre. It examines not only major texts in the genre, but also the impact of franchises, industry, editorial and authorial practices, and fan engagements on race and representation. Approaching Fantasy as a significant element of popular culture, it visits the struggles over race, racism, and white privilege that are enacted within creative works across media and the communities which revolve around them. While scholars of Science Fiction have explored the genre’s racialized constructs of possible futures, this book is the first examination of Fantasy to take up the topic of race in depth. The book’s interdisciplinary approach, drawing on Literary, Cultural, Fan, and Whiteness Studies, offers a cultural history of the anxieties which haunt Western popular culture in a century eager to declare itself post-race. The beginnings of the Fantasy genre’s habits of whiteness in the twentieth century are examined, with an exploration of the continuing impact of older problematic works through franchising, adaptation, and imitation. Young also discusses the major twenty-first century sub-genres which both re-use and subvert Fantasy conventions. The final chapter explores debates and anti-racist praxis in authorial and fan communities. With its multi-pronged approach and innovative methodology, this book is an important and original contribution to studies of race, Fantasy, and twenty-first century popular culture.


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This book illuminates the racialized nature of twenty-first century Western popular culture by exploring how discourses of race circulate in the Fantasy genre. It examines not only major texts in the genre, but also the impact of franchises, industry, editorial and authorial practices, and fan engagements on race and representation. Approaching Fantasy as a significant ele This book illuminates the racialized nature of twenty-first century Western popular culture by exploring how discourses of race circulate in the Fantasy genre. It examines not only major texts in the genre, but also the impact of franchises, industry, editorial and authorial practices, and fan engagements on race and representation. Approaching Fantasy as a significant element of popular culture, it visits the struggles over race, racism, and white privilege that are enacted within creative works across media and the communities which revolve around them. While scholars of Science Fiction have explored the genre’s racialized constructs of possible futures, this book is the first examination of Fantasy to take up the topic of race in depth. The book’s interdisciplinary approach, drawing on Literary, Cultural, Fan, and Whiteness Studies, offers a cultural history of the anxieties which haunt Western popular culture in a century eager to declare itself post-race. The beginnings of the Fantasy genre’s habits of whiteness in the twentieth century are examined, with an exploration of the continuing impact of older problematic works through franchising, adaptation, and imitation. Young also discusses the major twenty-first century sub-genres which both re-use and subvert Fantasy conventions. The final chapter explores debates and anti-racist praxis in authorial and fan communities. With its multi-pronged approach and innovative methodology, this book is an important and original contribution to studies of race, Fantasy, and twenty-first century popular culture.

30 review for Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness

  1. 4 out of 5

    Adam

    I had been toying with the idea of writing about race in fantasy for a while. I’d periodically do some googling to try to ascertain what research had been done in that vein already, and never found all that much. Then I came across a quote from Young’s book, and requested it at the library without looking into it much further. When I picked it up, though, I realized that this wasn’t just a single prior piece of scholarship. Rather, Young has assembled a comprehensive overview of the topic, somet I had been toying with the idea of writing about race in fantasy for a while. I’d periodically do some googling to try to ascertain what research had been done in that vein already, and never found all that much. Then I came across a quote from Young’s book, and requested it at the library without looking into it much further. When I picked it up, though, I realized that this wasn’t just a single prior piece of scholarship. Rather, Young has assembled a comprehensive overview of the topic, something that not only carried out many of the inklings I had entertained but with real scholarship, but also explored many other topics in the same depth. Race in Popular Fantasy crystallizes much of the debates about racism, representation, and diversity in fantasy. I haven’t seen many people reviewing and discussing it yet, which is a shame and will hopefully change soon; Young’s work marks a helpful and accessible catalyst for future discussions on the topic. The book is written in a detached, academic style and I imagine it might not be the easiest read for people who aren’t fluent in the vocabulary of that style. I found it to be just about right, always using the right words for things and maintaining a careful perspective but never indulging in academese for its own sake—though that’s not to say there aren’t places where things could have been stated more clearly. While she hints at some larger Theory stuff in the intro, all of her methods and framing feel straightforwardly and comprehensibly postmodern. Young eloquently and succinctly reviews the role of early fantasists like Tolkien and Howard in popularizing and reiterating racial origin myths, building both biological (racial essentialism and predestination) and cultural (Anglo-Saxonism) race narratives into the foundation of the fantasy genre. This argument is well-made and makes a convenient reference. I also really appreciate that she points to cultural racism as an equal partner to scientific racism, giving the humanities (philology, folklore studies, etc) their fair share of blame for something science, extrapolated from anthropology and biology, too often ends up scapegoated for exclusively even to this day. In a similar vein, she traces “orcs” as a sort of wastebasket taxon for racial othering over nearly a century of fantasy. The one thing Young refrained from doing, probably a difficult scholarly leap but something I think is interesting and important to investigate, is the role fantasy plays in perpetuating ideas about Whiteness in culture outside of fantasy circles. I want to claim that Tolkien not only established a legacy of racism in fantasy, but serves as a major point of exposure to that Anglo-Saxonist Whiteness narrative for people who may never read any other fantasy. Another chapter discusses the growing body of deconstructive, anti-racist, postcolonial, and POC-centric fantasy, something I find very interesting. Young’s summary indicates that there is much more of this sort of work than you might imagine (and it is far from a comprehensive discussion) while at the same time showing how much work is left to be done, how many huge gaps left to fill. This was true throughout the book, but this chapter I felt most keenly that while it was satisfying, I wanted more. Hopefully more bloggers and academics take up Young’s lines of thought and apply them to other works. The final chapter confronted racism in the fan community, focusing on a big catalytic event just before my time, which was interesting historical context for me. I found those arguments compelling but easy to swallow, basically fulfilling my existing biases. The one I had more trouble with, of course, was the one on “gritty fantasy.” Having the lens turned on your own ideology is the most engaging but also consternating part of postmodernism. For the month and a half before I read this book, I’ve been working on a long, dense, tortured essay that tries to extol gritty fantasy (or at least the iterations of it I like) as superior to their Sword-and-Sorcery predecessors for their embrace of historicism. Young’s chapter repeatedly deconstructs the idea that gritty fantasy brings a more historicist approach to race in particular. This is fine insofar as I can separate myself, a reader who wants to see fantasy embrace history even further and really explore the roles of marginalized groups and changing social constructions in the past, from the people Young seems to be targeting: reactionaries who appeal to a largely debunked narrative of a monochrome medieval Europe to excuse the progress gritty fantasy has not yet made to incorporate POC. But this framing of the argument is more mine than Young’s, and she doesn’t seem to have a lot of patience for the appeal to historicism in general. She generally treats it as a misguided anachronism that reflects more on contemporary ideas than the real past and—well, this is getting into territory I want to explore more thoroughly elsewhere. Regardless, this was a thought-provoking chapter for me and something I plan to take up in future writing (breaking that big essay up and bringing it into more direct engagement with this material). And Young’s other book, Fantasy and Science Fiction Medievalisms, which addresses medieval history's use in genre fiction more generally, promises to be an interesting perspective on the topic as well.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Todd

    I had more issues with Young's book than I'm able to cover in a simple review at Goodreads. It is worth reading. It is informative and well researched. However, she makes some mistakes regarding both J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard that could have been avoided with a little deeper research. REH did not get his philosophy/ideas about barbarism versus civilization from Tacitus as Young suggests on page 26. Sometimes Young cites sources in Howard and Tolkien studies by people who are not expert I had more issues with Young's book than I'm able to cover in a simple review at Goodreads. It is worth reading. It is informative and well researched. However, she makes some mistakes regarding both J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard that could have been avoided with a little deeper research. REH did not get his philosophy/ideas about barbarism versus civilization from Tacitus as Young suggests on page 26. Sometimes Young cites sources in Howard and Tolkien studies by people who are not experts in those fields. In chapter 5, Young states, "Colonisation [sic] and its legacies are not widely addressed in the popular Fantasy genre; it is not alone in this failing however." (p. 114) Why is it necessary for popular fantasy to address colonization? Young seems to think because science fiction is replete with colonization stories. This is her reason that the genre should address it. However, the sci-fi genre's colonization is not related to the kind of colonization I think Young is faulting it for not addressing. This left me scratching my head. There are a few other things that left me wondering what she was getting at, etc. but as I mentioned above, too many to add to a simple book review at Goodreads. She does have a nice command of gaming, media, film, etc. when she's dealing with those issues, and she sheds some nice light on the progress of those media. Overall, the book is worth reading. Unfortunately, at the price tag that Routledge placed on it will only ensure that it goes out of print fairly soon. I'm guessing this is Young's dissertation. I wished Routledge had let Young leave some bio info on herself so we, the readers, could know a little about her background and field of study.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Sean Busby

    I found this gem when researching Robert E Howard and couldn't help myself. While she does make some interesting points here and there, she tries to label Tolkien a racist in such a lazy fashion, just assuming that you already believe her and that no argument is necessary. Given the time he lived in, I could probably be convinced. She never even tried. So here we go. Its not going to be pretty. It turns out to be little more than a self congratulating crusade against high fantasy literature for p I found this gem when researching Robert E Howard and couldn't help myself. While she does make some interesting points here and there, she tries to label Tolkien a racist in such a lazy fashion, just assuming that you already believe her and that no argument is necessary. Given the time he lived in, I could probably be convinced. She never even tried. So here we go. Its not going to be pretty. It turns out to be little more than a self congratulating crusade against high fantasy literature for people who seem to be surprised that a genre based on European myth and history might have predominantly white protagonists. Eureka, you've struck gold there. The intellectual prowess to achieve such a feat is astounding. I'll forgive the complete lack of evidence and embrace your assumptions. Its surprising it didn't sell well, despite its catchy title. Its no secret that Tolkien was a fan of Norse mythology and history. Middle earth contains many references to the Sagas. His creation of orcs is not a catch all for labeling foreigners as monsters. Lord of the Rings is a story about the world being saved by the unification of various cultures to put aside their differences and stop evil. Was Tolkien also prejudiced against short people and midgets? The Dwarves are blamed for much evil and greed in middle earth, but I guess Habits of Height doesn't have the same ring. Celebrating your culture by writing a novel paying respect to history doesn't make you a racist either. Such a bizarre argument was made that I feel this needs to be said. Helen could probably write a convincing thesis about how people who prefer white over wheat bread are racists. "In his Dark Tower in Oxford, Tolkien created the orc. Into it he poured all his malice and cruelty... and racism." Even in her dissection of Robert E Howard's Conan, merely having Mediterranean pirates that seem unfriendly and hostile is evidence of white supremacy underlying the entire genre. It couldn't be that they are murderous outlaws and hes in another part of the world. In this example she referred to them as the "blacks" of the scene, even though in the story they are probably based on Greeks or Egyptians. Even the story where he encounters a massive intelligent ape is construed to be a Black vs White moment with little to no context for it. It seems that she is incapable of seeing anymore than two races, "black" and "white."She chooses which is "white" and which is "black" based on which would suit her statement. She puts words in the mouths of the authors and makes what she wants of it. The Writer seems to think that her position and belief is self evident. Assumption is being presented as fact. At best, it comes across as ignorant and condescending. At worst, it comes across as an insulting cash grab to prey on the social issues of the day by a writer desperate to be taken seriously. How American progressive.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jefferson

    A Necessary and Interesting Book Marred by Poor Editing Helen Young’s Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness (2016) has a lot of accurate, interesting, and necessary things to say. Young addresses a relevant theme (conscious and unconscious traditions of racism in popular fantasy), explores a wide range of texts (including novels and short stories, movies and TV shows, and paper-based games and video games), and writes from the perspective of both creators and audiences. Her bo A Necessary and Interesting Book Marred by Poor Editing Helen Young’s Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness (2016) has a lot of accurate, interesting, and necessary things to say. Young addresses a relevant theme (conscious and unconscious traditions of racism in popular fantasy), explores a wide range of texts (including novels and short stories, movies and TV shows, and paper-based games and video games), and writes from the perspective of both creators and audiences. Her book is readable and academic--its seven main chapters averaging about 110 footnotes each. Here is an outline of those chapters. Chapter 1: Founding Fantasy: J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard Anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings and Conan should be aware of the thesis of the chapter, that the foundational worlds of high/epic fantasy and sword and sorcery, Middle-earth and Hyborea, are dominated by Whiteness. Young also exposes the attempts by later writers and fans to explain race in Tolkien and Howard as being typical of an earlier less enlightened era. Chapter 2: Forming Habits: Derivation, Imitation, and Adaptation Explores the continuing habits of Whiteness by the successors to Tolkien and Howard in fiction like Fritz Leiber (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser), Michael Moorcock (Elric), and Robert Jordan (The Eye of the Wheel), comics like Dark Horse’s Conan the Barbarian, and games like Dungeons & Dragons and Age of Conan, with “counter-voices” from Ursula K. Le Guin (A Wizard of Earthsea), Samuel R. Delany (Neveryon), and Charles Saunders (Imaro) . Chapter 3: The Real Middle Ages: Gritty Fantasy Explains how writers like George R. R. Martin (GOT) and gamemakers like Bioware (Dragon Age) have tried to make their pseudo-medieval fantasy more “realistic” and less “escapist” than cleaner Tolkienesque “high” fantasy. Young points out that such gritty popular fantasy is still marked by “habits of Whiteness” and that typical defenses of such Whiteness like “The middle ages didn’t have black people” are inaccurate historically and inapplicable to fantasy worlds with dragons, giants, and white walkers. She argues that Whiteness fantasy fans say that gritty fantasy worlds are only fictional after all (so lighten up you pc fascists!) but also believe them to “represent the Middle Ages as they ‘really were’: full of violence, rape, mud, blood, and White people.” Young also connects the Whiteness of gritty fantasy to the white nationalism of some of its fans. Chapter 4: Orcs and Otherness: Monsters on Page and Screen Examines the depiction of Orcs in post-Tolkien fantasy, demonstrating that they’re usually coded as black and or Native American, even when writers like Mary Gentle (Grunts!) and Terry Pratchett (Unseen Academicals) try to do something new and sympathetic with them. Young explores paper and dice games like Dungeons & Dragons, miniature games like Warhammer, and computer games like World of Warcraft and summarizes a nuanced variation by R. A. Salvatore in his novel The Orc King. Chapter 5: Popular Culture Postcolonialism This chapter looks at popular fantasy and its treatment of (post)colonialism, with detailed examples from David Heath Justice (Way of Thorn and Thunder), Naomi Novik (Temeraire), and J. K. Jemison (Inheritance), explaining why there are so few indigenous writers of fantasy compared to the many White authors who write about indigenous peoples. The chapter argues that while future-oriented sf has often dealt with (post)colonialist themes, fantasy has tended to look back at the pre-colonial middle-ages, though 21st-century fantasy has begun critiquing colonialism and racism. Chapter 6: Relocating Roots: Urban Fantasy Anatomizes race in urban fantasy, which Young calls “sub-urban fantasy” because it often concerns fantastic beings and realms existing right beneath our everyday real world. She analyzes TV shows like Grimm (typical in being European-based and White) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (atypical in featuring three African American main characters) and fiction like Aaronovitch’s River of London books, and introduces the cultural appropriation topic developed in Chapter 7, asserting that the key point is how authors write about different cultures and colors, not the culture and color of the authors. Chapter 7: Breaking Habits and Digital Communication Focuses on the online RaceFail 09 debate between fans and authors like Jay Lake, John Scalzi, and Elizabeth Bear about white authors of SFF writing stereotypical characters of color and engaging in cultural appropriation. It began with a minor backlash against race in Bear’s novel Blood and Iron, which led to a backlash against the backlash, and so on. This chapter is disappointing, because it gives almost no detail about Bear’s depiction of race so that it’s difficult to appreciate the debate. I did like Young’s analysis of an unusual set of texts--online communications in a community of readers and writers. Young’s book should be read and discussed. Although she is balanced in her tone and understands how anti-pc people think, she favors more main characters of color in fantasy more accurately depicted. She points out important things concerning race in American culture, like that at the time her book was written, no writer of color had won a Hugo award for best novel, only two had won a Nebula for best novel, and only a few had won World Fantasy Awards, and that characters of color comprise only 10% of those appearing in television shows but 40% of those in the overall population. She also explains how “Fantasy’s habits of Whiteness” are gradually changing as more writers of color get into the genre. Unfortunately, pervasive typos and grammar errors mar Young’s book, so many that I started noting them down more than Young’s good ideas. There are missing possessive apostrophes (“Saunders world”) and missing articles (“Since early 1970s”), incorrect plural nouns (“as the first three chapters of this books demonstrate”) and incorrect verb forms (“The early editions of D&D show that they are tribal but giving very few details of their way of life”). Many wrong words spelled correctly (e.g., beings not begins, form not from, planned not played, identify not identity, tape not tap). And umpteen comma splices (“Belit thus becomes an emancipator from the evils of history and commerce simultaneously, her physical and symbolic Whiteness is literally a beacon of liberation which emblematizes her superiority over her followers”). Such errors are legion. They excruciated my experience with the book (published by Routledge). People interested in race in popular anglophone fantasy should read Young’s book, and I hope she'll be able to publish a revised edition in future.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Regitze

    This book offered a lot of interesting points on race in books that I have loved for a great part of my life. I picked it up for my BA project which is on diversity (specifically race) in Young Adult fiction. I know that this book focuses on Fantasy, but I decided to read it anyways, as I figured some of the points might still be applicable. I really liked this book, not only because it worked with books I personally love (The Lord of the Rings) but also great books I want to read at some point (P This book offered a lot of interesting points on race in books that I have loved for a great part of my life. I picked it up for my BA project which is on diversity (specifically race) in Young Adult fiction. I know that this book focuses on Fantasy, but I decided to read it anyways, as I figured some of the points might still be applicable. I really liked this book, not only because it worked with books I personally love (The Lord of the Rings) but also great books I want to read at some point (Pratchett's Discworld series, GRRMs massively popular A Song of Ice and Fire) as well as adaptations of books, comic and short stories, both movies and games. But also because I think it is an aspect that gets overlooked a lot in literary studies. Not so much race and racial issues, but fantasy as a genre and as a "working field". I ended up giving it 4/5 stars, which might be largely due to me only skimming the second half of the book. But I did write down some great points and insights - plus, my bibliography just got a huge boost with all the books and articles mentioned in this book that I think might be helpful. I think they might know me on sight at the library soon. I'd reccomend reading this book even if Fantasy isn't something you're all that interested in. I still think the conclusions hold and they're worth thinking about.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Silvia Moreno-Garcia

    Recommended you check out if interested in race, fantasy literature or fantasy pop culture. Young provides a convincing argument of how whiteness and fantasy have been so carefully woven together that it seems difficult, sometimes almost impossible, to pry them apart. The title is perhaps misplaced as she explores video games, movies, and other media, in addition to literature. This renders it a bit too expansive but is still a welcome exploration.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Shiloh

    Very well-written, well-researched and informative book (that will definitely help with the theory in the book I'm writing). The only complaint I have (and it's not Young's fault so it didn't affect stars) is it's so expensive. I'd love to have a copy for myself for reference instead of having to interlibrary loan it, but it's just not in my budget.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Eric Jackson

    "...creating a new world that alters such a significant aspect of society can culture (race) is no easy task no matter what one's identity. When the habits of the genre in which an imagined world is situated are those of Whitness, it is even more difficult. As author Kate Elliot puts it, "the status quo does not need world building"; change requires effort. " - Helen Young "Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. 4.5 stars because many of the ideas presented, even in the short t "...creating a new world that alters such a significant aspect of society can culture (race) is no easy task no matter what one's identity. When the habits of the genre in which an imagined world is situated are those of Whitness, it is even more difficult. As author Kate Elliot puts it, "the status quo does not need world building"; change requires effort. " - Helen Young "Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. 4.5 stars because many of the ideas presented, even in the short time from publishing (2015) the internet, fandom and many of the issues with race have moved on. But a defintive primer for understanding racism with the SFF community from an academic perspective.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Farah Mendlesohn

    This wasn't particularly original in what it covered, but it is easily the best account of the ways in which the arguments around race, racism, and participation in science fiction and fantasy have been had. Highly recommended as a "catch up" text: well referenced with superb reading lists. which will lead you to source material. The text ends in 2016, and I'd love to see an essay from Young on the changes since then, in particular the re-centering of the debate by those previously marginalised.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    This is an essential text for anyone wanting to understand the role of race in fantasy literature after Robert E. Howard and J. R. R. Tolkien. Young relies upon an astounding array of theoretical sources and her vast familiarity not only of the novels, but also of television shows, gaming, and on line debates. Yet her discussion moves quickly and she makes her points with precision and force.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kaitlin Wales

  12. 4 out of 5

    Emilia

  13. 4 out of 5

    Gavin South

  14. 4 out of 5

    Sean Hallahan

  15. 5 out of 5

    Abby

  16. 4 out of 5

    Shenwei

  17. 4 out of 5

    Katarina

  18. 5 out of 5

    Odile

  19. 5 out of 5

    Charul Palmer-Patel

  20. 4 out of 5

    Mjhancock

  21. 5 out of 5

    Osama Al-sharab

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jukka Särkijärvi

  23. 4 out of 5

    Pau

  24. 5 out of 5

    Bina

  25. 5 out of 5

    Nhi Le (The Literary Bystander)

  26. 4 out of 5

    Bert

  27. 5 out of 5

    Luca Pappa

  28. 4 out of 5

    Katie

  29. 4 out of 5

    Christelle

  30. 5 out of 5

    Marita Arvaniti

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