The Difference Between Historical Realism in Fantasy and Sexism

Some fantasy authors and fans like to fall back on a defense of “it’s historical realism”  to explain why, for instance, there are no women in some fantasy stories or why the characters are racist or why the main culture has slavery in it. The idea that we need historical realism in fantasy at all is debateable. Which is why this claim makes such a good smoke screen.

Historical Realism in Fantasy: Three Scenarios

1) When going after a specific book, many of these claims about historical realism are bunk. There is nothing unrealistic about women pirates, black people in Middle Ages Europe, or people in Rome *not* being racist. (Classist, sexist, and nativist? Hell, yes! Rome was all of that. Racist, no.) When people say that a book with things that actually happened is unrealistic they are perpetuating the erasure of women, PoC, LGBT, and others throughout history.

2) For historical fantasy in general, historical realism can be a legitimate issue. Yeah, it was normal for most of history for women to have less rights than men and many cultures *believed* women were lesser and should rightly be under the control of men. And if your story is set in one of these cultures, well, it’s a thing your women characters are going to need to deal with.

3) Unfortunately, legit historical realism is also used to justify prejudice. And that’s where historical-based fantasy absolutely falls on its face.

So When Is “Historical Realism” in Fantasy Sexist?

One of the more clear-cut examples of this is The Demon’s Gate by Steven White. White’s introduction to the book basically says, “Yes there’s slavery and women are second class citizens, but it’s historical. If you don’t like it, read another book.”

Well, if the matter had ended with “there’s slavery and women are second class citizens” that would have been well and good. But it didn’t end there. Because here’s the plot line:

The slave owning son of a king/chieftain is sent to the heart of the empire to discover what is causing the high priestess to see visions of doom. With the aid of his loyal sidekick/slave, he discovers that the high ranking women of the empire are rebelling against their rightful place as subordinate to men and have been duped by a demon into believing that if they support the (male) demon’s return to power they will be free of men’s control. Except the demon is lying (of course) and the women’s quest for autonomy is going to bring about the end of the world. Of course our hero-slave owner manages to stop them, with the help of the one woman who recognizes that the “cult” of female independence is wrong and helps our hero-slave owner restore the status quo.

So, what’s wrong with this story?

Let’s start with the basic premise of the plot: “women trying to gain their independece need to be stopped before they bring about the end of the world.” That’s just… I mean, I think we’ve all heard variation on this idea before. From misogynists to racists to homophobes it’s pretty much the rallying cry of bigots everywhere. So having it as the basic premis of a fantasy novel that opens by chastising any reader who thinks it is sexist is… let’s go with ‘ironic.’

Of course, the women can’t even save themselves. They need a male demon to be the leader of their cult who seduces them into believing that they deserve to have a say in their own lives. So… even in seeking their independence, the women are following the lead of a male. Again echoing a trope right out of the classic bigots play list. That the people who are treated like second class citizens are not capable of organizing or leading themselves and that they would be perfectly happy as second class citizens if only “agitators” didn’t put “ideas” into their heads.

And just to round it out, the “good” women in the story are the ones, like the classic “good negro” or “real women” who recognize that having men in charge is right and proper and betray their fellow women in order to help the men win.

This story is not sexist because it is set in a bronze age society where women are second class citizens.

Tamora Pierce’s the Lioness quartet is set in a feudal society where women are second class citizens, but the story itself is anything but sexist. No, this story is sexist because the story itself—not the world it is set in, not the characters in the world, but the *story itself* is sexist.

And This Can Happen to Anyone

Don’t take this as “Steve White is a sexist shit trying to put women in their place.” This isn’t about bashing Steve White. This is a widespread problem caused by a lack of self- and cultural-awareness.

Our society is awash in racist, sexist, homophobic, classiest, etc ideas. And an author’s mind draws inspiration from everything around them. Sometimes things slip in that we aren’t even aware of.

Steve White wrote a sexist book because Steve White didn’t realize how insidious sexism can be. He wasn’t self aware enough to see the underlying sexist ideas he included in his bronze age story. This can happy to anyone who isn’t used to looking for sexist ideas in their stories (or in themselves).

Summing up: What’s the Difference Between Historical Realism in Fantasy and Sexism?

Having historical fantasy with cultures and characters that are sexist doesn’t make a story sexist. Having a story set in a world where everyone is equal and there are no sexism doesn’t mean the story can’t be sexist. A sexist novel is one where the story itself supports, reinforces, or is built on sexist ideals and premises. And when that happens, claims of ‘historical realism’ are nothing more than a distraction from the real issue.

And all of this applies just as much to racism, homophobia, classism, ableism and other forms of prejudice and bigortry

How self aware are you? Have you checked for unnoticed prejudice in your stories?

Hey, #diversebooks Fans–Let’s Talk #ownvoices

Hey folks, today we’re going to talk about #ownvoices, the hashtag created by Corinne Duyvis as a way to mark books written by authors who share a diverse identity with their characters.

It’s about a year and a half since Duyvis suggested #ownvoices. It never reached the trending viralness of #weneeddiversebooks, but it’s been growing in popularity as more and more people find it and fall in love. And there is a lot to fall in love with.

Why #OwnVoices?

See, it’s important for authors—all authors to be inclusive in their writing. But it’s hard to write “from the inside” an experience you’ve never had. Someone who has fibromyalgia is going to know things about living with and managing chronic pain that would never occur to someone who is able bodied. And research can only take you so far. If we want our books to be reflective of people’s real experiences, well, they need to be written by people with those experiences.

This doesn’t mean that someone who is able bodied should never write a character with fibromyalgia or that a white author should never write a black character. Our fiction should be as diverse as our world, unless this is a good reason to NOT make it diverse. But if a book is about being black, it should not be written by a white author. If a book is about the experience of being trans, only a trans author can do it justice. And even when a book is not about an identity, the perspective of an author who shares that identity adds depth to the characters.

At Cuil Press, We Love #OwnVoices

Which is why our first several books will be #ownvoices. Not all our books will be #ownvoices, we are open to all inclusive sff and romance. But there is a special place in our slush pile for #ownvoices.

So if you are interested in reading more #ownvoices fiction stay tuned—we got it coming!


Michon Neal is the originator of Cuil Press and our resident Gentleman Goddess and visionary. Today ze is sharing a glimpse of Lilith from hir upcoming book In the Time of Toba.

Between the mountains on the far side of our Valley, I saw my beloved friend drop down from rock to rock. With the ease of a treed creature — or perhaps even a skyed one — Lilith bounded along the backs of my beastly brethren, sistren, and otherkin. Her flips and slides and dashes and leaps drew a whirl of dust and particles in her wake that eddied and blossomed behind and around her.

Several Dragons sniffed the air appreciatively, breathing in information on our visitors, digesting her tears and fears. I appreciated the candor that always accompanied Lilith, streaming about her countenance as if it were a set of wings or armor. Across the Valley, wings of crimson, gold, sheer blue, and translucent violet stirred, bringing in the delicious secrets on the wind and in the beams of moonlight. The stars bent their own light to us, rolling through velveteen space and kissed only by time.

With skin the rich brown of fertile, glorious Earth, Lilith drew nearer, with the red moon throwing up highlights of maroon, orange, and purple in the deeper layers of her dermis. A bit of silver edged her curves and angles; she literally shone, lit from within.

Not far behind her, a shadowy figure traversed, mirroring her path in kind, but of a much larger size. A Nephilim, diamond-winged and tall as one of my claws, where she was hardly up to my tooth. He revelled in the essence of her recent past, playing in the memories she’d left behind. He danced into her footsteps, ever the faithful double. With glee, he found his place atop my head as she nestled in by my eye. I could smell him peering down upon her, his curiosity unfurling like the open entrails of one of those delicious unicorns. My tail languidly curled and swung back and forth as I readied myself. Samael was a well of mischief, but he was nothing if not fair.

After all, he wasn’t the Left Hand of God for nothing.

We Are Publishing #Ownvoices Novels

Hey authors,

I was looking at our Twitter feed today and I was kind bummed. We don’t exactly have much there, you know? And it got me thinking about how we look to you. A new publishing company without a single book out. No rep, no resume, our social media is just getting started.

We don’t look like we have much to offer, do we?

That’s going to change. We’re gearing up slowly, because we want what we build to last. But for now, yeah, it doesn’t look like much.

We get that. We get that we need to prove ourselves. To show that we know what we are doing, that we can make your book shine AND make the sales. Just like every other publisher.

But we do have something else we can offer right now. Something specifically for authors of #ownvoices novels.

We understand.

Michon, our Lead Link (think CEO) and Lilith, started Cuil Press because ze wanted more #ownvoices books. Ze has self published hir books, using hir #ownvoice to write characters that reflect hir experiences as a black, queer, intersex, disabled, non-binary person.

And to start Cuil Press, ze recruited some folks who could all tell #ownvoices stories or create #ownvoices art. All of us are in some way marginalized, denied our voices and representation by a mainstream society that doesn’t want to hear us.

We know many of you have been told the same. Told that your #ownvoices novel is too ethnic. Or that readers won’t relate to your disabled characters. Or that you can have a character who is black or queer, but not a black, queer protagonist.

And if you are spoonie and have trouble meeting deadlines, we understand. Many spoonie authors have lost contracts because they couldn’t meet deadlines or have been afraid to try for a contract because of deadlines. We can work with you. We can’t do without deadlines entirely, but we can be flexible, we can reschedule things. As long as you can keep us informed of what is going on, we can adjust deadlines and plans to meet your needs.

We are looking for #ownvoices novels. We will be publishing adult fantasy, science fiction, and romance. We welcome diverse books from authors who are not writing #ownvoices fiction, but our priority, our focus is #ownvoices.

One day we will have the book catalog, the proud list of best sellers, the social media accounts with thousands of followers. We aren’t going to stop until we do.

But on that day this will still be the thing that sets us apart. #ownvoices

Welcome to Cuil Press

Cuil PressHi folks, welcome to Cuil Press!

Cuil Press is a new ebook publisher with 1 book currently in production and getting ready to accept open submissions. Our focus is #ownvoices and #diversevoices romance and speculative fiction, but we won’t turn our noses up at stories from other genres that catch our interest.

Our commitment to diversity begins “at home,” our production team includes PoC, queer, trans, asexual, aromantic, and more people living with chronic illness and disability than you can shake a spoon at.

Partly because of those chronic illnesses and disabilities, we’re looking at a gradual buildup. We don’t want to explode on publishing scene like a fireworks display. We want to be the tree of our logo, putting out roots and leaves, growing slowly, but also growing strong. And like a well-tended tree will outlive the person that plants it, we hope that Cuil Press will outlast its founders to become a bastion of the publishing industry.

As part of growing slowly, we will be adding to our website over the next few months. Starting with a blog. (Yes, usually folks build a website and add a blog to it. We’re not exactly fond of ’usually’ around here.) The blog will be running Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays starting in June.

So welcome again—we know the place is a bit empty right now, but that’ll be changing. And we hope you’ll stick around to see it happen.