The purpose of fiction genres is to help readers to find the stories they want. For example, I like space operas more than murder mysteries. When I’m given a choice between a space opera and a murder mystery, I will choose the space opera without hesitation. If a story is both a murder mystery and a space opera, such as Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold, um, maybe. But if the ‘space opera’ turns out to be a murder mystery set in Virginia in 1965, I’m going to be pissed.
Fictional genres have expectations that are well known to their readers, such as the ‘central love story’ and ‘happily ever after/happily for now’ criteria for ‘romance’ stories. If a ‘romance’ story has a tragic ending, and it’s not a subgenre like ‘tragic romance,’ readers will feel cheated. By contrast, a ‘soap opera’ can put a romantic relationship at the center of the story without an expectation of a happy ending. The key genre expectation of ‘memoirs’ is that the story is true, the key genre expectation of political satire is that it will make fun of politics in a dry way, etc.
Back when this blog started talking about wuxia, the term ‘wuxia’ was pretty much only used by English speakers who had some familiarity with the wuxia classics and thus at least a vague sense of the genre expectations. In intervening years, the term ‘wuxia’ has sprouted among English-speakers in a bad game of telephone where the original understanding of the genre has been garbled.
Why am I still into wuxia ten years after it first sucked me in? What do I find so appealing about wuxia and, to a lesser degree, xianxia/xuanhuan? And why can’t I find it in original English-language works?
This year, I’ve been reading a lot of Chinese-inspired fantasy novels originally written in English. I’ve wondered if any of these novels capture the qualities which attract me to wuxia/xianxia/xuanhuan. The answer is no.
A few years back, I commented that The Grace of Kings is firmly western fantasy (and Ken Liu says the same). I still see it that way. That is despite the fact that it pulls much more from Chinese language literary traditions than most of the Chinese-inspired fantasy I’ve been reading in English. R.F. Kuang also asserts that her novels belong to the ‘western fantasy’ tradition, and she’s another novelist who pulls more from Chinese history/culture/literature than most of the Chinese-inspired-fantasy-in-English writers.
What am I looking for? Not western fantasy. When I was an adolescent, I read a ton of western fantasy, but at some point, I split ways with the genre. Nowadays, when I see ads for fantasy novels, my default reaction is boredom. That surprises me, to be honest.
The brouhaha over the San Francisco school board member who posted a bunch of tweets in 2016, was removed from her position as vice-president, and is now suing the school district and her other board members to the tune of a hundred million dollars, is making national news. What is not making national news is the local context.
(If you don’t know what I’m talking about, this and this article offer good overviews).
My own opinion of the Allison Collins’ tweets is: I don’t think people should resign because of tweets they made five years ago, especially before they won an election, BUT Ms. Collins has handled this situation so badly that she should resign because of how she has behaved in 2021. Also, the teensy bit of sympathy I had for her evaporated when I learned about her ridiculous lawsuit (which I at first believed was an April Fool’s joke) which will take resources away from public school students in San Francisco.
But Allison Collins is incidental. If it wasn’t her, it would be someone else (okay, someone else might not have acted in such a spectacularly awful manner). That’s because the forces colliding in this have been around in San Francisco for decades, long before Allison Collins became part of this picture.