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September 04, 2004

Panel Report: Fantasy of Manners

Description: How do we define it? How do we draw the line, and what is its appeal? Is it a truth (universally acknowledged . . . ) that only women can write it? Lois McMaster Bujold, Ellen Kushner, Madeleine E. Robins (m), Jo Walton

People interested in the topic of this panel (described in as much detail as I can stand after the jump) might also like to read various discussions (including proposed reading lists) collected in my LiveJournal "memories", and this brand-new LiveJournal community.

The panel disposed of the question about whether only women can write it with a "No." Steven Brust was the immediate response; Alexi Panshin's Villiers books were mentioned later.

In the introductions, Ellen Kushner (EK) said "This is going to sound awful, but I invented Fantasy of Manners." Specifically, she suggested the term to Don Keller when he was writing the article citing her first novel Swordspoint as one of the key texts of this new thing he'd identified (his proposed label was Fourth Street something-or-other, after a con). EK said that it was just dumb luck that her book was first; she said that about a year later, Faren Miller reviewed a really great book in Locus that was much in the same vein, which of course got unfairly tagged as being heavily influenced by Swordspoint.

(Anyone have a guess at what this was? The panel couldn't bring the name to mind. The author was female.)

(By the way, EK is currently working on a novel set chronologically in-between Swordspoint and The Fall of the Kings, which features Alec as a ~40 year old who is now rich and powerful and pushes things one step too far.)

EK said that her second novel, Thomas the Rhymer, isn't FoM; I don't think I heard her say whether she thought Fall was or not.

Madeleine E. Robins (MR) said that her path into FoM was partly a quote of her mom's (attributed to Dorothy Parker), "A lady never offends anyone inadvertently." She thinks FoM is all about being really deliberate in negotiating the world.

I believe that around this point EK said that she was hoping the panel would be Fantasy of Manners 201 rather than 101, and in response, Lois McMaster Bujold (LMB) said that she was hoping that first they'd define the thing.

Jo Walton (JW) listed her elements of a definition (and noted that she thought she was on this panel because she likes to read this stuff, and was surprised to find that people thought her novel Tooth and Claw was FoM):

  • It has to be fantasy.
    • LMB: meaning that A Civil Campaign is science fiction of manners? JW: yes.

  • It can be described as "like Jane Austen with (fill-in-the-blank)." Or Heyer.

    • Which is one reason why she didn't think Tooth and Claw fit, because it's Trollope where all the people are dragons and eat each other, not Austen. (Late in the panel, EK said that she'd fallen in love with Trollope a few years ago and wanted to start a new movement, the Young Trollopes. Much groaning from the audience.)

  • It has manners used as weapons.
  • The events are small scale: they matter to the characters, but they don't change the entire world.
  • Key works: Swordspoint, Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer's Sorcery and Cecilia, Barbara Hambly's Stranger at the Wedding

    • Sorcery and Cecilia, as discussed later on in the panel, is epistolary Regency-with-magic. The Hambly is middle-class FoM, I believe in the Regency period.

  • It's witty.
  • Some people (ed. like your humble reporter) think it has to be non-passionate in tone, but she disagrees.

    • This is the other reason she didn't think Tooth and Claw was the kind of thing people meant by FoM.

EK added that Keller either said or meant to say that while the story might not change the world, it matters to society and in that sense the fate of the world is at stake, because the characters' world is social.

MR said that class standing and hierarchy is very important. JW added that FoM is a way of exploring something that's not quite the historical period. (Somewhat later, JW said that in writing historical fiction, you have to be aware that people of those times have a lot of awful things in their mindsets, and of course you can change that, but you can only go so far before you're not historical anymore.) MR took this up, saying that a certain kind of historical romance drives her nuts, where the protagonist gets away with being a 1990s girl in an 1810 setting. She's interested in the way that FoM can allow a writer to feed in modern attitudes, as long as the story is anchored in the historical time; FoM is about ways that characters can subvert the system to their very small ends, in a very mannered way that makes it look like they're acting within society's rules. The weapons are always social and verbal.

(MR's two most recent novels, Point of Honour and its sequel, Petty Treason, are hardboiled Austen noir, about a Fallen Woman who makes a living doing private investigations. I haven't read the second yet, but I loved the first to pieces even though I disagree that it's FoM; I think hardboiled is a different category and the tone is wrong. I said as much later in the panel, to generally disagree that you could describe all FoM as "like Austen but," and MR kind of shrugged and said that she wasn't setting out to write FoM in the first place. Which is perfectly fair.)

People riffed on the verbal weapons for a bit; LMB said it was a great attraction because the characters get to say things you never get to say in Real Life. EK said that Alec, one of the main characters in Swordspoint, is exactly that: he can say anything he wants, and there's a guy with a sword who'll kill anyone who doesn't like it—great wish-fulfillment.

(Aside: that is precisely why I couldn't work up the enthusiasm to re-read Swordspoint for this panel.)

Rivka of Respectful of Otters asked whether FoM could be modern. JW thought that it maybe could; some people say the Bordertown shared universe is, which is modern-day, and of course there's A Civil Campaign. EK added that there is a tendency to see the genre as Regency, because of Sorcery and Cecelia and Heyer (described by Cynthia Heimel as "Bertie Wooster for girls"). LMB asked if the Godfather movies would fit; I'm not sure if the panel answered it, but the consensus of the people sitting around me seemed to be "sure." (I haven't seen them, not my kind of thing.) EK said that Sayers' Wimsey/Vane novels are FoM precursors of a sort. In response to a question I didn't hear, MR said that you couldn't have FoM in a military setting, because the response to snark would be, "You're out of line, soldier."

JW pointed out that you have to have class differences in order to have FoM. She didn't think you could have FoM on Beta Colony—this got some kind of reaction from LMB (Beta Colony is part of her Vorkosigan universe) that I didn't see because I was taking notes, but that the audience seemed to appreciate. Relatedly, she passed on a comment by Micole Sudberg that American manners novels are tragedies, British manners novels are comedies. There was then a brief, intense flurry of comments on class in America and Britain, which I didn't bother to write down because it was very fast and because I just really didn't feel like going there.

MR said that one of the fascinations of FoM is that you don't have to live that way. Another is that it has rules you can learn. (Sherwood Smith's Crown Duel was mentioned for its fan language (not language of fannish people, language of things you wave to cool off).) Later on, she said that everyone is adjusting manners all the time, but we have no idea we're doing it, and FoM is neat because they are aware of it. She mentioned working for a women who used straight BBC Received Pronunciation when talking to MPs, and East End London to talk to the help. (Victoria McManus in the audience said this is called "code switching.")

A brief interlude, as someone asked if Sharon Shinn's Samaria books are FoM. JW and EK both disagreed strongly; they've got society, but they're straight romances, no snark. I (and the rest of the people I was sitting with) agree.

EK then dragged the panel away from definitions because she wanted to talk about how she came to FoM. She said that when she made the big leap to working in publishing, which was the most structured and hierarchal thing she'd ever experienced, suddenly Austen made a lot more sense to her. Plus, she was living in a dangerous area, so she wrote about what was fascinating her at the time: manners, and violence (and sex).

The panel discussed some of the TV that Keller identified in his article. The Avengers seemed to be popular; MR said she wakes up every morning and says to herself, "Damn, I'm still not Emma Peel."

LMB got into FoM-type-things in her post-SF-only phase, when she found a bunch of Heyers in an overstock warehouse in her early twenties. She said her interest in Heyer laid dormant for a time, but she finds that there's something new in the books each time. (Jim Baen, she reports, reads Heyer.)

(MR noted that in Regency settings, it's easy to tell who's done their homework, and who's just read Heyer.)

LMB said that shortly after that, she found Dorothy Sayers, though not Dorothy Dunnett (who is also mentioned by Keller). MR bounces hard off Dunnett; EK loves her and Dunnett was part of the soup that Swordspoint came out of. (Dunnett is emphatically not FoM, though.)

The Saint books were mentioned (I'm ignorant here, can someone help in comments?). Somehow we got to EK saying that she thought hardboiled noir like Dashiell Hammett were Regencies for boys. This brought up honor for MR: FoM is about personal honor, societial honor, and the clash or contrast between. EK added that honor is a currency as well.

EK recommended Kage Baker's The Anvil of the World as delicious FoM. Someone in the audience said that Baker has a new collection with several stories set in that world as well.

About the last thing that was said was LMB reciting her definition of genre (I think it was hers), "a group of works in close conversation with each other." She thought that this discussion suggested that FoM is a very broad-based close conversation.

Posted by Kate Nepveu at 02:13 PM in 5-Saturday | Permalink


The Saint's author is Leslie Charteris; I have several of them.

I have been trying to make a picture of a man. Changing, yes. Developing, I hope. Fantastic, improbable-perhaps. Quite worthless, quite irritating, if you feel that way. Or a slightly cockeyed ideal, if you feel differently. It doesn't matter so much, so long as you feel that you would recognise him if you met him tomorrow.

Another example would be Raffles from roughly the same period. Gentlemen living both inside and outside the boundaries of society and manners.

Posted by: Sherwood | September 4, 2004 03:08 PM

I haven't seen anything in Bujold's books to indicate that Beta Colony doesn't have classes. Egalitarian ideals, yes; classless society, no. It's probably easier than in most societies to end up in a class other than that of your parents; but that's a different matter.

Betan military forces have ranks, to begin with.

As George Orwell pointed out in one of his essays, England in the 1930s/1940s might look classless to someone used to England in earlier times.

Posted by: Dan Goodman | September 4, 2004 10:49 PM

Re: "(Anyone have a guess at what this was? The panel couldn't bring the name to mind. The author was female.)"

I suspect it may have been Elizabeth Willey's "The Well-Favored Gentleman." ;-> Definitely a fantasy of manners and from about that time period.

Posted by: Rhi | September 5, 2004 04:05 AM

I thought everyone compared "The Well-Favored Gentleman" to Amber, not "Swordspoint". It's an underrated series; I wish Willey was still writing.

Posted by: Christina | September 5, 2004 02:29 PM

>As George Orwell pointed out in one of his essays, England in the 1930s/1940s might look
>classless to someone used to England in earlier times.

An acquaintance who was born and raised in blue collar England (in his 40s now) told me part of the reason he left England for the USA was to escape his class--he would never have been accepted as an IT professional in quite the same way in England as he was in the USA--both the class he left and the class he was perceived as trying to join would have picked at his performance/choices/"nerve" etc.. Without the college education, upward mobility was unthinkable.

Which surprised me--I thought this had relaxed a little bit.

Posted by: K Kimbriel | September 5, 2004 09:52 PM

(Anyone have a guess at what this was? The panel couldn't bring the name to mind. The author was female.)

Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, perhaps?

Posted by: Nat Lynne | September 6, 2004 09:53 PM

No, they would've remembered War for the Oaks for sure--Ellen Kushner mentioned Emma Bull at some point in the panel, I believe.

Posted by: Johanna | September 6, 2004 11:24 PM

Did anyone point out that to have a Fantasy of Manners requires someone, preferably everyone, to have manners? Class-climbing or class-expose doesn't sound like FoM to me (or like Austen or Heyer); probably because it doesn't have the same "comedy" feel. It's too serious! While Wilde, in all his glory, is doing quintessential Comedy of Manners, like Wodehouse (good call on the "Bertie for girls" line). What I really want is Oscar Wilde with magic -- where can I get that?

Posted by: Lynn | September 7, 2004 12:48 PM

Going backwards:

Lynn: Of course they mentioned manners--it was right there in Walton's definition, manners as weapons. I haven't read Oscar Wilde so I can't help you there, though.

Dan Goodman: LMB may well agree with you about Beta Colony; as I said, I couldn't see her face. If it gets us a novel set on Beta, I shan't complain. =>

Sherwood: thanks, I think I knew that after all.

Posted by: Kate Nepveu | September 7, 2004 03:09 PM

The Faren Miller novel I was referring to is actually *by* Faren Miller: THE ILLUSIONISTS (1991). Well worth digging out, in my opinion.

Posted by: Ellen Kushner | March 13, 2005 12:20 PM

The Faren Miller novel I was referring to is actually *by* Faren Miller: THE ILLUSIONISTS (1991). Well worth digging out, in my opinion.

Posted by: Ellen Kushner | March 13, 2005 12:20 PM

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