Recently, I was reading an article about JK Rowling, and I came across a quote that made me laugh and die a little inside at the same time. I decided I couldn’t leave this rather shallow and idealistic view of fantasy without a rebuttal. Rowling probably isn’t looking for an amateur writer’s opinion, so y’all get to listen to it instead.
Rowling was talking about her upcoming release, The Casual Vacancy, a contemporary adult novel, and how she was excited to branch out from the fantasy genre. I guess because she felt restricted. “There are certain things you just don’t do in fantasy,” she said. “You don’t have sex near unicorns. It’s an ironclad rule. It’s tacky.” Maybe I’m taking this the wrong way, but to me, she’s saying sex has no place in fantasy. Really? I’m sure Jacqueline Carey, Anne Bishop, and Marion Zimmer Bradley would love to hear about this rule they’ve obviously overlooked for the last fifty years or so.
I don’t know what rulebook Rowling is reading, but I’ve never felt like sex is taboo in fantasy. In fact, in my experience, it’s a genre where the boundaries can be tested and the envelope pushed without the social mores of the real world getting in the way. I’m talking about books like Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series where magic is not so subtly bound up in sex and gender roles. Or Anthony and Lackey’s If I Pay Thee Not in Gold with a character who’s an incubus until the act of sex transforms him into a succubus. Or there’s Valen in Carol Berg’s Lighthouse duet who is addicted to a drug that converts pain into pleasure (not always in the context of sex, but it’s a good example of the envelope I’m talking about). There’s even a subgenre of erotic fantasy now, as illustrated by Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart.
Wow, from this angle my shelves look positively pornographic. Even if Rowling is talking specifically about the genre of the Harry Potter books, middle grade and young adult fantasy, her claim doesn’t make sense. Middle grade books probably shouldn’t have sex in them whatever their genre. However, plenty of young adult books, both fantasy and contemporary, deal with adult issues. Look at Tamora Pierce’s In the Hands of the Goddess and Simone Elkeles’s Perfect Chemistry. I don’t necessarily think that teenage characters should have sex, but that’s another issue entirely.
Fantasy is by definition fantastic. Full of magic, fairies, wizards, other worlds, whatever floats your boat. But it still has to be grounded in reality. We need anchor points, things we can relate to, otherwise we drift through the story without letting it really touch us. The themes, the morals, the emotions we’re supposed to be feeling sail right overhead because we can’t imagine how it applies to us. I’m not saying sex is required to make fantasy realistic. I’m saying that sex is real. It should be utilized as all other tools and plot elements are utilized: tastefully and appropriately, where a story calls for it.
Excluding sex seems very limiting for a genre that’s supposed to be the ultimate imagination getaway. And it’s naïve and incredibly silly to exclude it just because you think unicorns are too innocent for such worldly pursuits. So tell me, where do baby unicorns come from? And if unicorns are perceptive enough to tell the virgins from the deflowered, doesn’t that mean they’re well aware of sex and all its accompanying drama, if only to choose those who haven’t been touched by it?
I feel like Rowling hasn’t read very much at all in the genre she dominated for ten years. Not really a great way for an author to portray themselves. If she wanted to rectify the situation, I’d recommend she start with Mercedes Lackey’s Fortune’s Fool from the Five Hundred Kingdoms series where unicorns and sex share space in a single scene. The effect is hilarious and not at all tacky. Or even kinky.