Posts Tagged ‘Literary’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– while Fifty Shades of Grey contains prose like this:

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

Which brings me to this little gem:

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

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

But being dull—a perception that, admittedly, is totally subjective—isn’t the true crime of Franzen’s craft. It’s his stilted, erotic fan fiction-esque descriptions of sex, descriptions that imply that he doesn’t really understand how sex works or what feels good, particularly for women—as well as his continued deployment of sexual metaphors that should condemn him to life in Literary Sex Jail.

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

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

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

Oh god, MY EYES.

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

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

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

How, then, does fanfiction compare?

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

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

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

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

Inconceivable, by jaegermighty

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

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

“I don’t know,” Cas says. “I don’t know.”

“Why didn’t you ever-”

“Why didn’t you?”

okay, cupid, by orange_crushed

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

It doesn’t stop. He can’t stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some nights, I wish you’d kill me

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

There’s more dignity in that

Than in being

Your love interest

Recycled Hymns, by taylorpotato

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

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

apocrypha, by orange_crushed

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

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

“Are you reading a book about crabs?” Derek asks, in a tone, Stiles feels, of unnecessary judgement.

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

“I’m learning a lot, dude. Did you know that there’s an actual word in science for the tendency of nature to try and evolve a crab?” He brandishes the book like a missionary tract. “Like, crabs are such a good design concept that different branches of the evolutionary tree are constantly going ‘hey, fuck it, let’s make a crab.’ There are like four totally unrelated species that independently arrived at crabbiness.”

“How embarrassing for them,” says Derek. “Like they showed up at the party wearing the same outfit.”

Stiles shoots him a shit-eating grin. “I thought you’d be personally interested, since you’re clearly a member of a new fifth species.”

Don’t Worry Baby, by kalpurna

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

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

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

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

Even angels.

North Hell, by sysrae

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

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

You’re insulting fanfic.

And frankly, it deserves better.

Recently, there was something of a furor at Strange Horizons over the publication of Liz Bourke’s scathing review of Michael J. Sullivan’s Theft of Swords.The comment thread exploded: for every respondent who liked the piece, there were three more lambasting it as being unprofessional, arrogant, vitriolic, and “in the style of a schoolyard bully”. Now, I’ve not read Theft of Swords, and based on Bourke’s review – which I found to be neither unreasonable nor poorly-argued, but humorously written and to the point – I have no plans to do so. Doubtless those who love the book will find this outcome a travesty, just as others will be in agreement. At this point, further arguments concerning the book itself don’t interest me: what does, however, is the slap-startled reaction of readers to the idea that a well-known SFF review site might, on occasion, choose to publish negative reviews.

On the surface, this shouldn’t be shocking. As was recently pointed out in this excellent piece by Veronica Roth, reviews are meant for readers, not writers. Speaking as an author: yes, it’s lovely to get a good one, while a sour piece can completely ruin your day, but the point of criticism is not to make the writer – or, just as importantly in this instance, the writer’s fans – feel good. True criticism is a means of discussing the merits, failings and themes of a work unchecked by any conscious reference to whether or not that discussion will benefit the work. That doesn’t mean reviews aren’t important to a book’s success – they are – but helping books succeed is not their primary function; nor should it be. And yet, as demonstrated  not only by the response to Bourke’s reviews, but by the necessity of Roth’s piece – which was a timely response the string of recent YA author/reviewer incidents – large numbers of the SFF community seem to be struggling with the fairly basic premise, inherent to the very notion of criticism, that no one is under any obligation to be nice.

Can I take a moment to express my thorough dislike of the word nice? It’s such an insincere, simpering, placatory term, like an ambling jaywalker flapping their hands at traffic. Nice is how you describe an acquaintance you don’t know well enough to call kind or likable; places whose primary virtue is inoffensiveness are nice;  we tell children to play nice before they’re big enough to understand words like consideration and empathy, so that asking other adults to be nice is about as condescendingly ineffectual as telling them to write their names on their shoes. I start to hear the Witch from Into the Woods in my head, as she sneeringly sings at the dithering cast, ‘You’re so nice. You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.Because niceness sets my teeth on edge. It’s a placeholder term for everything we’re too polite, busy or disinterested to say properly, and it grates on me when people talk about being nice as though it’s a dogdamn* aspirational state. Kindness is worth aspiring to, but niceness is only the semblance of something more meaningful.

Anyway.

I started wondering, why are so many SFF/YA fans adverse to bad reviews? Why is negative guff on Goodreads upsetting so many people, and why, more particularly, are these incidents almost exclusively sparked by SFF/YA material? Hardly a month goes by that some blog or other doesn’t feature a list of great literary put-downs, famously scathing reviews or ill-conceived rejections, so why is our particular section of the internet so loathe to join in the fun? Admittedly, most of those are historical anecdotes rather than hot news, but the fact remains that I’m yet to see a stoush like this surrounding the criticism of a mainstream, literary work.

And then it hit me: the mainstream is the problem. Or rather, the fact that even now, despite the tremendous popularity and success of various young adult, fantasy and science fiction properties, the literary establishment still tends to sneer at genre. All too often, we see the publication of articles on YA literature written by people who either misunderstand or actively dislike it as a genre; the incomprehensible review of fantasy books by journalists with no interest in fantasy; the exclusion of breathtaking SFF works from major award lists because they’ve been deemed too low-brow; the slighting of adults who read YA; imprecations and warnings about inappropriate themes for teens; the demonisation of escapism. In short, the SFF/YA readership – with good reason – still sees literary criticism as the vehicle through which their passions, beliefs and creative outpourings are othered. We have so long been subject to external criticism that we don’t know how to react to internal criticism, because whereas the most enduring, positive and sensible response to the former is a united front – you shall not divide us, here we stand – responding to the latter is an entirely different ballgame.

This is my fear: that as a community, we don’t know how to critique ourselves, and that this is doing us damage. Criticism, and specifically the criticism of both literary publications and the mainstream press, has so long been the weapon of the enemy that our first response on seeing it wielded internally is to call it the work of traitors. We have found strength in the creation of our own conventions and the hallowing of our own legends, flourishing to such an extent that, even if we are not yet accepted into the mainstream literary establishment, we are nonetheless part of the cultural mainstream. We are written about inaccurately, yet we are written about; and if there ever was a time when the whole genre seemed a precarious, faddish endeavour, then that time is surely past.

Like Tyrion Lannister, we have taken the things for which others sought to mock us – magic, dragons, elves, dwarves, wizards, kings, quests – and made them our strongest armour. We have proved we are not ashamed, because there is nothing in what we love to shame us. And yet, this success has come at a cost. By choosing to present a united front, we have forcibly ignored internal dissent. By armouring ourselves in tropes, we have bred homogeneity in their expression. By refusing to be criticised for what we are, we have started ignoring criticism of what we’ve done. And now that we are a force to be reckoned with, we are using that force to suppress our own diversity. It’s understandable – but it’s not acceptable.

In the past few years, more and more passionate debates about the nature of SFF and YA have bubbled to the surface. Conversations about race, imperialism, gender, sexuality, romance, bias, originality, feminism and cultural appropriation are getting louder and louder and, consequently, harder to ignore. Similarly, this current tension about negative reviews is just another fissure in the same bedrock: the consequence of built-up pressure beneath. Literary authors feud with each other, and famously; yet genre authors do not, because we fear being cast as turncoats. For decades, literary writers have also worked publicly as literary reviewers; yet SFF and YA authors fear to do the same, lest it be seen as backstabbing when they dislike a book. (Small wonder, then, that so few SFF and YA titles are reviewed by mainstream journals.) Just as a culture of sexual repression leads to feelings of guilt and outbursts of sexual moralising by those most afflicted, so have we, by denying and decrying all criticism that doesn’t suit our purposes, turned those selfsame critical impulses towards censorship.

And against whom is this censorship directed? By way of answer, think back to the big subcultural debates of 2011 – debates about how gritty fantasy isn’t really fantasy; how epic fantasy written from the female gaze isn’t really fantasy; how women should stop complaining about sexism in comics because clearly, they just hate comics; how trying to incorporate non-Eurocentric settings into fantasy is just political correctness gone wrong and a betrayal of the genre’s origins; how anyone who finds the portrayal of women and relationships in YA novels problematic really just wants to hate on the choices of female authors and readers;  how aspiring authors and bloggers shouldn’t post negative reviews online, because it could hurt their careers; how there’s no homophobia in publishing houses, so the lack of gay YA protagonists can only be because the manuscripts that feature them are bad; how there’s nothing problematic about lots of pretty dead girls on YA covers; how there’s nothing wrong with SF getting called ‘dystopia’ when it’s marketed to teenage girls, because girls don’t read SF. Most these issues relate to fear of change in the genre, and to deeper social problems like sexism and racism; but they are also about criticism, and the freedom of readers, bloggers and authors alike to critique SFF and YA novels without a backlash that declares them heretical for doing so.

It’s not enough any more to tiptoe around the issues that matter, refusing to name the works we think are problematic for fear of being ostracized. We need to get over this crushing obsession with niceness – that all fans must act nicely, that all authors must be nice to each other, that everyone must be nice about everything even when it goes against our principles – because it’s not helping us grow, or be taken seriously, or do anything other than throw a series of floral bedspreads over each new room-hogging elephant.

We, all of us, need to get critical.

*Not a typo. As an atheist, I’m sick of swearing by a deity I don’t believe exists, but also want to stick within the bounds of familiar expression. Thus, I’ve started substituting dog for god, for three reasons: one, it’s god spelled backwards; two, it sounds similar; and three, I don’t have faith in a supreme being, but I most certainly do believe in Dachshunds.

Musing on ebook piracy and free downloads yesterday at Alan Baxter’s blog, I made a passing comparison between the digital distribution of books, whether legally or illegally, and the sale of second-hand hardcopies. In both instances, neither author nor publisher makes money on the transaction, but whereas the former practice is almost invariably viewed as foolhardiness where legal and theft where not, the latter is viewed as a benevolent, even positive, parallel economy – and the more I think about this distinction,  the more arbitrary it seems. If publishers and authors are concerned about losing revenue to piracy  – that is to say, to the free transmission of their products and to reduced-price sales made by unrelated third parties in a digital context – then surely the natural system with which to draw comparisons is the physical second-hand market? Throw in data regarding library usage and loans between friends, and you’re basically looking at the real-world equivalent of the digital DL ecosystem, viz: instances in which a single first-hand copy is read by multiple people, only one of whom pays money to the publisher.

This being so, if the mass availability of free or cut-price digital books is causing authors and publishers to lose out on revenue, then you’d expect that the combined presence of friendly loans, libraries and the second-hand market would be seen as having an identical (or at least similar) effect. After all, humans are quite a mercenary species: if we can have something cheaper or for free, then why would we pay full price? Or, put another way: if I can buy all my books second-hand, grab them at the library or borrow them from my friends, then why would I ever pay full price for the same product? Why would anyone?And yet the indisputable fact is that people – and I’d even go so far as to say a majority of people – do.

Here’s an important question: how did you first discover your favourite authors? Did you stumble on them by accident, or pick them up cold in the bookshop? Did you read a good review and decide to check them out? Did a friend spruik their work or lend you a copy? Did you see their opus discounted or for second-hand sale and give them a try? Did you find them at the library? Did you follow their blog or Twitter and decide to read their books? Take a long, hard moment to think about it, because unless my own experiences are very much anomalous, the chances are that the first time you read a new author’s work, you didn’t pay full price for it. In fact, you may not even have paid at all. Going through my own bookshelves, I can vouch for the fact that almost every single author whose work I now collect or have ever bought religiously – Kate Elliott, Katharine Kerr, Terry Pratchett, Tamora Pierce, Robin Hobb, Sara Douglass, Anne McCaffrey, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Richelle Mead,  Naomi Novik, Libba Bray and George R. R. Martin, to name but a few – first entered my awareness through free, loaned, library or second-hand copies. Douglass, Bray and Pierce all came from libraries; I bought second-hand editions of their early works, then expanded to buying first-hand when I could afford it. Elliott, Kerr, Pratchett, Hobb, Martin and Novik all started as second-handers. Stephenson was a loaned to me – in fact, I’m currently reading a friend’s copy of Anathem – while I won my first Mead book in a contest. My first McCaffrey was a gift, and followed by much second-handing before I ever bought her works new.

But Gaiman is arguably the most interesting test case, not only because of his favourable stance on piracy and free books, but because his is the instance that links us back to the digital world. Because when I turned eighteen, a friend’s birthday gift to me was a CD containing an illegal, ripped version of the complete Sandman, which I read voraciously and loved in my first year of college. As a direct result of this, not only do I now own all of Gaiman’s novels, but whereas the pirate CD has long since vanished down the back of a couch, I have since acquired the complete Sandman in brilliant, first-hand hardcopy – the same way that I’ve bought or been given all his other books.

So why, in all these instances, did I switch to paying full price? There were – and are – a number of reasons. Some, as you might expect, are mercenary when taken in isolation: for instance, though it was easy to find older books second-hand, it was simply more expedient to buy later volumes new than wait for used copies to hit the market. Aesthetically, too, a new copy tends be better looking and sturdier than a second-hand equivalent, and, in the case of Sandman, preferable in terms of both quality and physicality to a digital rip. But those are all pragmatic concerns: what changed  – what mattered – is that I loved the stories, and therefore wanted the best possible copies as quickly as possible. I wanted to support the authors, because I wanted them to keep writing, and because there was no longer any question that their books might not be worth the money.

But wait! I hear you cry. That doesn’t apply to the digital realm at all! Is there really so much of a difference between a ripped PDF and an official ebook that readers would pay for a better edition? If the accessibility problem is the same – if it’s a choice between clicking one button for free, and one to pay, for essentially the same product – then what advantage does a first-hand copy have? 

To which I say:

Firstly, if there’s no difference between a ripped PDF and an official ebook, then possibly there should be. The onus is on publishers to make their product unique – to reward digital first-hand purchasers with pretty content the same way that gorgeous hardcopies do. What about the addition of features that only work on one or a limited number of devices, so that a ripped version would be less special than an original? What about ease of use, where legitimate acquisitions are easier to make – and certainly available more quickly – than their illegal equivalents? What about digital bundling with hardcopy editions? These are all considerations that the industry is actively investigating, and while there will always be people who don’t care or can’t afford the full price – just as there are people who aren’t fussed about the condition of second-hand copies or can’t afford new books – it seems alarmist and inaccurate to suggest that there’s no meaningful difference between official ebooks and rips.

Secondly: believe it or not, the internet has not suddenly caused the entire world to turn into bastards. As I said in the Baxter piece, some of us – a lot of us, in fact – are more than willing to balance out our free or reduced-price consumption of things by paying to support the content we like. If the only conceivable advantage of a paid-for book was that it generated revenue and thereby allowed the author to keep writing, that would be reason enough for most of us. The webcomics arena, for instance, provides innumerable examples of this, and while I’m not so naive as to start touting the generosity, altruism and selflessness of humankind as proof positive that such a system should work flawlessly, I’d humbly suggest that any author who thinks that the majority of their readership is made up of selfish, thieving assholes should probably stop to wonder why they ever thought such people would give them money in the first place. As radical and terrifying a thought as it may seem, authors have to trust that most of their readers are actually decent human beings, at least where books are concerned, because the alternative is to start thinking the worst of the people you want to support you – and that way lies madness.

And thirdly, because it bears repeating: ebooks are not replacing hardcopies. What they represent is an increase in the number of ways that people can access stories, and while ereaders and their ilk are definitely still a new arena, that doesn’t mean the problem of free content – or, more specifically, of multiple readers accessing a story that has only been paid for once – is exclusively a digital problem. Digital music didn’t kill radio, and it certainly didn’t kill the industry; neither DVDs nor VHS before it have ever come close to threatening movies, nor has online streaming overly dented Hollywood; similarly, home recording, Tivo and boxed sets haven’t changed the balance of free vs paid TV. And if libraries didn’t kill bookshops, then I have a hard time believing that ebooks will either destroy publishing as we know it or replace hardcopies, because if there’s two things human beings – and, by extension, the market – like, it’s variety and complementary systems.

Returning to the concept that the provision of free content ultimately leads to more sales, consider how the internet has changed the way we read. I buy books now, not just because they appeal to me, but because I read the authors’ blogs or Twitter and think they have something interesting to say; because innumerable  book blogs and sites like Goodreads get readers invested in the ideas behind new releases while holding contests for the distribution of free early copies and ARCs that are no longer the sole purview of professional reviewers or one-off promotions in dead tree media; because there are free short stories, character bios, Easter eggs, wallpapers, maps and worldbuilding data available online, all designed to draw the reader deeper into the world. All of which is another way of saying: we rarely buy books cold any more (assuming we ever did). Bookstores and libraries are no longer our only – or even our main – source of information on upcoming releases, new authors, related titles and literary events; and that means that when we finally do front up to a first-hand store, whether virtual or physical, there’s a much greater chance that we’ll already know what we actually want – because somehow, somewhere, we have already been provided with free content.

Ultimately, I feel that the debate about ebook piracy has been stymied by the same sort of fearmongering that usually  characterises debates about welfare cheats. Yes, some people will always abuse the system, and it’s only right that we have mechanisms in place to deal with them. But simplifying the whole issue as one of lazy, selfish thieves taking advantage of the charity and resources of better people is always going to be deeply problematic, because of the extent to which it hinges on notions of deservedness. By which I mean: books are technically a luxury item, non-essential to daily living while simultaneously constituting an irrevocable, significant and active portion of our popular culture; but literacy is essential, and books are a big part of that. This is why so many government programs are obsessed with making sure children, and particularly disadvantaged children, have access to books – because of all the positive links between fostering a love of reading early on and later educational success. And yet, when it comes to the legitimate reasons why many people pirate ebooks, or rely heavily on libraries, or only buy second-hand – that is to say, because of reasons of disability, disadvantage, poverty and accessibility – we have a tendency to assume the worst of them, as we so often do of people (the same people?) who live on welfare: that they should be grateful for what they have, and that they are stealing from us by aspiring to possession of things whose full cost they haven’t personally paid, and therefore don’t deserve.

It’s true of every necessity – food, shelter, medicine, education, childcare – that there will always some people who can’t afford them. The solution in these instances is not to throw up our hands and say that if everything were free, the system would break, and that such people must therefore fend for themselves; rather, it’s to expect that those who can pay, do – through taxation, through donation, through the support of relevant economies – so that those who genuinely can’t don’t have to. And this might seem like a radical, even socialist notion (egads! hide!), but I genuinely do believe that books are an educational, a social, a cultural necessity, and that if the primary upshot of ebook piracy is to get more people reading – by providing books to people who can’t afford or access them otherwise; by introducing new authors to people who would otherwise restrict their reading out of uncertainty; by granting greater access to the books we already own but can’t buy in legal digital form because of region restrictions – then, as with the example of welfare, I’m quite willing to risk that the 10% of cheating, thieving assholes go unpunished in order that the other 90% actually get to read.

But maybe that’s just me.

The year is 1991; the setting, my kindergarten classroom. I am not quite five years old, and if this isn’t my very first day of school (memory being understandably hazy about such things) it’s certainly sometime in my first two weeks. Our young class has spent the morning seated on the floor, and now our teacher, Mrs Pallier, tells us all to stand up and find a desk. There is no seating plan; the ‘desks’ are actually conglomerates made of four or so smaller tables, big enough to seat about eight students each. Despite our newness, groups of friends have already started to form – one such being the cadre of boys who, by Year 6, will have become the male half of the popular crew. They pick a desk and sit down together. I don’t have a group yet; the boys, though, are interesting, and there’s a spare seat at their table. I go to take it, but no sooner have I sat down than they all leap up again, yelling about the undesirability of girls, and run to colonise the next desk down. This leaves me with a choice: either I can stay where I am, feeling hurt but pretending I really did want this particular chair, or I can follow them and see what happens. Desks are starting to fill up, after all – they have to sit somewhere. More importantly, though, I’ve discovered a secret power: I can make the boys run, and even though I really did want to join them, thinking of it as a game – one where I’m in charge, the chaser – is easier, less hurtful, than staying still and accepting their rebuff. And so I get back up, and follow them again.

What happened next is hazy. I couldn’t say whether I won or not, if I claimed a seat at their table or ended up somewhere else. But I remember the choice, and the thoughts preceding it, with clarity.

I mention this because there’s been some recent discussion about the perception of women SF writers within the industry generally and their relationship with feminism in particular, and when it comes to the assertion that such authors are given less credence, less prominence and less publicity than their male counterparts – when I am presented with the image of women writers chasing after acceptance in a male-dominated area – the first thing that always springs to mind, or rather the first memory, is the image of a table of five-year-old boys in shrieking fear of Girl Germs. It’s not just this debate, either: earlier this year, there were questions asked about the feminisation of epic fantasy, and more recently VS Naipaul has asserted that women writers are “unequal” to him. Unclenching one’s teeth sufficiently to talk about this latter case, there’s something interesting to unpick in Naipaul’s claim that:

“I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not.” 

It’s an argument I’ve encountered elsewhere: that women just write differently to men, that everything from their subject matter to their sentence structure and word choice sets them apart. It’s a breathtakingly flawed assertion, and yet so fiendishly simple that, like most such lies, it is easily believed, repeated and socially countenanced. Ignoring the fact that this is an unquantifiable, personal claim hinging entirely on anecdotal evidence, how often do we read anything without seeing a name attached? Almost never, would be my guess – unless, of course, you’re someone in charge of vetting anonymous submissions to an academic publication, which is by no means irrelevant to the topic at hand. Surely, if Naipaul is correct, the flaws which distinguish women’s writing and ideas from those of men will be present in any type of writing, and not just works of fiction? If so, wouldn’t the publication records of academic journals with a policy of anonymous submissions – or better yet, journals which had recently switched from named submissions to anonymous submissions – be the perfect venue to test the theory? What about studies assessing the difference a male or female name makes to the reception of a single piece of writing?

As it happens, such data and studies do exist – bur rather than confirming Naipaul’s assertion, what they show is that switching to anonymous submissions increases the number of female-authored articles accepted for publication in academic circles. Take a moment to appreciate the significance of that finding. By removing a writer’s name – and, by extension, their gender – from the equation, more women are being published. This is all that changes. For obvious reasons, blind submissions will not translate as a solution to the bias in literary circles and awards: books are published with names on the cover, and even in the case of novels we’ve not yet read, there’s still a strong chance that we’ll know who the author is. But when, for instance, Gwyneth Jones expresses a wish to have used a male pseudonym for her earlier feminist works in order to have bettered their success, rather than criticise this as a betrayal of the sisterhood, we could perhaps extrapolate that the same biases which afflict academia are just as omnipresent in the fiction/SFF world, and that wanting to avoid their ill-effects is entirely understandable.

In the same Women’s Hour segment where she expressed that opinion, Jones went on to say:

“If you’re a feminist, it’s much better to be a man, with the science fiction public.”

It’s an inflammatory suggestion, but one which seems all too sadly in keeping with the bias against women. Reading through the reactions of Jones, Timmi Duchamp and Cheryl Morgan to the Women’s Hour interview, much of what’s being discussed is the idea that the US and the UK have different notions of feminism; or that writers from these countries do; or that these particular writers do; or some combination thereof. As a recently expatriated Australian, I don’t know enough about the differences in feminist practice on either side of the pond to contribute to that debate. What I take away from this particular conversation, however, is the fear that simply being a woman SF writer, regardless of the actual content of one’s books, is enough to see those works branded as feminist by readers who have no interest in feminism – a misapprehension which ineluctably forces the writer to argue that their gender ought not stand in the way of their writing. Thus, the author is forced to speak out as a feminist – thereby reinforcing the perception of their works as feminist writings – only because this was already assumed to be a foregone conclusion. And so we go round, and round again, until it’s easier just to pretend to be male feminist, the way George Sand once did, than to confess to being a female one.

What a squeamish irony that is: that even feminism is more palatable when espoused by male advocates! Presumably, this is because women, as the movement’s primary beneficiaries, are seen to have more of a personal agenda in putting it forwards; whereas men, who are casually assumed to gain nothing from its success, and are vindictively assumed to lose everything, are seen to be more objective. If male feminists become passionate in their writing, then it is a rational passion, commendable for its intelligence; but if women feminists do likewise, then they’re guilty of pushing a personal, politically correct agenda, or of being angry, hysterical writers. Obviously that’s a provocative statement. Obviously we want and need male feminists: I am by no means suggesting that the feminism of men is less important, less relevant or less meaningful than the feminism of women. But I can and will criticise those members of the public, be they feminist or unfeminist, male or female, who find feminism to be more palatable when it comes from men; because if you think men are intrinsically more lucid on the subject than women, or think women can’t be trusted to speak dispassionately about it, then you’ve probably missed the point.

Back in 1991, I chased the boys rather than be ignored by them, and some time over the next seven years of primary school, they stopped running and became my friends. Regardless of genre, authors in the fiction world – like children in a playground – have no recourse to anonymity, no ready means of stripping names and faces away, to let our words stand on their own bare merits. Instead, we must take the harder road: to actively consider the principles of equality, to hold ourselves accountable for our own biases, and to continually question whether or not we’ve truly overcome them.