Archive for February, 2015

Earlier this week, K. Tempest Bradford wrote an article encouraging readers to forego books by straight, white, cismale authors for a year, the better to “change the way you read and the way you go about picking things to read”. Bradford is not alone in her approach; as she herself mentions, Sunili Govinnage read only authors of colour in 2014, while Lilit Marcus spent a year reading only books by women. The point of such experiments should be obvious to anyone who’s been paying even a small amount of attention to literary and SFFnal politics over the past few years: thanks to a combination of conscious and unconscious bias, works by straight white men are reviewed more, praised more, promoted more and generally given disproportionate prominence in the literary scene than those by other writers, and as such, it’s easy to miss out on excellent books – to say nothing of contributing to a culture where their authors are routinely dismissed – by never questioning what and who we’re reading.

Enter Laura Resnick, who has missed the point so spectacularly, it’s hard to know where to begin. To quote:

…my reaction to being challenged to give up Straight White Male writers for a year goes like this.

I can’t think of any writers whose names indicate their sexual orientation. Can you? Is there any such thing as a gay/lesbian/transgender name? Or do authors routinely list their sexual orientation in their formal jacket bios?…

Nor does an author’s fiction give the reader a reliable indication of his or her sexual orientation. For example, the New York Times bestselling Lord John novels feature a gay protagonist; the author of his adventures is heterosexual (Diana Gabaldon). There are also gay authors who write straight protagonists. I can think of several current examples, but since I’m not sure how public they are about their sexual orientation, I’ll stick with naming the late E.M. Forster and the (very) late Oscar Wilde.

And even when an author’s photo clearly indicates their gender and racial/ethnic heritage, how often do photos reveal their sexual orientation? (Rarely, if ever, would be my guess.)

And what if there is no photo?

And I just.

OK.

This is one of the stupidest strawman misdirects I’ve ever fucking seen. Christ on a bicycle, Resnick is literally writing this on the goddamn internet while flapping her hands like the internet doesn’t exist; like there’s just no way to learn anything about an author’s identity beyond what’s contained in a physical fucking paperback; like Bradford is really just asking us to stand in a bookstore and guess. Bradford, in fact, doesn’t say anything about how readers should go about determining authorial identity, presumably on the basis that explaining how to Google things might come off as condescending. I mean, look, yes: Resnick is correct to assert that you can’t just assume someone’s race or sexual orientation on the basis of their name or the content of their writing, and that identity is a thing with many facets. Obviously. But Bradford has never claimed otherwise, and acting like there’s literally no easy way to learn these things, the whole enterprise is tragically doomed from the start when you are, as mentioned, actually on the internet, is just a whole new level of derailment.

Because once you get down a few paragraphs, Resnick’s real problem with Bradford’s challenge becomes clear: it’s not that she thinks this information doesn’t exist, but that she can’t be bothered to look it up:

So in order to ensure that I am not reading straight white male authors, I’d have to do far more googling and research on writers than I am willing to do, since my interest is in their fiction rather than in the authors or their personal details. And even if I wanted to go to such effort, some of that information isn’t available without a bizarre intrusion into their privacy, since some writers choose not to discuss various aspects of their lives in interviews and social media.

My god, it’s just so hard.

The way Resnick has it, you’d think that Bradford was exhorting us all to start acting like digital stalkers, as though considering the personhood of the author is necessarily synonymous with needing the author’s details any cost, regardless of time or privacy. I mean, does Resnick even understand the part where this is proposed as a challenge – that is to say, as a call or summons to engage in a contest – rather than a set of hard rules for everyone to adopt, forever and ever, amen? And even if Resnick was minded to accept, it’s hardly a policed event: K. Tempest Bradford isn’t lurking outside her house, machete in hand, ready to barge in and demand an accounting if she accidentally reads a straight dude’s book. The actual point in all of this, which Resnick has stubbornly missed, is to encourage people to read more widely; to engage with perspectives other than their own; and to maybe consider the race, the gender, the sexuality of the authors they read as relevant, given the proven cultural bias towards promoting the works of straight white men over others.

The idea that this approach is somehow inimical to having an interest in the content of a writer’s fiction is the exact opposite of what Bradford and Govinnage are positing: namely, that an author’s real-world identity and experiences are sometimes – though not always – reflected in their works, and that if we’ve defaulted to reading only or predominantly one type of author, then perhaps we’ve defaulted to only or predominantly reading one type of content, too. As such, if we are, as Resnick claims to be, sincerely interested in reading good stories, then ignoring the relationship between author and work – as though every book, like the goddess Athena, is cut fully-formed from the flesh of some oblivious, authorial Zeus – is something we should be wary of doing.

And then it gets worse:

Additionally, apart from having no interest in trying to research writers’ personal information before deciding whether to read their fiction, my reaction to Bradford’s article is that I would have found her argument more effective if phrased in a positive and constructive way, rather than phrased in the negative, counter-productive way she chose—by advising on authors (straight white male) not to read.

Ladies, gentlemen and others of the internet, behold this sterling example of tone policing, aka You Didn’t Discuss Your Experiences Politely Enough (According To Me) And So I Choose To Disregard Your Argument. The fact that this approach is favourite among sexists – the “I’d listen to feminists if they weren’t so angry” brigade – makes it doubly cringeworthy when deployed by a white woman against a woman of colour: as Flavia Dzodan famously said, my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit, and in the wake of Patricia Arquette’s tone-deaf call for women who aren’t straight, white or cisgendered to step up and help white ladies achieve equality for themselves, I find myself with even less patience for this sort of White Feminism than usual. I don’t know if Resnick identifies as a feminist or not, but for the love of god, fellow white women: do not fucking tone police women of colour on issues of diversity. More to the point, what article was Resnick reading? Bradford’s piece isn’t an angry polemic against the evils of patriarchy; it’s a calm, articulate acknowledgement of the fact that yes, there’s a bias in the literary world, but here’s a suggestion for countering it.

Again, I feel obliged to point out that nobody is forcing Resnick to read anything she doesn’t want to. Hell, it would’ve been quite easy for her to say, for instance, “I support the sentiment of Bradford’s article, and even if you don’t want to skip your favourite white male authors for a year, there’s still a lot to be gained by diversifying your reading”, and left it at that. Instead, she goes out of her way to attack the logic of Bradford’s challenge, which makes what she says next seem more than a little insincere:

I agree completely that reading a wide variety of authors and themes is a wonderful idea, one to be embraced. This practice has always been encouraged in my family, and it’s practiced by many of my friends, too. I also agree that reading about women, other societies, and other sexual orientations from the perspective of authors who are women, or who are from other societies than our own, or who have other sexual orientations other than “straight” is a suggestion to be embraced. But I don’t agree that limiting my reading in any way is a good idea. Not even if it’s the group—straight white male writers—whose voices have been heard the longest, loudest, and most consistently in our society’s reading culture.

I say again: Bradford is proposing a fucking challenge. By definition, a challenge in any context has rules and limitations, which is how you differentiate your participation in it from the norms of everyday living. That being so, it’s fair to ask: is Resnick opposed to all reading challenges on principle, or just to this one? And if Resnick is really so concerned with the prospect of limited reading, then why has she just spent umpteen paragraphs complaining about how unreasonably difficult it is to try and read diversely?

Years ago, some stranger at a party asked me what I read, as people often do with writers. I named a bunch of books I’d read lately, and named a bunch of writers that were among my favorites, and when I was done… The person asked, “Don’t you ever read any male authors?” I had named only women, and I hadn’t even noticed! Not until this person remarked on it.

Although I still tend to read more women than men, ever since that conversation made me realize I’d been limiting my reading, I make more of an effort to read male novelists. Your mileage may vary, but eliminating straight white male authors from my reading would probably set me back, in terms of the variety I read, since male authors (of any ethnicity or sexual orientation) used to be noticeably absent from my fiction reading.

Look, I’ll be honest: I tend to read mostly women these days, too. But when it comes to my cultural consumption in other areas – when it comes to films, comics, TV shows? Those arenas are pretty fucking heavily male-dominated, even when you actively want to diversify, and as such, I feel no particular urge to try and redress the balance when it comes to written fiction, which is the one narrative arena in which I can come anywhere close to finding parity, let alone surpassing it in my favour. Straight white dudes have a fucking monopoly on visual storytelling, and not just in front of the camera, but behind it, too – directing, scriptwriting, animation and countless other fields are all so squarely white and male, it’s like staring at a box of envelopes. And while I’m not suggesting Resnick should tailor her fiction consumption to fit my preferences, I take issue with the inference that there’s no correlation between straight white male dominance in fiction and straight white male dominance elsewhere; as though this isn’t a single facet of a bigger, more complex problem.

Look at it this way: if you’re eating bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but have fruit for desert, and someone comes along and exclaims over how strange it is that you don’t eat bread for that one last meal, too, then switching to a baguette before bedtime will not add variety to your diet, even if you keep the strawberries. By all means, Laura Resnick, read what you like – but don’t confuse your personal reticence to change your habits, even temporarily, for a reason why the rest of us shouldn’t even try.

 

Trigger warning: discussion of depression, suicidal ideation.

The greatest trick depression pulls is convincing you it doesn’t exist; that the baseline misery it enforces is normal at best or irrelevant at worst. Even when you know, rationally, that self-blame is itself a symptom, still you second-guess yourself. You think the problem is something else: that you’re fundamentally lazy, or melancholic, or both; that you’re simply not sleeping properly, or exercising enough, or taking the right vitamins. The idea that these deficiencies might be symptoms rather than causes crosses your mind, but you don’t take it seriously; it feels too much like giving up, like letting yourself off the hook. You want there to be something concrete you can do to improve things, a button to press or routine to enact that will suddenly make things better (not that things are wrong, exactly; the fact that you’re constantly tired and sad and anxious and mentally composing suicide notes at the grocery store while simultaneously berating yourself for being so melodramatic because obviously, you’d never really do something like that, is neither here nor there), and if there isn’t – if there’s nothing you can physically do – then that means you’re powerless, or possibly broken, and who wants to have either of those things confirmed?

So you don’t say anything. You move through a world whose gravity seems to pull you down with greater force each day. However much you sleep, it isn’t enough. Your temper frays. You never feel replenished; only drained, as though some vital well at the heart of yourself has run dry, and nothing you do has the power to fill it back up. One by one, your appetites fade: you can’t read, or write, or eat, or shower, or dress – do anything, really – without feeling like the world has vampire teeth in your jugular. Your joys are either tepid and flat or, very rarely, brief and manic. Nothing feels real. You wonder if you’re a sociopath, because shouldn’t love feel stronger than this? Or maybe you just made terrible choices, and everything is all your fault: maybe you just have to live like this forever.

And then, one night, you burst into tears for a solid ten minutes while reading a story that’s set at the beach, because you miss the sun with a visceral ache, like something that’s been pulled out of you, and for the first time, you seriously consider the idea that there might be a tangible reason for all of this. Sure, you’d thought of it before – you knew what Seasonal Affective Disorder was, even brought it up with the doctor the one time you went in to talk about depression, when they shrugged and said maybe, but also gave you some brochures about free counselling and the option of going straight to pills – but the fix seemed ridiculous. Buy a magic science light, as though a fucking lamp could possibly solve your problems. But you’ve been exercising every day, taking iron and Vitamin D and magnesium supplements for months; the recognisably post-natal aspect of your depression stopped a while back; by every external measurement, you should be in an excellent place, and yet you feel worse than ever. You’ve tried everything short of an anti-depressant prescription, and if that’s going to be the next port of call, then why not give the light a shot first?

So you buy the light, plug it in at the desk you haven’t properly used in months, and sit. It’s bright and warm, and something in you relaxes. You start smiling. Within twenty minutes, there’s a tingling sensation all along the skin of your neck, familiar and alien, and it takes you a while to place it: this, for you, is happiness. You used to feel it outside, in the sun, on hot summer days, and always assumed it was a purely aesthetic reaction, your body responding to the beauty of blue skies and warm skin, but in this moment, you realise it’s so much more than that. You don’t just miss the sun; you need it, and suddenly it’s here again, for the first time in what feels like forever, and oh.

Oh.

It’s like waking up from a coma. You clean the fridge, then clean the kitchen – tasks which, even hours ago, felt utterly insurmountable. You dance to music, just because. You play with your child, and not only doesn’t it drain you; it delights you, and you no longer feel like such a broken mother. You sleep better. You start to write again. You keep up the exercise, but now, the high you feel while moving doesn’t instantly drop away when you finish. You tell a friend, still struggling to believe it, and she tells you that exposure to sunlight is linked to seratonin production: the chemical that literally controls your ability to feel happy and energised.

Oh.

You use the light every day. After two weeks, you start reading novels for pleasure, a practice you’d more or less stopped, and which had stated to feel like pulling teeth. (It doesn’t, now. It feels like coming home.)

You are whole. You have SAD. You have a magic lamp.

And it’s going to be all right.

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Whenever we watch a film or read a book, regardless of genre, we always approach the narrative with a set of basic assumptions about its content. If the story is set in the present day, we’ll expect a certain degree of familiarity with the context, though obviously, these expectations will vary in accordance with where we live and where the story is set. If the story involves a discipline or profession with which we’re intimately acquainted, we’ll likely be more critical of its portrayal than otherwise, because any liberties taken or errors enforced will stand out to us. By contrast, if the subject matter is new, or if it involves something we only recognise as a vague conceptual outline, we’ll be more inclined to take the writer’s word for it – an accurate until proven in- mentality. Which is, somewhat paradoxically, how genre stereotypes often get started: if our only, first or primary exposure to a concept is through fiction, and if we automatically assume that what we’re shown is well-researched, then seeing it presented differently at a later date – even if the subsequent portrayal is more accurate – might trigger our scepticism, especially if we’ve seen multiple versions of the original lie, now leant a greater authority by the act of reiteration.

As such, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between an assumption based on fact, like our own, first-hand knowledge of a profession or practice, and an assumption which is itself based on other assumptions, like a popular, romanticised version of a certain historical era. For all that humans are voracious learners, we don’t always consider how or why we’re absorbing information until someone asks us to provide a source, and by then, it’s often too late.

But what happens when you apply this habit of assumptions to purely fictional concepts?

Science fiction and fantasy stories are full of impossible ideas which nonetheless influence our thinking, taking on lives of their own. Dragons don’t exist, but depending on how we first encountered them, we’re likely to have an opinion about their essential nature; on whether (for instance) they’re more properly treasure-hoarding monsters like Smaug, mystical protectors like Falcor, or soul-bonding companions like Mnementh and Ramoth. But while we might prefer a certain type of dragon, we’re also willing to accommodate changes to their mythology: our assumptions are more fluid than fixed, and if we see something new, our first thought won’t be that the writer is incompetent or misinformed, because we understand that fictional truths are malleable.

As such, we’re supremely unlikely to challenge the presence of a wide and varied range of dragons in SFF: the comic swamp dragons of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld don’t preclude the ferocity of Daenerys’s Drogon or the thoughtfulness of Temeraire, and even when we encounter dragons who completely subvert our Platonic ideal of the species – who don’t breathe fire, who can’t fly, who might be feathered instead of scaled – we still accept the possibility of them, because, well, it’s fiction! Dragons aren’t real, and so they can be whatever we want them to be, up to and including a shapeshifting race of scaly humanoids who live in a mountain-tree. But at the same time, we often hesitate to extend the same degree of narrative diversity to persons who actually exist, even within the parameters of fiction, because it violates one of our assumptions-based-on-assumptions, that women can’t or Vikings didn’t, and therefore hits a mental stumbling-block.

Which, as I’ve said before, is a problem. Particularly in SFF, we’re used to the idea that unreal elements – magic, dragons, FTL travel – are anchored to the narrative by the presence of realism in other areas, like believable characters and settings; but when we start using familiar as a proxy-term for real, we run the risk of letting ill-formed assumptions dictate the limits of the possible – and when we’re dealing with fundamentally impossible situations, that’s an even more pernicious habit than usual. Which begs the question: what are our limits, exactly, when it comes to accepting fictional scenarios? Obviously, there won’t be a universal answer, but in terms of trying to establish a personal one, I’m going to borrow a terminology of limits from BDSM, which is surprisingly applicable: that is, the concept of hard limits, soft limits and requirement limits.

For these purposes – that is, a discussion of narrative preferences – I’m using the following definitions: a hard limit is an element whose inclusion we won’t tolerate under any conditions; a soft limit is an element we’ll entertain under particular conditions, but which otherwise breaks us out of the story and/or compromises its realism; and a requirement limit is an element without which we’ll struggle to enjoy the story at all. Speaking personally, then, and by way of quick example: I would consider the presence of three-dimensional female characters to be a requirement limit. If you effectively eliminate women from the narrative, then you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that you’ve constructed a realistic setting; and even if you include a host of plausible, plot-centric reasons for their absence (all male armies, gender-based plague) I’m still going to look askance at your decision to do so. By the same token, a soft limit would be something like owner/slave romances: I’m not wholly averse to them, but I strongly dislike seeing the issues of consent and power imbalance handwaved Because Feelings.

As to my hard limits, though: that’s an interesting question. Certainly, there are narrative elements for which I have a strong dislike, but in most instances, I’d still classify them as soft limits – that is, as devices that only bother me when they’re done badly, instead of at all – and with the exception of specific triggers, I suspect the same is true for most people. But if we’ve only ever seen an element written badly, or if it’s something we haven’t encountered before, we might reflexively write it off as unrealistic, when what we really mean is that it pushes a limit we weren’t conscious of having, or that its unfamiliarity takes us out of our comfort zone. Engaging with narrative is ultimately a question of immersion, the willingness of a reader to suspend their disbelief, and as with BDSM scenes, it’s difficult to do that if we don’t trust the other party not to accidentally hurt us.

(I have a theory that the emotional comedown we sometimes feel on finishing a powerful story is an equivalent phenomenon to sub-drop, which suggests the interesting counter-possibility that the lethargy and self-doubt often experienced by authors on completing a novel is a type of dom-drop, too. In both instances, there’s a neurochemical rush brought about by intense emotional stimulus – the act of either connecting with a story, or controlling it – that comes to a sudden end, and if we then, for instance, find ourselves feeling guilty about the extent to which we’re obsessing over fictional characters or frightened that what happens next is beyond our control, I see no reason why that couldn’t lead to other knock-on, physical effects. That being so, there’s a commensurate argument to be made that participation in fandom may work as a form of aftercare for creators and consumers alike: a way of reassuring ourselves that our feelings are valid and reaffirming our preferences, which adds a whole new dimension to creator/fan interactions. But I digress.)

Perhaps, then, our idea of realism in this context is less to do with facts and more a question of feelings. A story doesn’t have to be literally realistic, in the sense of conforming to real-world rules, in order for us to believe in the premise; rather, it just has to feel authentic, in the sense of convincing us that the setting is internally consistent, and while our notions of narrative authenticity are always going to be informed by our assumptions, we can still take a flexible approach.

Enter the concept of fanfiction: stories written about settings and characters with which we’re already familiar, but which exist for the express purpose of changing them. By its very nature, fanfiction plays with our expectations: we go in knowing exactly what happens in canon, but every story still interprets and alters that canon differently, and if the original work is incomplete – a show still airing, a film trilogy missing the final instalment, an ongoing series of novels – any fics written before the end are going to have different jumping-off points to those written post-completion. For instance, while it’s common practice for fanwriters to reverse or ignore particular canon deaths, not every fic which features canonically dead characters is a retcon. Instead, it might have been written at a point in time before the deaths had happened, extrapolating future events on the basis of an endpoint that was subsequently superseded: a bifurcation in the timeline, rather than an attempt at overwriting it, and readers will have to navigate the distinction.

As such, fanfiction requires its audience to continually adjust their assumptions, not just about what might happen, but about what has happened already, even when this means uprooting our base concept of the original story. Donald Rumsfeld’s famous line about known unknowns is a strangely apt description of this process, and is therefore worth quoting, not least because the man himself would probably shudder at the comparison:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Or, to put it another way: we know the fic will draw from canon (known knowns) and that parts of it will be excluded or altered (known unknowns), but not what original material the writer will contribute (unknown unknowns). To this, I would also add a fourth category, constituting our base assumptions about narrative and worldbuilding in general: things we hold to be relevant or true, but don’t consciously take into consideration unless forced to do so (unknown knowns). And fanfiction likes to play with these, too – for instance, by making small, pertinent alterations to an otherwise real-world setting and treating them as normative, rather than as an integral aspect of the plot. Which isn’t to say that original fiction doesn’t do likewise. It’s just that, for whatever reason, fanworks seem more willing to take the concept further, making blanket changes to social/sexual norms instead of simply inserting magic into familiar settings.

By way of example, I recently read a Wild West AU where everything was as you’d expect, except for the blanket social acceptance of homosexuality and lack of racism; the primary romance was between two newly married men, while the external conflict involved a pernicious neighbour trying to steal their ranch, and none of the cultural changes were ever questioned. For all that Hollywood can produce something as utterly batshit and ahistorical as Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, I’ve never seen a mainstream narrative write an alternate history for the express purpose of exploring social equality in a different era – but steampunk guns, anachronistic swearing and giant mechanical spiders? No problem.

As an inevitable consequence of being human and having opinions about the world, we’re always going to take our assumptions with us into fiction. But being concerned with realism – or rather, with authenticity – and Malinda Lo has a fascinating essay on the subject, for anyone who wants to explore it in greater detail – doesn’t mean we should have to sacrifice whole fields of narrative possibility for lack of historical or personal precedent. The point of SFF isn’t to convince us that these stories could happen here, but to create a hypothetical elsewhere, parallel to our own, that’s sufficiently internally consistent, or engaging, or preferably both, for us to immerse ourselves anyway.

And if there are dragons involved, then so much the better.