Posts Tagged ‘Diversity’

For days now, social media has been abuzz over Kat Rosenfield’s recent Vulture essay, The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter, which focuses almost exclusively on reactions to Laurie Forest’s debut novel, The Black Witch. Overwhelmingly, the responses I’ve seen are binary: either Rosenfield is a terrible, malicious person who doesn’t know what she’s talking about, or she’s the only person brave enough to speak truth to power. Not having read The Black Witch, a book I can’t recall hearing about before this week, it was news to me that its reception was news at all. Now that I’m all caught up, however, I feel rather like the doomed bowl of petunias falling through space in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: oh no, not again.

The recent history of online SFF, fandom and genre discourse rejoices in an abundance of brilliant trashfires, but even in that context, there’s something about YA that routinely spurs the community to knock things up a notch with the Spice Weasel of Greater Fuckery, BAM! YA is so predictably riven with terrible arguments, in fact, that I made a Venn diagram of them. (In MS Paint, obviously. Because I am secretly nine thousand years old.) THUS:

YA fuckery venn diagram

Or, to put it another, slightly less tongue-in-cheek way: as with anything primarily intended for teenagers, it’s necessary to acknowledge that not all teens either need, want or can handle the same things at the same time, in the same way or to the same degree, while simultaneously accounting for the fact that both teens and adults are frequently unreliable narrators about where these boundaries lie. This creates a maelstrom of seemingly paradoxical, highly contextual arguments about what is or is not “appropriate” for a given audience: in the case of YA, the usual moral arguments about content are further complicated by both literary snobbery and a continual back-and-forth about whether YA authors have an obligation to “teach” their readers, whatever that means in context. Throw in the invariable clash between older, outsider commentators with only superficial genre knowledge and young, frequently inexperienced critic-readers making their first forays into public commentary, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Which isn’t to say that there’s never any insightful, engaging or otherwise fruitful YA discourse to be found online – far from it! It’s just that, when things do go wrong, the pattern of arguments tends to be as predictable as it is explosive.

Rosenfield starts her article by describing how early, glowing praise for The Black Witch was abruptly curtailed, thanks to a single negative review:

The hype train was derailed in mid-March, however, by Shauna Sinyard, a bookstore employee and blogger who writes primarily about YA and had a different take: “The Black Witch is the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read,” she wrote in a nearly 9,000-word review that blasted the novel as an end-to-end mess of unadulterated bigotry. “It was ultimately written for white people. It was written for the type of white person who considers themselves to be not-racist and thinks that they deserve recognition and praise for treating POC like they are actually human.”

As Rosenfield notes, Sinyard’s review consists largely of quotes from the book, interspersed with reactive commentary. That being so, it’s striking that Rosenfield neither attempts to engage with the substance of Sinyard’s objections nor addresses the text itself. Her defence of the book, inasmuch as she bothers to mount one, consists entirely of pointing out that, well, other people liked it!, the better to malign Sinyard for daring to disagree. This approach irritates me for three reasons: one, obviously, because people disagreeing about the merit of books is the literal function of reviewing; two, because it situates as irrelevant the rather core matter of whether the original criticism was warranted, or at least reasonable; and three, because it ignores a critical aspect of how Sinyard’s piece was received.

Never having encountered Sinyard before now, I can’t say whether this particular review is representative of her usual writing style, nor can I speak to the breadth of her experience. What I will say, however, is that this particular review is easily mistaken for a conflation of depiction with endorsement. While Sinyard clearly and extensively references the text, and while the immediate reasons for her dislike are clearly stated, her overall argument is sloppy, not because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but because she assumes her readership can fill in the relevant blanks.

To me – and, I suspect, to anyone with a solid background in pro-diversity criticism – it’s clear that she’s angry, not at the mere presence of bigotry in the narrative, but at how Forest has chosen to handle it. With few exceptions, Sinyard is asserting a specific failure of depiction, not depiction-as-evil, full stop. This is, to put it mildly, a really important distinction for any critic to make, not least because it’s the difference between saying (for instance) “I hate that you wrote about drug use” and “I hate that you wrote about drug use badly.” One is a judgement of content; the other is a judgement of execution. Sinyard is so angry at the book as a whole – as, indeed, is her right – that she hasn’t much distinguished between elements which create the problem and those which, with the problem established, serve to compound it, such as the presence of toxic tropes. But then, she likely felt it unnecessary: to those in the know, additional explanations were superfluous.

 

Not having been involved in the initial furore, I can’t speak to which readers thought Sinyard was arguing that depiction equals endorsement, therefore The Black Witch is Bad; nor can I state how much agreement or disagreement with her review was forged on that basis, compared to the number of people who took her as critiquing the execution. Nonetheless, it’s clear that this misapprehension did circulate, and – I would argue – played a salient role in what happened next. When, as Rosenfield points out, the book was positively reviewed at Kirkus, the ensuing comment thread made multiple references to Sinyard’s conflation of depiction with endorsement, both from her supporters and from those who disagreed. This confusion is also apparent in editor Vicky Smith’s follow-up essay, which manages come within spitting distance of recognising Sinyard’s point while still missing it spectacularly. To quote:

Yep, it’s pretty repellent stuff, and readers are in narrator Elloren’s head almost all the way through all 608 pages. She expresses her thoughtless bigotry over and over. She is racist as all get out… And she is homophobic, telling her brother when he comes out to her, “You can’t be this way. You just can’t. You have to change.” While I’m not sure I’d say that Elloren is misogynistic, her culture certainly is, and she is not one of those standard-issue fantasy heroines who rejects her culture’s strictures from Page 1.

But over the course of those 608 pages, as she studies, works, eats, and sleeps alongside those she’s been taught to hate, fear, and revile, Elloren undergoes a monumental change. It’s a process much like that experienced by Derek Black, godson of David Duke and son of Don Black, white supremacist and creator of the white nationalist internet site Stormfront. Black walked in lockstep with his elders’ agenda until he went to college and got to know the sorts of people he had previously vilified, eventually publicly disavowing white nationalism.

Here’s the thing about the redemption of real-world extremists: as happy as we are when they cross the fence, their pre-enlightenment point of view is not something everyone either can or should be asked to sympathise with. For those of us on the receiving end of bigotry, knowing that a particular person has been indoctrinated against us since childhood doesn’t mean it stings any less when they go on the attack. In much the same way that an abuser’s past victimisation doesn’t exonerate their present sins, we understand that, yes, even if a vehement bigot was raised to bigotry, they are still hurting us now, and we are allowed to be angry. That being so, comparing the protagonist of The Black Witch to a real-life white supremacist does more to prove Sinyard’s point than Smith’s. If a reader belongs to one or more of the marginalised groups so profoundly and constantly reviled in the text by Elloren, why on Earth should they want to read six hundred pages about a fictional bigot struggling to view them, the actual living reader, as human? Why wouldn’t that be upsetting?

In real life, anyone might be curious to read up on Derek Black’s white supremacist transformation, because he’s a real person who actually exists, but even so, no black reader is going to come away from that narrative thinking, “Wow, I really do deserve to be treated like a person!” because they literally already knew that. Which is what Sinyard means when she says The Black Witch “holds no regard to the feelings of marginalised people” – the big emotional reveal is seemingly predicated on the reader either learning from, being surprised by or sympathising with Elloren’s transformation, which means caring enough about her – caring more about her than those she victimises – to feel invested in the first place. And if you, as a reader, are one of those she victimises, then that’s unlikely to be a fun experience.

Returning to Rosenfield’s piece, she writes:

In a tweet that would be retweeted nearly 500 times, Sinyard asked people to spread the word about The Black Witch by sharing her review — a clarion call for YA Twitter, which regularly identifies and denounces books for being problematic (an all-purpose umbrella term for describing texts that engage improperly with race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other marginalizations). Led by a group of influential authors who pull no punches when it comes to calling out their colleagues’ work, and amplified by tens of thousands of teen and young-adult followers for whom online activism is second nature, the campaigns to keep offensive books off shelves are a regular feature in a community that’s as passionate about social justice as it is about reading. And while not every callout escalates into a full-scale dragging, in the case of The Black Witch — a book by a newcomer with a minimal presence online — the backlash was immediate and intense.

There are several salient criticisms to be made of this paragraph. To begin with, it’s a staggering act of wilful bad faith on Rosenfield’s part to act as if Sinyard’s decision to tweet about her negative review was, in and of itself, a malicious decision. This is quite literally what book bloggers do: they opine about books, whether positively or negatively, then share those reviews with others. But Rosenfield, like Sinyard, is sloppy. In failing to acknowledge the necessity of criticism in any genre, she acts as if YA authors are uniquely entitled to good press. At the same time, by neglecting to mention the current ubiquity of pro-diversity criticism, not only within SFF, but across the board, she creates the false impression that the phenomenon is unique to YA.

Rosenfield’s further claim that YA Twitter is “led by a group of influential authors who pull no punches” is as nebulous as it is frustrating. Not that she names these supposed leaders, of course: how could she? There’s far too many “influential authors” on Twitter to sensibly imagine any of them forming some shady cabal with dominion over the others, and that’s before you attempt to define what “influential” means in context. Better to leave it unsourced, along with her “tens of thousands” figure for YA readers “for whom online activism is second nature”. I’m honestly fascinated to know where she got that number: has someone done a survey? If nothing else, “tens of thousands” stands in stark contrast to the stated nearly 500 retweets of Sinyard’s “clarion call” and the 6000 notes on a related tumblr post. The fact that the review itself apparently garnered some 20,000 views does not evidence make.

More salient than all these numbers, however, is the fact that, as of the time of this writing, The Black Witch has 2,266 ratings on Goodreads and roughly a third as many reviews: if Rosenfield is going to invoke the ugly spectre of “tens of thousands” of angry strangers damning the book to purgatory, she could at least have the decency to be consistent about it. Instead, we get this:

Based almost solely on Sinyard’s opinion, the novel became the object of sustained, aggressive opposition in the weeks leading up its release.

Allow me to nitpick Rosenfield’s word use, here: the reaction to the novel wasn’t based “solely on Sinyard’s opinion”, but on her review. Opinions, by definition, aren’t necessarily founded in reality: Sinyard’s review, however, was extensively sourced from the text. Whatever qualms I have about Sinyard’s commentary, her review demonstrably gained momentum on the basis of its quotes, which included several full screenshots of various pages. Those who shared her ire weren’t trusting blindly in a familiar voice, but were judging actual excerpts from the book, and whether or not those passages were ultimately representative of the whole, it’s not unreasonable to use them as a gauge for potential interest.

That being so, it’s important to note that much of the frustration expressed towards books like The Black Witch  is the product of a still largely homogeneous mainstream YA market. While progress has been and is being made to diversify the field, the front-and-centering of books which, as per Sinyard’s review, are written more for the privileged than the marginalised – and more, which are often either dismissive of marginalisation or laden with stereotypes – is still a very real problem. Indie authors, who are frequently stigmatised by simple virtue of their “failure” to achieve mainstream publication, but whose books often feature far greater diversity than their traditional counterparts, have to fight hard for readers and recognition both, which makes the seemingly effortless hype afforded books like The Black Witch a bitter pill to swallow. In that context, anger at this particular title isn’t just about the book itself, but the extent to which it represents a wider structural bias – one which, unless actively identified, has a tendency to pass as a silent default.

Its publisher, Harlequin Teen, was bombarded with angry emails demanding they pull the book. The Black Witch’s Goodreads rating dropped to an abysmal 1.71 thanks to a mass coordinated campaign of one-star reviews, mostly from people who admitted to not having read it.

And now we hit the crux of Rosenfield’s argument: the money quote, for all that she’s lacking in sources. After all, there’s a difference between Harlequin Teen receiving five emails and fifty, and in light of the fact that the majority of her selected links are now dead, in the absence of any confirming screenshots, we’ve only her word that there really was a “mass coordinated campaign,” as opposed to a smaller number of angry readers engaging in bad behaviour.

Even so, regardless of your thoughts on The Black Witch in particular, it should be a no-brainer that leaving 1-star reviews of a book you haven’t actually read is a terrible thing to do. It is, quite literally, a Sad Puppy tactic, and even if it wasn’t just plain bad manners, that fact alone is enough to make it verboten. Even on Goodreads, it’s entirely possible to discuss the failings of a book you don’t want to read without falsely claiming to have done so. Similarly, and as little faith in the novel as the quoted sections inspire, the idea that The Black Witch ought to be pulled for its sins is needlessly excessive. Bad books exist, which is why reviews exist: to tell us not to buy them.

Or rather, to suggest we don’t. Bad reviews are not mandates of Thou Shalt Not Read – they are, to quote Captain Barbossa, more like guidelines. While I agree that voting with your wallet plays an important part in shaping what the publishing industry sees as viable, making blanket declarations to the effect that Buying This Bad Book Makes You A Bad Person For Contributing To Harm is, frankly, both toxic and unhelpful, not least because there is no absolute, definitive line in the sand about what “bad” is. As I’ve had occasion to say before in a fandom context,  you can’t ban stories that feature “bad” elements uncritically without also banning a great deal of content you’d much rather keep – and besides which, it’s entirely possible to both criticise a story and enjoy it.

Not having read The Black Witch, I can’t speak to its other qualities, but then, as both Sinyard and Smith have made clear, it’s likely not a book for me. I was never the intended audience, and thanks to how widely circulated Sinyard’s review has been, it’s easier than it would otherwise be for readers who dislike its approach to avoid it. Which is – again! – exactly what reviews are for. And, look: I know this is a delicate point to make, but nobody who’s currently angry about The Black Witch came into the world, Athena-esque, possessed of their present wisdom. As a teenager, I absolutely adored the Axis trilogy and Wayfarer Redemption series by Sara Douglass: they were my first, formative foray into adult fantasy novels, and they made me consider a lot of things I never had before. As an adult, however, I find much of the material horrifying – there is so much gratuitous rape in those books, you guys! So many racist, ableist tropes! But as critical as I am of the books now, at the time, they helped me to start being critical: and everyone has to start somewhere.

Particularly in the present political moment, I can well understand why Harlequin Teen’s decision to release a novel whose protagonist is the fantasy equivalent of a white nationalist is being criticised. I can also understand why, given the same political context, those responsible for the book might have thought, “Here is a story which teens raised by bigots, who are still in the process of unlearning their own bigotry, might find meaningful.” Returning to the Derek Black example, while no African American reading about his break with white supremacy would learn anything new about their own humanity, the same isn’t true for a reader who shares his background – and if such a person can be converted, isn’t that ultimately a good thing?

There is, I feel, a tension on the left about bigots who cross the floor and recant: we want it to happen, but we don’t want to give people cookies for finally meeting the most basic standards of human decency, because – we argue – they should just be doing that anyway. But the difficult, prickly truth is this: if accepting the humanity of people you’ve been raised to hate, fear and devalue was really as simple as flicking a mental switch, the world would be a damn sight better than it is. Personal change is a messy, imperfect process. From an emotional remove, it’s easy to laugh at that guy who thinks he’s a hero for loving his wife’s curves, but for a lot of people, that’s exactly what their first forays into better personhood look like. I’m starting to feel like we need to apply that xkcd strip about not making fun of people not knowing basic things to the pro-diversity movement: yes, it’s often frustrating to have repeat runthroughs of Diversity 101, but without the basics, how is anyone going to progress?

ten_thousand

But then – and this is getting slightly away from The Black Witch, but bear with me – I also feel like this used to be what happened. The pace of internet discourse and the evolution of its various subcommunities moves so fast that the passage of a year is practically an epoch, such that patterns and behaviours which feel set in stone are objectively quite recent. Once upon a time, as memory serves, the etiquette was to respond politely to newbie queries about feminism, diversity and whathaveyou until or unless the questioner proved themselves hostile, the better to catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Less than a decade ago, it was still new and exciting to be building social media communities online, discussing books and politics and shared interests with people around the world. But what absolutely ruined that optimistic approach – the tactic that was developed and perpetuated with the direct intention of emotionally exhausting the opposition – was the nascent alt-right, MRA, 4-chan-and-reddit-sanctioned rise in trolling.

Offline, we talk about how the culture of particular communities – their character, language and rituals – can be shaped by traumatic events. I would argue that the same is also true of digital communities, and that a great deal of what is now held to be standard discursive practice in left-wing circles was drawn up to circumvent being trapped in bad faith arguments by trolls who deliberately used “polite” language in their initial exchanges as a bait-and-switch tactic. The term sealioning was coined in response to the practice of nicely, “cluelessly” importuning the target with requests for sources the questioner never intended to read, and that’s just one permutation of the phenomenon.

Almost every person I know who spends any time arguing about diversity and feminism on the internet, myself included, has experienced burnout at the hands of trolls who mimic sincere engagement with the express purpose of draining their interlocutor. The cumulative effect has been a bit like the Boy Who Cried Wolf: we’ve all encountered so many terrible assholes masquerading as Polite Bigots Who Are Genuinely Curious About Your Arguments that now, whenever an actual Diversity 101 student wanders in asking beginner-level questions or failing to recognise the higher-level ingroup shorthand or jargon for what it is, the default response is to either laugh or tear them a new one. And if I were a cynical person, I might be given to wonder if that was the real end-goal all along, the better to drive rebuffed fence-sitters back towards MRA forums. (But that’s another essay.)

The point being that, aside from every other valid personal and historical reason why those with limited emotional energy to expend on the induction of baby lefties are disinclined to focus on redeeming bigots, the recent digital past has pretty firmly entrenched that course as folly. So when a fictionalised account of that process comes along, all wrapped up in a fantasy setting for teenagers, and presents itself as a narrative both for and about the group we’re least invested in working to redeem or in viewing sympathetically before that point – well. We’re exhausted. Of course we are.

I say again: I haven’t read The Black Witch, and I came away from Sinyard’s review with a poor impression of it. I don’t think it’s for me, or for a lot of people like me, and without having attempted the text myself, I don’t feel qualified to speak about what value it might or might not have to others – and particularly teenagers – whose background more closely mimics that of the protagonist. But even if you hew firmly to the idea that the book is terrible, arguing that nobody else should be allowed to read it lest they do harm to strangers is completely absurd. Good values and intelligent opinions aren’t formed by simply reading the “right” books and putting a blind, uncritical trust in whoever sets those parameters, but by engaging critically and intelligently regardless of what you’re reading.

When the awful Otto objects, indignant and vehement, to Wanda calling him a stupid ape in A Fish Called Wanda, snapping, “Apes don’t read philosophy!”, Wanda shoots back at him, “Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it.” More than once in the shamefully recent past, I’ve fallen into the trap of uncritically adopting an opinion just because people I thought were Good Guys had expressed it, and damned if that has ever led to anything but me, belatedly, realising I was an ass.

By the same token, I can think of plenty of equally recent instances where I’ve had a wildly different take on a given book or series to friends whose judgement and acumen I respect enormously. A huge number of people in my circle loved Uprooted; despite my affection for Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, I ended up ragequitting when I’d barely started. Ditto my reaction to Saga, a wildly successful series beloved of many friends which, from what I’ve seen of the later issues, is doing a lot of great stuff: even so, I never made it past the first issue. The same thing happened with Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, a polarising but popular book: I couldn’t get past chapter two, but plenty of others loved it.

One of my very first forays into online YA discourse happened back in 2011, a full six years ago: remember the blowup when Bitch Magazine put up a list of 100 feminist YA novels, then removed several of them after individual commenters objected to their inclusion, at which point all hell broke loose? Critics disagreeing about the feminist and/or diversity merits of various YA novels is not new. What is new is the rigid insistence in certain quarters on One True Interpretation, never to be questioned or gainsaid, such that 1-starring a book you haven’t read or asking the publisher to pull it is presented as a sensible course of action.

Back when Benjanun Sriduangkaew was still operating as Requires Hate, I remember tweeting a photo of a stack of newly-purchased SFF books and receiving an instant, scathing rebuke from her about the racism inherent in having bought something written by Libba Bray. While I don’t think we’re anywhere near her levels of toxicity in the current discourse overall, I’m as annoyed by the clear comparison between her stance then and certain reactions to The Black Witch now as I am by the identical decision of Sad Puppies and diversity advocates alike to suggest that 1-starring unread, “objectionable” books is a good idea.

Which brings me, once again, to Rosenfield’s article, the latter half of which is, by and large, more cogent than the start. That being so, I was surprised by the amount of anger I saw directed at her on social media for those sections in particular, deriding her decision to quote people “without consent”, or without warning them beforehand that she was going to link to their Twitter accounts.

To be clear: the fact that some of the people named in Rosenfield’s piece were subsequently subjected to new vitriol from strangers who disliked their opinions is awful. That sort of abuse helps no one, and I hate that it’s become so ubiquitous as to frequently be written off as just par for the course. But by the same token, when it comes to suggesting Rosenfield had no right to link anyone without permission – and to quote the formidable Roxanne Gay, who responded to the piece herself – that’s not how journalism works.

Tweets are part of the public record: both the APA and various university systems have established referencing protocols for their citation. The internet is a public space: what we say and do here, in writing, is always on the record. One tweet I saw objected to Rosenfield quoting minors without permission. I have no idea if that’s true – her one professedly teenage source is given a pseudonym – but even so, as best I can tell, the usual journalistic standards about requiring a minor’s guardians to sign off on their being interviewed doesn’t apply to quoting online content, which has – as stated – already been made public.

(I’m happy to be corrected on that point, by the way, but given how many widely-circulated BuzzFeed articles – to name just one outlet – consist almost entirely of screenshots of content from Twitter and tumblr, much of which is made by teens, it doesn’t seem like that sort of journalistic restriction exists in any meaningful way.)

As someone with Diagnosed Mental Health Issues (TM), I completely understand how finding something you said unexpectedly referenced in a prominent publication – especially when it results in a sudden influx of angry digital contact – can be not only upsetting, but actively stressful. But at the same time, strangers are not responsible for setting additional boundaries in anticipation of your unknown mental health needs. In making the decision to engage publicly online, either despite or because of our personal issues, all of us are consenting to being on record: to being quoted, and potentially contacted in response to those quotes, regardless of the convenience.

In those rare moments when we do consider potentially going viral, it tends to be the mental equivalent to clicking “agree” on yet another set of iTunes terms and conditions: yes, yes, risks and blah and whatever blah, just let me keep using the thing! But that doesn’t make the potential consequences any less real – and when we’re writing under our actual names, in our professional capacities as authors or critics, about literary issues, in a medium which is expressly designed to allow strangers to talk to us, being outraged that someone actually linked to what we said in a critical way makes as much sense as going for a long walk when the forecast is rain and crying foul when the clouds open. Someone disagreeing with your opinion and linking to what you said is not the same thing as a person deliberately encouraging their readers to engage in harassment: while the latter is certainly bullying, the former is merely a basic journalistic standard. That it can sometimes have the same effect when assholes show up to mouth off on their own volition is gross and angrifying, but that doesn’t mean the reporter has acted either badly or in bad faith.

That being said, I can’t let Rosenfield’s summation of other recent YA “controversies” pass without examination. Near the end of her piece, she says:

Twitter being Twitter, that outcome seems unlikely. In recent months, the community was bubbling with a dozen different controversies of varying reach — over Nicola Yoon’s Everything Everything (for ableism), Stephanie Elliot’s Sad Perfect (for being potentially triggering to ED survivors), A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas (for heterocentrism), The Traitor’s Kiss by Erin Beaty (for misusing the story of Mulan), and All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater (in a peculiar example of publishing pre-crime, people had decided that Stiefvater’s book was racist before she’d even finished the manuscript.)

Given the context of the article, these issues are presented as being similar in nature to what happened with The Black Witch – and again, I’m annoyed by the number of unsourced claims on offer (and, just as equally, by yet another person 1-starring an unreleased, unread novel). But as in her earlier arguments, what Rosenfield misses here, whether wilfully or in ignorance, is the vital distinction between critics actually doing their jobs – which is to say, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of various books for the edification of potential readers – and an uglier sort of backlash. As previously mentioned, it’s entirely possible to find fault with one aspect of a book, or to make note of any potentially triggering content, while still endorsing it otherwise, and it’s to Rosenfield’s discredit that she’s happy eliding this distinction.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that, as pissed off as I am at the sneering, editorialised, biased way in which Rosenfield addresses criticism of The Black Witch in particular, her remarks about the pitfalls of online YA discourse in general have some merit. Writing this blog, I don’t expect that everyone who reads it will agree with me. I don’t have some masochistic urge to be yelled at on Twitter,  and nor – for the record – do I think I’ve gotten everything here right. There are times when writing an essay comes naturally, the whole thing flowing onto the page in a single, cogent burst. Writing this piece has been harder, more fragmented, the process full of deletions and revisions. Whenever I act as a critic, I always feel achingly aware of the potential for an argument to twist out from under me: for a single elision or botched turn of phrase to derail my intent into error. Which is why shoddy criticism, bad arguments and poor reasoning invariably raise my hackles: online, there’s a frequent and terrible conflation of opinion with analysis, and while both can be equally valuable – and while they can certainly overlap – we give them different names for a reason.

The objections of marginalised people to narratives which take a “we’re talking about you, not to you” approach to their lived experiences are, and always will be, valid. Likewise, it’s important to consider the impact of particular tropes, not just within an individual work, but as legacies of a wider cultural history and movement. No book, no reader, no author and no critic is an island, and while we’re still individually entitled to our personal preferences, our tastes are nonetheless informed by the world around us, which means that we, in turn, can potentially influence others. Discussing a book you haven’t read or stating your reasons for not doing so is perfectly acceptable practice, and always has been, and always will be – indeed, as I’ve said multiple times already, this is what reviews are for.

The question of what makes good YA is never going to have a consistent answer, no matter how finely you parse the politics of moral purity. That being so, I’d far rather encourage readers to form their own opinions on the basis of the evidence – even if they end up drawing an existing conclusion; even if they’d rather assess reviews than the book itself, or vice versa – than to simply trust whatever they’re told implicitly. Because sooner or later, everyone disagrees about something, and if your only response to a conflict between two trusted authorities is to wait for one of them to make your mind up for you – well. I’d say I’d be frightened to live in that world, but truthfully, I think we already are.

The real trick, then, is to change it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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And lo, in the leadup to Christmas, because it has been A Year and 2016 is evidently not content to go quietly into that good night, there has come the requisite twitter shitshow about diversity in YA. Specifically: user @queen_of_pages (hereinafter referred to as QOP) recently took great exception to teenage YouTube reviewer Whitney Atkinson acknowledging the fact that white and straight characters are more widely represented in SFF/YA than POC and queer characters, with bonus ad hominem attacks on Atkinson herself. As far as I can make out, the brunt of QOP’s ire hinges on the fact that Atkinson discusses characters with specific reference to various aspects of their identity – calling a straight character straight or a brown character brown, for instance – while advocating for greater diversity. To quote QOP:

[Atkinson] is separating races, sexuality and showing off her white privilege… she wants diversity so ppl need to be titled by their race, disability or sexuality. I want them to be titled PEOPLE… I’m Irish. I’ve been oppressed but I don’t let it separate me from other humans.

*sighs deeply and pinches bridge of nose*

Listen. I could rant, at length, about the grossness of a thirtysomething woman, as QOP appears to be, insulting a nineteen year old girl about her appearance and lovelife for any reason, let alone because of something she said about YA books on the internet. I could point out the internalised misogyny which invariably underlies such insults – the idea that a woman’s appearance is somehow inherently tied to her value, such that calling her ugly is a reasonable way to shut down her opinions at any given time – or go into lengthy detail about the hypocrisy of using the term “white privilege” (without, evidently, understanding what it means) while complaining in the very same breath about “separating races”. I could, potentially, say a lot of things.

But what I want to focus on here – the reason I’m bothering to say anything at all – is QOP’s conflation of mentioning race with being racist, and why that particular attitude is both so harmful and so widespread.

Like QOP, I’m a thirtysomething person, which means that she and I grew up in the same period, albeit on different continents. And what I remember from my own teenage years is a genuine, quiet anxiety about ever raising the topic of race, because of the particular way my generation was taught about multiculturalism on the one hand and integration on the other. Migrant cultures were to be celebrated, we were told, because Australian culture was informed by their meaningful contributions to the character of our great nation. At the same time, we were taught to view Australian culture as a monoculture, though it was seldom expressed as baldly as that; instead, we were taught about the positive aspects of cultural assimilation. Australia might benefit from the foods and traditions migrants brought with them, this logic went, but our adoption of those things was part of a social exchange: in return for our absorption of some aspects of migrant culture, migrants were expected to give up any identity beyond Australian and integrate into a (vaguely homogeneous) populace. Multiculturalism was a drum to beat when you wanted to praise the component parts that made Australia great, but suggesting those parts were great in their own right, or in combinations reflective of more complex identities? That was how you made a country weaker.

Denying my own complicity in racism at that age would be a lie. I was surrounded by it in much the same way that I was surrounded by car fumes, a toxic thing taken into the body unquestioning without any real understanding of what it meant or was doing to me internally. At my first high school, two of my first “boyfriends” (in the tweenage sense) were POC, as were various friends, but because race was never really discussed, I had no idea of the ways in which it mattered: to them, to others, to how they were judged and treated. The first time I learned anything about Chinese languages was when one of those early boyfriends explained it in class. I remember being fascinated to learn that Chinese – not Mandarin or Cantonese: the distinction wasn’t referenced – was a tonal language, but I also recall that the boy himself didn’t volunteer this information. Instead, our white teacher had singled him out as the only Chinese Australian present and asked him to explain his heritage: she assumed he spoke Chinese, and he had to explain that he didn’t, not fluently, though he still knew enough to satisfy her question. That exchange didn’t strike me as problematic at the time, but now? Now, it bothers me.

At my second high school, I was exposed to more overt racism, not least because it was a predominantly white, Anglican private school, as opposed to the more diversely populated public school I’d come from. As an adult, I’m ashamed to think how much of it I let pass simply because I didn’t know what to say, or because I didn’t realise at the time now noxious it was. Which isn’t to say I never successfully identified racism and called it out – I was widely perceived as the token argumentative lefty in my white male, familially right-wing friend group, which meant I spent a lot of time excoriating them for their views about refugees – but it wasn’t a social dealbreaker the way it would be now. The fact that I had another friend group that was predominantly POC – and where, again, I was the only girl – meant that I also saw people discussing their own race for the first time, forcing me to examine the question more openly than before.

Even so, it never struck me as anomalous back then that whereas the POC kids discussed their own identities in terms of race and racism, the white kids had no concept of their whiteness as an identity: that race, as a concept, informed their treatment of others, but not how they saw themselves. The same boys who joked about my biracial crush being a half-caste and who dressed up as “terrorists” in tea robes and tea towels for our final year scavenger hunt never once talked about whiteness, or about being white, unless it was in specific relation to white South African students or staff members, of which the school historically had a large number. (The fact that we had no POC South African students didn’t stop anyone from viewing “white” as a necessary qualifier: vocally, the point was always to make clear that, when you were talking about South Africans, you didn’t mean anyone black.)

Which is why, for a long time, the topic of race always felt fraught to me. I had no frame of reference for white people discussing race in a way that wasn’t saturated with racism, which made it easy to conflate the one with the other. More than that, it had the paradoxical effect of making any reference to race seem irrelevant: if race was only ever brought up by racists, why mention it at all? Why not just treat everyone equally, without mentioning what made them different? I never committed fully to that perspective, but it still tempted me – because despite all the racism I’d witnessed, I had no real understanding of how its prevalence impacted individuals or groups, either internally or in terms of their wider treatment.

My outrage about the discriminatory treatment of refugees ought to have given me some perspective on it, but I wasn’t insightful enough to make the leap on my own. At the time, detention centres and boat people were the subject of constant political discourse: it was easy to make the connection between things politicians and their supporters said about refugees and how those refugees were treated, because that particular form of cause and effect wasn’t in question. The real debate, such as it was, revolved around whether it mattered: what refugees deserved, or didn’t deserve, and whether that fact should change how we treated them. But there were no political debates about the visceral upset another boyfriend, who was Indian, felt at knowing how many classmates thought it was logical for him to date the only Indian girl in our grade, “because we both have melanin in our skins”. (I’ve never forgotten him saying that, nor have I forgotten the guilt I felt at knowing he was right. The two of them ran in completely different social circles, had wildly different personalities and barely ever interacted, and yet the expectation that they’d end up dating was still there, still discussed.) I knew it was upsetting to him, and I knew vaguely that the assumption was racist in origin, but my own privilege prevented me from understanding it as a microaggression that was neither unique to him nor the only one of its kind that he had to deal with. I didn’t see the pattern.

One day, I will sit down and write an essay about how the failure of white Australians and Americans in particular to view our post-colonial whiteness as an active cultural and racial identity unless we’re being super fucking racist about other groups is a key factor in our penchant for cultural appropriation. In viewing particular aspects of our shared experiences, not as cultural identifiers, but as normal, unspecial things that don’t really have any meaning, we fail to connect with them personally: we’re raised to view them as something that everyone does, not as something we do, and while we still construct other identities from different sources – the regions we’re from, the various flavours of Christianity we prefer – it leaves us prone to viewing other traditions as exciting, new things with no equivalent in our own milieu while simultaneously failing to see to their deeper cultural meaning. This is why so many white people get pissed off at jokes about suburban dads who can’t barbecue or soccer moms with Can I Speak To The Manager haircuts: far too many of us have never bothered to introspect on our own sociocultural peculiarities, and so get uppity the second anyone else identifies them for us. At base, we’re just not used to considering whiteness as an identity in its own right unless we’re really saying not-black or acting like white supremacists – which means, in turn, that many of us conflate any open acknowledgement of whiteness with some truly ugly shit. In that context, whiteness is either an invisible, neutral default or a racist call to arms: there is no in between.

Which is why, returning to the matter of QOP and Whitney Atkinson, pro-diversity advocates are so often forced to contend with people who think that “separating races” and like identifiers – talking specifically about white people or disabled people or queer people, instead of just people – is equivalent to racism and bigotry. Whether they recognise it or not, they’re coming from a perspective that values diverse perspectives for what they bring to the melting pot – for how they help improve the dominant culture via successful assimilation – but not in their own right, as distinct and special and non-homogenised. In that context, race isn’t something you talk about unless you’re being racist: it’s rude to point out people’s differences, because those differences shouldn’t matter to their personhood. The problem with this perspective is that it doesn’t allow for the celebration of difference: instead, it codes “difference” as inequality, because deep down, the logic of cultural assimilation is predicated on the idea of Western cultural superiority. A failure or refusal to assimilate is therefore tantamount to a declaration of inequality: I’m not the same as you is understood as I don’t want to be as good as you, and if someone doesn’t want to be the best they can be (this logic goes) then either they’re stupid, or they don’t deserve the offer of equality they’ve been so generously extended in the first place.

Talking about race isn’t the same as racism. Asking for more diversity in YA and SFF isn’t the same as saying personhood matters less than the jargon of identity, but is rather an acknowledgement of the fact that, for many people, personhood is materially informed by their experience of identity, both in terms of self-perception and in how they’re treated by others at the individual, familial and collective levels. And thanks to various studies into the social impact of colour-blindness as an ideology, we already know that claiming not to see race doesn’t undo the problem of racism; it just means adherents fail to understand what racism actually is and what it looks like, even – or perhaps especially – when they’re the ones perpetuating it.

So, no, QOP: you can’t effectively advocate for diversity without talking in specifics about issues like race and sexual orientation. Want the tl:dr reason? Because saying I want more stories with PEOPLE in them isn’t actually asking for more than what we already have, and the whole point of advocating for change is that what we have isn’t enough. You might as well try and work to decrease the overall number of accidental deaths in the population without putting any focus on the specific ways in which people are dying. Generalities are inclusive at the macro level, but it’s specificity that gets shit done at the micro – and ultimately, that’s what we’re aiming for.

 

 

Come in. Sit down. Pull up a chair. We’re going to play a game.

Here’s how it works: I give you a simple character description, and you tell me which particular character I’m talking about, as well as the one specific TV show they’re from. Your only hint: these are all protagonists or ensemble main characters. Ready? Let’s go:

  • straight white male detective, an abrasive maverick with a tragic past
  • straight white male doctor, an arrogant maverick
  • straight white male conman using his powers for good
  • straight white writer, solves crimes and writes novels about it
  • straight white political aide, snarky but beloved
  • straight white female detective, brilliant with a tragic past
  • straight white lawyer who secretly fights crime
  • straight white maverick lawyer, sketchy past
  • straight white male supernatural creature, tragic past
  • straight white male antihero, drives a signature vehicle

Congratulations! We’ve reached the end of round one. Now that you’ve got your eye in, are you ready for round two? I sure hope so! Let’s give it a try:

  • straight black female detective, tragic past
  • bisexual white female leader, survivor and strategist
  • bisexual white male supernatural creature, antihero
  • straight Latino male supernatural creature, hero
  • straight Asian female doctor, solves crimes
  • gay black male detective, brilliant and untragic
  • bisexual black female lawyer, maverick antiheroine
  • gay Latino male action hero, supernatural issues
  • straight black female political maverick

There will not be a round three.

I mean, I could introduce a bonus round about secondary characters, but hopefully, I’m getting the point across: that whereas there are multiple shows whose protagonists answer to the descriptions given in round one, there’s really only one right answer for the equally simple clues provided in round two. Because for all the furore about how shows these days are nothing but an exercise in forced diversity – for all the fear that straight white guys are somehow being banned from stories forever and ever, amen – they’re still the dominant species, and all you need to do to prove it is ask for multiple examples of any one of the types of person supposedly meant to have ousted them.

One of the more common arguments raised by anti-diversity advocates is the futility of tokenism – the idea that giving a single show a black female lead for the sake of filling a quota is both insulting and unnecessary. And I quite agree: tokenism isn’t the answer. What we want is to reach a point where there are so many black female protagonists – and queer protagonists, and protagonists of every other type and variation listed above and a great many more besides, in every permutation – that none of them could ever again be reasonably viewed as a token anything. Because, in this scenario, when writers are considering who could be the protagonist, they’re giving equal consideration to every type of person, and not just forcing themselves to look, however briefly, beyond the narrow, familiar confines of an historical default.

A quick math problem, before we continue: if you have ten apples, and I have three, and we both start shaking the same, communal tree to get more fruit, and the end result is twenty apples each, have you actually lost anything? No, invisible apple friend: you have not. I might have gained more in the short term, but as the end result is a fairly-earned equality, any assertion on your part that my apples were stolen from you – that you are being deprived, somehow, of the all the apples you might’ve had, if only I hadn’t come along – is kind of insincere. And if your response is to try and burn the tree down out of spite, the better to ensure I go hungry next season? Well, then, you really don’t understand how apples work, do you? The ones I’m holding have just as many seeds as yours, and once I’ve gone and planted them, I’ll have access to even more trees than before, and an even greater incentive to make sure they grow big and healthy. Sure, you could spend all your energy trying to sabotage my fledgling orchard, because destruction is far, far easier than creation, but come the next harvest, I’ll still have a crop of shiny, delicious apples to eat – and if you’ve planted nothing in all that time, then brother, I don’t have to burn down anything in order to watch you starve.

Where was I? Oh, right: diversity in narrative.

See, when anti-diversity advocates start talking about the narrative implausibility of particular characters as a means of explaining why, in their opinion, certain types of people just can’t be heroes, they forget the point of stories. We have, quite literally, an entire genre of films, books, comics, games and TV shows dedicated to showing us how normal, mediocre straight white guys – literal everymen, as proudly proclaimed in their blurbs and trailers and other forms of promotional bumpf – can rise up and save the world and the day and get the girl, even when they’ve had absolutely nothing going for them and no pertinent skills before that point. It might happen through luck or hard work, through outside help or unknown possession of a secret destiny, or sometimes a combination of all four, but it does happen, over and over and over again, with the cosmic regularity of sunset, and do you know what? Regardless of whether we love or hate or meh those individual stories, everyone who watches or reads or plays them understands, at base, that a certain degree of implausibility is the fucking point. The idea isn’t to create a hyper-real explanation as to why John Doe is suddenly the only man standing between Earth and alien annihilation, although it’s always nice when the worldbuilding rises to the occasion: the fundamental point of the everyman as hero is to make us, the everyday audience, feel as if we could be heroes, too.

But make that hero queer or female and something other than white, and the same guy who moments ago was cheering on every single everyman ever played by Shia LaBeouf in Transformers and Eagle Eye and Indiana Jones and Constantine is spewing rage on the internet because of the Ghostbusters reboot and Star Wars and who knows what else, because women aren’t funny or interesting and why would you ever try to make them the protagonist? Listen, fucknuts: the only real joke attributable to Adam Sandler is his own career, but I didn’t see you weeping on Reddit when he was inexplicably greenlit for another two hours of cinematic dickslapping in the Year of Our Lord 2016. Leslie Jones could do nothing but read the entirety of Pride and Prejudice aloud on camera while cracking improvised jokes about the characters and drinking champagne, and it would still be a million times funnier than anything that’s ever starred Rob Schneider. Granted, that particular comedic bar is so damn low, you could use it to drag the Marianas Trench, but the point is that the plausibility police were nowhere to be found when James McAvoy learned to be an assassin with the help of a massive sentient loom, a tank full of wax and Angeline Jolie’s collarbones, but are suddenly screeching the heavens down at the prospect of there being More Than One Girl in Star Wars.

I mean, look: it says a whole fucking lot about this debate that the many female characters displaced by Trinity Syndrome – which is to say, female characters who are demonstrably strong and skilled and unique enough to merit protagonist status, but who ultimately play second fiddle to whichever lucky everyman they’ve trained/fallen for – are never subjected to the same level of plausibility-scrutiny as actual female protagonists. Nobody objected to the fact that Trinity was an awesome hacker-leader-fighter in The Matrix, because she was also Neo’s love interest, and hot: they could safely view her through the lens of his success, and thereby rest easy in the knowledge that the story wasn’t really about her. The kind of man who objects to Rey, but not Trinity, isn’t bothered by the contextual implausibility of female competence, no matter what he says: he just wants to know that, whatever prowess the female characters have, they’re still going to come in second to a white guy they later bone down with, or at least kiss. Female exceptionalism therefore becomes allowable only in a context where the various impressive skills a woman has acquired over a lifetime can be first mastered and then improved upon by any moderately talented white guy in a matter of days. But if you take that guy away – or worse still, make him a less adept sidekick or enemy – then suddenly it’s the end of the goddamn world and a blight on plausible storytelling.

So let’s just set the record straight, once and for all: we don’t want an end to stories with straight white male protagonists; we do want to boost the number of stories starring other types of person, and maybe – given the massive historical imbalance between those genres – give them a bit of time in the spotlight, too. We don’t want to promote bad stories over good for the sake of diversity, though we do want them to be judged fairly, which here means allowing us the freedom to create a range of diverse stories without that diversity being automatically dismissed as either tokenism or a pandering irrelevance, or else used as an excuse to put the narrative under a microscope, the results to be read as a harsh pass/fail on the viability of any such future stories. We do want to openly celebrate diversity, in much the same way that farmers celebrate rain after a long drought: we’ve had so little for so long, can you blame us for wanting to shout about it?

Well, I mean. Obviously, if you’re an anti-diversity advocate, you can and will. You’re just not going to have much in the way of moral highground to support you, and maybe – just maybe – it behoves you to consider what you’re really fighting against. If rebooting a franchise with someone other than a straight white guy in the leading role is a purely cosmetic – and therefore, in your estimation, meaningless – change, then why do you feel so personally threatened by the prospect of someone doing it? If your real objection is to tokenism, and not to well-crafted characters from diverse backgrounds, then why aren’t you advocating that writers include more of them, not less? If your selection process for worthy stories is truly wide-ranging and meritocratic, then why does it skew so heavily to only one type of writer and one type of protagonist? Why do you find it so hard to believe that stories can be both diverse and worthy? Why are you so resistant to the idea that well-executed diversity is itself a form of good storytelling?

If narrative representation is such a paltry, meaningless thing ask for, then why are you so terrified of losing it?

We know why, is the thing. The real question is: do you?

 

Content warning: all the spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2 and Dragon Age: Inqusition. 

Trigger warning: some discussion of slavery and sexual abuse.

Late last year, due in no small part to the visibility of its online fandom, I finally discovered the Dragon Age games. Seeing that there were three of them, I started – as is traditional – with the first one, Dragon Age: Origins. Unsurprisingly, given that both were created by BioWare, the gameplay mechanics reminded me of nothing so much as Knights of the Old Republic – morality engines, dialogue trees and a politically diverse circle of supporting characters engaging with a mute (to the player) protagonist; being attacked in temporary arenas between one map and the next; even the battle menus and combat style felt similar. Though underwhelmed by the ridiculousness of the female body types on offer (NOT EVERY NPC NEEDS THE SAME IMPLAUSIBLY PERFECT BOOBS REGARDLESS OF AGE OR HEIGHT, OH MY GOD), offput by the smattering of bizarre (both contextually and as a narrative choice) misogyny and lukewarm on the general DNDishness of the setting, I nonetheless found myself getting sucked in.

My first Warden was a Dalish elf, Lyna Mahariel. I fell into romancing Alistair with her almost by accident, which is precisely why the relationship was so compelling: it felt natural, a slow-burn progression from comrades to lovers, and despite a brief flirtation with Zevran, Lyna stayed with him. Yet even when the ease of the connection made me think the game was subtly engineered to give Alistair and the Warden a happily ever after, the plot itself proved satisfyingly more complex. Depending on my actions and despite being romanced, Alistair could still become a wandering drunk or the king of Ferelden, assuming he didn’t stay a Grey Warden – and even with that particular outcome, Morrigan’s actions at the finale were an unexpected complication. Though I ultimately stalled out on the final battle – as is typical of me when first playing a game, I’d largely ignored such vital things as weapons upgrades and advanced tactics in favour of the emotional storyline, and thereby left myself critically underpowered – the franchise had won enough of my favour that I moved straight ahead to Dragon Age 2.

And fell instantly, brutally in love with it.

Ordinarily, when given the chance to make a custom game protagonist, I stick to women, not because I dislike male characters, but because I’m so rarely offered the choice to play as anyone else. Years ago, in a deliberate departure from this norm, I rolled a male Jedi in Knights of the Old Republic. Despite having played the game three or more times by that point, I’d never realised Bastila was a potential romance option: I’d only ever played as a woman, and while I’d always found her more compelling than Carth, it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that a male protagonist would get different dialogue options until I saw it mentioned online. But when I tried to play that way, I was shocked by how quickly I became bored. There are so many stories about talented, exceptional men taking command in a crisis that the game itself felt vastly less original than when I played as a woman: those opening scenes, instead of being revelatory, felt utterly cliché. At the time, I’d encountered so few visibly queer narratives in any form of media – and none at all in video games – that I couldn’t even articulate the problem as one of homophobia in KOTOR’s construction. Instead, there was just a nameless sense of frustration, exclusion: why should I have to enjoy the game less in order to access more of it? Why couldn’t I romance Bastila as I was?

Despite winding up in a hetero romance in Origins – I never quite warmed enough to Leliana enough to want to pursue her, though Isabela, in her brief appearance, charmed the hell out of me – I appreciated the visibility of queerness as an option. Going into DA2, however, I knew that Anders was a male romance option, which I hadn’t known initially about Zevran or Leliana. In fact, that was almost all I knew: I’d seen fanart of some other characters online, but for whatever reason, most of what had crossed my path involved Anders. Armed with this knowledge, for the first time in over twenty years of gaming, I chose to play a male character in direct anticipation of the fact that he could – and would – be queer. Like me, I thought, hands gripping the controller. Hawke is queer like me. And what was more, the game itself was going to let me prove it.

An invisible detail, at least at the outset. But knowing I could act on it – knowing it mattered – made the story new for me in a way I hadn’t expected; made it intimate, powerful. My warrior Hawke, who looked like Aragorn and snarked like Sam Vimes – who could’ve passed for any one of dozens of fantasy heroes in films and books and TV shows – was queer, not just because I said he was, but because the game agreed. I had no idea who Anders was, but goddamn, was I ready to find out.

And then it happened. Or rather, Fenris did.

Given a paucity of options, scraps can feel like a banquet. Possibly I knew, in some habitual mental recess, that Anders wasn’t the only queer romance option available to me, but starting the game, that’s certainly how it felt. I never imagined that all four love interests – four, not five; I haven’t yet played with Sebastian – would be accessible regardless of Hawke’s gender, let alone that I’d be tempted by all of them. (Though Morrigan is straightlocked, she and Leliana struck me as having more and better chemistry than either did with my Warden.) But having begun the game with a specific option in mind – an option which already felt revelatory, even before I’d met the mage – I didn’t expect to be so comprehensively swayed by an alternative.

I can’t pinpoint the precise moment I sold my soul to Dragon Age, but it probably involves lyrium tattoos and the voice of Gideon Emery, is what I’m saying.

Fenris, as a character, isn’t easy to woo. By turns, he’s defensive and laconic, prickly and aloof. If I had to pick the single biggest failing of Origins as a game, it would be the Warden’s silence: it’s hard to get a solid read on character reactions when half of every conversation is rendered without body language, inflection, tone. But Hawke, however you play them, is an undeniable presence – a character whose foibles exist, not just in the player’s mind, but on screen. I’d meant to romance Anders, but his intensity soon proved far more unsettling than even his spirit possession. “I would drown us in blood to keep you safe!” he vows, at a point where Hawke has done nothing more than flirt while exhibiting kindness to mages. It was – and is, I believed, intended to be – a red flag, hinting at the tragic events of the game’s finale: a violent, possessive promise whose fervency is utterly disproportionate to the not-even-yet-a-relationship to which it refers. And besides, I was fascinated with Fenris, a character whose trope-riddled construction ought to have undermined him – he is, in every literal particular, a touch-starved amnesiac elven ex-slave with magic tattoos, waifu combat prowess and impossibly white hair; the archetypal broken bird in every way but gender – but which only served to make him more compelling.

Seventeen hours into the game, having bungled all my initial interactions with Fenris, I quit and restarted in order to romance him properly. Even though I was playing through the exact same levels back to back, I never lost my interest.

Right now, I’ve just embarked on my second, also back to back playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition. (I’ve also got a new Origins game on the go – romancing Zevran, this time – but while I’m having fun, I’m enjoying Inquisition more.) The third game confused me when I first tried it, not least because the combat and controls are so markedly different to those of DA2. The jump button is contextually ridiculous, the open world slows the emotional pacing – doubly so in my case, as I’d assumed personal quests would trigger automatically, and so missed many pertinent conversations -and it’s easy to miss the subtleties of the war table. Almost, I gave the whole thing up after the first few hours. But given how much I’d loved DA2, I decided to stick around, if only to give Inquisitor Callum Trevelyan the chance to romance Dorian. (In this new game, I’m Asha Adaar, and flirting with everyone I meet. It’s glorious.)

But the thing is –

The thing is, I meant for this to be a post about Thedas itself: about the politics and problems of the various games, where I stand on mages and templars, and how this all impacts my love of the characters, whose backgrounds and personalities are, with a few notable exceptions, overwhelmingly well-constructed. And we’re still going to get to all that stuff: the real meta is forthcoming. But what I had to say first – what I want to make clear – is how fucking important these games are to me, in their exploration and open acceptance of queerness. As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, the extent to which I currently overidentify with Krem Aclassi and Dorian Pavus cannot be measured by your human science. Dragon Age is the first time I’ve ever played as a queer character in video games, at a time when I badly needed exactly that sort of representation, and for that gift, I will love it forever, flaws and all.

Which is why – or one reason why, at least – I feel profoundly irritated by criticism of Dorian’s portrayal in Inquisition: specifically, the idea that his companion quest is badly written because it’s about his queerness. This is a position for which I would maybe have some sympathy if Dorian was the only queer character in Inquisition, instead of – as is actually the case – one of six (or seven, depending on your Hawke). Even if we discount non-romanceable characters – and I’d rather not, frankly; the fact that the Inquisitor can’t sleep with Krem or Hawke or Leliana doesn’t make their presence in the narrative any less important – we’re still left with Sera, Josephine and the Iron Bull, none of whose arcs are contingent on their sexuality.

Nor, despite hinging on Halward’s rejection of Dorian’s queerness, is his quest unrelated to the main plot. In a narrative driven by a Tevinter magister’s misuse of blood magic, Dorian’s arc serves as a poignant microcosm of the whole: where Corypheus attempts to forcibly remake the entire world, Halward Pavus attempts to forcibly remake his son. In a game where the Inquisition allies with the mages at Redcliffe, this comparison is rendered even more devastating by the actions of Alexius, Dorian’s mentor, who similarly abuses magic in an attempt to save his own son, Felix: an awful, inverted parallel to Halward’s actions, but with far greater repercussions. Just as pertinently, the inclusion of what amounts to magical conversion therapy in Thedas – we’re never told exactly what “change” Halward meant to affect, but the implications are universally frightening – is powerful all by itself, not least because it doesn’t end in tragedy. Off the top of my head, I can think of exactly one narrative that engages with queer conversion and still has a happily ever after – the 1999 film But I’m A Cheerleader – and while there are doubtless others, that doesn’t detract from their rarity.

What irks me most about this dismissal of Dorian’s arc, however, is the way in which it implicitly categorises Sera, Bull and Josephine as not queer enough. This might seem paradoxical, given the nature of the original complaint, and yet we have an unfortunate cultural tendency, in our discussions of queerness, to situate gay men as being somehow more queer than anyone else; or at least, more significantly so. In this context, I’m thinking particularly of bi/pan erasure: left to their own romantic devices, Bull and Dorian end up together, and yet every complaint I’ve seen which cites this as part of Dorian being an obviously queer character neglects to complain likewise of Bull.

Oh, but it’s not like that! Dorian is flamboyant, and Bull isn’t! Dorian draws attention to his sexuality, and Bull doesn’t! Listen, I don’t know what game you guys were playing, but it’s Bull who initiates all the early flirting and sexual banter: he’s open about his queerness from the outset, whereas Dorian takes a long time to be anywhere near so comfortable. By the same token, the fact that Dorian is cultured and witty doesn’t make him flamboyant, and even if we’re talking about his clothing choices, Bull’s the one who goes around top-half naked except for a leather harness, joking about his pecs. I’ve often seen Dorian criticised along such lines, but never Bull – even, or perhaps especially, when such observations more rightly apply to him.

It’s like a kind of straw pareidolia: the seeing of stereotypes where none exist, the better to criticise them. Nor is it the only such example of what I’m coming to think of as the DA fandom’s peculiar meta-blindness: a sort of, if not exactly wilful, then stubborn oversimplification of culture and context. Which isn’t to say that I’ve never read any good DA meta, or that the franchise itself is somehow flawless – neither of those things are remotely true. Rather, I suspect, it’s a reflection of confusion in the source material. As a franchise, Dragon Age is intensely invested in discussing the politics and ramifications of fictional axes of oppression (mages, elves) in a setting that borrows heavily from historical axes of oppression (slavery, aristocracy), but which frequently stumbles when it comes to current axes of oppression (race, gender), all of which intersect with each other in various complex ways.

The practical upshot is that, as the creators have a tendency to neglect the current implications of their fictional and the historical elements in unfortunate ways, fans are correspondingly quick to confuse creation with endorsement: that is, to conflate the deliberate inclusion of particular fictional or historical injustices with the unconscious perpetration of current prejudices. This loss of subtlety can be particularly vexing when it comes to historical (or historically inspired, at least) axes, which are most often a synthesis of the fictional and the current, though in one particular instance, I have every sympathy as to why.

I want to tread very carefully here, but given how integral the concept is to the morality problems of DA2 and Inquisition in particular, I don’t think it’s possible to unpick the world of Dragon Age without addressing slavery. And so – carefully, carefully – I’m going to try.

Right off the bat, it needs to be acknowledged: slavery, with all its awful, degrading consequences, is a theme more current than historical, no matter how much some of us pretend otherwise. That being so, the issue – the concept – is vastly more personal to some than others, and for a number of different reasons. Because of my privilege, I’m not one of those people, but that doesn’t make me magically objective on the topic: it just means that, no matter how abhorrent I find the particulars, I’m not going to hurt myself by discussing them, though I may well, despite the best of intentions, hurt others in the attempt. As such, I’m going to try and situate this analysis firmly in the context of Thedas itself, drawing on historical comparisons only if absolutely necessary.

In DA2, the primary conflict is between mages and templars, with Anders and Fenris acting as mirrored exponents for the extreme end of each position. Anders, a human apostate escaped from the Circle, is outraged by the abuse and captivity of mages, seeking to free them by (almost) any means necessary. Fenris, an elven slave escaped from Tevinter, which is run by magisters, doesn’t believe that mages can be trusted without oversight. Anders compares the Circle to slavery; Fenris, who has been a slave – and subject to considerable, horrific abuse in that capacity – disputes the comparison. It’s also pertinent to note that, whereas Anders belongs to a human majority, Fenris is an elf, which makes him both a minority and a member of a race specifically targeted for slavery. Further compounding this from a player’s perspective, although this element isn’t discussed in-game, is the fact that Anders is white, while Fenris is brown.

What’s also deeply relevant, in terms of how magic works in Dragon Age, is the fact that mages are oppressed along a fundamentally fictional axis. By this, I don’t mean to say that mages aren’t hurt in realistic ways, or that their treatment has no real-world parallels: they are, and it does. But as with the various supernatural creatures of True Blood – a show which made overt and frequent comparisons between, for instance, anti-vampire sentiment and the historical persecution of black and Jewish people – the fundamental, inborn quality which sees mages classed as dangerous isn’t just a racist myth of inferiority, but a thing which actually exists in context. Namely: mages have magic, which grants them access to the Fade, where demons live. Mages can be corrupted or possessed by demons, either accidentally or willingly. Mages have the capacity to use blood magic, some of which discipline is merely stigmatised, but much of which involves material hurt to others, and all of which, if mishandled or poorly executed, can result in demonic release or possession.

This being so, all mages, trained or untrained, regardless of their intentions, are at least potentially dangerous by virtue of what they are: the seed of fear used to justify their oppression is, at base, true. In fact, the Dragon Age system of magic is one of the more damning and punitive I’ve ever encountered in fiction. In other settings, for instance, it’s common for mages to be dangerous only when untrained: accidental harm can be clearly distinguished from intentional harm, making rational caution of mages easier to distinguish from irrational fear. But in Dragon Age, whenever mages dream, they have to listen to actual whispering demons. Mages are constantly under siege from malevolent entities seeking to corrupt or control them, and while it’s often said in-world, usually by someone like Anders, that “Tevinter exists, and the world hasn’t ended” – meaning, there is a place where mages live without Circles, and it hasn’t imploded – the fact that Tevinter not only spawns Corypheus, who does almost destroy the world, but is a slave-based empire responsible for centuries of imperialism makes it… not a morally compelling argument.

Elves, by contrast, while similarly fictional, are mistreated solely on the basis of a racist myth of inferiority: they might not actually exist, but the axis of their oppression is certainly real. Which means, returning to the specific setup of DA2, that comparing Fenris with Anders – to say nothing of the two camps they ultimately represent – is an activity rife with pitfalls. Mages are human – or elven, or Qunari – and their magic is inborn. It can’t be repressed and, except at the expense of being made Tranquil, which is abhorrent, it can’t be removed. At the same time, magic itself – the act of having magic at all – is arguably terrifying. Even without the prospect of a child being taken from their parents to be raised in a Circle, Jedi-style but without the galactic kudos, being a mage means a lifetime spent contending with literal demons. Being a mage is like being born with a sword in your hand: the presence of the weapon is no guarantee of aptitude, you’re as likely to cut yourself as do harm to others, and it makes you a visible target of mortal fear and monstrous appetites both.

In short, mages vs templars in Dragon Age is a morality problem with no obvious, easy solutions: the ultimate in quis custodiet ipsos custodes. The potential danger posed by mages doesn’t justify the abuse to which they’re subjected under the Circle system, but nor is the general fear of mages irrational. Contextually, magic is almost like a disease vector, with demonic abuse as the virus: skill and intention won’t necessarily prevent a mage from infecting themselves or others, which leaves vigilance as the only real recourse. It’s zombie apocalypse logic in a fantasy setting, but hard to identify as such because, in most other fantasy settings, which create our collective expectations of the genre’s baseline, magic-users aren’t persecuted with anywhere near so valid a reason.

And for players trying to navigate moral decisions surrounding the use and restriction of magic, the issue is further compounded by the fact that, in all three games, it’s magic that fuels the enemy, and mages from within the protagonist’s camp who ultimately betray their allies. It’s worth analysing this pattern in-depth, if only because the actual gameplay mechanic – which is to say, the handwavy justification for the creation of multiply-spawning, must-be-killed-to-death enemies for the party to encounter – can often serve to obscure exactly how fucked up the situation is when viewed at a remove.

In Origins, on joining the Grey Wardens, the protagonist learns that the Wardens are initiated by drinking darkspawn blood, a ritual which, if it doesn’t kill them outright, will shorten their lives and eventually require them to commit suicide. In Redcliffe, it’s the Arlessa’s decision to keep her son, Connor, away from the Circle that leads to his demon possession and the death of almost an entire town. At the Circle on Lake Calenhad, the rebellion of a cabal of mages leads to the death or possession of almost their whole number, along with every templar bar one – Cullen Rutherford, more of whom later – who was trapped with them. In the Brecilian Forest, the Dalish Keeper, Zathrian, is revealed to have used his magic to create a monstrous werewolf, whose bite has infected hundreds of innocents over a period of decades. In Orzammar, the Paragon Branka becomes so consumed with the need to replicate an ancient magical technology that she allows her friends and lover to be consumed by darkspawn; is even willing to kill other dwarves in order to make new golems. And after all this, there’s the final sacrifice: Morrigan’s magic can help to defeat the archdemon, but at the cost of virginal Alistair, who prizes family connections and romantic fidelity, siring a child he’s never allowed to see with a woman he hates. “Good” magic might beat “evil” on the battlefield when reduced to the status of a tool defined by the hand which wields it, but it’s the callousness of a power-hungry apostate that packs the emotional suckerpunch at the finale, and with everything that’s come before, it’s hard to view it as an isolated incident.

Similarly, in Inquisition, despite the ostensible division between mages and templars when it comes to picking allies, abuse of magic and demonic interference is the root problem in both camps. Corypheus, the long-dead Tevinter magister-turned-demigod, uses both primeval red lyrium – an effectively magical substance – and various mages and demons to try and destroy the world. Demons pour into Thedas from a rip in the Veil, and while, as always, magic is used to combat magic, the emotional betrayal of the finale comes when Solas, the elven apostate, is revealed to be the trickster god Fen’Harel, whose quest to remake a past age anew was ultimately what caused the rise of Corypheus and the near-breaking of the world.

And thus, returning to DA2, the strangeness of the contrast between Fenris and Anders, templars and mages. The city of Kirkwall, where the story unfolds, is also called the City of Chains, having been founded by Tevinter mages and famed, once upon a time, for being a major slave-trading hub. The Gallows, where the Circle mages now live, was formerly reserved for slaves, and in snippets throughout the game, we also learn the city itself is constructed in such a way as to make the Veil thinner. Blood magic is performed more easily, yet goes awry more often, while demons are stronger, more powerful there: the legacy of Tevinter and its magical priorities, or (possibly) something darker, buried underground. While there’s a clear thematic comparison in mages living where magisters once kept slaves – and while it’s clear that the resident templar Knight-Commander, Meredith, has always taken a hard line against her charges – we also learn at the finale that her ultimate descent into madness is the result of infection by red lyrium: by, in essence, the very same magic she feared. And once again, it’s the resident apostate, Anders, who concludes the game with an emotional betrayal, orchestrating a magical explosion that kills hundreds of innocents in a strike against, not the templar order, but the Chantry, which in Kirkwall was run by a moderate.

I don’t know how else to say this but baldly: by game’s end, Anders is a terrorist. Blowing up the Chantry is a literal act of terrorism, being as how it constitutes a military strike on a non-military target, and if it were performed by a character who wasn’t an attractive white guy, I’m guessing that description of him wouldn’t be so rare. And no, before you mention it, in this specific instance, I don’t care that the Chantry is ultimately responsible for creating the templar order: Grand Cleric Elthina appointed Knight-Commander Meredith, but she was also trying to compromise with the mages, blocking Meredith’s call for the Right of Annulment. Anders, in picking the Chantry as his target, specifically states, “There can be no half-measures… there can be no peace. I removed the chance of compromise because there is no compromise.” Only a Sith deals in absolutes, and that is not the language of someone who’s sorry to murder strangers. 

The extent to which the extremity of this stance can be attributed to Anders being possessed by Justice/Vengeance – and therefore the extent of his personal culpability, were the spirit removed- is going to vary depending on who you ask. Personally, I’m inclined to judge him – him meaning Anders/Justice as a single entity – in the context of his actions throughout the game, and in that light, he remains consistent throughout. Romantically, I shied away from Anders because of his violent intensity, and given his claim to Hawke that “Justice disapproves of my obsession with you,” I’m inclined to view his earlier promise – “I would drown us in blood to keep you safe!” – as a sign that, even when acting on his own impulses, Anders is still possessed of some frightening qualities. And Justice, by the magical rules of Dragon Age, was originally a pure spirit. From the examples set by Wynne and Cole, we know it’s possible for benevolent spirits to remain benevolent while possessing humans; similarly, according to Solas, good spirits can become “twisted”, their nature “defiled” by humans who misuse them. Even though it’s Justice who convinces Anders to fight the oppression of mages, therefore, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to argue that Anders himself corrupts the spirit to Vengeance.

But however you attribute Anders’s actions, canonically speaking, it’s hard to argue against his hypocrisy. Speaking to Fenris, he says of the Circle mages, “They’re slaves! You should want to help them.” And yet, despite having made this comparison, Anders is singularly dismissive of Fenris’s actual experience of slavery, saying to Hawke, “He has let one bad experience colour his whole world. Surely you want someone more open-minded?” Worse, in the same conversation – and despite his vehement objection to Cullen’s claim that “Mages cannot be treated like people. They are not like you and me,” – he says of Fenris – to Hawke, but in Fenris’s hearing – “He seems less a man to me than a wild dog.” This is an abominable insult, and quite deliberately so: in fact, it’s a rare, clear instance where the fictional, historical and current axes of oppression all completely align. Fictionally, elves are oppressed in Thedas, with one of the most common slurs – “rabbit” – being animal in nature; by the same token, Anders is also aware that Fenris’s name, given to him by his abusive former master, means “little wolf”. Historically, slaves have often been compared to animals in such derogatory terms; which is why, currently, referring in particular to a brown man as a “wild dog” – especially when the speaker is a white man – is reminiscent of some truly ugly things.

But of course, Anders is an attractive white man presented as a viable romantic option for the protagonist, and so we – culturally conditioned creatures that we are – don’t readily stop to consider that he is simultaneously written as a prejudiced hypocritical terrorist; and more, that he is written this way on purpose. We are meant to be morally conflicted by Anders, just as we are meant to be morally conflicted by Morrigan and Solas – and yet, over and over and over again, in discussions of all three characters, I see their deliberate failings written off as BioWare’s accidental failings, as though the writers are merely including problematic or offensive dialogue for no good reason, and not because it’s serving the purpose of demonstrating bigotry in the characters. Morrigan’s appropriation of elven culture in Inquisition isn’t the result of BioWare failing to consider the negative implications of a human drinking from the Well of Sorrows, but a deliberate choice designed to make the player uncomfortable; hence the clear comparison with Dorian, who understands exactly why he, as a human mage from Tevinter, shouldn’t be the one to steal elven secrets, even if the intention is preservation.

Inarguably, part of the problem is the sheer complexity and length of the games themselves. A single playthrough of Inquisition alone can take upwards of eighty hours, and even then, you’re not going to witness anywhere near the full total of cutscenes and dialogue options. Being a compulsive dork, I tend to play through the first time with a Wiki open on my iPad, just in case I get stuck; the phenomenon I’m observing, that meta-blindness, may simply be the result of multiple players writing from incomplete perspectives. If you don’t take Dorian to the Arbor Wilds and ask him his opinion at the Well of Sorrows, for instance, it won’t be immediately obvious that his counterexample to Morrigan exists – and yet, at the same time, I can’t help thinking that whiteness, beauty and romantic availability go a long way towards fostering the automatic assumption that, regardless of what such a character said, if it makes them look bad or cruel or bigoted, it’s a writing error until proven otherwise. See also: Solas telling a Tal-Vashoth Inquisitor that “Qunari are savage creatures… but you have shown a subtlety in your actions,” which insult has lead someone to ask, without any apparent irony, “Does BioWare not realise what they’re doing?”. Yes, random internet person: yes, they do. They want you to think Solas is an asshole.

There is also, I’ve found, an even more disturbing parallel to this phenomenon of presumed white character innocence: assumed brown character guilt. For every post I’ve seen that criticises BioWare for unintentionally painting Solas or Morrigan in a bigoted light, I’ve seen at least three others castigating Dorian – not the writers, but Dorian himself – for being a former slave owner.

Take a moment for that particular double standard to sink in.

By this toxic, racist logic, if a white character is problematic or bigoted, it’s because BioWare made a mistake and didn’t realise the negative implications – but if a brown character is problematic or bigoted, it was clearly intentional, and the character cops the flak. Consider, for instance, the problem of Vivienne: a black woman whose racial identity, as others have pointed out, is almost an afterthought, unattached as it is to any particular region in Thedas. Vivienne is often criticised for being cold, impersonal or cruel, but while I’ve sometimes seen the more problematic aspects of her characterisation attributed to BioWare, who perhaps didn’t consider the current racial implications of making their lone black female character an advocate for systematic oppression (an unchanged Circle, in this case), more often than not, she’s simply dismissed as unlikeable.

Dorian’s case, I feel, is slightly trickier (see above re: privilege and slavery), and yet his characterisation as a “slavery apologist” niggles at me. Specifically: it niggles because a similar claim isn’t ever made of Cullen Rutherford.

Why Cullen, you ask? Allow me to explain:

In Origins, Cullen is the lone templar survivor of the disaster at the Lake Calenhad Circle, a deeply traumatic experience which – somewhat understandably – leaves him with a vehement fear of mages. As such, when we see him in DA2, he’s Knight-Commander Meredith’s right hand; that he ultimately aids Hawke and the mages against her (if you take that option) doesn’t change the fact that, for the seven year duration of the game’s events, he’s been complicit in some pretty horrific atrocities, including summary executions, regular torture and confinement, mages being unfairly made Tranquil, and their systematic rape and sexual abuse. That Cullen hasn’t necessarily done all these things himself doesn’t absolve him of his role in letting them flourish; certainly, he knows about some of it, and does nothing. But by the events of Inquisition, he’s finally learned to question: though still traumatised, he’s willing to work with mages, and acknowledges them as people. Give the man a cookie!

Particularly in DA2 – which is to say, in with reference to the Kirkwall Circle, supervised by Cullen – we’re encouraged to compare Circle conditions to slavery. And certainly, whatever we might conclude about the innate dangers of mages and the practises of Circles elsewhere, in that time and place, it’s a very apt comparison. Dorian, by contrast, is raised in Tevinter – a place where elves are enslaved by virtue of being elves, but where humans can choose to indenture themselves as an alternative to poverty. This latter option is historically reminiscent of Rome, on which Tevinter is largely based, but at the same time, it’s very clear that Tevinter is its own ecosystem.

Many moons ago, I expressed my irritation with a phenomenon I think of as Sexism Without Sexists: stories where women are oppressed as a narrative default, but where the male heroes are never shown to be overtly sexist, thus enabling the creation of stories where female agency is restricted (and female characters correspondingly minimised) without damaging the likeability of the male protagonists. Since Origins, Tevinter has been established as a slave-owning country, and seldom treated with any moral subtlety as a consequence. Which, yes, on the one hand, if a country is pro-slavery, we can be pretty sure they’re not a bunch of stand-up guys. But on the other hand, one of the most horrific things about slavery is the fact that, for those not enslaved, it becomes a background element: that life goes on around it, facilitated by it, and mostly without critiquing it. And in both DA2 and Inquisition, it’s clear that BioWare is trying to move beyond simplistic, Black Hat notions of Bad Guy cultures, even if they are still using literal evil monsters like Corypheus (because fantasy tropes). Together with the changes to Tevinter, this shift is exemplified by the steady development of the Qunari from ‘conveniently warlike culture of monstrous-looking invaders’ to ‘startlingly original and complex culture of weirdly socialist, polyamorous, non-monogamous philosopher-warriors’, which is definitely a change for the better.

Similarly, in addition to establishing Tevinter and the Qunari as convenient Bad Guys, Origins also set the precedent for both nations being majority dark-skinned, or at least non-white, which… I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s problematic. By the same token, whitewashing both races in future games as a “fix” to this would’ve been equally unpalatable – and so, instead, BioWare has gone about giving their cultures nuance and depth, trying to create something positive from the mess of their early mistakes. If we’d never heard of Tevinter before Inquisition, that would be one thing; but as part of a developing narrative about an established world, it’s vital to look at how portrayals of both Tevinter and the Qunari have become more complex since Origins.

And thus, Dorian Pavus: a character intended to represent a positive scion of Tevinter without making obnoxious use of Slavery Without Slavers. It would’ve been easy in the extreme to paint Dorian as an abolitionist from birth; to make him a convenient exception to everything we hate about his country. Instead, BioWare took the harder option of acknowledging that yes, good people, however we define so perilously nebulous a term, aren’t magically immune to the uglier sides of the cultures which raise them; that questioning has to be learned. Dorian is critical of slavery, but that doesn’t mean he automatically accepts that abject poverty is somehow marvellous, either. Consider, in-game, the treatment of Kirkwall’s Circle mages; the treatment of elves in Ferelden alienages. Whether fictional, historical or current, a system of oppression doesn’t have to be called slavery in order to be morally reprehensible, or to mimic certain of slavery’s abuses.

(By the same token, when Solas says to Dorian, “If you wish to make amends for past transgressions, free the slaves of all races who live in Tevinter today,” the fact that Dorian replies with “I… don’t know that I can do that,” isn’t apologia for slavery, but a literal statement of fact. He, Dorian, physically cannot do this thing, because Dorian is only one person. When Solas says “you” in this conversation, he’s talking about Dorian in the singular, not Tevinters in the plural, as contextualised by their previous remarks: Solas, being a provocative shit, is suggesting Dorian do an impossible thing, and Dorian, being honest, is acknowledging that he can’t, not stating that he shouldn’t.)

The care taken to construct Dorian’s perspective, however, is most obvious when you compare his remarks on slavery to those of Fenris. In DA2, during Fenris’s personal quest, the slave Orana exclaims, “Everything was fine until today!” To which Fenris, quiet and raw, replies, “It wasn’t. You just didn’t know any better.” This remark is a reference to Fenris’s time with the Qunari Fog Warriors on Seheron – people who helped him during his first separation from Danarius, but who he subsequently killed on his master’s orders. (“Are you my master now?” Orana asks next. And then, when Fenris says not, “But… I can cook. I can clean! What else can I do?”) Slavery, as Fenris knows all too well, is a mindset as much as an institution: obedience, even (or perhaps especially) to one’s abusers, is a habit not easily broken.

And Dorian understands this, too. Asked about slavery, he says, “Back home, it’s… how it is. Slaves are everywhere. You don’t question it. I’m not even certain many slaves do.” His subsequent statement – “Some slaves are treated poorly, it’s true. But do you honestly think inescapable poverty is better?” – isn’t exactly a glowing denunciation; at best, it reads as flippant understatement mixed with false equivalence. Yet even so, you’ll have to explain to me, please and thank you, why this is a fundamentally more repugnant, more utterly unforgivable statement than Cullen’s claim, in DA2, that “Mages cannot be treated like people. They are not like you and me.” Dorian, however wrongheadedly, is at least acknowledging that slaves don’t deserve to be mistreated; Cullen’s statement is far more viciously biogted, denying his charges even their basic humanity. And whereas Cullen has personally presided over the monstrous abuse at the Kirkwall Circle, Dorian, we’re told, has never seen his family mistreat their slaves, nor owned any himself. He spends the rest of the game – this comment being made early on – expanding his horizons.

Dorian Pavus has far fewer sins to his name than Cullen Rutherford when it comes to the abuse of powerless people under his control, yet of the two, it’s Dorian who’s more often cast as irredeemable, Dorian’s fans who are asked to justify their affection. The truth is, both men are morally complicated- BioWare, it seems, don’t do anything so dreary as simplex morality if they can help it – and both are offered redemption by the narrative. Cullen wants to find a new way for mages and templars to work together; Dorian wants to reform Tevinter. I’m not going to criticise anyone who draws the line at absolving them for their sins or who fundamentally dislikes either character, but I can and will point out the hypocrisy of fandom, as a collective entity, routinely pardoning the straight white man while demonising the queer brown one.

Returning briefly to the topic of queerness: while I understand the disappointment some fans felt regarding the romance options in Inquisition – specifically the fact that, unlike in DA2, the love interests had static orientations, rather than being protagsexual – I also think there’s value in acknowledging that queerness isn’t amorphous, but is constructed from multiple different identities. A protagsexual Dorian, for instance, by dint of being bi/pan, wouldn’t have had the same conversion therapy arc; or at the very least, it couldn’t have been told the same way. The fact that two people are queer doesn’t mean they have identical experiences of queerness, and as much as I’d love to romance Cassandra as Asha Adaar – and as much as my gleeful bisexual heart will forever love DA2 for making everyone bi/pan, it’s literally canon, fight me – it’s equally important to acknowledge a spectrum of sexual preferences and their potentially different narrative impact. (Dear BioWare, if you’re listening: why not alternate this approach from game to game? Make the next DA protagsexual again, and the one after that more specific. ALL THE QUEER ROMANCEABLES, huzzah!)

Nor is this the only important aspect of Inquisition which, from where I’m sitting, seems to get less praise than it deserves. In many respects, in fact, it’s rather revelatory, not least because the Inquisition itself is driven by women. The Inquisitor is saved from the fade by the spirit of Divine Justinia, then taken into custody by Cassandra and Leliana, the right and left hands of the now-dead Divine, who’ve taken it upon themselves to recruit, among others, Cullen and Josephine. This, too, feels like a correction of early DA errors: Origins in particular is notable for having established an ostensibly egalitarian world – or at least, a world in which women can equally fight and rule and lead in various capacities, and where the primarily religious organisation is female-dominated – while simultaneously making almost all the relevant, authoritative NPCs men. DA2 makes a stab at correcting this, but ultimately, Grand Cleric Elthina, Leandra Hawke, Patrice, Hadriana and Knight-Commander Meredith are either politely ineffectual or wickedly corrupt: it’s First Enchanter Orsino, the Viscount and his son, Commander Cullen, Danarius, Gamlen, the Arishok and a succession of male intermediaries who show a full range of moral complexity while nudging the plot along.

In Inquisition, however, not only does Josephine’s introduction render the Inner Circle predominantly female, but the game’s entire narrative is arguably split, at least in part, along gender lines. This is, of necessity, subtly done; which is to say, the women are neither absent nor saintlike, the men made of sterner, more complex stuff than straw. Rather, we’re shown a series of power struggles in which women are granted a variety of roles, and where male arrogance is largely expressed as a function of contextual male privilege. Grand Enchanter Fiona is pitted against Magister Alexius; Warden-Commander Clarel de Chanson against Lord Erimond; Cassandra against Lord Seeker Lambert (or his demon impersonator); Calpernia against Corypheus; Briala and Empress Celene against Duke Gaspard. Not all these struggles have the same dynamic, and yet, over and over again, Inquisition shows us what happens when women who’ve been manipulated and lied to by powerful men decide to fight back. Like Sera sticking up for the little people and the continual presence of small, domestic quests amidst far bigger crises, there’s a profound, continuous undercurrent of, not just inclusivity, but recognition of the fact that everyone matters when you’re saving the world, especially if you’re planning to remake it as something better when you’re done.

Nor is it irrelevant that, out of all the main characters, the three with the most prestigious, political backgrounds – Josephine, Dorian and Vivienne – are all people of colour. Cassandra, though technically royalty, is a warrior, not a diplomat: the other three are all consummate courtiers and intellectuals (though I wonder if, as a Nevarran, she might not be categorised as white-passing rather than white). Even the Iron Bull, who’s arguably a person of colour depending on how you categorise Qunari, is a spy, incisive, intuitive and literate in addition to being a massive, muscular brawler. And if you recruit the Templars, it’s Delrin Barris who proves the most honourable of his company, one of few brave enough to speak up against the corruption and brutality of his commanders. In a genre which so often exoticises people of colour while simultaneously marking them as Other by the standards of what’s contextually deemed civilised, it’s subversive as hell to take a European-inspired setting like Thedas – and particularly the deeply English/French duo of Ferelden/Orlais – and say that, actually, the people best suited to navigating these waters, out of everyone in the Inquisition, are all immensely competent outsiders: a straight black woman who’s risen to power on the basis of her extraordinary skill and acumen, a queer brown woman, nobly born, who’s managed to do likewise (and who’s bringing her family back into prominence with her), and a queer brown man from an enemy nation who still knows more about social etiquette and alliances than the commander of the Inquisition forces.

The fact that Inquisition gives us Krem, a trans male character whose companions all unhesitatingly accept him as such – and whose friendship with Bull gives me feelings – is another such diverse highlight. In fact, all our escapee Tevinter boys are rather striking, a confluence I’m discinlined to view as coincidental. Taken collectively, I’d contend, the Iron Bull, Fenris, Krem and Dorian represent four different facets of Tevinter society – the embedded Qunari; the elven slaves; the human soldier class; the aristocratic magisters – in an embedded, interrelated narrative that reads as a damning takedown of traditional, toxic masculinity.

The Iron Bull, while raised in the Qun to disregard romantic attachments, can nonetheless fall in love with either the Inquisitor or Dorian. At the same time, his hypermasculine attributes of size and strength aren’t tied, as is so often the case with such characters, to heteronormative ideals, but are rather complimented by a relaxed, comfortable, kinky pansexuality. Fenris, whose relationship with Danarius is strongly coded to imply rape (Danarius laciviously calls him “skilled” when taunting Fenris and Hawke; same sex relations in Tevinter are encouraged with favourite slaves; Fenris is touch-phobic), is one of a vanishingly rare number of male abuse victims shown in games. His arc in DA2 is – or can be; is ideally, I’d argue – one of healing and self-acceptance. Rather than relying on isolation and stoicism, Fenris heals through his friendships, by learning to trust the people he cares about; by talking, however privately, about his trauma. Krem is a trans character whose personal history, while involving flight from his family and betrayal in the army, is nonetheless presented utterly without self-hatred. Krem knows who he is, and while he can acknowledge that his life hasn’t always been easy, he isn’t a tragic character: his friends and romantic partners accept him, he’s great at his job, he’s got a killer wry sense of humour, and he doesn’t take crap from strangers. He’s level-headed, successful and just a little bit shy: a portrait in all respects of the kind of positive, diverse masculinity we so badly need to see more of.

And Dorian? Dorian is a privileged man oppressed by the same strictures of toxic, heteronormative masculinity which ostensibly see him elevated. Rather than opt for a life of misogyny and self-hatred, married to a woman he doesn’t like, love or respect, he asserts his own identity and questions the world that raised him. Conditioned to expect only physical attachment – not, like Bull, due to any cultural mandate against romance, but because his romantic inclinations don’t run in an approved direction – he nonetheless finds love and self-acceptance in the Inquisition, eventually using what remains of his privilege in the service of others. Put together, not only do all four men represent a spectrum of sexuality – Bull is pansexual, Fenris bisexual, Krem straight, Dorian gay – but their narratives engage with maleness in very different ways. None of them is a queer tragedy; all of them are men of colour; and all of them present masculinity as fluid, adaptable, variable.

How many other games can boast as much?

There’s a heartbreaking moment in DA2 when Fenris, hurt and vulnerable, asks – furiously, rhetorically – “What does magic touch that it doesn’t spoil?” (He’s covered in magic lyrium. He’s talking about himself. My heart.) It’s a question few fantasy narratives, buoyed by the genre’s love of magic as novelty, would think to ask with any degree of seriousness, let alone seek to answer with such complexity. Whatever failings can be heaped on the Dragon Age franchise, it’s hard to deny that they’re striving to tell new stories about a wide range of people; that they’re attempting, with each new game, to learn from prior mistakes; that their failures stem more often (now) from enthusiastic ambition than ignorance. In fact, they’ve created such a wealth of rich, detailed material that our critical analysis is still racing to catch up with the content: despite everything I’ve said here, I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I look forward to finding more.

 

 

Yesterday, after tangentially mentioning Baen Publishing in a Twitter conversation about queer representation in SFF, several Baen aficionados took this as an invitation to harangue both myself and the person to whom I was was speaking about the evils of left-wing politics, both in genre and more generally. Mostly, this involved yelling about how socialism is evil and feminism is cancer, which was equal parts hilarious and horrifying, with a bonus discussion of Christianity in the context of various political systems. My personal highlight: the unironic claim, made by a Christian participant, that Christ was apolitical, which. Um. Yeah. About that:

You Keep Using That Word

Anyway.

While the thread eventually devolved in much the way you’d expect, the actual opening salvo by Patrick Richardson – made in response to the observation that Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, politically speaking, is somewhat at variance with the bulk of Baen’s catalogue – was as follows: “It seems to be only the lefties that care about politics before story.” Which view was quickly seconded by the same woman who later claimed that Christ was apolitical: “Of course! If the story is crap but the author is a nifty socialist, that’s totes awesome!”

Twitter, as anyone who routinely uses it can tell you, is good for many things, but nuanced, lengthy dialogue is seldom one of them. And so, in addition to yesterday’s back and forth, I’m commenting here  – because for all their brevity, these two statements perfectly encapsulate the fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of most anti-diversity arguments.

I’ll deal with the second claim first, as it’s always struck me as being the most wilfully obtuse permutation of the stance. The idea that pro-diversity voices are wasting time, money and effort promoting books we don’t actually like is almost cartoonishly absurd; as though diversity is a naked emperor and we the masters of his empty wardrobe. Listen: I have a toddler, a husband, an active social life, a packed writing schedule, multiple online streaming accounts and a TBR pile that stretches into infinity. If you really think I’m going to waste valuable energy advocating for stories that don’t give me pleasure, then either you’re projecting – which, given the willingness of certain Puppies to thusly waste their own time, is a disturbingly real possibility – or you’re grossly overestimating your knowledge of human nature.

Having already discussed, at length, the dissonance between how recommendations made on the basis of diversity can appear to others and what they actually mean, I won’t revisit the details here. The salient point, however, is this: once you acknowledge that a book recommended on whatever basis is, by virtue of being recommended, a book enjoyed, then it’s virtually impossible to claim that diversity advocates are wilfully dismissive of quality. Nor is the intention to treat “diverse books” as a distinct subgenre, one elevated above its fellows without any regard for category or content otherwise. This is, in fact, exactly the kind of ghettoisation the pro-diversity camp is actively trying to avoid – all the diverse books on one niche shelf at the back, instead of being a normal, integrated part of genre. This accusation likewise ignores the fact that, actually, it’s quite common to group and recommend narratives on the basis of their tropes (friends to lovers, the Chosen One) or thematic elements (classic quest, mythological underpinnings), particularly when we’re speaking to personal preference.

The problem is that, when talking to someone who doesn’t value diversity in narrative – often because they’ve simply never considered it to be a noteworthy factor in their enjoyment of a book, and not because they inherently object to its presence – it can be difficult to explain why it matters at all. Taste is always a murky thing to navigate in such arguments, but it’s an inescapable factor: popularity and obscurity are both unreliable yardsticks where quality is concerned, and given the breadth of the human experience, there’s always going to be entrenched disagreement about what a good story is or should be; whether reading should challenge our comfort zones or confirm them; whether it’s better to read a book that shows us our own experience or a different one. Nobody wants to be told what to like or how to like it, just as we all reserve the right to entertain ourselves on our own terms, and yet, to borrow a phrase, no man is an island. Taken collectively, our individual preferences can and do have an impact at the macro/cultural level that transcends their micro/personal origins, even though the one is invariably a product of the other.

This is why the promotion of diversity is often discussed in moral/representational terms, particularly in connection with children: stories are our first and greatest window into the possible, and if those early adventures consistently exclude a large portion of their audience, or if certain groups are portrayed more complexly than others, then not everyone is learning the same lesson. Even so, the idea is never that diversity should take precedence over quality, as some seem to fear, but rather, that we should aim to create stories – stories in the plural, not the singular, though still bearing in mind the interrelationship between the individual and the collective – which are both diverse and good.

So what, then, of stories that are good, but not diverse? Where do they fit in? Because, on the basis of everything I’ve said here, there’s an argument to be made – and some, indeed, have made it – that you cannot have quality without diversity at all.

While this is a useful shorthand claim to make when looking at the collective end of things as they currently stand – which is to say, when acknowledging the historical lack of diversity and the ongoing need to remedy the imbalance – as a dictum removed from context, it not only ignores the rights of the individual, both as audience and creator, but opens up the question of whether a diverse story is diverse enough. It’s a difficult problem to navigate, and one that gives me a frequent headache. On the one hand, it’s undeniable that white liberal feminism (for instance) has a long and ugly history of ignoring the various racial and homophobic aspects of misogyny as experienced by women of colour and the queer community – that there is, as Kimberle Crenshaw said, an intersectional component to oppression.  As such, praising a novel for its diversity doesn’t mean those aspects of the story are automatically exempt from criticism; far from it, in fact, which is one more reason why I find the accusation that pro-diversity equals anti-quality so laughable. The advocates of diversity are simultaneously its sharpest critics, and always have been, because we’re the ones who care about getting it, by whatever definition, right.

But on the other hand, it’s an inescapable fact that stories are finite: no matter how much detail a given setting might contain, the author can’t focus on everything, or they’ll have no focus at all. By the same token, nothing and no one is perfect, least of all because ‘perfect’ means something different to everyone: the fact that an author drops the ball in one area doesn’t preclude them succeeding in another, and while the function of criticism is to discuss such contrasts – and while every individual reader is perfectly entitled to decide for themselves how such lines are drawn; to make their own decisions about content and execution – declaring imperfection the antithesis of success does all creative efforts a disservice.

Which brings me back to that mercurial element, taste, and the fear, as expressed by Richardson, that even acknowledging diversity as a factor means putting “politics before story”. It’s a telling phrase: by its very construction, it implies that politics are external to stories, instead of being a material component and/or a relevant lens through which to view them. Which, I would contend, they are. It’s not just that the personal is political: it’s that the political is seldom anything else. The only impersonal politics are those which affect other people; which is to say, they’re only ever impersonal to some, not objectively so. The conflation of political questions with abstract concerns can only occur when the decision-makers don’t meaningfully overlap with those their decisions impact. Political apathy is the sole province of the ignorant and the unaffected: everyone else, of necessity, is invested.

Speaking personally, then, and setting aside any other salient, stylistic factors, the point at which my preference for diversity will likely see me jolted from an otherwise good book, such that I may well question its claim to goodness, is the point at which the narrative becomes complicit in dehumanisation, particularly my own. What this means is always going to shift according to context, but broadly speaking, if an author leans on  offensive, simple stereotyping in lieu of characterisation, or if groups that might be realistically present or active within a given context are mysteriously absent, then I’m going to count that a negative. Note that a story which is, in some active sense, about dehumanisation – a misogynist culture; a slave-owning family – is not automatically the same as being complicit in that dehumanisation. This is an important distinction to make: whereas a story about dehumanisation will, by virtue of the attempt, acknowledge what’s going on, even if the characters never question the setting – say, by portraying complex female characters within a restrictive patriarchal system – a complicit story will render these elements as wallpaper: a meaningless background detail, like the number of moons or the price of fish, without ever acknowledging the implications.

It’s not just that, overwhelmingly, complicit stories tend to be dismissive of people like me, though that certainly doesn’t help; it’s that, at the level of worldbuilding and construction, I find them boring. One of my favourite things about genre novels is learning the rules of a new time and place – the customs, language, history and traditions that make up the setting – and as such, I don’t enjoy seeing them treated as irrelevant. For instance: if I’m told that the army of Fictional Country A has always accepted female soldiers, but that women are the legal subjects of their husbands, with no effort made to reconcile the apparent contradiction, then I’m going to consider that a faulty piece of worldbuilding and be jerked out of the story. Doubly so if this is just one of a number of similar elisions, all of which centre on women in a narrative whose complexities are otherwise lovingly considered; triply so if there are no central female characters, or if the ones that do appear are stereotyped in turn. (And yes, I can think of multiple books offhand to which this particular criticism applies.)

Call it the Sex/Hexchequer Test: if an elaborate, invented system of magic or governance is portrayed with greater internal consistency than the gender roles, then the story is probably sexist. Which doesn’t, I hasten to add, mean that it has nothing else to offer and should be shunned at all costs – imperfection, as stated above, is not the antithesis of success. But if someone wants to avoid the book on those grounds, then that’s entirely their business, and at the very least, I’ll likely be cranky about it.

And thus my preference for good diverse stories, which tend not to have this problem. It’s not a question of putting politics ahead of the story: it’s about acknowledging that all stories, regardless of authorial intention, contain politics, because people are political, and people wrote them. In real life, politics only ever seem impersonal if they impact someone else; in fiction, however, that’s what makes them visible. Stories aren’t apolitical just because we happen to agree with them or find them unobjectionable: it just means we’re confusing our own moral, cultural and political preferences with a neutral default. Which doesn’t mean we’re obliged to seek out stories that take us out of our comfort zone this way, or like them if we do: it just means that we can’t gauge their quality on the sole basis that this has, in fact, happened.

And yet, far too often, this is exactly what diversity advocates are criticised for doing: as though acknowledging the political dimensions of narrative and exploring them, in whatever way, deliberately, is somehow intrinsically bad; as though nobody sympathetic to certain dominant groups or ideologies has ever done likewise. Well, they have: you just didn’t think it mattered overmuch, because you agreed.

It’s not about quality, Mr Richardson; it never was. It’s about visibility – who lives, who dies, who tells your story – and whether or not you noticed.

Trigger warning: discussion of rape/sexual assault, spoilers for Uprooted.

Recently, I contributed to a tumblr thread about our unfortunate cultural habit of romanticising abusive behaviour in stories meant primarily for teenage girls, and how this can have a very real, very negative impact on their ability to accurately identify abuse in other contexts. I highly recommend reading the other responses in the thread, as many women shared their own, similar experiences of being confused on this point as teens, while Cora Buhlert also wrote an excellent follow-up post about the conversation. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past year or so, not only because I’m interested in feminism within SFF, but also because of my own personal history.

As a teenager, I didn’t understand consent the way I do now, because nobody ever explained it to me in anything beyond the most basic, Rape-Is-A-Masked-Man-In-The-Bushes way. I watched a lot of TV shows where young women were raped and murdered by men who were, overwhelmingly, strangers, and I read a lot of books – quite a horrifying number, in hindsight – where the abuse and coercion of women was incorporated as a normative aspect of fantasy worldbuilding, but very seldom interrogated. It’s not as if I was consciously expecting these stories to provide me with guidance about my then-fledgling sex life, but at the same time, it’s not as if there was a surplus of knowledgeable, approachable, non-judgemental adults lining up to advise me, either. My brain was a sponge: I learned without meaning to learn, in a vacuum of intention to either teach or critique. Sex ed at school meant a basic knowledge of STDs and contraceptives, a basic knowledge of anatomy, and some truly horrendous Behold Yon Horrible Consequences videos filmed in the 1980s about the dangers of teen pregnancy. I don’t think the word consent was ever used, even when we talked about rape: the binary question, rather, was whether you should say yes or no at a given time, and why drinking at parties was a bad idea because you’d be more likely to say yes and regret it later.

The idea that anyone who coaxed that drunken yes from you might be guilty of rape or assault was never mentioned. If it had been, I might have made some very different choices as a teenager. Or maybe I’d have done the exact same thing, but understood immediately what it meant, instead of locking up for an hour nearly fourteen years later, covered in cold sweat at the belated realisation: oh. Oh. Naively, I’d thought I was done with such bleak epiphanies the first time I backdated my earliest forays into internet chatrooms and realised that actually, yes: those men were, in all probability, paedophiles. The teacher in his thirties who praised my thirteen-year-old “maturity” was not just an adult wanting to be my friend, and the men aged eighteen and over who’d ask for cybersex certainly weren’t.

Culturally, we have a lot of sexist baggage about women turning thirty and what it’s supposed to mean, but nowhere in all that baggage have I ever seen mentioned the likelihood of looking back on my early sexual experiences and realising, all too late, like a brutal, cascading suckerpunch, how fucked-up most of them were. That I would, at twenty-nine, rediscover a poem I wrote at sixteen – a poem I’d read multiple times since then, had showed to multiple adults since then, had always held up internally as an example of my early skill – and almost fucking vomit to realise how clearly it described a sexual assault. I was crying when I wrote it, raw and blank in the aftermath of the event itself, and – I remember this vividly – utterly confused, because I didn’t know what had happened. How can you be nearly thirty before you understand a thing like that?

I am, I’ve come to understand, a peculiarly repressive person. I hide things from myself. For all my ferocious introspection, I can be singularly self-deceptive. I wonder at the trait: was I always that way? Is it learned or innate? What quirk of blood or history encapsulates this appalling, unuseful talent? It feels like such an incongruous thing, especially given the strength of my memories. But perhaps that’s the problem: at the time, the things that appal me now weren’t appalling at all. They might have been unpleasant, even ugly or frightening, but they were also, in the context, normal, and as such, I didn’t question them. I remembered them as acceptable, as things that just happened, and even when the feelings underlying those verdicts were – are – turbulent, a second, more intelligent ruling is nonetheless hard to make. I was depressed as a teenager, and inasmuch as a facet of that depression was situational, I thought I understood the whole, both then and afterwards. Instead, that sadness – that very real, rooted sadness, both temporal and ephemeral – acted as a masking agent for other, more particular injuries. At the time, there was no need to wonder why sex could leave me heartsick; I felt that way often enough as it was to see nothing extraordinary in the confluence.

(Oh, young thing, no. Don’t boast of the bruises you didn’t want. Your loneliness ached, I know, but less than their acquisition.)

The past, as they say, is a foreign country. I did things differently there.

*

Tonight, I started reading Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. It was a novel about which I’d heard only good things from people I trust; a novel I was hoping would break me out of my current reading slump, wherein I’ve started a great many books, but am struggling to finish any of them. To borrow the parlance of memes, cannot tell if too depressed to read or just fed up with exclusionary, derivative bullshit – or, alternatively, if reading so much fanfiction has utterly wrecked my internal yardstick for length, structure and content. Yesterday – partly to test this hypothesis, and partly because I just wanted to – I embarked on my third reading of Katherine Addision’s The Goblin Emperor, a novel which, both stylistically and structurally, is utterly removed from fanfic’s conventions, but which is similarly subversive of genre.

Given that I devoured it, thrilled and rapturous, in a single sitting, I’m inclined to think the problem is other people.

I hate not finishing books, but lately, I’m all out of fucks to give for stories that don’t include me in the narrative. After struggling with Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, I started reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars in parallel, hoping to find enough thematic points to compare and contrast that the one might jumpstart my interest in the other. And part of me wants, really wants, to read them both – not just dutifully, but because I don’t feel fully entitled to discuss them otherwise. But god, god, where are the rest of the women, and why are the few we see surrounded by men? Where is the queerness hiding, and why do I have to sift for it like some unlucky prospector stranded at the ass end of the gold rush? Why, Mr Kay, are you taking me away from your (thus far) single female POV character to show me what her would-be assassin thinks of his attempt on her life, even and especially when he dies at the end of the chapter? All his exposition did was silence hers, and as she’s apparently The Kind Of Woman Other Women Hate, I’m holding out little hope that the next fucktillionty pages are any better.

And thus, Uprooted. I wanted to root for it. (Heh.) Every ten years, Agnieszka’s village has to give a girl to the Dragon, the wizard who protects their valley. After a decade in his service, the girls come back, unharmed but changed, only to be replaced by a new apprentice. And this year, everyone thinks that Kasia, Agnieszka’s beautiful, clever best friend, is the one he’ll choose – only for Agnieszka herself to be taken instead. The writing is lovely, the pacing fluid, and we’ve already been reassured that the Dragon doesn’t assault the girls he takes, that he leaves them dowered and educated and self-possessed, and oh, I was so ready for this to be a story I loved –

But it’s not. It can’t be. The Dragon is an abuser – is grossly, violatingly abusive – and yet the narrative blooms with cues that he’s meant to be Agnieszka’s love interest, burning touches and flashing eyes, and of course, of course he’s centuries old and handsome in a young man’s body (you’re so mature for your age!) and no, this is not what I wanted – is, in fact, the exact fucking opposite of what I wanted – but what if I’m the problem? What if the novel is going to interrogate these tropes, this awful problematic idea of abuse as a prelude to romance, and I bow out too early?

I went to the internet, source of my current wisdom and early folly. Internet, I said, speaking as if to a magic mirror (wireless, wireless in the wall, who’s the truthiest of all?) – internet, does Agnieszka end up with the Dragon?

And lo, did the internet answer: pretty much, yeah. Sorry.

Now, I love Naomi Novik, and YA, and romances, though it took me a good long while to really admit the latter, and thanks to the aforementioned years of narrative conditioning, I have a pretty high tolerance for Partner A initially treating Parter B terribly Because Misunderstanding or some other reason, even though it sets my teeth on edge. By which I mean, I hate it intellectually, but there’s still a firmly-established emotional bedrock for pushing through regardless, on the offchance that we eventually get to a half-decent explanation. It’s actually not as weirdly hypocritical as it sounds: a lot of us have grown up feeling conflicted about the toxic tropes of our youth, as compelled by their unhealthy hold on our formative memories as we are repulsed by our subsequent understanding of them, and as such, it’s not uncommon to see them being… de-escalated, seems the best word for it. We know they’re fucked up, but we kinda want to use them anyway, because all the intellectualism in the world can’t make us rip out even the most diseased aortal tissue wholesale; it hurts too much, for one thing, and for another, it won’t grow back. And so, instead, we try our best to manage their perpetuation carefully: to sand off the worst, most unforgivable elements and mitigate the rest through lovingly tailored contexts. You can just about graph it, sometimes, the way those old tropes change from book to book, as newer authors learn their lore from newer permutations. It’s a form of literary evolution not unlike the Belyaev fox experiment: each new generation of readers learns to love the least-aggressive tropes from a litter of mixed novels until, one day, a thing that once bit savagely will whine and roll over for belly rubs.

Uprooted, though – Uprooted retains its teeth. And even knowing why, by this selfsame logic, other readers were able to skritch it happily behind the ears and carry on, I don’t think I can be one of them.

When the Dragon brings Agnieszka to his castle, he doesn’t tell her why he picked her. For the first few days, he barely speaks to her at all. When he touches her, he grabs her, hard. He insults her, viciously and constantly, berating her as stupid and ugly and useless, though he doesn’t stop to explain what it is he wants from her, or why she needs to learn. He forces her to dress in clothes she finds uncomfortable, expects her to cook his meals for him, but insults her efforts. And Agnieszka, right from the outset, is frightened that he’ll rape her – in fact, she doubts the safety of the girls in his care from the very first page:

He doesn’t devour them really; it only feels that way. He takes a girl to his tower, and ten years later he lets her go, but by then she’s someone different. Her clothes are too fine and she talks like a courtier and she’s been living alone with a man for ten years, so of course she’s ruined, even though the girls all say he never puts a hand on them. What else could they say?

We see her doubts again, on page sixteen:

Kasia had always said she believed the women who came back, that the Dragon didn’t put a hand on them. “He’s taken girls for a hundred years now,” she said firmly. “One of them would have admitted it, and word would have got out.”

But a few weeks ago, she’d asked my mother, privately, to tell her how it happened when a girl was married – to tell her what her own mother would have, the night before she was wed. I’d overheard them through the window, while I was coming back from the woods, and I’d stood there next to the window and listened in with hot tears running down my face, angry, so angry for Kasia’s sake.

Now that was going to be me. And I wasn’t brave – I didn’t think that I could take deep breaths, and keep from clenching up tight, like my mother had told Kasia to do so it wouldn’t hurt. I found myself imagining for one terrible moment the Dragon’s face so close to mine, even closer than when he’d inspected me at the choosing – his black eyes cold and glittering like stone, those iron-hard fingers, so strangely warm, drawing my dress away from my skin, while he smiled that sleek satisfied smile down at me. What if all of him was fever-hot like that, so I’d feel him almost glowing like an ember, all over my body, while he lay upon me and – 

I shuddered away from my thoughts and stood up.

This isn’t just a vague fear, but one the narrative makes explicit: Agnieszka is, very graphically and very, very literally, afraid of being raped. And contextually, she has every reason to be! The fact that the Dragon doesn’t take her to bed the second they get to his tower is hardly proof that he has no intention of doing so later; and certainly, it’s within his power to make her do whatever he wants.

As this scene, on page twenty-eight, makes clear:

I froze in surprise and stopped reading, my mouth hanging open. He was furiously angry: his eyes were glittering and terrible… 

He gaped at me and grew even more wildly angry; he stormed across the tiny chamber, while I belatedly tried to scramble up and back, but there was nowhere for me to go. He was on me in an instant, thrusting me flat down against my pillows.

“So,” he said, silkily, his hand pressed down upon my collarbone, pinning me easily to the bed. It felt as though my heart was thumping back and forth between my breastbone and my back…

“Agnieszka,” he murmured, bending low towards me, and I realised he meant to kiss me. I was terrified, and yet half-wanting him to do it and have it over with, so I wouldn’t have to be so afraid, and then he didn’t at all. “Tell me, dear Agnieszka, where are you really from? Did the Falcon send you? Or perhaps even the king himself?”

Listen: at this point, I don’t give a flying fuck that, for whatever reason, the Dragon seems to think Agnieszka is a spy. It doesn’t excuse his behaviour, because whoever she really is, she’s still a girl he’s got pinned to a bed, and he’s still making her feel sexually afraid of him in order to try and intimidate her into answering. The idea that his incredibly intimate rape threat is somehow justified by her potential treachery is, frankly, sickening. Never mind that, after she runs and accidentally spills a potion over herself, he leaves her frozen in stone for half a day without any explanation or apology; never mind that he physically makes her crawl around him, belittling her competence all the while. Agnieszka is so miserable and terrified that she wants to kill the Dragon, even contemplating suicide when she can’t go through with her plan. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment, but to me, it felt like a slap in the face:

…I saw the tray discarded on the floor, the knife lying bare and gleaming. Oh. Oh, what a fool I’d been, even to think about it. He was my lord: if by some horrible chance I had killed him, I would surely be put to death for it, and like as not my parents along with me. Murder was no escape at all; better to just throw myself out the window.

I even turned and looked out the window, miserably…

So, to reiterate: the Dragon is treating Agnieszka in such a monstrous, abusive, bullying fashion that murder and suicide have both crossed her mind as options; she’s frightened he’ll rape her still, and he’s used that fear to try and make her comply with his wishes.

And then Prince Marek arrives, and actually tries to rape her.

To make this even more horrible, up until his assault, Agnieszka had been contemplating going to Marek for help, only keeping quiet because she’s afraid he won’t believe her. She’s heard stories of his exploits, thinks of him as a hero, and apart from anything else, he’s the only other person she’s even seen since the Dragon took her away.

Here is what happens (TW for assault):

He laughed again and kissed my throat. “Don’t worry, he can’t object,” he said, as though that was my only reason to protest…

It’s not that he was taking pleasure in overcoming me. I was still mute and my resistance was more confused batting at him, half-wondering: surely he couldn’t, Prince Marek couldn’t, the hero; surely he couldn’t even really want me. I didn’t scream, I didn’t plead, and I think he scarcely imagined that I would resist. I supposed in an ordinary noble house, some more-than-willing scullery maid would already have crept into his bedchamber and saved him the trouble of going looking. For that matter, I’d probably have been willing myself, if he’d asked me outright and given me enough time to get over my surprise and answer him: I struggled more by reflex than because I wanted to reject him.

But he did overcome me. Then I began to be really afraid, wanting only to get away; I pushed at his hands, and said, “Prince, I don’t, please, wait,” in disjointed bursts. And though he might not have wanted resistance, when he met it, he cared nothing: he only grew impatient.

“There, there; all right,” he said, as though I were a horse to be reined in and made calm, while he pinned my hand by my side. My homespun dress was tied up with a sash in a simple bow; he already had it loose, and then he dragged up my skirts.

I was trying to thrust my skirts back down, push him away, drag myself free: useless. He held me with such casual strength.

At this point, Agnieszka uses one of the few magic spells the Dragon has taught her – a spell to create clothes, the better to look pretty for him – to recover herself. Marek is so stunned that she has a chance to bash him over the head with the abandoned dinner tray, and he goes down hard, unconscious. Agnieszka, not unsurprisingly, is both frightened at the prospect of having killed a prince and shaken at having been nearly raped. So when the Dragon enters and discovers the scene, does he treat her kindly, even dispassionately, while he tries to heal the Prince? Or does he behave like a cruel, abusive, victim-blaming asshat?

Oh, yeah. Welcome to door number three.

I stood hovering anxiously over the bed, over both of them, and finally I blurted, “Will he -“

“No thanks to you,” the Dragon said, but that was good enough: I let myself sink to the ground in my heap of cream velvet, and buried my head on the bed in my arms sheathed in embroidered golden lace.

“And now you’re going to blubber, I suppose,” the Dragon said over my head. “What were you thinking? Why did you put yourself in that ludicrous dress if you didn’t want to seduce him?”

“It was better than staying in the one he tore off me!” I cried, lifting my head: not in tears at all; I had spent all my tears by then, and all I had left was anger. “I didn’t choose to be in this -“

I stopped, a heavy fold of silk caught up in my hands, staring at it. The Dragon had been nowhere near; he hadn’t worked any magic, cast any spell. “What have you done to me?” I whispered. “He said – he called me a witch. You’ve made me a witch.”

The Dragon snorted. “If I could make witches, I certainly wouldn’t choose a half-wit peasant girl as my material. I haven’t done anything to you but try and drum a few miserable cantrips into your nearly impenetrable skull.” He levered himself up off the bed with a hiss of weariness, struggling, not unlike the way I’d struggled in those terrible weeks while he – 

While he taught me magic. Still on my knees, I stared up at him, bewildered and yet unwillingly beginning to believe. “But then why would you teach me?”

“I would have been delighted to leave you moldering in your coin-sized village, but my options were painfully limited.” To my blank look, he scowled. “Those with the gift must be taught: the king’s law requires it. In any case, it would’ve been idiotic of me to leave you sitting there like a ripe plum until something came along out of the Wood and ate you, and made itself into a truly remarkable horror.”

While I flinched away appalled from this idea, he turned his scowl on the prince…

“Here,” said the Dragon. “Kalikual. It’s better than beating paramours into insensibility.”

So, to be clear: not only does the Dragon neglect, at any point, to ask if Agnieszka is all right – not only does he belittle her for defending herself, and continue to bully her intelligence – but he blames the assault on her choice of clothes, and then refers to the prince, not as her assailant or rapist, but as her paramour, a consensual term that utterly minimises what just took place. Their subsequent conversation reveals his belief that Marek, who assumes the Dragon takes women “to force them to whore for me”, would have seen bedding Agnieszka as “cuckolding” him, and therefore a sort of petty revenge. Again, this is desperately minimizing language, even in context: at no point is the attempted rape named as such, and despite the fact that Agnieszka has spent literal weeks in fear of being raped, the rest of the conversation – and, indeed, the events of the following chapter – appear to show her experiencing no emotional consequences at having that fear made manifest. Instead, the Dragon continues to bully her, and badly, when she fails to make her magic work:

He roared at me furiously for ten minutes after he finally managed to put out the sulky and determined fire, calling me a witless muttonheaded spawn of pig farmers – “My father’s a woodcutter,” I said – “Of axe-swinging lummocks!” he snarled. But even so, I wasn’t afraid anymore. He only spluttered himself into exhaustion and then sent me away, and I didn’t mind his shouting at all, now that I knew there were no teeth in it to rend me.

I was almost sorry not to be better, for now I could tell his frustration was that of the lover of beauty and perfection. He hadn’t wanted a student, but, having been saddled with me, he wanted to make a great and skillful witch of me, to teach me his art…

It maddened him to no end, not without some justice. I know I was being foolish.

At this point, it was all I could do not to fling the book at the wall. It’s Agnieszka who’s been sexually assaulted and belittled, but the sympathy here – and worse, given in her voice! – is all for the Dragon: language that tries to excuse his abuse as the understandable frustration of a perfectionist, Agnieszka blaming herself for not being good enough, for daring to have interests and talents beyond what he expects of her, even though he’s done literally nothing to show her kindness at all. Are we meant to find it a sign of progress, that she doesn’t mind his shouting? Are we meant to feel well-disposed towards such a vile abuser, or ought we to be rooting for her escape?

My instincts were telling me one thing, and the narrative another. Which is why I went on Twitter and asked if their relationship becomes a romantic one. Universally, the response came back: they get together, it’s implied they’re still together at the end, and the Dragon’s early mistreatment of Agnieszka is never satisfactorily addressed.

And I just – no. No. I do not want to read nearly four hundred more pages only for this level of vicious cruelty to never be called what it is. I do not want to read about a sexual assault victim falling in love with an abusive rape-apologist and think about how romantic I would’ve found it all, when I was Agnieszka’s age; how romantic some other girl might find it now, who won’t know any better until she’s nearly thirty, too. I do not want to soldier on for the sake of those amazing feminist virtues I’ve been told the rest of the novel somehow, separately, embodies, because if I’m going to read a book that deals with rape and sexual assault, I would like it, please and thank you, to actually call it those things, or at least to behave as though belittling a victim of same in their immediate fucking aftermath isn’t an acceptable gateway to romance.

Fucking hell. I just want to read a book that doesn’t make me feel like I’m being either punched for existing, or treated as though I don’t. We’re SFF writers; we literally make up shit for a living. Why does everything have to be so brutally fucking difficult?

 

 

 

On the phone from the Middle East, where he is currently deployed, Torgersen lamented what he called “the cognitive dissonance of people saying, ‘No, the Hugos are about quality,’ and then at the same time they’re like: ‘Ooh, we can vote for this author because they’re gay, or for this story because it’s got gay characters,’ or, ‘Ooh, we’re going to vote for this author because they’re not white.’ As soon as that becomes the criteria, well, quality goes out the window.”

Who Won Science Fiction’s Hugo Awards, and Why It Matters, by Amy Wallace

In light of this year’s Hugo Award results, and with particular reference to Amy Wallace’s excellent rundown on the Puppies affair, I feel moved to address the Sad, rather than the Rabid, contingent. Per Torgersen’s remarks above, and setting aside every other aspect of the debate that renders me alternately queasy or enraged, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something fairly fundamental to the problem that’s consistently misunderstood by the Puppies, and which, when explained, might go a long way towards explaining the dissonance between what they think is happening and what is actually happening. Not that I particularly expect Torgersen or Correia to listen to me at this point; or if they did, I’d be greatly surprised. Even so, the point seems worth stating, if only for the sake of greater clarity.

When it comes to debating strangers with radically different perspectives, you sometimes encounter what I refer to as Onion Arguments: seemingly simple questions that can’t possibly be answered to either your satisfaction or your interlocutor’s because their ignorance of concepts vital to whatever you might say is so lacking, so fundamentally incorrect, that there’s no way to answer the first point without first explaining eight other things in detail. There are layers to what’s being misunderstood, to what’s missing from the conversation, and unless you’ve got the time and inclination to dig down to the onion-core of where your perspectives ultimately diverge, there’s precious little chance of the conversation progressing peacefully. After all, if your interlocutor thinks they’ve asked a reasonable, easy question, your inability to answer it plainly is likely to make them think they’ve scored a point. It’s like a cocky first-year student asking a 101 question and feeling smug when their professor can’t condense the four years of study needed to understand why it’s a 101 question into a three-sentence answer. The problem is one as much of attitude as ignorance: having anticipated a quick response, your interlocutor has to be both willing and interested enough to want to hear what might, at least initially, sound like an explanation of a wholly unrelated issue – and that’s assuming you’re able to intuit the real sticking point straight off the bat.

So: inasmuch as any of the Puppies can be said to have a reasonable concern at the bottom of all their rhetoric, which often comes off as little more than “we think books about people who aren’t straight white dudes are boring”, it’s the worry that certain stories are being rewarded because they contain X character or are written by Y author rather than because they’re actually good. And given the way such books are often discussed and lauded by those who love them, where these aspects are openly stated as pros, you can see where the concern comes from. After all, the difference between saying “this book is great because it had a queer protagonist” and “this book is great because it had a well-written protagonist” seems, on the surface, pretty obvious: one is concerned with a single aspect of characterisation regardless of its execution, and the other is concerned with execution alone. So clearly, if you’re vaunting queerness (for instance) as though it’s a synonym for quality, you’re at risk of recommending mediocre stories on a tokenistic, uninformed basis.

Right?

Wrong.

But in order to explain why this is so, there’s six onion layers we need to unravel: context, experience, awareness, representation, language and taste.

Let’s start with layer one: context. While there’s always been an element of diversity in SFF – you can’t ignore the contributions of writers like Ursula K. Le Guin or Octavia Butler, or pretend that the Golden Age greats never wrote about politics – as the Puppies themselves agree, it’s only comparatively recently that a movement in favour of promoting diversity has flourished. Setting aside the question of whether this is a good or a bad thing, or merely just a thing, at a practical level, increased diversity in narrative means you’re adding a new set of variables to any critical equation, which in turn requires a new way to discuss them. For example: if the vast majority of protagonists in a given genre are straight, white men, then critically speaking, there’s little need to mention their straightness/whiteness/maleness when making reviews or recommendations, because none of these details are relevant in distinguishing Story A from Story B, or Character A from Character B. Instead, you talk about other things – the quality of the characterisation, for instance – and consider it a job well done.

Which, contextually, it is. And somewhat understandably, if this is what you’re used to, it can be easy to assume that ever mentioning race or gender or sexuality in a review is irrelevant – even when the characters are more diverse – because these details, whatever else they might indicate, have no bearing on the quality of the story.

Except, of course, they do, as per the evidence of layer two: experience. Who we are and where we’ve come from impacts on our construction; on our beliefs and personalities. Returning to a situation where straight white male characters are the default, a reviewer would be within their rights – would, indeed, be doing a good job – to discuss how Character A’s working class upbringing informs his personality, especially when compared with Character B’s more aristocratic heritage and attitudes. A veteran soldier will have a different perspective on combat to someone who’s only ever studied tactics at a remove, just as an old man who’s recently outlived the love of his life will think differently about romance to a teenager in the throes of his first infatuation. These details are critically pertinent because they demonstrate how and why two characters can experience the same story in radically different ways, and if we as readers happen to have some points in common with Character A or Character B, we’re always going to compare our own experiences with theirs, no matter how fantastical or futuristic the setting, because it helps us gauge whether, in our opinion, the writer has done a good job of portraying their thoughts and feelings realistically.

And so it is with details like race and gender and sexuality. A queer character will have different experiences to a straight one, particularly if they live in a homophobic culture; someone who’s religious will have a different outlook on life to someone who’s an atheist; a person from a racial and cultural minority will experience their surroundings differently to someone from the racial and cultural majority; someone who grows up poor will approach wealth differently to someone who’s always had it. How relevant these details are to individual characterisation and worldbuilding – and how successfully they’re executed within a given story – will, of course, vary on a case by case basis; but of necessity, they matter more often than not, and therefore deserve to be mentioned.

Which means that, if the straight white man is no longer the default character, but is rather just one of a number of options, his straightness, whiteness and maleness will be subject to new scrutiny, both in the present and as a retroactive phenomenon. This is layer three: awareness. All stories, no matter how fantastic or futuristic, are ultimately the product of their times, because their writers are the product of their times, too. We might envisage new worlds, but what we consider new depends as much on what we think is old as what we think is possible; our taboos change with the decade or century or according to cultural context; particular writing styles go in and out of vogue; and audiences, depending on their tastes and when they’re raised, expect a range of different things from narrative.

The retroactive criticism and analysis of old works has always been part of literary tradition; what changes is the present-day yardstick against which we measure them. Right now, we’re in the middle of a cultural shift spanning multiple fronts, both political and creative: we’re aware that stories are being told now which, for various reasons, haven’t often been told before, or which didn’t receive much prominence when they were, and which are consequently being told by a wider range of people. Depending on your personal political stance, and as with the question of diversity in the context layer, you might view this as a good thing, a bad thing, or merely a thing – but regardless of your beliefs, you can’t deny that it’s happening, and that it’s having an impact. As a direct result of this, many of us are now looking at old stories – and at old defaults – in a new light, which means that certain narratives and narrative elements which, by dint of once being so common as to void discussion, were considered thematically neutral, are now being treated as political. (Which, really, they always were – but more on that later.)

As our cultural taboos have shifted – as queerness has become decriminalised (if not always accepted) and rights extended to everyone regardless of race and gender (though still often enacted with prejudice) – the types of stories it’s acceptable to tell have changed, just as it’s now possible for a wider range of storytellers to be heard. We’re all aware of these changes, and whether we like them or not, their visibility makes us question our stories in ways we haven’t before. Thus: while there is nothing noteworthy in choosing to write a straight, white male protagonist in a cultural milieu where almost all protagonists share these qualities, the same act carries more meaning when the combination is understood to be just one of a number of possible choices; and especially where, of all those choices, it’s the one we’ve seen most often, and is therefore, in one sense, the least original. Which doesn’t make such characters inherently bad, or boring, or anything like that; nor does the presence of such characters – or the success of such writers – preclude the simultaneous presence of diversity. It simple means we have an increased awareness of the fact that, up until very recently, a certain type of character was the narrative default, and now that he’s not – or at least, now that he’s not to some people – it’s worth asking whether his presence is a sign that the writer, whether consciously or unconsciously, is perpetuating that default, and what that says about the story in either case.

Which brings us to the fourth layer: representation. Following on from the issue of awareness, consider that, as a wider variety of stories are now being told by a wider variety of people, a wider range of protagonists has consequently entered the narrative market. As with context and awareness, you might think this is a good thing, a bad thing, or merely a thing: regardless, it is happening, and will doubtless continue to happen. As such, a wider percentage of the audience is now having stories written both by and about them – or at least, about people like them – than in previous years; which means that, in response to the former dearth of such narratives, there’s been a corresponding rise in people requesting or recommending them primarily or prominently on the basis of their representational elements.

Ignoring for the moment all questions of quality – which, yes; I’m aware that’s the discussion we’re ultimately having, but bear with me – it should be a point of basic human empathy to understand why this is important; or at the very least, why representation matters to so many people. Despite our ability to empathise and connect with characters whose lives and experiences are utterly different to our own, we still like to see ourselves represented in fiction from time to time, not only as a form of validation – you’re worth telling stories about – but because, amidst so much difference, it’s a point of connection, affirmation, identity. Yet because straight white male characters were so long the default – and because that default, by virtue of its ubiquity, was considered politically neutral – changing the recipe, as it were, is still a visibly deliberate act: it makes the reader aware that the author chose for the character to be male or female, queer or straight, black or white (to give the simplest binary permutations), which awareness refutes the mythical idea of characters as the immaculate, fully-fledged gifts of some inviolable Muse, beyond the writer’s ability to pick or alter; and as such, there’s a reflexive tendency to conflate deliberate with forced, where the latter term carries implications of artificial, false, arbitrary, tokenistic. When these attributes don’t describe us, it’s easy to forget that actually, people like that do exist in the real world, and in considerable numbers; they’re not just something the author has made up out of whole cloth, and the fact that we might be surprised to see them in a given story doesn’t mean, ipso facto, that they’re incongruous within it.

As such, there’s a developing trend towards recommending stories which feature traditionally under-represented groups, not just as some arbitrary exercise, but because we’re aware that members of those groups might actually want to read those stories, and will, as a consequence, have a material interest in that aspect of the contents. But for precisely this reason, such recommendations are seldom indiscriminate, based, as Torgersen and the Puppies fear, solely on the presence of Character A regardless of execution or context – because even though protagonists have long defaulted to being straight, white and male, there’s an equally long tradition of other groups being portrayed badly. The fact that a book contains multiple female characters is no guarantee that those characters are written well, let alone inoffensively, just as the presence of POC within a classic text doesn’t mean their portrayal and treatment isn’t screamingly racist – which is why, when you see  diversity advocates recommending books on the basis that Character A is queer (for instance), the implication is that the filtering for quality has already taken place; that Character A both exists in a well-written narrative and isn’t a walking stereotype. The entire point of the exercise is to promote stories, not on the basis of token or forced diversity alone, but which portray diversity well – and because an author writing from their personal, in-depth experience is likely to have an extensive understanding of the topic, this support naturally extends to mentioning if, for instance, the author of a story starring multiple queer characters is queer themselves, not because there’s an assumption that straight people can’t write excellent stories about queer individuals, but because within any field or group, there’s always going to be a degree of insight or insider knowledge that can only be understood through personal experience, and it’s worth recognising which books are likely to replicate it, especially if we’re insiders, too, and are therefore more likely to notice if those perspectives are missing.

Consider, for instance, the probable insights contained in a military SF novel written by serving soldier, as distinct from one written by a military historian, as distinct again from one whose author’s knowledge of combat, tactics and fighting comes primarily from what they’ve read or seen in other fictional stories. The different backgrounds and knowledge-bases of these hypothetical authors says nothing about how well they write fiction, or how skilled they might be at other aspects of storytelling; they might have wildly different narrative styles and work within very different worlds, such that comparing their books, for all that they ostensibly share a genre, is a tricky proposition. All three books could be excellent in different ways, and all three books could be poor. But if someone you knew  to be both a good judge of fiction and possessed of actual combat experience – let’s call them Sam – handed you the first writer’s book and said, “Read this! The author actually served overseas!”, you’d probably deduce from context that, having served themselves, Sam was telling you that this writer gets it; their experience is my experience, or close enough to mine to be recognisable, and they know what they’re talking about. 

Similarly, if Sam praised either of the other two books for the military content, you’d understand that they were speaking from a position of personal experience: that, to someone with firsthand knowledge of fighting, the tactical/combat elements didn’t feel unrealistic or forced. By the same token, if Sam disliked the first book, you might take the criticism seriously while considering that, as the author was writing from their own first-hand perspective, too, a lack of realism wasn’t necessarily at fault, so much as a clash of opinions. But if Sam told you categorically that the third writer had no idea what they were talking about – that, regardless of any other qualities the book might have, the military aspect was hopeless – you’d be inclined to take that criticism more seriously than if a civilian friend with no grasp of tactics recommended it wholeheartedly; but depending on your own status as civilian, historian or soldier – and how badly you wanted to read the book for other reasons – your own reaction could be different again.

What I mean to say is this: seen from the outside, it’s easy to look at the members of a community recommending stories on what seems to you a superficial basis, and to conclude that, actually, nobody in that conversation is concerned with quality at all. But as per the fifth layer – language – what you’re really witnessing is a collectively understood shorthand: a way of signalling quickly that this book or that is worthy of attention based on a deeper awareness of commonly-held priorities, with respect accorded to those whose recommendations are supported by their personal experiences. Particularly on Twitter, where conversations between small groups are visible to non-participants and where character limitations make exposition difficult, it makes sense that bloggers, writers and critics alike try to be as succinct and powerful in their advocacy as possible. Just as I would accord a greater critical weight to the judgement of a soldier recommending a military SF novel, if a person of colour praises a book for its positive racial representation – or, conversely, criticises its lack thereof – I’m going to consider that relevant.

Which all ties in neatly to the final layer: taste. I’ve said before, and will say again, that I’m a firm believer in the value of negative reviews. Not only do they serve an important critical function, but as another person’s taste is seldom identical to our own, they help us construct a more useful idea of where our interests overlap with the critic’s, and where they diverge. Demonstrably, there’s an audience right now for diverse fiction: for stories which reject the old defaults and showcase a wider range of people, themes and places. The fact that some people enjoy such works does not, in and of itself, make them good works, just as popularity is no guarantee of goodness, either. The Venn diagram of why we love something is seldom a perfect circle with its objective strengths, inasmuch as such strengths can be reasonably said to exist: creative endeavours are funny like that. There’s always going to be a sort of tension between technique and passion, skill and heart, not because those things are in any way diametric opposites, but because we can never quite agree on whether one is more important than the other, or if you can really have one without the other, or where the distinction between them lies if, for instance, the most heartfelt aspects of a story are only so because of their technically sound expression.

As such, creative awards are contentious creatures – have always been so; will always be so – inasmuch as presenting one represents the imposition of an objective judgement into a fundamentally subjective medium; and because all claims to objectivity are inherently political, so must awards be political, too. This isn’t new information, though some people, like the Puppies, have become mightily outraged at the revelation that what they’ve historically perceived as a lack of politics was, in fact, merely a political bias towards their own comfort. That they are no longer predominantly catered to, they perceive as being under attack; what they call the forced introduction of politics into a formerly neutral space is rather the revelation of existing politics through a natural process of change. A sandbar might be solid for years, but when it shifts with the ocean and so makes new waves, it hasn’t betrayed the people standing on it – though possibly, it might have collapsed sooner beneath their weight, especially if they mistook it for solid and made it the foundation of an improbable edifice.

I guess what I want to say is this: despite what the Puppies think, the rest of us aren’t interested in diversity without quality, and as we’re all acutely aware, the failure mode of diversity is stereotype, which concept isn’t exactly on handshake terms with quality in the first place. That we want to celebrate historically silenced voices and perspectives doesn’t mean we’re doing so purely to spite you, or that we’ve lost all sense of judgement: if our tastes extend to seeing in fiction those versions of ourselves you’re disinclined to write, then who are you to tell us we aren’t entitled to our preferences? Nobody is saying you can’t tell your stories; we just might not want to read them, the same as you evidently have no desire to read ours. That’s not the genre being attacked – it’s the genre changing, and whether you change with it or not, we’re still going to like what we like.

Stop fighting the riptide, Puppies. As any Australian could tell you, it’s the surest way to drown.