Posts Tagged ‘Nihilism’

A few days ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Stephen Hunter published an essay at the Daily Beast titled, rather provocatively, “If You Want to Write a Book, Write Every Day or Quit Now.” Since then, it’s been doing the rounds on Twitter, and not because of its quality. Hunter’s piece is so laughably bad in every respect that I damn near snorted vomit out of my nose while reading it.

There is, I have found, a distinctive type of faux-eloquent arrogance exhibited by your common or garden Serious Male Writer that endeavours to turn “he said, loftily” into an aspirational dialogue tag instead of, as is actually the case, a dismissively condescending one. Hunter’s piece is a case in point: setting aside the gross inaccuracies of its substance, the style is so deeply invested in celebrating itself that it’s less a case of gilding the lily than (to borrow one of my husband’s favourite phrases) sprinkling a turd with glitter. Presented without Hunter’s caveats and curlicues, the core recommendation – make regular writing part of your routine, because you can’t ever publish a book you don’t finish – is a reasonable one. That Hunter has managed to turn such simple advice into a purple, self-congratulatory screed about the failings of other, lesser beings is, if nothing else, a cautionary example of hubris in action.

He begins:

In a few days or weeks, I’ll start a new novel. I don’t know yet and won’t for years if it’s good, bad, dreary, enchanting, or merely adequate. Moreover, I don’t know if it’ll help or hurt my reputation, make me rich or a fool, or simply pass into oblivion without squeak or moan.

What is certain is that on that same day, whichever one it is, one thousand other people will start their novels. In order to publish mine, it has to be better than theirs. So, forgive me—I pretty much hate them.

I’d be very interested to know where Hunter is getting this figure about a thousand other people from, as he goes on to mention it more than once without ever citing a source. Even so, and regardless of whether his numbers are accurate or a mere illustrative hypothetical plucked from the aether, the following contention – that these other yearling writers are Hunter’s direct competition – is wrong in all respects. The number of people who start writing a book on the same day you do is completely irrelevant. Even if all those other novels ultimately end up finished and submitted to agencies and publishers, you’re only directly competing with each other if you’re submitting to the same venues, at the same time, about the same subject matter.

A writer of adult thrillers is not vying for marketspace with those producing memoirs or YA, but with other authors of adult thrillers – and even then, the outcome is largely contingent on context. If a particular genre is experiencing a boom, as urban fantasy was not long ago, then publishers looking to captialise on a trend are more likely, not less, to sign on multiple works in the same oeuvre, to say nothing of the existence of imprints which, regardless of market trends, are dedicated to specific genres or subgenres. The real competition doesn’t kick in until the book is actually being promoted – by the publisher, by reviewers and booksellers and librarians, by the readership in general – and even then, it’s neither an equal nor a predictable thing. Promotions can fail, viral successes can happen, an author whose first four novels were largely ignored can become a breakout success with their fifth, and so on through endless permutations of chance and context. Solid promotion is always helpful, of course, and there are things both author and publisher can do to maximise a book’s chances, but ultimately, it’s up to the audience.

Which is why Hunter’s opening premise is not only irritating, but deeply unhelpful to those budding writers for whom his essay is presumably intended. Unlike an annual literary award, an audience is not a finite resource, but a thing to be shared and cultivated: the reader who buys a competitor’s book today may well be inspired to buy yours tomorrow, and as such, hating them from the outset is not only pointless, but completely antithetical to the cultivation of professional writing relationships. In my own experience as a published author, other authors are frequently some of your best friends and biggest cheerleaders. We support, critique and learn from each other precisely because we’re writing in the same field, which is also how we come to share recommendations about new books to read. Regardless of whether I’m acting in my capacity as authorial colleague or delighted reader, taking note of which books my favourite writers are praising, criticising or otherwise discussing is a large part of how I stay abreast of the field.

Call me newfangled, but if I’m going to go to the effort of hating someone, it won’t be for merely sharing my ambitions: they have to actually earn it.

But let’s be honest: Of the thousand, 800 won’t cross the infamous Mendoza Line. God love them, God be with them, God show mercy to them, for whatever cruel reason they were not given enough talent or the right mind, or any of a dozen different pathologies to make them capable of writing a publishable book. No amount of labor will alter this reality.

There’s so much wrong with this, I scarcely know where to begin. 800 potential novels lost! Where is he getting these figures? And god, the condescension! If someone desperately wants to be a traditionally published author and finds themselves unable to achieve that goal, then yes, that sucks for them. But I intensely dislike the construction here – especially when “cruel” is paired with “capable” and pleading to the divine – that implies a person is somehow tragic or deficient if they can’t or don’t produce a published work. Many people write foremost for their own pleasure, whether in fannish contexts or otherwise, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

And then there’s the fact that, in dismissing these 800 potential writers, Hunter is apparently convinced that lack of ability is the only reason why, on this particular occasion, they might not succeed. Clearly, he’s aware that it’s possible for even a successful author to abandon a manuscript, given his admission that the same thing has happened to him. (“I know how books die. A few have perished under my saddle, believe me.”) So whence comes the conviction that the hypothetical majority of his hypothetical thousand competitors will drop out of the running, not because they, too, have just so happened to hit a stumbling block, but because they’re pathologically incapable of success? The idea that “no amount of labour” can help such writers is particularly incongruous – not to say disgusting – given that he’s ultimately asserting the value of regular writing and hard work. (But then, as we’ll see shortly, he’s also claiming it should be easy.)

Also – and I feel like this ought to be an obvious point to make – but “publishable book” is not a universally coherent standard, not least because we now live in a time when self-publishing is commonplace. Even so, plenty of books that I would deem unpublishable, were the verdict mine alone to make, have nonetheless been traditionally published, because – unlike the Mendoza Line – there is no single, absolute yardstick against which all potential novels are measured. (Whether Hunter believes there should be is a different matter.) Just as a great deal of comparative rubbish ends up on shelves, so too does a lot of excellent writing never make it that far, and while I’ve also encountered a lot of heinous attempts at narrative in unpublished contexts, I don’t for a red hot minute believe that the majority of bad writers are incapable of improvement. Hunter seems oblivious to the possibility that some among his theoretical thousand might be young writers – my first attempt at a novel was made at 11 – whose talents, like their interests, are far from fixed in stone, but who nonetheless might be grossly dissuaded by advice purporting to tell them otherwise.

Ugh.

So that really leaves but 200 to worry about. They are smarter, more talented, better looking, have better teeth, more hair, better bodies, and in most other respects are simply better. If they were writing this piece instead of me, you would like it a lot more. They are more charming, more beguiling, more charismatic, smell (a lot) better, have more polish and manner. They’re fun to be with! You’d be proud to have them as a friend.

I will beat them all, however, and I will do it on one strength they lack, the poor, good-looking devils.

I will finish and they will not.

The two most important words you can write in any manuscript are “the” and “end.” Somewhere along the line my brilliant competitors mosey off. I’m too dumb to mosey off. They’ll lose faith. I’ll never lose faith; it’s the only faith I’ve got. A new lover will come into their lives; I’m not even on speaking terms with my old (and only) lover. They’ll be distracted by so many other dazzling prospects; I have no other dazzling prospects. Their spouses will begin to grouse over undone errands and abandoned socks on the steps, there’ll be just too much research, they’ll grow depressed, sick of their own voice, unable to get themselves buzzed up enough. Their books will die.

Without wanting to veer too far into the perilous realm of psychological analysis, this entire section is like peering into a well of deep and unresolved personal bitterness. Other people might be handsomer, kinder, more likeable, smarter and generally more desirable than Hunter, but by god, he can write books! Which… good for him, I guess? Like, I’m not about to argue that writing stories isn’t a cool skill to have, but contrary to what he’s saying here, you can actually be an author and an intelligent, engaging, social human being. Crazy, right? The One True Path to authorial greatness doesn’t open only to those who suck at everything else, or who fail at interpersonal relationships, romantic or otherwise. I know plenty of authors who also have other, successful careers as scientists or academics or any number of things; who have partners or children or extensive social networks (and sometimes even all three!). By the same token, I also know plenty of writers, both published and unpublished, whose failure to complete a given manuscript has roundly failed to result in depression, divorce or anything more dire than personal irritation. Shocking, right?

Here’s the truth; sometimes a book just doesn’t go, and sometimes it’s only that it doesn’t go now. You have to set it aside for a bit, and maybe it dies and turns into fertiliser for future ideas, or maybe you cannibalise its parts, or maybe it’s only slumbering like Sleeping Beauty, waiting for some suitably handsome catalyst to wander along and offer the dragon a better gig at a newer, shinier castle. Either way, the price of failure isn’t the loss of everything you love, and success doesn’t hinge on having had nothing else to love in the first place. Hunter might well console himself with that particular narrative, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let him blithely hang its weight on the rest of us.

You work every day. You work so hard, you make such progress, you’re such a star that you decide to take a day off. The day after, you feel guilty so you work twice as hard. You set new records, you crash the 3,000-word barrier, you achieve epiphanies you never thought possible! Again you reward yourself with a day off. Then the next day—oh, actually, now it’s the next month—you can’t remember why you started the damned thing anyway and the anxiety of your sloth is crippling, turning you all beast-like and spite-spitting, so you formally surrender and feel a lot better. For a few months. Then, of course, you hate yourself and as the years pass, that hatred metastasizes into a cancer of the soul. If only… And you’re one of the forlorn ones who dies with regrets.

A lot of preps stared at Stephen Hunter when he wrote this essay. He put his middle finger up at them.

super dark bro.gif

The most important thing is habit, not will.

If you feel you need will to get to the keyboard, you are in the wrong business. All that energy will leave nothing to work with. You have to make it like brushing your teeth, mundane, regular, boring even. It’s not a thing of effort, of want, of steely, heroic determination. (I wonder who pushed the meme that writing is heroic; it must have been a writer, trying to get laid.) You have to do it numbly, as you brush your teeth. No theater, no drama, no sacrifice, no “It is a far far better thing I do” crap. You do it because it’s time. If you are ordering yourself, burning ergs, issuing sweat, breathing raggedly through nasal channels that feel like Navajo pottery, you’re doing something wrong. Ever consider law? We definitely need more lawyers.

Like… I get what Hunter’s trying to say here, which is that merely wanting to be an author won’t get you very far if you don’t actually put the work in, but god, there’s such a crushing sense of nihilism to his version of things, I kind of want to ask if he’s okay. Speaking as someone with a fair knowledge of mental health issues, routinely doing anything “numbly,” even brushing your teeth, is not actually a good thing. Numbness is not synonymous with the mundane, and if you’re starting to think it is, you should probably seek help. I say that with absolute sincerity: feeling numb about everyday life is a genuine danger sign.

Which is also why this paragraph makes me fucking furious. There’s a reason we talk about having a will to live, and a reason why someone losing that will is a terrible, awful thing. For some of us, everything is a matter of will, because we’re struggling to even get out of bed. Telling someone to give up writing because sitting down at the computer takes effort is one of the most toxic, destructive and fundamentally insincere pieces of advice I’ve ever seen issued. I’ll tell you this for nothing: every single writer I know, myself included, has struggled to write at times. The reasons why vary – lack of time, mental health issues, exhaustion, problems with the plot – but even when you’re someone who writes regularly, routinely, as a matter of habit, it can still be difficult. Some things can only be done – or only done now – because we order it of ourselves; because we fucking try.

Work every day. Obviously I don’t mean every day. Hyperbole, it’s what we do for a living. So let me clarify and tell you what I really mean: Work every day.

This is because the most difficult test of the author isn’t his mastery of time or dialogue, his gift for action or character, his ability to suggest verisimilitude in a few strokes, but his ability to get back into the book each day. You have to enter its world. It demands a certain level of concentration to do so. You have to train yourself to that concentration. The easier it is to get there, the better off you’ll be, day in and day out. In fact, if you skip a day, much less a week, the anxiety you unload on yourself doesn’t increase arithmetically but exponentially. If it’s hard after one day, it’ll be hard squared, then cubed, ultimately hard infinite-ed. And that’s only by Wednesday!

One big pile of shit

And this, right here, is where we see that Hunter’s status as a single, childless, (presumably) antisocial man who doesn’t need to work other jobs to support himself has apparently birthed the assumption that all other aspiring writers are in the same boat – or, far more worryingly, that anyone who doesn’t meet that criteria naturally can’t succeed. It’s not just that he’s using masculine pronouns to refer to his archetypal author, although it certainly doesn’t help: it’s that everything he says here is predicated on “his [the writer’s] ability to get back into the book each day,” which doesn’t leave any room for people who need to work to live, or who want to go out with their partner or friends, or who need to spend time with their children – for anyone, in other words, who has an actual life.

To reiterate: making writing a habit is excellent advice, and writing a little each day is not a bad thing to do. But asserting that people can’t be writers if they do anything other than this is grossly false, not least because there are thousands of successful, published authors around to disprove it. If Hunter personally experiences anxiety when he skips a day of writing, that’s one thing, but it’s far from being a universal experience. God, I am so sick of Serious Male Writers assuming that what’s true for them must logically be true for everyone else! If that’s how narrow Hunter’s view of the human condition is, I shudder to think how his writing must suffer – or maybe he just avoids creating characters who aren’t fundamentally like him. Either way, I’m not in a rush to check out his back catalogue.

Some writers of my acquaintance find great success in writing a small amount per day, every day, but I can’t think of a single one who’d cry failure on anyone who writes differently, or who had to take time off. Personally, I write in bursts: I can produce huge wordcounts in a short amount of time, but only if I rest for a little while afterwards. Once recharged, I can go again – but if I hit a snag in the plot, it’s always less work in the long run if I stop and puzzle it out instead of forging blindly on in the wrong direction just for the sake of wordcount.

Find what works for you, is the point. Shouldn’t that be obvious?

Effort is pain. Pain is not your friend, not this kind of pain. Via pain, doubt, fear, self-loathing, stasis, heavy legs, and halitosis enter your life. Your skin hurts, your hair hurts, the little whatever-it-is between your nostrils hurt. You have the energy of a cat on a couch. Inertia is your destiny, your tragedy, your one-way ticket to where you already are. That is why the easy way is the best way. It is easier to work every day than to deal with the load of self-inflicted grief you’ll encounter when you skip one day, four days, or the rest of your life.

Listen. Stephen. Bro. I get that this is going to come as an alien concept to you, but effort is not always synonymous with pain, in much the same way that numbness is not always the same as mundanity. Maybe that’s how you experience the world, but it’s just not true for everyone. Yes, sometimes it takes effort to write, but often it’s the good, satisfying kind, where you know you’re achieving something, making yourself better and stronger by testing your personal limits. Also, technically? Inertia is easier than effort. Effort is how you break free from inertia, and I know I keep harping on this point, but seriously: one of the most toxic mindsets to impose on a person is the idea that small failures are inherently synonymous with large ones. This is why, for instance, recovering addicts who fall off the wagon with a small transgression so often feel like they’ve got no choice but to commit a big one: not because it’s inevitable, but because they’ve been taught that success/failure is a binary proposition, with one slip the same as catastrophe. Plus, uh. It is actually possible to be disciplined while including regular breaks as part of that discipline, you know? I’m just gonna put that out there.

Another helpful tip: F— research! I say this, knowing that my works are thought to be well-researched and I am proud of the research in them. But in research there’s also death and destruction and self-loathing. You can do the research later. You cannot use “more research” as a crutch to justify your sloth. You are selling narrative not background. The most important truths you tell involve what you know about human behavior, not what color the Obersturmbannfuhrer’s epaulets are. If you don’t know it, just bull on through and keep going. Make it up. Jam it with placeholders. It’s OK. At that stage you need momentum, not precision. That’s why it’s a first draft; that’s why there’ll be a second draft.

*pinches bridge of nose, breathes deeply*

I say unto thee again, not everyone feels this kind of way about research. It’s not goddamn poison, okay? Some people find it merely a chore and others, invigorating. Yes, there are certainly instances where the research can wait, or where there’s no harm done in writing first and fact-checking afterwards, but the belief that “human behaviour” doesn’t also require research is kind of why Hunter is giving such goddamn shitty advice in the first place, because – say it with me! – people are fucking different. It’s this kind of approach to writing that leads to all manner of bigoted stereotypes finding their way into mainstream works: the writer assumes that all people fundamentally think and feel and experience the world in the same way they do, that no particular circumstance, belief or identity requires investigation in order to be accurately represented by an outsider, and so they don’t do the research. Shit like this is how, for instance, you end up with a horrifically anti-Semitic book purporting to be the opposite, or endless faux Medieval Europe fantasy novels written by people who, like Hunter, think that “selling narrative not background” is a sufficient justification for shitty, inconsistent worldbuilding.

Plus – and again, I feel that this ought to go without saying, but apparently not – measure twice, cut once is also as applicable to writing as it is carpentry. Some writers thrive on letting the momentum of a first draft carry them through to the end, then going back later to rip the guts out of whatever doesn’t work. For others, though, it’s easier – and less time-consuming – to pause mid-novel, work out the problems as they occur and produce a cleaner first copy.

Finally: Writer, forgive thyself. You may write crap for years, decades, eons before your brain gets tired of being so mediocre. You will never know if that jump is possible if you don’t keep humping, every day. Numbly, you must do the necessary. Keep on slugging. Forward the light brigade. You can always fix it later. But none of this will be doable, understandable, possible, unless you get to the “the” and the “end.”

If Hunter hadn’t taken up the bulk of his essay saying the exact fucking opposite of this, I’d almost be inclined to think it a positive note on which to end, instead of a sad little retcon. But it is sad, in much the same way that the whole damn article is sad. There’s not a speck of joy or passion evident in it anywhere: no humour, no enthusiasm, and certainly no hint of why anyone might want to be an author in the first place. Hunter’s attitude to writing is a baffling mix of arrogance and nihilism: everything is awful in my life, but I console myself with the knowledge that other, seemingly happier people will ultimately suffer more by virtue of failing to write like me. It’s a type of seething misanthropy for which I have precious little time and increasingly little patience in any context, let alone when it’s misrepresenting itself as the be-all, end-all of my chosen profession.

Pulitzer be damned: when it comes to giving writing advice, like Jon Snow, Hunter knows nothing.

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As keen readers of this blog will have had occasion to notice, the most recent season of Doctor Who has not exactly met with my approval. That being so, and with the marvelous advent of A Doctor World to inspire me, I decided to rewatch the whole new series – Eccleston, Tennant and Smith – with an eye to understanding the show’s development. Right now, I’m midway through Season 3, and in keeping with the seriousness of my self-appointed task, I’ve been taking handwritten notes on the structure, themes and byplay of every episode. Specifically, I’m interested in the depictions of female characters. How much agency do they have? Are their odds of survival comparable to that of their male counterparts? How do they die, and under what circumstances? Are they villains or allies? Do they rescue other characters as often as being rescued? How many episodes pass the Bechdel test?

It’s this latter question which has occupied most of my thoughts. How heavily should I rely on it? Though undeniably useful, the Bechdel is far from being the ultimate arbiter of narrative – or even feminist – success. Passing it does not, for instance, guarantee that the female characters in question are three-dimensional, believable human beings, nor does it protect against thematic sexism. Pass or fail, however, the results are always interesting – not just because of what they say about particular stories, but because of how the test itself reflects our culture of storytelling. At first glance, it’s utterly trite and obvious to point out that every day, everywhere in the world, human beings pass the Bechdel: after all, half the human population is female, and in accordance with the fact that we are all (as it were) named characters, the overwhelming majority of our conversations, if transposed to a narrative context, would pass. And yet, despite the obviousness of this fact, a disgusting number of movies, TV shows, books and plays all fail. Looked at as a purely narrative problem, it’s a disconcerting dissonance with reality. Looked at as a human problem, however, it’s a travesty.

As per Gail Simone’s observations on women in refrigerators, there are any number of reasons why individual writers might choose to structure a story such that there are no female characters, or only one female character; or why, given the presence of two or more such women, they don’t have occasion to speak to one another; or why, if they do, it’s only about a man. The limit of the Bechdel is the ease with which its detractors can argue – correctly – that the inclusion of women characters who talk about things will not automatically improve a story: not on a thematic level, if the point is to allay concerns about sexism, and not on a narrative level, if the point is to fix a plot. The failure of this objection, however, is that it willfully misconstrues the inclusion of women to be meant as a panacea. It’s not about instituting what amounts to a storywide affirmative action policy, because the suggestion has never been that women, by themselves, make stories better, or fairer, or anything other than stories with women in them, just as stories which lack women, or contain few of them, aren’t innately inferior. Rather, the point has been to ask why, if we believe our society, culture and ethics to be egalitarian – and, more, if we personally support these ideals – our stories say something else.

Consider the following hypothetical instance of a film centered on the adventures of a male lead, Guy, and his female love interest, Gal. Already, Gal is defined by her relationship to Guy: because the narrative fulcrum rests on Guy specifically, Gal’s presence is justified by her participation in his story. (There’s no reason why this scenario can’t work in the reverse without changing the genre – and yet, how much more common is it for stories with female love interests to be action-oriented adventures, while stories with male love interests are billed as romantic comedies?) Thus, Gal’s only investment in the plot comes through her association with Guy, making it much more likely that he, and not she, will take the lead in future plot-oriented conversations – after all, it’s Guy who needs answers, while Gal is just there for the ride. Obviously, that’s a simplification of matters: in save-the-world plots, for instance, the ultimate stakes affect everyone, while personal survival is a pretty strong incentive for even the most reluctant, dragged-along love interest to sit up and take an interest. Assuming Guy and Gal encounter other women in their travels, either as villains or comrades, there’s every reason why Gal might talk to them, and they to her.

Except, more often than not, they won’t – which is where we hit the gender snag. Because in instances where Guy is the protagonist, Gal’s character development matters less than his: not because she’s a girl (or at least, we hope not) but because it’s his story, and any conversations which don’t include or mention him are going to be viewed as extraneous to the plot. Ignoring the false economy of a storytelling style which jettisons secondary character development in the name of streamlining – and ignoring, too, the fact that female love interests are so deeply ingrained as an action movie archetyps that their very presence can feel like last-minute shoehorning – this puts considerable pressure on any fem/fem conversation to be relevant to the action; and if the writer wants to really showcase Guy’s intelligence, strength and resourcefulness, then having two other characters think up a plan, chart a course of action or otherwise save the day will only serve to undermine his specialness. Throw in the necessity of keeping Guy and Gal together for most of the plot – you can’t kindle sparks if the flints don’t touch – and just like that, you’ve practically eliminated any opportunity for Gal and Gal2 to have a conversation. Trying to force them together would just be another sort of shoehorning; and anyway, what does it matter? It’s just a story.

All of which is, frankly, bullshit. Characterisation shouldn’t be the sole privilege of protagonists. Male heroes don’t require a monopoly on good ideas and snappy dialogue to be viewed as heroic – and if you think they do, you’re probably part of the problem. Women shouldn’t be token characters: I love a good, sassy romance as much as the next person, but there’s a profound difference between a love interest whose only investment in the plot is their attachment to the hero, and a fully functioning character who develops into a love interest. As for the age-old argument about some eras, professions and settings being necessarily male dominated, I put it to you that if Deadwood, a well-researched, historically anchored show about life in a lawless town on the American frontier can pass the Bechdel test with ease, then any film the sole premise of which is Shit Gets Blown Up should be able to do it backwards and upside down, particularly if the setting constitutes a departure from everyday reality in any way, shape or form. Which is another way of saying that if you’re willing to break the established laws of physics and human endurance such that the male hero can get blown up, tortured and beaten shortly before running approximately ten miles at top-speed during a thrilling laser gun battle, you can probably stretch to having a female character whose capabilities extend beyond the rigours of looking decorative.

Unless you think women shouldn’t really have key roles in action movies, in which case, see above, re: being part of the problem.

All of which brings me to my sudden inability to think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth as a realistic fantasy world (which sounds like a non sequitur, but bear with me). I’ll be brutally honest: watching the How It Should Have Ended clip for The Lord of the Rings has not done wonders for my perception of its plot, such that when I sat down this evening to watch the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring, I found myself wanting to yell at Gandalf to just GO GET THE FUCKING EAGLES. But as I tried to settle into the narrative, I kept asking myself: where are the women? I don’t mean Arwen, Eowyn and Galadriel, who are all wonderful characters despite their lack of screen time: I mean, where are the wives and sisters and mothers? Why, when the succession is so important, is neither Faramir nor Boromir married? Where are the wives of Denethor and Theoden, the mothers of Arwen, Eowyn and Frodo? Why are so many races – the Ents, the Orcs, the Uruk-Hai, the Goblins, the Dwarves – drawn as if they were all male? For a setting which is otherwise so rich in cultural and historical detail, this reads as a serious problem. It’s not just that the trilogy fails the Bechdel test; it’s that the lack of women means we have very little idea of how that society treats them, beyond the basic, obvious knowledge that there must be wives and sisters and mothers of some sort, even though almost every woman in a position to occupy such a niche is either conveniently dead or mysteriously absent. And when, in The Silmarillion, Tolkien does venture to write female characters, it’s almost always in a romantic, devotional context: women who died to support their brothers or husbands, or who were pursued against their will, or who tragically fell in love with someone they shouldn’t (or couldn’t) have.

Which is where I start to wonder if the absence of female characters in Middle Earth is less a species of exclusionary sexism than it is a tacit acknowledgement on Tolkien’s part that, for all he was trying to write a magical, romanticised version of the medieval period, he didn’t know how to do so in a way that would benefit his women the same way it did his men. The happy resolutions to the lives of Luthien, Arwen and Eowyn all hinge on partnerships with men of their own choosing, men with whom they are genuinely in love; and yet a scholar of Tokien’s standing can’t have been unaware of how rare an occurrence that would have been, historically speaking. Perhaps, then, the wives and mothers of so many characters are absent as a preventative against the acknowledgement of exactly that problem; of the fact that one can believe in the restorative magic of feudalism and the aesthetic stylings of chivalry for only so long as one either postpones the question of women’s happiness or takes its existence for granted. As compassionately as Tolkien paints Eowyn’s desire for glory, and as determinedly as he makes Luthien the saviour and rescuer of Beren, the latter stance seems less likely than the former. But in dodging the issue, he undermines the story – because while his male characters are allowed to ask questions about their purpose in life, expressing bitterness at their circumstances and feeling haunted by unwanted duty, he cannot dare let the women do likewise, or else the whole myth of Middle Earth’s glory would come crashing down around him. The elves, conveniently enough, are exempt from this dilemma, presumably on the basis that if everyone in a given society is granted magical supremacy, immortality and eternal beauty as a matter of course, then unhappiness as a result of imposed gender profiling probably won’t be an issue. But humankind are not, which is why, despite how well-drawn she is, Eowyn’s fears are masculinised: her biggest concern is being denied a chance at battle, and not that Theoden or Eomer will see her married off, even though the structure of Tolkien’s society dictates that one must be at least as distinct a possibility as the other.

And that’s why I’ve lost my faith in Middle Earth: because I cannot reconcile Tolkien’s aesthetic mood of beauty, nobility and contemplation with the necessary ugliness and bias of male-dominated feudalism. Which explains why I’m such a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, adapted recently to the HBO series A Game of Thrones: all the history and pageantry is still there, all the chivalrous words and noble aspirations, but we still get to see the women – their desires, struggles, success and persecution – without recourse to either convenient absenteeism or rosy-lensed love. Call it gritty fantasy or nihilism if you must, but no matter how pure and glorious your ambitions, it’ll take a lot to convince me that a standard medieval setting will lack the problems of forced marriage, rape and battery – or worse, that these things don’t matter – just because you choose to emphasise chivalrous conduct.

So, to recap: if you find yourself steering clear of female/female dialogue because:

a) women have no place in your story;

b) it doesn’t feel plot-relevant;

c) you don’t want to develop your female characters; or

d) the women might question the logic of a world you want your male characters to enjoy,

then I would humbly suggest that you are, in fact, part of the problem. Which is why the Bechdel test matters: not because all stories need women, but because the manner of their absence shouldn’t contribute to a culture of inequality.

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.

Delightfully, the good folks over at Village Wit have published a short story of mine called The Nihilist Ice Cream Parlour. Check it out!

For those who’re interested, the concept came from a night out with philosophers – the night of this conversation, actually – after Zach posited the idea of a nihilist ice cream vendor. Everyone, naturally, thought it was hilarious, and I vowed on the spot to write a short story about it. Zach agreed, but not before making me promise to give him joint credit. I accepted. On we went.

A few days later, I found myself with a free half hour at work. I thought about nihilist ice cream, grinned, and wrote the first version (850 words long – the published iteration, due to submission guidelines, is 700)  in about twenty minutes. I printed it out, and, as it was a Friday, proceeded to the Melbourne Uni postgradute philosophy room to join my Long-Suffering Husband. Zach was also there. With a triumphant flourish, I dropped the finished article on his lap. He read it. I waited.

After about a minute, he looked up.

‘Foz?’ he asked. ‘I don’t get it. I mean, I get it, I just don’t get why.’

Turns out, he’d forgotten the entire conversation, as had almost everyone else. So in a way, the story is my reward for not ending up utterly drunk that night.

It’s like an After School Special come true.