Posts Tagged ‘Fanfiction’

Happy new year, internets! Globally and politically, 2016 was a clusterfuck: some good things certainly happened, but let’s not pretend that last year was a shining beacon of kittens and glee. For me, at a purely personal level, it was a mixed bag: I had a great professional year, met some amazing people, moved internationally from Scotland back to Australia and attended Worldcon in Kansas City, which was my first ever visit to the US, but the overall experience was like grinding through a really hard video game level I’d¬†wandered into by accident and then had to fight my way out of. Which leaves me with mixed feelings about 2017: I don’t for a second think this is going to be an easy year, especially given the ongoing political legacies we’ve all been left to deal with, but I’m determined to make it a hopeful one, in the sense of striving to do good works in whatever way I can.

And as part of that, I’d like to introduce a shiny new element to the magpie’s nest that is this blog: an ongoing feature I’m calling From Ship to Shelf.

As many of you may know by now, I’m a big proponent of fanwriting in all its forms, and particularly fanfiction. While many fanfic authors are new or amateur (in the sense of being unpaid and unprofessional) writers, there are also many who write publicly in other venues: as reviewers, as bloggers, as poets, as academics, and as creators of original fictional content. Some of us¬†tick many such boxes, others only one or two, but as I continue to be blown away by the quality and quantity of the fic I encounter, I’m particularly interested in those writers who start out in fandom and then begin to publish original content, whether via indie, self-publishing or traditional means. From Ship to Shelf is intended to highlight such authors and their works, but will also hopefully serve as a jumping off point for more and varied discussions about the role of transformative works in shaping original content.

Ideally, From Ship to Shelf will feature: reviews of books and/or original content by fanfic authors; interviews with writers who create across multiple such mediums; discussions of the academic aspects of fanfic and fandom; the relationship of queerness, feminism and intersectionality to all these things; and anything else¬†that feels applicable. I am open to the idea of guest posts and/or reviews from interested parties, but won’t be actively soliciting such content:¬†if you have an idea or want to direct my attention towards a relevant work or author, please let me know – otherwise, I’m going to be making this up as I go along in time-honoured Foz tradition.

So: please welcome From Ship to Shelf! I hope to have more news for you soon; otherwise, let’s get the hell on with 2017 and try to make the most of it.

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 Рa spell to create clothes, the better to look pretty for him Рto 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?

 

 

 

Sometimes, the most compelling books to read are also a fascinating mess, in equal parts frustrating and subversive. Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On is such a book, and even having finished it, I’m still not sure which I want more: to fling it against the wall or recommend it.

Much like Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Carry On began life as a metastory, one the author invented and referenced within an earlier novel: Palimpsest¬†in Valente’s case, and¬†Fangirl in Rowell’s. What makes this even more fourth-wall in Rowell’s case is that, in Fangirl, the stars of Carry On – Simon Snow and Basilton ‘Baz’ Grimm-Pitch – are the hero and antagonist, respectively, of a Potteresque series of YA novels about whom Fangirl’s¬†protagonist writes queer romantic fanfic.

And when I say Potteresque, I do mean that quite literally: Simon and Baz are students at a magical boarding school in England (Watford), to which Simon (a magical orphan in the Normal world) was brought at age eleven by its powerful headmaster (the Mage) because his power was prophecied. The parallels are many, obvious and intentional. Even if you haven’t¬†read¬†Fangirl –¬†in which,¬†rather than being a wholesale Potter surrogate, the Simon Snow books are inserted¬†as an equally popular peer series – the native similarities hang a lampshade on the comparison all by themselves. (Almost recursively so, at times: it’s lampshades all the way down!)

While this is understandable, it’s also slightly awkward. No matter how immersed I was, I never quite lost my background awareness that the only reason any of it existed was because Rowell couldn’t slip Harry x Draco into Fangirl without finding herself on¬†the business end of a lawyer. Which is, simultaneously, both Carry On’s strength and weakness: strength, because the story is intended as a subversive take on the Chosen One trope, with specific reference to Harry Potter; weakness, because it never quite develops into anything more original, despite the central queer relationship.

So when I say that¬†Carry On reads like fanfic, I mean that as neither censure nor compliment, but rather as an objective description of narrative style. I happen to love fanfiction – have spent a not inconsiderable portion of the last eighteen months immersed in both writing and reading it, in fact – which is why I feel qualified to make the comparison. By virtue of referencing characters, settings and concepts the readership already knows, in whose central relationship they already feel invested, fanfics have a natural tendency to skip over setting and worldbuilding – not because they’re badly written, but because, more often than not, such information is contextually extraneous. It’s what lends the genre such an addictive, compelling immediacy, like picking up a favourite book at the most exciting chapter –¬†the purest distillation of that much-vaunted piece of Writing Advice, to start the story when something is really happening.¬†Easy to do, when your readership already knows the backstory of even minor characters by heart, but trickier far to execute if you’re simultaneously building a world from scratch.

That Rowell manages to achieve this feeling with original characters is due in part to how heavily she leans on her audience’s peripheral Potter-knowledge, but that’s hardly a bad thing; is rather, I’d argue,¬†a sign of her willingness to treat her audience¬†as intelligent. Given the cultural dominion of Harry Potter, surely only a snobbish or oblivious fantasy writer would assume their readers ignorant of the narrative, and as commentary on said story is half the point of Carry On, it makes sense to assume a trope-literate audience and work from there. Even so, it’s skill that makes it work: Rowell’s¬†writing is clean and comic, buoying the story along at pace, and while the story is flawed – as I’ll soon discuss – it’s certainly never boring.

As you might expect, Carry On’s¬†strongest aspect¬†is the romantic relationship between Baz and Simon, which is executed with humour, warmth and nuance. Forced together as roommates via a magical selection process in their first year at Watford, both boys have spent the majority of that time purporting to despise each other, caught on opposite sides of a magical divide: Baz, the talented scion of an old, prestigious family at odds with the new regime, and Simon, the poor upstart ward of the Mage, apparently destined for greatness but unable to marshal his power. In a literary tradition where, for ostensibly non-homoerotic and visibly sexist reasons, male heroes¬†are often depicted as having more nuanced, complicated relationships with their antagonists than with their¬†apparent female love interests, it’s deeply satisfying – and wholly enjoyable –¬†to see the trope so thoroughly¬†queered up. It calls to mind Kate Beaton’s excellent comic about a pirate and his nemesis: true to the old dictum about love and hate being opposite sides of the same coin, there’s a point at which constantly obsessing about another person’s whereabouts and motives bleeds into caring about their wellbeing, and Rowell hits that junction right in the narrative sweet spot.

Baz and Simon’s relationship is the solid heart of the story; everything else, however, feels¬†either sparse, rushed or both. Where Harry Potter’s story is told in seven novels, Simon Snow’s is crammed into one, as though our familiarity with the layered details of Rowling’s story means we don’t need the other six books of Rowell’s. As such, it works exceedingly well as commentary, but falls somewhat flat on its own account.¬†This is particularly disappointing when it comes to the political complexities of Rowell’s world. Given more scope, the Mage’s actions, motives and betrayal could have cored a devastating punch; instead, the other characters are never given the poisoned catharsis of knowing the whole picture, while the wider consequences of Simon’s existence are conveniently elided at the finale.

Structurally, then, Carry On succeeds or fails depending on how¬†you grade it. By the standards of most comparable original works, it’s undernourished, but still good comic, romantic fantasy fun; by the standards of fanfic, it’s T-rated excellence. As I enjoy both types of writing, that leaves me somewhat stumped for judgement – or would do, if not for the existence of Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona.¬†Released some five months prior to Carry On, Nimona¬†portrays the same sort of complex, antagonistic, morally grey and (ultimately) queer relationship between male nemeses that Carry On¬†does, to poignant effect. Likewise, thanks to the graphic format, it conveys an original setting in brief, but without feeling thin as a consequence – and as it isn’t directly riffing on a specific prominent work, but rather subverts a general knowledge of fairytales, it stands more strongly on its own merits.

And Nimona, unlike Carry On, doesn’t base a central subversive premise – that of queer male romance – on a slew of sexist tropes.

At its most basic level, Carry On has a Women In Refrigerators problem. Both Simon and Baz have conspicuously dead mothers – Lucy and Natasha, respectively – and while both speak from the grave in the course of the story, this is hardly great representation. Natasha barely appears except as motivation for Baz, and though Lucy gets some POV sections, when she actually tries to speak to Simon, who doesn’t know who she is, her visitation comes so hard on the heels of Natasha’s that he naturally confuses her with the other dead ghost mother, a mistake that’s never corrected. The fact that Lucy’s silent narrative is key to the whole story doesn’t quite mitigate the fact that none of the characters hear it, nor does it make her history any less tragic.

And then there’s Agatha, Simon’s ex-girlfriend: blonde and beautiful, longing for Normalcy, and woefully underdeveloped. The problem isn’t that Agatha, with her dreams of escape and travel and her mediocre magic, is an unrealistic character; it’s just that, as she spends the whole book wanting to be somewhere else, her participation in the actual plot is minimal. Which is deeply frustrating, not only on its own account, but because she’s the character who comes closest to figuring out who Lucy is and why she matters, yet never shares her findings with anyone. Given that Agatha is both afraid of dying because of¬†Simon and of being the one to watch him die, the fact that she believes the lie of Lucy’s escape to America – that she identifies with it to the point of going there herself, when Lucy is really dead in a way that would horrify Agatha – is a symmetry I found more ugly¬†than not, yet all over representative of her wasted potential. Yes, there’s something positive in Agatha living when Lucy died, but as Agatha’s escape at the finale is enabled by the death of yet another innocent woman – and one who, for some reason, appears to accept her own murder as justified at the last second, which, what? – any positive parallels are rather grossly ruined.

By contrast, Penelope Bunce, Simon’s best friend, comes across more vividly, if only because she gets so much more stage time; otherwise, she’s decidedly Hermione, but without the activism. That she’s a non-stereotyped person of colour – as is Baz, for that matter – is a significant point in the book’s favour, but at the same time, her POV sections are often so immediate as to deny her vital introspection. She has a boyfriend in America, but though she mentions him, we never really see her think about him, even though he’s clearly significant, and while we’re given a reason why her life is so Simon-centric,¬†I couldn’t help wishing that we got to see more of her own her own terms. It doesn’t help that her relationship with Agatha is largely defined by jealousy over Simon: the only chapter in which the two interact away from the boys is literally described, in text, as a Bechdel pass – “It’s good to have a life that passes the Bechdel test,”¬†her mother says of them, prompting Penelope to respond with a grumbled quip about her mother’s lack of female friends – and in a novel full of gratuitously hung lampshades, this one is arguably the most glaring.

Partly, the problem is one of length: if¬†Rowell had fleshed out Agatha and Penelope, instead of leaning on¬†their underlying archetypes, then we might have a better sense of who they are in relation to themselves and each other, instead of just seeing them next to Baz and Simon. Yet even so, the novel’s comparative shortness didn’t need to be an issue. The problem isn’t that a story about a queer male relationship dared to put a lesser emphasis on its women, but that it opted to do so in ways that reinforce sexism – which is to say, dead mothers, female sacrifice, and girls more rivals than friends because of boys. Penelope’s mother Mitali, Baz’s aunt Fiona and the goatherd Ebb were all good, meaty characters, but their perspectives and roles were limited, rendered less significant in the long run¬†than their seven years of history with the characters could merit. Which, on a practical level, I understand: given the obvious Potter comparisons and the nature of the project, I can’t imagine Rowell would’ve wanted to write a full Simon Snow series instead of just the effective final volume. But as narrative tradeoffs go, it’s hard not to note the downside.

And then there’s the bi erasure.

Look: I am a bisexual person. I exist! There is a word for me! But Carry On, despite being a story wherein words are literal magic, is apparently unwilling to consider this as a concept. Baz, we’re told, is gay: has never been with anyone but Simon, and is unattracted to women. But Simon, who’s dating Agatha at the start of the book – is contemplating being with her forever, in fact – is never allowed to use the word bisexual to describe himself, nor is it applied to him by anyone else, even in passing. Which… look. Being closeted is a thing. Not understanding your own sexuality is a thing. The world is full of people who thought they were straight, or were thought to be straight, who later came out as gay, even after they dated or kissed or slept with or married or had kids with someone – or ones! – of the opposite sex. This is absolutely a valid narrative! What feels decidedly less valid, however, is the fact that bisexuality is never once considered as a possible explanation for Simon being attracted to both Agatha and Baz, even though Simon himself is demonstrably unclear on the subject. Instead, we get this:

“And I don’t think I’m gay,” I say. “I mean, maybe I am, at least partly, the part that seems to be demanding the most attention right now…”

“No one cares whether you’re gay,” Baz says coldly.

And I just… partly gay? As in, attracted to more than one gender? As in fucking bisexual, or pansexual, or literally anything other than the “I don’t like labels/nobody cares/let’s not call it anything” school of weasel-wording bullshit consistently used to enforce the idea that gay and straight are the only options?¬†In the Potteresque language of¬†Carry On, it seems, bisexual has the same impact as Voldemort: the preferred term in both instances is that which shall not be named,¬†the better to render it palatable.¬†Throw in Simon’s bizarre pejorative at the end about dancing being¬†“well gay… even when it isn’t two blokes” – which, why the fuck is there any need to include that line in a supposedly queer-positive novel at all, let alone voiced by a character who hasn’t expressed any homophobia, internalised or otherwise, in 522 pages? – and the death of an underutilised queer woman at the finale – to say nothing of the fact that the only queer female relationship is one that happens off screen, only referenced ¬†when one or other of the characters is complaining about it – and I am moved to look askance at Carry On in its entirety.

Because, here’s the thing: as much as I enjoyed Fangirl¬†– and as refreshing as it was, to see both fanfic and fan culture rendered in such a positive light – it shied away from acknowledging the problematic aspects of the community. Such as, for instance, the fetishising of queer male relationships and the elision of female characters, and while I won’t go so far as to say that Rowell is guilty of this – and as much as I enjoyed the dynamic between Simon and Baz – Carry On¬†reads to me like an outsider take on queerness rather than a heartfelt exploration of it, the subversion born of novelty, not need, and so made superficial.

Which is ultimately what bothers me about the novel’s resolution. As compelling as it is to make the Mage the ultimate villain – or ultimately responsible for what’s gone wrong, at least – his status as a supposedly progressive reformer who secretly¬†broke everything¬†is never really addressed. From the outset, it’s clear that, as in the world of Harry Potter, historical¬†issues of magical privilege and exclusion have lead to Watford’s discrimination against various less powerful groups – biases that the Mage’s reforms, like Dumbledore’s egalitarian attitudes, are meant to try and rectify. Nimona, too, deals with similar themes: as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the institution supported by the apparent hero is an oppressive, abusive state, yet even knowing this, the morality is never rendered as binary. Similarly, and despite the presence of an evil Dark Lord, Rowling makes an effort to show the complexities of her world: Dolores Umbridge is often cited as being more terrifying than Voldemort for being more recognisable, the sort of sadistic bureaucrat we pray is never responsible for our future, while the Lovegoods, for all their faith in Harry, still give credence to any number of clearly false conspiracies.

But in Carry On, the political threads are left hanging, either handwaved at the finale or ignored completely. The fact that the Mage levies taxes on the powerful old families is cited as a negative behaviour equal to his coercive raids on their homes, for instance, yet we never quite see a distinction drawn between them, nor get any sense of how this works in a wider sense. If Rowell was trying to make a distinct point about the hypocritical evils of left-wing revolution – if the characters had actually discussed the politics of it in any depth, or if the consequences were rendered at more than a background level, like the familial crises caused by Penny’s brother serving in the Mage’s Men – then that would be one thing. I might disagree with such politics, but at least it would feel purposeful, consistent. As it stands, however, the novel feels blandly unconcerned with its own implications, and that doesn’t sit well with me.

In that sense, the English setting, as rendered by an American writer, feels like a metaphor for the novel’s failings: seeming ahead of substance. As an Australian who’s been living in the UK for almost five years now, and who was raised with many British cultural staples, there’s something quite jarring about Rowell’s inconsistent use of British idioms and references, like someone who’s so delighted by the novelty of usage that they haven’t stopped to think if it hangs together. Little things, like Simon using both ‘wicked’ and ‘cream-crackered’ while having no visible dialect – with accents never discussed, in fact, despite their clear significance –¬†or Baz joking about Simon having ‘chavvy’ friends, as though ‘chav’ is synonymous with ‘poor white trash’ instead of referring to a specifically garish urban middle-class subset without an obvious American equivalent. ¬†Even the title, Carry On, gives me pause: within the novel, it’s rendered as callback¬†¬†to the lyrics of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and as such, I’m not sure if Rowell is even aware of the Carry On films and¬†their place in British culture, let alone why her allusion to them, intentionally¬†or otherwise, is somewhat incongruous.

Given the paucity of representation offered to various groups in mainstream narratives, it’s understandable that we sometimes tend to criticise the ones that do appear¬†with disproportionate fervour: with so few¬†comparable¬†offerings, our emotional investment – and thus our corresponding potential to be personally disappointed – is far higher than when watching Hollywood’s latest straight white Chris explode things onscreen (for instance). But then, that’s the paradox of descriptive criticism: the fewer similar stories you have, the more there is to be said of them individually, while the more similar stories you have, the more there is to be said of them collectively. The only way to react to something in general terms, with general ambivalence, is if it’s abundant enough to be common: otherwise, your words and reactions are always going to be, of necessity, specialised, with just a touch of jargon. And while the clear solution is to make more things, that’s often easier said than done – especially if the burden of proof is set so high that none of us can bear to get it wrong, or to risk getting it wrong, and therefore never try at all.

Carry On, then, is something of a mixed bag. It’s messy in some respects and delightful in others – a product of the times, with all the praise and caveats that implies – but as a publicised¬†queer fantasy romance from a bestselling author at a major press, it’s also a rare enough beast to be important. Parts of it annoyed me greatly, but on balance, I enjoyed it: to paraphrase¬†the greatest¬†ever review of Jupiter Ascending, it is my¬†garbage. It is garbage for me,¬†¬†and given that I’m otherwise capable of squealing over garbage that manifestly isn’t for me, just because I’m halfway resigned to entire genres¬†treating me like an alien thing, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Carry On, despite its flaws, is definitely worth reading.

 

Generally speaking, I don’t make a point of giving a shit about Jonathan Franzen; there’s the unavoidable sense that it might encourage him. This is, after all, a man who casually contemplated adopting a war orphan in the hope said child might teach him about Teh Yoof, and as much as I yearn to inhabit the parallel universe¬†where that¬†only happened in the Woody Allen film about Franzen’s life (a universe, I might add, in which Allen himself is not a fucking paedophile), our own bizarre reality holds with smug tenacity to the dictum that truth, like so many other curious biological functions, is frequently stranger than fiction. I mean, for the love of god, you cannot make this shit up:

Franzen said he was in his late 40s at the time with a thriving career and a good relationship but he felt angry with the younger generation. ‚ÄúOh, it was insane, the idea that Kathy [his partner] and I were going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan. The whole idea lasted maybe six weeks.‚ÄĚ

He added: ‚ÄúOne of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation. They seemed politically not the way they should be as young people. I thought people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry. At least not in any way that was accessible to me.”

Instead, Henry Finder, his editor at the New Yorker, suggested he meet up with a group of new university graduates. ‚ÄúIt cured me of my anger at young people,‚ÄĚ Franzen said.

Jonathan Franzen, everyone: a real live David Williamson antagonist.

Naturally, then, when I stumbled on a review of Franzen’s latest novel – titled, rather unambiguously, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity Is an Irrelevant Piece of Shit¬†– I filed it away in my mental Drawer of Schadenfreude for later¬†edification and enjoyment. Having now consumed said hatchet job, however, what I’ve mainly taken away from it – apart from yet more reassurance, were it needed, that Franzen’s work isn’t for me – is a sense of overriding irritation at seeing genre fiction hung up, yet again, as a literary whipping boy. Specifically: Franzen’s work is so bad that the reviewer – listed only as CML – can’t seem to find anything else to compare it to.

In this way, Purity, whose author aspires to universality in a way only an author contemptuous and jealous of pulp can, is worse than lowbrow genre fiction. The prose from the early chapters is less polished than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer‚Äôs Stone, and the sex is less sexy than Fifty Shades of Grey. Purity tries harder than these books, and fails more miserably…

Look: there’s a lot of intelligent criticism to be levied at the Harry Potter series, but calling Rowling’s prose unpolished does not, I would argue, fall into that category, and especially not when you’re implicitly likening the degree of failure to E. L. James’s total misapprehension of the words consent, abuse and erotica. It’s downright profane, lumping Rowling and James together under the maladapted, sneering label of lowbrow genre fiction; like saying that spray-on Easy Cheese is the same as good Brie. Genre labels aside, it’s also salient that¬†Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (thank you very much) was originally written for children, and is therefore possessed of a plainer diction than either James or Franzen aspires to. Even so, it still contains easy, comic prose like this –

There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.

– while Fifty Shades of Grey contains prose like this:

“‘Argh!” I cry as I feel a weird pinching sensation deep inside me as he rips through my virginity.

In point of fact, the only real similarity between James and Rowling is the fact that they’re both women who’ve made an absurd amount of money from their writing, which¬†– really? Given the entire range of the literary canon to choose from, the two authors CML elects to backhandedly insult by saying, in effect, “they’re bad, but Franzen’s even worse” are arguably the two most successful female writers of recent times? James alone I can buy; however popular¬†her books might be, no one has ever argued that it’s thanks to her riveting prose style. But paired with Rowling – paired with equal contempt with Rowling? Yeah, no: I’m gonna call sexist¬†bullshit on that one. In this same vein, it’s worth mentioning that CML also links to John Dolan’s scathing 2010 denunciation of Franzen’s then-latest novel, The Corrections, referring to it as “a masterpiece” – which, largely, it is, except for the part where it features the single most unselfaware profession of blatant misogyny by someone attempting to decry misogyny that I’ve ever fucking witnessed:

It‚Äôs just not accurate ‚ÄĒ I mean the misogyny in this paragraph, its depiction of feminist academics as crazed hypocrites. I live with these people. Until last year I literally lived with an American Women‚Äôs Studies professor; so I‚Äôm entitled to say, in the words of Hunter S. Thompson‚Äôs attorney, ‚ÄúI know these people in my goddamn BLOOD!‚ÄĚ They‚Äôre no prizes, God knows; they‚Äôre bitter and sullen and above all deeply confused; but I must say that Franzen‚Äôs venomous depiction of them gets it all wrong. As any academic knows, the real surprise about Women‚Äôs Studies professors is that very, very few of them resemble the firebreathing dyke stereotype. Most of them are wretchedly lonely women whose secret dream is a husband and kids.

See that, kids? That, right there, is a textbook example of what we in the feminism biz call a majestic display of assfuckery (that’s a technical term). I mean, really, for reals: that shit belongs in the same Bizzaro World Woody Allen film as Frazen’s adoption aspirations. Here’s a hint, men of the academic and literary spheres: if your big insider secret about Women’s Studies professors is actual goddamn surprise that they’re not all fucking stereotypes – you know, like the MISOGYNISTIC AS FUCK, OLD AS THE LITERAL SUFFRAGETTE MOVEMENT¬†STEREOTYPE that feminists are really just¬†“wretchedly lonely women whose secret dream is a husband and kids”then it’s entirely possible that you should shut your goddamn cakehole on the subject.

But I digress.

The point being, in slamming a book which is, by all accounts, Franzen’s laughably inept attempt to engage¬†with feminism (among other things), it would be super helpful if the reviewer did not invoke the spectre of actual sexism as their literary ally by, for instance, consistently likening Franzen’s lack of skill to that possessed by women writers.

Which brings me to this little gem:

For Purity, like the rest of Franzen’s oeuvre, reads like a fanfic or rough draft from a creative writing student.

Nor is CML the only reviewer to negatively compare the sex in Purity to that of fanfic. According to Madeleine Davies:

But being dull‚ÄĒa perception that, admittedly, is totally subjective‚ÄĒisn‚Äôt the true crime of Franzen‚Äôs craft. It‚Äôs his stilted, erotic fan fiction-esque descriptions of sex, descriptions that imply that he doesn‚Äôt really understand how sex works or what feels good, particularly for women‚ÄĒas well as his continued deployment of sexual metaphors that should condemn him to life in Literary Sex Jail.

And look – okay. I get that, for most people in the literary world, fanfiction means Fifty Shades of Grey, which is unremittingly terrible in every possible respect, but it’s also a form of writing that’s overwhelmingly produced and consumed by women, so no, you don’t get to use it as a casual synonym for bad writing without that pinging my Dogwhistle Sexism senses. Fanfic is a body of work that seldom if ever sees its best works elevated to the status of literary ambassadors for the pure and simple reason that its adherents don’t get to choose what makes it to the mainstream; instead, the whole thing is treated as a lucky dip for proper writers to rummage around in, pointing and laughing at whatever they dredge up. I’ve written before, at length, about the inherent hypocrisy in how fanfiction is commonly defined and valued – which can be roughly summarised as: Public Domain Works Adapted By Famous Men = Great Literature, Copyrighted Works Adapted By Unknown Women = Trash Porn – and don’t intend to rehash the argument here.¬†What I will do, however, for the edification of those who’ve never bothered to actually read any fanfic before dismissing it wholesale – and who, given the high probability of encountering gay sex therein, will likely never do so – is share a few quotes in support of the genre’s quality.

First, though, here’s a quote from Franzen’s Purity –¬†something which, according to both CML and Davies, is bad enough to merit comparison with the dread fanfictions:

Your little body had once been deeper inside your mother than your father’s dick had ever gone, you’d squeezed your entire goddamned head through her pussy, and then for the longest time you’d sucked on her tits whenever you felt like it, and you couldn’t for the life of you remember it. You found yourself self-alienated from the get-go.

Oh god, MY EYES.

Look. Okay. So that’s appallingly terrible and makes me want to go bathe in industrial bleach, but in the interests of fairness, let’s also consider a Purity excerpt that has nothing to do with sex – a sort of prose-style baseline:

There’s the imperative to keep secrets, and the imperative to have them known. How do you know that you’re a person, distinct from other people? By keeping certain things to yourself. You guard them inside you, because, if you don’t, there’s no distinction between inside and outside. Secrets are the way you know you even have an inside. A radical exhibitionist is a person who has forfeited his identity. But identity in a vacuum is also meaningless. Sooner or later, the inside of you needs a witness. Otherwise you’re just a cow, a cat, a stone, a thing in the world, trapped in your thingness. To have an identity, you have to believe that other identities equally exist. You need closeness with other people. And how is closeness built? By sharing secrets. . . . Your identity exists at the intersection of these lines of trust.

Listen: I have years of routine exposure to academic philosophy under my belt at this point, and I’ve seen conference-level exposition on the nature of haecceity with more passion than that, and that was before the bar opened.

How, then, does fanfiction compare?

Let’s have a look at some of that supposedly atrocious sex¬†I’ve been hearing about. Hell, I’ll even go the hetero option, just to aid the comparison:

Bellamy breathes out harshly and presses his face into her cheek for a second, a gesture so oddly sweet that she actually tears up a little. I’m so glad it’s him, she thinks, and grips his neck with one hand, scratching at his scalp and getting paint in his hair. I lied before, I’m so glad it’s him.

She doesn’t know how long it lasts, because she loses herself in it the second he starts to move again, holding her knee in one hand and her hair in the other. Her whole body feels like one long, giant current, and every spot he touches is like a live spark, a jolt of electricity, and of course he was right. Of course she should’ve known it’d be like this.

At some point, he must kiss her, or maybe she kisses him, or maybe it doesn’t matter because who cares who started it when it’s so good, when she feels devoured in the best way possible, so small beneath him but so powerful, all at once. Clarke wants it to last forever. She wants to go back in time and yell at herself for not doing this sooner. She wants to do it again and it’s not even over yet. She wants.

Inconceivable, by jaegermighty

Well, okay. But surely the queer romance¬†is universally terrible, right? It’s just so inherently¬†laughable, all those ordinarily stoic men kissing each other like it might be a thing that actually happens every day in our actual world. Right?

Dean inhales, hard. “I‚Äôm sorry. I‚Äôm dropping this on you and you don‚Äôt need-” he babbles, and then Cas is coming forward to grab him by the front of his shirt and kiss him until he shuts the fuck up. “Oh Jesus,” Dean says, when they break apart for a second. Cas‚Äôs mouth is reddening and his hands are knotted in Dean‚Äôs shirt like he‚Äôs hanging off a cliff. He looks almost as wide-eyed and hysterical as Dean feels. There is nothing happening in Dean‚Äôs brain: it‚Äôs white noise and static and the sound of loose change being shaken in coffee cans. “Holy crap,” Dean says, and pulls Cas in again by the back of his neck. Dean starts out in charge and then finds himself backed into the fridge while Cas opens his mouth and sucks the curve of Dean‚Äôs bottom lip, atomically vaporizes Dean‚Äôs top ten hits from his sexual history without unbuttoning anyone‚Äôs shirt. It is not quite how Dean expected- or feared- this would go. “What the fuck,‚ÄĚ Dean murmurs, cupping Cas‚Äôs face with one hand so he can kiss up and down the other side of his face, under his eyes, along his cheekbones, while Cas shuts his eyes and sighs like‚Äôs falling apart. ‚ÄúWhat the fuck was I waiting for?‚ÄĚ

“I don‚Äôt know,” Cas says. “I don‚Äôt know.”

“Why didn‚Äôt you ever-”

“Why didn‚Äôt you?‚ÄĚ

okay, cupid, by orange_crushed

But what about philosophy, internality? Does fanfic have any real insights into human nature comparable to what you might find in a published novel?

It doesn’t stop. He can’t stop.

He manages to stop lying to everyone else, but only because it’s so goddamn frustrating when they don’t realize that he’s lying his ass off with almost every word he speaks, and he gets tired of being angry all the time, but he can’t stop lying to his father.

Little lies. Stupid lies. Obvious lies. Any lie-opportunity that presents itself and Stiles is all over it like he’d be all over Lydia if she wouldn’t mace his ass into the ground a second later.

Because his father always knows, always calls him out on it, and Stiles latches on to this when all other signs of affection dry up after his mother’s death.

(Stiles doesn’t blame his father. He wouldn’t want to hug the kid who’d killed the love of his life, either.)

The Trouble With Reclining Your Body in a Horizontal Position, by apocryphal

What about poetry, then – actual poetry, that hits like a gutpunch? Can fanfic do that?

Some nights, I wish you’d kill me

I want to be the body lying face down in the bathtub

There’s more dignity in that

Than in being

Your love interest

Recycled Hymns, by taylorpotato

Beautiful language, then – not literal poetry, but prose that enthrals in its own right. Does that ever make an appearance?

Stars spilled carelessly across the carpet of the sky, flickering silver jacks and cat’s eye marbles. Filling him up like a cup, brimming him over. The stars change, even when nothing else can. Case in point: he can see the lights of his motel flickering in the distance. Orange, red. Warm like a campfire. Again, again. The vacancy sign is crooked. It’s always crooked. It dangles a skinned cord and vibrates when the wind blows, glares brighter and fades in tiny surges, an artificial heart throbbing in the transformers. Currents are not constant, even if they seem that way: he can stare into light bulbs without blinking if he wants to, and heaven makes the bulbs wax and wane the way they really do, the way they did even when he wasn’t looking. Heaven is awash with the details of life, and heaven affords the time to observe them. He’s only a hundred meters out from the parking lot, or however many he wants to be. For a second he stands in the road and looks up. Cranes his neck back until the trees disappear from the edges of his vision, until there is nothing but night washed over him, nothing in his eyes but stars. The sky turns overhead so slowly they leave trails pulled out like taffy, bright shivering rows like the cut of a ship through still water. The wake. Here out in the middle of nowhere, the air smells like ozone and forest, like asphalt, a little like rain.

apocrypha, by orange_crushed

Can fanfiction be, not just comic, but witty? Can the prose itself make the reader laugh, instead of just describing madcap shenanigans?

When Derek comes home the next day Stiles is sprawled almost upside down on the faded leather couch, one leg thrown over the back and his head flopped over the edge. He drops his book onto his chest and smiles at Derek.

‚ÄúAre you reading a book about crabs?‚ÄĚ Derek asks, in a tone, Stiles feels, of unnecessary judgement.

Stiles slithers into a more conventional position so Derek can get a better look at the cover of Walking Sideways: The Remarkable World of Crabs.

‚ÄúI‚Äôm learning a lot, dude. Did you know that there‚Äôs an actual word in science for the tendency of nature to try and evolve a crab?‚ÄĚ He brandishes the book like a missionary tract. ‚ÄúLike, crabs are such a good design concept that different branches of the evolutionary tree are constantly going ‚Äėhey, fuck it, let‚Äôs make a crab.‚Äô There are like four totally unrelated species that independently arrived at crabbiness.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúHow embarrassing for them,‚ÄĚ says Derek. ‚ÄúLike they showed up at the party wearing the same outfit.‚ÄĚ

Stiles shoots him a shit-eating grin. ‚ÄúI thought you‚Äôd be personally interested, since you‚Äôre clearly a member of a new fifth species.‚ÄĚ

Don’t Worry Baby, by kalpurna

Hell, I’ll even put my money where my mouth is: you want to take a look at my fanfic, make this argument personal?¬†Here’s the start of my¬†first ever foray into the Supernatural fandom:

The body is only a vessel, an earthly chalice into which the ocean of his being pours; but it is also, in the end, a body, and like all bodies, it has its mandates.¬†Eat. Sleep. Dream. Touch. Though every atom of his borrowed flesh has died and risen, died and risen and died again, reassembled from powder to shards to pottery like an archaeologist’s miracle, still the heart that beats only as a formality refuses to do otherwise, a blood and lightning sentinel. The body is flightless, his wings visible only between blinks, an arcing shadowflash of furled storms tethered to scapulae, tendons, spine. Except when Famine touched him, he has no use for food; yet still, the stomach rumbles, the lips imbibe, the throat swallows. A ritual; the body is pious, or superstitious, or maybe just stupid. He can’t decide which. Perhaps it’s all three. But either way, it is also¬†his¬†piety,¬†his¬†superstition,¬†his¬†stupidity. He is not of the body, but the body is of him, and with him, and he is with it, a skin into which he has stitched himself so often that his true form – or is it now, rather, his¬†other¬†form? – is scarred with needlemarks, the broadest of which is Memory, and the deepest of which is Love.

Storge. Philia. Agape. All this he has known before now: love of family, love in virtue, love of God.

Eros, though – eros belongs to bodies, and to such bright creatures as inhabit them.

Even angels.

North Hell, by sysrae

Look: I could do this all night, and I’m only active in a tiny number of fandoms. There’s always been good fanfic, and there will always be good fanfic, and I’m honestly not sure which is currently making me angrier: seeing the entire medium judged in absentia to the standards of E. L. James, or used as a quick, easy way to denigrate (male) writers like Franzen by dismissively comparing them (him) to women you’ve never heard of, who write under pseudonyms and use the word cock without let or hindrance in stories whose titles have the temerity to be stolen from¬†William Shakespeare and Pablo Neruda, Radiohead and Richard Siken.

You don’t have to convert to fandom. Just, for the love of god: can we stop trying to lambaste Purity¬†and its predecessors by comparing them¬†to fanfiction, please? Because every time that happens, you’re not insulting Franzen.

You’re insulting fanfic.

And frankly, it deserves better.

Since the middle of last year, I’ve been writing quite a bit of fanfiction, and enjoying myself immensely in the process. Prior to getting¬†sucked into the Supernatural fandom, it’s something I hadn’t done since high school, when I and my friends would collaboratively build elaborate Zelda fics and I’d make myself blush by writing Final Fantasy VIII stories where Squall and Quistis kissed. As such, and while I’d incorporated the occasional sex scene into my original fiction – first as a teen, and then as an adult¬†– I didn’t have much experience with literary smut¬†beyond the little I’d read. Given the regularity with which both fanfiction and romance are denigrated, therefore – and despite the fact that I think such denigration is bullshit – I fell into the trap of thinking that graphic sex would be easy to write. I mean, how hard could it be?

Very, is the answer, and now that I’ve produced some 350,000 words of smut and smut-adjacent prose, I can state quite categorically that doing so has made me a much better writer.

Here’s why:

As anyone who’s ever attempted one can attest, action sequences are among the trickiest types of writing¬†to do well. Especially when it comes to a close-combat fight scene, there’s a real art to getting it right. At the level of raw bodily mechanics, you have to properly choreograph what’s happening such that both you and the audience can imagine it clearly, but without the prose style becoming either so detached or clinical that you lose momentum. By the same token, you’re essentially describing a series of related or identical actions taking place in quick succession, which impacts on your language choices. Ideally, you want¬†to walk a fine line between repetition and simile, switching focus between intimate detail, like how it feels to land a blow, and the bigger picture of what’s going on – the setting, the time, the context. And then, of course, there’s the emotional component: why are the characters fighting? What are the stakes? How does everything that’s happened before this point influence their actions? What’s the dynamic of the exchange? Are the combatants evenly matched, or is there a disparity? How is it going to end?

There’s a lot going on, is what I’m saying, and if you get it wrong, you run the risk of throwing your audience out of the story.

And every single one of those factors applies to sex scenes, too.

Bad or mediocre sex scenes, like bad or mediocre action scenes, are ubiquitous precisely because there’s so much involved in doing them well. Even – or especially, rather – when you’re writing from the focussed point of view of a single character, it’s important to remember that the other participant/s have their own motivations: that they aren’t just passive sexual objects. Sex is communication, connection, negotiation, and how and why your characters go about having it will say a lot about them. Though I often find the slashfic obsession with who tops vs. who bottoms to be needlessly reductive and objectifying, given that women – who are the genre’s predominant writers and readers – are so frequently assumed to be sexually passive and uncritically portrayed as such, it’s easy to see the appeal of a setting where the sexual roles of familiar characters¬†are instead¬†argued on a case by case basis. It’s a lesson to bear in mind regardless of the gender/s involved in any sexual scene you’re writing: how someone behaves out of the bedroom doesn’t necessarily dictate their preferences within it, and in terms of furthering emotional characterisation, that’s a rich vein seldom tapped in other genres.

By the same token, and as I’ve angrily noted before, it’s often assumed that positive, consensual sex scenes serve a strictly¬†pornographic function, such that, unless you’re actively trying to titillate your audience, the¬†only sex that ought to appear in other genres is bad sex, or sexual assault, or rape. The logic here is maddening: that only violent, unpleasant or non-consensual sexual encounters can have such a transformative, narratively relevant effect on the characters that you’re justified in showing them in detail, rather than simply fading to black or leaving it up to the reader’s imagination. Not only does this completely elide the possibility that the details of good sex might be similarly relevant, but as an approach, it tends overwhelmingly to have sexist consequences: that is, if women are assumed to be the primary victims and men the primary perpetrators of sexual violence, and if this is the only type of sex we think is worth describing, then we end up reinforcing exactly the same toxic gender dynamics such scenes might ostensibly mean to criticise.

Let me put this as bluntly as I can: if you feel comfortable including¬†rape, sexual assault, bad sex or sex that only one party enjoys in your stories, but aren’t similarly willing to write¬†positive, consensual sex scenes, too, because you think they’re too porny or irrelevant, then you’re a hypocrite. Which isn’t to say that every book that includes assault needs to include consensual sex, too: that’s far too restrictive¬†a mandate. Rather, I mean it as a general writing principle: to the extent that you’re willing to include sexual content at all, it makes no sense – and is, I’d argue, actively problematic – to restrict yourself to purely negative depictions across the board. Sex in all its forms can serve a narrative purpose, and if it also happens to be titillating sometimes, then so what? Literature is meant to make us feel things, and I see no reason bar a culturally ingrained sense of puritan shame that arousal should be considered a less valid, worthy response to evoke than fear, or grief, or horror.

Learning to write sex scenes has involved¬†a steep but deeply beneficial learning curve. Unlike in the case of action sequences, there’s a level of self-consciousness that has to be shed in order to write them, and a unique level of cringeworthy ridiculousness that’s risked by getting them wrong. But I’d far rather read more books across all genres that at least attempt to write a variety of positive, communicative sex scenes that sometimes miss the mark than continue to live in a world where¬†sexual pleasure – and especially female pleasure – is considered more taboo and less narratively relevant than graphic torture and rape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

In the past few days, Zoe Marriott, Sarah Rees-Brennan,¬†Holly Black¬†and Cora Buhlert have all written awesome posts about the problem of reviewers dismissing female characters who aren’t to their tastes as being Mary Sues, with added discussion of what the term actually means, why male characters and/or authors aren’t held to similar standards, and the awesomeness of ladies. All of them have made excellent points. Zoe Marriott begins by saying:

When I read reviews, I see the term Mary-Sue used to mean:

1. A female character who is too perfect
2. A female character who kicks too much butt
3. A female character who gets her way too easily
4. A female character who is too powerful
5. A female character who has too many flaws
6. A female character who has the wrong flaws
7. A female character who has no flaws
8. A female character who is annoying or obnoxious
9. A female character who is one dimensional or badly written
10. A female character who is too passive or boring

This is, quite obviously, a contradictory list, as Marriott is at pains to point out:

Take another look at the list of complaints against so-called Mary-Sues and you will see one thing all of them have in common.

‘A female character.’

What many (though not all!) of the people merrily throwing this phrase around¬†actually mean¬†when they say ‘Mary-Sue’ is: ‘Female character I don’t like’.

That’s it. That’s all.

Following on from this, Holly Black expands on the dangers of using the phrase beyond outside its original context:

The problem with using this term outside of fanfiction is simple: the world of a novel has always configured around main characters. They are at its center and, often, they are the best at stuff. Kirk is, for example, is the best with romancing the green-skinned ladies. He’s also the best at leading. Spock is the best at being smart. Scotty is the best at keeping the Enterprise from being blown to pieces by the actions of both Kirk and Spock. Their skills are important and it’s unlikely that anyone is going to come along and be better at those things than they are.

So when a book is about a girl who is the best at something and about the boys (and/or girls) that love her and how she defeats the bad guy, well, that’s because¬†she’s the protagonist.¬†It is good and right that she be at the center of the story.

For example, I have seen complaints that the protagonist always wins the love of the main male character. What’s problematic about that is, well, of course she does, because if she’s the protagonist then whoever she loves¬†becomes the main male character by virtue of his connection to the protagonist.

Sarah Rees-Brennan makes a hugely important distinction between female characters who are realistically self-deprecating and those who aren’t allowed to like themselves, saying:

I am not saying that all girls in books or real life should never be insecure. I know I’m insecure about a bunch of things! And I have loved an insecure fictional lady many times…

I just don’t want to read about fictional girls who¬†can’t¬†think they’re awesome. I don’t like reading about those characters and I don’t like the mindset that produces them. The fictional girls I’m talking about aren’t meant to be depressed (I’d like to see more actually-depressed characters in literature: they can be heroes too)–they’re meant to seem normal, and likable.

I do not want to read about girls who think they’re worthless. I do not want to write about girls who think they’re worthless. I do not think I’m worthless.

Nobody has to like a girl, fictional or otherwise. But words like ‘annoying’ or ‘Mary Sue’ are both used as shorthand for ‘girl I want to dismiss.’ We’ve all read about characters who seemed overly perfect, or who had flaws the narrative wouldn’t admit were flaws, and those characters¬†are¬†irritating. But I’ve seen just as many fictional boys like that as fictional girls (with the caveat that boys tend to get more pagetime, so they get more explored) and those boys don’t get seen in the same way. As I was saying on twitter a couple days ago, I want characters to be flawed and awesome: I want them to be flawesome.

Finally, Cora Buhlert makes an important point about the hugely exclusionary tests designed to expose the flaws of Mary Sue characters:

The term ‚ÄúMary Sue‚ÄĚ has become completely overused of late. Partly this may be due to the various¬†Mary Sue litmus tests¬†that are available online and according to which pretty much every character is a Mary Sue. I just did the test for a female character in a realist novel of mine and even that character, with no magical powers whatsoever, scored 40 points. That‚Äôs not to say that such tests aren‚Äôt useful, within reason. But plenty of traits listed as Mary Sue symptoms in these tests are perfectly legitimate, as long as they don‚Äôt all occur at once.

Take a moment to click through to the test in question and eye a few of the questions. What quickly becomes apparent is that, as per Marriott’s list, correlation and causation have been deeply confused in the issue of Sueness to such a degree that many people now mistake – well, I was going to say the symptoms for the cause, but given the scope of the test, that metaphor doesn’t really work. Calling a character Mary Sue in the current climate on the basis of their having a traumatic background, an interesting name and an affinity with animals is equivalent to calling an old woman with a wart on her nose, a knowledge of herbs and a black cat a witch in the context of actual witch-burning. By which I mean: people are so terrified of accidentally countenancing the presence of a Mary Sue that they’ve started trying to identify them by sight, with predictably bad results.

The term Mary Sue began in fanfic, which is all about personal participation in other people’s narratives. It’s an awesome way to learn the ropes, make friends, test ideas, participate in fandom and generally have a good time, but self-insertion is more or less the point: not because all original fanfic characters are avatars for their authors, but because the whole point of fanfic is using your own ideas in someone else’s world. Extending this argument to original fiction is therefore inherently problematic, not least when reviewers and Sue-tests alike start sneering that such-and-such an author only did X because they thought it was cool, so obviously it’s a case of self-insertion.¬†And it’s like, what? Did you honestly expect me to sit down and pour my heart into something I didn’t think was awesome? Writing stories we think are cool is sort of what authors do. We think, ‘Time-travelling lady space pirates? Hell yes!’ – ¬†and then we go and do it. You might have different tastes, which is fine! But let’s be very clear on the matter: writers don’t insert themselves into stories. Stories insert themselves into us.

But the most damaging aspect of reviewers calling original characters Mary Sues is the fact that, precisely because of this lingering self-insertion argument, it only ever happens to female writers. By way of example, compare the description of George R. R. Martin’s Daenerys Targaryen – ¬†a silver-haired, purple-eyed, impossibly beautiful teenage queen born in exile with three dragon companions, legions of suitors, an abusive childhood and a prophetic destiny – with the contents of any Mary Sue checklist you care to name, and she’ll probably register at close to 100%. But what sort of critic is going to imply that George R. R. Martin, a straight man in his sixties, must secretly want to be a thirteen-year-old girl? A fairy unhinged one, is the answer, and even though Google can probably turn up a couple of examples to prove me wrong, the point is that all this dialogue about Sues tends to center on YA and UF novels – stories which, as Buhlert notes, are written predominantly by women.

But wait, I hear you cry, that’s not a fair comparison! Daenerys isn’t Martin’s only character. She’s one protagonist among many.¬†Well, and I suppose that female authors only write about women? That they feel no connection to their male characters, and that no matter how large the cast, it’s only ever the leading lady who matters? (Anyone who answered yes, go to your room.) This is the other problem with calling Mary Sue on original works: it’s a scenario in which the author has created¬†every single character. This is wildly distinct from the traditional fanfic setup which birthed the term, in which a single, original protagonist would be catapulted¬†into an existing narrative. In those instances, that single character literally becomes the extension and embodiment of the writer’s will – a whole different kettle of fish to creating a cast from scratch. To quote Holly Black again:

The Mary Sue warps the story; the female protagonist is the story.

Which means that, if we want to play the Mary Sue card constructively – if we want it not to be sexist, applicable just as equally to the works of male authors as female, with Gary Stu put into equal usage – then we need to consider the trope for what it really is: the ultimate example of poor characterisation. Gama Stues – as I’m now going to call them, in the spirit of equality – do not grow. They come to their roles as static, perfect characters, capable of angst and internal monologues but without ever actually changing. Regardless of the genre trappings – because neither do I want to assume that Stues are solely the products of SFF – they are, contextually, so beautiful or¬†desirable¬†that everyone falls in love with them at the slightest provocation; a description which, as Cora Buhlert points out, is textbook James Bond. Their skillsets are deeply convenient to the plot, which by itself makes perfect sense, but are distinguished in this regard by being either so broad as to verge on the ridiculous, acquired with an ease that’s wildly disproportionate to their difficulty, or unreasonably inexplicable given the character’s origins.

They are, in short, badly written – but bad writing is a manifold thing, expressible in near-infinite variations. Tropes employed badly by one author might prove successful for another; the same is true of literary styles. And while I appreciate the tendency for particular characters to drive us up the wall, particularly when we detect similar themes emerging across multiple stories, pinning a label on just the women – let alone one that’s been hastily appropriated from a different context – does not constitute intelligent critical analysis. If you feel justified in disliking a certain story, then show your working. Don’t just say that someone is a Stue – tell us why.

It really is that simple.