Teaching Contemporary Fantasy in Spring 2015

Sorry about the delay in blogging here at Vargold: the end of the Fall 2014 semester, family vacation time during the winter break, and the beginning of the Spring 2015 semester have forced me to concentrate on non-blogging and (really) non-gaming matters. But I thought that I could at least spare a few moments to talk about my current course on contemporary fantasy novels. I've done the historical approach numerous times now, and I thought it might be interesting to concentrate only on recent books instead. I also decided to bite the bullet re J. K. Rowling and finally add a Harry Potter novel to my teaching repertoire. Since Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite Potter book, this made 1999 the terminus ab quo for the class. I also decided to try and split the reading list down the middle in both national and gender terms: four Brits and four Americans, four men and four women. The national split was easy to accomplish, with Rowling, Miéville, Pratchett, and Walton representing the UK and Le Guin, Díaz, Jemisin, and Wilson representing the States. I ended up with a slightly lopsided gender split of five women (Rowling, Le Guin, Jemisin, Walton, and Wilson) and three men (Miéville, Díaz, and Pratchett), largely because most of the contemporary male fantasists I admire are British writers (e.g., Joe Abercrombie, Neil Gaiman, etc.) and I already had enough Brits. I also tried to increase the presence of writers of color in the class (Díaz and Jemisin), a move augmented by books by white authors with explicitly non-white protagonists (Le Guin's Memer and Wilson's Alif). Finally, I owed Jemisin one, having dropped One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms from my Summer 2013 fantasy class.

In the end, I think I came up with a fairly diverse set of recent fantasy novels, both in social terms as well as thematic ones. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the odd book out as it's less a straightforward fantasy and more of a reflection on fantasy fiction's embeddedness in the imperialist and colonialist projects of the modern West. But then my sense is that most of the best fantasies are explicitly books about writing and fiction and the nature/power of language—so the more meta Oscar Wao fits right in in this regard.

Right now we've just started The Scar. Our class discussion of Prisoner of Azkaban was outstanding: the students did a great job, and I developed a new respect for what Rowling was doing in that novel, especially in relation to the uncanny and the problem of the past.


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