Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

write. write. write.

Posted: December 3, 2013 in Ink & Feather
Tags: , , , , ,

 So often I have the words, but lack the time.

So often I have the time, but lack the words.

So often I have the strength, but lack the will.

So often I have the will, but lack the strength.

 .

Words. Time. Strength. Will.

You need all four to write.

 .

Like clock hands, they might align predictably, but rarely.

Like dice rolls, they might align often, but unpredictably.

Like connecting trains, they might align both often and predictably.

Like weather phenomena, they might align both rarely and unpredictably.

 .

It doesn’t matter.

When you can, you write.

 .

Write slow and sweet, like a lingering kiss.

Write bitter and fast, like a burning house.

Write bitter and slow, like a killing frost.

Write fast and sweet, like a shooting star.

 .

Write with what’s in you.

Write with what isn’t.

 .

Write like your words can mend the unmendable.

Write like your words can break the unbreakable.

Write like your words can build the unbuildable.

Write like your words can destroy the indestructible -

 .

and one day, maybe,

they will.

 .

Words are bombs, my darlings.

They explode our hearts

and whether they do it with fireworks or shrapnel

is up to you.

I am so very tired, you guys.

I am tired, not of arguing in favour of equality, diversity and tolerance, but of having to explain, over and over and over again, why such arguments are still necessary, only to have my evidence casually dismissed by someone too oblivious to realise that their dismissal of the problem is itself a textbook example of the fucking problem. I am tired of being mocked by hypocrites who think that a single lazy counterexample is sufficient to debunk the fifteen detailed examples they demanded I produce before they’d even accept my point as a hypothetical, let alone valid, argument. I am tired of assholes who think that playing Devil’s advocate about an issue alien to their experience but of deep personal significance to their interlocutor makes them both intellectually superior and more rationally objective on the specious basis that being dispassionate is the same as being right (because if they can stay calm while savagely kicking your open wound, then clearly, you have no excuse for screaming). I am tired of seeing false equivalencies touted as proof positive of reverse sexism and racism by people who don’t understand that Lin punching Robin is not the same as Robin punching Lin if Robin is an adult pro-wrestler and Lin is a five-year-old child.

In short, I’m tired of being a female geek.

I am tired of hearing about sexual harassment and assault at conventions.

I am tired of the constant sexismracismbodyshamingharassment and belittlement faced by female cosplayers who are either deemed to be too pretty to be real geeks or not pretty enough to cosplay; who are exposed to racism and told hey’re asking to be sexually harassed by dint of wearing costumes that are overwhelmingly designed for male titillation.

I am tired of being told, either overtly or through oblivious privileged ramblings, that women make for bad writers; that we ruin genre with girl cooties, aren’t as good at proper literature, have no place in comics, shouldn’t play video games and make boring subjects in either case – which is why, whenever we do sit down and create stuff, we are reviewed less than menencouraged to adopt male pseudonyms, and frequently accosted with rape threats, death threats, bomb threats and graphic threats of pet mutilation (but then, that’s also how women are treated just for existing in the public eye). Also, we can’t review for shit - even commenting on geek culture can earn us rape threats - and if you happen to be a WOC, queer, trans, fat, disabled and/or anything other than straight, conventionally pretty and white, the amount of shit you’ll cop on a given day that intersects with of all this is astro-fucking-nomical.

I am tired of watching the trainwreck of godawful sexist and racist fuckery that is mainstream comics right now; tired of hearing about the elision of LGBTQ characters and the unrepentant vitriol of misogynistic fans.

I am tired of whitewashing, not just on book coversbut in far too many cinema adaptationsnoseriouslyI could do this all daywhat the fuck is wrong with people.

I am tired of hearing, yet again, that women don’t game; that when we do, we suck because we’d rather be out “shopping, gossiping and talking on the phone”, and are only doing it to try and impress men anyway; that sexismsexual harassment and rape culture are acceptable within gaming; and on, and on, and on.

I am even tired of writing this post, because there are hundreds, literally hundreds more links in my folders on these sorts of problems just in SFF alone, and that’s before I start talking about these issues in a broader social context. I am tired of arguing with people who cannot be fucking bothered to do the research, where “research” means “typing literally three fucking words into Google and reading what comes up”, and who instead leave angry, page-long rants in the comments any time they see someone make a reasonable fucking claim – like, for instance, that sexism still exists – without providing umpteen links to support that statement, even though spewing their poorly-reasoned vitriol all over the internet must take five times as long as actually looking that shit up to begin with.

I am so. fucking. tired.

But I am not giving up.

Sometimes, I read a thing, and despite whatever mixture of rage, incredulity, consternation and general agogness it provokes in me, I nonetheless manage to sit down, muster my thoughts in an orderly fashion, and write out a calm and cogent rebuttal.

Other times, I read a thing, and my entire brain explodes in a symphony of What The Actual Fuck in D Minor. When that happens, I still try to do the whole cogent rebuttal thing, but I don’t always succeed, and the end result usually involves swearing.

This would be one of those others times.

Behold this blog post by author Rod Rees, expressing his thoughts as to whether or not male authors can successfully write female characters. This is an important question, one that can and frequently does lead to interesting discussions about privilege, the male gaze, stereotypes and default narrative settings; that being said, my short answer is always going to be an unequivocal yes. Above and beyond the fact that many of my favourite fictional ladies are male creations, I strongly distrust gender essentialism in all its forms, and the idea that women are inherently different, unknowable creatures, such that we exist beyond the true comprehension of men, falls firmly into that category. So, from the outset, let me be clear: male authors are totally, 100% capable of writing a wide variety of awesome female characters, and many of them frequently do just that.

But Rod Rees, I suspect, is not among them.

The utter gobsmacking cluelessness of his approach to the matter can best be summed up in the following quote:

This brought to mind other criticisms. One woman commented on the scene where Odette (a character I introduced in The Demi-Monde: Spring) was admiring her breasts in a mirror by opining that ‘Women don’t do that!’ I was tempted to reply, ‘Oh, yes they do!’

OK. Look. As I’ve recently had occasion to say elsewhere, women are not a hivemind. No one woman speaks for all women. And obviously, men can have genuine insight into women as individuals that some women might not have. But part of that insight must necessarily come from listening to women, and especially on the topic of women themselves. So when Rees’s response to criticism on the topic of women, by a woman, is a straight-up desire to gainsay her – as though her lived experience of actually being a woman is automatically inferior to his observations of same? That, I’m prepared to say, is the TOTAL FUCKING OPPOSITE of a healthy, helpful attitude.

As for admiring our breasts in the mirror, some women certainly do that. Hell, I’d even go so far as to say it’s something I’ve done myself. But if I’m agreeing with Rees, then what’s the issue? The answer is twofold: first, his reaction to the criticism as outlined above; and second, the text of the actual passage in question, which it just so happens I’ve read. Because there’s a big, honking difference between showing someone doing something normally, and showing someone doing something normal in an exaggerated, problematic fashion – such as, to pick just one example, the difference between the way women actually eat salad, and the way we’re depicted eating salad in a disturbingly large number of advertisements. Which, once again, isn’t to say that no woman in the entire history of human civilisation has ever sat at home, alone, laughing manically while delicately lofting a piece of cos in the direction of her epiglottis – it’s just that, by and large, this isn’t what happens.

This is how Rees describes Odette at the start of The Demi-Monde: Spring:

Examining herself carefully in her looking glass, Odette Aroca decided that she made quite a striking Liberte. That she stood tall and proud… and that the breast she had exposed was full and plump, all meant that she was the living embodiment of the figure shown in Delacroix’s famous painting…

Moreover, the instructions had continued, the robe had to be cut so that the right breast – and it had to be the right breast, the UnScrewed Committee members were devils for detail – was unsheathed. ‘Tempting but Untouchable’ was to be the UnScreweds’ catchphrase, and for a woman like Odette this was good news. She regarded her breasts as her second- and third-best features, having, as was often remarked upon by her admirers – many of her regrettably few admirers – big breasts. But then Odette was a very big woman, so it was natural that she should have breasts to match her great height and her equally great girth. Still, never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Odette gave a wiggle and was pleased to see that her untethered breast jiggled in quite a charming fashion. 

Which is to say, he spends near as dammit two whole paragraphs describing her boobs in that telltale way invariably used by people without boobs of their own who are nonetheless possessed of a great interest in the boobs of others, viz: by using the language and phraseology of a sexually interested outsider, as opposed to the language and phraseology of someone who, regardless of their levels of self and sexual confidence, is talking about their own body. Because – and I’m speaking from experience, here – the idea of a woman who thinks that “her untethered breast jiggled in quite a charming fashion” is about seven different shades of ludicrous, never mind the “full and plump” part. More to the point, though: these are descriptions that Rees has actively chosen to incorporate into his narrative. We don’t need to hear a lengthy paean to Odette’s breasts in order to picture her physically, and we certainly don’t need one in order for the story to make sense, but we have them, because Rees likes boobs and thinks that his readers might like them, too. And that’s fine! It is totally cool that Rod Rees likes boobs, and wants to share his boob-love with the world. But that doesn’t mean that Odette’s thoughts about her breasts are any way realistic, and it certainly doesn’t mean that his decision to start the first paragraph of the first chapter with lots of gratuitous boobietalk isn’t going to look like a cheap, sensationalist ploy to grab the attention of male readers.

Returning, then, to Rees’s blog post, I find his apparent belief that male characters are typically the victims of more negative, pervasive stereotyping than female ones to be not only bizarre, but wildly inaccurate. He writes:

Female characters are, in my humble opinion… free of the limitations and pre-conceptions imposed by the curse of stereotype-itis that afflicts male characters. A male lead is beset by doubts and indecision and the appellation ‘weak’ heads his way: a female lead is beset by doubts and indecision and she is seen as ‘sensitive’. A male character panics in the face of adversity and he’s one step away from being labelled ‘a coward’; a female character does the same thing and she thought of as a pragmatist. A male character charges unthinkingly into a perilous situation and he’s ‘high on testosterone’; a female character . . . well, I doubt if she would, females being the smarter half of the h.sapiens double act.

Ignoring the gender essentialism of that last sentence – because benevolent sexism is still sexism, Mr Rees, however much you’d like to believe it’s a complimentary attitude – my reaction to this paragraph can best be summarised as follows: are you fucking KIDDING me? In what universe aren’t female characters subject to rampant stereotyping? In what universe are they stereotyped less than guys? I mean, where do I even begin debunking this bullshit? With the omnipresent damsel in distress trope? With the ubiquity of women in refrigerators? With an in-depth conversation about just how many stories don’t pass the Bechdel test, and why film schools actively teach screenwriters to fail it? I mean, Christ on a fucking BICYCLE – this is 101 stuff, and it is EVERYWHERE. And if Rees honestly thinks that male stereotyping in narrative is a bigger goddamn problem than the stereotyping of women – by which I mean, if he honestly thinks that male stereotyping in narrative is more common, more pernicious, and more deeply intertwined with fucked-up, sexist cultural notions about traditional gender roles than female stereotyping*? Then we have more and bigger problems than the boobie issue.

Such as, for instance, the fact that Rees thinks that learning exclusively about radical feminism is the same thing as being “pretty clued up” about the entirety of feminism:

What I discovered is that like all quasi-religions, Feminism has its zealots: so much so that I found it damned difficult to make HerEticalism more extreme than the world envisaged by the out-there radical-feminists. The upshot of all this reading and pondering was that I thought I was pretty clued up on feminism.

Maybe I was wrong.

Firstly, if you’re going to describe feminism as a “quasi-religion” - as opposed to, you know, the crazy belief that women are people who deserve equal rights, and coincidentally, where the fuck is my MRA bingo card when I need it, oh wait, it’s right here, and lookie! “Feminism is a religion” IS ACTUALLY ON IT, please wait while I headdesk unto infinity - then you have officially forfeited the right to talk about feminism as though you understand it. Period. Secondly, if you are incapable of distinguishing between radical ANYTHING and the non-radical version, then CONGRATULATIONS, YOU FAIL BASIC COMPREHENSION FOREVER. I mean, is it really THAT FUCKING DIFFICULT? He’s got the word radical IN there, and yet is evidently unaware of its role as a descriptive qualifier. Thirdly, why do I feel like the radical feminism Rees is referring to belongs to the same, outdated, Andrea Dworkin school of fringe theories that Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg are so fond of conflating with the movement as a whole? What, did all these old, embittered white guys go to the same seminar on Why Feminism Is Insane back in 1973 and just take it as gospel forever and ever, amen? Do I even want to know the answer to that question?

And then, it gets even worse.

What I found most unsettling about these criticisms was their nugatory nature. My characters were being criticised not for doing what strong, independent women should be doing, but for doing what a section of the readership believes they shouldn’t be doing. Rather than look at the broader attributes/attitudes of a character, it is the minutiae that was being picked over… I am drawn to the Biblical parable about motes and beams and could take this religious analogy further: feminist criticism has many of the features of the theological debates in mediaeval times where being pilloried for heresy turned on the most trivial of deviations from the accepted canon.

Bear in mind, this comment is made in response to a female reader objecting to the fact that one of his female characters described herself  as “a lush thrush with a tight tush”.

Seriously.

Savour that phrase for a moment. It might well be worse than the bit about the jiggling, untethered breasts, but either way, it’s sort of like comparing guano to horseshit, if animal faeces were composed entirely of gross, sexually objectifying language. But, I digress, because Rees has once again missed the point by a margin so epic, it’s like watching a man trying to drive to Dover and ending up in Calais. The issue isn’t with what your female characters are doing – it’s how and why you portray them doing it, and whether or not you’ve stereotyped them horribly in the process. Which, given the fact that Rees is evidently oblivious to the issue of female stereotyping – he even goes on to lament his “troubling suspicion” that feminist critique is trying to “confine female characters in much the same way as male characters have been” – sends up a red flag the size of Neptune about his total inability to recognise and avoid it. (As do his unthinking use of the Big Breast Pride and Omniscient Breasts tropes. For instance.)

Then I reached the penultimate paragraph.

But I have a suspicion that these proscriptions affect female writers as much as they affect male ones. It seems to be a fixture at the SF conventions I’ve attended to have a panel discussion debating why there are so few women writing in the adult SF and fantasy genres. Could it be that the success of female writers in YA fantasy fiction is in part attributable to their young female characters being better able to adhere to this template of the ideal female? Once female writers venture into the more visceral world of adult fiction they find this stereotype doesn’t work and hence struggle. Just a thought.

Let me get this straight: according to Rees, female authors only succeed in writing YA fantasy novels because it’s easy, and that once they try to venture into the “more visceral world of adult fiction”, they “struggle” to move beyond the “stereotype” of non-passive, actively feminist characters – and this is “why there are so few women writing in the adult SF and fantasy genres”?

WHAT. THE. ACTUAL. FUCK.

Here’s an alternate theory: adult SF and fantasy are chock-full of spectacular women writers despite the fact that troglodytic, sexist asshats like Rod Rees think that most of us are incapable of writing grown-up characters due to our Hindering Ladyfeelings. Plus and also? The idea that you graduate to writing adult novels after starting out in YA – or rather, that WOMEN can graduate to writing adult novels after starting out in YA, presumably because men who write about jiggling tits are sculpting literary masterpieces whatever the age of their intended audience – is fucking INSULTING.

And I just. I CANNOT with this fuckery, this I’m-so-enlightened-because-I-have-a-wife-and-daughters, therefore it’s COMPLETELY OK that I sexually objectify my female characters using the grossest language possible, ignore all female criticism of same because I know more about being a woman than women do, write off feminism as a radical religion while claiming to know all about it, and plead total and comprehensive ignorance of even the most basic forms of stereotyping that affect women in narrative, all while positing that the dearth of female writers in my field is due to female incompetence. YES. YOU ARE TRULY A PRINCE AMONG FEMINISTS.

AUGH.

I don't want to live on this planet any more

Angry dome

*Which isn’t to say that male stereotyping isn’t a problem: it is, and it’s rife with problematic gender essentialism, too, particularly around the perpetuation of culturally constructed, restrictive and ultimately toxic notions of masculinity. Sexism in stereotyping cuts both ways, because that’s what sexism does: it hurts everyone, even the people it’s ostensibly meant to benefit. But there’s also a deep imbalance in terms of the scope and ubiquity of the representation afforded to men as opposed to women, and a much greater variety of male portrayals as opposed to female, which is why (for instance) you have Seth Rogan acknowledging the fact that Pineapple Express would never have been made if it were about two girls, and that he wouldn’t have a career if he were female.

30 June 2013, ETA: As of today, Jo Fletcher Books has taken down both Rees’s original post and a post published subsequently wherein Jo Fletcher explained why she’d allowed it to appear in the first place. (In a nutshell: Because Free Speech, I don’t censor my authors even though it’s not something I’d have written myself, which is fine, except that this isn’t what people were objecting to – or at least, not insofar as the decision to publish went – and therefore came across as missing the point. As was explained by several people in comments on that second post, the issue on that count was more to do with the fact that, if you publish something on your company blog, regardless of whether or not You, The Person agree with it, then people are, not unreasonably, going to assume that You, The Organisation does – or at the very least, that your company doesn’t *disagree* enough with the content not to have refrained from publishing it in the first place. Thus: if you publish a sexist piece on the company blog, then while Because Free Speech will certainly explain your personal decision to do so, this explanation is neither synonymous with nor a substitute for an explanation about why you chose to associate your company with sexism – or, more pertinently in this case, with why you’d then be surprised that people were disappointed in you for having done so.)

Anyway. The original blog might be gone, but this being the internet, it lives on in cache and screencap, in which form it can still be found here.

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

I’m on holiday. I have things to do. I shouldn’t be ranting.

And yet.

Behold this article in The Atlantic, titled: The Secret to Being Both a Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid.

I don’t even need to read the damn thing to be furious. You know why, internets? Because, as per fucking always, the assumption here is that women, not men, are the ones who need to realign their lives around having kids. I am yet to see a single fucking article in any publication, ever, about juggling the work/life balance around childrearing with fathers and fatherhood as the focus. And do you know why that is, internets? Because despite every advance towards gender equality we’ve taken in the past few decades, the assumption is still that mothers in heterosexual partnerships both will and should be there to pick up the slack once the babies arrive, so that daddy’s career doesn’t suffer. Outside of Norway, and perhaps a few other places, the overwhelming social default sets paternity leave as optional, brief and something which fathers are praised for taking. Look how modern! Look how progressive! And, yes, they are, and it’s wonderful we’ve even come that far. Neither am I trying to denigrate the physical cost of childbirth or anything like that: having recently had a child myself, I’m in a pretty good position to say that giving birth is something you need time and space to recover from.

No. What I’m objecting to is the idea that only maternal caregiving is important in those early weeks and months; that just letting mum get on with it, alone, while dad goes back to work, is good enough. By which I mean: if people want to choose to do things that way, then more power to them. (After all, it’s what my husband and I are doing.) But I powerfully dislike the fact that the general dearth of paternity leave and our cultural belief in male incompetence/female superiority re childrearing make it very hard to do otherwise, even if mum earns more money and/or has a higher degree of job satisfaction; even if dad really wants to be on hand.

So when I see yet another bloody article that, right from the headline, demands women limit the number of children they have in order to succeed professionally – as though the universal introduction of equally distributed paid maternity and paternity leave, a collective cultural removal of heads from arses on the subject of male caregiving, and the ready availability of affordable childcare are all wholly irrelevant factors in any discussion concerning the impact of motherhood on our literary careers (or careers of any kind, for that matter) – I experience an overwhelming urge to set the writer on fire.

And yes, as it happens: I do have a dog in this fight. I’m an only child, a writer and, as of four months ago, a mother of one. I’ve dealt with a parade of health issues following the birth of my son, including a week’s hospitalisation to deal with a nasty postpartum infection, and as much as I love him to bits, the whole experience has left me extremely gun-shy about the prospect of his ever having a sibling. It’s a question I’m more or less constantly mulling over – so close still to his birth, my intuitive, passionate reaction is never again. (On a tangential note: I swear to fucking dog, the next smiling stranger who either asks me when I’m having another one, tells me it’ll be easier second time round or wistfully wishes they had a dollar for every mother they’d ever met who says they only wanted one child but then had more will be met with SEVERE AND BITING SARCASM. By all means, ask me about my plans, but if your choice of words OPENLY ASSUMES I’ll be having another one BECAUSE LADYREASONS and then you look at me knowingly when I offer a contradiction, like my awareness of my own wants and body and lifeplans is IRRELEVANT when compared to your UNIQUE AWARENESS of the fact that SOME WOMEN HAVE MULTIPLE CHILDREN, then I am going to be seriously displeased. I mean, what is this bullshit? For all you fucking know, I’m desperate to have a second child but can’t, because having the first one left me unable to conceive again or because I can’t afford a second round of IVF. Maybe I’m planning on adopting. Maybe I’m in the throes of post-natal depression, and your words are triggering. Maybe my child was the product of a one night stand. Maybe my partner is abusive. Maybe I didn’t want the first child. Maybe my marriage has just ended. Or maybe everything’s fine, and I’m ready for kid number two. The point being, YOU DON’T KNOW. It is not your fucking business how many children I plan to have, but if you ask me politely, in a way that leaves me open to say ‘just the one, actually’ WITHOUT you offering a smug, I-bet-you’ll-change-your-mind rejoinder afterwards, then I’ll discuss it with you. But Christ on a fucking bicycle, STOP ASSUMING FACTS NOT IN EVIDENCE.)

Ahem.

The point being, I’m new to the parenting gig, and there’s a lot of new things to figure out about it. But in the mean time, I’m still trying to get this whole writing career sorted – and so when I see a headline that basically says, HERE, I HAVE MADE YOUR DECISION FOR YOU: ANOTHER CHILD MEANS YOU CAN’T BE AN AUTHOR, then my overwhelming urge is to FLIP SOME FUCKING TABLES.

So imagine my seething temperament when I read on and found that the actual article, written by one Lauren Sandler, is all about a handful of successful female writers who only had one child, with really only two paragraphs – the first and last, excerpted below – to couch the idea in generic terms. Says Sandler:

“She was not a mom,” writes Sigrid Nunez of Susan Sontag in Sempre Susan. “Every once in a while, noticing how dirty [her son] David’s glasses were, she’d pluck them from his face and wash them at the kitchen sink. I remember thinking it was the only momish thing I ever saw her do.” Did Sontag need to be more “momish”? And if she had been—or if she had more children to drop off with the in-laws or the babysitters—would she have been the same writer? Would we have the legacy of her provocative ideas, in criticism and fiction? The grey-streaked eminence of Sontag aside, how do the rest of us mortals negotiate the balance between selfhood and motherhood? Is stopping at one child the answer, or at least the beginning of one?…

These modern female writers all desired to love deeply and intimately, to challenge themselves, to experiment with permanence, to create something that would outlast them, to never turn away from a human experience. Such are the qualities of motherhood, not “momish”ness—it’s not all nurturing and sacrifice, regardless of how our culture chooses to define and deify the maternal. McCarthy once said in an interview with The Paris Review, “I suppose everyone continues to be interested in the quest for the self, but what you feel when you’re older, I think, is that—how to express this—you really must make the self.” That’s still true today, for parents, writers, and anyone who believes in the business of living.

Which leaves me with two questions: was Sandler herself responsible for the headline? And if not, what provocatively sexist troglodyte  thought it was a good idea? Inasmuch as the article is about anything, it’s about the relationships Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick and Joan Didion all had with their (only) children and partners, concluding in the final lines that Sontag’s failure to be ‘momish’ was no such thing; that there is no real contradiction between motherhood and a life of the mind. Which, yeah, great. I already knew that. So why throw in a needless thematic guilt trip – not nearly as prominent in the actual text, but nonetheless implied by both the title and the opening paragraphs – about single children being the way to go?

Because that’s what our culture does: it guilts women. We’re selfish and unnatural if we don’t want children. We’re selfish and overprotective if we only want one (and the child will suffer for lack of sibling contact). We’re broody if we want two or three (and each child will suffer to varying degrees because of the sibling hierarchy). We’re repressed broodmares if we want more than that (and not only are we a drain on society, but each child will suffer for lack of individual attention AND because of their place in the sibling hierarchy). None of this palaver ever affects dads, except to bemoan their lack of parenting acumen in one breath while damning their attempts to acquire it as unmasculine and wimpy in the next, without any apparent sense of irony. (Sexism: cutting both ways and fucking things up for everyone since FOREVER! Fun times.)  And so, we have this article, which for the main part is a rather benign, if brief, examination of several successful female writers who just happened to stop at one child each, but which unfortunately takes the unnecessary step of suggesting that the former might be predicated in some way on the latter.

And apart from anything else – apart from being exhausting and offensive and unnecessary – it’s also just plain wrong; or at the very least, selective beyond any possible usefulness. As author Kameron Hurley pointed out on Twitter, J. K. Rowling has three children, Danielle Steel had nine and Ursula le Guin had four. Pulitzer-winning author Jane Smiley noted in the comments that she herself has three biological and two stepchildren. And off the top of my head, I can think of yet more successful women with children, plural: Kate Elliott has three, Anne McCaffrey had three (one of whom, Todd McCaffrey, has taken over her Pern series), Stephenie Meyer has three, and Suzanne Collins has two. But more importantly, is anyone, anywhere suggesting that Terry Pratchett wouldn’t be so successful if he’d had more than one child? Is anyone clicking their tongues and worrying that Nick Harkaway’s career is over now that he’s a father of two? Does anyone think that Nicholas Sparks’s succession of repetitively mediocre and criminally overhyped novels about dying teenagers having sex in the rain can be blamed on the fact that he has five younglings?

No. And you know why not, internets? Because DOUBLE FUCKING STANDARDS, is why.

/endrant

I shall now return to my holiday.

After many months of silence, I’m excited to finally announce the publication of Sincere Forms of Flattery from O+S Press, an anthology of short stories inspired by some of our favourite writers. Each story is accompanied by a brief essay explaining the relationship between the contributor, their story and the author whose work inspired it. Inside, you’ll find my short story, Needs Must, and an essay about how Neil Gaiman’s Sandman served as my introduction to urban fantasy, along with five other stories and essays, and some truly beautiful artwork:

Needs Must - SFOF illustration by Amandine Thomas (small)

Sincere Forms of Flattery is available on Kindle from both Amazon US and Amazon UK. Check it out!

Three days ago, the Speculative Fiction 2012 anthology was released. Edited by Justin Landon and Jared Shurin, it’s a collection of fifty fascinating SFFnal essays, reviews and blogrants that all appeared online last year, containing pieces from, among others, Kate Elliott, N. K. Jemisin, Aishwarya Subramanian, Abigail Nussbaum, Lavie Tidhar and Tansy Rayner Roberts. And also – to my absolute pride and astonishment – me.

This WordPress site isn’t my first ever blog. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been writing and ranting across various online platforms with varying degrees of skill and vitriol, but this was the first one to earn me a readership – or at least, a readership not consisting solely of schoolfriends, partners and family members. It’s also the first blog I ever wrote openly, under my own name, and therefore represents my first real attempt to take myself seriously as a writer. That was way back in May 2008, almost two years before I first became a published author, and if you’d asked me at the time how important my blogging would become to me, I never could’ve guessed the answer.

So, yeah: Speculative Fiction 2012. It’s an amazing collection of essays, and I’m honoured to be a part of it.

I’m pleased to announce that the forthcoming ebook anthology, Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentaryedited by Justin Landon and Jared Shurin, will feature one of my posts from last year. I feel incredibly honoured to have my writing included in the anthology, not least because it will appear alongside pieces by N. K. Jemisin, Kate Elliott, Liz Bourke, Kameron Hurley, Rose Lemburg and Elizabeth Bear, to name but a few! So, yes: there is currently celebratory happydancing in the Meadows household.

On which topic: it suddenly occurs to me that, despite having mentioned the event on Facebook, tumblr and Twitter, I’ve neglected to blog about the fact that, as of 4th February 2013, I’m now the mother of a devious and lovely son, whom I’ve taken to calling the Smallrus. So, now you know.

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Last week, Joe Abercrombie wrote a lengthy post in defence of grimdark fantasy, a stance which should come as no shock whatsoever to anyone familiar with his books. (Which, for the record, I’ve read and enjoyed, albeit with reservations.) The pro/con debate over gritty SFF is comparatively new, in the sense that its status as a distinct subgenre is comparatively new, but not so lacking in history that we haven’t already built up a fairly substantial archive of dissenting opinions. What struck me forcefully about Abercrombie’s essay, however, was his failure to acknowledge, let alone address, a key aspect of the debate, viz: the ways in which grittiness is racially, sexually and culturally political, and whether or not those elements can ever be usefully disentangled from anything else the concept has to offer.

“Portraying your fantasy world in a way that’s like our world?” Abercrombie asks. “That’s only honesty.” And that’s often a fair point to make, when it comes to fantasy. But I find it extremely telling that while he goes on to apply this rule to the presence of death, drugs, sex, swearing, bad behaviour and excrement, he stops short of parsing its relevance to the default inclusion of sexism, racism and other such problematic behaviours in grimdark, crapsack worlds. Or, to put it another way: if your goal in writing gritty SFF is to create what you perceive to be an honest, albeit fantastic version of reality – and more, one where acknowledging the darker aspects of human nature takes precedence – then the likelihood is that you’ll end up writing victimised and/or damaged women, sexist and homophobic social structures, racist characters and, as a likely corollary, racist stereotypes as automatic defaults; which means, in turn, that you run an extremely high risk of excluding even the possibility of undamaged, powerful women, LGBTQ and/or POC characters from the outset, because you’ve already decided that such people are fundamentally unrealistic.    

Not unsurprisingly, therefore, many SFF readers – especially those who are female, POC and/or LGBTQ – are going to object to your definition of reality, not just as you’ve elected to apply it in an SFFnal context, but as an effective commentary on them, personally: because when you contend that realistic worldbuilding requires the inclusion of certain specific inequalities in order to count as realistic, you’re simultaneously asserting that such inequalities are inherent to reality – that a story cannot be honest, or your characters believably human, if there aren’t mechanisms in place to keep women oppressed, POC othered and LGBTQ persons invisible.

But the thing is, because such mechanisms are already so entrenched as narrative defaults when it comes to SFF worldbuilding, it’s easy to give them a pass – or at least, to deny their increased relevance – in the case of grimdark stories. Because if, as Abercrombie’s post implies, the grim in grimdark comes only from the presence of graphic violence, full-on sex, drugs, swearing, disease and character death, then it should still be possible to write grimdark stories that lack rape, domestic violence, racism and homophobia, and which feature protagonists who are neither straight, predominently white men nor the ultimate victims of same. And yet, overwhelmingly, that is what grimdark consists of: because somewhere along the line, the majority of its authors have assumed that “grittiness” as a concept is necessarily synonymous with the reinforcement of familiar inequalities.

Please note my use of that word, familiar, as it’s the lynchpin of my argument: that by assuming current and historical expressions of bigotry, bias and social inequality to be universal and exclusive expressions of bigotry, bias and social inequality, grimdark stories are, more often than not, reinforcing specific inequalities as inevitable and thereby serving to perpetuate them further. Which is why, in grimdark, it’s not just graphic sex, but the graphic rape or assault of women by men, or sex which objectifies women; it’s not just swearing, but swearing which derives its offensiveness from treating women’s bodies, habits and gender as undesirable, or which reinforces racism and homophobia; it’s not just violence, but violence against the othered. 

Writing recently about Lincoln, Aaron Bady had this to say on the subject of gritty cinema (my emphasis):

First and foremost, it uses a realist aesthetic to make it seem like a compromising cynicism is realistic. Form becomes content: it shows us the world as it “really” is by adding in the grit and grain and grime that demonstrate that the image has not being airbrushed, cleaned up, or glossed over, and this artificial lack of artifice signifies as reality… They don’t mean “accuracy,” because that’s not something most people could judge; they mean un-glamorized, un-romanticized, dark… Our field of view is claustrophobic and drab; we are shown a political arena without sentiment or nostalgic glow. That’s how we know we’re seeing the “real” thing.

 

But, of course, we’re not. We’re just seeing a movie whose claim to objective accuracy is no less artificial than the filters by which an instagram takes on the nostalgic glow of a past that was never as overexposed and warm as it has become in retrospect. And when we take “gritty” for “realism,” another kind of “realism” gets quietly implied and imposed: the capitalist realism by which ideals become impossible and the only way things can get done is through compromise and strategic surrender. Anti-romanticism is all the more ideological because it pretends to have no ideology, to be the “plain truth” that demonstrates the falsity of romantic visions. 

 

Which is where grimdark tends to fall down for me, and why eliding the genre’s political dimensions is especially problematic: grittiness is only a selective view of reality, not the whole picture. Yes, there’s pain and despair and suffering, but not exclusively, and when you make grit a synonym for realism – when you make an active, narrative decision to privilege specific, familiar types of grimness as universals – then you’re not just denying the fullness of reality; you’re promoting a version of it that’s inherently hostile to the personhood and interests of the majority of people on the planet. (And in that sense, it doesn’t seem irrelevant that the bulk of gritty, grimdark writers, especially those who self-identify as such, are straight, white men.)

Human beings are flawed, and frequently terrible. We are capable of horrific acts; of racism, sexism, homophobia, and countless acts of violence, discrimination and ignorance. But there are still degrees of flawedness, such that a story which fails to acknowledge our worst aspects is no less “realistic” than one which portrays them as the be-all, end-all of our existence. There’s nothing wrong with wanting realism in your fantasy – most readers demand it to some extent – but that doesn’t mean we’ve all agreed on what realism in fantasy is. It’s a mistake to assume that your preferred flavour of honesty is the only legitimate one; or, just as importantly, the most legitimate one.   

To summarise the problem of committing to this familiar idea of grittiness, then:

If your idea of ‘grittiness’ includes misogyny (for instance), it’s more or less inevitable that your female characters will not only encounter systematic sexism, but necessarily be scarred by it, because if it were possible for them to remain unscathed by such an integral aspect of your preordained notion of grittiness, then by the rubric of gritty = honest, they would be unrealistic characters. Which means that, with the best will in the world, you’ve committed from the outset to writing women whose lives and selves are damaged by men – and while, as a female reader, I don’t object to encountering such characters, I do object to the assumption that these are the only female characters you can realistically write

Grittiness has its place in fiction; as do representations of existing inequalities. But when we forget to examine why we think certain abuses are inevitable, or assume their universality – when we write about a particular prejudice, not to question, subvert or redefine it, but to confirm it as an inevitable, even integral aspect of human nature – then we’re not being realistic, but selective in our portrayal and understanding of reality.  

If someone too poor or otherwise unable to buy a specific product is given that product for free, has the product’s creator lost a sale?

In most instances, I’d argue, the answer is no. You can’t lose money that doesn’t exist in the first place, or which your potential customer is unable to spend on whatever it is you’re selling. What you’ve lost, if anything, is a specific product, and therefore the opportunity to sell it to someone who can pay. If Lamborghini were to give me a free car, for instance – or if some altruistic third party were to do so instead – then either they’ve lost the money they could’ve earned by selling that specific vehicle elsewhere, or they’ve lost the opportunity to sell to me directly. In the latter instance, though, they haven’t lost a sale, because someone actually did buy the car; and in the former instance, while they might have lost a sale, they haven’t lost my sale, because the chances of my being able to afford a Lambo in this lifetime, let alone wanting to buy one if I could, are slim to none. The only way for Lamborghini to lose my sale, therefore, is if I were both willing and able to buy a car from them, but elected not to – and even then, I’d still be within my rights as a consumer to look elsewhere.

I mention all this because Terry Deary, author of the Horrible Histories series, has not only said that libraries are defunct, but accused them of stealing the income of authors – “cutting their throats and slashing their purses”, as he rather dramatically has it. “Books aren’t public property,” he says, “and writers aren’t Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They’ve got to make a living. Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don’t expect to go to a food library to be fed.”

Ignoring his rather snide and sexist slighting of Blyton, as though authors are somehow fundamentally less deserving of recompense if they happen to be middle-class women who do it for fun (the horror!), the linchpin of Deary’s argument seems to hinge on his belief that, because his books were borrowed more than 500,000 times from public libraries last year – earning him the maximum return of £6,600 under the PLR scheme – he’s effectively lost out on the £180,000 he feels he ought to have had if he’d instead sold 500,000 extra copies. Never mind the fact that all those library copies were themselves bought and paid for in the first instance, such that, by virtue of being in a library, they’ve collectively netted him more money than if they’d been bought by members of the public: the maths he’s used to reach his £180,000 figure is predicated on the assumption that every single person who’s borrowed his books was otherwise both willing and able to pay for them – an assumption which is categorically false.

He then tries to bolster his outrage by saying:

“What other industry creates a product and allows someone else to give it away, endlessly? The car industry would collapse if we went to car libraries for free use of Porsches… This is not the Roman empire, where we give away free bread and circuses to the masses. People expect to pay for entertainment. They might object to TV licences, but they understand they have to do it.”

Well, actually, no: they don’t. Ignoring the fact that not every country has a TV licencing scheme, even in the UK, it’s entirely legal to watch regular programming online, for free, using sites like BBC iPlayer and 4oD, so long as you only watch catch-up and not live streaming. More pertinently, perhaps, Deary has clearly never heard of radio, video rental, museums, art galleries, or, indeed, the internet - because if he had done, then there’d be no excuse for making the claim that libraries are some lone, perverse bastion of free panem et circuses in a world where absolutely everything is paid for otherwise.

And then, of course, there’s the moral/historical angle: “Because it’s been 150 years, we’ve got this idea that we’ve got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers,” Deary moans. “This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that.”

The bolding above is my own, and it’s there for a reason. Take a good, long look at that sentence – specifically, at the crucial use and placement of the word wanted, whose past tense indicates that allowing the impoverished access to literature is something we don’t want to do any longer; or rather, that Deary believes we shouldn’t. There’s so much wrong with this statement that I hardly know where to begin. With the fact that, under Deary’s ideal system, the poor are only entitled to literature while they’re of school age, perhaps? With the fact that most of the literary benefit one experiences while a student comes, not from English class, but the school library? Or how about the novel idea that treating support of literacy in poverty as a quirky Victorian prerogative rather than an ongoing social necessity is not only morally repugnant, but incredibly shortsighted when one depends for one’s living on the existence of a literate, interested populace?

But let’s return to Deary’s primary argument – that his 500,000-odd library rentals represent some 500,000 lost sales – and why it’s so inaccurate: first, because it assumes that he gained no sales by virtue of readers encountering his books in the library and later deciding to buy them; second, because it assumes that everyone who borrowed his books was similarly able or inclined to buy them, and only went the library route out of sheer cheapness; third, because it likewise assumes that the figure of 500,000 borrows corresponds to 500,000 discreet individuals; fourth, because it ignores the fundamentally obvious point that many, if not most people will try all sorts of things for free for which they’d never readily pay money, or for which they wouldn’t pay money without a free sample first; and fifth – and specific to Deary’s case – because his books are aimed at a middle grade audience, meaning that his readers and the persons who actually hand over money are overwhelmingly two different sets of people, with the latter tending (one suspects) to be the parents and relatives of the former.

Those last two points in particular are worth expanding on, because they’re linked in quite a significant way: that is, that parents are about infinity times more likely to buy specific books for their children when in possession of cold, hard proof that their gift will actually be read, rather than mouldering quietly on a bedroom shelf. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least ten books or series that my parents bought me in my pre-teen years as a direct result of my having borrowed and re-borrowed the library copies: they knew they were making a successful purchase, and I in turn was getting something I wanted. Without libraries, I’d never have bought the entirety of Geoffrey McSkimming’s Cairo Jim and Jocelyn Osgood stories, or convinced my mother to shell out the princely sum of nearly thirty Australian dollars for my own hardbacked copy of the Pan Macmillan Book of Greek Gods and Heroes – a book, I might add, which I still possess today. As wrongheaded as Deary’s comments are, they’d at least be marginally more comprehensible if he wrote for adults, who have direct control over their discretionary spending – but children?

All my life, I’ve been a patron of libraries. Even now that I’m an adult with my own disposable income, I still use them. Why? Because, not unreasonably, I’m reluctant to outlay money on unknown authors if I can sample their works beforehand for free. My book-buying budget is limited, and I want to make the most of it: now that I have a Kindle, I’ll often download sample chapters, and when I have time to browse through bookshops at leisure, I’ll read the first few pages to help me make a decision, but ultimately, neither method guarantees that a book will be worth my time and money. And so, I’ll try the library: that way,  I lose nothing on books I don’t like, but can still discover new authors – and once I’ve discovered an author I like, their books go on my ‘automatic purchase’ list. Tamora Pierce and Sara Douglass are both authors I discovered through libraries in my early teens; thus  hooked, I proceeded to buy their entire respective works, even the titles I’d already read, because the idea of not owning them was insupportable. Libraries are an investment in the creation of new readers, and if Deary thinks for a second that nobody has ever bought his books as a direct result of having encountered them first in libraries, then I’d venture to suggest that he’s in the wrong profession.

Libraries don’t inhibit a writer’s profits: they add to them – not just through the PLR scheme, but through the creation of new readers and the maintenance of a literate, book-hungry populace. And while, as I’ve said, Deary is wholly wrong in his assertion that libraries are unique in providing entertainment or creative content for free, they are unique (or at least, almost unique, the internet having joined their ranks) in promoting an actual, necessary life-skill – literacy – among those parts of the populace who might otherwise suffer for its inaccessibility. The idea that such beneficence should begin and end with the classroom (and where does Deary think many poorer students are getting not only their assigned reading and reference books, but free internet and computer access, if not the library?) is a social Scroogism that ill becomes a professional author even moreso than it would any other person, and particularly one who writes about history.

So here, then, is my advice to Mr Deary: conduct a campaign to have your books removed from libraries everywhere. Petition schools and librarians, call the distributors, go by in person and tear up their copies if you have to, but rid the freeloading reading world of access to your work; and when, having done so, your annual income fails to increase to the tune of £180,000 pounds? Then, Mr Deary, I will laugh at your hubris – and buy someone else’s books.

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.