Posts Tagged ‘Interview’

Back in 2008, I found myself somewhat hilariously fired by humourless bureaucrats for, among other things, daring to read Nick Harkaway’s debut novel, The Gone-Away World, by the photocopier. The fact that TGAW is merciless in its mockery of, among other things, humourless bureaucrats only added to the delightful, ironic savour of the experience. More recently – which is to say, this year – Nick has released two more books: fiction/SFF work Angelmakerwhich is a sort of blackly comedic gangster-spy-steampunk novel set alternately in the modern day and WWII, and non-fiction work The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World, an exploration of the many intersections between digital culture and human life – which, quite coincidentally, the wonderful Nick has consented to discuss with me, despite my tendency to ramble. So, without further ado: Nick Harkaway on The Blind Giant

Given its subtitle – Being Human in a Digital World – the casual observer could be forgiven for assuming that The Blind Giant focusses more on technology than it does on being human. In fact, I’d contend, the opposite is true: rather than using the digital world as a lens through which to view social issues, it instead uses humanity and the human condition as a means of analysing what part digital culture plays in society.

I think that’s exactly right – when I did an event at the School of Life the other day, one of the people there described the book as ‘a call to active citizenship’. So much of the digital debate is actually a cipher for debates we should be having about our culture, so a lot of what I’m doing is teasing out technological strands from cultural ones…

At the very least, it alternates between these perspectives in a way that makes the technological elements easily comprehensible to the layperson. Being of the geekish persuasion yourself, and given also the book’s iteration of the importance of constant engagement with the world, was it difficult to keep to a particular structural path and within the intended scope?

The aim was to produce a book with a very wide possible readership – something which would be readable whether you were an absolute blazing Luddite or a grade 1 digiphile. My hope is that there’s something of interest for everyone, that the book can be appreciated at a number of levels, but obviously there are limits on that. Staying within scope was relatively easy, because the idea was to go as broad as possible, to show the top metre of the ocean over a wide area rather than attempt to follow a single narrow fishing line down to the bottom – but staying coherent was harder. I was writing fast and sucking in information as I went along, organising it in Scrivener, trying out pathways. It was genuinely an iterative writing process and I could easily still be doing it. My ideas have evolved since the book came out, largely through dialogues with readers and with fascinating people like Anab Jain, Simon Ings and Andrew Keen. But seriously: the contract and the software kept me sane. I didn’t have time to write Gödel, Escher, and Bach.

Early in the book, you talk about the importance of the digital hearth, deliberately choosing a word with ancient, preindustrial connotations. This is a particularly effective image for many reasons, but chief among them – for me, at least – is the simultaneous invocation of the mythic: of the idea of lares and penates, those minor household deities who were honoured as being integral to hearth and home. In our current world, where both the fluidity of texts and the hearth-extending properties of social media have allowed us to define our digital homes through endless recombinations of the ideological, the sacred and the personal, what sort of figures – whether real or imagined, familiar or unknown – do you think have taken on the equivalent roles of our guardian household gods?

That’s part of our problem, in a sense – they’ve faded into us and we haven’t entirely realised it yet. We’re still looking for external sources of influence and protection – we blame the phone for ringing, the Internet for serving up information, the TV for strobing ads at us. And that’s ridiculous. If we ever make self-aware appliances with volition of their own, we can come back to that, but right now we’re alone with ourselves and if something happens it happens because we did it. We allowed it. I think the alienation comes from the metaphor of cyberspace, which proposed a foreign country behind the screen, and I think that’s breaking down now – thank God – as a consequence of the arrival of the touchscreen. When you can drag data around with your finger, it’s no longer other, it’s immediate. Things are not emerging from a TRON landscape in a subatomic alien world, they’re coming from other people using technology. We don’t need household gods in a literal sense – we need to understand that they were always reflections, and accept the role we took from them.

You talk, too, about the problem of ‘locked in’ systems, which – to quote the book – are defined as such ‘because while we might wish to break out of [the system], we cannot do so without also unravelling everything that has been constructed on top of it, and many of those things are hugely profitable and hence powerful and able to defend themselves. They refuse to be undermined, even while the individuals within them might privately recognise the need.’ This is a very apt description, and one which fits a distressingly large number of systems and institutions. I’m especially concerned about its application to our current educational frameworks; secondary school in particular. Given the myriad disconnects between the old world our educational systems were originally built to support and the worlds – both digital and tangible – that exist now, do you think it’s possible that part of what you describe as ‘the growing sense of abandonment and contempt’ that fuelled the anger of youthful participants in the UK riots could stem, however subconsciously, from the awareness that they’re being trained to enter a society that no longer exists?

I think there’s an element of that. They were told they’d always get richer, that that was the natural state of being in an information economy (which we don’t have, by the way, as Ha Joon observes in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism). They can see in front of them that the pathways they’re on don’t lead anywhere very cool, and that was fine so long as the economy was on the up and they could still expect a rising standard of living. Not any more. Alexis Tsipras told the Guardian the Greek financial situation was part of a war between the people and capitalism. I think he’s almost right: it’s a struggle between sanity and a particular style of finance-based fairydust capitalism which is a bit stupid, a bad iteration which consumes too much fuel and throws up too much waste and benefits a very, very few in the short term. But look, all the rioters knew was that they were getting screwed, and they didn’t like it. That’s what revolutions are in the first place: a sense that you have to push back even if it kills you.

Which locked in system would you most wish to see torn down, and why?

I can’t pick just one. There are simply too many. Gender inequality has to be the most wasteful human-aspected one one. Petroleum is probably the most interconnected, along with beef farming, which results in famine, soil erosion, environmental damage, poor health in the industrialised world, and economic shenanigans around subsidies. The reason to tear them down is the same throughout: they don’t do what they’re supposed to do. They’re aberrant. They cause problems rather than creating solutions. I’m not saying “no oil” and “no beef” – I’m saying that the entrenched systems around those commodities are obnoxious.

Midway through the book, you make a fascinating and deeply significant point about the correlation between the preservation of online privacy on the one hand, and the retention of intellectual property rights on the other. To quote again, ‘You can’t trash privacy and hope to retain a sense of respect for IP.’ Bearing in mind that this is an enormously complex issue, if you woke up tomorrow as King of Earth, what measurements would you enact to try and foster a united sense of ownership and privacy in the digital sphere?

Well, I’d have anyone who pulled what the FBI just did in the Megaupload case tarred and feathered. To clarify: they took a bunch of data they may not have had a right to from New Zealand and are now defending the action on the ironic basis that because it’s non-physical the law does not apply. I mean, seriously? In a copyright infringement case, this is your position. It’s insane. You can’t respect IP if that’s how it is defended.

More seriously: I think I’d legalise encryption globally and institute powerful protections for keys under – at the moment, in the UK, you can go to prison for refusing to hand yours over. In Russia you can go to prison for just possessing encrypted data. Personal data should have the same robust protections as personal space. I’d need to find a balance between powerful protections for the individual and the rights of a free press, but I’m not sure that’s as tricky as people make out. I’d also require a new policy of reasonable enforcement from content owners, since we’re making me dictator. The problem is that they’ve already gone so far down the bad road that it’s going to be really hard to establish a proper social contract again – but it’s the only way they can go, in the end. The alternative is slow exsanguination.

The notion of deindividuation through adherence to impersonal systems is a terrifying one, particularly as exemplified through experiments like those conducted by Zimbardo and Milgram. It’s also a significant theme in both your novels: The Gone-Away World and, more recently, Angelmaker. In the former, it appears as a chilling warning about unyielding and ultimately sadistic bureaucracies, while in the latter, it comes across in the comparison of personal, ‘friendly’ gangster crime, with its weirdly chivalric rules and its black sense of humour, with the impersonal, devouring autocracy of greed and mechanisation. Despite – because of? – being fictional, these stories seem to treat the deindividuation problem as much more of a binary issue than The Blind Giant, which appears to be more optimistic about the possibility of a viable middle path; perhaps because fiction provides the luxury of usurping such locked in systems as would otherwise prove intractable. Even so, the introduction to Giant, wherein you posit both a dystopian and a utopian future as a starting point for discussion, is still titled Dreams and Nightmares – one of the most archetypal binaries of all. How optimistic are you about our ability to change problematic systems without wholly uprooting them?

I know more about deindividuation now than I did when I wrote TGAW, so inevitably there’s more nuance. I still don’t know nearly enough to answer that question. I tend to think the only way it comes right is at a micro-level: citizen action to rehumanise everyone’s relationships. It’s a big ask, but a necessary one if we want a friendly society. It can start small. Smile at the irritating person on the other side of the ticket office glass, say. Get them to smile back if you can. And so on. Day by day, inch by inch, we inhabit a less divided society. It only works bottom up, though.

On a more positive note, something you blogged about recently was the verisimilitude of coincidence in writing. ‘In the small world of the novel, coincidences can multiply. The people about whom you’re telling the story are the people to whom significant events occur, otherwise you’d be telling the story about other people… We recognise the level of connectedness in the world, and we want it to be appropriate.’ This is definitely something I’ve noticed and appreciated in your fiction, but it also seems a fitting description of the way in which you’ve coherently united disparate (or seemingly disparate) ideas in The Blind Giant. Interconnectedness is obviously relevant to the digital world – arguably, in fact, it’s what it does best. Do you think this has changed or is changing the stories we tell about ourselves and our interactions with the world, and if so, how?

I think we’ve become increasingly aware of our connectedness over the last century. Chains, the story by Frigyes Karinthy which began the ‘six degrees’ discussion, was published in 1929. The mathematics of (pre-digital) social networks became apparent before digitisation really took off, though of course the Internet made the connections more discoverable and concrete. So the answer is probably part of the history of 20th Century storytelling, but I don’t know what it is. The stories we tell about ourselves change constantly, and stay the same.

One final query about informed behaviour: you end the book on what is arguably a cautionary note, exhorting the reader to engage with the world, and to be particularly aware, not only of the choices they make, but the many opportunities they have to make them, and of the idea that being the person we want to be ‘is a matter of constant effort rather than attaining a given state and then forgetting about it.’ This is a timely piece of advice, and one that applies just as significantly to our relationships with equality, privilege, politics and popular culture as to our use of technology and the digital world. With this in mind, how best would you advise people only newly aware of the fluidity of our culture to engage with it critically?

The important thing is to ask questions. That is, after all, the heart of the critical process: you ask what a thing is, whether it is what it appears to be. One of the simplest and most effective tricks in a political or a social context is to ask, of any phenomenon, whether it’s really a noun or a fixed situation, or whether it’s created, constructed, and held in place by a continuing action. Mostly, things are the latter, and when you see how they’re held in place you also see in whose interest it is to maintain that they’re part of the natural order of things. Then it becomes a question of what to do next…

Nick Harkaway can be found online at his blog, on tumblr and on TwitterThe Blind Giant is available in both ebook and hardcopy formats. 

Advertisements

Guys, check out this gorgeous illustration by Amandine Thomas! It’s for my short story, Needs Must, which is set to appear in the forthcomingSincere Forms of Flattery anthology from O&S Publishing. You can also check out my author interview with them. Squee!

What with all the ranting and soforth that constitutes the majority of my output here at Shattersnipe, I’ve decided to class up the joint by incoporating author interviews and guest blogs as part of its semi-regular fare. By way of inaguration, let me introduce you to Patrick O’Duffy, an upstanding layabout, editorial ninja and self-published author of the Melbournian persuasian who I first met via the auspices of a mutual dayjob. Patrick’s new novel, The Obituarist, is a sharp, fun murder mystery with a social media twist; my review of it is here, and you can also keep up with Patrick via Twitter and his blog.

So, without any further ado: let the interviewing commence!

The Obituarist reads as a modern, self-aware take on the classic noir and hardboiled detective genres – a sort of stripped-down, blackly humorous homage to the works of Raymond Chandler. Rather than being a PI, your protagonist and narrator, Kendall Barber, makes a living by tidying up the online affairs of the recently deceased, putting up tribute pages for bereaved families and removing the risk of identity fraud. What lead you to connect such an interesting and recent niche profession with golden age gumshoe stories?     

I had the ‘social media undertaker’ idea back in, hmm… early 2010? I was using Facebook and Twitter and so on and saw how people who voluntarily left those platforms still left traces behind that they might then have to go back to clean up – and how, in a handful of sad cases, someone else would have to do that work because their relative or friend had died, leaving this constant reminder behind. It struck me that there was story potential in that, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it.

When I first started mulling over the idea, I was mostly thinking in terms of sci-fi, fantasy or horror, because these are the genres in which I’ve mostly worked in the past. At one point, years ago, I’d sketched some ideas for a story where an online historian ‘audits’ the lives of other people to turn into presentations, and he realises that some of them are based in alternate timelines. (That’s a cool concept, and I may still come back to it one day.) But I decided that it might also be a chance to play around in the crime genre, which I’ve enjoyed for decades as a reader but barely ever written.

Still, ‘social media’ on its own isn’t really a strongly compelling concept for a crime story, so the idea didn’t develop further – not until I was thinking about identity theft for some reason and realised that leaving unfinished business online would create potential avenues for copying and reusing someone’s identity. At that point the two plotlines of The Obituarist pretty much popped straight into my head, and it was then just a question of fleshing them out and writing the damn thing.

As for why I looked to hardboiled crime stories for inspiration, well, a lot of that is because that’s the kind of crime fiction I like to read. It’s a subgenre where mystery and investigative procedure are major elements, but are nonetheless secondary to character and tone. It’s also a subgenre that tends towards pyrrhic victories and protagonists who lose as much as they win, if not more, and that’s a story direction that’s always appealed to me

Another major reason, though, is that the best works in the genre have an economy of language. One of Chandler’s great strengths as a writer was that he largely eschewed detailed descriptions of people and places, and instead used simile, metaphor, voice and dialogue to communicate personality, rather than appearance, to the reader. This let him sketch things out quickly and broadly so that he could then focus on characters and action. I didn’t want to specifically emulate that writing style – it’s been done too often by too many writers – but I wanted to find my own way of compressing description and character so that I could fit a worthwhile, moderately complex story into a 22 000-word novella. So in looking to Chandler for inspiration in writing style, it was natural to also look to him for inspiration when it came to genre, tone and story structure.

You say in your dedication that, although the book is partly for him, Raymond Chandler would probably hate it. What makes you say that?

I think Chandler was not just a pioneer of the crime genre but one of the great American writers of the 20th century. He wrote crime fiction not because he loved the genre but because he thought that the techniques of good writing could and should transcend the limitations of genre. And he was right. The way he approached character and tone, the way he used simile, the way he transplanted Shakespearean concepts of nobility and tragedy into a genre that had previously lacked much depth… he was a genius.

But he was also, well, kind of a dick – a prissy, bitter, homophobic misanthrope with a very low opinion of modern life. And ‘modern life’ in this context is the 1940s. He didn’t like people, he didn’t like technology, he didn’t like change. Things like social media, the internet, the way the boundaries of ‘community’ have swelled and changed shape due to technology – oh man, he would have just crawled into a whiskey bottle and died rather than accept any of that.

For that reason, along with a few other bits and pieces of the story, I’m pretty sure Chandler would just cut me dead if we met at a party. And that’s okay. He probably wouldn’t like the parties I throw anyway – too much playing of Rock Band.

As a narrator, Kendall is self-deprecating without being self-pitying, while the setting is less atmospheric than it is ambiguously everyday. Given the overwhelming tendency of noir and hardboiled characters to brood angstily about their tortured pasts in convenient alleys while the rain falls darkly on their trenchcoats, was it a conscious decision to try and subvert the more gothic, melodramatic elements of the genre, or just a consequence of your particular narrative voice?

I think that the kind of tendency you’re talking about is really an overstatement. It’s a stereotype of the genre that came from secondary texts like films of the 1960s and 1970s, which exaggerated the tropes of hardboiled stories to make them more overt and accessible to the broadest possible audience. Semiotic cues like voiceover monologues, muted lighting, rain and alleyways – these were all overt tools filmmakers used to emphasise tone and character in situations where subtlety wouldn’t work. And somewhere along the line, the idea developed that those exaggerated tools were in fact the core tropes and conventions of the subgenre – that it’s a genre of brooding and angst.

When you go back and look at the original source texts (Chandler, Hammett, Thompson etc.) or at the better modern writers in the genre, such as Mosley and Parker, you get a very different picture of the genre’s emotional makeup. Most of the protagonists in these stories are men (always men) with strong emotions but little sentiment. They feel pain but refuse to show it; they feel love and its loss but internalise it rather than admit their sorrow, their weakness, to others. They hold to a personal concept of nobility that they inevitably have to compromise in some way over the course of the story, and they do so stoically. Actually, that’s a good term – hardboiled crime is very much a genre of stoicism.

Does The Obituarist engage with that stoicism or subvert it? Hmm. Probably a bit of both. I wanted to embed the novella into an everyday sort of context, to tell a story about normal concerns like dealing with loss and controlling our identities, rather than the more esoteric world of detectives and complex, dramatic crimes. But I also wanted to contrast that everyday world with oddities, with offbeat crimes and characters, and to let those normal concerns propel things in strange directions. Plus, you know, have some fights and chase scenes in there for colour.

…hang on, did any of that answer the question? Probably not, now that I look at it again. Sorry. Hazards of studying English literature when I was at Uni long ago.

On the whole, I’d say it was a consequence of the narrative voice rather than something intentional.

And on that note…

Which aspect of The Obituarist are you the most proud of?

I think it would have to be the voice of the book. Voice is probably the most important thing to me as a reader and a writer, both in terms of character voice and in the narrative voice/style used to communicate the text. There are many stories that could be told, but the way you tell them is what makes them compelling, and storytelling is an aspect of voice (among other things).

The thing about the voice in The Obituarist is that it was easy and fun to write. I’ve been working on a novel for several years now, called Arcadia, which has a very specific voice born from a narrator with an often-shaky grip on her emotional state and the difference between reality and imagination. It’s a book I want to write and a story that I think is worth telling, but the complexity of that voice, which is so very different from my own, makes it incredibly hard work and draining work to boot. Every time I work on that book I struggle.

By contrast, I was able to just sit down every night and get into the voice of Kendall like I was turning on a tap. It’s not simply my own voice, although there are similarities, but it’s one I can assume and use as a lens for the story with ease and confidence. And I think that ease and confidence comes out through the story; it makes it a smooth, natural work that you can read easily without it being ‘easy reading’. Well, that’s the hope anyway.

The idea of a digital obituarist-turned-detective is a compelling one. Do you think you’ll ever tell more stories about Kendall and his world?

Oh man, I hope so! I started coming up with ideas for a sequel while I was still working on The Obituarist, and I think I could definitely write more than just one.

In the end, this is a book about three things – death, identity and how technology/social media affects the way we think about death and identity. That’s a pretty solid thematic foundation and it’s one on which you could build any number of stories. The trick will be to do so without falling into formula or into stasis – Kendall and his world need to change in every book. But then again, themes of death and identity allow plenty of room for change, so the potential’s there.

I’d also like the chance to tell more stories about these characters and their city – see, you thought I was all just wanky literary talk, but I like characters and setting too! The city of Port Virtue is only lightly sketched in The Obituarist, and I want to avoid giving it too much detail, but at the same time it has a personality that I’d like to explore. Especially its shady side, which I see as being rife with strange, offbeat crimes and criminals. You probably won’t encounter a car theft ring or second-story burglars – but black marketeers selling high-grade bull semen or forgers of ‘authentic’ Victorian pornography? That’s the kind of thing I’d like to pit against Kendall and his mad social media skills. That could be fun.

So because I am a crazy lady who cares about her stories and her feminism, I have basically spent the whole week having imaginary internal arguments with Steven Moffat about the sexism in Sherlock and Doctor Who. And because I am also a crazy lady with a blog, I have decided to get all of this angsting off my chest in a cathartic, therapeutic way by having an imaginary interview with Imaginary Steven Moffat right here on the internet, in honour of the forthcoming Sherlock episode.

Thus, I give you: My Imaginary Interview With Imaginary Steven Moffat!

.

Me: Imaginary Steven Moffat, it’s a pleasure to have you on the blog.

ISM: Thank you. Though I feel I should start by apologising.

Me: Oh? Why?

ISM: I’ll be honest. I have no idea who you are. My Imaginary Agent booked this gig at the last minute, so… you have the advantage of me. (Laughs)

Me: (Laughs) Fair enough! Well, in brief: my name is Foz Meadows, I’m a fantasy author, a geek, a blogger and a feminist – and as you’ve been honest enough to start with an apology, I probably should, too.

ISM: And why’s that?

Me: Because – straight to the point – I’ve basically got you here to talk about the concerns of many that there’s a theme of sexism in your work, specifically Sherlock and, to a lesser extent, Doctor Who.

ISM: Look. I’m very tired of these accusations. Neither I nor anyone on the team is either sexist, or a misogynist, and frankly I find the suggestion offensive. As I’ve said before in response to Jane Clare Jones’s piece in the Guardian:

I think it’s one thing to criticise a programme and another thing to invent motives out of amateur psychology for the writer and then accuse him of having those feelings. I think that was beyond the pale and strayed from criticism to a defamation act. I’m certainly not a sexist, a misogynist and it was wrong. 

Me: Right, OK. I understand that. And like I said, I apologise, because you’ve come in here not knowing that this is the topic under discussion, when clearly it’s something you feel very strongly about.

ISM: There’s nothing to discuss. I’m not a sexist. I respect women.

Me: All right. I hear what you’re saying. But as you say, there’s a relevant distinction to be drawn between what a writer believes in real life and the things they write about, and on those grounds, I and a lot of other fans would contend there’s a case to answer.

ISM: This interview is over. I’m leaving.

Me: I’m sorry, Imaginary Steven Moffat, but it’s not, and you’re not, because this is all happening in my head. You’re Imaginary Steven Moffat, not Real Steven Moffat, and while I’m sure he might like to leave at this point, this whole thing is, as they say, my party. One way or another, we’re going to thrash this out.

ISM: Rats.

Me: Right. So, before we get to the meat of things, I’d like to make one thing clear from the outset.

ISM: Go on, then. Clearly I can’t stop you.

Me: Thank you. What I want to begin by saying is – and I’ll understand if you don’t believe me – that contrary to how it might seem, I am actually a fan of Doctor Who and Sherlock.

ISM: (Snorts) You’ve got a funny way of showing it.

Me: I can see how it might appear that way, and I’ve definitely used some strong language to get my point across. But I’m sick of this idea that offering up real criticism of the things I love somehow makes me a bad fan. If I didn’t like your shows, I wouldn’t bother critiquing them, because I wouldn’t bother watching; but that doesn’t mean that all their good points are enough to make me excuse the sexism. A lot of what’s on TV is far worse than anything you’ve put out, but that’s why I avoid it. Certainly, I’ll complain about the damage they do, but not in personal terms, because I have no attachment to the material. But I do care about the Doctor; I do care about Sherlock Holmes. These are both characters who’ve existed long before you ever started to write them, who have dedicated fandoms and histories that precede your work by decades. You were two years old when Doctor Who first aired, and Conan Doyle was writing in the 1800s. That’s a long time for people to become attached to these stories.

ISM: So what you’re saying is that by taking over two existing narratives, I’ve come along and ruined a good thing – that all the previous interpretations are better, and that because my work doesn’t meet your standards, it’s crap.

Me: Not at all. You’re a fantastic writer. You have great ideas, you put together great production teams. A lot of your work I really love. But what I’m saying is, there’s a difference between picking up an existing story and creating something new, because existing stories come with existing audiences.

ISM: So I should just avoid doing anything original with old material?

Me: No, no! It’s not that you shouldn’t try new things – I love that Sherlock is set in the modern day. It’s just – remember what I said earlier, about not critiquing shows I don’t care about?

ISM: Yes.

Me: Well, I’d say that’s true of the majority of people. So when a new, original show rubs us the wrong way, it’s a very easy matter to disengage: we don’t have any investment in the story beyond what we’re willing to put in at the outset. And if you, as a writer – as all writers do – start to build up a portfolio based on your individual kind of storytelling, then as you move from project to project, you’ll start to collect fans whose primary investment in each of your new stories is the fact of your involvement: that you, Imaginary Steven Moffat, are the one in charge. By the same token, though, some people might not like your storytelling style; maybe they’re just ambivalent, or they’ve never heard of you, or they like it, but not enthusiastically enough to consider themselves a fan. Maybe they even hate it. But if you start writing about characters that are dear to them – like Doctor Who, and Sherlock Holmes – then those people will end up watching your shows, too. And unlike your usual fanbase, their primary motive isn’t your involvement, but the presence of existing characters. And this is important, because it means that a significant proportion of the people responding critically to your output will end up critiquing, not just the show itself, but the way you’re telling it. And because the characters aren’t yours, their opinions can’t just be written off by saying the show isn’t for them; because clearly, those characters are for them, or they wouldn’t have bothered watching.

ISM: I don’t think I’ve ever said these shows aren’t for fans of the originals. Quite the opposite.

Me: No, I’m not saying you did. But what I’m ultimately getting at here is that perhaps one reason why the accusation of sexism has upset you so much is that it’s no something you’ve had to deal with from your usual fanbase, and you’re confused as to why people like me, who are being heavily critical, are watching to begin with.

ISM: You do think badly of me, then.

Me: A little bit, yes.

ISM: Hah!

Me: Look, I’m trying to be honest. Nobody’s perfect. I’m not perfect, and I certainly don’t expect you to be. But part of fighting sexism is acknowledging that, precisely because we’re not perfect, our ideals and our actions don’t always match up.

ISM: You’re making it sound like I have lapses; like I suddenly forget that women are equal to men and behave like a Neanderthal. It’s ridiculous. I’m not a sexist; I repudiate sexism; therefore, there is no sexism in my writing.

Me: But that doesn’t logically follow, does it?

ISM: Excuse me?

Me: Well, look at it this way. It it possible to offend someone unintentionally, even when you’re trying to be polite?

ISM: What, you mean like a back-handed compliment?

Me: No, I mean genuinely by accident. Like, say I meet someone at a party whose outfit I think is stunning, and I compliment them on their style by comparing them to a particular celebrity who, unbeknownst to me, they completely loathe.

ISM: Obviously that’s possible, yes.

Me: OK, right, good. So, sticking with that example, what if I know beforehand that the person hates the celebrity, and I still make the comparison?

ISM: That would be deliberately offensive, yes.

Me: Yes, it would – but what if, even knowing what I know, it’s my firm belief that the person’s dislike for the celebrity is unreasonable? That because I’d consider the comparison to be complimentary, they should, too, and that by making the comparison, I’m partially trying to bring them around to my way of thinking?

ISM: Still offensive, but in a different way. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse, though.

Me: Of course. It’s a more contextual point. But can we agree that, even though I’ve paid the compliment knowing it will be badly received, to my way of thinking, I’ve not actually said anything offensive? That because I wouldn’t be offended if someone said that to me, I haven’t set out to be insulting, and that if the person is insulted, then that’s down to their beliefs more than it is my actions?

ISM: Technically, yes, I agree. Though you shouldn’t be surprised if they still react badly to it.

Me: Of course not. But compare all this to what you’ve just said about sexism. Intentions only carry us so far. Believing that you’re not sexist doesn’t prevent you from perpetuating sexism any more than intending to be complimentary prevents me from being insulting. And when you react to the knowledge that some people find your work sexist, not by considering the possibility that it is, but by continuing to assert that we’re wrong to see it that way – by saying something you know we’ll find it offensive – then, as you say, you shouldn’t be surprised that we react badly.

ISM: Yes, all right, very clever. But this is all metaphorical; you haven’t actually addressed the content of what I’ve written.

Me: OK, then. Consider Irene Adler. In the original Conan Doyle story, A Scandal in Bohemia, she beats Sherlock Holmes at his own game, marries her fiancé and leaves England victorious, while he is left – according to Watson – with a new-found respect for the intellectual capabilities of women. There’s also an inference that he’s attracted to her, because the only payment he takes for the case is her photo: at the very least, he certainly admires her.

ISM: And Sherlock admires her in my version, too. He definitely respects her.

Me: Yes, but he also beats her; she “beats” him with a riding crop – which is a nice play on words, I grant you – but he’s the one who actually wins. And then at the end, you’ve literally made her a damsel in distress, rescued from execution by terrorists in Karachi.

ISM: Look, I’m sorry, but it seems like a pretty poor definition of sexism to say that men can never beat women. Following that logic, any story where women don’t come out on top is sexist.

Me: No, that’s not what I’m saying. If you were writing an original story where your male protagonist triumphed over and subsequently rescued a female antagonist whom he nonetheless respected, that would be one thing. But when you take an existing, much-beloved story where the female antagonist not only wins, but is vaunted by the male protagonist for doing so – where this is, in fact, the primary basis for his admiring her – and change it so that things end up the other way around, then yes, I’m going to call that sexist.

ISM: (Angry) So you’re saying I wrote Adler the way I did because I’m a sexist? That wanting to write a fresh interpretation had nothing to do with it, and all I really wanted to do was put her down as a character?

Me: (Frustrated) No! What I’m saying is that you elected to make Sherlock look really badass by having him first defeat and then rescue an intelligent Irene Adler, but without appreciating the fact that making male characters stronger at the expense of their female counterparts is one of the oldest, most sexist tropes in the book. Using the trope unconsciously doesn’t make you a sexist: but it doesn’t strop the trope from being sexist, and if you refuse to acknowledge that some narrative conventions are founded on sexism, then you will invariably include sexism in your work.

ISM: So men being cooler than women is sexist?

Me: No, not just being cooler than. Being cooler at the expense of. Can you see that there’s a distinction?

ISM: (Pauses) Hypothetically, yes, but I don’t see how that applies in the case of Adler.

Me: Sherlock is made to look cool and competent because Adler’s feelings for him prove her undoing. That’s coolness for him at her expense: she loses her professionalism – the phone being “Sherlocked” – while he gains credibility for spotting the error. Then she has to beg him for protection: she loses her dignity so that he, in refusing her, can gain mastery. Finally, she loses her competence – the ability to get herself out of trouble – while he gains power for rescuing her.

ISM: But now we’re just back again to this tired idea of sexism meaning any story where women lose to men.

Me: No, we’re not. Because as an existing character being reinterpreted, Adler is quite literally loosing her essence. In Conan Doyle’s original, she has professionalism, dignity and power, and the story ends with her in possession of all three. But in your version, Sherlock strips these qualities from her to enhance himself, and for no other reason than that you wrote him that way.

ISM: (Uncomfortable) All right. I can see how people might be… I can see why some people might not like that ending, though I know a lot of them have. But the story is about Sherlock, after all – it’s his show, it’s his party. Why shouldn’t he be the best character?

Me: Imaginary Mr Moffat, if you think that losing once to an exceptional woman is enough to stop Sherlock Holmes from being the best character in his own show, then we really do have a problem.

ISM: (Silence)

Me: The fact is, you have a habit of depowering your female characters to make your male protagonists look stronger. That doesn’t mean your women are badly written, or that your male characters are sexist, or that you are. It means that, somewhere along the line, you’ve unconsciously absorbed two very old and very powerful narrative ideas: that a protagonist who routinely proves himself better than the other characters is a strong protagonist; and that an exceptional man can be made even cooler by his rescue of an exceptional woman. And because we live in a society that’s still overrun with sexism, you’ve also taken on board the idea that it’s acceptable to make jokes about women’s bodies.

ISM: I think you’re going too far, now. I’ve conceded the point about Irene Adler, but now you’re grasping at straws. Where did all this appearance stuff come into it?

Me: Molly Hooper. Sherlock is constantly criticising her make-up, her clothes, her appearance, her sexuality. Twice, he makes her cry. He even criticizes her weight, making it a negative thing that being with her new boyfriend has caused her to get heavier, when in Conan Doyle’s books, that same exchange was a friendly one between Holmes and Watson, with the weight-gain being part of a cheerful, positive assessment of how marriage agreed with John. In Doctor Who, too, when Mels regenerates into River, the first thing she does is start talking about her body, what clothes will fit and how she needs to weigh herself. For an entire season, Amy is reduced to being a womb in a box – the Doctor even destroys the ‘ganger that took her place, because she’s not “real”, even though he’d just spent the whole episode telling people that ‘gangers deserved human rights – and then later, you let Old Amy die in favour of saving her younger counterpart, even though Old Amy has been suffering for forty years. In both cases, a copy of Amy dies because her body is wrong – she’s not the real, young Amy, and so she can cease to exist with impunity.

ISM: This is a separate point, though, to the one you were making before.

Me: Separate, but related to why critics think there are sexist themes running through both interpretations.

ISM: I don’t see it. You’re taking all these scenes out of context. This isn’t about plot, and it’s not about changing an existing character. Molly, Amy and River are my creations. You’ve gone completely off-message.

Me: OK, I’ll admit to having jumped around a bit. My apologies for that. But I’d like to run with another hypothetical.

ISM: Do I have a choice?

Me: Not really.

ISM: (Muttering) My Imaginary Agent is so fired, I can’t even.

Me: Right. So imagine I’m the writer and creator of a TV show called The Last Amazon – it’s about Hippolyte, the Amazon Queen from Greek legend, being an immortal, kickass warrior who’s lived through to the present day and has now teamed up with a team of geeky sidekicks to fight the forces of mythological darkness.

ISM: If you say so.

Me: Now, this is mostly an SFF show, but with mystery elements. Sure, there’ll be flashes of romance and sexual tension from time to time, but mainly it’s about magic mixing with technology, solving crimes and having crazy adventures.

ISM: Right.

Me: Apart from Hippolyte, most of the geeky sidekicks are women. There’s one or two men involved, but in almost every encounter with the female characters, they either suffer hilarious put downs or are told to shut up. One of them has a massive crush on Hippolyte, but she’s a kickass Amazon warrior – she either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, and makes hurtful jokes at his expense, which is played for laughs. The female camaraderie is the real emotional heart of the show: ladies looking out for each other, being awesome, and only really dealing with men on the sidelines. In fact, men are mostly encountered as victims: handsome surfer youths who’ve been drowned by Sirens, loving fathers who’ve been ripped apart by Harpies, little boys who’ve been kidnapped by Neriads, wise old men who are callously killed by the descendants of Circe. Sometimes women die, too, but those deaths are always more perfunctory, less brutal and less emotionally intense than those of men. Most killers are, by contrast, women: goddesses and girl-monsters all, and there’s a general sense that, by taking them on, the female protagonists are fighting the worst aspects of their own gender: protecting the less powerful men from the predations of cruel, murderous women.

ISM: Very subtle.

Me: And yet, the reverse dynamic is the sacred foundation of almost every crime procedural, ever. Except for the put-downs part. That’s just for your benefit.

ISM: Touché.

Me: Anyway. You’re watching this show because hey, Greek mythology is awesome! And you really start to get into it. But then you notice the fact that the women are always putting down the men. You notice that, while the female costumes are cut concealingly, to make them look well-dressed and competent, the pretty young men are always shown shirtless or wearing revealing clothes – and that’s offputting, because it’s ultimately unnecessary. You notice that the men, though clearly doing important work in the background, are never given due appreciation by the other characters. You notice that time and again, they’re the ones imperilled and threatened; they’re the weak link the villains always seek to exploit. You notice that the men are always ruled by their emotions, falling in love with the women at first sight, their romantic epiphanies made grandiose while the women are allowed to remain aloof. You notice that the women often make jokes about how the men look – about their weight, and their hair, and their attractiveness, their probable penis size and how good they are in bed; sometimes they’re even shown to call their male partners the wrong name, which is played for laughs. You notice that, given a bunch of new characters to protect in a perilous situation, it’s always the men who end up dying for dramatic effect. You notice that, while the female characters are given room to develop in lots of different ways, the men are primarily defined by their sexuality: as lovers, adulterers, boyfriends, husbands and fathers, but rarely anything else. And when Hercules, Hippolyte’s historical love interest, shows up on the scene, you’re dismayed to find that, far from being the competent warrior who won her love and then left her, as per the old story, he instead shows up as a high-class escort – one who claims to be gay, but then falls for Hippolyte anyway – while she then humiliates and rescues him in short order.

ISM: Like I said. Subtle. And long-winded.

Me: I’ll get to the point, then. Having watched The Last Amazon, you, as a male viewer, start to feel that I, the female creator, might be a bit of a misandrist. Certainly, there are elements of misandry in my characterisation, or of sexism at the very least. You cannot find any male characters who come out on top, and while you still appreciate that this is meant to be Hippolyte’s show, you don’t see why there can’t be more of a balance where the portrayal of men is concerned. You’re not the only one to have noticed the problems, either. You write about them, detailing your complaints in blogs and newspaper articles. And then I respond, because I’m angry at your criticism. I say that I’m not a sexist; that I find it offensive that anyone would use the word misandry to describe what I do, because obviously I believe women and men are equal – and after all, I’m married! I say your claim is ridiculous, and don’t address your specific concerns beyond saying that you’re out of line. I am not a sexist, I protest; therefore, my show isn’t sexist. End of discussion. So how would that leave you feeling?

ISM: I’d be angry. Frustrated. At the very least, I’d start to think that, if you really disliked sexism, then you’d want to make very sure that you weren’t perpetuating it by accident, rather than just assuming it was impossible. That you were reacting defensively, automatically, without any sort of self-assessment at all. The unfairness of it would nag at me until one day, having had various arguments with you in my head about what you were doing wrong, I realised that we’d never be able to have a proper conversation, and so decided to write down an interview with Imaginary Foz Meadows about all the misandry and sexism in The Last Amazon. Because even an imaginary dialogue would be better than your angry, non-response to the legitimate complaints of fans who are sick of seeing their gender slighted and demonised in the media.

Me: And?

ISM: Oh.

Me: Imaginary Steven Moffat, thanks for joining me.

ISM: It’s been a pleasure.

Tomorrow, Toby and I start moving into our new apartment. The preparations necessary to facilitate this happy event have made this quite a big week, but we are both extremely excited. Not only will we have our own space again, but after nearly eight months of separation, we will be reunited with our cats. Huzzah!

In celebration, therefore, here are a few new Solace-related links:

– Two reviews, one by Australian Speculative Fiction in Focus, and another by Donna, a teenage reader;

– A redux of the Sydney launch I somehow missed the first time around, courtesy of Kat at BookThingo, which wins bonus points for featuring actual photographic evidence of my encounter with Scott Westerfeld;

– A detailed interview with the wonderful Tania McCartney; and

– A pair of blogging appearances: one with Fragments of Life, wherein I expostulate on writing advice, and the other with William Kostakis, on the joys of being published.

Also, as of this moment, Solace & Grief has now been available for just over a month. Which staggers me, in a thrillish sort of way. Happy Thursday, everyone! Whee!

Just a quick update on mentions of Solace & Grief throughout teh internets.

1. I was recently interviewed by the lovely Callie Martin of Readings, St Kilda.

2. The illustrious Kat of BookThingo has posted a review, plus a signed book giveaway.

3. Another review, courtesy of The Reading Stack.

4. With Extra Pulp has written a write-up of the recent Sydney launch.

That is all. But, yay!

Some more internet mentions this week, which is exciting! Danielle over at Reading Watching Living conducted this wonderful interview, while Katie over at Sophistikatied Reviews has done me the honour of a Waiting on Wednesday post prior to the appearance of the guest blog I’ve written for her, so watch this space!

I have also – and the sheer thought of it fills me with a gleeful, tingling sensation – come face to face with my first ever book review, courtesy of Kate O’Donnell. Alas, there is no specific link to which I can direct you, as it was with Bookseller and Publisher magazine – a hardcopy publication, despite their website – who also interviewed me in the same edition. I can’t give you the whole review, but I can say that Solace & Grief was described as “a clever and funny supernatural romp, with a chilling underside to it…a smart and appealing read for the ‘Vampire Academy’ crowd.”

Which, you know. GLEE!