Posts Tagged ‘Bias’

There is, I’ve come to realise, a certain type of hypocrisy that occurs when eloquent, successful practitioners of reflexive self-defence neglect to consider the consistency of their arguments. It’s a tactic which relies in large part on those arguments not being written down or otherwise recorded: it’s much harder to establish that your interlocutor is contradicting a prior claim if they’ve never made it to your face, or if no handy verbatim record exists, and especially if they deny ever having said it. Your memory must be to blame, or else your comprehension: either way, they’re in the right, and will doubtless continue to be so.

Unless, of course, a transcript is produced.

Lionel Shriver is not an author whose books I’ve ever read for the same reason that I’ve never subjected myself to Jonathan Franzen: the woes of modern day, middle class white people is a genre in which I have little to no interest. It’s nothing personal, except inasmuch as I am myself a modern day, middle class white person – I’d just rather read about literally anything else. So sue me: I’m a fantasist, and always have been, and always will be. But I’m also a writer, and though I have no interest in reading modern literary fiction, its ubiquity and prestige – to say nothing of the many complex issues facing all writers and their communities, regardless of creed or genre – ensures that I still have a dog in its various fights.

Such as, for instance, Lionel Shriver’s recent keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival, the full transcript of which has just been published online.

You see where I’m going with this.

If I wanted to give myself a tension headache, I could waste several hours of my evening going through the dreadful bulk of it line by line and pointing out the various strawmen: the information purposely elided here, the conflation of the trivial and the serious there, the overall privileged rudeness of taking a valuable platform given you for a stated purpose and turning it to another. But what really stands out to me is the utter dissonance between Shriver’s two key arguments, and the bigotry that dissonance reveals: on the one hand, fury at the very idea of “cultural appropriation”, which Shriver sees as a pox on artistic freedom; on the other, her lamentation of particular types of diversity as “tokenistic”.

Early in her speech, Shriver says:

I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.

But this latest and little absurd no-no is part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible.

And yet, mere paragraphs later, we get this:

My most recent novel The Mandibles was taken to task by one reviewer for addressing an America that is “straight and white”. It happens that this is a multigenerational family saga – about a white family. I wasn’t instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual, with issues that might distract from my central subject matter of apocalyptic economics. Yet the implication of this criticism is that we novelists need to plug in representatives of a variety of groups in our cast of characters, as if filling out the entering class of freshmen at a university with strict diversity requirements.

You do indeed see just this brand of tokenism in television. There was a point in the latter 1990s at which suddenly every sitcom and drama in sight had to have a gay or lesbian character or couple. That was good news as a voucher of the success of the gay rights movement, but it still grew a bit tiresome: look at us, our show is so hip, one of the characters is homosexual!

We’re now going through the same fashionable exercise in relation to the transgender characters in series like Transparent and Orange is the New Black.

Fine. But I still would like to reserve the right as a novelist to use only the characters that pertain to my story.

I’d ask Lionel Shriver to explain to me how the presence of queer characters can “distract from the central subject matter”, but I don’t need to: the answer is right there in the construction of her statement. Queerness can distract from the central subject matter because, to an obliviously straight writer like Shriver, queerness is only ever present as another type of subject matter, never as a background detail or a simple normative human variation. Straightness doesn’t distract her, because it’s held to be thematically neutral, an assumed default. But put a queer character in the story for reasons other than to discuss their queerness – include them for variety, for honesty, because the world just looks like that – and it’s a tiresome, tokenistic attempt to be “hip” or “fashionable”. In Shriver’s world, such non-default characters can only “pertain to [the] story” if the story is, to whatever extent, about their identity. The idea that it might simply be about them does not compute.

And thus does Shriver bring us that most withered chestnut, Damned If You Do And Damned If You Don’t – or, as she puts it:

At the same time that we’re to write about only the few toys that landed in our playpen, we’re also upbraided for failing to portray in our fiction a population that is sufficiently various…

We have to tend our own gardens, and only write about ourselves or people just like us because we mustn’t pilfer others’ experience, or we have to people our cast like an I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca-Cola advert?

Listen, Lionel. Let me explain you a thing.

Identity informs personhood, but personhood is not synonymous with identity. By treating particular identities as “subject matter”instead of facets of personhood – by claiming that queer characters can “distract” from a central story, as though queerness is only ever a focus, and not a fact – you’re acting as though the actual living people with those identities have no value, presence or personhood beyond them. But neither can you construct a tangible personhood without giving thought to the character’s identity; without acknowledging that particular identities exist within their own contexts, and that these contexts will shift and change depending on various factors, many of which will likely exceed your personal experience. This is what we in the writing business call doing the fucking research, which concept astonishingly doesn’t apply only to looking up property values, Googling the Large Hadron Collider and working out average summer temperatures in Maine.

To put it simply, what Shriver and others are angry about isn’t the nebulous threat of “restrictions [being placed] on what belongs to us” – it’s the prospect of being fact-checked about details they assumed could be fictionalised entirely, despite being about real things.

If Shriver, in a fit of crass commercialism, were ever to write a forensics-heavy crime procedural without doing any research whatsoever into actual forensic pathology, readers and critics who noticed the lapse would be entirely justified in criticising it. If she took the extra step of marketing the book as a riveting insight into the lives of real forensic pathologists, however – if the validity of what she’d written was held up as a selling point, a definitive glimpse into the lives of real people as expressed through the milieu of fiction – then actual forensic pathologists would certainly be within their rights to heap scorn on her book, to say nothing of feeling insulted. None of which would prevent this hypothetical book from being technically well-written or neatly characterised otherwise, of course; it might well have a cracker of a plot. But when you get a thing wrong – when you misrepresent a concept or experience that actually exists, such that people with greater personal knowledge of or investment in the material can point out why it doesn’t work – you’re going to hear about it.

That is how criticism works. It always has done, and always will do, and I am absolutely baffled that a grown adult like Shriver, who presumably accepts the inevitability of every other aspect of her writing being put under the twin lenses of subjective opinion and objective knowledge, thinks this one specific element should be somehow immune from external judgement.

Except that, somehow, she does – and I’ll come to more of that later. But first, there’s an even bigger problem: namely, that Lionel Shriver doesn’t think identities exist at all.

Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived. I reviewed a novel recently that I had regretfully to give a thumbs-down, though it was terribly well intended; its heart was in the right place. But in relating the Chinese immigrant experience in America, the author put forward characters that were mostly Chinese. That is, that’s sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isn’t enough.

That distant thunking sound you hear is me banging my head repeatedly on the nearest hard surface. Look, I hate to be That Guy and pull the dictionary definition card, not least because I’m not a linguistic prescriptivist: usage comes first, and all that. But there’s a difference between asserting that a word should only be used a particular way and claiming, flat out, that it literally doesn’t mean the thing it (both functionally and definitionally) means. And to quote our good friends at Merriam-Webster, ‘identity’ means, among other things, “the qualities, beliefs, etc., that make a particular person or group different from others; the relation established by psychological identification”, with ‘identification’ further defined as  “psychological orientation of the self in regard to something (as a person or group) with a resulting feeling of close emotional association.”

In other words, being Asian doesn’t magically cease to be an identity just because Lionel Shriver says so. Nor does queerness. Nor does disability. An identity is a thing you claim and feel for yourself, in association with a particular concept or shared bond with others. That being so, what I suspect Shriver is groping after with this blatant misuse of language is the idea that there’s no such thing as a universal identity – that there’s no one way to be female or gay or Armenian, which is correct, and that good characters must, therefore, be more than just a superficial depiction of these things.

Well, yes. Obviously. (Though rather ironically, given her earlier thoughts on queerness.) But saying that there is no universal Chinese experience, and thus no universal Chinese identity, does not ipso facto prove that there is no such thing as any Chinese identity – or identities, as the case may be – at all. Think of it like a Venn diagram: every circle represents the particular experience of belonging to a given group or identity. The point of commonality is that they all overlap; the point of difference is that everyone experiences that overlap differently. You might as well argue that being Christian isn’t an identity because Orthodox Catholics and Southern Baptists both exist. But that’s the macro perspective, where group nomenclature is more taxonomy than experience. Identity is the micro level: the intimacy of self-expression coupled with the immediacy of belonging. And in between those two things, tasked with the perennial balancing act, is the seedy, ever-shifting vagueness problem of group politics: who has authority, who belongs, who doesn’t belong, and why.

But of course, despite her protestations to the contrary, Lionel Shriver does believe in identity. How else can you categorise her prior defence of her own book, The Mandibles, as being “a multigenerational family saga – about a white family,” a narrative in which she “wasn’t instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual [character]”? By her own admission, whiteness is an identity, just as straightness is an identity, distinct from their respective alternatives and made meaningful by the difference. But this is an uncomfortable thing for Shriver to admit in those terms, because it means acknowledging that identity is neither the intrusive hallmark of political correctness nor an exotic coat to be borrowed, but a basic fact of human life that applies equally to everyone. What Shriver views as a neutral default is merely a combination of identities so common that we’ve stopped pretending they matter.

Which they do, by the way. They really, really do.

Returning, then, to the subject of criticism, Shriver says:

Thus in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply. If a character happens to be black, they have to be treated with kid gloves, and never be placed in scenes that, taken out of context, might seem disrespectful. But that’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing. The natural result of that kind of criticism in the Post is that next time I don’t use any black characters, lest they do or say anything that is short of perfectly admirable and lovely.

You heard it here first, folks: the burden and self-examination required to be respectful to others – the same thing we ask of any child who borrows a toy at a birthday party – is simply too great for precocious adult genius to bear. And note, please, the telling differences in Shriver’s response to criticism of different aspects of the same novel, The Mandibles: when one reviewer critiques her portrayal of her lone black character, she threatens to be put off writing black characters for life; but when another reviewer rebukes her for writing an overwhelmingly “straight and white” novel, there is no similar threat to disavow writing white characters. But of course, she could hardly threaten to stop writing both – if she did, there’d be nobody left. (Not least because, in Shriver’s world, ‘Asian’ isn’t a real identity. Perhaps she should let Pauline Hanson know; I’m sure her relief would be palpable.)

When Shriver decries identity, she applies the concept only to those identities she doesn’t share, or which she views facetiously, the better to paint it as an arbitrary barrier between her artistic license and the great, heaving soup of Other People’s Stories to which she, by virtue of her personal rejection of the concept of identity, feels entitled. But ask why her writing focuses predominantly on a particular type of person, and suddenly identity is a rigid defence: the characters had to be this way, could never have had some other, more distracting type of identity, because the story was about this experience in particular. Which is to say, about a fucking identity.

Here is the paradox Shriver cannot reconcile, because it’s no paradox at all: if identity is irrelevant and the full spectrum of humanity is rightfully accessible to every writer at any time, then there’s no earthly reason why a multi-generational family saga shouldn’t have queer people in it, and no intelligent way to argue that it can’t. But if, despite the apparent irrelevance of identity and the presence of a full spectrum of humanity about which to write, you’re still predominantly writing about straight middle class white people, we’re liable to wonder what particular biases of culture or inspiration are skewing you that way. That’s not Damned If You Do And Damned If You Don’t – it’s just common sense.

There’s more to this argument, of course – most pertinently, the fact that certain writers occupy a position of greater cultural and historical privilege than others (something of which Shriver herself is well aware). When such writers decide to speak for and about more marginalised groups, that has a material impact on the ability of those groups to speak for themselves and to be heard, especially if their personal accounts differ, as they invariably do, from those of more prominent outsiders.

To give a particularly pernicious example, consider the case of Arthur Golden’s exploitation and gross misrepresentation of Mineko Iwasaki. One of several geisha interviewed by Golden in the course of research conducted for his bestselling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, Golden not only breached Iwasaki’s confidentiality by naming her as a source, but based a significant portion of his book on her life without permission, misrepresented actual historical details for sensationalist purposes, and generally twisted Iwasaki’s narrative. She sued him for breech of contract in 2001, with Golden settling out of court two years later. While Iwasaki was subsequently moved to write her own bestselling autobiography – Geisha, A Life – to try and ameliorate the damage, his appropriative actions nonetheless caused her material harm. And meanwhile, the film adaptation of Golden’s novel, which celebrated the worst of his changes, was critically acclaimed in the West, further contributing to the exoticisation of Asian women in general and geisha culture in particular. But why should that matter? It’s just a story.

Isn’t it?

In my bookmarks bar is a folder called Narrative Influencing Reality, where I keep track of articles, posts and news items that show a correlation between fictional stories and the real world. The first link is the famous story about how, in the late 1940s, the writers of the Superman radio serial managed to stymie the resurgence of Klu Klux Klan memberships by having Superman fight the Klan. They knew that the story mattered; that people in the real world looked up to Superman, even though he was fictional, and could thus be persuaded to use him as a moral compass. This is a positive example of narrative influencing reality. But there’s also plenty of negative examples, too, such as evidence that the over-the-top “romantic” gestures popularised in romantic comedies can promote social acceptance of stalking, or the real-world racist backlash against Asians provoked by the film Red Dawn.

As writers, we know that stories matter, or we wouldn’t bother to tell them. Narrative is a force that shapes our humanity, our history, and our perception of others – and that is why unresearched, stereotypical and thoughtless portrayals of vulnerable groups can be so very harmful. Writing respectfully about others shouldn’t be such a terrible burden as to be worth angrily hijacking a festival keynote speech; it should just be basic good manners. As actress Jenn Richards recently said, “Artistic freedom is important, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of actual human lives.” And stories are always, in the end, about actual people: what they think, why they matter, and how we relate to them.

To say that stories have power, but to deny their consequences, is a particularly self-deluded form of irresponsibility. And Lionel Shriver, in denying the very real harm done by cultural appropriation, is guilty of it.

Recently, I tried to watch the new Netflix series, Marco Polo, and made it through three whole episodes before ragequitting in a fit of disgust. It wasn’t the lacklustre pacing and derivative scripting that got to me, though they certainly didn’t help: it was the Orientalism and rampant misogyny that saw every female character – all of them women of colour – either viscerally sexualised or defined solely by their relationships with men. That the show took the character of Khutulun, a Mongol warrior who famously vowed never to marry unless her husband could best her at wrestling, and turned her into a smirking seductress in a leather skirt was bad enough; but having her father state that Khutulun’s ‘virginity’ was ‘promised’ to a warrior who could defeat her – reframing an arguably feminist decision as a sexist mandate and thereby stripping her of its agency – had me spitting fire. The first episode alone introduced not one, but two separate female characters by showing them in the throes of sex, their laboured panting audible even before the camera cut to their nudity; other women were shown in the periphery of shots designed to give prominence to men, off to the side even when the ostensible purpose of the scene was to introduce the ladies.

But amidst all the dehumanising nakedness and concubine orgies, what really struck me was a comparatively small detail: the positioning of the camera in the few scenes showing the Princess Kokachin interacting with her young daughter. Even in moments where the two women were ostensibly its sole focus, the camera was still painting them with an outsider’s perspective – we saw them from a distance, like strangers observing a ritual, rather than intimately, from their own eyes. When men interrupted these scenes – which, inevitably, they did – the framing felt like a pre-emptive extension of their gaze, slewing back to confirm that yes, we were viewing the women at a remove, rather than tightening to suggest, as the narrative context otherwise did, that this was a male intrusion into a private, female space. Though not as overtly gratuitous as the surfeit of naked ladies, the direction in these moments felt equally dehumanising for its failure to recognise that women can have a gaze of their own; can be the active participants within a narrative, rather than merely passive subjects.

Have You Met A Human Woman

In the field of developmental psychology, there’s a concept called object permanence: our awareness of the fact that things continue to exist even when we can’t see them. The fact that babies lack an understanding of object permanence is why they can be entertained by games like peek-a-boo or grow distressed when a parent or cherished object is out of sight: in their perception, whatever they can’t see has ceased to exist. Adults, of course, are meant to know better, but when it comes to the portrayal of women in film especially, I often wonder if certain creators lack object permanence about their female characters: if they only exist in sight of men, and otherwise fade away.

It’s not just a question of our telling stories that are primarily about men as a cultural default, though this fact is often used, somewhat paradoxically, to excuse the very problem it represents. If the protagonist is male, the logic goes, then it only makes sense that we’d see any female characters purely through his eyes – an argument that conveniently ignores the many narratives with male heroes that still make time to fully develop and humanise their secondary male characters. Ladies in these stories are treated as accessories, not participants: their individuality is less important than their adornment of someone else’s triumph, and as such, what they do on their own time doesn’t matter.

When discussing the presence of women in narrative, we often use the Bechdel Test as a basic means of gauging whether or not female characters both exist in plurality and engage with one another. As yardsticks go, it’s something of a blunt instrument, in that it pays no attention to the type of character or representation on offer, retaining its usefulness only because the achingly low bar it represents too often goes unjumped. More recently, as a means of compensating for these limitations, the Mako Mori Test was coined to take account of the actual roles of women in narrative – a test of context rather than dialogue, and another important axis of representation. When it comes to the presence and characterisation of women in cinematic narratives, however, I’d like to suggest a third such tool: the Solo Test, which a film will pass if it:

a) shows a female character alone;

b) in a scene that neither begins with a man leaving nor ends with a man arriving;

c) that doesn’t focus primarily or exclusively on her physical attractiveness.

Though the Solo Test could quite easily be applied to other types of narrative, it is, I feel, of greatest relevance to film: a medium whose time constraints often necessitate smaller core casts than can be managed in serial narratives and whose culture is powerfully male-dominated, both in terms of creation and focus. The test is meant as a measurement of gaze and visual imperative, because, to put it bluntly, I’m sick of watching films that will happily take the time to show us how male characters behave while alone or in private, but whose female characters only show up when the men do – women who are never viewed alone, in their own right, unless they’re getting out of bed (naked) or into the shower (naked) or otherwise caught in the act of cleansing or dressing themselves. It’s astonishing how many films still treat female solitude with a sneaking-into-the-girl’s-locker-room-mentality, as though the primary value in a woman alone is necessarily voyeuristic, her feelings relevant only inasmuch as they decode the mystique of her secret reactions to men.

There are, of course, contextual limitations to the usefulness of such a test – as, indeed, is the case with the Bechdel and Mako Mori. An equally useful variant of the Solo Test, for instance – and one that provides a helpful counterpoint when assessing the treatment of male vs female secondary characters – let’s call it the Sidekick Test – might focus on the depth of characterisation afforded to any non-protagonist by asking similar questions, such as:

a) Are they shown in isolation?

b) Do they have conversations and/or demonstrable interests that don’t involve the protagonist?

c) Are they defined by more than their sexuality?

Whether used separately or in combination, these tests can hopefully provide an interesting analysis of gaze, and especially cinematic gaze, as a means of assessing whose individuality and personhood is considered narratively relevant to a given story, or suite of stories, and whose is considered optional. Nor is the applicability of such questions restricted wholly to issues of gender; applying them on the basis of race – or along multiple such intersections, as per comparing portrayals of white women with portrayals of women of colour – can provide an equally relevant (and revealing) analysis. Though the language of camera angles and comic book panels is crucial to the establishment of a visual gaze, the idea of a narrative gaze – those facts of characterisation that creators deem relevant vs their expression within the story – is similarly important, and goes a long way towards describing the role and focus of non-protagonist characters.

While the bulk of characterisation comes through engagement and interaction, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of silence and solitude: the way a person behaves when the metaphorical cameras are off, when they exist for nobody but themselves. It’s in these moments that we see characters at their least guarded, their most honest, and if this space and privacy is routinely denied to women – if we see them only ever as others do, at a public remove, or else as voyeurs intent on their bodies – then we deny them personhood and object permanence both: we force them to exist as performers alone, and never for themselves.

more of this, please

Browsing the Guardian this week, I encountered a deliberately provocative headline – ‘Howard Jacobsen: All my books are apocalyptic. I have never met an intelligent optimist’ – and promptly did a double-take when I read down to see that Jacobsen has apparently been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his latest novel, J, which is being described as ‘dystopian’ and ‘apocalyptic’. I frowned at the computer screen, trying and failing to reconcile this information with Jacobsen’s self-professed status as someone who is contemptuous of genre things; a man who once argued that what makes genre fiction genre fiction is its formal predictability… the best novels will always defy category‘. And, indeed, it’s clear that Jacobsen does include dystopian fiction as a type of genre writing, as per his assertion that ‘internecine war will sometimes break out between the genrists – paranormalists deriding the moralistic pretensions of dystopians, for example‘. One could be forgiven for expecting, therefore, that Jacobsen has taken issue with such labels being applied to his own work; or at the very least, has failed to use those labels himself.

Apparently not. ‘In a way,’ he says, ‘all my books are apocalyptic.’

In his 2012 review of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Hal Parker made a salient observation about Chabon’s use of genre:

Reappropriating genre literature under the aegis of high culture has become a familiar convention of postmodern literary fiction; really, “literary genre fiction” is arguably a genre of its own at this point. Even more common is the practice of saturating a novel in a given milieu to such a degree that the milieu itself comes to serve as the “brand” of the novel. There, however, lies the rub: While Mr. Chabon is white, much of the milieu providing the “brand” of Telegraph Avenue (soul and jazz music, Blaxploitation films, the Black Panthers, Oakland and its environs) is unmistakably black. What this means is that “literary genre fiction” now runs the risk of becoming a kind of sophisticated “literary gentrification”—a process by which a predominantly black milieu is appropriated by a white novelist as a springboard. Put simply, is the story of “Brokeland,” whatever it may be, really Mr. Chabon’s to tell?

Though Parker is speaking specifically about a white writer’s appropriation of black culture, going on to link these elements with the novel’s arguable classification as a work of ‘gentrification fiction,’ the idea of literary gentrification has, I would argue, a wider and more general applicability which he himself acknowledges: namely, the idea of literary writers seeking to detach – and therefore, in their frequent estimation, elevate, or even rescue – genre ideas from their cultural, narrative and contextual points of origin. Part of what makes this such a difficult phenomenon to discuss, however, is the fact that ‘genre fiction’ has long since become an umbrella term encompassing wildly different types of writing, each with its own history, heroes and hallmarks, and each with varying points of intersection and overlap with the others. Much like a university attempting to unite a handful of disparate academic schools under a single banner by turning them into a college, ‘genre fiction’ is often treated – and, as a consequence, called on to defend itself – as if it were a single, coherent entity, and not, as per the university model, an administrative and academic siphonophore. As such, I would argue that genre fiction isn’t a genre in and of itself, but rather a college of genre – and that makes for some interesting analysis.

For instance: author N. K. Jemisin, who is African-American, has spoken in the past about her books being shelved in the African-American section of bookshops, despite the fact that she writes epic fantasy. It’s worth quoting her at length on this point, for reasons that will hopefully become apparent:

I understand why this section exists — because the publishing industry rather notoriously would not publish books by or about black people until the 1990s, unless those books were deemed of sufficient interest to white readers. Prior to the 1990s it was kind of hard for black readers to find these “accepted” black writers (outside of Black History Month), because there weren’t many of them, and because their works were mixed in with the mainstream. So black readers had to rely on word-of-mouth — which, pre-internet, was actually kind of limiting…

It took black authors self-publishing to lucrative success, with some rather famously becoming bestsellers by hand-selling self-pub’d books from the trunks of their cars, to prove to the industry that yes Virginia, black people do read, and what’s more they buy, and I dunno gee maybe it’s kind of racist to assume otherwise. So publishers paid attention and started snatching up black writers, and later black small presses, in an effort to latch on to this “new” audience. Many of them started heavy-handed marketing campaigns designed to appeal to the “urban” reader (where “urban” somehow = “black”) by using arcane language (e.g. “keepin’ it real!”) and plastering poorly-designed book covers with women who looked like music video refugees and men who looked like ex-cons. Or whatever the industry thought ex-cons looked like. And some black readers were grateful for the attention, after so long a time of neglect.

Problem is, most black readers aren’t “new” readers. That was a misconception derived from the initial racist assumption by publishers and retailers that “black people don’t read”; to people who swallowed that baloney, it must have seemed as though millions of black readers suddenly sprang fully-formed from E. Lynn Harris’ forehead in 1995. This is a completely illogical, frankly asinine assumption — what, were we all sitting around playing with our Dick and Janes before that? But that’s racism for you; logic fail all over the place.

And instead of dropping that original racist assumption that black people didn’t read, the industry gave it an upgrade: OK, black people do read, but they don’t read like the rest of us (read: white people, because Latinos and Asians and so forth don’t matter). And they don’t have the same need for well-drawn characters, engaging plots, etc., because they’re not very smart or well-read. All we have to do is give them are plenty of examples of people who look like them and speak “the vernacular” and deal with “their issues” (which are not like our issues). Profit! And because the industry also assumed that nobody but black people would want to read all this, y’know, “black stuff”, they decided to dump it all onto a single shelf, usually in the back of the store, and stick a label on it: African American Interest. Which might as well have read, “Everybody But Black People, Nothin’ to See Here. Move Along.”…

As a result of this old and new racism, the AAF section of today is mostly just a constricted, homogenizing ghetto. Writers stuck there — those who aren’t big enough to be cross-marketed — have lower earning potential, because it’s a lot harder to sell books when they’re marketed to 12% of the population than 100% of the population. Let’s not talk about how some black authors have been forced into this marketing classification against their will. And then there’s the problem of content reliability. There is no reason that anyone should look among the “thug love” books to find Alaya Dawn Johnson’s lyrical fantasy Racing the Dark. The folks who would be interested in one are highly unlikely to be interested in the other. But that is precisely what happened to her, because her book got shelved in the AAF section too.The Autobiography of Malcolm X has diddlysquat-all to do with Zane’s “Sex Chronicles”, but I have personally seen these two authors shelved side-by-side in AAF, I guess because X comes near Z on a bookshelf…

Worse, any bookstore or library that does this is, IMO, perpetuating the same racist assumptions that caused this problem in the first place. It all comes down to the idea of universality — which mostly just means “the ability to write something that appeals to white readers”, in my experience. Before the AAF boom, black readers were assumed to have no interest in books meant to appeal to white readers; hence the assumption that we “didn’t exist”. When our existence was confirmed, black readers were then assumed to be strange ducks, Not Like The Rest Of Us in taste or discernment, fundamentally alien — or Other — in our intelligence and thought processes. And black writers — despite having written mainstream books for generations — were assumed to be incapable of writing for anything other than this strange, alien audience. If “universality” = “whiteness”, well, of course we couldn’t possibly have it. Even if we did.

Trying to disentangle concepts of genre from concepts of race is, therefore, a highly problematic proposition, and one which ties in particularly to concepts of antiblackness, as per the fact that, as Jemisin points out, the African American section* is concerned only with the segregation of one specific racial identity. As such, it’s worth noting that both Howard Jacobsen and Michael Chabon are Jewish men, and while it’s conceivable that Telegraph Avenue might have been shelved in the AAF section, Chabon’s other works – such as, for instance, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which arguably belongs to the college of genre, and which, as the title suggests, is deeply concerned with questions of Jewish identity – would not receive the same treatment. Jacobsen’s J is similarly informed, taking place after an event described in his interview as a ‘mass pogrom’:

The new book is about the annihilation of any group, any “other”, Jacobson says. “The Jews happen to be the group that I know about, so it is informed by antisemitism, but the point is that if you get rid of ‘the other’ you then have an absence; an absence of irony, an absence of disputatiousness. No argument should ever win that completely.”

Not having read J – and despite my general dislike of Jacobsen, I’ll admit I’m tempted – I can’t pass any judgement on the quality of the book, its dystopian elements or its relationship with the college of genre. What I can say, however – and returning, at long last, to the original point – is that Jacobsen’s decision to write a dystopian work, embracing the potential of genre’s college without rescinding his previous disdain for it, and being rewarded for his efforts with a second Booker shortlisting, raises an important question. Namely: if, as Jacobsen himself contends, truly great novels defy categorisation, then in the game of literary gentrification, which writers are considered capable of transcending genre while still employing its tropes, and which are not? Because if, per Parker’s criticism of Telegraph Avenue, there’s a parallel to be made between the racial implications of a particular narrative and the context in which that narrative is both created and received, and by whom, then it doesn’t seem irrelevant that, whereas works like Jacobsen’s J, Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are, apparently without effort, classed as being both literary and genre-transcendent while still possessing strong dystopian roots, something like Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is not. When Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveller’s Wife, with its titular SFFnal conceit, can be shelved and discussed as a purely literary work, but Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze cannot, then we have a problem. When Nicholas Sparks, a man made rich and famous by his penchant for writing about tragically beautiful white people having romantic sex in the rain, states emphatically that ‘If you look for me, I’m in the fiction section. Romance has its own section… I don’t write romance novels,’ and the bookstores of the world agree with him, while N. K. Jemisin can end up shelved in the African American section regardless of the actual content of her novels, then yes: we have a problem.

Literary gentrification is not a simple matter of famous literary authors – who, coincidentally, tend to be straight, white men – cherrypicking SFFnal tropes and declaring them cleansed of genre, transcendent of but inspired by: it is as much a question of whose writing we deem capable of having this effect as one of which writers strive to have this effect, in that however much one tries to transcend, one cannot actually achieve it – or be told that such achievement has, in fact, occurred, regardless of intention – without a critical audience to argue, or even assume, that this is the case. The idea that works either by or about POC constitute a discreet genre is, as Jemisin points out, as problematic as it is established within the industry, but despite the college of genre being long defined as the home of ‘anything and everything not deemed literary fiction’, it had never quite occurred to me before that the former can be seen to fit within the latter. Perhaps this is yet one more reason why the question of diversity within SFF has become so prominent lately: we have, at long last, begun to argue for the rights of everyone in our college, however falteringly, and if those rights are ultimately defined as ‘the right of POC to not be viewed as inhabitants of a separate genre, but as an integral and assumed part of any readership or creative body’, then so much the better.

Because as much as I loathe seeing smug literary authors speak snidely about SFF in one breath while borrowing its tropes in the next, I’d be misplacing my outrage if this was the only level on which the phenomenon disturbed me. The archetype of the straight white male literary author is so culturally ingrained at this point that it can, at times, serve to obscure the very tangible prejudices underlying the reasons for its primacy: that, now as historically, in genre as in culture, the dominance of straight, white and/or Western men in a given sphere, coupled with a corresponding lack of representation from other groups, is not a fucking coincidence. I would be far more inclined to accept Jacobsen’s argument that truly great works transcend the classification of genre if the ability to bestow transcendence was not apparently restricted to a narrow class of person, not because they’re the only ones interested in producing such works, but because we assume their works possess a certain quality that the works of others do not, even when they deal with similar themes in a similar manner. Hypocritically borrowing from a genre one professes to despise is one thing, but doing so as part of a process of literary gentrification predicated on the selfsame dystopian history of racism, sexism and exclusion of the Other you’re ostensibly critiquing is quite another.

One cannot help but wonder if Jacobsen has noticed the irony.

*As the name suggests, the African American section is something you’re unlikely to find in bookstores outside of America. I’ve never seen an equivalent section separating out, for instance, Aboriginal literature in Australian stores, but that doesn’t mean such sections don’t exist, and if you’ve seen or heard of one, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

YA Article Bingo

The past few years have seen so many terrible articles in mainstream publications about the rise, worthiness and content of YA that it’s hard to keep them straight. Just last month, for instance, Joanna Trollope declared that the entirety of YA SFF “doesn’t really relate to the real world” because she dislikes The Hunger Games, which novels she admits to never having read. Before that, there was Megan Cox Gurdon up in arms at the idea that YA novels might tackle difficult topics like rape, abuse and self-harm, an alarmist piece which lead to the creation of the #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter.  We’ve had pundits suggesting boys won’t read YA titles unless they have gender-neutral covers, and others saying that YA has become so female-dominated that boys are being left behind anyway – which is ironic, given the regularity with which various YA heroines are criticised as being poor role models for girls. While some good commentary has occasionally emerged through the morass of moralising, misapprehension and general handwringing, more often than not, the dominant mood of such articles is censorious:  a condemnation of popular YA in particular that quickly turns to disparaging the genre in general, and doubly so where SFF is mentioned.

Which brings me to the latest such offering:  Laura C. Mallonee’s Time For Teen Fantasy Heroines To Grow Up, which is a perfect example of Mainstream YA Article Bingo and then some. After a few establishing remarks about the current glut of YA film adaptations, it’s not long before Mallonnee presents us with this gem of a paragraph:

“But it would be a mistake to assume that the same girl who sped through Twilight and Hunger Games will easily find her way to The Martian Chronicles or even contemporary fantasy’s immediate forbearers — works by authors like Tamora Pierce or Robin McKinley. Teens today aren’t genre nerds who only love fantasy. According to Ms. Sutherland, they read these books because it’s what their friends are reading. But how did they become so popular? And what do they have to say — specifically to their young, female readers — about the world?”

Obligatory pairing of Twilight and The Hunger Games? Check. The suggestion that modern YA fantasy is somehow fundamentally different to REAL fantasy, or even to the YA novels of yesteryear? Check. Assertion that popular kids read genre now, too? Check. Moral panic about female readers? Check. The cliche density is so high in just this one section alone, it’s hard to tease out all the problematic logic underpinning each and every statement. Take, for instance, the immensely judgemental suggestion that the “same girl” who reads popular YA fantasy novels is unlikely to also read real SFF, presumably on the basis that she’s a popular kid rather than one of the “genre nerds”. What this is, in essence, is yet another permutation of the Fake Geek Girl argument: a deeply sexist panic at the idea that, even when they’re reading dystopian novels, watching comic movies and learning archery for fun, ‘regular’ girls can’t really be true fans of real SFF, because their enjoyment of other, more mainstream activities – or, far more often, their possession of conventionally attractive looks – invariably marks them out as dilettantes only feigning nerdness in order to drive boys crazy. In making this distinction, all Mallonee has done is shift the accusation of dilettantism to the (again, female) creators of modern YA novels: they’re not writing real SFF, like Ray Bradbury did – just popular, pretendy SFF for cheerleaders and pretty girls to read.

We’re then treated to five paragraphs on the history of novels written for young women (comparing modern YA to books written over a century ago? Check!), which, while interesting, betrays a rather heavy-handed attempt to suggest that girl-oriented stories have always fallen into one of three categories: lurid, lower-class love triangles and romantic pulp, written for money; sweet domestic fantasies; and feminist novels where girls do sports and go to college and postpone marriage for the sake of their careers. Which isn’t to say that Mallonee’s analysis is wholly inaccurate, at least as far as the texts she’s chosen to reference are concerned. (Conspicuous omission of J. K. Rowling and the Harry Potter phenomenon while discussing the rise of YA? Check!). But in trying to draw comparisons between these categories and different types of modern YA – which is inarguably the intention – Mallonee is not only neglecting the idea that, this being 2013 rather than 1860, a heroine can quite plausibly experience a love triangle AND be domestic AND play sports at college without the readers’ heads exploding, but is effectively arguing that only one of these categories has any feminist value at all. And as much as I enjoy reading YA novels where the heroine avoids romantic complications (and despite my own strong feelings on the subject of love triangles) the idea that such romantic elements are inherently anti-feminist, regressive, cheap or otherwise unworthy simply doesn’t wash.

The next section – an analysis of Twilight and its reception – is quite breathtakingly hypocritical. Having rebuked the almost universal condemnation of Bella Swann with the assertion that “Branding youth culture as obscene or degrading is old hat — and teens don’t care,” Mallonee immediately jumps on the exact same bandwagon, comparing Bella with Elnora Comstock, heroine of Gene Stratton-Porter’s 1908 novel, A Girl of the Limberlost. “In a time when few women went to college,” she says, “Elnora’s ambition was a brave push into new territory, inspiring readers with aspirations for their own futures. What hope did Bella inspire?” The comparison with Elnora is then extended, only slightly more favourably, to Katniss Everdeen, who wins some praise for being a capable woodswoman – but not much. Once again, Mallonee’s hypocrisy comes to the fore:

“Though Katniss never had romantic feelings for him before the Games, she pretends to return Peeta’s affection in order to “give the audience something more to care about,” and it’s this complex brand of romance that becomes her main tool for survival. Critics have applauded Collins for subverting standard romantic hooks, but this faux love story actually draws many Hunger Games fans, who debate aggressively online over the respective hotness of Peeta and Gale, Katniss’s childhood friend. Though Katniss eventually becomes a hero, up until page 156 of the first book, her internal struggles revolve around her conflicted emotions toward Peeta and Gale, not on the ethical dilemma of having to kill people.” 

Take a moment to parse the above. In the first sentence, Mallonee asserts that Katniss has no feelings for Peeta prior to the start of the Games, pretending to love him as a survival technique only after he admits to loving her himself; she then complains that, up until page 156 of the first book, Katniss’s inner monologue is dominated by her struggle to choose between Peeta and Gale. Which is a rather astonishing claim to make, when you consider that Peeta doesn’t even admit his feelings for Katniss until page 158 – at which point, they haven’t even reached the arena. Even allowing for a slight slip in page numbers between various editions, it’s still clear that Mallonee has contradicted herself, first claiming that the romantic elements don’t exist at the outset, and then complaining that the outset consists of little else. And as for the idea that Katniss “eventually” becomes a hero – what of her selfless decision to save her sister by volunteering as tribute in the first place? Does that not count as heroic? Evidently not – but then, Mallonee is so keen to criticise both the series and its fans for their focus on romance that, rather ironically, she hasn’t focussed on any other elements herself. Except for death, of course – the dystopian setting is “grotesque”, and Mallonee takes a perverse delight in reciting just how many times the word ‘dead’ appears in the trilogy. (Dystopias are depressing and unsettling for teenage readers? Check!) Mallonee then expresses regret at the fact that, rather than emphasising a comforting moral or specific lesson, the ending of The Hunger Games is thematically open-ended. “Readers,” she laments, “are left to untangle the book’s intimations about the real world for themselves.” You’ll have to forgive me, but I fail to see how an invitation to further critical analysis counts as a negative.

And then, of course, there’s the obligatory comparison of these pulpy, trashy, regressive, female-authored SFFnal YA novels with a literary, contemporary, feminist, male-authored work which – funnily enough – is better than mere YA: Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. (Male authors doing feminism better than women? Check!) Despite having a teenage, female heroine, Mallonee finds it ” almost — but not quite — surprising” that Winter’s Bone wasn’t marketed to teenage girls; but then, even if it had been, one suspects that her imaginary, popular strawgirls wouldn’t have had the wit or wisdom to appreciate it. Not like those nerdy, unpopular readers, the ones we’re not talking about; the kind of girls who like popular YA novels are, according to Mallonee, a different breed entirely. This sort of dislike of the readers of popular YA is evident in her conclusion:

“The problem with Twilight and Hunger Games is that while operating in a seemingly black-and-white world they actually infect their readers with chaos: Twilight by exploiting its audience’s desire to completely escape reality, and Hunger Games by cementing its readers’ fears that there is nothing beyond the darkness.

The value of books like Girl of the Limberlost and Winter’s Bone is that while acknowledging the world’s ugliness, they carve a path of resilience the reader can follow.”

Respectfully, I would submit that this is bullshit. Throughout her article, Mallonee has made clear her contempt, not only for popular modern narratives, but for stories which dare to include a romantic component for their heroines – an opinion she has tried to imbue with historical significance by first disparaging the “promiscuity” and “passivity” of early romance-oriented novels aimed at girls, and then contrasting these lesser works with their unromantic, college-and-sport themed heirs,  novels which “captured the spirit of the Suffragettes”. That being so, it hardly seems irrelevant that, in critiquing modern YA novels, Mallonee has described the romance in Twilight as “sinister” and disparaged its role in The Hunger Games, all while praising the lack of romance in both Girl of the Limberlost and Winter’s Bone. For Mallonee to conclude, then, that the value of the latter titles and the failure of the former is due to other factors entirely – thematic descriptors that, quite pointedly, have nothing to do with romance – is both insincere and deeply inaccurate. Instead, she tries to pin that sentiment on David Levithan, quoting him in such a way that her own, snide conclusions about the failings of SFFnal YA read as an interpretation of his remarks, rather than as a revelation of her own bias. To quote:

“I asked David Levithan, Scholastic’s vice president and editorial director, whether such books might be a way for girls to escape the real world. He explained that most successful fantasy literature is actually deeply relatable to the reader: “The themes (survival in Hunger Games, unrequited love in Twilight, etc.) are completely real even if the situations are not.” Within this milieu, authors as influential as Meyer and Collins have the opportunity to inspire their readers toward greatness, but they squander it miserably. Neither Bella nor Katniss have dreams that transcend their current situations.”

 In fact, it’s not even clear if the bracketed reference to Twilight and The Hunger Games is something Levithan actually said, or whether Mallonee inserted it herself to contextualise his comments and just so happened to forget the convention of using square brackets when commenting within a quote. In either case, though, it seems abundantly clear that Levithan’s actual statement – that the success of fantasy literature hinges on its use of real and relatable human elements – is the exact opposite of Mallonee’s conclusion, which is that Meyer and Collins both fail to do this, as neither of their heroines “have dreams that transcend their current situations.” Whether intentionally or not, Mallonee has ended her article by quoting a prominent YA editor in such a way as to make him look highly critical of Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins – a ploy which is not only grossly misleading, but cheap. And that, I’m afraid, is the tone of her article all over. Rather than enter into an honest discussion of her issues with the portrayal of romance in YA novels and the genre’s newfound popularity – both meaty topics, and well worth discussing – Mallonee has instead decided to invoke the age-old spectre of SFF as meaningless pulp, less worthy of praise than real literature, and used it as a shoddy cover for different anxieties. As she herself says:

“Louisa May Alcott may have written sensational vampire stories, but she also wrote Little Women, a classic I first read in middle school that taught me I could do or be anything, and that my uneventful life was filled with meaning. I’m not betting on Meyer or Collins to create her, but I’d like to think another Jo March might still be out there.”

What a condescendingly sexist, genrephobic mess. While there’s nothing wrong with either critiquing the role of romance  in popular narratives or disliking popular works, the intimation that the presence of the former and success of the latter is somehow fundamentally unfeminist, unliterary and unworthy is deeply problematic –  as is criticising exclusively the tastes of female readers and the motives of female authors under the guise of impartial, literary concern. Thanks ever so for your patronising thoughts on YA SFF, Laura – but next time, save yourself the effort.

Three days ago, Kameron Hurley wrote an amazing piece on the erasure of women’s stories in particular, but especially their contribution to combat, in the course of which she linked to something I wrote last year about default narrative settings. The response to her article – and, by way of the domino effect, to mine – has been overwhelmingly positive, which is both encouraging and wonderful. This being the internet, however, there’s also been some reactive dissent, some of it outrageously trollish (as per one Redditor’s complaint that “not every book has to appeal to females and you have the entire romance genre if you want to read from a females point of view,” which, AUGH), but also a special type of defensive hostility that manages to completely miss the point – in this case, for instance, by asserting that, as the majority of soldiers are still male, it’s a fantasy to pretend that the female ones matter. And as this is an argument whose variants I’ve encountered a lot – not only in response to my PSA post, but generally elsewhere – it’s one I’d like to properly address.

So: Yes. The majority of soldiers in history have been male – that fact is not in contention. Nor am I arguing that women in history never experienced sexism, or that discrimination on the basis of race, class or sexual orientation never kept anyone down. What I am saying, though, is twofold: firstly, that our popular notions of how historical prejudice worked are not always accurate (or are, at the very least, prone to oversimplification), and that this is worth examining, especially in instances where most of what we think we know about history comes from fictional extrapolations of it which are themselves inspired by earlier fiction; and secondly, that acknowledging the reality of historical prejudice is neither the same thing as saying that nobody ever overcame it, nor as believing that such prejudice is inherent to every possible permutation of sentient society. By which I mean: whatever you believe about history, unless you think that human beings are predestined to perpetrate specific injustices regardless of the setting in which they find themselves (which is incredibly depressing, and also intellectually suspect, when you consider the extent to which culture is shaped by context), then admitting the existence of historical prejudices doesn’t obligate you to incorporate them in your fictional worlds.

But, says my hypothetical interlocutor, what about realism? Aren’t all these examples you’re giving me about lady soldiers and crossdressing spies ultimately just outliers and exceptions to the norm? 

To which I say: if your definition of realism hinges on idea that foregrounding a perceived minority is inherently unrealistic, then firstly, I’m going to question whether you’ve ever actually read a fantasy novel, and secondly, fuck you.

No, seriously: have you ever fucking read a fantasy novel? All the oldest, most beloved tropes of epic fantasy are predicated on the idea of taking some impossible scenario, unusual person and/or mythical creature, and then writing an entire fucking story about them – preferably all at once! You think real history was littered with bastard princes raised in secret by wise monks or noble farmers and then sent off on quests to obtain the Magic Sword of Destiny? You think sexy assassins are ten a penny? Do you even know how many fantasy stories explicitly establish the incredibly rarity of dragons, and then spend the rest of the fucking novel trekking to meet them? Are you even reading the same genre as me?

Fantasy is all about foregrounding outliers – quite often, in fact, it does little else. So when you sit there, straight-faced, and tell me you couldn’t get into Novel X because the main character was a black female pirate and that’s so unrealistic, what you’re actually saying is, the only exceptional people I want to fantasise about are the ones who look like me. Because the thing is,  if you’re making this argument in the first place? Then the chances are astronomically good that you’re either a straight white cisgendered male or someone who checks at least one of those boxes – which is to say, someone who sees themselves so well represented in narrative that it’s downright unusual to encounter the alternative. And thanks to the prevalence of those sorts of stories, it’s easy to slip into justifying their monopoly by assuming that any departure from the norm would be, on some fundamental level, unrealistic. I mean, why else call it normal if it’s not the base state of being, right?

Except, no, it’s not. On a global scale, white people are an ethnic minority. Women make up half the population of Earth. Straight away, that’s two of your apparently immutable majority axes defeated by basic math – and as for the rest? Let me put it this way: of all the people on this planet, two percent are naturally blonde, while one percent are natural redheads (and before you ask, no: that doesn’t correlate directly with having light skin – genetically, you can have pretty much any combination on offer). That might sound like a comparatively small number – and yet, if I were to do a random tally of the number of blonde and redhaired protagonists in SFF novels, I’ll bet you I could hit over a hundred just from the books in my house. Given that there are at least as many QUILTBAG persons as redheads worldwide – if not more than all the blondes and auburns put together, the data being understandably hard to measure – then statistically, they ought to have equal representation in the foreground of SFF novels. That would, after all, be only realistic. And yet, if I were to do a similar sweep of the books in my house, I doubt I’d find even a quarter as many such protagonists. We foreground what seems realistic to us, is what I’m saying – but that doesn’t mean our perception of reality is either all-encompassing or accurate.

 

So, yes. Sometimes, when we’re talking about amazing women or queer individuals in history, we’re talking about anomalies. Sometimes – but not nearly as often as you’ve been trained to think. And even if they are outliers, who the fuck cares? Stories about determined underdogs overcoming adversity to do awesome things and make their mark on history are some of the best ones out there. But you know what? That doesn’t make them the only stories you can realistically tell about members of perceived or actual minority groups. The fact that there were incredible women in history who took up swords and played at politics doesn’t diminish the narrative potential of those women who managed their families and held the fort instead – in fact, those two groups aren’t even mutually exclusive. Human beings are versatile creatures, and as rich a source of inspiration as history is for SFF stories, it’s not the be-all, end-all of what’s possible. The only limit is your imagination – or rather, the biases with which you’re content to constrain it.

 

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.  

It’s strange how the simplest chain of events can lead to an epiphany.

For instance: while reading this post over at gaming webcomic The Trenches yesterday evening, I clicked on a link to an eight-year-old blog post written by someone using the handle EA_Spouse. Finding the post to be extremely well-written and curious about the woman behind it, I did a quick Google search and learned that her real name was Erin Hoffman, that she was a game developer and – as of  2011 – a published fantasy author. Naturally, I looked up her work on Goodreads, where the synopsis of her first novel, Sword of Fire and Sea, piqued my interest enough that I headed straight over to Amazon and downloaded a sample chapter. Though it didn’t take long to read, I found myself so caught up in the story that, rather than relegate the book to my Wish List,  I bought the whole thing on Kindle outright. It was already late, but even so, I kept right on reading until 3am – which is when the epiphany struck.

Because as much as I was enjoying the book, a part of me was confused by my enthusiasm for it. Of all possible stories, why did this one appeal so strongly? To contextualise the personal significance of that question, it’s perhaps necessary to explain that I am, at present, nearly eight months pregnant with my first child, which state has played merry hob with my attention span and energy levels ever since the first trimester. Writing – and particularly creative writing, as opposed to blogging and essays – has proven increasingly difficult, but so too has reading: despite my best intentions, I keep drifting away from stories, unable to achieve my usual, crucial state of early immersion. Most likely, there’s a biological reason for this, or a combination of them – altered hormones, increased exhaustion, all the usual culprits – but it also seems to be an issue of increased sensitivity. By which I mean: while pregnancy hasn’t magically changed my personality, it’s definitely sparked a loss of patience, resulting in what I’ve taken to referring to as a drastically decreased tolerance for bullshit. Things that would irk me ordinarily are amplified in their irksomeness, and being aware of the dissonance hasn’t stopped it from influencing my decisions.

All of which is a way of saying that, when it comes to bugbears and errors in narrative, I’m currently much less inclined than usual to forgive, ignore or otherwise exempt them. Instead, they achieve a new emphasis which, when combined with my decreased attention span, leaves me much more likely than usual to abandon the book altogether. Or maybe being pregnant has nothing to do with it; maybe I’m just evolving as a reader, and this particular evolution has simply manifested at a time when the particular vulnerabilities and stereotypes of pregnancy have left me open to endlessly second-guessing myself, as though my thoughts and opinions have necessarily become suspect by virtue of being generated in proximity to a fetus. I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see, though even if my current impatience does wear off, that shouldn’t render all decisions touched by it invalid. The point being: why, when I’ve spent months giving up on novel after novel, should Sword of Fire and Sea prove so dramatically exceptional? At the risk of damning with faint praise (which I don’t want to do, as I’m genuinely enjoying the book), it’s not a breathtaking, original masterpiece. Though fluidly written, neatly characterised and solidly worldbuilt, both setting and plot are nonetheless comprised of familiar, if not borderline generic fantasy elements – not an inherently negative quality, but one still relevant to analysis. On the technical side of things, the characters smile too often, the romantic acceleration feels both overly rapid and oversimplified, and at times, the prose verges on purple, as per Hoffman’s unique habit of describing the sound and timbre of voices using food and nature-heavy metaphors. At base, though, Sword is a solid, well-paced adventure with strong RPG-esque roots (unsurprising, given the author’s professional background) – not gamechanging, but respectable and, for my money, quite good fun. (I especially like the gryphons.)

And so the niggling question remained: if I really am hypersensitive to narrative flaws, then what makes Sword exempt? And that’s when I realised: I haven’t been taking issue with all flaws, universally, but rather with a particular subset of flaws whose presence in SFF narratives is so ubiquitous that, up until last night, I hadn’t rightly distinguished them as belonging to a separate category. Further complicating matters, my decreased attention span has been skewing the data: some books I’ve been setting aside, not because I dislike them, but because their complexity and depth requires more cognitive energy than I can currently muster.  But once I removed them from the equation and focused solely on books which, regardless of whether I’d finished them or not, had all bothered me in similar ways – novels which, overwhelmingly, could be fairly categorised as light or easy reading – the similarity of their flaws was obvious: All were stories whose treatment of gender, race and/or sexual orientation had rubbed me the wrong way, most usually through the use of unhelpful stereotypes and problematic language, but occasionally exacerbated by poor or inconsistent worldbuilding. And once I made that connection, I realised my current tendency towards sharper criticism and decreased patience was part of a trend whose origins demonstrably predated my pregnancy; and yet being pregnant was still a relevant factor, in that my lack of energy had prompted me to look for more lighter, easier books than normal – exactly the sort of material that was proving so problematic. Which meant that Sword stood out to me, not because it’s thematically original, but because it’s a fun, straightforward adventure fantasy that doesn’t demean its female characters.

Which isn’t to say there’s a dearth of amazing, thought-provoking, gender-positive (or race-positive, or sex-positive) fantasy available for consumption. Certainly, there’s less of it than the alternative, if only by dint of historical volume; but even so, there’s definitely been a recent surge of awesome into the market. But simply by virtue of being in a minority, such works are overwhelmingly (and rightly) conscious of their status as counteragents. As many recent arguments have shown, there’s a demonstrable schism in SFF between those who view the racial, social and sexual homogeneity of the classics as being integral to the genre, and those who argue actively for the importance of diversity and the respectful representation of a wider range of cultures, characters and settings; and though the latter argument has considerable traction, the former still tends to represent the base fantastic default. As a result, while both positions are fundamentally representative of different political stances, members of the former camp tend to think this is only true of their opponents: by their definition, the traditional position must also be an inherently neutral one. According to this logic, then, politics cannot be subconsciously enforced through narrative: if no political judgement was intended, then none can be rightly taken. By contrast, actively seeking to incorporate one’s politics into one’s writing is unambiguously a political act – and therefore the antithesis of neutrality. And as the default is deemed to be neutral rather than equally political, then consciously political writers aren’t seen to be redressing a narrative imbalance, but rather needlessly seeking to create one.

That being so, the concept of light or easy reading is suddenly cast in a whole new perspective. If, not unreasonably, we classify such light novels as being stories which exist primarily to entertain, and whose base construction and principles are deemed to be uncontroversial when measured against the genre’s traditional values – stories which, by implication and intention, should be fun and easy to read – then what we’re also saying is that, in an overwhelming number of instances, such light stories are also traditional stories. Because if we accept that political SFF novels are written, not just to entertain, but to subvert both our real world expectations and the traditions of genre, then to a certain extent – or at least, to a certain readership – they cannot possibly qualify as light, because the act of being consciously political disqualifies them. By dint of striving to change or challenge our assumptions, such stories actively encourage introspection in ways that, quite arguably, light books don’t. Which isn’t to say that traditional novels can’t be complex or introspective – clearly, many of them are. But the whole point of default narrative settings – of elements which, by virtue of their traditional weight, can exist in a story unchallenged – is that the audience isn’t meant to question them. Instead, we’re simply meant to be carried along by the novel, engaging in a purely escapist or entertaining narrative – and as a process, that state of passive, unintrospective enjoyment is exactly what light stories are  meant to invoke.

This, then, is my epiphany: that all too often, describing an SFF novel as easy reading is functionally synonymous with describing it as traditional, in the very specific sense that, by definition, easy novels are neither subversive nor politically difficult. Which is why my current search for easy reading has resulted in so many failures and a significant loss of tolerance: because invariably, the light books I’ve picked up have been written in the belief that certain of their default settings, which I find to be both irksome and problematic, are inherently and inoffensively neutral. And because I disagree, it’s impossible to be passively carried along by the story: instead, I wind up reading actively, angrily, in a way that the author doubtless never intended. Under those circumstances, trying to find a light novel to read has proved virtually impossible. By definition, stories which don’t employ the traditional defaults tend overwhelmingly to be challenging and complex, while novels which do are either intentionally cerebral or unintentionally aggravating.

And that, to cut a long story short, is why Sword of Fire and Sea so particularly caught my interest: because it manages to be that rare creature, an SFF read that neither exemplifies the traditional defaults nor strives for political significance beyond the simple fact of this divergence. It is, quite simply (and yet not so simply at all) an adventure story that neither demeans its female characters nor makes a narrative point about not having done so – a light, easy read that nonetheless isn’t traditional. And right now, that feels like the most refreshing thing in the world.