Posts Tagged ‘Noir’

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

Warning: spoilers for The Killing (Danish version)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And on that note…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But never forget that damage has a cost.

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

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

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

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

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

For wanting to run away, too.

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

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

Anon, to sudden silence won,

In fancy they pursue

The dream-child moving through a land

Of wonders wild and new,

In friendly chat with bird and beast —

And half believe it true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 ‚Äėsexual harassment‚Äô, 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 ‚Äėsexual harassment‚Äô. 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôt 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.