Posts Tagged ‘Genre’

By this point in the media/meta cycle, oceans of virtual ink have already been spilled on the comparative flaws and virtues of Jupiter Ascending, a film that is almost universally perceived as being both nonsensical and glorious. Now that I’ve finally seen it, however – because those of us with toddling offspring tend to be reliant on iTunes for our theatrical jollies, shut up – I’m moved to weigh in on the matter. Specifically: while I’ve seen a great deal said about the absolute comic insanity of JA’s wordlbuilding – bees that recognise royalty! flying space werewolves! floating sofas! – nowhere have I seen it pointed out that actually, Jupiter Ascending is basically an equally batshit redo of The Matrix.

I mean, look. Internets. I get that The Matrix was kind of seminal for all of us here who saw it in our tweens and teens and twenties, and it’s such a goddamn shame they never made a sequel and all that, but really. Really. How long has it been since you actually sat down and watched it? I know that it’s a hallowed classic that tends to exist in this weirdly exalted geek mental space, but if you’re going to pass judgement on the hilarity of Eddie Redmayne’s creepy sociopath voice, you’re going to need to cite me chapter and verse as to why Hugo Weaving’s inflected robot-drawl is any better. If you think it’s kinda twee that the film ends with Jupiter Jones donning space gravity boots and flying over Chicago, you have to justify why that’s inherently different to Neo rocketing into the sky in his black leather Coat of Awesome.

To be clear, I love The Matrix, and I love Jupiter Ascending. This isn’t me trying to pull down the former or devalue the latter; far from it. I’m just trying to point out that, except for the fact that The Matrix has a grim cyberpunk aesthetic and a passive male protagonist who’s endlessly rescued by a hot, badass woman in black leather before finally coming into his own, while Jupiter Ascending has a colourful space opera aesthetic and a passive female protagonist who’s endlessly rescued by a hot, badass man in black leather before finally coming into her own, they’re basically the exact same fucking film.

I mean, okay. Let’s break this shit down, shall we?

At the start of their respective films, both Neo and Jupiter are dissatisfied with their everyday lives, dreaming constantly of something beyond the mundane. In both cases, we witnesses their respective love-interests – Trinity and Caine – being leather-clad badasses before they ever encounter Neo and Jupiter, which meetings are ultimately assisted/enabled by friends who only appear at the start of each story. When Neo is first taken in by Agent Smith, who vanishes his mouth and injects him with a literal tracking bug while splaying him, bare-chested, over a table, he’s left thinking that the experience was a dream, after which, it’s Trinity who proves otherwise. Similarly, when Jupiter first encounters aliens, her mind is wiped, leaving her doubtful that anything really happened; the second time, however, she’s splayed in mid-air in a hospital gown and injected in the neck, at which point, she’s rescued by Caine. Neo is initially sceptical that he’s The One, while Jupiter likewise doubts the claim that she’s a Recurrence; each character is granted their special status by right of birth with an element of spiritual predetermination – even reincarnation – in an otherwise (pseudo)scientific context, and each has the ‘real’ truth of the world explained to them by an authoritative third party – Morpheus for Neo, and Stinger for Jupiter – who acts as a mentor to their love-interest.

Once taken aboard their respective spaceships, they each encounter a smooth-speaking man – Cypher for Neo, Titus for Jupiter – who, under the pretence of telling them the unvarnished truth of their new situation, effects a betrayal. This leads to the imprisonment of Morpheus and Stinger, both of whom are rescued by their protégés, Trinity and Caine. (It’s also worth remarking that these mentor-figures each have plot-significant names: Morpheus for the king of dreams who rescues Neo from sleep, and Stinger Apini, which is doubly evocative of the bees which ultimately reveal Jupiter’s heritage.) Cue some dramatic fight scenes with lots of guns and explosions, a pair of climaxes wherein Neo and Jupiter triumph over Agent Smith and Balem Abrasax before being immediately rescued from peril by Trinity and Caine, with secondary spaceship rescues also effected by Tank and Diomika Tsing, and a matched set of closing scenes where our protagonists soar off into the sky, and the symmetry is complete.

Note, too, that both stories hinge on combating regimes – the Machines and the Abrasax dynasty – that ritualistically harvest and liquefy human beings in order to extend their own lifespans, though whereas humans created Machines in The Matrix, in Jupiter Ascending, the Abrasax seeded humanity. In this sense, the two films are bookends, thematic mirror images of each other: The Matrix is dystopian, set after a cataclysm has already occurred, and so ends with Neo escaping into a reality both harsher and more honest than the one he’s known. Jupiter Ascending, however, which presents a more hopeful vision of the future, allows Jupiter to save the Earth before it can be destroyed: unlike Neo, Jupiter returns home with a renewed appreciation for her life, a couple of awesome gadgets and a flying werewolf boyfriend. Neo’s journey is full of self-doubt – though Morpheus believes in him, he fails his first jump in the simulator and is, at least ostensibly, denied his Chosen One status by the Oracle – and only comes full-circle when he learns to believe in himself. Jupiter’s journey, by contrast, is full of external validation: the bees confirm her as royalty, and she’s consistently treated as such, but the story ends with her realisation that she doesn’t need to rely on what other people think of her – that she is, first and foremost, in charge of her own life.

There’s an undeniable Star Wars vibe to the world of Jupiter Ascending: we’re shown lots of races living together, a complicated alien bureaucracy, fabulous costumes and futuristic technology. It’s a setting that consistently develops outwards, showing Jupiter the potential for both human and personal expansion. The Matrix, by contrast, takes place in a wasteland; ‘the desert of the real’, as Morpheus says. The false matrix can be developed inwards, a literal fantasy realm, but the actual world is finite, limited, broken, and while the subsequent two films eventually show humanity making peace with the Machines, it’s a pax brokered by Neo’s death. In Jupiter Ascending, however, it’s Jupiter’s refusal to die that saves the Earth, ensuring that the planet remains in her keeping rather than passing to Balem.

As such, the primary differences between The Matrix and Jupiter Ascending can be summarised as follows:

  • One has an everyman male protagonist with a badass female love interest; the other has an everywoman female protagonist with a badass male love interest.
  • One has a gritty cyberpunk aesthetic, replete with lots of blacks, greys, greens and BDSM-style leather outfits; the other has a colourful space opera aesthetic, replete with lots of golds, purples, reds and couture-style silk outfits.
  • One is thematically dark, focussed on the consequences of hubris and the aftermath of cataclysm; the other is thematically hopeful, focussed on the possibilities of expansion and the prevention of death.
  • One has a secondary cast made memorable both by their diversity and visually distinct outfits, though most of these characters die; the other has a secondary cast made memorable both by their diversity and visually distinct outfits, though all of these characters live.
  • One has a protagonist without any apparent familial ties to a world that is subsequently proven to be imaginary; the other has a protagonist with deep familial ties to a world that is subsequently prove to be more important than ever.

In other words, and despite their many similarities otherwise, The Matrix is gritty, dark and stereotypically masculine, while Jupiter Ascending is bright, hopeful and stereotypically feminine – though both, as I said at the outset, are equally batshit. Look, don’t make that face: yes, Jupiter Ascending has bees that recognise royalty and Jupiter trying to sell her eggs for a telescope and grey abducting aliens and the ‘I’ve always loved dogs’ line and a scene where Caine gets an honest to god maxipad stuck to one of his man-wounds, but The Matrix has flying squid robots and Neo climbing along the outside of an office building because a stranger told him to and actual Men In Black and ‘there is no spoon’ and a scene where Neo dives headfirst into a pavement that goes all Looney-Tunes liquid and springs him back up again. You’re meant to laugh at obvious absurdities at various points in both of them, is what I’m saying – hell, I remember seeing The Matrix at the cinema at the impressionable age of thirteen and laughing my fucking ass off every time Agent Smith spoke – but that doesn’t meant they’re any less awesome for being purposefully comic.

I find it telling, therefore, that while both films received a certain amount of praise and censure on release, there’s a marked difference in how their respective Wikipedia entries describe what is arguably a very similar critical reception, at least at the level of popular opinio. According to the entry for The Matrix:

“It was generally well-received by critics, and won four Academy Awards as well as other accolades including BAFTA Awards and Saturn Awards. Reviewers praised The Matrix for its innovative visual effects, cinematography and its entertainment. The film’s premise was both criticized for being derivative of earlier science fiction works, and praised for being intriguing. The action also polarized critics, some describing it as impressive, but others dismissing it as a trite distraction from an interesting premise.

“Despite this, the film has since appeared in lists of the greatest science fiction films, and in 2012, was added to the National Film Registry for preservation.”

But for Jupiter Ascending, we get this:

“Although critics praised the visuals, world-building, and originality, the general attitude toward the film was negative, with most criticism focused on incoherence in the screenplay and an over-reliance on special effects. Despite this, the film has found a cult following, particularly among female sci-fi fans who appreciate the film’s campiness, and that the film deviates from typical gender dynamics in a genre that is traditionally male-centric.”

And okay, look: I get, again, that The Matrix both won awards and grossed more money than Jupiter Ascending. It’s an awesome film, and a totally deserving classic! Nonetheless, it seems relevant that while both were praised for their visual effects, Jupiter Ascending is deemed to have an ‘over-reliance’ on them that The Matrix, a film which showed a helicopter crashing into a glass skyscraper in slow motion and which basically pioneered the ‘combatant frozen in midair while the camera spins around them’ trick, apparently lacks. Similarly, while the weirdness of The Matrix doesn’t stop it having an ‘interesting premise’, Jupiter Ascending has ‘incoherence in the screenplay’, despite the fact that they’re both telling largely identical stories.

So while it’s not a new opinion that Jupiter Ascending is deeply reminiscent of the tropes of teen girl fanfiction – hello, angel werewolf boyfriend! – and while it’s similarly been stated that most action movies are, in fact, written as million-dollar endorsements of the fantasies of teenage boys, I haven’t seen it pointed out that, in this case, you’ve already got a film written and directed by the exact same people telling the exact same story but in a thematically inverted way, such that you can arguably use it as yardstick for gauging the extent to which the comparative femininity and hopefulness of Jupiter Ascending have counted against it in the popular consciousness.

All of which is a way of saying: Jupiter Ascending is both awesome and flawed, but no more so than The Matrix, which leads me to think there’s more than a little sexism involved in its constant devaluation. Which doesn’t mean you’re sexist for thinking The Matrix is a better film – to each her own, as they say. But JA is space opera, which is meant to be lavish and rich and weird, and given that the Wachowskis are predominantly vaunted for The Matrix and V for Vendetta, which are gritty and dystopian and yes, stereotypically masculine, I can’t help feeling that Jupiter Ascending is frequently judged a failure simply for not being those things, instead of for its performance of an inherently campier genre.

Basically, I loved it, and you will prise my hovering space-throne sofas from my cold, dead hands.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YA Article Bingo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*This post was sponsored and proofed by Grammarly, a free proofreading service. 

Warning: spoilers for The Killing (Danish version)

Over the past few weeks, my husband and I have been watching our way through all three seasons of The Killing – an amazing Danish crime show following Sarah Lund, a detective based in Copenhagen, as she investigates a series of politically connected crimes, each one of which forms the backbone of a particular season. The quality of the scripts, plots, acting and overall everything are astonishingly high, and I’d unhesitatingly rate the series as one of the single best crime shows I’ve ever seen. The final episode, however, has left me feeling deeply annoyed – not because it’s inconsistent with everything that’s come before, but for precisely the opposite reason.

Right from the outset, The Killing sets itself up as a gritty, no-nonsense thriller series: lots of political backstabbing with undertones of noir. The tropes in play are textbook – Lund is a single parent; she has a difficult relationship with her son, and is so obsessed with the job that, particularly in season one, her dedication sees the rest of her life systematically lost or broken; there’s an overriding theme of power corrupting even good men; and, crucially, all the primary victims are women: two raped and murdered teenage girls (Nana Birk Larsen from S1, Louise Hjelby from S3), a tortured and murdered lawyer (Anne Dragsholm from S2), and a kidnapped child (Emilie Zeuthen from S3) – and yet their execution is anything but. Lund is one of the more complex, compelling female detectives I’ve ever seen, played with incredible skill and subtlety by Sofie Grabol, and despite the traditional use of women in refrigerators to fuel the plot, just the fact that each death is dealt with, carefully and in detail, over the course of an entire season, is itself a humanising change from the endless parade of procedurals in which multiple such deaths are investigated and forgotten within the space of a single episode.

It’s also notable that, despite other thematic differences, key tropes recycle – and, indeed, feature prominently – across all three seasons: in particular, the good politician forced to accept the corruption of his peers for the sake of political expediency; the duplicitous political aide whose decision to withhold key information “for the good of the party” invariably leads to more deaths in the long run; the ruptured-but-repairing marriage of a couple trying to parent a young child or children while dealing with a crisis; and, of course, the steady disintegration of Lund’s personal life, which in S1 alone includes breaking up with her partner, an abortive move to Sweden, the loss of custody of her son, the death of a colleague, and, eventually, the loss of her job (albeit temporarily). Given the fact that S1 is 20 episodes long, whereas S2 and S3 are only ten each, the tropes it uses really do cast a long shadow over the rest of the series; which isn’t, I hasten to add, an entirely bad thing. As I’ve said, each season is incredibly well-constructed, and even though familiar themes and elements tie them all together, there’s still a real sense of tension and mystery to each whodunnit.

But where Lund’s personal life is concerned, it doesn’t take long to realise that her universe is a crapsack one. Important family occasions and crucial conversations with loved ones are invariably interrupted by urgent, work-related phone calls or summonses. If Lund makes a promise to meet with her mother, son or partner, you can bet she’ll either fail to make the date or be entirely preoccupied during it, with her early departure taken as a given. This self-destructive pattern of events is hardly unique to The Killing – the fact that I’ve long since thought of her as Wallanderesque is proof of that – but it does seem more unremitting than usual, not because Lund falls into a bleaker pit than other, similarly obsessive detectives (she doesn’t), but rather because the promise of recovery is never really dangled before her, either. Lund’s personal life is monotone: once her move to Sweden is called off midway through S1, we know that things have fallen apart forever. This pattern only continues in S2: not only does she grow increasingly estranged from her son and mother, but as her fledgeling love interests turns out to be the killer, it sort of hits home the point that Lund is not a character for whom things will ever work out.

And that’s entirely fine. What bothers me about the ending to S3, though – a plot-twisty scene in which Lund shoots the killer dead in cold blood, not because he attacked her, but because she lacked any evidence with which to convict him, a vigilante-style action that sees her fleeing the country to escape justice – is that it takes this phenomenon to an unnecessary and unrealistic extreme, both narratively and in terms of Lund’s character. Narratively, it’s a weaksauce decision: not only did Lund have a new lead and new suspicions about the killer having additional victims, but three other prominent characters had actual evidence to support her theory. Had Lund stayed to stand trial rather than fleeing – or had she refrained from shooting the killer at all – their collaboration would have been natural; instead, with Lund fled, none of the other parties have any reason ever to meet again, which ensures that the matter stays buried, and while that might fit with the overall theme of politics winning out over propriety, it feels like a cop-out designed to ensure a bleak outcome in the face of common sense. Similarly, I couldn’t help feeling that such a dramatic action was out of character for Lund: not only did the shooting come at a time when she had more to lose than ever – having just reconnected with her son, become a grandmother, accepted a cushy new job and rekindled an old romance – but as far as the rest of the series goes, we’ve never seen her run away from anything, and especially not the consequences of her actions. Even though her shooting of the killer felt forced to me, I didn’t think it implausible; but her fleeing from justice felt wholly out of character. Lund has always broken the rules in pursuit of justice; yet every time, we’ve seen her stay and face the music. That the final season ended with her escape was deeply irritating – a decision I felt was made, not because it was in the best interests of the plot, but to ensure that the whole series finished on a suitably bleak and gritty note.

Which is why, to finally come to the point, I had something of an epiphany tonight: that stories whose emotional outcome can be broadly inferred by what genre you’re in are almost always, on some fundamental level, going to disappoint me, because even though their individual events might surprise me, their actual endings won’t. All the way through S3 of The Killing, I kept on thinking, there’s no way this will end well. The absolute best that can happen is that they’ll save the girl – because even gritty noir shows tend to flinch from killing nine year old girls in the final act! – but otherwise, Lund is screwed, because she’s ALWAYS screwed. And of course, that’s exactly what happened. Which isn’t to say I disliked The Killing – as I said earlier, it’s easily one of my favourite crime series. But while there were doubtless viewers for whom the ending came as an emotional suckerpunch, for me, it just felt like a bland continuation of the overall theme of bleakness; because once you firmly establish that there’s no room for Lund to end a season happily, then no matter how spectacular you make the cause of her unhappiness, past a certain point, I’m just going to struggle to find it in me to care.

And this made me realise, in turn, that I have just the same problem with romance narratives – or rather, with stories that are explicitly marketed as romance. By which I mean: if I know from the outset that Story X is a romance, then you’re simultaneously telling me the emotional catharsis of the ending – that the protagonists end up together, happily ever after. And sometimes, that’s exactly what I’m looking for in a story. But if I want to be surprised, there has to be some emotional uncertainty. By definition, genre is always going to codify at least a few things about any given narrative. If I read a whodunnit, I can be pretty sure that a crime will be committed, and that at some point during the course of events, I’ll find out who the guilty party is. What isn’t certain is whether the criminal will be brought to justice, how the detective and/or protagonist will cope with it, and who’ll be hurt in the process. In other words, while I might know beforehand some of what happens, I won’t know how I’ll feel about it ’till afterwards, and that uncertainty is what motivates me to get to the end.

Which is also why I tend to have a preference for romance narratives that appear in stories which aren’t earmarked as romance: because even though I natively want my favoured characters to end up together, the minute you tell me that the pairing is predestined, it takes away some of the clout of the finale, because it simultaneously removes the possibility of an emotional surprise. And sometimes that’s comforting; sometimes, as I’ve said, it’s what I’m after – just as at other times, I’m in the mood to feel cynical about life, the universe and everything. But the stories that really get under my skin are the ones that make me doubt; the ones whose climactic moments have me physically hunching forwards, desperate to learn what happens next – and a truly great story can make me forget what genre it belongs to. The first time I saw How to Train Your Dragon at the cinema, the climactic battle was so well done that, when Hiccup and Toothless fell through the sky, I actually forgot I was watching a children’s film, with all the narrative safeties that traditionally implies: I watched them fall, and my heart seized up, because just for an instant, I thought that one or both of them was going to die. The story was so well-crafted, I stopped watching through the lens of genre awareness and became completely immersed in the narrative, as awestruck and uncertain as if I were six years old, and for someone who spends as much of their life doing meta-analysis as I do, that’s no small thing.

So if this post has a point, it’s this: that, regardless of the genre in which you’re writing, emotional uncertainty is important. Audiences can tell the difference between fake conflict – aka, There’s Only An Obstacle Here To Make The Plot Work, Otherwise They’d Just Kiss On Page Ten And Get It Over With – and conflict that genuinely unsettles the characters; similarly, they can also tell the difference between forced bleakness – aka, We Decided This Story Was Going To Be Serious And Depressing, Therefore Nobody Is Allowed To Have A Happy Ending – and a story where tragedy feels organic to the narrative. It’s a subtle distinction at times, and as in all things fictional, YMMV, but far too often, I feel as though creators and audiences both fall into the trap of relying on the audience’s knowledge of genre to smooth over bumps in the plot and characterisation. After all, the human brain excels at filling in gaps: a lot of the time, we see what we expect to see, and if what we expect (for instance) is gritty compromise, then why stop and question the logic of Sarah Lund shooting an unarmed suspect when she had a new lead, a whole new life to live for, and several powerful, dedicated allies she could turn to for help? Easier just to shrug and say, well, that’s how this sort of story goes. And as I’ve said, that doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. But for me, it won’t ever really be a surprising thing – and sometimes, that’s a type of disappointment all its own.

*A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Grammarly, who offered to sponsor a writing-related post in return for an Amazon voucher valued at USD$50. I agreed to do so on two conditions: one, that I disclose that I was being paid, and two, that I actually liked the product. Which, from my limited usage, I do:  some of the things it checks for, like use of the passive voice and particular grammatical constructions, are probably more applicable to formal or academic writing than informal blogging, but as a tool, I found it easy to use, and it’s certainly more thorough, and with a nicer user interface, than the spellcheck in Open Office.   

You know, as strange as it may sound given how much time I spend ranting on the internet, I actually live a rich, full life, one in which I regularly leave the house and talk to my friends about a wide range of things that do not, in fact, suck. I’m also a fairly busy person, especially right now, what with finishing up a new novel, writing various reviews and columns, tending my seven-month-old son and – oh, yeah – the fact that we just moved house. So even though I still make time for online shenanigans, the number of articles I read in full, per day, has dropped dramatically, which leaves me feeling like some sort of digital meerkat, briefly popping up into the bright, popcultural sunlight of the internet, then ducking back down into the subterranean warren of Shit I Actually Need To Do, No, Seriously, How The Fuck Is It September Already? And most of the time, it’s a policy that serves me well.

But invariably – and with a regularity that is fast depleting my finite stores of dispassionate, well-reasoned criticism – there comes a day when I poke my head above ground and encounter a fresh, steaming pile of bullshit, such that I start gritting my teeth and channelling Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You.

10 Things - Asshole Day

And today, we’ve hit the trifecta: this spectacularly douchey, concern-trolling, woe-is-my-unrecognised-talent Facebook post by John Ringo lamenting John Scalzi’s Hugo win, Mike Krahulik’s PAX announcement that he regretted ever discontinuing their rape-apologist Dickwolves merchandise, and – my personal favourite – an astonishingly incoherent post by one Paul Cook over at Amazing Stories on When Science Fiction Isn’t Science Fiction (which, surprise! turns out to be if it contains romance elements and is therefore written for ladies).

And I mean, OK: so Ringo is an entitled, embittered asshat, and Krahulik is the same foot-in-mouth, mostly jerky dude he always was, though with an increasing glimmer of self awareness and repentance, and those are definitely things worth talking about – as, indeed, many people are already doing. Once upon a time, I’d likely have gone in to bat about them myself. But like I said, I have limited ranting time these days, and so instead I’ll stick with responding to Paul Cook’s piece, because, seriously? Are we still having this same damn conversation about “real” SFF and why romance isn’t part of it?

We are?

Rage comics are you fucking kidding me

I wish I was, rage comics dude. I really wish I was.

Right from the outset of Cook’s piece, it’s pretty clear that we’re dealing with some pretty deeply-ingrained assumptions about the genre. To quote (my emphasis):

Most writers who publish in the science fiction field stay within the usual parameters of the field, continuing their careers writing what no one would doubt as standard science fiction. Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein to name but four, wrote and published their works as science fiction, with the occasional foray into the fantastic–but not outright fantasy. Heinlein did write Glory Road which was science fiction using fantasy tropes that no one would mistake for aspects of a regular fantasy novel. That is to say, Heinlein’sGlory Road isn’t at all like one of Robert Jordan’s epic fantasies nor does it resemble the Arthurian fantasy of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s classic (and truly excellent novel),  The Mists of Avalon.

That said, some writers who might have started off in science fiction soon reveal their true selves when they start publishing what they really want to write about.

Or, in other words: Cook’s definition of “standard science fiction” doesn’t include any “outright fantasy” elements (though it can include “fantasy tropes” PROVIDED nobody could mistake the story for being a “regular fantasy novel”,  meaning either “epic” or “Arthurian” fantasies). This definition appears to be sacrosanct to Cook, because when, in his estimation, SF writers deviate from “the usual parameters of the field”, they’re not just mixing it up, evolving the genre, exploring new narrative possibilities or otherwise striving for originality – no. They’re revealing their “true selves” and writing “what they really want to write about” – language which not only couches their deviation as a betrayal of SF, but which actively suggests their former use of the genre was somehow all a cynical act; that they never really wanted to write SF at all, caring only for their subsequent stories and not their original SF works, as though the latter output was merely a misbegotten firstborn left to fend for itself after the arrival of a long-awaited second child.

He then proceeds to list the authors to whom he thinks this wildly prejudicial and utterly bizarre characterisation applies. Namely: Gene Wolfe, Lois McMaster Bujold, and duo Sharon Lee and Steve Miller; he also complains about “steampunk writers… shifting over to writing about zombies,” and while he names no names in that instance, the paragraph in question is accompanied by a picture of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker cover, which would seem to indicate at least some measure of dissatisfaction with her work in particular.

Clearly, then, Cook feels strongly about what constitutes real SF – but despite how negatively he’s characterised such genre-hopping dilettantism, that doesn’t mean he necessarily hates the works in question; just the fact that people keep calling such books SF, when in his mind, they’re not. So what does he actually say to defend his position?

Of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, he says this (my emphasis again):

 I can tell you that these books–masterpieces as everyone seems to think they are–are actually medieval/Arthurian fantasies. In fact, there is virtually no real “science fiction” in these books other than various tropes… Severian’s travels and adventures and storytelling (Book Two has a long fairy tale inserted in the middle of the novel that goes absolutely nowhere and adds nothing to the novel) are straight out of a YA rite-of-passage fantasy…  The earth does not wobble on its axis (as it would if the moon were gone) and without vulcanism and tectonic plate induction in the ocean, carbon dioxide would not be removed from the atmosphere and recycled into the mantle where it can stay out of the atmosphere and not smother life. These things don’t matter to the fantasist. They didn’t matter to Wolfe.

Now, conceivably, that first backhanded disparagement – that people only “seem to think” Wolfe’s books are “masterpieces”, implying that Cook thinks they’re anything but – could just be the product of poor grammar, as the insertion of a comma after the word masterpieces would strongly imply that Cook agrees with its usage; and in either case, I don’t particularly care. Cook is, after all, entitled to his opinion about the merit of various books, and especially given that I’ve read no Wolfe myself, I’m hardly abristle at this possible slight to his honour. I mention it only because, if intended as a slight – and I suspect it is – it contextualises Cook’s subsequent judgements as belonging to a series of negative ones. In which case, the remark about the book resembling a “YA rite-of-passage fantasy” is clearly a disparaging one; and this sets off warning bells for me. Similarly, his subsequent assertion that proper details and scientific research “don’t matter to the fantasist” is jarring, as is the simultaneous inference that true SF always gets such things right. Being able to pick holes in the worldbuilding of a given novel might well demonstrate its structural failings, but that doesn’t mean the book belongs to a different genre. Off the top of my head, I can think of plenty of fantasy novels whose authors take extraordinary care with their inclusion of real-world details, just as I can name multiple SF stories that show a comparative lack of care for science. The whole idea of FTL travel and wormhole jumps, for instance, is just as handwavium-based as Wolfe’s decision to ignore vulcanism and a wobbly Earth axis, and yet I doubt that the inclusion of either element would irritate Cook to the same degree. Whatever: as I already said, I don’t really care what he thinks of Wolfe’s work – but I do care that he thinks sloppy worldbuilding is somehow a symptom of fantasy-writing.

Onwards, then, to his criticism of Bujold. This is where the real problems start, and in such an offensively baffling way that I can’t help but quote the whole paragraph (emphasis mine, again):

Another writer well-praised (from every corner) is Lois McMaster Bujold. Her great work is the Miles Vorkosigan series. These are supposed to be military science fiction stories, but they are really at their core Romance novels. At first, they were military science fiction novels of a higher order than most. But the romance elements creep in very early on. Bujold tips her hand in the eloquence of her language (normally a good thing) and the attention to detail that only women would find attractive: balls, courts, military dress, palace intrigues, gossiping, and whispering in the corridors. All of this is right out of Alexander Dumas. True, these intrigues and flourishes do happen in the real world (or they used to), but Bujold, over time with novels such as Miles in Loveand Cordelia’s Honor, you can see that Bujold is a closet romance writer. Not that this is a bad thing, but some of us aren’t that interested in romance. For me, personally, it takes much of the dramatic urgency out of a story if the hero is already married or if during a skirmish comes back to canoodle or wine or dine with his beloved before rushing back to the fray.

I honestly don’t know which is more painful: Cook’s efforts to try and say that really, it’s OK Bujold writes romance even though he doesn’t like it, or the totally oblivious sexism with which he undercuts this assertion. In remarking that Bujold “tips her hand” by including “romance elements” – which, he says, involve an “attention to detail that only women would find attractive” – he characterises romance as being a wholly feminine genre, such that, when he goes on to say that “some of us aren’t that interested in romance”, it seems pretty clear that by “some of us”, Cook means men.  Whether intentionally or not, he therefore manages to dismiss Bujold, one of the most respected and multi-award-winning SF writers out there, as not being a real SF author because she actually just writes romance and romance is for women only. Which makes his subsequent remark that all her “attention to detail that only women find attractive” is “right out of Alexander [sic] Dumas” all the weirder: I mean, what’s he trying to say with this? That Dumas only wrote for women, or that he was also a closet romance writer? It just doesn’t make any sense, and yet the insult to both women and romance is so palpable it left me staring at the screen in disbelief, jaw clenched.

On closer examination, though, it’s his final sentence that actually worries me most: specifically, the admission that it bores him “if the hero is already married”. It’s clear this description is meant to accurately summarise romance stories as a whole, but as even a cursory perusal of the genre would make plain, nothing could be further from the truth. The Happily Ever After is where, barring cameo appearances in future volumes, romance stories stop – it is emphatically not what constitutes their defining narrative structure. The Vorkosigan books, by contrast, feature both sides of the story: we see the characters meet and fall in love, but because their romantic, pre-HEA friction isn’t the defining aspect of the narrative, but rather just a single facet of a larger story, we also see them afterwards, getting on with their lives together. So while the series definitely contains romantic elements, collectively, the books aren’t romance novels. I don’t say that to defend Bujold against the accusation of writing romance, because I don’t believe there’s anything lesser or pejorative about writing romance instead of SF (and I certainly don’t believe it’s a women-only genre; female-dominated, maybe, in terms of readership and output, but that’s hardly the same thing, and a separate point besides). No: what bothers me is that, when Cook says he doesn’t like to read about married heroes who take a break from fighting to “canoodle” with their sweethearts, it feels like an admission that he prefers his (male) heroes to be single and to lack a romantic attachment to the women in their lives. And this is a very different thing: because whereas Bujold’s decision to portray happy, realistic, functional marriages necessarily involves male characters who treat the women they love with respect, Cook seems to be against that – because all that kindness and love and icky lady romance gets in the way of the action. And that makes me wonder: does he, then, have no issue with SF stories where the hero is a womaniser, someone who sleeps with various sexy maidens while in pursuit of his duty and doesn’t care enough to see them again afterwards, but who still cares just enough to be Tragically Wounded if they end up dead? Maybe I’m being uncharitable because this paragraph so profoundly rubbed me the wrong way, but even so – and especially given his citation of Heinlen, Clarke, Sturgeon and Asimov as stellar examples of real SF authors – I can’t help but feel that what he’s really objecting to in the Vorkosigan books isn’t the use of sex or romance, or even necessarily of marriage, but to the presence of female love interests who influence the plot in ways other than simply sleeping with the hero, and to the use of heroes who think about the women they love as partners rather than sex objects.

In talking about Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s novels – a paragraph which, once again, I’m forced to quote in full – Cook becomes even more disparaging about romance (my emphasis):

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s novels in their Liaden Universe® (from Baen Books) are also romance writers. Like the Vorkosigan novels, they begin as space adventures in the military science fiction genre, but their latest installments are romances only barely disguised with science fiction tropes and conceits. Lee’s and Miller’s stories in this series are carefully written, but I’d call them science fiction-lite because there really isn’t much tension in these stories. It’s as if, now that they’ve found their niche and their considerable audience, they want to play it safe. True, science fiction as a whole is indeed part of Romance Literature (if we go all the way back to the 18th century when novels were invented in England, with the Gothic novel leading the way), but some writers, by dint of their nature, turn to romance or the western or whatever. I’ve read several of the books in the Liaden Universe® and to me they are romances in disguise–with the couple coming together with a calm sense of inevitability rather than one preceded by blood, sweat, tears and some sort of significant loss. True, no science fiction or fantasy writer has the courage to end a novel the way Hemingway does in A Farewell to Arms, but then ours is an escapist genre. Which is also why we don’t have a Hemingway or Faulkner in our midst–but that’s another story.

By this point, the repetitive assertion that romance or romance writers are “disguised” or closeted somehow is really starting to wear me down. I find it depressing – but not actually surprising – that even though, in the very first paragraph, Cook is capable of acknowledging that SF stories can contain fantasy tropes without actually being fantasy novels, presumably because he wants to establish the credentials of his favourite authors as being beyond reproach, he spends much of the rest of the post categorically denying the idea that romance tropes can similarly exist in SF stories without causing the book in question to magically switch genres. The idea that Lee and Miller chose to write “science fiction-lite” by amping up the romance – and more, that this decision was a way to “play it safe” – is more than usually laughable given Cook’s simultaneous inference that it ruined the books; which begs the question, safe from what? Ridicule and accusations of selling out? Clearly not. I don’t even have the energy to try and unpack what’s meant by the claim that “some writers, by dint of their nature, turn to romance” – by what nature, exactly? There are so many things this could mean, all of them contextually pejorative, one of the least of which is the idea that “by dint of their nature” is a not-so-subtle code for “by dint of being born female, or having an interest in women”. At absolute best, Cook is simply so enamoured of SF as a genre that he’s inclined to view any departure from it by SFnal authors as not just a bad decision, but an actual character flaw – hence it being in their “nature” to revert to writing “romance or the western or whatever”. Which makes the fact that he then goes on to praise Hemmingway and Faulkner as being braver, better writers than anyone in SFF  all the more mind-boggling (never mind being an assertion that opens up a whole different can of worms).

Finally, he expresses his distaste for zombie stories mucking up steampunk and SF, and once more manages to throw in a gendered barb: “I have no interest,” he says, ” in reading about zombies, fancy dress balls, smooching warriors, or star-lit dinners on the terrace overlooking a waiting army about to go to war” – a remark which neatly mirrors his complaints about those pesky romantic details that “only women” like.  And that would be the end of it – except that, of course, he also manages to make an ass of himself in the comments. When confronted with accusations of sexism, Cook becomes angry, remarking that Lee and Miller, “competent as they are, are writing disguised romances” – which manages to be a more overtly disparaging slight about romance than he makes in the actual article.  He also refers to the romance elements in their books as being their “true predilections” – because clearly, if an SF writer writes romance, they mustn’t care as much about SF! The fact that he also claims to be “very precise in my wording, or I try to be” is, under the circumstances, rather heartbreaking. But it’s his response to accusations of misogyny that proves the most telling:

By accusing me of being a misogynist, you shut down all possibility of an informed analysis of any woman’s work. That’s a refuge I’ve seen critics in literature take for over 30 years, at least since the mid-1980s. It doesn’t work that way. Any work of art can be criticized, regardless of the gender of who wrote them, painted them, composed them, etc.

And I just… I don’t even know how to respond to this. Because Cook has said, right there in his own, apparently “precise” words, that Bujold’s work involves “the attention to detail that only women would find attractive” – details which Cook himself feels are detrimental to the story, and which he plainly states are a hallmark of Bujold’s romantic credentials. This is unequivocally a sexist remark, and the fact that Cook doesn’t recognise this fact – let alone understand that his disparagement of romance as both feminine and lesser is similarly gross – is the main problem with his piece. But the idea that misogyny is some kind of card that critics play to shut down the possibility of an informed analysis of women’s work? What planet is this guy even on? OF COURSE any work can be criticsed, regardless of the gender of the creator; that’s not in dispute. But that doesn’t mean that Cook isn’t being sexist in his analysis: and when he complains about the fact that accusations of misogyny have effectively been ruining criticism for thirty-odd years, it makes me wonder how many times in the past someone has called him out for sexist behaviour, and he’s chosen to interpret that as meaning “you can’t critique female writers because you’re male and therefore biased”, when what they’re ACTUALLY saying is “by all means critique female writers, but be aware that your internalised, negative assumptions about women, romance and femininity are influencing your judgement in unhelpful ways”. Like, seriously? Thirty years of viewing misogyny accusations as a tactic for dodging criticism rather than, you know, a legitimate fucking complaint about sexism in SFF, and he’s never once sat down and thought, Huh, maybe they have a point? Christ on a BICYCLE.

And then it gets worse:

I’m correct here. The books I mention as romances are romances. They are also very “light” in gravitas and absolutely devoid of metaphor.

More anti-romance bullshit! Because romance is light, devoid of metaphor and totally lacking in gravitas, AMIRITE LADIES? And obviously, the best way to prove you’re not sexist is to call romance a female-only genre and then disparage the shit out of it!

The last great sf story that, to me, resonated with metaphor was Terry Bisson’s “macs” which was about American’s natural desire to kill someone who’s harmed us.

Oh.

Well, THAT’S not profoundly unsettling. (Note also, please, that the story in question came out in 1999, which means that, by his own admission, Cook hasn’t seen anything worthy in the genre for nearly fifteen fucking years.)

 I know I’ve offended you, only because I have had an opinion.

No, it’s not because you had an opinion; it’s because the opinion itself was offensive bullshit.

DeAnn, please, please explain to me what “ground” Lois Bujold has broken with her writing. She’s writing in the 1940s Astounding tradition of space adventures tinted with romance. That’s it. If you want ground breaking, read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar or his The Long Result or his Shockwave Rider. Don’t bore me with telling me these mediocre writers are ground-breaking. They’re just writing pulp fiction–pure entertainment. Lift away all the standard tropes and conceits from Bujold’s writing and you have stories where we know the hero gets his heroine and all will be well. Our writers have lost the courage to tell a story such as Thomas Disch’s Genocides or any one of Philip K. Dick’s novels. But, then, publishers publish what they think sells. Thus, romance, thus zombies. But that’s my opinion. And the fact that I have a divergent opinion makes me the most hated person on the internet.

And in this final comment, despite all his earlier protestations that being a romance writer “isn’t a bad thing”, Cook finally gets angry enough to be honest: Bujold breaks no ground with her stories – she is, in fact, “mediocre… pulp fiction – pure entertainment” – and romance is only popular, not because it has any merit, but because “publishers publish what they think sells”. And isn’t it interesting how, with the sole exception of Marion Zimmer Bradley, every single person Cook has held up as an example of brave, exemplary writing is an old white guy from his generation? Talk about being stuck in the past.

Dear Mr Cook, if you’re reading this: you’re not the most hated person on the internet. Michael Brutsch couldn’t even claim that much, and he might actually have deserved it. Nobody is sending you rape or death threats; nobody is telling you, in graphic detail, the things they’ll do to your children or pets in revenge for what you’ve said (though all those things have happened to women writers just for existing on the internet, let alone saying anything controversial). All they’re doing is sharing their opinions of your opinion, as they – we – are entitled to do; and because we think your opinion is bullshit, you’ve elected to view our response as persecution. You aren’t being persecuted; you’re being argued with, and the fact that you can’t tell the difference is a sign of the privileged echo-chamber in which, until now, I suspect you’ve spent your fannish life. I’d tell you to grow up, but seeing as how, the last good story you read was apparently written almost fifteen years ago, one suspects it wouldn’t help. As far as I can tell, your tastes are so firmly fixed in the stories of your youth that every development undergone by the genre since then is something you’ve elected to view with suspicion. And that wouldn’t bother me, but SFF is my genre, too, and I’m sick of watching bitter old men try to claw away and disparage everything about SFF that’s welcomed me and drawn me in by saying that it isn’t really SF; that the genre is changing, not because the audience and the world are changing together, but because shallow people just want to make money. I’m sick of it, and so I’m arguing against your opinion – at length, in my own time, even knowing that, unlike you, I am actually risking a genuinely abusive backlash by doing so, because that’s what happens to women on the internet when the really ugly trolls catch wind of us.

So why am I bothering, then?

Because I fucking belong here and you will not make me feel otherwise.

Warning: all the rant.

As someone who talks a lot about sexism in general, but particularly with reference to SFF and fandom, I’m often frustrated by the fact that many people either don’t understand what sexism is, or actively disagree that it still goes on: not just because their lack of understanding makes it harder to explain why Hollywood’s predisposition towards failing the Bechdel test is symptomatic of wider social problems (for instance), but because it means that, more often than not, before I can discuss the issue at hand – be it the treatment of women in gaming or the insertion of unnecessary sex scenes into HBO’s adaptation of Game of ThronesI’m forced to run through the conversational equivalent of Sexism 101 in order to get my interlocutor onside. Now, being as how much of modern sexism is insidious and subtle, up to a point, I’m fairly sympathetic to being unaware of it: after all, I was in that position once, too, and no matter how repetitive it gets, you still need people who are willing to explain the basics. There are occasions, however, when my sympathy runs right the hell out, as does my patience – usually because someone has said something so fundamentally wrongheaded, point-missing and downright useless that there aren’t enough tableflipping GIFs in the world to adequately sum up my emotional response.

This is one of those times.

Behold, then, this hot mess of a post on sexism – or rather, on the author’s complete and utter misapprehension of sexism – by someone called Sarah of Bookworm Blues guest-posting at Fantasy Book Cafe. Straight away, the piece sets alarm bells ringing, beginning with the suggestion that:

While I’m sure sexism does exist in literature, I don’t actually think much of what people consider to be sexist is actually sexist.

Frankly, this is a big claim to be making, especially when prefaced by the admission that “sexism in fantasy… [is] not something I’ve really thought about before”. As this recent reprint of a 1982 article by science fiction writer Susan Shwartz can attest, sexism in SFF is something we’ve been talking about for decades now, and while that certainly doesn’t preclude a newcomer from having valid opinions on the subject, if you start out by saying that most of the existing dialogue is wrong, then you’d damn well better be able to show your working.

Alas, not only doesn’t Sarah understand what’s meant by sexism in SFF, her interpretation of the concept is so confused that it’s actually quite difficult to formulate an intelligent response. For instance: throughout the article, she continually reiterates the threefold idea that, according to some people, men and women write differently; that authors can’t write characters of the opposite gender with any degree of skill; and that women are more emotional writers, while men are more action-oriented – all of which she apparently disagrees with (and rightly so). The problem, however – and I’m struggling to even articulate this, because it makes so little sense – is that Sarah seems to think that this opinion is held by people who say there’s sexism in SFF; which is to say, the exact group of people who think these ideas are bullshit. This isn’t a case of me misunderstanding her argument: it’s literally what she appears to be saying. To quote:

After I had the discussion about sexism in SFF with that author, I became a lot more aware of people accusing authors of being sexist, or saying an author couldn’t write some character properly because the author was of the opposite gender. It actually shocked me how much of that sort of dialogue is floating around that I’ve never really been aware of before… 

I think people are a little mixed up. That’s the crux of it. It seems to be a common belief that women are more emotional and character driven than men and men are more obsessed with action and adventure. Then there is a common belief that because an author is male/female they can’t properly write a character of the opposite gender because they aren’t of that gender and thus, just don’t get it.

Almost – almost! – I can parse the logicfail here. Sarah has, I suspect, seen male authors criticised for sexist representations of female characters, possibly with involvement of the phrase ‘male gaze’, and taken this to mean that, in the eyes of the person doing the criticising, men are inherently bad at writing women Because Gender. This isn’t even an oversimplification of the actual issue, which is the poor depiction of female characters by authors whose exposure to a culture that traditionally relegates women to either secondary or highly stereotyped roles in narrative has resulted in their automatic usage of sexist tropes; rather, it’s a catastrophic conflation of the critic’s position with the position they’ve set out to criticise. Thus: while some people certainly do believe that women can’t properly write men, and vice verse, this is itself a sexist belief, not the default assertion of those who call out sexism. Her misunderstanding is so total, it’s like she’s come across a group of soccer fans complaining about people who hate soccer, and come to the conclusion that they must hate it, too.

Underscoring Sarah’s confusion is her repeat assertion that an author’s gender doesn’t matter, and that focusing on it is therefore meaningless. To quote again:

“I have never sat back and thought, “Well, since she’s a woman, her writing is different than a man’s because (insert reasons here).”…  I don’t think of authors as male and female in more than an observational way. The gender of an author doesn’t matter to me in the least. It has zero impact on the quality of their writing. Monet was a man who painted more water lilies than any other human being who has ever lived. Being a man had absolutely no impact on his ability to paint them.

I agree, Sarah! An author’s gender doesn’t impact the quality of their writing in any way whatsoever. But it can certainly impact on how their writing is treated by others – which is why, to take just one example, many female SF writers are still encouraged to take male pseudonyms, the better to counteract the sexism of readers who, whether consciously or unconsciously, assume that men are naturally better at SF. To borrow your example, Monet didn’t paint great lillies because he was male, but his gender certainly afforded him the opportunity to paint in a way that was denied to women. Similarly, when it comes to the impact of authorial gender on content, it’s not a question of whether our sexual biology or gender identity has some inherent, magical quality that necessarily infiltrates our writing and betrays who we are: instead, it’s a question of privilege, and the extent to which it influences our perception of other people. Like it or not, the vast bulk of Western society is geared so heavily towards the promotion and support of straight white men that, somewhat unsurprisingly, its associated narratives – whether movies, TV shows or novels – are rife with limiting, negative and prejudicial portrayals of women, POC and QUILTBAG persons. Thus: when a male writer perpetuates said stereotypes – perhaps via the inclusion of female characters who exist only to sleep with the hero – his gender becomes a relevant consideration in why he thought this would be an acceptable story to tell, because socially sanctioned sexism has told him, over and over again, that it is.

I wish that was all the article got wrong; instead, it gets worse. To quote again:

If an author portrays a female character as physically weaker than their male counterpart, they aren’t being sexist; they are probably being realistic. I will use myself as an example. I can’t lift more than twenty pounds on a good day. That doesn’t make me weak, nor does it mean that I’m weak because I’m a woman… I’m physically weak but I’m strong in many other ways and the fact that I’m a woman has nothing to do with it. There are plenty of men out there with the same disorder I have, and they are just as physically limited as I am. Portraying a character with certain limitations and other strengths doesn’t make an author sexist, as so many are fond of exclaiming. It makes them realistic.

Christ on a bicycle. This has got to be the worst and most fatally literal interpretation of the phrase ‘strong female characters’ I’ve ever seen. Listen: setting aside the fact that it’s entirely possible for women to be stronger than men, when critics talk about ‘weak’ female characters, we’re not talking about physical strength, but about the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the characterisation, and the extent to which it adheres to prejudicial gender stereotyping. If the female characters have agency and read like actual people, I don’t give a shit how much they can lift, because it doesn’t matter – but if the author has (for instance) written a swooning, helpless princess whose emotional weaknesses are metaphorically emphasised in a scene where she tries and fails to lift the hero’s sword, then yeah: I’m going to call shenanigans.

What bothers me about these conversations is that they seem to divide people more than unite them. When we focus on how genders affect an author’s ability to write, we highlight differences more than similarities, and we help cement old, often unnoticed habits of categorizing authors based on the kind of underwear they wear…

Sexism? Yeah, it exists, but I think the way to truly overcome any gender bias is to get rid of these gender-focused discussions. We need to focus on quality, rather than plumbing.

Let me get this straight: the way to get rid of sexism is to stop talking about gender? That’s like saying that the way to prevent STDs is to stop talking about sex: in both instances, the latter concept is integral to any meaningful discussion of the former problem, such that omitting it would render the entire exercise moot. And don’t even get me started on the pervasive cissexism of constantly defining gender in terms of plumbing and underwear: the issue at hand concerns brains, not bodies, and trying to boil it all down to descriptions of bits is both childish and incredibly problematic.

There’s more I could say about the article, but ultimately, it all amounts to the same thing: that the writer has committed an act of misunderstanding so profound that I’m tempted to call it willful, and in so doing further muddied the waters about what sexism is, and why discussing it matters. Instead, I’m just exhausted – angry, bored and exhausted – with the terrible, sickening ignorance of it all. Calling out sexism isn’t about cementing old habits or promoting gender warfare; it’s about, you know. Calling out sexism, on account of the fact that sexism is fucking awful. The point being, if you honestly can’t distinguish between “some people think men and women write differently” and “the idea that men and women write differently is sexist”, then I really don’t know what to do with you – and so, for the moment, I’ll leave it at that.

Last week, Joe Abercrombie wrote a lengthy post in defence of grimdark fantasy, a stance which should come as no shock whatsoever to anyone familiar with his books. (Which, for the record, I’ve read and enjoyed, albeit with reservations.) The pro/con debate over gritty SFF is comparatively new, in the sense that its status as a distinct subgenre is comparatively new, but not so lacking in history that we haven’t already built up a fairly substantial archive of dissenting opinions. What struck me forcefully about Abercrombie’s essay, however, was his failure to acknowledge, let alone address, a key aspect of the debate, viz: the ways in which grittiness is racially, sexually and culturally political, and whether or not those elements can ever be usefully disentangled from anything else the concept has to offer.

“Portraying your fantasy world in a way that’s like our world?” Abercrombie asks. “That’s only honesty.” And that’s often a fair point to make, when it comes to fantasy. But I find it extremely telling that while he goes on to apply this rule to the presence of death, drugs, sex, swearing, bad behaviour and excrement, he stops short of parsing its relevance to the default inclusion of sexism, racism and other such problematic behaviours in grimdark, crapsack worlds. Or, to put it another way: if your goal in writing gritty SFF is to create what you perceive to be an honest, albeit fantastic version of reality – and more, one where acknowledging the darker aspects of human nature takes precedence – then the likelihood is that you’ll end up writing victimised and/or damaged women, sexist and homophobic social structures, racist characters and, as a likely corollary, racist stereotypes as automatic defaults; which means, in turn, that you run an extremely high risk of excluding even the possibility of undamaged, powerful women, LGBTQ and/or POC characters from the outset, because you’ve already decided that such people are fundamentally unrealistic.    

Not unsurprisingly, therefore, many SFF readers – especially those who are female, POC and/or LGBTQ – are going to object to your definition of reality, not just as you’ve elected to apply it in an SFFnal context, but as an effective commentary on them, personally: because when you contend that realistic worldbuilding requires the inclusion of certain specific inequalities in order to count as realistic, you’re simultaneously asserting that such inequalities are inherent to reality – that a story cannot be honest, or your characters believably human, if there aren’t mechanisms in place to keep women oppressed, POC othered and LGBTQ persons invisible.

But the thing is, because such mechanisms are already so entrenched as narrative defaults when it comes to SFF worldbuilding, it’s easy to give them a pass – or at least, to deny their increased relevance – in the case of grimdark stories. Because if, as Abercrombie’s post implies, the grim in grimdark comes only from the presence of graphic violence, full-on sex, drugs, swearing, disease and character death, then it should still be possible to write grimdark stories that lack rape, domestic violence, racism and homophobia, and which feature protagonists who are neither straight, predominently white men nor the ultimate victims of same. And yet, overwhelmingly, that is what grimdark consists of: because somewhere along the line, the majority of its authors have assumed that “grittiness” as a concept is necessarily synonymous with the reinforcement of familiar inequalities.

Please note my use of that word, familiar, as it’s the lynchpin of my argument: that by assuming current and historical expressions of bigotry, bias and social inequality to be universal and exclusive expressions of bigotry, bias and social inequality, grimdark stories are, more often than not, reinforcing specific inequalities as inevitable and thereby serving to perpetuate them further. Which is why, in grimdark, it’s not just graphic sex, but the graphic rape or assault of women by men, or sex which objectifies women; it’s not just swearing, but swearing which derives its offensiveness from treating women’s bodies, habits and gender as undesirable, or which reinforces racism and homophobia; it’s not just violence, but violence against the othered. 

Writing recently about Lincoln, Aaron Bady had this to say on the subject of gritty cinema (my emphasis):

First and foremost, it uses a realist aesthetic to make it seem like a compromising cynicism is realistic. Form becomes content: it shows us the world as it “really” is by adding in the grit and grain and grime that demonstrate that the image has not being airbrushed, cleaned up, or glossed over, and this artificial lack of artifice signifies as reality… They don’t mean “accuracy,” because that’s not something most people could judge; they mean un-glamorized, un-romanticized, dark… Our field of view is claustrophobic and drab; we are shown a political arena without sentiment or nostalgic glow. That’s how we know we’re seeing the “real” thing.

 

But, of course, we’re not. We’re just seeing a movie whose claim to objective accuracy is no less artificial than the filters by which an instagram takes on the nostalgic glow of a past that was never as overexposed and warm as it has become in retrospect. And when we take “gritty” for “realism,” another kind of “realism” gets quietly implied and imposed: the capitalist realism by which ideals become impossible and the only way things can get done is through compromise and strategic surrender. Anti-romanticism is all the more ideological because it pretends to have no ideology, to be the “plain truth” that demonstrates the falsity of romantic visions. 

 

Which is where grimdark tends to fall down for me, and why eliding the genre’s political dimensions is especially problematic: grittiness is only a selective view of reality, not the whole picture. Yes, there’s pain and despair and suffering, but not exclusively, and when you make grit a synonym for realism – when you make an active, narrative decision to privilege specific, familiar types of grimness as universals – then you’re not just denying the fullness of reality; you’re promoting a version of it that’s inherently hostile to the personhood and interests of the majority of people on the planet. (And in that sense, it doesn’t seem irrelevant that the bulk of gritty, grimdark writers, especially those who self-identify as such, are straight, white men.)

Human beings are flawed, and frequently terrible. We are capable of horrific acts; of racism, sexism, homophobia, and countless acts of violence, discrimination and ignorance. But there are still degrees of flawedness, such that a story which fails to acknowledge our worst aspects is no less “realistic” than one which portrays them as the be-all, end-all of our existence. There’s nothing wrong with wanting realism in your fantasy – most readers demand it to some extent – but that doesn’t mean we’ve all agreed on what realism in fantasy is. It’s a mistake to assume that your preferred flavour of honesty is the only legitimate one; or, just as importantly, the most legitimate one.   

To summarise the problem of committing to this familiar idea of grittiness, then:

If your idea of ‘grittiness’ includes misogyny (for instance), it’s more or less inevitable that your female characters will not only encounter systematic sexism, but necessarily be scarred by it, because if it were possible for them to remain unscathed by such an integral aspect of your preordained notion of grittiness, then by the rubric of gritty = honest, they would be unrealistic characters. Which means that, with the best will in the world, you’ve committed from the outset to writing women whose lives and selves are damaged by men – and while, as a female reader, I don’t object to encountering such characters, I do object to the assumption that these are the only female characters you can realistically write

Grittiness has its place in fiction; as do representations of existing inequalities. But when we forget to examine why we think certain abuses are inevitable, or assume their universality – when we write about a particular prejudice, not to question, subvert or redefine it, but to confirm it as an inevitable, even integral aspect of human nature – then we’re not being realistic, but selective in our portrayal and understanding of reality.  

Warning: total spoilers.

It’s no overstatement to say that The Cabin in the Woods should really be subtitled Joss Whedon Brings The Meta. As a movie, I… don’t quite know what to make of it. I went in with few expectations beyond horror, Whedonosity and probable twistyness,  and came out feeling like I’d just watched a TV Tropes-inspired 101 instructional film on how not to make horror movies.  By that, I don’t mean that Cabin itself was so bad as to constitute a cautionary tale: I mean that it quite literally sets out to educate  cinemagoers – and, presumably, other filmmakers – on how not to make horror movies. The whole piece functions as a deliberate deconstruction of the archetypal horror-style five man band composed (as Cabin has it) of the Whore, Athlete, Fool, Scholar and Virgin. This isn’t subtextual, wink-at-the-audience deconstruction like you’ll find in the Scream franchise or the out-and-out mockery of the comedic Scary Movie and its ilk, either, but a balls-out synthesis of both approaches that walks – and sometimes, teeters wildly over – the line between heavy-handed satire and straight entertainment.

Buckle up, readers. We’re here for the long haul.

Premise

Right from the outset, Cabin takes the gutsy step of committing openly to two parallel storylines, one of which acts as a meta critique of the other. In one, college friends Dana (the Virgin), Jules (the Whore), Curt (the Athlete), Holden (the Scholar) and Marty (the Fool) embark upon the titular and archetypal exercise of driving out to spend a weekend at a remote woodland cabin owned by Curt’s cousin. In the other, a team of mysterious scientists working in a high-tech lab setting monitor the friends as they progress towards their destination, which is, as we soon find out, an environment both designed and controlled by this second cast of characters. As the story unfolds, we cut between the two narratives with an increasing sense of unease: clearly, the techs – headed by Sitterson, Hadley and Lin – have somehow orchestrated the entire getaway for the sole purpose of putting the five protagonists in horrific danger.

On discovering a creepy cellar stacked with every MacGuffin and Checkhov’s Gun known to horror – eerie dolls, weird masks, haunted clothes, demonic jewelry, devil-summoning puzzles, creepy music boxes and freakish diaries, to name but a few – the sadism of the scientists is made suddenly clear: not only have the five protagonists been brought to the cabin to die, but they’re also forced to choose their own mode of death, their path set by which of the many damned objects they unwittingly activate. When Dana reads from a diary containing the last words of Patience Buckner, a girl killed in 1903 as part of a torture-ritual by her sadistic, pain-worshipping hillbilly family, the zombie-Buckners burst from the ground nearby and the game is on.

But Marty, the Fool of a stoner, thinks something’s up. Having noticed the behavioural changes his friends have started to undergo (courtesy of the various chemicals pumped into the cabin by the controlling tech-team) and seemingly inoculated against same by his constant weed-smoking, it’s not long before he accidentally uncovers a camera and realises the extent of their manipulation. While the friends are fighting and dying, he manages to convince Dana that ‘puppet-masters’ are ultimately responsible for what’s happening to them –  a revelation that primes the two separate narrates for an ultimate collision.

Execution

The thing about running two parallel narratives is that, of necessity, it’s going to cut into the characterisation. Thanks to the talented writer/director team of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard – the latter of whom was also a staff writer for Buffy – good dialogue goes a long way towards ameliorating this fact. The opening banter between Sitterson, Hadley and Lin is a fantastic balance of witty humdrum and slow reveal, effortlessly creating a sense of wrongness and unease when placed in the context of their actions. However, it’s only really the scientists who benefit from this: the other five characters are, purposefully, stereotypes, and though some effort is made to transcend that fact – Curt’s initial kindness and cleverness, Holden’s rare status as a black intellectual character – it’s only Marty, with his quirky Whedonesque dialogue, who appears as a whole, unique person.  What this means in terms of the film is that, while we care enough about the other protagonists to mourn their deaths, they never stop being stereotypes – and even though that’s a deliberate choice, it’s not ultimately a successful one. (We’ll come to why later.)

In terms of pacing, the film moves smoothly through the first half and transitions to the final third with a skillful switch-flipping act break, but that’s where things start to get sticky. As lone survivors Dana and Marty infiltrate the scientists’ lair, the two narratives are brought into collision, and while the action arguably increases – or at least, gets knocked up a notch – the narrative theme shifts gear in a way that makes the story feel slow. If you’ve ever seen Into the Woods, it’s a bit like the moment near the middle of Act Two when the fairy tale characters suddenly notice the ever-present narrator, freak out and kill him, an action which forces them to depart from the story as known to the audience and strike out on their own. In fact, it’s exactly like that moment, with the key difference being that while Into the Woods employs the broken fourth wall device to explore character relationships and overturn archetypes, Cabin uses it as an excuse to create a gory-hilarious, Edgar Wright style bloodbath starring every single horror monster imaginable, with special emphasis on the giant snake. And while these final scenes certainly succeed at being blackly comic, they don’t really serve to unite the two thematically different stories that have preceded them.

Plotting

Narratively, Cabin is schizophrenic. On the one hand, it’s an overt deconstruction of the most overdone slasher-horror stereotypes, while on the other, it’s a self-aware film that nonetheless uses those stereotypes as the backbone of the plot. For anyone even vaguely trope-literate, there’s nothing new in recycling the same old characters,  even – and perhaps especially – if the whole point of doing so is to name and shame them as such. The ultimate explanation for this – that the terrible Dark Gods the scientists are serving need to see the archetypes fulfilled as a form of ritual sacrifice – is both riddled with fridge logic (which we’ll come to) and deeply unsatisfying in terms of the actual deconstruction itself. Holden’s death is a case in point: even though Cabin avoids the ultimate cliche of having the black dude die first, the fact that Holden still doesn’t make it to the end – or, rather, the fact that the issue of race is the one universally acknowledged horror-trope that the meta-narrative fails to so much as wink at, let alone address openly – is indicative of the film’s ambivalent commitment to self-deconstruction.

Or, to put it another way: it would have been much more interesting and far less heavy-handed to blur the archetype categories and cast multiple actors of colour. Marty, who was essentially presented as asexual, could have doubled with Dana as the Virgin – a narratively viable move which could have altered the ending in any number of ways. Curt and Holden were potentially interchangeable as both Scholar and Athlete – from the opening scenes, each of them qualified easily for either role – while making a male character the Whore would have been genuinely fascinating. And this ought really to have been possible: because while the archetype categories were openly named in the final scenes, it was also stated that when it came to Dana’s not being an actual virgin, the scientists were willing and able to ‘work with what [they’ve] got.’

Fridge Logic

Which is where, for me, the whole of Cabin fell down. I can deal with two thematically opposing narratives – one straight, one meta – that end up colliding in a blood-stained, crazycakes battle that plays out like the lovechild of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead on hallucinogenic meth. I can deal with witty, realistic dialogue that only works to elevate half the cast above the level of stereotype while   making the rest merely exemplary forms of the same; and I can even deal with a tropetastic film whose ultimate reliance on the very archetypes it exists to critique leaves it vulnerable to self-sabotage.

What I cannot deal with is the existence of giant, gaping logic-holes in an overarching narrative whose sole purpose is to make all the other contradictions viable.

So: every year for the whole of history, human beings all over the world have brought their horror-archetype stories to life in order to feed the blood of the victims to the Ancient Ones below – demonic, evil gods who, if denied at least one annual sacrifice from somewhere on Earth, will rise up and destroy humanity. OK. I can roll with that, except for the part that it makes no fucking sense. The entire point of the film is that the scientists have to enact horror stories as rituals, so that any deviation from the script – such as, for instance, the Virgin dying anything other than last – will invalidate the sacrifice. And yet, at the same time, it apparently doesn’t matter that the Virgin isn’t really a virgin – and if this seemingly crucial element is malleable, then why not everything else? If it were just a normal horror story, perhaps I wouldn’t care so much; but in the context of Cabin being almost solely about deconstruction, it matters that the given excuse for the stereotyped character format – We Had To, Because Ritual – doesn’t actually apply. It’s a continuity goof that screws not only the plausibility of the straight narrative, but the thematic goal of the meta. Unless it’s a double bluff and Whedon and Goddard were deliberately being lazy to somehow highlight out the laziness of others (which, if so, no), there’s no way to make it work – and that disappoints me, because if there’s one thing I don’t expect from Joss Whedon, it’s half-assed deconstruction.

Genre

This isn’t the only instance of fridge logic, but it is the most pointed, and the one which, for me, takes the most shine off the film. Stepping back from my own neurotic preferences, I can acknowledge that, quite possibly, I’m reading too much into things, and that maybe I should just be content to let Sleeping Gods lie. But even then, this doesn’t work, because Cabin is still a thematic mess. As a horror film, it’s jumpy, neither wholly the black comedy a la Edgar Right implied by the level of self-reference or the pure, straight-up shockfest implied by the advertising. It might have worked as a hybrid of the two, if not for the utter lack of synthesis or cathersis achieved by the ending – but instead, it’s a chimaera.

As a piece of deconstruction, it never rises above the level of a basic introduction to tropes. Remove the fansquee factor of Joss Whedon bringing the meta, and you’re left with a film which, while good fun in many places, informative in others and certainly original in terms of its execution (if not, as discussed, its archetypes), is neither as clever nor revelatory as its smugness seems to suggest its creators think it is. I won’t deny that it was fun to see Buffyverse alums Amy Acker and Tom Lenk working together, but Joss Whedon’s Favourite Actors isn’t a genre, and it doesn’t compensate for the presence of so many missteps.

Impact

Ultimately, despite my reservations, I suspect that The Cabin in the Woods is a necessary film – not because it does what no story has done before, but because it so unequivocally comments on what shouldn’t be done again. Given my druthers, it will forever stand as a 95 minute argument against the lazy application of horror tropes – and when it comes to the actual blood and gore, Cabin manages what is, perhaps ironically, its single best feat of deconstruction. The violence is short, sharp and brutal: minus the usual emphasis on drawn-out screams, running through darkened hallways, struggling with monstrous aggressors and retch-inducing torture porn, the fact that we genuinely do care for the characters, stereotypes and all, makes their deaths unusually horrific. As the audience watches the scientists watching the suffering, we’re invited to critique our own enjoyment of horror films – to ask why, when confronted with such brutal deaths, we persist in finding them entertaining at all.

Given that Cabin is still a horror film, this is arguably not the most effective course of action – rather like Sucker Punch’s failed attempt to critique the same vouyerism it was ultimately peddling. Nonetheless, I’ll give Whedon and Goddard more credit than to put them on the same level as Zack Snyder: Cabin’s violence is neither constantly sexualised, unduly graphic nor unnecessarily protracted, and instead relies on the audience’s emotional connection with the victims to convey its horror. And then there’s the ending – rocks fall, everyone dies, and eldritch gods rise, Cthulhu-like, from their ancient slumber, ready to destroy the world as we know it. This happens because Dana first fails to kill Marty and then refuses to, so that the film ends with our two bloodied survivors smoking a joint as the whole world cracks beneath them. It’s completely out of keeping with their characters – Dana’s will to survive, Marty’s intelligent self-analysis – and seemingly exists for no better reason than that it makes a good punchline. Maybe you’ll find it otherwise, but for me, it rankled: a final thumbing of the nose at everything in the film that should have worked, but didn’t.

Conclusion

The Cabin in the Woods is a tropetastic, self-analytic and deconstrutive horror romp starring torture zombies, college students, creepy scientists and a Bonus! giant snake. Whedon fans will enjoy his trademark dialogue and sense of the meta, though horror fans might be baffled as to what the hell he and Goddard are doing in their genre. Personally, it’s a question I’m still trying to answer – and maybe I never will.

So far this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about Broken Bird characters – and apparently, I’m not the only one. Why are they overwhelmingly women? What does their popularity say about our narrative-cultural obsession with romanticising damage, and particularly female damage? Is it possible to write Broken Birds without romanticising their trauma? Can we really say that most Broken Birds are strong female characters when the trope overwhelmingly rejects femininity? And why do such heroines abound in UF and PNR in particular?

It’s an issue I’ve had Feelings about for some time. I learned and fell in love with the trope as a teenager; which is to say, uncritically and before I knew there were words for the patterns I saw in stories, let alone how to apply them. I gravitated to Broken Birds so wholeheartedly that my own early writing is saturated with them. Unconsciously, I’ve built my whole understanding of narrative on a bedrock of Broken Birds – and that makes me deeply uncomfortable, because the logic of such characters is ultimately founded on the deeply problematic romanticising of damage.

No human being is perfect. As the tattooed left arm of a recent bus driver so eloquently proclaimed, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. Even the most well-adjusted person has hang-ups, and as conflict drives stories, it only makes sense that drama and damage be omnipresent in narrative. Traumatic origins make for interesting reading, just as terrible occurrences make for good story-fodder. No matter how grand or intimate the scale of events, calamity and catastrophe stalk the pages of every novel – and rightly so. Small wonder, then, that we routinely exalt characters who rise above the horrors they’ve endured while still being influenced by them. Show us tormented souls struggling for redemption. Show us travel-weary nomads, battle-scarred warriors, guardians of grey areas and hard-boiled detectives. Show us heroes with pasts and antiheroes shackled by honour. Show us doctors who can’t heal themselves and untrusting cynics searching for love. Show us unseen scars and visible. Show us pain, and that pain is survivable.

But never forget that damage has a cost.

Romanticised damage is heroin chic for the soul: no matter how angry, hurt or soulful it looks,  its expression is ultimately constrained by glamour. Real damage is rampant, inconvenient and frequently unbeautiful. Romanticised damage self-medicates, but is never addicted; represses and explodes, but never unfixably; abuses friendships, but never beyond salvation; drinks, but never vomits or blacks out;  seeks self-destruction, but always nobly; hurts itself, but never others; expresses sarcasm, but never joy. On a fundamental level, romanticised damage is an expression of authorial image-consciousness: a limiting awareness of the fourth wall that shies away from having the protagonist behave irredeemably, lest their sympathetic status or morality thereinafter be called into question.

Which is, in a nutshell, how Broken Birds work. Their tortured pasts provoke a specific empathy that their darker impulses must never negate, in order that the one continue to justify the other. It’s a precisely calibrated balancing act that annoys the hell out of me, because – among other things, which we’ll get to – it effectively hardwires the character for emotional stasis. Too much healing, and they stop being broken, which nine times out of ten kills the narrative premise; too much distress, and the dysfunction stops being cute and starts looking villainous, or at best obscenely selfish. Both transitions are narratively workable, but Broken Birds are meant to be beautiful, haunting, troubled: if they can’t rescue themselves, we have to want them to be rescued; if they can rescue themselves, then they’re not broken; and if they can but don’t, then the reason – whether selfishness or stupidity – must render them less attractive, and therefore less birdlike.

Which is where we come back to our first two questions: why are most Broken Birds women, and what does that say about our obsession with female brokenness? By way of answer, I’m going to propose a radical notion: that damage has, narratively speaking, become the go-to justification for escapism.

Consider the following hypothetical premise: a successful, happy twentysomething with a loving family, interesting friends, a good career and a caring partner is suddenly drawn into a fascinating, chaotic and hitherto unknown world of action, adventure and intrigue. This world, however, is swiftly proven to be incompatible with living a normal life. Instantly, the question becomes: Which do they sacrifice? Who gets hurt? Obviously, narratively, we know they’re going to choose whatever this new world entails, because that’s the point – but even though we’re already gunning for a particular outcome, we still want the transition to be painless. This is why so many characters in YA novels are orphans, or have distant, absent or abusive parents: because when the action calls for them to leave home and face the forces of darkness – as it invariably will – we don’t want their loved ones to be injured by the choice. Even though we’ve already chosen a thousand times over in favour of quests, we still don’t want there to be a cost to starting them, because we don’t want to begin by thinking of our protagonist as a selfish, hurtful ass – which is what we, the reader, would be if we upped and left our comfortable life for one of thrills and adventure.

But damage excuses all that. If a character has nothing to lose by jumping headlong into their brave, new world – if nobody will miss them, or if they’re so broken that it excuses selfish decisions – then the usual cost is waived. The damage heaped on the characters is a way of alleviating not just their guilt at going, but our own for wanting it to be easy. For wanting to like them right from the outset.

For wanting to run away, too.

Because no matter what else they might achieve, stories with a new world component are always going to have escapist elements. Narratively, damage is used to justify that escape, to the point where trauma preceding adventure has long since become a cultural default. As a result, we readers absorb the pattern. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we connect damage with freedom; and that makes damage romantic, because it implies – however carelessly, however unintentionally – that the best way out of our everyday lives is to wait for them to implode. In the real world, enacting life-altering change takes extraordinary courage. Travel, changing careers, moving away from our loved ones, swapping partners, going on adventures, living wildly – none of this comes easy, or quickly, or free. But in stories, we can fantasise about all our responsibilities being taken away by fate, thus freeing us up to go on as many adventures as we like without ever having to justify wanting more than what we have.

And this is not a bad or unhealthy thing. The very attraction of ‘my life explodes and then I have adventures’ fantasies is that the vast majority of us never really expect – or, crucially, want – these things to happen. Their safety and entertainment value both stem from their supreme unlikelihood. We know we only get one life, and yet it’s human nature to want more than that; infinitely so. Stories, at their most fundamental level, exist to mitigate this knowledge. Like the third good fairy at Princess Aurora’s christening, we cannot alter this truth entirely, and so, instead, we soften it a little. Thus, like Aurora, instead of pricking our fingers and dying, we enter prolonged dream states and become Sleeping Beauty. We conjure up the ghosts of other existences so that we may live more, not less, continuing down internal roads when real ones are closed to us. Or, as Lewis Carroll put it:

Anon, to sudden silence won,

In fancy they pursue

The dream-child moving through a land

Of wonders wild and new,

In friendly chat with bird and beast —

And half believe it true.

But there is a world of difference between the offhand way we can treat with personal tragedy in our own private, escapist fantasies and the way we ought to treat them out loud, in reality, on paper. Because the thing we all know – the thing we must forget in order to dream our funny, broken, parallel lives – is that real trauma isn’t romantic. Without wanting to imply any necessary, absolute causation between an author’s personal experiences and the stories they write, I would suggest, as a matter of empathic intuition, that someone who has (for example) suffered the loss of their closest family members would be much less likely to casually include this fact in their protagonist’s backstory than someone for whom such personal grief remained purely hypothetical. Or, to put it another way: we respect such rights and losses as we have taught ourselves to respect, which is why good authors – or at the very least, well-intentioned ones – do research. If, on setting out to write a story, we can recognise our own cultural, sexual, historical and/or racial ignorance in areas relevant to our narrative, then why not acknowledge emotional ignorance, too?

In SFF, the simple answer is: because half the fun is making things up. If escapism is still the order of the day – if we can still tell stories where the culture, sexuality, history and races are imaginative extrapolations on the real – then why are emotions any different? And on the surface of things, that’s a fair point. I don’t have to think it’s plausible that a group of sheltered Hobbits from the Shire would find the courage to walk into the fires of Mount Doom in order to enjoy the story, because part of the willing suspension of disbelief inherent in the fictional act – and particularly in SFF – is accepting that, however rare such people might be in the real world, the majority of leading characters tend to be exceptional. Fiction is not like reality TV, shoving a metaphoric story-camera into the homes of ordinary folks in the hopes of striking an eventual dramatic jackpot. Instead, we have already decided our protagonists are different or special, because that is why we are there.

But the leeway this buys us is limited. Real-world causality must always apply to some extent, so that even if we’ve already decided the protagonist is exceptional, their actions still have to make sense. In order to create believable stories about imaginary cultures, races, gender relations and histories, the narrative has to be grounded in something familiar. And, while there’s no rulebook stating this has to be emotional content – which could easily prove impractical in stories about alien, hybrid or other inhuman characters  – more often than not, we mean it as a default. No matter how strange the society or how impossible the scenario, protagonists must still adhere to the rules of the world we’ve written them; and where we’ve left humanity as the default social setting, that means we have to understand their emotions.

Which is why romanticised damage comes off as an indicator of bad writing: even allowing for the fact that your mileage may vary, it still suggests a lack of emotional research; and as such damage is arguably a defining characteristic of Broken Birds, that puts them at a high risk for poor characterisation. To be clear: this is not a blanket attack on stories whose protagonists have traumatic pasts or origins or who continue to undergo suffering, for the simple reason that not all damage is romanticised. As a rule of thumb, romanticised damage is damage portrayed without realistically negative consequences, or whose consequences tend towards the protagonist being cursed with awesome. Such as, for instance, describing a character who has all the behavioural hallmarks of being an alcoholic without ever actually calling them one, or making them black out, or showing them throw up, or do anything but function at 110% while living almost entirely on hard liquor.

This is, I suspect, the main reason why Broken Birds abound in UF and PNR – or rather, the reason why Broken Birds in those genres stand out as being particularly problematic. Remembering the implied covenant of exceptional characters, it can be harder for readers to gauge how exceptional a protagonist situated in a sufficiently distant or fictitious setting actually is, comparatively speaking. If we don’t know anything about their world, its culture and history except what the story tells us, then the emotional narrative becomes something of a closed system: the only facts available to us are those the author chooses to relate, and unless some misstep of writing or characterisation makes us question that system’s integrity, then it only makes sense to accept what we’re told as true. If, on the other hand, a story is set in the present day – however altered by magic, weird technology or alternative history – then the system is automatically thrown open for comparison with our existing knowledge-base; and that’s where things get interesting. Because if the story fails to invoke the unquestioning sanctity of our private loss/escape fantasies – if we expect greater emotional verisimilitude from a published narrative than from our daydreams – then we can claim to know exactly how exceptional a character must be in order for us to believe in their survival.

And Broken Birds, by definition, are limited. Integral to their nature is the requirement of our sympathy: there are some lines they cannot cross, yet they must still be damaged and mangled by circumstance enough that the question of their doing so arises. This creates what I’ll call the Dark Side Shortfall: a contradiction between the negative emotional trajectory objectively suggested by their circumstances and the author’s desire to keep them looking beautiful. A successfully written Broken Bird is one where the writing, characterisation and worldbuilding are solid enough that this limitation never looks like a limitation, but rather the only natural course of events: one where we believe, despite the existence of the trope, that the character would always have made those choices. But if we suspect we are being shielded – if it feels as though the only reason our hero keeps faith is because the author wants them to – then Houston, we have a problem.

Which is where the gender card comes into play, because despite all the advances of feminism and equality, we still think it’s less acceptable for women to be made unbeautiful, whether physically or emotionally, than it is for men. The reason most Broken Birds are women is precisely because we’re more prone to limiting female characters than male, and especially when those limitations are designed to keep us sympathetic – and attracted – to the characters. This is not necessarily a conscious process, although it certainly can be. Rather, it’s a problem of lineage. The classic literary antihero is the hardboiled detective, who, when recombined the femme fatale, becomes the Broken Bird  – an incestuous bleeding together of noir’s most powerful archetypes. But unlike Blade, who inherited all the strengths and none of the weaknesses of his diametrically opposed parents, the Broken Bird is a creature of contradictions. From the detective, she takes strength, cunning and a certain maverick flare. From the femme fatale, she takes vulnerability, a damsel complex and tragedy. In other words, the Broken Bird’s strengths are masculine, while its weaknesses are feminine. And, not unsurprisingly, this is not a combination that works out well for female characters.

Femme fatales, as the name suggests, are dangerous and duplicitous, with both qualities invariably tied to their gender. Classically, if they were ever redeemed, it was through love; but otherwise, while the hardboiled detective was constrained by a personal code of honour (if not the actual law), the femme fatale remained morally suspicious. She was traitor and adulteress, whore and heartbreaker, a liar on the run and a bad girl out for what she could get – and yet, crucially, never an antihero. That mantle was reserved for the men, who worked outside the letter of the law in order to preserve its spirit. In noir, it was the women who made the hard choices, who rode their downward spirals and betrayed to stay alive; but they were also feminine, owning their sexuality and their gender even as they defied the culture and times that sought to label them.

But the typical female Broken Bird rejects femininity. Not sexiness – she’s still the femme fatale’s daughter, after all – but sorority, domesticity, and anything else that’s traditionally been deemed the purview of women. She will not like fashion; she will not wear dresses; she will not want children; she will not cook or clean or shop. She will, instead, be hard and beautiful and broken and, in the vast majority of cases, emotionally vulnerable, unsettled by her love for a man (or possibly two men) with whom, for various reasons, a traditional life is impossible. That’s a key word, impossible, because it points to a redaction of choice. Always, Broken Birds are sculpted by fate and damage: they can’t have normal lives or be like other women, they can’t can’t can’t – so loudly and so frequently that the question of want becomes buried. Broken Birds have trouble wanting. They’ve been burned so many times that they don’t (can’t) know their own desires; they don’t (can’t) know what’s possible in terms of their own happiness, except in the immediate short-term. But it’s this very confusion which frees them up for complicated, uncertain – but undeniably passionate – relationships, and for being rescued, over and over again, by white knights: men who, in a weirdly Freudian twist, quite closely resemble their hardboiled, femme fatale-redeeming fathers.

Does this make them inherently bad characters, or mean that they can’t be strong women? On both counts, no – but as an archetype that seems only to be growing in popularity and whose appeal is often taken at face value, I am much more uncomfortable with the idea of not asking these questions than with poking the trope and seeing what it means.

Footnote: I have, of late, become extremely leery of the phrase ‘strong female characters’ – or rather, of the fact that trying to identify protagonists as such invariably means holding women to higher standards than we do men, because we’re more invested in their measuring up to our personal, feminist ideals. This bugs me, because while the goal of encouraging more and varied fictional ladies is one I endorse wholeheartedly, the risk of unconscious left-wing bias actually making things harder for the groups we mean to support – whether characters or writers – is very real, and something I think we’re blinding ourselves to. Which possibly negates this whole post, inasmuch as I’m talking almost exclusively about the gender-oriented problems inherent in a particular trope, but still: if equality and progress is what we ultimately want from our stories, then we really need to start unpicking male tropes at least as vociferously as we do female; not just in terms of how those characters interact with women, but in terms of the negative lessons they unconsciously impart to men. That includes Broken Birds – and the romanticising of damage – across all genders.