Posts Tagged ‘quality’

Yesterday, after tangentially mentioning Baen Publishing in a Twitter conversation about queer representation in SFF, several Baen aficionados took this as an invitation to harangue both myself and the person to whom I was was speaking about the evils of left-wing politics, both in genre and more generally. Mostly, this involved yelling about how socialism is evil and feminism is cancer, which was equal parts hilarious and horrifying, with a bonus discussion of Christianity in the context of various political systems. My personal highlight: the unironic claim, made by a Christian participant, that Christ was apolitical, which. Um. Yeah. About that:

You Keep Using That Word

Anyway.

While the thread eventually devolved in much the way you’d expect, the actual opening salvo by Patrick Richardson – made in response to the observation that Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, politically speaking, is somewhat at variance with the bulk of Baen’s catalogue – was as follows: “It seems to be only the lefties that care about politics before story.” Which view was quickly seconded by the same woman who later claimed that Christ was apolitical: “Of course! If the story is crap but the author is a nifty socialist, that’s totes awesome!”

Twitter, as anyone who routinely uses it can tell you, is good for many things, but nuanced, lengthy dialogue is seldom one of them. And so, in addition to yesterday’s back and forth, I’m commenting here  – because for all their brevity, these two statements perfectly encapsulate the fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of most anti-diversity arguments.

I’ll deal with the second claim first, as it’s always struck me as being the most wilfully obtuse permutation of the stance. The idea that pro-diversity voices are wasting time, money and effort promoting books we don’t actually like is almost cartoonishly absurd; as though diversity is a naked emperor and we the masters of his empty wardrobe. Listen: I have a toddler, a husband, an active social life, a packed writing schedule, multiple online streaming accounts and a TBR pile that stretches into infinity. If you really think I’m going to waste valuable energy advocating for stories that don’t give me pleasure, then either you’re projecting – which, given the willingness of certain Puppies to thusly waste their own time, is a disturbingly real possibility – or you’re grossly overestimating your knowledge of human nature.

Having already discussed, at length, the dissonance between how recommendations made on the basis of diversity can appear to others and what they actually mean, I won’t revisit the details here. The salient point, however, is this: once you acknowledge that a book recommended on whatever basis is, by virtue of being recommended, a book enjoyed, then it’s virtually impossible to claim that diversity advocates are wilfully dismissive of quality. Nor is the intention to treat “diverse books” as a distinct subgenre, one elevated above its fellows without any regard for category or content otherwise. This is, in fact, exactly the kind of ghettoisation the pro-diversity camp is actively trying to avoid – all the diverse books on one niche shelf at the back, instead of being a normal, integrated part of genre. This accusation likewise ignores the fact that, actually, it’s quite common to group and recommend narratives on the basis of their tropes (friends to lovers, the Chosen One) or thematic elements (classic quest, mythological underpinnings), particularly when we’re speaking to personal preference.

The problem is that, when talking to someone who doesn’t value diversity in narrative – often because they’ve simply never considered it to be a noteworthy factor in their enjoyment of a book, and not because they inherently object to its presence – it can be difficult to explain why it matters at all. Taste is always a murky thing to navigate in such arguments, but it’s an inescapable factor: popularity and obscurity are both unreliable yardsticks where quality is concerned, and given the breadth of the human experience, there’s always going to be entrenched disagreement about what a good story is or should be; whether reading should challenge our comfort zones or confirm them; whether it’s better to read a book that shows us our own experience or a different one. Nobody wants to be told what to like or how to like it, just as we all reserve the right to entertain ourselves on our own terms, and yet, to borrow a phrase, no man is an island. Taken collectively, our individual preferences can and do have an impact at the macro/cultural level that transcends their micro/personal origins, even though the one is invariably a product of the other.

This is why the promotion of diversity is often discussed in moral/representational terms, particularly in connection with children: stories are our first and greatest window into the possible, and if those early adventures consistently exclude a large portion of their audience, or if certain groups are portrayed more complexly than others, then not everyone is learning the same lesson. Even so, the idea is never that diversity should take precedence over quality, as some seem to fear, but rather, that we should aim to create stories – stories in the plural, not the singular, though still bearing in mind the interrelationship between the individual and the collective – which are both diverse and good.

So what, then, of stories that are good, but not diverse? Where do they fit in? Because, on the basis of everything I’ve said here, there’s an argument to be made – and some, indeed, have made it – that you cannot have quality without diversity at all.

While this is a useful shorthand claim to make when looking at the collective end of things as they currently stand – which is to say, when acknowledging the historical lack of diversity and the ongoing need to remedy the imbalance – as a dictum removed from context, it not only ignores the rights of the individual, both as audience and creator, but opens up the question of whether a diverse story is diverse enough. It’s a difficult problem to navigate, and one that gives me a frequent headache. On the one hand, it’s undeniable that white liberal feminism (for instance) has a long and ugly history of ignoring the various racial and homophobic aspects of misogyny as experienced by women of colour and the queer community – that there is, as Kimberle Crenshaw said, an intersectional component to oppression.  As such, praising a novel for its diversity doesn’t mean those aspects of the story are automatically exempt from criticism; far from it, in fact, which is one more reason why I find the accusation that pro-diversity equals anti-quality so laughable. The advocates of diversity are simultaneously its sharpest critics, and always have been, because we’re the ones who care about getting it, by whatever definition, right.

But on the other hand, it’s an inescapable fact that stories are finite: no matter how much detail a given setting might contain, the author can’t focus on everything, or they’ll have no focus at all. By the same token, nothing and no one is perfect, least of all because ‘perfect’ means something different to everyone: the fact that an author drops the ball in one area doesn’t preclude them succeeding in another, and while the function of criticism is to discuss such contrasts – and while every individual reader is perfectly entitled to decide for themselves how such lines are drawn; to make their own decisions about content and execution – declaring imperfection the antithesis of success does all creative efforts a disservice.

Which brings me back to that mercurial element, taste, and the fear, as expressed by Richardson, that even acknowledging diversity as a factor means putting “politics before story”. It’s a telling phrase: by its very construction, it implies that politics are external to stories, instead of being a material component and/or a relevant lens through which to view them. Which, I would contend, they are. It’s not just that the personal is political: it’s that the political is seldom anything else. The only impersonal politics are those which affect other people; which is to say, they’re only ever impersonal to some, not objectively so. The conflation of political questions with abstract concerns can only occur when the decision-makers don’t meaningfully overlap with those their decisions impact. Political apathy is the sole province of the ignorant and the unaffected: everyone else, of necessity, is invested.

Speaking personally, then, and setting aside any other salient, stylistic factors, the point at which my preference for diversity will likely see me jolted from an otherwise good book, such that I may well question its claim to goodness, is the point at which the narrative becomes complicit in dehumanisation, particularly my own. What this means is always going to shift according to context, but broadly speaking, if an author leans on  offensive, simple stereotyping in lieu of characterisation, or if groups that might be realistically present or active within a given context are mysteriously absent, then I’m going to count that a negative. Note that a story which is, in some active sense, about dehumanisation – a misogynist culture; a slave-owning family – is not automatically the same as being complicit in that dehumanisation. This is an important distinction to make: whereas a story about dehumanisation will, by virtue of the attempt, acknowledge what’s going on, even if the characters never question the setting – say, by portraying complex female characters within a restrictive patriarchal system – a complicit story will render these elements as wallpaper: a meaningless background detail, like the number of moons or the price of fish, without ever acknowledging the implications.

It’s not just that, overwhelmingly, complicit stories tend to be dismissive of people like me, though that certainly doesn’t help; it’s that, at the level of worldbuilding and construction, I find them boring. One of my favourite things about genre novels is learning the rules of a new time and place – the customs, language, history and traditions that make up the setting – and as such, I don’t enjoy seeing them treated as irrelevant. For instance: if I’m told that the army of Fictional Country A has always accepted female soldiers, but that women are the legal subjects of their husbands, with no effort made to reconcile the apparent contradiction, then I’m going to consider that a faulty piece of worldbuilding and be jerked out of the story. Doubly so if this is just one of a number of similar elisions, all of which centre on women in a narrative whose complexities are otherwise lovingly considered; triply so if there are no central female characters, or if the ones that do appear are stereotyped in turn. (And yes, I can think of multiple books offhand to which this particular criticism applies.)

Call it the Sex/Hexchequer Test: if an elaborate, invented system of magic or governance is portrayed with greater internal consistency than the gender roles, then the story is probably sexist. Which doesn’t, I hasten to add, mean that it has nothing else to offer and should be shunned at all costs – imperfection, as stated above, is not the antithesis of success. But if someone wants to avoid the book on those grounds, then that’s entirely their business, and at the very least, I’ll likely be cranky about it.

And thus my preference for good diverse stories, which tend not to have this problem. It’s not a question of putting politics ahead of the story: it’s about acknowledging that all stories, regardless of authorial intention, contain politics, because people are political, and people wrote them. In real life, politics only ever seem impersonal if they impact someone else; in fiction, however, that’s what makes them visible. Stories aren’t apolitical just because we happen to agree with them or find them unobjectionable: it just means we’re confusing our own moral, cultural and political preferences with a neutral default. Which doesn’t mean we’re obliged to seek out stories that take us out of our comfort zone this way, or like them if we do: it just means that we can’t gauge their quality on the sole basis that this has, in fact, happened.

And yet, far too often, this is exactly what diversity advocates are criticised for doing: as though acknowledging the political dimensions of narrative and exploring them, in whatever way, deliberately, is somehow intrinsically bad; as though nobody sympathetic to certain dominant groups or ideologies has ever done likewise. Well, they have: you just didn’t think it mattered overmuch, because you agreed.

It’s not about quality, Mr Richardson; it never was. It’s about visibility – who lives, who dies, who tells your story – and whether or not you noticed.

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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.