Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

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

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

Here’s why:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trigger warning: some mention of rape

TMI warning: masturbatory themes

In Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Habibi (which is problematic to say the least), there’s a scene where Zam, a preadolescent boy, watches with horror as his female caregiver and sole companion, Dodola, is raped. As Zam and Dodola live alone in the desert – and as, through a strange twist of circumstances, Dodola is less than ten years Zam’s senior – his sexual awakening has thus far consisted of a burgeoning, awkward attraction to Dodola, who is quite literally the only woman he knows. But after he witnesses her rape, he starts to loathe his own sexuality. Because that single, awful, abusive image is Zam’s sole frame of reference for adult sex, it’s what he pictures whenever he tries to imagine himself with Dodola; instinctively, he recoils from it, but without any knowledge of what consensual sex might look like, he draws the conclusion that male desire – his desire – is inherently evil, not only because that’s his sole experience of it, but because that image has invaded his fantasies, turning them into something repugnant. He doesn’t know how to be aroused without linking that arousal to something vile, with the result that he ultimately comes to despise his own sexual identity.

This is both a fictitious and decidedly extreme example of negative sexual reinforcement, but one which nonetheless makes me think about a vastly different, non-fictional account of sexual awakening: that of writer Caitlin Moran in her hilarious, feminist biography, How To Be a Woman. To quote:

Coupled with the pan-sexual, freak-show silliness of Eurotrash – Lolo Ferrari, the woman with the biggest breasts in the world, bouncing on a trampoline; drag queens with dildos and butt plugs; gimps in harnesses; hoovering bored Dutch housewives’ flats – this is the sum total of all the sex I see until I’m 18. Perhaps ten minutes in total – a series of arty, freaky, sometimes brutal vignettes, which I lash together, and use as the basis for my sexual imagination.

Thinking back, my own initial exposure to sex scenes came from a similarly weird melange of sources. Like most Australian teenagers of my generation, I’d memorised the page-number for the bit in John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When The War Began where Ellie and Lee had sex, while my copy of Nicholas Evans’s The Horse Whisperer ended up with several similarly well-thumbed sections. Combined with a 1972 edition of The Joy of Sex I discovered lurking in a forgotten corner of my parents’ bookshelves and the bit in Money Train where Jennifer Lopez sleeps with Wesley Snipes, this constituted the sex-positive end of my masturbatory spectrum. Somewhere in the middle was a volume of archaic erotic bookplates (shut up) that was similarly liberated from obscurity, the sex scenes from Shakespeare in Love and the sometimes-positive-but-usually-problematic-and-occasionally-outright-rapey sex in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books and Sara Douglass’s Axis and Wayfarer Redemption trilogies. At the far end were the disturbing and numerous glimpses of aggressive sexuality, coercion and rape that constituted the bread and butter of my favourite crime shows, plus the aforementioned rape scenes from writers like Douglass and, much later, Terry Goodkind.

In other words, it was a mess, and one which left me with a mental sexual landscape dominated by male  aggression. It took me years to to understand that the dissonance between my private sexual fantasies and what I actually like in real life was, in large part, attributable to the fact that the overwhelming majority of sex scenes I’d encountered in my formative tweens and early teens explicitly situated male dominance as sexy, or at least as the default form of sexual instigation: I hadn’t realised I could fantasise without it. This bugs me less now that I’m an adult and can, up to a point, sort through it all rationally, but as Moran goes on to say in How To Be a Woman, most teenagers now don’t have to rely on strange, half-glimpsed sex scenes in adult books and TV shows: instead, they can just look up porn on the internet – and that’s a bit worrying, because as weird as all those pre-internet sex sources were, at least they involved some mystery and variety, to say nothing of everyday bodies, whereas the online porn industry is rife with institutionalised misogyny, fake boobs, vaginoplasty, airbrushing and contextless, unemotional grunting scripted solely for the male gaze.  And that’s bad for everyone: boys because they assume that’s what girls both want and should look like as a default, and girls because they’re taught to try and emulate sex-scripts and bodies that are anything but natural. (That’s for hetero boys and girls, of course; I can’t speak to the experience of LGBTQ teens browsing porn online, but by and large, and particularly given the wealth of lesbian porn that is in fact produced for straight men, I’m going to assume it’s not much better.)

And nor, by and large, are TV and movies. The fact that there’s more visible sex and nudity in a single episode of just about anything produced by HBO (Deadwood, A Game of Thrones, True Blood) than I managed to glimpse in my whole adolescence cannot help but bring this comic to mind; but more importantly, the current abundance of televised sex is not the same as an abundance of sex-positivity. Almost exclusively white women being grabbed forcefully, raped and abused, or else being coyly and passively coaxed into sex by active hetero menfolk? That, we have aplenty. Women initiating sex, lesbian sex that isn’t written with heterosexual voyeurs in mind, actual gay sex, loving LGBTQ encounters, men being passive in sex, sexiness being tied to something other than male dominance, and interracial or non-white couples having sex? That, we have not so much of, and in some cases none at all. Cinema is infinitely worse than TV in this respect, because television, for all its faults, is much less bounded by that peculiarly hypersexualised-yet-1950’s sense of  what sex sells, or ought to, that so toxically pervades Hollywood. But even so, it’s far from the full and well-rounded spectrum of tastes it ought to be.

Which leaves books: both adult works that teenagers find themselves reading and, more specifically, YA novels. And even though this is a post about the importance of sex-positive sex scenes for people of all orientations and genders, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that literary sex scenes are particularly important for girls, not only because of the staggering number of teenage ladies looking to YA for romance and sexiness in the post-Twilight period, but because when it comes to the representations of sex in other media – porn, TV and movies, to say nothing of magazine ads and sex advice columns – girls are almost universally the ones being grabbed and raped, the ones depicted as passive sex-objects, posed like dolls or lusted after as unattainable conquests. As things stand right now, YA novels are pretty much the only place a teenage old girl can go to find the image of someone like her receiving cunnilingus from a caring, considerate lover, and when you look at it that way, the power of sex scenes in YA novels should instantly become apparent. In a sexual climate where women’s wants and needs are so often painted as secondary to male desire, and where male dominance, instigation and aggression are seen as sexual defaults, any medium where girls can lash together their sexual landscapes from scenes of female desire, mutual respect and non-aggression is made fundamentally radical.

Not, of course, that this always happens: while Twilight, for all its many troubling failures, at least produced a heroine with sexual agency, one who knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to ask for it, some other prominent novels haven’t managed even that much. Others, though, have, and that’s the point – that sex in YA novels can and does do what sex in other media doesn’t, namely: focus on female pleasure, needs and desires. Which is, I suspect, why the merest prospect of it freaks so many people out: because if there’s one set of bodies that puritanical conservatism has always yearned to shame, contain and control, it’s young female bodies. It’s not even a question of how graphic (or not) the sex/sexiness might be, though as with all matters of personal taste, YMMV – it’s a question of who the audience is. And absolutely every time I’ve seen journalists, concerned parents or censorship groups get up in arms about ‘inappropriate’ sexual content in YA novels, it hasn’t seemed irrelevant that the books in question have overwhelmingly been aimed at teenage girls. (Not that gender is ever mentioned as justification for the complaint – heaven forbid!)

And maybe it’s just a consequence of the fact that YA is a genre currently dominated by women writers, women who perhaps grew up with few or no books to read whose heroes were in fact heroines like them – a problem they likely also encountered in TV and movies – and who subsequently have set out to rectify the disparity; and maybe it’s because society carries a tacit but biased expectation that teenage boys are inevitably going to buy magazines like Zoo and FHM and look at boobies on the internet, and are in any case less interested in romance than they are in pure, abstract sex, with the result that there’s less of a perceived market for sexy books for boys, and hence fewer books of that type and minimal objections to the ones that do exist. Or maybe there’s as many sexy books for boys as for girls, and it’s just that people are more freaked out by the latter than the former, perhaps because the raging, overtly romantic teen-girl fandoms outstrip in their sudden visibility the quieter teen-boy fandoms, because caring about stories and fictional couples and queuing for hours to see your favourite literary idols are all acceptable things for girls to do, but which for exactly that reason boys are likely to be stigmatised for doing, even though that sort of sexist double standard is, well, a sexist double standard. But the point, the point, is that whenever I hear someone talking about how it’s wrong to have sex and sexiness in YA novels, what I actually hear is this:

I’m terrified that the first fictional sex a teenage girl encounters might leave her feeling good about herself. I’m terrified that fictional sex might actually make teenage girls think sex can be fun and good, that reading about girls who say no and boys who listen when they say it might give them the confidence to say no, too – or worse still, to realise that boys who don’t listen to ‘no’ aren’t worth it. I’m terrified that YA novels might teach teenage girls the distinction between assault and consensual sex, and give them the courage to speak out about the former while actively seeking the latter. I’m terrified that teenage girls might think seriously about the circumstances under which they might say yes to sex; that they might think about contraception before they need it, and touch themselves in bed at night while fantasising about generous, interesting, beautiful lovers who treat them with consideration and respect. I’m terrified of a generation of teenage girls who aren’t shy or squeamish about asking for cunnilingus when they want it, or about loving more than one person at once, and who don’t feel shame about their arousal. I’m terrified that teenage girls might take control of their sexuality and, in so doing, take that control of them and their bodies away from me.

Which is also why I get so angry whenever I come across negative sexuality in YA novels: books where the brooding hero treats the heroine badly, ignores her when she says no, abuses her trust and feelings and slams her bodily against walls, and where she’s made to feel uncomfortable about and disquieted by her feelings, because not only do such romances fail at sex-positivity, but if that’s your bag, then every other form of pop culture is ready and willing to oblige you.

Sex/y scenes in YA matter because YA novels aren’t contraband. It’s not like sneaking a glance at the late night movie, then frantically switching channels when your parents inevitably walk in during the naked bits, or covertly trying to hide a Mills and Boon under your bed, or having to clear your browser history and check that the door’s locked if you want to look at porn or read slashfic on the internet. You can read YA novels openly – on the bus, at school, at home – and never have to worry that someone’s going to find your behaviour suspicious. Sex/y scenes in YA matter because, by the very nature of belonging to a permitted form of media, they help to disassociate sex from surreptitious secrecy: they make it something open rather than furtive, something that rightfully belongs to you, the reader, because the book was meant for you to read and remember. It doesn’t matter if the scene is detailed or not, if it’s only fiery kisses or much, much more: the point is that you’re allowed to have it, allowed to enjoy it, and that perhaps for the first time in your life, you’re viewing something arousing that doesn’t make you out to be a sex object in heels, but an active, interesting heroine who also happens to have a love life.

To quote one of my favourite ever YA novels, Laini Taylor’s utterly brilliant Daughter of Smoke and Bone:

‘I don’t know many rules to live by,’ he’d said. ‘But here’s one. It’s simple. Don’t put anything unnecessary into yourself. No poisons or chemicals, no fumes or smoke or alcohol, no sharp objects, no inessential needles–drug or tattoo–and… no inessential penises either.’

‘Inessential penises?’ Karou had repeated, delighted with the phrase in spite of her grief. ‘Is there any such thing as an essential one?’

‘When an essential one comes along, you’ll know,’ he’d replied.

No wonder the conservatives are terrified.

Cards on the table: I had never heard of Joel Stein until five minutes ago. Nonetheless, having just read his oh-so-condescending op-ed for the NY Times on why, in his estimation, adults shouldn’t read YA, I feel qualified to make the above assertion.

Why a sexist ass, you ask, instead of just the regular kind? Because certainly, his regular assishness isn’t in doubt. After all, any adult who’ll personally vouch for the suckiness of an activity he refuses to try on the grounds of having intuited said suckiness from afar – much like a toddler declaring his undying hatred for unfamiliar vegetables – is clearly deserving of intellectual mockery. But where in that is the sexism?

By way of answer, allow me to compare Joel’s opening paragraph –

The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.

with his last:

Let’s have the decency to let tween girls have their own little world of vampires and child wizards and games you play when hungry. Let’s not pump Justin Bieber in our Saabs and get engaged at Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland. Because it’s embarrassing. You can’t take an adult seriously when he’s debating you over why Twilight vampires are O.K. with sunlight.

The bolding is mine; take note of it! Because rather than a critique of the content of YA novels, what this piece actually represents is the following assertion: that it’s fundamentally embarrassing for grown men to share any interests whatever with teenage girls. In fact, according to Joel, it is actually more embarrassing for a man to identify with a teen girl via the medium of literature than if he were publicly demeaning and sexualising her via the medium of pornography!

In five paragraphs, the only gender pronouns he uses are in those paragraphs: male to describe the adults who shouldn’t read YA, and female to describe the intended readership of the books to which he’s specifically objecting. Five paragraphs does not a lengthy article make. Certainly, it’s not long enough to enter into a nuanced discussion of why adults read YA (what then, I wonder, does Joel make of the adults who write it? or does he imagine that YA books spring full-fledged from the legs of hipsters, like Athena sprang from Zeus?), the changing face of the genre, or anything approaching an intelligent, reasoned argument.

It is, however, more than long enough to demonstrate his sexist credentials, and the nature of his real fear, which is that men might voluntarily be enjoying stuff written for girls. Oh noes! The horror! What could be worse than adult men identifying with the demographic they’ve historically most oppressed! GENDER EMPATHY IS SCARY AND TERRIBLE AND UNMASCULINE AND PLANES WILL FALL FROM THE SKY.

Those damn tween girls with their Bieber and their Twilights. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting the vote and refusing to act in pornography. The HUSSIES.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Internets, a Thing is bugging me.

Growing up as a tomboy, people were always surprised when, past the age of about ten, I expressed any interest in girly persuits. Aided by the fact that a large number of my friends were boys who had little or no interest in such things to begin with, this lead to mockery, confusion, jokes and/or raised eyebrows whenever I did something like wear a dress or talk about ponies. My reaction was to try and detatch myself from girliness altogether, with varying degrees of success. Even when talking to other girls, I felt I had to be careful. They knew me as a tomboy, and the comforting everydayness of our friendships involved their acknolwdgement of this fact, such that I was counted on, if not expected, to make sarcastic remarks about pretty dresses and my unwillingness to wear them if the others brought it up. In hindsight, I can recognise that this was often a case of the lady protesting too much. I didn’t know how to reconcile my tomboyishness with my femininity, and so attempted – unsuccessfully – to choose between them. It’s taken me years to figure out that I never had to; that there was never a contradiction to begin with. Some days I wear boots and leather and listen to Audioslave, and some days I wear skirts and necklaces and listen to Taylor Swift. It’s all equally me, and I’m cool with that.

The other side of being a tomboy was – is – having more male friends than female, and spending more time with them. This has never meant, however, that I’m always the only girl in a given group of guys, nor that I’m automatically sceptical/resentful of any other girls who might  join in, feminine, tomboy or otherwise, or even that I have no female friends. I do. Girls and guys come in all different flavours. That’s just life.

Which leads me to the Annoying Thing of Annoyance, viz: the sudden preponderence of tough-girl, tomboy urban fantasy heroines who whinge about feminine things like dresses and high heels even as the story forces them to wear both, and always – crucially – under duress. And the villains they face? Are female villains identified as such by their love of pretty clothes, who want to be the only women in their respective roomfuls of men but Who Are Not Real Tomboys Because They Wear Pink And Are Therefore Evil Jezebels,  juxtaposed against the Noble Heroine Who Just Happens To Always Be The Lone Woman Surrounded By Men But Who Wears Pants And Jackets And Is Therefore Trustworthy. What makes me angriest about this trope is the fact that I’ve unconsciously perpetuated it in my own writing – and all because it’s based on a viewpoint that, once upon a time, I shared, and which is still a part of me, despite my efforts towards mental reprogramming.

Listen: I don’t find high heels practical or comfortable, but I still wear them on special occasions out of a desire to dress up. Nobody, not even my mother and not even in childhood, has ever waved a wand, held a gun to my head or otherwise strongarmed me into wearing so much as a scrap of damn clothing that I didn’t want to wear, and I say this as someone who once owned a fluro orange t-shirt and hot magenta overalls that were only ever worn together. I might still feel self-conscious in heels and dresses from time to time, but I also think I look nice like that, and if I ever had guilt about getting dolled up as a teenager, it was because deep down, I was afraid I couldn’t admit to enjoying myself without being laughed at or accused of social apostasy.

So when I read about tough-girl heroines being forced by circumstance to dress up for a party or wear a dress or somesuch and whinging about it non-stop, I get angry. I love me some badass chicks in literature, but I do not want the template for badass chicks to be deeply invested in the Pretty Dresses Are Wrong mindset. And I sure as hell don’t want the most defining characteristic of any and all female villains fought by said badass chicks to be that They Unapologetically Wear Pretty Dresses And Lipstick And Are Basically Evil Hollywood Cheerleaders With Magic.

GAH.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go change my own manuscript so as to appear less like a total hypocrite and more…something less hypocritical.

Damn social programming.