Posts Tagged ‘Gail Carriger’

I’ve just been reading this interesting post over at Katharine Kerr’s blog about trying to define what constitutes a work of literary fiction, as opposed to a work of genre fiction. She also talks about the dangers of arguing against litfic and the literary establishment by way of derogatory strawman arguments, not only because this is exactly the kind of negative pigeonholing SFF fans and writers have always railed against when it’s turned our way, but also because it’s unhelpful in trying to understand what literary fiction actually is. It’s an interesting question, but in trying to answer it, I ended up in quite a different place to where I started. Rather than hijack the conversation, therefore, I’m going to take the comment I left as a starting point for answering a slightly different question: how might a lack of named literary subgenres be impeding the success of women literary writers?

As a casual glance at the blogsphere will reveal, there’s been considerable recent debate in SFF quarters about the feminisation of epic fantasy and the nihilism of gritty fantasy, conversations that have been in no small part facilitated by our ability to distinguish between the different SFF subgenres. We know that Tolkien is the Mitochondrial Eve of fantasy writers: one way or another, all our works descend from his. But as with the human race, things have grown more and more diverse with successive generations, such that trying to use fantasy as an exclusive, catch-all terminology has become, except in the most general sense, both useless and inaccurate. Without a language of subgenre terms with which to discuss these differences, it seems inevitable that SFF writing would automatically default to using Tolkien as a blueprint for all new stories – and indeed, up until very recently, we can see that this was the case. Only when writers started trying to break new ground did an alternate language spring up to try and describe their efforts. Partly, it must be admitted, this happened as a means of distancing such heretical works from their canonical predecessors, but also because it was suddenly necessary to look back over everything that had happened since Tolkien and ask whether fantasy could – or should – be more than just the same old Eurocentric, medieval vision of elves, dwarves, men and halflings fighting a succession of ultimate Dark Lords over and over again.

Suddenly, fantasy ceased to be a universal term, and once we started talking and thinking in subgenres, it became easier to understand why new types of story were arising; to pinpoint the tropes their authors wanted to address or change, and for what reasons. True, it also became harder to classify individual works, and the need to fit each and every book into a particular box is something we’re all still arguing about. But the fact is that language is important. Naming a thing allows us greater control over it, and that’s true regardless of whether we’re talking about the magic of Earthsea or the politics of Earth. Consider, for instance, this article by feminist philosopher Jennifer Saul, wherein she talks about the significance of language in feminism. To quote:

“Languages may also lack words for things that matter a great deal to women. This sort of gap is another way that a language can be seen as encoding a male worldview. The term ‘sexual harassment’, for example, is a recent feminist innovation. Women’s discussion of their experiences led them to see a certain common element to many of their problems, and as a result they invented the term ‘sexual harassment’. Once the problem was named, it became much easier to fight sexual harassment, both legally and by educating people about it.”

Which brings me to the matter of the Orange Prize – or rather, to the recent suggestion that an equivalent award is necessary to combat sexism in the Australian literary scene. It’s none too encouraging a sign when women take steps to set themselves apart from men, not because they want or ought to, but because discrimination has left them with no other means of achieving success. For an intelligent and comprehensive rundown on the issue, I highly recommend this excellent piece by writer Benjamin Law, wherein he says, among other things:

“If you take Brookner’s insistence that a meritocracy exists, what are you supposed to make of the raw figures? Books written by women are reviewed less. Women win fewer literary prizes. If that is a meritocracy, then you have to buy into the argument that books by women must be inherently inferior. I can’t accept that. The danger on relying on meritocracy is assuming one actually exists.”

But what, I hear you cry, does any of this have to do with SFF subgenres? Only that women SFF writers seem to have a stronger platform from which to argue their case for equality, simply because their dialogue about content, bias and narrative is so much more linguistically robust than in the literary community. This is not to say that the problems outlined by the recent VIDA statistics on the representation of women vs men in literary reviews are absent in SFF; indeed, it has been demonstrably proven that they aren’t. But when it comes to the question of awards, it doesn’t seem unduly optimistic to say that change is in the air. The Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel in 2011, for instance, are all, with one exception, women, and the situation is identical when it comes to the Nebula. The 2010 Campbell Award was won by a woman, Seanan McGuire, and for the purposes of my argument about subgenre, it doesn’t strike me as irrelevant to note that McGuire’s debut novel, Rosemary and Rue, was the first work of urban fantasy to win its author the Campbell, nor that it did so in competition with another female-authored UF novel: Gail Carriger’s Soulless.

So much of the debate I’ve seen about the disenfranchisement of women literary writers centers on anger at the perception of women’s novels as being “domestic” (where such a label is pejorative) compared to those written by men, which naturally deal with Big Themes and Important Issues. What has always struck me about this complaint – aside from the fact that it appears to be correct, both intuitively and in terms of critical perception – is the difficulty these writers seem to have articulating the problem. They talk about literature and literary fiction as a single entity, grasping after a magical phrase that will allow them to explain simultaneously why women might indeed be more prone to writing about domestic topics, why this is not a bad thing, and why it still counts as literature. Because such amorphous justifications are exactly what subgenre terminology exists to prevent, allowing us to acknowledge that two different types of storytelling are related to one another, that they share a common ancestry and ultimately a common genre, but that their conventions and approaches may nonetheless be very, very different. As in the case of last year’s Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel, it allows us to put vastly different works like China Mieville’s The City & The City, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest on the same ballot, despite the fact that the first is heavily noir/New Weird, the second is dystopian SF, and the third is urban fantasy/mythpunk.

It also puts the SFF community in an excellent position to discuss tropes and archetypes. A communal, cultural resource like TV Tropes provides a go-to lexicon for discussing narrative structure in shorthand, with many such terms finding their way into the mainstream dialogue as a matter of course. Perhaps it’s because the origins and inspirations of SFF are so heavily rooted in jargon-heavy areas like mythology, science, linguistics, pop culture and folklore that the community has taken so readily to isolating and naming its parts; alternatively, it seems reasonable to assume that any group of people who spend a significant proportion of their intellectual lives reading made-up languages, interpreting new cultures and memorising invented systems of magic will inevitably come to appreciate the deep precision and relevance of language. Whatever it is, the literary community doesn’t seem to share it – or if it does, then to nowhere near the same extent.

As more than one would-be inventor of slanguage has come to realise, there’s no telling which new terms will enter our collective vocabularies or die a series of quick deaths. But as corny and New Age as it might seem, it strikes me that the writers most deeply concerned with the state of literary fiction and its biases against women could do a lot worse than trying to coin some terms of their own: to name the archetypes they wish to invert or criticise and thereby open up the discussion. If authors can be thought of as magicians in any sense, then the root of our power has always rested with words: choosing them, arranging them and – most powerfully – inventing them. Sexism won’t go away overnight, and nor will literary bias. But until then, if we’re determined to invest ourselves in bringing about those changes, it only makes sense to arm ourselves with a language that we, and not our enemies, have chosen.

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There has been some controversy on the internets this week. Specifically – as this is otherwise a useless and self-evident statement akin to pointing out that the Earth revolves around the sun – on the subject of steampunk.

Now: I get that it’s in the nature of human beings to be critical. We all have little mental pressure valves that sometimes need to be vented in full, no matter how slight the final provocation. The results of this are not always entirely rational, and don’t even necessarily represent our day-to-day views; or, if they do, then in a more polarised, less compromising format. For instance: when my husband and I were cycling along the Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand in the first week of our honeymoon, a territorial magpie flew right into the side of my un-helmeted head, causing me to fall to the dirt, cry just a little bit out of shock, and – once I straightened up – to bleed from the temple. This prompted my significant other to launch into an angry, fifteen-minute long tirade about how all magpies were basically just flying rats, they’re bloody dangerous and their singing’s not even that great, fucking magpies, flying around like they own the place, and so on until I had a little less blood streaming from my head and had recovered enough to point out that, one, the magpie had gone; two, I didn’t think it had actually meant to hit me, if its stunned retreat was anything to go by; and three, magpies are actually pretty cool, when they’re not defending their nests.

Thus assauged by my recovery, my beloved came to see the humour in the incident, and returned emotionally to his default state of Magpies Are Fine, Or At Least Not Worth Getting Constantly Worked Up About. And thus, the point: while a little vitriol from time to time is both healthy and human, the important thing is to recognise when the rage has passed, and to compensate accordingly. Which brings me to Cat Valente’s recent blog on the problems of steampunk, a post that was clearly written while in the throes of anger, and which she has subsequently followed up with both a concession to that fact and a list of ten things she actually does love about steampunk. My reactions to her initial post aside, these efforts at conciliation are worthy of respect, in that Valente has been both brave enough, while impassioned, to share her views publicly, and then adult enough to try and engage afterwards in a more constructive dialogue. So, points for maturity.

Charles Stross has also written an anti-steampunk post, one which predates Valente’s and to which she makes passing reference; and then, in seeming response to both these views, but specifically to that of Stross, we have Scott Westerfeld’s defence of steampunk. In case you have been living in a hole, it is not unrelevant that Westerfeld’s two most recent novels are themselves works of YA steampunk: Leviathan and its immediate sequel, the newly-released Behemoth. There have also been other sundry responses lurking about the webnologies, notably this piece by Kirstyn McDermott, who agrees with Valente, and a critique of the anti-steampunk position by jadegirl (props to marydell for the link). But in case you’d rather skip the links, here is my breakdown of both camps:

Anti-Steampunk

1. As a sub-genre, steampunk is more concerned with the visual aesthetics of sticking goggles and cogs on top hats than dealing with the actual, complex and fascinating social issues of the era in question, a complaint which is best expressed by this comic. (Sidenote: no matter who you agree with, Kate Beaton is awesome.)

2. That this preoccupation is not only detrimental in terms of encouraging the production pulp, adventuristic works rather than meaningful narrative, but actively problematic in terms of glamourising a deeply flawed Empire: a Dickensian time characterised by the oppression of women, minorities and anyone not actually an Earl; an expansionist and militarised culture; the gruesome rise of industrialisation and crippling factory-work as was frequently undertaken by the disenfranchised masses, especially children; and prohibitive sexual mores. Furthermore, the -punk suffix of the genre itself should imply an innate receptivity to counterculture, and that by ignoring these issues, steampunk is effectively betraying itself.

3. That the end result of all of the above is yet another fad being pounced on by the Great Marketing Machine, resulting in the premature cheapening of something that could have been good, if it had only been kept in the hands of those interested in doing it well, but which has instead become a cheap, conglomerate, prepacked affair with as much sub- and counter-cultural cred as Ronald McDonald, pandering to steampunks who all dress the same while trying to be different. There are no more heroes, etc. (See again Kate Beaton, re: hipsters ruin everything.)

Pro-Steampunk

1. Yes, there is a visual element to steampunk. And it involves goggles! But the presence of a coherent aesthetic style does not prevent meaningful social discussion within the genre, any more than wearing a pretty pink dress prevents a woman from holding intelligent opinions. By critiquing steampunk foremost on the basis of how it looks, rather than providing concrete examples of what it does – and by using aristocratic female fashion as the lynchpin of this argument – its detractors are committing the same sin against which they are endeavouring to protest, viz: the use of corsetry to conceal a lack of substance.

2. Examining mainstays of the current canon, such as Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, Neil Stephenson’s The Diamond Age or Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius, it is undeniable that steampunk is far from inimical to adventure. However, these are also stories with a strong focus on female characters negotiating the perils of Victorian society, which question militarism and the potentially perilous uses of science, the consquences of poverty and industrialisation on children, and the place of minorities within that society. On this latter point, it is also important to note that steampunk afficionados are by no means exclusively white/privileged, and that there is a great deal of discussion on all of these issues within the community itself.

3. All genres have problems. To contend otherwise is ludicrous. Specifically within the wider fantasy/SF subset, however, to act as though issues of class privilege, race and suffrage are unique to steampunk purely by virtue of its relationship to Victorian society is deeply inaccurate. Beginning with the works of Tolkein and moving forward from there, these are questions that the entire SFF fandom is concerned with on all fronts, and has been for some time. That doesn’t mean that none of the criticisms leveled specifically at steampunk are invalid, but in the current climate of people claiming genre fatigue, such apostasy begins to smack of the elitist proposition that once something has become mainstream, it is made fundamentally irredeemable, or at least deeply untrustworthy, and therefore void of meaning.

So!

Allow me to lay my own cards on the table. Some of my favourite stories of recent times have been steampunk – not only the titles mentioned above, but also Michael Pryor’s fabulous Laws of Magic series (featuring a female character who is both a suffragette and a ninja); Stephen Hunt’s ongoing Jackelian sequence, which begins with The Court of the Air; and Sydney Padua’s brilliant and stunningly researched comic 2D Goggles, about the further adventures of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. There has also been Gail Carriger’s Soulless, which is unashamedly a lighthearted mashup of romance, steampunk and urban fantasy; and, at the other end of the stylistic spectrum, Kate Elliott’s brilliant Cold Magic, which the author describes as an “Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy with Bonus! airship, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons.”

Re this last, and specifically the word icepunk: it is not uncommon nowadays for certain members of the geek community to flinch and/or start foaming at the mouth whenever -punk is appended to something else in order to – hopefully – coin a new genre term. Others, like Valente, have no objection to the practise, so long as the work in question, in her words, “is as punk as it says on the tin.”

Which is fine: but as many a pub debate about the motion of linguistics has long since made clear to me, what a word means originally and how it develops over time are two different things, and while there are some instances where fighting against the change is a fine and noble thing, there are some battles better left unfought. I’m not yet sure into which category steampunk (and all the other suffixd -punks) will eventually fall, but being as how I’m not consciously a fan of punk music and have never particularly noticed any connection between the one and the other – unless we’re talking in a generic, rebelling-against-the-norm sort of way, rather than as is specifically relevant to stories about countercultures fighting the dominant trend – then my money is, for now, on the former. The point being, I’m not really fussed about the whole suffixing issue in this instance, because for whatever reason, it’s never flicked my Rage Switch. But I get that it does for other people, and so am willing to credit their outrage as something more than just preferential aggravation. (By way of solidarity, the record is fairly clear on my hatred for -gate being appended to not even mildly shocking political scandals. I mean, seriously. GAH!)

All of which, to come to a point, puts me in the pro-steampunk category. Yes, there are problems. Authors and fans alike are working on them, thinking about them and generally paying attention. Yes, steampunk often involves adventure. That’s not a sin! Part of what I love so much about fantasy is its versatility in this respect: that what would otherwise be a purely issues-based story if set in the real world can take on a dimension of swashbuckling, humour and magic to balance out the social grief and piercing moments of inequality. Also: the fact that Tor.com has struck its flag is less a sign of the Apocalypse than it is the turning of the world. What was once an obscure subgenre is now a more well-known and popular subgenre, with all the attendant perils and pleasures that implies. That’s all.

And you know what? I like the goggles.

So! Because I am a crazy lady, but also because Worldcon is my first proper convention and I want to rock it, here is the list of what I’ll be doing over the next week, apart from not sleeping, freaking out, wearing pretty clothes and engaging in general geekery:

Friday, 3 September

12:00 – Joint reading. Other guests: China Mieville

4:00 – Panel: From print to pixels: paper comics to webcomics. Other guests: Phil Foglio, Kaja Foglio and Howard Tayler

5:00 – Panel: E.T. has a chainsaw: When science fiction and horror collide. Other guests: Bob Eggleton and Christian Sauvé

Saturday, 4 September

10:00 – Panel: Videogames as art. Other guests: K. A. Bedford and John Scalzi

1:00 – Joint signing. Other guests: Carrie Vaughn, Gail Carriger and Karen Healey

4:00 – Panel: Dark shadows – YA urban fantasy. Other guests: Chuck McKenzie, Sue Bursztynski, and Carrie Vaughn

Sunday, 5 September

3:oo – Panel: The (haunted) streets of our town – YA urban fantasy. Other guests: Karen Healey and Seanan McGuire

Monday, 6 September

12:00 – Panel: Cyberpunk anime – origins and influences. Other guests: Lars Adler and Juan Sanmiguel

2:00 – Debate: Zombie/Vampire smackdown. Other guests: Chuck Mckenzie, Narelle Harris, George R. R. Martin, Felicity Dowker and Scott Edelmann

3:00 – Panel: Fantasy fiction and the Bechdel test. Other guests: Ellen Kushner

I’ll also be attending the Nightmare Ball on Friday Night and the Hugo Awards on Sunday.

Overall status: WOO!

For more detail on the Worldcon program, you can look here and here.

I have also spent this past weekend attending and blogging about the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on behalf of the Book Show Blog. Beginning with Joss Whedon’s keynote appearence on Friday night, my thoughts on DBC Pierre, Why I Read, Jostien Gaarder, Peter Beinart, A Wordsmith’s Dream, Kim Stanley Robinson and The Thinking Person’s God-dess have all now been posted. The plan is to keep up the blogging throughout Worldcon, too, which is just another reason why, should you happen to encounter me any time prior to next Tuesday, I will most likely be in a wild, shiny state of meta-crazy. But in a good way!