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.
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?
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.
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.