Posts Tagged ‘Criticism’

Spoiler warning: All The Spoilers for Supernatural. All of them. 

Exposing yourself to certain fandoms on tumblr is like signing up for a bout with Stockholm syndrome: sooner or later, you’re going to drink the Kool-Aid. And by “drink the Kool-Aid”, I mean “become obsessed with Supernatural“, which – surprise!* –  is exactly what happened to me. I mean, I knew all about the sexism, the queerbaiting, the manpain; about the woeful representation of POC. I vowed, on the public internets, that I would never watch it – and in a universe without tumblr, I may well have done just that. But slowly, steadily, like dripping water eroding stone, the steady flow of GIFs, photosets and soulful meta wore down my resistance. Surely, I told myself, I ought to at least watch the pilot, just so I can say that I gave it a fair shot. So I did – and I wasn’t impressed. I even livetweeted my endeavour, complete with scathing criticism. The portrayal of women was so ludicrous, and Dean Winchester so obnoxious, that I didn’t make it much more than halfway through the first episode before giving up, and for a while, that was that: I’d tried Supernatural, I hadn’t liked it, end of story.

But.

Despite myself, I found that I wanted to know what happened next. Enough of my friends whose taste in shows I either shared or respected had been surprised by my reaction – had vouched for the worthiness of at least the first five seasons, despite the acknowledged problematic elements – that I started to waver. Had I been judging too harshly? My curiosity was piqued, but in the end, what tipped the balance wasn’t the recommendations of friends or the writings of strangers: it was this speech by Misha Collins – which, yes, I encountered via tumblr – in which he calls out the show’s writers for their needless use of sexist language and misogynistic tropes. Just the fact that one of the main actors was willing to both acknowledge the problem and speak about it went a long way towards reassuring me that Collins, at least, was someone whose work I wanted to support. So I made my decision: I’d give Supernatural another try, endeavouring to make it to at least Season 4, when Castiel – played by Collins – finally makes an appearance.

This decision was roughly equivalent to taking a second hit of heroin because the first one hasn’t kicked in yet.

As promised, Supernatural has a lot of problems – and I mean, a lot. (As, indeed, does heroin.) There’s scarcely a male character on the show whose defining emotional arc doesn’t hinge on his having lost his mother, wife/girlfriend and/or children, and scarcely a female character with an emotional connection to Sam or Dean Winchester who hasn’t been fridged in order to give them more angst (though in fairness, the male death toll is similarly high). Overwhelmingly, the POC characters are either exoticised, stereotyped and/or played as villains, while the queerbaiting is made all the more frustrating by the overall lack of actual queer characters. The sexist language, too, is omnipresent: if you made a drinking game of it, and took a shot whenever someone says bitch, whore, or explicitly codes weakness as female (“no chick flick moments”) and strength as male (“sack up!”), you would end up drunk after any given episode. Throughout nine seasons, but especially in the first three, almost every female character either falls squarely into one of four categories – Victim (dead or damselled), Virgin (pure and protectable), Vixen (sexy and strong) or Virago (angry and strong) – or straddles their intersections with all the subtlety of a brick to the face. Supernatural is, quite categorically, a show about straight white manpain as facilitated by dead ladies and magic – and if that were all it was, I’d never have made it through two full seasons, let alone nine.

However.

It is also a show with a sprawling, complex mythology that nonetheless manages to stay coherent and engaging as it develops. Like The X Files, it has a deft touch with humour, poking fun at its own meta and idiosyncrasies at least as often as it takes itself seriously. It strikes a solid balance between stand-alone episodes and extended arcs, and the characters – well, that’s where things get interesting. Because for all that the Winchesters are frequently situated as being traditionally masculine, even hypermasculine heroes, this isn’t their be-all, end-all.

In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Dean – whose love of classic rock, classic cars, weapons, whiskey and women makes him about as stereotypically masculine as it’s possible to be – is also an active subversion of the very masculinity he ostensibly personifies. Sometimes, this comes across as being an unintentional – but still canonical – consequence of queerbaiting: that is, of the show’s habit of putting (presumably) straight characters in homoerotic situations, or strongly implying a homoerotic subtext, without ever crossing the line into overt displays of queerness. But this practice, while deeply frustrating, also feels like a very real reflection of, and reaction to, the show’s conflicting fanbases, and to the sheer impossibility of pleasing them both – namely, of the schism between (predominantly) male viewers who tune in for the adventures of Fiercely Hetereosexual Warrior Dean Winchester, the epitome of maleness in a show that is very definitely All About Dudes, and (predominantly) female viewers who tune in for Tortured Bisexual Dean Winchester, a good man who is eighteen kinds of broken and quite clearly in love with an angel. (Or his brother. Or both. Whatever.) Uncharitably, the queerbaiting is a way of firmly committing to the former fanbase while giving the latter just enough hope to keep them invested. More charitably, it’s a way of trying to please both groups equally without doing anything that either camp could construe as unforgivable. Most likely, it’s a combination of both, which, when combined with the conservative homophobia of network executives, tends to err on the side of default straightness. Whatever the answer, Dean Winchester remains a complex enough character to defy easy categorisation – and intentionally or not, even without the problem of queerbaiting, his version of masculinity as portrayed on the show is worth interrogating; as, indeed, is Sam’s.

Right from the outset, the Winchester brothers are set up as being, if not total opposites, then temperamentally opposed. The first time I tried to watch the pilot, Dean came across as brash, obnoxious and full of himself, while Sam, whose initial distance from hunting provides the audience with an introduction to the concept, feels more sympathetic: a nice, normal guy being dragged into danger and tragedy by an uncaring sibling. But as the season – as the show – progresses, it soon becomes clear that things aren’t what they seem. Dean’s arrogance is, very explicitly, a coping mechanism, and even in Season 1, we can see the cracks. Sam, by contrast, is highly – and successfully – compartmentalised, able to set aside his past and live normally in ways that Dean just can’t. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the comparison of Dean’s attempt to live a normal life at the end of Season 5 and Sam’s attempt to do likewise at the end of Season 7. When Dean leaves, Sam is imprisoned in hell, having first extracted a promise that Dean won’t try to rescue him. Dean accedes, and goes to live with Lisa, his ex-girlfriend, and her young son, Ben – his reward for having stopped the apocalypse. But Dean, by his own admission, is a mess: he is tormented by Sam’s loss, suffering from recurrent nightmares and flashbacks as well as survivor’s guilt. When the hunting world impinges on his new life, his relationship with Lisa irreparably breaks down as he begins to exhibit the classic symptoms of PTSD: hyper-vigilance, obsessive behaviour, aggression as a fear response, and a compulsive need to control both his environment and the actions of his loved ones. Sam, however, suffers from no such baggage, despite the fact that he doesn’t know if Dean is alive or dead. He makes a new life for himself with ease, and while he does talk to his new partner, Amelia, about having “lost” his brother, it’s clear he isn’t psychologically damaged in the way that Dean is.

In fact, the only time we really see Sam undergo this level of distress in response to trauma – nightmares, impulsive behaviour, rage – in a context that isn’t directly related to his burgeoning demon powers is very early in Season 1, immediately following Jessica’s death. Which begs the question: is Sam compartmentalised because it’s an inherent part of his personality, or is it something he’s learned – a coping mechanism, the same as Dean’s bravado? I’d contend it’s a combination of nature and practise. From what we learn of Sam’s childhood in various flashback episodes, it’s clear he’s always harboured a burning desire to be normal, but it’s equally clear that the same is true of Dean, too. Both brothers have suffered from their upbringing, but whereas Sam is clearly capable of cutting himself off from his family (running away as a teenager, going to college, moving in with Amelia), Dean can never manage it. Which is, quite arguably, the consequence of his being the older brother: Dean’s entire life has revolved around protecting Sam and obeying his father, whereas Sam, who lacked those responsibilities, has a better baseline for normalcy – or at least, for self-definition in the absence of family and hunting – and therefore a better starting position from which to try and establish himself as a separate person. The Winchesters rely on each other, but while Sam depends on Dean as a person, Dean depends on Sam for his purpose, too.

Superficially, Sam is presented as being sensitive and emotional – and therefore the more stereotypically feminine of the two – while Dean is typed as tough and strong: a heroic masculine archetype. But in terms of their actual psyches, the opposite is true: Sam is compartmentalised, resilient and capable, while Dean is a wreck. Throughout the show, both brothers are repeatedly told by a slew of older men – hunters, angels and demons alike – to “stop whining” and “sack up” whenever they dwell on their problems. Any failure to do so, whether perceived or actual, is invariably criticised as being feminine, or derided by comparison to feminine behaviours. Yet at the same time, Dean’s issues are real enough that the same people telling him to “be a man” are also, at various points, genuinely worried by his refusal to seek help or tell them what’s wrong. The contradiction is not only striking, but deeply representative of the toxic burden of enforced, stereotypical masculinity. On the rare occasions when Dean does try and talk about his feelings, he is invariably mocked as weak, whiny and effeminate; but when, having absorbed these lessons, he tries to cope through drinking, self-destructive behaviour and suicidal thoughts, he is criticised – often angrily – for being an idiot. Sam likewise receives the same treatment, but to very different effect. Unlike Dean, who can’t separate himself from his work, Sam’s stress response is to leave whatever situation is upsetting him and calm down elsewhere – a much healthier approach, though one that also earns him rebuke. Time and again, when Sam gets angry, feels betrayed or is otherwise shown to be under pressure, he leaves, turning his back on his (undeniably damaged) family and ignoring other responsibilities in favour of self-care. That he is often cast as selfish, untrustworthy, traitorous and insensitive for doing this – presumably on the basis that Real Men don’t run from their problems or let their friends down, ever, no matter the personal cost – is part and parcel of the same toxic logic that romanticises male self-sacrifice and silence.

For all that Supernatural can and does act as a paean to the virtues of traditional masculinity – brotherhood, battle, stoicism, strength – whether intentionally or not, it just as frequently demonstrates why this mindset is  brutally flawed, with the worst psychological consequences of investing in its mythos – repression, loneliness, self-hatred, addiction, suicidal ideation, insecurity, worthlessness – personified by Dean Winchester. Unlike countless action movie heroes who drink their whiskey, kill the bad guys and stride manfully into the sunset without ever flinching, Dean drinks excessively to the point of attracting comment, has nightmares about his actions, and has to be rescued from danger at least as often as he does the rescuing, because half the time, his “act first, think later” policy is a self-destructive impulse rather than an actual plan. Almost, you could define the split in the Supernatural fandom as being between those who think Dean Winchester is someone to be idolised for his masculinity, and those who see him as needing help. And even now, I still can’t tell if Dean’s relationship with traditional masculinity is deliberately portrayed as compounding his traumas to the point of causing new ones, or if its implications have been hidden from the writers by cognitive dissonance and/or social conditioning. Given the number of creative voices involved, I suspect it’s both, depending on the episode – but either way, it makes for some interesting analysis.

As a duo, what makes Sam and Dean so compelling is the extent to which their personalities, strengths and weaknesses differ, not just from each other, but from first appearances. Particularly in the early seasons, much is made of Sam’s ability to successfully comfort the many grieving strangers they encounter, whereas Dean is always blunt, less adept – and less willing – to tailor his approach to the person, a contrast we’re initially inclined to see as proof of Sam’s sensitivity and Dean’s rudeness. And certainly, Sam is a caring person. But as the show progresses, his interactions become less a function of compassion and more the consequence of his being a better liar than Dean, with fewer compunctions about emotionally manipulating strangers to get the information he needs. When it comes to informational lies – credit card scams, adopting fake IDs – Sam tends to be uneasy with the deception in ways that Dean isn’t; but while Dean is happy pretending to be someone else, he doesn’t fake his emotional reactions. Broadly speaking, Dean is a situational liar and emotionally honest, while Sam is an emotional liar and situationally honest – the exact opposite of how they present.

When it comes to their relationships with women, however, another curious comparison presents itself. Without wanting to overanalyze the handful of sex scenes sprinkled throughout the show, it’s notable that Dean’s encounters, in contrast to his aggressively masculine persona, tend to be romantic, even gentle, with Dean himself often shown to be the more passive partner, while Sam is assertive and dominant to the point of being rough (as more than one person has noticed). Dean has slept with angels; Sam lies down with demons. And for most of the show, that’s not just a metaphor: the big reveal of Season 5 – that Sam is meant to be Lucifer’s vessel, while Dean is earmarked for Michael – is arguably foreshadowed by their earlier romantic pairings with Ruby and Anna, respectively. But as of the most recent season, their predestined dichotomy is turned on its head: Season 9 starts with Sam being possessed by an angel, and ends with Dean turning into a demon, a deliberate subversion that shows how far Sam has come, and how far Dean has fallen. The Winchesters have been to Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, but despite the implied promise of the lyrics to Carry On Wayward Son, they’re yet to find any peace.

What really gets me about Dean Winchester, though, is his status as the most broken of Broken Birds I’ve ever encountered – and in a show where so much else about the gender roles is regressive, it’s striking that the most ostensibly masculine character is one who’s best defined by a trope that’s overwhelmingly female-dominated. In this sense, Dean actually makes for a good case study about our perceptions of gender in stories; specifically, our tendency to hold female characters to higher standards than men, not only in terms of their actions and personalities, but in how we judge whether they’re three-dimensional or poorly-drawn tropes, and our corresponding tendency to assume male competence as a default. Right from the outset, and despite being situated as the more experienced hunter, Dean is – not ineffectual by any stretch of the imagination, but prone to the kind of error which, were he a woman, would likely be counted as signs of inherent weakness.

In the first four episodes of Season 1, for instance, Dean continuously fails to establish his fake identities with any degree of success: twice, he gets in trouble with officials who call his bluff, and twice his incompetence leads to civilians detecting the lie. In 1.1 (Pilot) and 1.4 (Phantom Traveller), it’s Sam, not Dean, who kills the Big Bad, and while he saves the child in 1.3 (Dead in the Water), the offending ghost is dispelled, not through his actions, but the self-sacrifice of another character. The only monster Dean kills is the titular villain of 1.2 (Wendigo), and in 1.4, he’s actively disarmed by his fear of flying. All of which is paired with a high degree of sentimentality: in both 1.2 and 1.3, Dean is visibly flustered by a simple kiss on the cheek, while his strongest emotional connection consists of his bonding with a child over their mutual loss of a parent. Under identical conditions, a female character would, I suspect, have to work much harder to be seen as competent: her failed bluffs would be seen as failures of intelligence compounded by a poor kill rate, while her visible terror would see her pegged as overly emotional. Which is what happens, when successive generations of terrible female characterisation condition viewers to infer the presence of gendered stereotyping on the basis of normal behavioural cues: there’s such a backlog of bullshit to work through re the portrayal of women on screen, it can be hard to step back and judge new characters on their individual merits. But because Dean Winchester is not just male, but overtly masculine, wrapped in a leather jacket and driving a Chevy Impala, we trust that he knows what he’s doing, even when we’d be well within our grounds to think the opposite.

I have more to say, but I’ll save it for another post, as this one is already considerably longer than planned. Apparently I have Feelings about Supernatural that demand expression, and that, right there, is a sentence I never, ever thought I’d be writing. TUMBLR, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?

Feel These Things

Sam Winchester - How Do I Stop

Dean Winchester - I Wish I Couldn't Feel A Damn Thing

 

 

*Or not, for anyone who’s been following my tumblr/Twitter presence for the past few weeks.

I’m a bit late to the party on Michelle Dean’s Our Young-Adult Dystopia, which article appeared in the New York Times in mid-February; nonetheless,  I can’t quite see my way to letting it pass without comment. Unlike the vast majority of people who end up wringing their hands in mainstream publications about how YA Novels Will Doom Us All, Dean appears to actually have read the books she’s talking about, rather than merely criticising them from afar. This has not, however, stopped her from writing one of the most pompous and irritating opening paragraphs of our times:

I sometimes wonder what Dante or Milton or any of those guys would make of the modern appetite for the young-adult epic. It wasn’t always a lucrative thing, writing grand, sweeping, fantastical stories, you know. It was a job for nose-to-the-grindstone, writing-for-the-ages types, and worldly rewards were low. Milton died in penury, blind and obscure; Dante met his maker in literal exile. Would they look with envy upon their celebrated and moneyed modern analogues — your J. K. Rowlings, your Suzanne Collinses?

Ah, yes – those were the days! How I yearn for the golden past, when fantasy was Serious Male Business to be ground out in penury, rather than Crass Female Business resulting in fame! Once again, I’m forced to play the game of Mainstream YA Article Bingo, and as you can see from the card below, it’s not looking good:

YA Article Bingo

Having already compared modern YA with stories written over a century ago and dipped into the Free Space with the requisite reference to The Hunger Games (to say nothing of coming perilously close to an elitist dismissal of popular fiction as trash), Dean then proceeds to get the bit between her teeth:

You do not have to believe the latter [Collins and Rowling] match their ancestors in skill or intelligence to see that they live in a charmed time for their craft. Writing a big, imaginative epic, and particularly one aimed at children or that vaguely defined demographic, “young adult,” will get you plenty of money and status in the grown-up population. You’ll get your big Hollywood movie, and you’ll get your New Yorker profile.

Speaking as a YA author whose money, status, big Hollywood movie and New Yorker profile have all mysteriously failed to eventuate, presumably having been lost down the back of a couch somewhere between Berkeley and Manhattan, I am, in the parlance of the modern internet, 1000% done with people who wilfully mistake the massive success of a few bestselling and debut authors for a universal phenomenon. But then, where’s the sensationalist fun in that? You can’t kickstart outrage by pointing out that, even though most YA authors are still working day jobs to make ends meet, earning low four-digit advances, doing their own publicity and attending no shindig fancier than a launch at the local library, a handful of their peers have nonetheless experienced enormous success due to various trends and fluctuations within the marketplace but, most of all, the hard work of actually writing books. All those tedious humdrum facts lack punch.

There is, nonetheless, a downside to this epic bubble. As in every other area of American life, the sweet smell of success wafting from on high proves irresistible to Johnny-and-Jane-come-latelies. Scarce will we have let down our Katniss-inspired braids this year, for example, than something called “Divergent” will come hurtling toward us. The film adaptation of the first book in this trilogy comes out in March. The economic success of these books, written by 25-year-old Veronica Roth, can’t be overstated. The finale, “Allegiant,” came out in October, and its announced first printing was two million copies — a number nearly unheard-of in the depressed coal-mining town that is publishing, these days. It rose to the top of the best-seller lists instantly, as though by divine right.

How dare new authors be inspired to write successful books in popular genres! Never mind that, owing to the long lead times in publishing, Roth’s Divergent was picked up by Harper Collins in July 2010, a month before the final Hunger Games book, Mockingjay, was even on shelves – of course Roth is a latecomer! And how dare the third book of a successful trilogy be printed in huge numbers, apparently! Down with big print runs! Publishers shouldn’t be confident in their authors! (Bonus points will be awarded to those who find it odd that Dean here refers to the publishing industry as a “depressed coal-mining town” when her entire piece is otherwise objecting to the lucrative new vein of stories it’s currently tapping, to considerable profit. Apparently, it’s only noble and right for publishers to make money if they’re not trying to make money.)

I am not the kind of person who sniffs at “low culture.” Still, something like “Divergent” has been so hastily assembled, and then so cynically marketed, that I cannot help being offended on the part of the reading public.

Dean doesn’t sniff at low culture. She just calls it low culture – rather than, for instance, popular culture, which is both more accurate and less snobbish – and thinks its success is an indictment on the industry. I also find it noteworthy that, by implied definition, the “reading public” here described doesn’t include any Roth fans. (Because, like so much else in discussions of popular culture, “reading public” is code for “erudite people who read a better class of book”. You don’t have to like Divergent to find this construction suspect.)

I know it sells, and God knows that publishing needs the money. But the pushing of this stuff is starting to make me feel as if we’re all suckers. Cruelly, the gilded age of young-adult literature threatens to suck the life out of the whole thing.

But for whom, though? Book blogs, digital imprints and teenage readerships are all booming, as are indie publishers, YA fandoms and online communities devoted to the passionate sharing, discussion and creation of YA. Nobody is forcing Dean to read Veronica Roth, or anyone else, for that matter. It’s not being “pushed” on her, like hard drugs or the execrable opinions of Jeremy Paxman. Dean is free to dislike Roth, or not, as the mood takes her. What I’m struggling with is the suggestion that Roth is somehow representative of the moral/commercial bankruptcy of modern YA, just because she’s successful beyond what Dean feels her writing is worth.

Few are bothered by the costs of this excitement, though successful writers in the young-adult market do seem to have noticed the way the industry depends on them. John Green, whose (excellent, though non-epic) young-adult novel “The Fault in Our Stars ” will get its own film adaptation in May, explained his predicament to The Chicago Tribune last fall: “It’s a massive amount of pressure, and not just from fans, but from people whose jobs are on the line because of what you write.” And that pressure’s twin seems to be a blunt carelessness in selecting and editing new work for publication. Most of these Next Big Things appear to have escaped any serious redlining. It seems their “editors” simply pray to the gods of chance that the author lands on a critical featherbed, rather than being thrown to the wolves.

It took me several attempts to parse this argument, because it’s so wholly ludicrous. For the first time ever, YA SFF novels – and particularly books written by and for young women – are considered a big, commercial Hollywood business. But rather than celebrating the unprecedented prominence of female-centric stories and daring to dream of fame, Dean says, YA authors and editors should be endeavouring to safeguard the jobs of film industry professionals by being harder on themselves. If only YA editors would really dig their heels in at the outset, bad movies wouldn’t happen, because Hollywood wouldn’t be tempted to make doomed-to-fail adaptations of “low culture” crap! Young authors need to stop writing commercially successful books, because if someone buys the film rights, another person’s job could be threatened years down the line when forces beyond the writer’s control lead to poor box office receipts! (That sound you hear is me banging my head on the keyboard.)

Setting aside the extremely pertinent fact that authors on film sets tend not to have an enormous amount of directorial discretion, even though it’s their books being adapted, such that the success or failure of what’s produced can’t reasonably said to rest solely on their shoulders – no novel makes it onto the screen verbatim. As various fandoms can attest, Hollywood has never shrunk from making merry with established canon, whether that means whitewashing a previously diverse cast, adding new characters to familiar stories, or generally just chopping and changing various details as par for the course, and that’s before you get to the question of successful promotion. Big studios might be snapping up YA movie rights out of a cynical desire to find the next Hunger Games, but if the end products are failures, authors are hardly the ones to blame. The fact is that, regardless of the editorial energies expended prior to a book’s release, it’s the finished product that attracts (or doesn’t) the eager eye of studios, whose adaptations are then perfectly placed to redress whatever failings the text might have. So while I can perfectly understand the authorial worry that one’s book adaptation will flop, thereby bringing untold misery to those kind souls who’ve expended so much energy bringing it to life, the idea that they could’ve prevented it all by begging their editor way back when to be crueller with the red pen is a solipsistic fear with no bearing on reality.

(And speaking of facts – vaunting John Green as excellent  while criticising female YA authors? Ladies and gentlemen, check your bingo cards!)

…Roth was 21 when she sold the book and all this started. Had I been exposed to such widespread public scrutiny at that age, I doubt I’d have survived it.

Of course, Roth was selected for this fate in part because she was young. Youth is key to the marketing message.

Does Dean have any evidence for this assertion – that Roth is successful, not just because an agent, a major publishing house and a film studio all decided to back her story, but because of her youth? Evidently not, but that doesn’t matter: for Dean, it seems, it’s just the logical explanation for why a book she thinks is poorly written was given such advantages.

I could not help noticing how Roth’s case echoed in another over the summer: Samantha Shannon’s. She was a 21-year-old Oxford student when her first novel, “The Bone Season,” was declared the Next Big Thing last August…  Hopes were clearly high for its instant blockbuster success, and Shannon had all the ritual blessings the young-adult epic market can offer: a six-figure deal for the first three planned books of seven and a prepublication purchase of film rights. The “Today” show declared it the inaugural pick of its Book Club.

But readers did not respond, not this time. According to Nielsen Bookscan, American sales were in the low-to-mid-five figures in hardcover.

This is, once you break it down, an incredibly misleading statement. Firstly, Dean is citing only the American hardback sales of a book that’s been published both internationally and in ebook format – at a time when ebook sales are surpassing hardcover sales in the US market - as evidence that The Bone Season has failed to live up to its promise. Secondly, those “low-to-mid five figures” in the US hardcover market alone were still strong enough to see the book debut at no. 7 in the New York Times bestseller list, which is hardly something to be sneezed at. With the paperback version not forthcoming until April, and the film version as yet unmade, it seems a little preemptive to judge as a failure a book that’s been sold in 21 countries on the basis of its early sales in just one of them.

I often wonder if the people in charge of these decisions noticed that Rowling was 30 when she sold “Harry Potter,” or that Collins was 46 when “The Hunger Games” appeared. If they did, then they must have also noticed how much the present state of affairs resembles the Hollywood starlet system. But I know why movie producers prefer the young ones. That position is even less defensible among book editors.

Though I can think of a number of other modern YA authors published at young ages beyond Roth and Shannon – myself among them, for the sake of full disclosure; I can scarcely call myself famous, but my first book was nonetheless bought by a publisher in 2009, when I was 23, and came out the following year – the idea that publishers are deliberately mimicking the “starlet system” is absurd. While some journalists certainly get a kick out of emphasising the improbable youth of authors like Alexandra Adornetto and Steph Bowe (both published in their teens), the plain fact is that if some YA novels are being written by young adults, it’s not because of some creepy decision to market books in tandem with the nubile flesh of their authors; it’s just a natural consequence of the fact that young adults like writing for themselves, and are, on occasion, good at it.

Judging by her heavily gendered comparison with starlets, however, Dean appears specifically to take issue with the success young female authors, presumably because she, like almost everyone else, has been taught by our sexist culture that successful young women must necessarily be trading on their youth and beauty, rather than being in possession of any actual talent. Whether she’s an author, a fan, a singer, an actress or anything else in the public spotlight, if a young woman does something, you can be guaranteed that, sooner or later, someone’s going to say she’s not a “real” whatever-it-is, because clearly, young women can’t be. Even so, if young women were the only authors having their books adapted to the big screen and given the five-star treatment, then perhaps Dean would have a point: if nothing else, it would certainly be worth discussing. But as she herself acknowledges, the authors of many other successful franchises – like Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, to name the requisite Big Three – are all in their thirties and forties; and while YA certainly boasts a number of prominent female creators, there are plenty of men being given film deals, too. Besides John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which Dean is already demonstrably aware of, there’s Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, now on its second instalment, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four, Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and, of course, the three Narnia movies. (Naturally, though, when male-authored films meet with poor or only middling success, as several of these have, no one ever seems to suggest the source material was at fault, or takes it as an indictment on the skills of male authors generally – they were just bad adaptations). Hollywood doesn’t care who writes the books – it just knows that YA and SFF are popular, and wants to get in while the getting’s good, a slapdash attitude that often leads to subpar films regardless of where the inspiration comes from.

But by all means, let’s continue to focus on how undeserving young women are of fame.

Children’s literature toys with our chronological expectations because the best of it has always been written, actually, by the comparatively elderly. Lewis himself was 51 when the “Narnia” books came out; Lois Lowry was 56 when “The Giver” was published; Madeleine L’Engle wrote “A Wrinkle in Time” in her 40s, and L. Frank Baum his “Oz” books in the same decade of his life.

Age is what the greats have in common. The long years between adolescence and middle age seem to be necessary soil for this craft. It requires roots, and no quick shoots will do. They need years to grow and tangle and set before the brilliant, unforgettable book appears… 

Books like Frankenstein, perhaps – one of the undisputed greats of modern literature, and the arguable genesis of modern science fiction? Which was, of course, conceived of and written by Mary Shelley at the ripe old age of 19. And how about  Jane Austen, who started writing Pride and Prejudice when she was 21? Edgar Allen Poe began publishing short stories in his early twenties, receiving a prize for MS. Found in a Bottle at 24 – the same age as Alfred, Lord Tennyson when The Lady of Shallot first appeared in print. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, also produced his first major play at the age of 24, in 1958; award-winning author Helen Oyeyemi  famously wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, while still at school; and just three years ago, Yugoslavian writer Tea Obreht won the Orange Prize with her debut, The Tiger’s Wife, at age 25. Which isn’t to say that no writer ever matures or improves with age – quite the opposite. It’s just that a blanket belief in incompetent, callow youth is equally as inaccurate as a sweeping assertion that age necessarily leads to great books. For every new YA author aged in their teens or twenties, I can think of others in their thirties, forties, fifties or sixties whose works aren’t automatic masterpieces. If I were going to try and make any sort of general statement about the relationship between one’s age and one’s ability to write, in fact, all I’d say is this: that first novels, regardless of the age at which we write them, are seldom our very best works, but that their quality is more likely dependent, not on how old we are, but on how long we’ve been writing when they’re published.

English literature is full of young male writers lionised, both then and subsequently, for their incredible gifts, not least because most of them were busy dying of sybaritic illnesses before they got their first grey hair: John Keats was dead by 25, Percy Bysshe Shelley by 29 and Lord Byron by 36, and that’s just for starters. But once again, it’s the young women of today whose outpourings are held to be inferior, not on the basis of individual talent or literary preference, but because young people just can’t write.

I suppose I’m admitting that those people who call young-adult readers “childish” are onto something. It’s just not the pure desire for regression they pompously diagnose. It’s a desire for stories substantial enough to withstand the ages, that are like smooth river rocks you can turn over and over again.

 I see: having first stepped in to defend the honour of the “reading public” from the insult of commercially successful YA novels, Dean has proceeded to fix the blame on YA authors for being too young and YA readers for being too “childish”, and on everyone else in the equation for giving young women power, whether as creators or as members of a demographic audience. On the basis of the evidence, then, it’s harder to say if Dean really resents Roth and Shannon because they’re successful in a genre she dislikes, or if she dislikes the genre because it’s made them successful without recourse to her opinion of their talent. Clearly, though, it’s not just the problem of commercialism in literature that’s upsetting her – or if it is, then I’d humbly suggest that she’s drawing a bead on the wrong target. If the soul of publishing is truly being imperilled by the relentless drive for monetary gain, then the likes of Jeffrey Archer, Clive Cussler, Dan Brown, Matthew Reilly and David Baldacci are far more worthy targets, each of whom has produced far more pulp bestsellers than Roth and Shannon combined. But then, of course, these are adult men, and even though we might collectively mock novels like The Da Vinci Code or wonder who on Earth keeps giving Nicholas Sparks money, we never question the rights of adult male readers to enjoy whatever the hell they like, no matter how trashy and poorly written we find it.

But women, whatever their age, are held to different standards. We’re presupposed to be the moral and aesthetic gatekeepers of every genre we’re discouraged from actually enjoying, not just because girls aren’t meant to like that sort of thing (and if we don’t, we’re humourless, fun-hating harridans – natch), but because, if we do, it’s unseemly and inappropriate and we’re doing it wrong, and why does there have to be romance and boys and ugh, trashy films with magic and explosions are just so much better when they fail the Bechdel test and are made for teenage boys and young women need to stop participating in popular culture!

And this, ultimately, is why I end up gritting my teeth whenever I see yet another mainstream article lamenting this female-heavy trend in YA – and that’s really what Dean is doing here, for all that she’s trying to pretend otherwise. It’s not that YA and its authors should somehow exist beyond criticism (they shouldn’t) or that there’s no problematic trends, romantic or otherwise, being perpetuated by the current crop of YA novels (there are), or even that it’s inherently wrong to analyse the logic underpinning commercial YA (it’s not). It’s because, overwhelmingly, this sort of analysis isn’t what happens. Instead, we get sour grapes and grudge matches: journalists outraged at the success of particular stories confusing their failings with the failings of an the entire genre; pundits decrying the ubiquity of books they’ve never read in genres they don’t understand for audiences they didn’t know existed, and calling it the end of civilisation; moral crusaders up in arms that girls are reading about sex, or writing about it, or doing anything other than waiting chastely for the good Christian wedding night where they’ll lie back and think of England, because even stories dealing with the aftermath of rape are somehow pornographic; and on, and on, and on. Whether we’re conscious of our biases or not, we’re culturally predisposed to be extra critical of everything women, and particularly young women, do (to say nothing of the women themselves) – and now that YA novels have become such a breakaway phenomenon, with plenty of film adaptations still in the works, otherwise sane adults are falling all over themselves to declare the whole business a type of commercial heresy.

While the YA market should be criticised for many things, like its habit of whitewashing book covers, its faith in the works of young female writers isn’t one of them. Let young people write books for each other – the result might not always be literature for the ages, but it’s still produced some damn good stories, and with so many new authors entering the field with decades still ahead of them in which to develop their talents, I for one am excited to see where not just YA, but the future of writing is headed.

Yesterday, Loncon 3 was flung unpleasantly into the spotlight when the organisers announced on Twitter that none other than Jonathan Ross would be hosting the Hugo awards, prompting an instantaneous and largely negative response from the SFF community. Big names like Charles Stross and Seanan McGuire, among others, expressed their serious concerns, as did other congoers, and while there were those who also tweeted in support of Wossy – who was, at one point, responding to individual critics – it wasn’t long before he stepped down. Meanwhile, former con organiser Farah Mendlesohn resigned over Ross being given the gig in the first place, citing days of struggle on her behalf with fellow chairs who reportedly refused to discuss Ross’s history of inappropriate behaviour, particularly towards women.

I have some thoughts about this.

Firstly: The whole fiasco reflects extraordinarily poorly on Loncon 3′s organisers. Thanks largely Farah Mendlesohn, they cannot possibly claim prior ignorance of how some fans would react to the decision; yet as Ross himself was seemingly both surprised by the response and uninformed of the wider context prompting it – as evidenced not only by his resignation, but the tone of his preceding and subsequent interactions with concerned congoers – this suggests they did a very bad job of preparing him for the possibility. And when you ask a powerful, famous public figure to host a comparatively little-known event, for free, on the basis of his love for your community’s history and output, but neglect to brief him on how and why his presence might provoke controversy within that community now – and especially when the man in question is known for creating controversies, making this an even more urgent topic than usual – then you are doing your job badly.

By his own admission, Ross agreed to host the Hugos because he loves SFF, and because Neil Gaiman apparently asked him to: most likely, he thought it would be a fun, easy, trouble-free gig promoting a genre he cares about, not an incipient Twitter shitstorm. And that he does care about SFF, I don’t doubt; I’ve seen him speak on the topic, and the man knows his stuff. But just as loving Batman isn’t dependent on having an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of DC, neither is being a fan off SFF dependent on keeping up with its controversies and ever-shifting political landscapes as expressed through the blogosphere. Jonathan Ross isn’t any less a true fan, whatever the hell that means, for not having instinctively known that the path to the Hugo Awards would take him through the Nefarious Minefield of Fuckeries Past. But it was sure as hell the job of the Loncon 3 organisers to prepare him for it anyway, and if they’d done it properly – if they hadn’t been so starstruck by the idea of an Actual Mainstream Famous Person hosting their awards ceremony that they neglected to view his involvement through anything other than rose-coloured lenses – then either Wossy would have been prepared for the criticism he was always going to receive (and might therefore have been in a position to offer reassurance to fans, rather than snapping at them; assuming he’d cared enough to do so), or he would’ve quietly declined the position behind the scenes, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of quitting after just eight hours.

Secondly: After everything the community has been through in recent years – after all the fails over sexual harassment, both on stage and within cons, and the lack (or failure) of cogent policies for dealing with it; all the problems of panel parity, diversity and representation; the never-ending parade of scandal and sexism within the SFWA; and, just as importantly, all of Loncon 3′s early hard work to assure congoers that they were aware of these issues – it should have been blindingly obvious, no matter how sincere his love of SFF or how well-established his credentials as an emcee, that asking a man with a history of behaving badly towards women in professional contexts – whether by dry-humping, sexually propositioning or objectifying them through transphobic dismissals – was going to go down like a lead balloon. This isn’t about whether Jonathan Ross, despite some of his past actions, is really a great guy who would’ve done a fabulous job as Hugos host, had the fandom not collectively jumped down his throat (as some are now asserting it is): humans being the complex, contradictory creatures that we are, it is simultaneously possible to be a predominantly good person who has nonetheless done – and will doubtless continue to do – some extremely shitty and unacceptable things. No: this is about the fact that, regardless of where you stand on the question of Jonathan Ross as a person, in his capacity as a professional comic and interviewer, he has behaved in some very unprofessional and offensive ways towards particular groups of people, large numbers of whom – notably women – are likely either be nominated for Hugo awards or attending the ceremony in other capacities, and as such, the SFF community was right to ask whether his past behaviour might repeat itself, or if it should have disqualified him for the job in the first place, given the con’s harassment policy. And as the Loncon committee knew these questions were going to arise, the onus was on them to ensure that Ross was both willing and able to answer them.

Thirdly: Yes, there’s a fame-coup quotient to a big name like Ross that’s always going to draw some positive endorsement – as, indeed, it did – and this is certainly something the SFF community should be  thinking about. But just getting a big name on the cards is not enough to automatically outweigh all the negative associations such a name might also invoke, and especially not if you fail to even acknowledge their existence. I say again: announcing that someone as famous as Ross has agreed to host the Hugos is only a coup if he stays the host, does a good enough job of responding to criticism and reassuring detractors that his presence doesn’t provoke a boycott, and then gets the job done without insulting any of the nominees – and even then, there’s still going to be fallout for any number of valid reasons. But if you, the organisers, refuse to deal with these issues beforehand, then don’t be surprised when it all blows up in your face. You did a disservice to Jonathan Ross by failing to brief him on the potential for controversy, but a far worse disservice to fans and attendees by prioritising the presence of a single famous guy over and above your promises for change.

So: I’ll be interested to see who ends up being the new Hugos host. And I’m still looking forward to Loncon 3. But this entire debacle was 100% avoidable, if only the organisers had actually bothered to listen to Farah Mendlesohn, or – let’s go crazy! – think about it for two damn minutes consecutively. <sighs>

ETA, 3.3.14: On the advice of Farah Mendlesohn and for the sake of accuracy, I’ve changed ‘weeks of struggle’ in the first paragraph to  ‘days’.

You know, as strange as it may sound given how much time I spend ranting on the internet, I actually live a rich, full life, one in which I regularly leave the house and talk to my friends about a wide range of things that do not, in fact, suck. I’m also a fairly busy person, especially right now, what with finishing up a new novel, writing various reviews and columns, tending my seven-month-old son and – oh, yeah – the fact that we just moved house. So even though I still make time for online shenanigans, the number of articles I read in full, per day, has dropped dramatically, which leaves me feeling like some sort of digital meerkat, briefly popping up into the bright, popcultural sunlight of the internet, then ducking back down into the subterranean warren of Shit I Actually Need To Do, No, Seriously, How The Fuck Is It September Already? And most of the time, it’s a policy that serves me well.

But invariably – and with a regularity that is fast depleting my finite stores of dispassionate, well-reasoned criticism – there comes a day when I poke my head above ground and encounter a fresh, steaming pile of bullshit, such that I start gritting my teeth and channelling Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You.

10 Things - Asshole Day

And today, we’ve hit the trifecta: this spectacularly douchey, concern-trolling, woe-is-my-unrecognised-talent Facebook post by John Ringo lamenting John Scalzi’s Hugo win, Mike Krahulik’s PAX announcement that he regretted ever discontinuing their rape-apologist Dickwolves merchandise, and – my personal favourite – an astonishingly incoherent post by one Paul Cook over at Amazing Stories on When Science Fiction Isn’t Science Fiction (which, surprise! turns out to be if it contains romance elements and is therefore written for ladies).

And I mean, OK: so Ringo is an entitled, embittered asshat, and Krahulik is the same foot-in-mouth, mostly jerky dude he always was, though with an increasing glimmer of self awareness and repentance, and those are definitely things worth talking about – as, indeed, many people are already doing. Once upon a time, I’d likely have gone in to bat about them myself. But like I said, I have limited ranting time these days, and so instead I’ll stick with responding to Paul Cook’s piece, because, seriously? Are we still having this same damn conversation about “real” SFF and why romance isn’t part of it?

We are?

Rage comics are you fucking kidding me

I wish I was, rage comics dude. I really wish I was.

Right from the outset of Cook’s piece, it’s pretty clear that we’re dealing with some pretty deeply-ingrained assumptions about the genre. To quote (my emphasis):

Most writers who publish in the science fiction field stay within the usual parameters of the field, continuing their careers writing what no one would doubt as standard science fiction. Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein to name but four, wrote and published their works as science fiction, with the occasional foray into the fantastic–but not outright fantasy. Heinlein did write Glory Road which was science fiction using fantasy tropes that no one would mistake for aspects of a regular fantasy novel. That is to say, Heinlein’sGlory Road isn’t at all like one of Robert Jordan’s epic fantasies nor does it resemble the Arthurian fantasy of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s classic (and truly excellent novel),  The Mists of Avalon.

That said, some writers who might have started off in science fiction soon reveal their true selves when they start publishing what they really want to write about.

Or, in other words: Cook’s definition of “standard science fiction” doesn’t include any “outright fantasy” elements (though it can include “fantasy tropes” PROVIDED nobody could mistake the story for being a “regular fantasy novel”,  meaning either “epic” or “Arthurian” fantasies). This definition appears to be sacrosanct to Cook, because when, in his estimation, SF writers deviate from “the usual parameters of the field”, they’re not just mixing it up, evolving the genre, exploring new narrative possibilities or otherwise striving for originality – no. They’re revealing their “true selves” and writing “what they really want to write about” – language which not only couches their deviation as a betrayal of SF, but which actively suggests their former use of the genre was somehow all a cynical act; that they never really wanted to write SF at all, caring only for their subsequent stories and not their original SF works, as though the latter output was merely a misbegotten firstborn left to fend for itself after the arrival of a long-awaited second child.

He then proceeds to list the authors to whom he thinks this wildly prejudicial and utterly bizarre characterisation applies. Namely: Gene Wolfe, Lois McMaster Bujold, and duo Sharon Lee and Steve Miller; he also complains about “steampunk writers… shifting over to writing about zombies,” and while he names no names in that instance, the paragraph in question is accompanied by a picture of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker cover, which would seem to indicate at least some measure of dissatisfaction with her work in particular.

Clearly, then, Cook feels strongly about what constitutes real SF – but despite how negatively he’s characterised such genre-hopping dilettantism, that doesn’t mean he necessarily hates the works in question; just the fact that people keep calling such books SF, when in his mind, they’re not. So what does he actually say to defend his position?

Of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, he says this (my emphasis again):

 I can tell you that these books–masterpieces as everyone seems to think they are–are actually medieval/Arthurian fantasies. In fact, there is virtually no real “science fiction” in these books other than various tropes… Severian’s travels and adventures and storytelling (Book Two has a long fairy tale inserted in the middle of the novel that goes absolutely nowhere and adds nothing to the novel) are straight out of a YA rite-of-passage fantasy…  The earth does not wobble on its axis (as it would if the moon were gone) and without vulcanism and tectonic plate induction in the ocean, carbon dioxide would not be removed from the atmosphere and recycled into the mantle where it can stay out of the atmosphere and not smother life. These things don’t matter to the fantasist. They didn’t matter to Wolfe.

Now, conceivably, that first backhanded disparagement – that people only “seem to think” Wolfe’s books are “masterpieces”, implying that Cook thinks they’re anything but – could just be the product of poor grammar, as the insertion of a comma after the word masterpieces would strongly imply that Cook agrees with its usage; and in either case, I don’t particularly care. Cook is, after all, entitled to his opinion about the merit of various books, and especially given that I’ve read no Wolfe myself, I’m hardly abristle at this possible slight to his honour. I mention it only because, if intended as a slight – and I suspect it is – it contextualises Cook’s subsequent judgements as belonging to a series of negative ones. In which case, the remark about the book resembling a “YA rite-of-passage fantasy” is clearly a disparaging one; and this sets off warning bells for me. Similarly, his subsequent assertion that proper details and scientific research “don’t matter to the fantasist” is jarring, as is the simultaneous inference that true SF always gets such things right. Being able to pick holes in the worldbuilding of a given novel might well demonstrate its structural failings, but that doesn’t mean the book belongs to a different genre. Off the top of my head, I can think of plenty of fantasy novels whose authors take extraordinary care with their inclusion of real-world details, just as I can name multiple SF stories that show a comparative lack of care for science. The whole idea of FTL travel and wormhole jumps, for instance, is just as handwavium-based as Wolfe’s decision to ignore vulcanism and a wobbly Earth axis, and yet I doubt that the inclusion of either element would irritate Cook to the same degree. Whatever: as I already said, I don’t really care what he thinks of Wolfe’s work – but I do care that he thinks sloppy worldbuilding is somehow a symptom of fantasy-writing.

Onwards, then, to his criticism of Bujold. This is where the real problems start, and in such an offensively baffling way that I can’t help but quote the whole paragraph (emphasis mine, again):

Another writer well-praised (from every corner) is Lois McMaster Bujold. Her great work is the Miles Vorkosigan series. These are supposed to be military science fiction stories, but they are really at their core Romance novels. At first, they were military science fiction novels of a higher order than most. But the romance elements creep in very early on. Bujold tips her hand in the eloquence of her language (normally a good thing) and the attention to detail that only women would find attractive: balls, courts, military dress, palace intrigues, gossiping, and whispering in the corridors. All of this is right out of Alexander Dumas. True, these intrigues and flourishes do happen in the real world (or they used to), but Bujold, over time with novels such as Miles in Loveand Cordelia’s Honor, you can see that Bujold is a closet romance writer. Not that this is a bad thing, but some of us aren’t that interested in romance. For me, personally, it takes much of the dramatic urgency out of a story if the hero is already married or if during a skirmish comes back to canoodle or wine or dine with his beloved before rushing back to the fray.

I honestly don’t know which is more painful: Cook’s efforts to try and say that really, it’s OK Bujold writes romance even though he doesn’t like it, or the totally oblivious sexism with which he undercuts this assertion. In remarking that Bujold “tips her hand” by including “romance elements” – which, he says, involve an “attention to detail that only women would find attractive” – he characterises romance as being a wholly feminine genre, such that, when he goes on to say that “some of us aren’t that interested in romance”, it seems pretty clear that by “some of us”, Cook means men.  Whether intentionally or not, he therefore manages to dismiss Bujold, one of the most respected and multi-award-winning SF writers out there, as not being a real SF author because she actually just writes romance and romance is for women only. Which makes his subsequent remark that all her “attention to detail that only women find attractive” is “right out of Alexander [sic] Dumas” all the weirder: I mean, what’s he trying to say with this? That Dumas only wrote for women, or that he was also a closet romance writer? It just doesn’t make any sense, and yet the insult to both women and romance is so palpable it left me staring at the screen in disbelief, jaw clenched.

On closer examination, though, it’s his final sentence that actually worries me most: specifically, the admission that it bores him “if the hero is already married”. It’s clear this description is meant to accurately summarise romance stories as a whole, but as even a cursory perusal of the genre would make plain, nothing could be further from the truth. The Happily Ever After is where, barring cameo appearances in future volumes, romance stories stop – it is emphatically not what constitutes their defining narrative structure. The Vorkosigan books, by contrast, feature both sides of the story: we see the characters meet and fall in love, but because their romantic, pre-HEA friction isn’t the defining aspect of the narrative, but rather just a single facet of a larger story, we also see them afterwards, getting on with their lives together. So while the series definitely contains romantic elements, collectively, the books aren’t romance novels. I don’t say that to defend Bujold against the accusation of writing romance, because I don’t believe there’s anything lesser or pejorative about writing romance instead of SF (and I certainly don’t believe it’s a women-only genre; female-dominated, maybe, in terms of readership and output, but that’s hardly the same thing, and a separate point besides). No: what bothers me is that, when Cook says he doesn’t like to read about married heroes who take a break from fighting to “canoodle” with their sweethearts, it feels like an admission that he prefers his (male) heroes to be single and to lack a romantic attachment to the women in their lives. And this is a very different thing: because whereas Bujold’s decision to portray happy, realistic, functional marriages necessarily involves male characters who treat the women they love with respect, Cook seems to be against that – because all that kindness and love and icky lady romance gets in the way of the action. And that makes me wonder: does he, then, have no issue with SF stories where the hero is a womaniser, someone who sleeps with various sexy maidens while in pursuit of his duty and doesn’t care enough to see them again afterwards, but who still cares just enough to be Tragically Wounded if they end up dead? Maybe I’m being uncharitable because this paragraph so profoundly rubbed me the wrong way, but even so – and especially given his citation of Heinlen, Clarke, Sturgeon and Asimov as stellar examples of real SF authors – I can’t help but feel that what he’s really objecting to in the Vorkosigan books isn’t the use of sex or romance, or even necessarily of marriage, but to the presence of female love interests who influence the plot in ways other than simply sleeping with the hero, and to the use of heroes who think about the women they love as partners rather than sex objects.

In talking about Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s novels – a paragraph which, once again, I’m forced to quote in full – Cook becomes even more disparaging about romance (my emphasis):

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s novels in their Liaden Universe® (from Baen Books) are also romance writers. Like the Vorkosigan novels, they begin as space adventures in the military science fiction genre, but their latest installments are romances only barely disguised with science fiction tropes and conceits. Lee’s and Miller’s stories in this series are carefully written, but I’d call them science fiction-lite because there really isn’t much tension in these stories. It’s as if, now that they’ve found their niche and their considerable audience, they want to play it safe. True, science fiction as a whole is indeed part of Romance Literature (if we go all the way back to the 18th century when novels were invented in England, with the Gothic novel leading the way), but some writers, by dint of their nature, turn to romance or the western or whatever. I’ve read several of the books in the Liaden Universe® and to me they are romances in disguise–with the couple coming together with a calm sense of inevitability rather than one preceded by blood, sweat, tears and some sort of significant loss. True, no science fiction or fantasy writer has the courage to end a novel the way Hemingway does in A Farewell to Arms, but then ours is an escapist genre. Which is also why we don’t have a Hemingway or Faulkner in our midst–but that’s another story.

By this point, the repetitive assertion that romance or romance writers are “disguised” or closeted somehow is really starting to wear me down. I find it depressing – but not actually surprising – that even though, in the very first paragraph, Cook is capable of acknowledging that SF stories can contain fantasy tropes without actually being fantasy novels, presumably because he wants to establish the credentials of his favourite authors as being beyond reproach, he spends much of the rest of the post categorically denying the idea that romance tropes can similarly exist in SF stories without causing the book in question to magically switch genres. The idea that Lee and Miller chose to write “science fiction-lite” by amping up the romance – and more, that this decision was a way to “play it safe” – is more than usually laughable given Cook’s simultaneous inference that it ruined the books; which begs the question, safe from what? Ridicule and accusations of selling out? Clearly not. I don’t even have the energy to try and unpack what’s meant by the claim that “some writers, by dint of their nature, turn to romance” – by what nature, exactly? There are so many things this could mean, all of them contextually pejorative, one of the least of which is the idea that “by dint of their nature” is a not-so-subtle code for “by dint of being born female, or having an interest in women”. At absolute best, Cook is simply so enamoured of SF as a genre that he’s inclined to view any departure from it by SFnal authors as not just a bad decision, but an actual character flaw – hence it being in their “nature” to revert to writing “romance or the western or whatever”. Which makes the fact that he then goes on to praise Hemmingway and Faulkner as being braver, better writers than anyone in SFF  all the more mind-boggling (never mind being an assertion that opens up a whole different can of worms).

Finally, he expresses his distaste for zombie stories mucking up steampunk and SF, and once more manages to throw in a gendered barb: “I have no interest,” he says, ” in reading about zombies, fancy dress balls, smooching warriors, or star-lit dinners on the terrace overlooking a waiting army about to go to war” – a remark which neatly mirrors his complaints about those pesky romantic details that “only women” like.  And that would be the end of it – except that, of course, he also manages to make an ass of himself in the comments. When confronted with accusations of sexism, Cook becomes angry, remarking that Lee and Miller, “competent as they are, are writing disguised romances” – which manages to be a more overtly disparaging slight about romance than he makes in the actual article.  He also refers to the romance elements in their books as being their “true predilections” – because clearly, if an SF writer writes romance, they mustn’t care as much about SF! The fact that he also claims to be “very precise in my wording, or I try to be” is, under the circumstances, rather heartbreaking. But it’s his response to accusations of misogyny that proves the most telling:

By accusing me of being a misogynist, you shut down all possibility of an informed analysis of any woman’s work. That’s a refuge I’ve seen critics in literature take for over 30 years, at least since the mid-1980s. It doesn’t work that way. Any work of art can be criticized, regardless of the gender of who wrote them, painted them, composed them, etc.

And I just… I don’t even know how to respond to this. Because Cook has said, right there in his own, apparently “precise” words, that Bujold’s work involves “the attention to detail that only women would find attractive” – details which Cook himself feels are detrimental to the story, and which he plainly states are a hallmark of Bujold’s romantic credentials. This is unequivocally a sexist remark, and the fact that Cook doesn’t recognise this fact – let alone understand that his disparagement of romance as both feminine and lesser is similarly gross – is the main problem with his piece. But the idea that misogyny is some kind of card that critics play to shut down the possibility of an informed analysis of women’s work? What planet is this guy even on? OF COURSE any work can be criticsed, regardless of the gender of the creator; that’s not in dispute. But that doesn’t mean that Cook isn’t being sexist in his analysis: and when he complains about the fact that accusations of misogyny have effectively been ruining criticism for thirty-odd years, it makes me wonder how many times in the past someone has called him out for sexist behaviour, and he’s chosen to interpret that as meaning “you can’t critique female writers because you’re male and therefore biased”, when what they’re ACTUALLY saying is “by all means critique female writers, but be aware that your internalised, negative assumptions about women, romance and femininity are influencing your judgement in unhelpful ways”. Like, seriously? Thirty years of viewing misogyny accusations as a tactic for dodging criticism rather than, you know, a legitimate fucking complaint about sexism in SFF, and he’s never once sat down and thought, Huh, maybe they have a point? Christ on a BICYCLE.

And then it gets worse:

I’m correct here. The books I mention as romances are romances. They are also very “light” in gravitas and absolutely devoid of metaphor.

More anti-romance bullshit! Because romance is light, devoid of metaphor and totally lacking in gravitas, AMIRITE LADIES? And obviously, the best way to prove you’re not sexist is to call romance a female-only genre and then disparage the shit out of it!

The last great sf story that, to me, resonated with metaphor was Terry Bisson’s “macs” which was about American’s natural desire to kill someone who’s harmed us.

Oh.

Well, THAT’S not profoundly unsettling. (Note also, please, that the story in question came out in 1999, which means that, by his own admission, Cook hasn’t seen anything worthy in the genre for nearly fifteen fucking years.)

 I know I’ve offended you, only because I have had an opinion.

No, it’s not because you had an opinion; it’s because the opinion itself was offensive bullshit.

DeAnn, please, please explain to me what “ground” Lois Bujold has broken with her writing. She’s writing in the 1940s Astounding tradition of space adventures tinted with romance. That’s it. If you want ground breaking, read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar or his The Long Result or his Shockwave Rider. Don’t bore me with telling me these mediocre writers are ground-breaking. They’re just writing pulp fiction–pure entertainment. Lift away all the standard tropes and conceits from Bujold’s writing and you have stories where we know the hero gets his heroine and all will be well. Our writers have lost the courage to tell a story such as Thomas Disch’s Genocides or any one of Philip K. Dick’s novels. But, then, publishers publish what they think sells. Thus, romance, thus zombies. But that’s my opinion. And the fact that I have a divergent opinion makes me the most hated person on the internet.

And in this final comment, despite all his earlier protestations that being a romance writer “isn’t a bad thing”, Cook finally gets angry enough to be honest: Bujold breaks no ground with her stories – she is, in fact, “mediocre… pulp fiction – pure entertainment” – and romance is only popular, not because it has any merit, but because “publishers publish what they think sells”. And isn’t it interesting how, with the sole exception of Marion Zimmer Bradley, every single person Cook has held up as an example of brave, exemplary writing is an old white guy from his generation? Talk about being stuck in the past.

Dear Mr Cook, if you’re reading this: you’re not the most hated person on the internet. Michael Brutsch couldn’t even claim that much, and he might actually have deserved it. Nobody is sending you rape or death threats; nobody is telling you, in graphic detail, the things they’ll do to your children or pets in revenge for what you’ve said (though all those things have happened to women writers just for existing on the internet, let alone saying anything controversial). All they’re doing is sharing their opinions of your opinion, as they – we – are entitled to do; and because we think your opinion is bullshit, you’ve elected to view our response as persecution. You aren’t being persecuted; you’re being argued with, and the fact that you can’t tell the difference is a sign of the privileged echo-chamber in which, until now, I suspect you’ve spent your fannish life. I’d tell you to grow up, but seeing as how, the last good story you read was apparently written almost fifteen years ago, one suspects it wouldn’t help. As far as I can tell, your tastes are so firmly fixed in the stories of your youth that every development undergone by the genre since then is something you’ve elected to view with suspicion. And that wouldn’t bother me, but SFF is my genre, too, and I’m sick of watching bitter old men try to claw away and disparage everything about SFF that’s welcomed me and drawn me in by saying that it isn’t really SF; that the genre is changing, not because the audience and the world are changing together, but because shallow people just want to make money. I’m sick of it, and so I’m arguing against your opinion – at length, in my own time, even knowing that, unlike you, I am actually risking a genuinely abusive backlash by doing so, because that’s what happens to women on the internet when the really ugly trolls catch wind of us.

So why am I bothering, then?

Because I fucking belong here and you will not make me feel otherwise.

So, as I’ve explained in a footnote on my Rageblogging: The Rod Rees Edition post, a thing happened today whereby, in the wake of mass criticism of Rees’s thoughts on female characters over at the Jo Fletcher Books Blog, both his original piece and a subsequent one explaining (badly, but honestly) why it was posted to begin with have been removed in their entirety, apparently without any explanatory statement along the lines of This Is What We’re Doing And Why.

And I just. OK.

I have some sympathy for Jo Fletcher Books, here.

Because, look. The fact that you publish someone’s books doesn’t mean you agree with absolutely everything they say and do as a person: you might like all of their thoughts, or most of their thoughts, or some of their thoughts, or none of their thoughts, but the bottom line is, you’re tied to them professionally because they wrote a thing you thought would sell, not necessarily because you 100% supported every single word they wrote, but because whatever amorphous combination of style, story, hook and execution they brought to the table made their story something you wanted in on*. That’s just life. We’re all different people, and most of the time, we try to live with it.

So naturally, if you run a blog associated with your publishing enterprise, and if you use it, among other things, as a platform for your authors, it makes a certain amount of sense not to meddle too deeply with regard to content. To coin a phrase, sometimes you’ve got to go along to get along, and in the context of a professional, multi-authored blog, that’s sometimes going to mean posting opinions and guest pieces that aren’t necessarily reflective of your own beliefs. I mean, that’s the whole point of having multiple authors in the first place: different opinions. Right?

Well, yes. But that also means that, of necessity, different pieces are going to get different reactions – and sooner or later, if your social media reach is strong and your contributor base varied enough, you’re going to publish something that strikes a nerve. And that means critical feedback: sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but all of it directed squarely at your little corner of the internet. Hell, this isn’t even a problem restricted to multi-author blogs or blogs with guest contributors: every time you post something, you run the risk of a big response in whatever direction, and if you’re only thinking about how to cope with positive attention beforehand, then I’m going to contend that you’re doing it wrong. Every time I finish a post, I have a little moment where I think to myself: What if I’ve fucked up? What if I’ve said something really offensive/problematic/wrong, and I get lots of abuse? How am I going to handle it? And each time, I take a deep breath and I think, Well, if I’ve genuinely done something bad like that, firstly, I want to know about it, and secondly, anyone I’ve offended is within their rights to be pissed at me. I’ve tried my best to do things right, but if I’ve failed for whatever reason and I get backlash as a result, then I’m woman enough to deal with the consequences. 

Every time I post, this is my inner monologue. Every. Single. Time. And it’s important, especially as I’m a privileged person, because the day that I forget it – the day when I fall into the trap of thinking that my opinions are perfect and sacrosanct just because they’re mine – will most likely be the day that I put my foot so far in my mouth that my shoes leave treadmarks on my trachea. I’ve fucked up before, and will doubtless fuck up again. All I can really do is try to be prepared to learn from it, to apologise for any hurt I’ve caused, and, if possible, to fix it.

And you know what that doesn’t include – what it absolutely never fucking includes, not only because the Google cache and screencapping renders it pointless, and not just because it’s the online equivalent of packing up your toys and going home, but because it is 100% guaranteed to inflame the issue further?

Deleting the post in question.

Locking the comments, particularly if they’ve grown abusive? That’s fine, though it’s generally a good idea to include a final comment of your own explaining exactly why and when you’ve done it, and if you can include a helpful link to a place where the discussion is continuing, then so much the better. Why? Because your mistake will spawn dialogue, and dialogue is useful, and while, as the owner of your blogging space, you’re within your rights to say “regulating this conversation has become too stressful, therefore I’m closing it down”, there’s still a very real sense in which doing so is going to either constitute, or appear to constitute, a silencing tactic. You are Stopping People From Talking About That Thing You Did, and when you’re the one in the wrong, for a whole bunch of reasons it’s not a great idea to act as though you’re allergic to having this fact brought to your attention. Primarily because, you know. You fucked up, and you should own it.

Changing a particular word or phrase that someone’s taken issue with in order to fix the problem? That’s also fine – in fact, it’s something I’ve done myself on multiple occasions, several of them recently. My own rule of thumb is that flagging individual word-changes in pieces I’ve already written via an ETA or a footnote or the like is only necessary if it fundamentally alters the original meaning, or if the change is noticeable enough to raise questions from later readers. Thus: taking out problematic words from the body of the text, fixing typos and altering repetitious or poorly constructed phrases is fine unflagged, because it’s essentially just a form of editing. (Unless, of course, your use of a particular word or phrase is crucial to the argument being made against you – in which case, flagging everything is paramount. Otherwise, it looks like you’re trying to deny the problem ever existed in the first place by quietly removing the evidence, and that is Not Cool.) Changing the title or correcting an attribution, however, are flag-worthy, because they’re the sort of things that get repeated when a post goes into circulation, which makes it important to state, as clearly as possible, just why you’ve done what you’ve done.

But deleting the entire post, including all the comments? That is some salting the earth shit right there, and it is the least constructive thing you can possibly do. I can understand why people are still tempted to go there. After all, if you posted something people hated, how could anyone possibly object to your removing it? Isn’t that what your critics wanted? Well, no: what they wanted was for you not to have said it in the first place, which is a wildly different creature to pretending you never said it at all. It’s a bit like this: if I kick you in the shin, your shin is going to hurt – but if you say to me, “Hey! Ow! My shin! Why did you DO that?” and I reply “What are you talking about? I didn’t do anything!”, then not only does your shin still hurt, but in addition to having caused you pain, I’m acting like I have no idea how it happened, which is an Asshole Move of the highest order. If I kick your shin and you call me on it, the correct response is an acknowledgement of my actions and an apology, even if I did by accident. If I run away with my hands over my ears screaming “La la la, CAN’T HEAR YOOOOU!”, then I am being an asshole, and deserve to be mocked accordingly.

So, yeah. As I said earlier today on Twitter, I am endlessly sick of people going this route, whereby they say or do something stupid in public, then try to make it all go away by deleting the evidence. Not only doesn’t it work (see above, re: Google cache and screencapping), but it’s an Asshole Move, because it stifles dialogue while simultaneously ducking the issue. And in the case of the Jo Fletcher Books Blog, which isn’t just someone’s personal space on the internet, but a site that’s openly affiliated with a professional institution, it becomes doubly problematic – not only because the retroactive onus on the administrators to justify why the post was allowed through to begin with is higher, but because everything that comes of the subsequent kerfuffle is necessarily associated with the organisation itself. Thus, and as I said at the outset: while I can understand the logic of a hands-off, let’s-all-agree-to-disagree policy on contributor content, there should also have been a policy in place for what to do if and when a given piece were to garner negative attention. Regardless of its content, the fact that an explanatory post was eventually produced was a good thing, because it showed that the management were, however belatedly, paying attention. The fact that both it and the original, contentious piece were deleted without comment shortly thereafter, by contrast, is a bad thing, because it shows that the management are not only indecisive, but ultimately uninterested in addressing the problem further. (And also, you know. You can find them both here.)

tl;dr – If you fuck up in public, own it, and if you’re absolutely compelled to delete something or close comments, explain your reasoning where people can see it. Otherwise, you’re just going to look like you’re sweeping the whole thing under the rug, on account of how this is exactly what you’re doing.

*Which is, among many other reasons, why I get incandescently shitty at people who go around saying things like, “If you’ve ever negatively reviewed a book I agented/published/edited or which was written by someone I like, or whatever the fuck combination of those things applies in context, then I’m never going to blurb you/hire you/edit you/publish you, because YOU WERE MEAN TO MY FRIEND AND HATE EVERYTHING I LOVE AND OUR TASTE IS INCOMPATIBLE FOREVER.” Because, dude. The Venn diagram of “things I like” versus “things you like” is not required by law to be a perfect fucking circle in order for us to have some seriously awesome common ground. I mean, yes: if someone disses a thing you love, you are not required to like them, or their work, or whatever. Some things are more important to us than other things. I get it. But if your base level of artistic interaction at a professional level is to try and recruit only people who like absolutely everything you like – or rather, given the statistical impossibility of this, only people who are sufficiently afraid of censure and/or nice to the point of stifling their own critical opinions to keep from expressing any, whether publicly or privately – then that, to me, is exactly the kind of mentality that leads to the mass publication of problematic, unoriginal, samey-samey stories that are pretty soon forgotten. If all you want is an echo-chamber for your own opinions, go shout them loudly in a tiled bathroom. But for the love of dog, quit pretending that people can’t have meaningful critical differences in taste and still have artistic commonalities, strong friendships, or positive working relationships.

3 July 2013, ETA: With no explanation, both posts are now back up at the Jo Fletcher Books Blog. So, there’s that.

Trigger warning: some talk of rape.

“You’re not friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love ’till it kills you both. You’ll fight, and you’ll shag, and you’ll hate each other ’till it makes you quiver, but you’ll never be friends. Love isn’t brains, children, it’s blood – blood screaming inside of you to work its will. I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.”

- Spike,  Lover’s Walk (S3E8)

To me, the above quote is one of the single best speeches in all of Buffy – it might even be my personal favourite. In his lone appearance in S3, Spike is forced into a brief alliance with Buffy and the newly-returned Angel, and instantly sees through their claims to be “just friends”. Superficially, then, his response is not only the emotional denouement of the episode, but a comment on their relationship.

Only, here’s the thing: Buffy and Angel do become friends. Their love has already reached its big romantic climax. Buffy has fought with Angelus, not Angel; they’ve only had sex once (the events of I Will Remember You are reversed, and therefore don’t count); and though they argue down the line, they don’t ever hate each other. The relationship Spike is describing doesn’t exist.

Or rather, it does – but not between Buffy and Angel. This entire speech is a neat foreshadowing of everything that happens between Buffy and Spike. They’re not friends; they never were. Buffy dies being loved by Spike – he collapses in grief at the loss – and then later, after she says she loves him, Spike dies for Buffy in turn. They fight and shag constantly through S6 – sometimes simultaneously – and frequently state their hatred for one another before then: in fact, this is the exact progression of events in Smashed and Wrecked, when they first have sex. In Dead Things, we even see them stand on opposite sides of the same door, reaching for each other, each one yearning against their better judgement – blood screaming inside them to work its will, while Out Of This World by Bush plays eerily in the background. When it comes to Buffy, Spike is unashamedly love’s bitch. This speech will never not be about them.

Buffy and Spike is my crackship. Not because they’re impossible together, but because they should be – and because, like crack, they’re unhealthily addictive.

Their relationship is every possible flavour of fucked up. From the moment Spike first shows up in S2, they’re enemies – but when Angelus tries to end the world, it’s Spike who helps Buffy defeat him. In S4, despite their mutual loathing, we go down the rabbit hole of their relationship twice – once in Something Blue, when Willow’s magic forces them together, and then again in Who Are You, where Faith flirts with Spike while wearing Buffy’s body, and we realise he’s equal parts angry and aroused at the prospect. In Goodbye Iowa, he even refers to Buffy as Goldilocks – a term of endearment he uses again in S6′s Gone, when the usage prompts Buffy to cut her hair short. But it’s not until S5′s Out of My Mind that he realises he loves her: a dream-revelation that throws him awake with a whispered, “Oh god, no. Please, no.” (Love isn’t brains, children.)

Some of what Spike does is deeply gross (the Buffybot) or outright indefensible (his abortive rape attempt) – and yet, I keep coming back to their relationship; as broken and dysfunctional as it is, it’s nonetheless compelling. Even now, I still can’t decide whether every loving, useful thing Spike does while unsouled – withstanding torture to protect Dawn, fighting on Buffy’s side, comforting her when nobody else even knows what’s wrong – either outweighs or is outweighed by those two awful, terrible things. Because, here’s the thing: we don’t blame Angel for the crimes he commits as Angelus. His soulless personality is so different to his human one that it’s easy to view them as a flipswitch binary: he’s either one or the other. Angel has a romantic relationship with Buffy; Angelus wants to torture, abuse and kill her. But Spike is much more ambiguous. His emotional evolution starts while he’s still unsouled, to the point where loving Buffy prompts him to get his soul back. He’s so horrified by his actions in Seeing Red – the rape attempt – that, in his own words, he makes himself into the man she deserves: someone whose conscience would render him incapable of sexual violence.

And I just… OK. It’s impossible, literally impossible, to get away from the rape attempt (though apparently the fact that Xander did the same thing in S1′s The Pack is both forgiven and forgotten). You can’t ignore or downplay it, and while you can try and contextualise it for the purposes of discussing both Spike’s character and his relationship with Buffy, that still doesn’t change what he did. Thematically, though, there’s something significant in the fact that Spike stops himself – that he regains himself mid-assault, realises what he’s doing, and goes immediately to get his soul back. Because when Angel turns into Angelus after he and Buffy sleep together, the whole narrative becomes a metaphor for the fact that sometimes, men change once they’ve slept with you – they turn into monsters, and you’re left to pick up the pieces. It’s a theme that’s reiterated when Parker turns out to be a colossal douche, and to a lesser extent, when Riley starts seeing vampire gals on the side. Men turn into monsters, but overwhelmingly in the Buffyverse, they refuse to acknowledge it – except for Spike, who not only admits what he is, but actively tries to change.

See, the problem with Angel/Angelus being two extremes of a binary personality is that Angel is never held accountable (or at least, not by Buffy) for the things he does as Angelus. We never see him apologise: not for the way he treats her while evil, not for Miss Calendar’s death, none of it. Despite the fact that Angel’s whole redemptive arc is predicated on actively atoning for his vampire crimes, he still behaves as though it was all beyond his control. He doesn’t apologise for what he does to Buffy, because he’s not the one who did it – yet even if we consider that to be technically true, it still seems reasonable to expect him to seek forgiveness. Parker, however, has no such excuse: he’s a classic user, a weasel who avoids responsibility for his actions by claiming his motives were always obvious – that Buffy, or whichever girl he’s left broken-hearted, has simply misunderstood him. And then there’s Riley, whose response to being caught cheating is to issue an unbelievably selfish ultimatum: either Buffy can decide immediately that she still wants him around, in which case he’ll make an effort to earn back her trust, or she can stay angry and lose him forever. The speech that Xander gives Buffy at this point to convince her that Riley ought to stay is infuriating. He’s 1% right, in the sense that fairness doesn’t enter into it – Riley has given her an ultimatum, and as sucky as that is, she can’t abstain from making a decision – but given how incredibly shitty a thing Riley’s done by putting her in that position, he really doesn’t deserve Xander’s understanding; he certainly doesn’t deserve Buffy’s. And despite his denials, it’s clear his real issue with Buffy is her greater strength: she didn’t need his protection, he felt insecure as a result, and when presented with an easy out – flying away to the Amazon if his demands weren’t met, instead of staying to make things right – he takes it.

And then there’s Spike.

He apologises for the Buffybot; he openly admits that he’s a monster. After his assault on Buffy, the first thing he does is try to redeem himself, because unlike every other man she’s ever slept with, he admits he’s done something wrong, and that he, Spike, is the culprit. And it’s not silent redemption, either: the guilt drives him mad, and when he comes back at the start of S7, not only the audience, but Buffy herself is left in no doubt that what he’s done – regaining his soul – has been an act of atonement: that he’s given himself a conscience, punished himself physically and mentally, and returned with no expectation of forgiveness to offer what help he can. And that, I think, despite everything, is at the core of why I keep coming back to Buffy and Spike’s relationship, why I can’t let go of it: as brutally fucked up as their history is, and despite the fact that Spike’s assault is arguably* the worst thing any partner has ever done to her, he’s also the only parter to accept responsibility for his actions, and to try and directly atone for them. Spike learns because of Buffy; he becomes a better man – or a better monster – through loving her, and I don’t think that’s true of any of the others; even Angel.

And speaking of Angel: sit down and think for a moment about the basis for their relationship. S1 is only twelve episodes long. Angel doesn’t appear in all of them, and most of the time, his presence is fleeting. He and Buffy don’t even kiss until episode 7, and two episodes later, we’re meant to believe he’s in love with her – and while we later learn he’s been watching her quietly ever since she was called (which is incredibly creepy and stalkerish), the short timeframe strongly implies that her love of him is a youthful infatuation, at least initially. They’re together for a while, but a bit more than halfway through S2, he turns evil, and Buffy sends him to hell. When he returns in S3, he isn’t back on the field (so to speak) until about episode 7 – prior to that, he’s recovering. Though they get back together soon afterwards, when Joyce speaks to Angel about the “hard choices” he and Buffy have ahead of them, he breaks it off with her – and as sensible as that decision ultimately is, the way he goes about it doesn’t sit well with me. However immature Buffy was at the start of their relationship, she’s grown up enormously by that point, and instead of treating her like an adult – someone capable of knowing her own mind and making her own decisions – he takes the choice away from her, effectively dumping her for her own good. This is something he does again by returning in S4 without letting her know he’s there, and it’s also something we later see Riley do, too: indulging in paternalistic, overprotective behaviour despite her superior strength and emotional autonomy.

A sidenote here about Xander: I cannot even begin to express how much it bothers me that his rape attempt from S1′s The Pack is never addressed in the narrative. Despite remembering everything he did while under the influence of the hyena spirit, Xander feigns amnesia in order to dodge the consequences of his actions, putting him on the same page as Angel, Parker and Riley. Never mind the fact that, at this point – which is to say, four episodes into the first season – he and Buffy have known each other for all of a month or so, and that realistically, if a guy you’d known for such a short amount of time sexually assaulted you while in an altered state,  it ought to make you wary of him afterwards at the very least. But this doesn’t happen, which I take to be an enormous failure on the part of the writers. The fact that Spike’s assault is more forceful then Xander’s doesn’t detract from the vileness of the sentiment – nor, indeed, from the fact that, whereas Spike regains his senses mid-struggle and stops himself, Xander has to be physically incapacitated by Buffy. But despite the difference in their demonic aspects – Xander is possessed by a hyena spirit, while Spike is soulless – the two states nonetheless appear to be rather similar, in that both are guided by primal urges while still retaining their base personalities. It therefore seems a telling sign of Xander’s status as a Nice Guy that, whereas Spike seeks redemption for what he’s done while still soulless, Xander doesn’t so much as apologise even when back to normal. Xander, it seems, has less decency at times than someone who physically lacks a conscience.

Which is, I think, the best definition for vampirehood in the Buffyverse. Becoming a vampire invests you with bloodlust and demonic strength while stripping you of your conscience: what’s left is who you were before, but influenced by power and hunger and unfettered by consequences, which is the perfect explanation for Spike. In S5′s Crush, he’s implicitly likened to Quasimodo – a troubled outsider whose love for Esmerelda (that is, Buffy) can never be reciprocated, because his motivations in pursuing her are purely selfish – and yet, in the same conversation, we’re also invited to sympathise with him, for the sake of the effort he makes. Spike’s soullessness means that he’s without conscience, but unlike Quasimodo, he tries to grow one, and eventually succeeds by regaining his soul – but this being something of a chicken and egg dilemma, his attempts prior to that are equal parts creepy, misguided and genuinely touching. He makes a shrine to Buffy, furnished with clothes and photos stolen from her house. He tells her about Riley out of a mix of self-interest and real concern, but when he realises how deeply she’s been hurt by it, we see him express contrition and empathy. In S5′s Triangle, we even see him rehearsing apologies, complete with a dented box of chocolates. In Crush, he threatens her with death at Drusilla’s hands unless she confesses being attracted to him, but at the same time acknowledges how wrong his own feelings are. And when Glory captures and tortures him, he withholds the secret of Dawn’s identity at great personal cost, because he knows how much her loss would hurt Buffy. Without recourse to a conscience, he’s pulled in different directions at once, trying to do the right thing but failing at least as often as he succeeds. The demon in him is selfish, lustful and possessive, but the good man, the poet, so long dormant, is fighting for control.

And then there’s the issue of the Buffybot. More than once in the course of the show, a character spurned or crossed in love resorts to magic or science as a way to regain control: Xander once, with his wildly destructive love spell in Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered; Warren twice, first with his own robot, April, and then with the enslavement, attempted rape and actual manslaughter of Katrina; Willow twice, first with her abortive attempt to curse Oz and Veruca, and then with her erasure of Tara’s memory; and Spike twice, once with his abortive plan to cast a love spell on Drusilla, and then again with the Buffybot. (And that’s before you count Anya’s work as a vengeance demon.) As skeevy and gross as the two sexbots are, for my part, I find them vastly less disturbing than Xander’s attempt to actually put Cordelia in his power – at least the robots aren’t real people. (We see from the Buffybot’s point of view in one episode, which was mechanical enough to convince me it lacks true sentience.) In fact, Xander’s spell is uncomfortably close to Warren’s plans for Katrina, in that both men actually used magic to try and control their ex-girlfriends; the fact that Xander never killed or raped anyone doesn’t put him that much ahead of the game when you consider not only how narrow his escape was, but the fact that he’s never really penalised for it. By contrast, Spike abandons his plan to curse Drusilla when he realises their split is his fault, not hers, an epiphany that Xander never has, and which stands as yet another instance of Spike admitting his faults and learning from his behaviour when other, ostensibly more moral characters fail to do so under similar circumstances.

There is, I suspect, a rather awful reason for this – and, indeed, for why Spike alone of all Buffy’s lovers and love interests accepts responsibility for his actions. It’s all down to narrative impetus: we, the viewers, are meant to sympathise with Xander, just as we’re meant to sympathise with Angel and Riley. At base, we “know” they’re all good guys, and as such, their contrition is implied. We don’t need to see them apologise, because the surrounding story is structured to suggest that they’ve already been forgiven off-camera. But Spike, by contrast, begins as a villain. His developmental arc is the most dramatic and varied in the whole show, culminating in a  radical heel face turn at the end of S6. We need to see his redemption, because otherwise, there’s no reason to believe that it’s taken place – and to an extent, this makes sense: if the audience can reasonably infer that something has happened, then it’s a waste of script and wordage to insert it. The problem is that, if the good guys never apologise on screen, then their goodness is called into question – which is why  the most fucked up relationship in the whole show is simultaneously the most equitable. Neither Buffy nor the audience can assume anything about Spike’s intentions that we aren’t actually shown, and as a result, he has to work the hardest out of anyone to be seen as good.

Thus: when Angelus is trying to end the world, Spike is trying to save it. When Xander is busy making threats and lying, Spike is saving Giles and keeping his promises. When Riley is out paying lady vamps to bite him, or sulking because Buffy’s had the temerity to put her own need to be strong ahead of his need to feel manly and protective, Spike is telling her the truth and offering quiet, undemanding support. When Willow and the others are smothering the newly resurrected Buffy, Spike gives her an out. And when absolutely everyone betrays her at the end of S7, it’s Spike alone who keeps faith with her. From villain to invalid to lovelorn drunk; from glowering menace to chaotic, defanged outsider; from frenemy to lover to ex; from assailant to madman to stalwart, both Spike’s personality and his relationship with Buffy undergo the most development in the whole show. He’s done some truly awful things, but when it really matters and everyone else has abandoned her, it’s always Spike, and Spike alone, who’s there to watch her back.

*I say arguably, because Angelus’s crimes are pretty horrific, too, and YMMV in terms of which you consider to be worse overall: there’s no sliding scale for evil, no definitive catalogue with which to determine their heinousness objectively.

Some thoughts on Buffy, in no particular order.

1.

There’s an alternating pattern to the season finales/big bads that I’ve never noticed before: it switches back and forth between a massive, apocalyptic threat that’s billed as such from the outset, and personal vendettas that slowly develop into something more dangerous. S1 is the Master (apocalypse); S2 starts out as Spike and Dru, but culminates with Angelus (personal); S3 is the Mayor (apocalypse); S4 starts out with Spike, but culminates with Adam and the Initiative (personal); S5 is Glory (apocalypse); S6 starts out with the Trio, but culminates in Dark Willow (personal); and S7 is the First Evil (apocalypse).

And the thing is, off the top of my head, I can’t think of another show that does this. Overwhelmingly, modern TV series seem obsessed with the notion that each successive season finale has to be bigger than the last, which eventually leads to melodrama and the collapse of the show, because you can only go so big before things get ludicrous (the Doctor Who reboot being a case in point). Which isn’t to say that Buffy doesn’t escalate – it does. But it does so gradually, interspersing the big events with more intimate drama, and that’s something I really appreciate about it. Apart from aiding character development, it establishes a strong narrative rhythm and builds the tension season by season without ever making the constant danger feel monotone. I wish more shows did the same thing, or at least mixed it up a bit.

2.

I hate Tara’s family. I hate them with a passion I reserve for few things in the Buffyverse, because for a show that’s all about fighting Evil with a capital E, there’s really a lot of moral ambiguity going on. Should we forgive Angel for the crimes he committed while Angelus on the grounds that he lacked a conscience and was therefore effectively a different person, or do we hold him accountable for everything he ever did? And if we forgive him, do we then forgive Spike his trespasses while unsouled on the same grounds, even though he was capable of enough actual goodness in the same state that he arguably should’ve known better? And so on, and so forth – the point being, however, that Tara’s family are monstrous without the excuse of actually being monsters. They raise her to believe she’s evil and demonic purely as a means of keeping a leash on her; she stutters and cringes around them, and the big reveal as to why they spent nineteen years trying to break her spirit? Then men in her family want her home, to cook and clean and keep house for them, because they’re misogynist, sexist asshats. Which makes me want to STAB ALL THE THINGS.

3.

As a corollary of the above: the episodes I find hardest to watch – the ones that provoke an actual, bodily response in me, so that I have to squinch* away from the television – are all episodes about the abuse, abandonment and gaslighting tactics of friends and family. Ted, Dead Man’s PartyGingerbreadFamily, Hell’s Bells and Seeing Red all squick me in ways that other episodes just don’t. Something I find intolerable both narratively and and in real life is false accusation: people being blamed or framed for something they didn’t do, especially in a situation where their ability to respond or defend themselves is compromised. It makes me physically sick and furious, and so I struggle with these stories. I might well do a fuller examination of them later, especially Dead Man’s Party, which is a special kind of fucked up.

4.

Every single POC character in the show – and it’s not like there are many – is either unlikeable or evil from the outset (Rona, Mr Trick), an ally who’s eventually revealed to be morally ambiguous at best or traitorous at worst (Robin Wood, Forest), or someone whose ethnicity/accent is played for laughs prior to their death (Chao-Ahn, Kendra, Hus) – or sometimes a combination of all three (the Inca Mummy Girl). This is so incredibly shitty, I cannot even. As many others have said before me: Joss Whedon might be great at white feminism, but his racefail is spectacular.

5.

As a character, Dawn is portrayed as annoying, juvenile, awkward and whiny, yet the reason for this is never really addressed. Early in S5, it’s strongly implied that Buffy struggles to get along with Dawn because, despite her false memories of their childhood together, she doesn’t actually have the personal development to go with it: even though she believes in their joint history, emotionally, she’s still at step one. It’s not until she learns that Dawn is the Key that Buffy is able to recognise her own irritation for what it is, and to try to curb it appropriately: the privilege of an only child grating at the sudden and jarring transition to sisterhood. But when Dawn realises what she is, the full ramifications are never addressed: that despite all her memories of growing up as a human girl, she’s still emotionally an infant. By the end of S7, Dawn is only three years old in real time, and so has been on the emotional learning trajectory of a toddler while simultaneously going through all the angst and physical development of early adolescence. This has got to be the suckiest combination ever, and when you add in all the accompanying traumas she experiences in that time – learning her memories are false, the death of her mother, Willow’s magic addiction, Tara’s death, the death and resurrection of Buffy, the threat of removal by child protective services, multiple apocalypses and kidnappings – the fact that she’s even vaguely well-adjusted at the end of it all is a fucking miracle.

So, yeah. Don’t be so hard on Dawn. In a show where pretty much every character gets the absolute shit kicked out of them on a regular basis, she still gets an incredibly raw deal – but unlike everyone else, her pain is regularly dismissed in-show as teenage melodrama, even by characters whose own broken, demon-filled adolescences should’ve left them with more sympathy. And in return, we hate her for it.

More thoughts later!

*Squinch is a word I made up to describe the reaction I have to things that make me uncomfortable. It’s a combination of squirm and flinch.

S4′s Hush is widely acknowledged to be an awesome episode of Buffy. The acting is wonderful, the arc and writing are strong, and the non-verbal characterisation and communication are both brilliant. As villains, the Gentlemen are not only hugely creepy, but iconic – so much so that, as I was watching, I came to the belated realisation that two of Steven Moffat’s original monsters in Doctor Who, the Silence and the Whispermen, are inarguably Gentlemen knockoffs. (He’s even copied Whedon’s trick of the fake-creepy nursery rhyme to describe them.) It’s definitely one of the strongest episodes overall, and one that I still really like.

But.

(You knew there’d be one.)

Two things really bothered me in this episode – jarringly so, because I’d never noticed them before, and because they were both unequivocally sexist.

Firstly, there’s the issue of Anya. Ever since she turned human in S3, something about her characterisation in general and her interactions with Xander in particular has been really bothering me, but it wasn’t until Hush that I was able to pin it down: she’s a sexist caricature. Though her directness, socially inappropriate behaviour and greed are all played as quirky demon-turns-human traits, they overwhelmingly manifest as exaggerated and stereotypically negative female behaviours. After going with Xander to prom, which constitutes their one and only date, she forms a disproportionately strong attachment to him, demanding to know about the state of their relationship and in all respects behaving like a clingy, obsessive stalker – which is played for laughs at her expense. Immediately after sleeping with Xander, she says ‘I’m over you’, then penalises him for expressing the same sentiment, thereby conforming to the stereotype of women who say the opposite of what they mean – which is played for laughs at her expense. And then, in Hush, when she once again asks Xander about their relationship, he turns to her and says, ‘You really did turn into a real girl, didn’t you?’ – confirming the fact that her commitment anxiety, irrational mood-swings, demands that Xander buy her things, and nagging, attention-seeking behaviour are not only deemed to be inherently feminine traits, but are also viewed as negative because they’re female. Which, as ever, is played for laughs at her expense.

And I just. This skeevs me out and pisses me off so much, because even though Anya develops into an awesome character, these basic elements of her personality are always there to some extent, and they’re invariably painted as grounds for someone to mock or laugh at her. There are plenty of ways to portray her misunderstanding of human convention that don’t hinge on exaggerated sexist stereotypes, and given that Xander – Xander, King of Nice Guys and Insecure Masculinity, whose issues I’ll be blogging about in the future – is the one who helps her grow into a Real Human by socialising and correcting her, frequently by belittling her in front of other people? This is a serious problem.

Secondly: this is the episode where Willow first meets Tara at her Wiccan group, whose other members are portrayed as being anti-magic and generally ignorant. And… OK. It’s potentially a very cool idea! But here’s where it doesn’t work for me: the Wiccan group, instead of being about magic, is very clearly shown to be a feminist, pro-sisterhood organisation – or at least, they are on paper. They talk about empowerment and getting the word out to the sisters, and when Willow brings up the idea of actual magic, she’s chided for buying in to negative stereotypes. So, feminism, yes?

Only, no. The girl who rebukes Willow does so very passive-aggressively, in a way that portrays no sisterhood at all. But her treatment of Tara is even worse: despite the fact that Tara is visibly shy and stutters when speaking, the Wiccan group-leader mocks her, calls for quiet so Tara can speak (which is clearly a silencing tactic, designed to make her back down – which she does) and expresses sarcastic amazement at the idea that Tara might have anything to contribute. It’s clear from the way this is done that she – and, indeed, the others, who laugh along with her – have a pre-existing dislike of Tara, though we’re not told why. And I get what this scene is meant to do: in the Buffyverse, magic really exists, so the idea of Wiccans who think it’s fake is obviously comic. But here, in the real world occupied by the audience, there’s no such thing as magic – so what we’re left with is a scene that not only mocks as ignorant an overtly feminist group, but portrays its members as catty and cruel. Which, I’m sorry, but no.

And lest someone make the argument that, well, not every episode in the season was written by Whedon personally, so obviously some sexism still squeaked through? No. Hush is written by Joss alone; and believe me, as uncritical a fan as I used to be of his stuff – and even though I still love the vast majority of it – man are there some serious issues with what he does. UGH.

Warning: all the rant.

As someone who talks a lot about sexism in general, but particularly with reference to SFF and fandom, I’m often frustrated by the fact that many people either don’t understand what sexism is, or actively disagree that it still goes on: not just because their lack of understanding makes it harder to explain why Hollywood’s predisposition towards failing the Bechdel test is symptomatic of wider social problems (for instance), but because it means that, more often than not, before I can discuss the issue at hand – be it the treatment of women in gaming or the insertion of unnecessary sex scenes into HBO’s adaptation of Game of ThronesI’m forced to run through the conversational equivalent of Sexism 101 in order to get my interlocutor onside. Now, being as how much of modern sexism is insidious and subtle, up to a point, I’m fairly sympathetic to being unaware of it: after all, I was in that position once, too, and no matter how repetitive it gets, you still need people who are willing to explain the basics. There are occasions, however, when my sympathy runs right the hell out, as does my patience – usually because someone has said something so fundamentally wrongheaded, point-missing and downright useless that there aren’t enough tableflipping GIFs in the world to adequately sum up my emotional response.

This is one of those times.

Behold, then, this hot mess of a post on sexism – or rather, on the author’s complete and utter misapprehension of sexism – by someone called Sarah of Bookworm Blues guest-posting at Fantasy Book Cafe. Straight away, the piece sets alarm bells ringing, beginning with the suggestion that:

While I’m sure sexism does exist in literature, I don’t actually think much of what people consider to be sexist is actually sexist.

Frankly, this is a big claim to be making, especially when prefaced by the admission that “sexism in fantasy… [is] not something I’ve really thought about before”. As this recent reprint of a 1982 article by science fiction writer Susan Shwartz can attest, sexism in SFF is something we’ve been talking about for decades now, and while that certainly doesn’t preclude a newcomer from having valid opinions on the subject, if you start out by saying that most of the existing dialogue is wrong, then you’d damn well better be able to show your working.

Alas, not only doesn’t Sarah understand what’s meant by sexism in SFF, her interpretation of the concept is so confused that it’s actually quite difficult to formulate an intelligent response. For instance: throughout the article, she continually reiterates the threefold idea that, according to some people, men and women write differently; that authors can’t write characters of the opposite gender with any degree of skill; and that women are more emotional writers, while men are more action-oriented – all of which she apparently disagrees with (and rightly so). The problem, however – and I’m struggling to even articulate this, because it makes so little sense – is that Sarah seems to think that this opinion is held by people who say there’s sexism in SFF; which is to say, the exact group of people who think these ideas are bullshit. This isn’t a case of me misunderstanding her argument: it’s literally what she appears to be saying. To quote:

After I had the discussion about sexism in SFF with that author, I became a lot more aware of people accusing authors of being sexist, or saying an author couldn’t write some character properly because the author was of the opposite gender. It actually shocked me how much of that sort of dialogue is floating around that I’ve never really been aware of before… 

I think people are a little mixed up. That’s the crux of it. It seems to be a common belief that women are more emotional and character driven than men and men are more obsessed with action and adventure. Then there is a common belief that because an author is male/female they can’t properly write a character of the opposite gender because they aren’t of that gender and thus, just don’t get it.

Almost – almost! – I can parse the logicfail here. Sarah has, I suspect, seen male authors criticised for sexist representations of female characters, possibly with involvement of the phrase ‘male gaze’, and taken this to mean that, in the eyes of the person doing the criticising, men are inherently bad at writing women Because Gender. This isn’t even an oversimplification of the actual issue, which is the poor depiction of female characters by authors whose exposure to a culture that traditionally relegates women to either secondary or highly stereotyped roles in narrative has resulted in their automatic usage of sexist tropes; rather, it’s a catastrophic conflation of the critic’s position with the position they’ve set out to criticise. Thus: while some people certainly do believe that women can’t properly write men, and vice verse, this is itself a sexist belief, not the default assertion of those who call out sexism. Her misunderstanding is so total, it’s like she’s come across a group of soccer fans complaining about people who hate soccer, and come to the conclusion that they must hate it, too.

Underscoring Sarah’s confusion is her repeat assertion that an author’s gender doesn’t matter, and that focusing on it is therefore meaningless. To quote again:

“I have never sat back and thought, “Well, since she’s a woman, her writing is different than a man’s because (insert reasons here).”…  I don’t think of authors as male and female in more than an observational way. The gender of an author doesn’t matter to me in the least. It has zero impact on the quality of their writing. Monet was a man who painted more water lilies than any other human being who has ever lived. Being a man had absolutely no impact on his ability to paint them.

I agree, Sarah! An author’s gender doesn’t impact the quality of their writing in any way whatsoever. But it can certainly impact on how their writing is treated by others - which is why, to take just one example, many female SF writers are still encouraged to take male pseudonyms, the better to counteract the sexism of readers who, whether consciously or unconsciously, assume that men are naturally better at SF. To borrow your example, Monet didn’t paint great lillies because he was male, but his gender certainly afforded him the opportunity to paint in a way that was denied to women. Similarly, when it comes to the impact of authorial gender on content, it’s not a question of whether our sexual biology or gender identity has some inherent, magical quality that necessarily infiltrates our writing and betrays who we are: instead, it’s a question of privilege, and the extent to which it influences our perception of other people. Like it or not, the vast bulk of Western society is geared so heavily towards the promotion and support of straight white men that, somewhat unsurprisingly, its associated narratives – whether movies, TV shows or novels – are rife with limiting, negative and prejudicial portrayals of women, POC and QUILTBAG persons. Thus: when a male writer perpetuates said stereotypes – perhaps via the inclusion of female characters who exist only to sleep with the hero – his gender becomes a relevant consideration in why he thought this would be an acceptable story to tell, because socially sanctioned sexism has told him, over and over again, that it is.

I wish that was all the article got wrong; instead, it gets worse. To quote again:

If an author portrays a female character as physically weaker than their male counterpart, they aren’t being sexist; they are probably being realistic. I will use myself as an example. I can’t lift more than twenty pounds on a good day. That doesn’t make me weak, nor does it mean that I’m weak because I’m a woman… I’m physically weak but I’m strong in many other ways and the fact that I’m a woman has nothing to do with it. There are plenty of men out there with the same disorder I have, and they are just as physically limited as I am. Portraying a character with certain limitations and other strengths doesn’t make an author sexist, as so many are fond of exclaiming. It makes them realistic.

Christ on a bicycle. This has got to be the worst and most fatally literal interpretation of the phrase ‘strong female characters’ I’ve ever seen. Listen: setting aside the fact that it’s entirely possible for women to be stronger than men, when critics talk about ‘weak’ female characters, we’re not talking about physical strength, but about the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the characterisation, and the extent to which it adheres to prejudicial gender stereotyping. If the female characters have agency and read like actual people, I don’t give a shit how much they can lift, because it doesn’t matter – but if the author has (for instance) written a swooning, helpless princess whose emotional weaknesses are metaphorically emphasised in a scene where she tries and fails to lift the hero’s sword, then yeah: I’m going to call shenanigans.

What bothers me about these conversations is that they seem to divide people more than unite them. When we focus on how genders affect an author’s ability to write, we highlight differences more than similarities, and we help cement old, often unnoticed habits of categorizing authors based on the kind of underwear they wear…

Sexism? Yeah, it exists, but I think the way to truly overcome any gender bias is to get rid of these gender-focused discussions. We need to focus on quality, rather than plumbing.

Let me get this straight: the way to get rid of sexism is to stop talking about gender? That’s like saying that the way to prevent STDs is to stop talking about sex: in both instances, the latter concept is integral to any meaningful discussion of the former problem, such that omitting it would render the entire exercise moot. And don’t even get me started on the pervasive cissexism of constantly defining gender in terms of plumbing and underwear: the issue at hand concerns brains, not bodies, and trying to boil it all down to descriptions of bits is both childish and incredibly problematic.

There’s more I could say about the article, but ultimately, it all amounts to the same thing: that the writer has committed an act of misunderstanding so profound that I’m tempted to call it willful, and in so doing further muddied the waters about what sexism is, and why discussing it matters. Instead, I’m just exhausted – angry, bored and exhausted – with the terrible, sickening ignorance of it all. Calling out sexism isn’t about cementing old habits or promoting gender warfare; it’s about, you know. Calling out sexism, on account of the fact that sexism is fucking awful. The point being, if you honestly can’t distinguish between “some people think men and women write differently” and “the idea that men and women write differently is sexist”, then I really don’t know what to do with you – and so, for the moment, I’ll leave it at that.

Warning: All The Spoilers, much rant.

Far back in the mists of time – which is to say, in April 2011 – I reviewed Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, a deeply problematic film which, despite its apparently noble intentions, succeeded only in replicating and reinforcing the selfsame sexist, exploitative tropes it ostensibly meant to subvert. Similarly, in August last year, I weighed in on the controversy surrounding Victoria Foyt’s Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden, a self-published YA novel whose deeply problematic use of racist language and imagery overwhelmingly outweighed its stated goal of “turn[ing] racism on its head”, a dissonance which was further compounded by Foyt’s equally problematic responses to her critics. And now, by way of kicking off 2013, I’m going to review Lev Grossman’s The Magicians,  a novel which, while certainly not as egregious in its awfulness as either Foyt or Snyder’s work, fails in a conspicuously similar manner, viz: by unconsciously perpetuating exactly the sort of objectionable bullshit it was (one assumes) intended to critique.

In a nutshell, then: The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater, a privileged, clever yet disaffected youth with a deep-seated sense of entitlement and a private longing for the magical, fictional world of Fillory, a wholly unsubtle Narnia substitute. Aged seventeen, Quentin is diverted away from Princeton and selected instead to learn real magic at the exclusive Brakebills College, aka Hogwarts For Assholes, where he spends five years being oblivious and dissolute while becoming progressively more awful, and very occasionally encountering things that are relevant at the finale. After graduating, he and his equally unlikable friends live a pointless, overindulgent life in Manhattan  until a former classmate shows up with the news that Fillory is real; on travelling there, the young magicians  encounter a terrible enemy whose defeat is only achieved at the expense of one of their lives. Horribly wounded, Quentin is left to recuperate in Fillory while his remaining friends bugger off home; eventually, he returns to Earth, abandons magic and gets a desk job – right up until his friends return and convince him to come back to Fillory as a co-regent king, at which point he flies out a window to join them. The End.

Despite being well-written, from a purely technical standpoint, The Magicians is a structural mess, being simultaneously too rushed and too flabby: there’s simply too much happening that doesn’t actually matter, like welters games and the South Pole trip, and while Grossman does his best to skip us swiftly through Quentin’s five years at Brakebills, the fact is that, in a novel which boasts no meaningful secondary plots, it’s not until page 348 of 488 that the characters actually enter Fillory – meaning, by implication if not intent, that the first three quarters of the novel function as little more than an increasingly tedious prologue. As a narrative gambit, this could still have worked if Grossman had used those early sections to focus on solid characterisation, or if anything Quentin learned at school proved relevant in the final, climactic battle. Instead, the secondary characters – yearmate and eventual girlfriend Alice, punk rival Penny, and senior libertines Eliot, Janet and Josh – are barely fleshed out beyond a bare minimum of backstory and a few offhand eccentricities, while in the end, it’s Penny who finds the way into Fillory and Alice who dies to defeat the villain. Quentin, by contrast, winds up a passenger in his own story, contributing nothing meaningful (or at least, nothing useful) despite his apparent specialness and remaining, from go to woe, a thoroughly passive character. Which begs the question: why did Grossman feel the need to show Quentin’s entire tertiary education before letting him go to Fillory? Why, when so little time is spent on characterisation or building a sensible magic system – the latter’s fundamentals are purposefully vague and glossed-over, so that despite the amount of time Quentin spends in classrooms, it’s never really apparent what he’s actually learning, while two new characters, Anais and Richard, are introduced well after the halfway mark for no readily apparent reason – was it necessary to prolong the trip between worlds?

The answer, I suspect, has to do with the story’s moral; or at least, with what one might reasonably construe to be the moral, or the point, or whatever you’d like to call it. As a character, Quentin’s developmental trajectory is that of a disaffected, selfish, horny teenager transitioning into a disaffected, selfish, sexist adult, and while the ending eventually reveals these characteristics to have been deliberate authorial choices, early on, it’s harder to tell whether Grossman realises just how unsympathetic his protagonist really is. Once Quentin graduates from Brakebills, in fact, it’s like a switch has been flipped: whereas before it was possible to attribute most of his failings to youthful, privileged obliviousness, once freed from the confines of college, his bad behaviour escalates dramatically, leaving little doubt that we, the audience, are meant to identify it as such. For all his dissatisfaction with various aspects of his life,  it never occurs to Quentin that he might be the cause of it; always, he assumes his own unhappiness to be either the result of some fundamental flaw in how the world works, or else the fault of some specific person. This lack of self-awareness is key to his passivity: instead of trying to change things, he waits for the problem, whatever it is, to fix itself, and then feels misunderstood and thwarted when his misery remains. Only his affection for Fillory remains constant – Fillory, the perfect other world into which, despite all the magic of his everyday existence, he still secretly yearns to escape. But even once he arrives there, Quentin is still unhappy, prompting a furious Alice to utter what is arguably the novel’s Big Reveal:

“‘I will stop being a mouse, Quentin. I will take some chances. If you will, for just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.’

‘You can’t just decide to be happy.’

‘No, you can’t. But you can sure as hell decide to be miserable. Is that what you want? Do you want to be the asshole who went to Fillory and was miserable there? Even in Fillory? Because that’s who you are right now.’”

Quentin struggles to understand this point, but later, once he’s returned to Earth after Alice’s death, the lesson hits home:

“In different ways they had both discovered the same truth: that to live out childhood fantasies as a grown-up was to court and wed and bed disaster.”

And thus, the moral: that wherever you go, you take yourself with you, such that trying to cure your unhappiness by forever yearning after idealised childhood fantasies is doomed to terrible failure. Having vanished into Fillory, the novel’s villain, Martin Chatwin – formerly thought by Quentin to be a fictional character – became the only one of his siblings to stay there forever, an escape which Quentin had always privately envied. But Martin has become a monster, making terrible pacts for power and peace, and all for want of the necessary strength to live in the real world. For an SFF novel, then, this seems to be a particularly cutting message: by first making Quentin an identifiable character for exactly the sort of passive loner stereotypically associated with fandom, and then morphing him into a bitter, unhappy, sexist whose problems stem almost entirely from his lack of self-awareness and his uncritical love of Fillory/Narnia, Grossman is arguably passing negative judgement on a large portion of his own readership, rebuking their drive for escapism as little more than a sign of selfish immaturity. Or at least, if that’s not the intended moral – which is still possible, given that the story ends with Quentin’s return to Fillory – then it certainly ups the ante for the rest of the novel’s problems.

Because however actively or subtly Grossman is trying to critique the sense of entitlement felt by a particular subset of sexist male fans, The Magicians is still saturated with such a high level of background offensiveness that, more often than not, it serves to reinforce exactly the sort of problematic behaviour that it ostensibly means to debunk. Most obviously – and most prominently, as a female reader – is the overwhelmingly negative treatment of women. As I had early cause to observe, most every female character Quentin encounters is unnecessarily sexualised, and often in such a way as to diminish their competence. This isn’t just a consequence of being in Quentin’s point of view; as an attitude, it seeps into the background narration, such that his observations become indistinguishable from Grossman’s. At the most basic level, this resolves itself into a fixation with breasts in particular; we hear about them with just enough regularity to become complacently problematic, so that by the end of the novel, we’ve dealt with the following descriptions:

“…the radiant upper slopes of her achingly full and gropable breasts…” - page 77.

“… he was suddenly aware of her full breasts inside her thin, high-necked blouse.” - page 117.

“At one point one of her slight breasts wandered out of her misbuttoned cardigan that she wore with nothing under it; she tucked it back in without the slightest trace of embarrassment.” – page 252.

“She was whole, thank God, and naked – her body was slim, her breasts slight and girlish. Her nails and nipples were pale purple.” – page 355.

“As he watched she bent over the map, deliberately smooshing her tit into Dint’s shoulder as she did so.” – 405

“The back of her blouse gaped palely open… he could see her black bra strap, which had somehow survived the operation.” – page 409.

“She wore a tight black leather bustier that she was in imminent danger of falling out of.” – page 486.

And that, of course, is just the breasts; there’s plenty of sexualised but largely unnecessary references to other female body parts, too. Add it all together – and compare the prevalence of same to the absence of comparable male descriptions, with the possible exception of a giant’s penis – and you have a story that’s irrevocably written in the male gaze, not just as a consequence of having a straight male protagonist, but because this is what Grossman has chosen to highlight. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the male gaze as a literary device, but in a book which is attempting, at least in part, to critique sexism, deploying a variant of the male gaze that focuses wholly on female bodies in a context utterly disconnected from their value as people – and which is never actively acknowledged, let alone flagged as negative – cannot help but be problematic. And then there’s the use of pejorative, sexualised language and gendered insults to contend with, as per the following examples:

“Merits are for pussies,’ he said.” - page 52.

“…Janet got shriller and pushier about the game, and her shrill pushiness became less endearing. She couldn’t help it, it was just her neurotic need to control everything…” - page 152.

“‘Emma wasn’t a cow,’ Josh said. ‘Or if she was, she was a hot cow. She’s like one of those wagyu cows.’” - page 228.

“‘That’s what she wants everybody to think! So you won’t realise what a howling cunt she is!’” - page 237.

“‘If that bothers you, Georgia,’ Fogg said curtly, ‘then you should have gone to beauty school.’” - page 269.

“‘Quentin,’ she said, ‘you have always been the most unbelievable pussy.’” - page 306.

“‘Don’t you fucking speak to me!’ She slapped wildly at his head and shoulders with both hands so that he ducked and put up his arms. ‘Don’t you even dare talk to me, you whore! You fucking whore!’” - page 309.

“She was right, a thousand times right, but if he could just make her see what he saw – if she could only put things in proper perspective. Fucking women.”  – page 311.

“‘Oh, come on Quentina. We’re not looking for trouble.’” - page 333.

“Asshole. That slutty nymph was right. This is not your war.” - page 409.

“‘That bloody cunt of a Watcherwoman is still at it, with her damned clock-trees.’” - page 434.

Subtler and more pervasive than all of this, though, is the extent to which Quentin passes negative judgement on the sexuality of the women around him – which is to say, more or less constantly. That might be written off as part of his obnoxious personality, but as with so much else, Grossman seems unable to keep from speculating beyond those bounds. Janet’s sexual choices are frequently scrutinised; within moments of meeting a female Fillory resident, Quentin judges her to be a lesbian on no greater basis than her hair and clothes; it’s even suggested that Anais has somehow managed to sleep with a male stranger while the group is busy exploring a tomb. And then there’s Quentin’s habit of blaming the women around him for his own choices. Unhappy with Alice, he blames her for his bad decisions; having cheated on Alice with Janet, he blames Janet for tempting him; for all the choices he makes in Fillory, he blames Jane for letting him go there. Surely, this just another consequence of his flawed personality; and yet he never seems to blame any men for the things that go wrong in his life. For Quentin, women are always the ones at fault, and it’s this fact, rather than his penchant for blaming others, which reads as unconscious bias.

The sex, too, is deeply problematic, not least because Quentin’s first time with Alice takes place when both of them have, along with all their classmates, been transformed into arctic foxes – something their (male) instructor has cooked up as a way for the group of horny teenagers to let off steam while studying at the bleak South Pole. But what’s never discussed is the issue of consent this raises; or rather, the lack thereof. “He caught a glimpse of Alice’s dark fox eyes rolling with terror and then half shutting with pleasure,” we’re told of their union on page 191 – and somehow, miraculously, despite having betrayed no obvious interest in Quentin before – nor he in her, apart from the single requisite instance of noticing her breasts – they end up in a relationship not long afterwards. There’s never any talk about whether this encounter constitutes rape, or whether it did for any of the other students while turned into foxes; instead, and somewhat disturbingly, the incident leads Quentin to nickname Alice ‘Vix’, as in Vixen, though the sobriquet is only ever used once. Similarly, when we’re told on pages 193-194 that this same isolated class has started to indulge in orgies – “… they would gather in apparently arbitrary combinations, in an empty classroom or in somebody’s bedroom, in semi-anonymous chains, their white uniforms half or all the way off, their eyes glassy and bored as they pulled and stroked and pumped…”  – it feels like nothing so much as an unnecessary male fantasy, not least because, under the circumstances, nobody can possibly have any access to birth control. Doubtless, Grossman intended it as a throwaway line, but all it does it contribute to the subconscious sexism of the story: without wanting to divide his readership too sharply along gender lines, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine that more female readers than male were perturbed by the potential for unwanted pregnancies in this section.

Against this worrying backdrop, Quentin’s abysmal treatment of Alice is almost par for the course: clearly, his decision to sleep with Janet is a bad one preceded by plenty of warning signs, not least of all his own admission engaging in “manic flirting and pawing” (page 279) while out at parties. That he then blames Janet for his bad choices – “She’d sabotaged him and Alice, and she was loving it” (page 327) – is one thing, as is his earlier complaint that “if Alice had any blood in her veins she would have joined them” (page 291). This is clearly vile behaviour, and not even Quentin’s obliviousness to that fact is sufficient to conceal it from the reader. But once again, their relationship issues are grounded in a more subtle form of sexism, such as the fact that, even though Alice’s plans to study in Glasgow are effectively vetoed for Quentin’s sake – “the idea of being separated didn’t particularly appeal to either of them, nor did the idea of Quentin’s aimlessly tagging along with her to Scotland” (page 359) – there’s no awareness of the fact that she, in turn, has “put off the kind of civil-service appointment or research apprenticeship that usually ensnared  serious-minded Brakebills students so she could stay in New York with Quentin” (page 77): her sacrifice is simply taken for granted and never mentioned again, even when Quentin’s behaviour worsens.

Alice’s whole character, in fact, is a major strike against The Magicians: not just because she ends up stuffed in the fridge, which is a gross offence in and of itself, but because her relationship with Quentin is utterly unfathomable. In a series of implausible leaps, he goes from noticing her breasts, to thinking she smells “unbe-fucking-lievable” as a fox (and then mounting her), to wondering if he might love her, to their suddenly being together, after which he proceeds to treat her, on balance, very poorly indeed. Alice, though, is the stronger magician by far; what she sees in Quentin is a mystery, and even after he’s cheated on her, she ends up apologising to him for daring to sleep with Penny by way of revenge, saying, “I don’t think I understood how much it would hurt you” (page 404). And Quentin’s response? “‘Maybe you’ll do something one of these days instead of being such a pathetic little mouse all the time’” (page 405). Never mind that, of the two of them, Alice is the proactive one; she agrees with him about her mousiness, because that’s her role in the story: Grossman has written her in as Quentin’s love interest, and so she puts up with his crap above and beyond what her personality indicates she otherwise would or should. Quentin might not be a hero, but he’s still the protagonist, and in such a profoundly male gaze narrative, that means he gets the girl he wants for no better reason than that he wants her; that she dies saving his life from an enemy he summoned through sheer idiocy is hardly fair compensation.

There’s more I’d planned to say about the problems in The Magicians – about Grossman’s uncritical use of the words gimp, cripple and retarded; about the offhand and inappropriate treatment of Eliot’s sexual preferences;  about the weird, peculiar arrogance of alluding to Narnia and Hogwarts so crassly and overtly, as though the best way to deconstruct the complex issues surrounding either world is simply to populate them with scheming, selfish assholes; about every other instance of objectionable sexism that leapt out at me while reading, and which I dully noted down; about the incredibly lazy worldbuilding, handwaved early on in the piece as ultimately unimportant, yet still full of holes and fridge logic – but then I’d be here forever.  Clearly, I didn’t enjoy the book: though pacey and intriguing at the outset, the further I progressed with the narrative, the more I became fractious, bored and angry at the whole thing, as though I were being forced along on a lengthy, pointless car trip with unpleasant company on a hot day. I finished largely out of stubbornness, and to an extent, I’m glad I did, if only for the catharsis: various plot points left open in the early stages were closed out at the end, and at least now I can say I’ve read it. But even though Grossman’s actual writing style is clear and concise, his storytelling is not. The Magicians could easily have been a good 200 pages shorter without losing anything important, while the core conceit – that of sending a grown, troubled Fillory/Narnia fan into their beloved childhood world in order to force a confrontation with their own inadequacies – might well have made better fodder for a short story or novella than a novel.

And underpinning every other objection was the sexism; the pervasive sense that not only was Quentin mistreating, demeaning or otherwise objectifying every woman he encountered, but that Grossman’s own subconscious bias and investment in the male gaze was helping to normalise this bad behaviour rather than, as was hopefully his intention, critique it. Even once the full extent of Quentin’s flaws were revealed, I couldn’t help feeling that story was more concerned with perpetuating sexism at a background level than deconstructing it on a conscious one, and when combined with the other structural and narrative issues pervading the text, the overall reading experience was one of exasperation. As much praise as it’s received, therefore, and as much as I embarked on reading it in a spirit of hopeful optimism, The Magicians was a profound disappointment; I won’t be reading the sequel, and whatever else Grossman writes afterwards, I’ll be predisposed to view it with trepidation.