Posts Tagged ‘Rod Rees’

So, as I’ve explained in a footnote on my Rageblogging: The Rod Rees Edition post, a thing happened today whereby, in the wake of mass criticism of Rees’s thoughts on female characters over at the Jo Fletcher Books Blog, both his original piece and a subsequent one explaining (badly, but honestly) why it was posted to begin with have been removed in their entirety, apparently without any explanatory statement along the lines of This Is What We’re Doing And Why.

And I just. OK.

I have some sympathy for Jo Fletcher Books, here.

Because, look. The fact that you publish someone’s books doesn’t mean you agree with absolutely everything they say and do as a person: you might like all of their thoughts, or most of their thoughts, or some of their thoughts, or none of their thoughts, but the bottom line is, you’re tied to them professionally because they wrote a thing you thought would sell, not necessarily because you 100% supported every single word they wrote, but because whatever amorphous combination of style, story, hook and execution they brought to the table made their story something you wanted in on*. That’s just life. We’re all different people, and most of the time, we try to live with it.

So naturally, if you run a blog associated with your publishing enterprise, and if you use it, among other things, as a platform for your authors, it makes a certain amount of sense not to meddle too deeply with regard to content. To coin a phrase, sometimes you’ve got to go along to get along, and in the context of a professional, multi-authored blog, that’s sometimes going to mean posting opinions and guest pieces that aren’t necessarily reflective of your own beliefs. I mean, that’s the whole point of having multiple authors in the first place: different opinions. Right?

Well, yes. But that also means that, of necessity, different pieces are going to get different reactions – and sooner or later, if your social media reach is strong and your contributor base varied enough, you’re going to publish something that strikes a nerve. And that means critical feedback: sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but all of it directed squarely at your little corner of the internet. Hell, this isn’t even a problem restricted to multi-author blogs or blogs with guest contributors: every time you post something, you run the risk of a big response in whatever direction, and if you’re only thinking about how to cope with positive attention beforehand, then I’m going to contend that you’re doing it wrong. Every time I finish a post, I have a little moment where I think to myself: What if I’ve fucked up? What if I’ve said something really offensive/problematic/wrong, and I get lots of abuse? How am I going to handle it? And each time, I take a deep breath and I think, Well, if I’ve genuinely done something bad like that, firstly, I want to know about it, and secondly, anyone I’ve offended is within their rights to be pissed at me. I’ve tried my best to do things right, but if I’ve failed for whatever reason and I get backlash as a result, then I’m woman enough to deal with the consequences. 

Every time I post, this is my inner monologue. Every. Single. Time. And it’s important, especially as I’m a privileged person, because the day that I forget it – the day when I fall into the trap of thinking that my opinions are perfect and sacrosanct just because they’re mine – will most likely be the day that I put my foot so far in my mouth that my shoes leave treadmarks on my trachea. I’ve fucked up before, and will doubtless fuck up again. All I can really do is try to be prepared to learn from it, to apologise for any hurt I’ve caused, and, if possible, to fix it.

And you know what that doesn’t include – what it absolutely never fucking includes, not only because the Google cache and screencapping renders it pointless, and not just because it’s the online equivalent of packing up your toys and going home, but because it is 100% guaranteed to inflame the issue further?

Deleting the post in question.

Locking the comments, particularly if they’ve grown abusive? That’s fine, though it’s generally a good idea to include a final comment of your own explaining exactly why and when you’ve done it, and if you can include a helpful link to a place where the discussion is continuing, then so much the better. Why? Because your mistake will spawn dialogue, and dialogue is useful, and while, as the owner of your blogging space, you’re within your rights to say “regulating this conversation has become too stressful, therefore I’m closing it down”, there’s still a very real sense in which doing so is going to either constitute, or appear to constitute, a silencing tactic. You are Stopping People From Talking About That Thing You Did, and when you’re the one in the wrong, for a whole bunch of reasons it’s not a great idea to act as though you’re allergic to having this fact brought to your attention. Primarily because, you know. You fucked up, and you should own it.

Changing a particular word or phrase that someone’s taken issue with in order to fix the problem? That’s also fine – in fact, it’s something I’ve done myself on multiple occasions, several of them recently. My own rule of thumb is that flagging individual word-changes in pieces I’ve already written via an ETA or a footnote or the like is only necessary if it fundamentally alters the original meaning, or if the change is noticeable enough to raise questions from later readers. Thus: taking out problematic words from the body of the text, fixing typos and altering repetitious or poorly constructed phrases is fine unflagged, because it’s essentially just a form of editing. (Unless, of course, your use of a particular word or phrase is crucial to the argument being made against you – in which case, flagging everything is paramount. Otherwise, it looks like you’re trying to deny the problem ever existed in the first place by quietly removing the evidence, and that is Not Cool.) Changing the title or correcting an attribution, however, are flag-worthy, because they’re the sort of things that get repeated when a post goes into circulation, which makes it important to state, as clearly as possible, just why you’ve done what you’ve done.

But deleting the entire post, including all the comments? That is some salting the earth shit right there, and it is the least constructive thing you can possibly do. I can understand why people are still tempted to go there. After all, if you posted something people hated, how could anyone possibly object to your removing it? Isn’t that what your critics wanted? Well, no: what they wanted was for you not to have said it in the first place, which is a wildly different creature to pretending you never said it at all. It’s a bit like this: if I kick you in the shin, your shin is going to hurt – but if you say to me, “Hey! Ow! My shin! Why did you DO that?” and I reply “What are you talking about? I didn’t do anything!”, then not only does your shin still hurt, but in addition to having caused you pain, I’m acting like I have no idea how it happened, which is an Asshole Move of the highest order. If I kick your shin and you call me on it, the correct response is an acknowledgement of my actions and an apology, even if I did by accident. If I run away with my hands over my ears screaming “La la la, CAN’T HEAR YOOOOU!”, then I am being an asshole, and deserve to be mocked accordingly.

So, yeah. As I said earlier today on Twitter, I am endlessly sick of people going this route, whereby they say or do something stupid in public, then try to make it all go away by deleting the evidence. Not only doesn’t it work (see above, re: Google cache and screencapping), but it’s an Asshole Move, because it stifles dialogue while simultaneously ducking the issue. And in the case of the Jo Fletcher Books Blog, which isn’t just someone’s personal space on the internet, but a site that’s openly affiliated with a professional institution, it becomes doubly problematic – not only because the retroactive onus on the administrators to justify why the post was allowed through to begin with is higher, but because everything that comes of the subsequent kerfuffle is necessarily associated with the organisation itself. Thus, and as I said at the outset: while I can understand the logic of a hands-off, let’s-all-agree-to-disagree policy on contributor content, there should also have been a policy in place for what to do if and when a given piece were to garner negative attention. Regardless of its content, the fact that an explanatory post was eventually produced was a good thing, because it showed that the management were, however belatedly, paying attention. The fact that both it and the original, contentious piece were deleted without comment shortly thereafter, by contrast, is a bad thing, because it shows that the management are not only indecisive, but ultimately uninterested in addressing the problem further. (And also, you know. You can find them both here.)

tl;dr – If you fuck up in public, own it, and if you’re absolutely compelled to delete something or close comments, explain your reasoning where people can see it. Otherwise, you’re just going to look like you’re sweeping the whole thing under the rug, on account of how this is exactly what you’re doing.

*Which is, among many other reasons, why I get incandescently shitty at people who go around saying things like, “If you’ve ever negatively reviewed a book I agented/published/edited or which was written by someone I like, or whatever the fuck combination of those things applies in context, then I’m never going to blurb you/hire you/edit you/publish you, because YOU WERE MEAN TO MY FRIEND AND HATE EVERYTHING I LOVE AND OUR TASTE IS INCOMPATIBLE FOREVER.” Because, dude. The Venn diagram of “things I like” versus “things you like” is not required by law to be a perfect fucking circle in order for us to have some seriously awesome common ground. I mean, yes: if someone disses a thing you love, you are not required to like them, or their work, or whatever. Some things are more important to us than other things. I get it. But if your base level of artistic interaction at a professional level is to try and recruit only people who like absolutely everything you like – or rather, given the statistical impossibility of this, only people who are sufficiently afraid of censure and/or nice to the point of stifling their own critical opinions to keep from expressing any, whether publicly or privately – then that, to me, is exactly the kind of mentality that leads to the mass publication of problematic, unoriginal, samey-samey stories that are pretty soon forgotten. If all you want is an echo-chamber for your own opinions, go shout them loudly in a tiled bathroom. But for the love of dog, quit pretending that people can’t have meaningful critical differences in taste and still have artistic commonalities, strong friendships, or positive working relationships.

3 July 2013, ETA: With no explanation, both posts are now back up at the Jo Fletcher Books Blog. So, there’s that.

Sometimes, I read a thing, and despite whatever mixture of rage, incredulity, consternation and general agogness it provokes in me, I nonetheless manage to sit down, muster my thoughts in an orderly fashion, and write out a calm and cogent rebuttal.

Other times, I read a thing, and my entire brain explodes in a symphony of What The Actual Fuck in D Minor. When that happens, I still try to do the whole cogent rebuttal thing, but I don’t always succeed, and the end result usually involves swearing.

This would be one of those others times.

Behold this blog post by author Rod Rees, expressing his thoughts as to whether or not male authors can successfully write female characters. This is an important question, one that can and frequently does lead to interesting discussions about privilege, the male gaze, stereotypes and default narrative settings; that being said, my short answer is always going to be an unequivocal yes. Above and beyond the fact that many of my favourite fictional ladies are male creations, I strongly distrust gender essentialism in all its forms, and the idea that women are inherently different, unknowable creatures, such that we exist beyond the true comprehension of men, falls firmly into that category. So, from the outset, let me be clear: male authors are totally, 100% capable of writing a wide variety of awesome female characters, and many of them frequently do just that.

But Rod Rees, I suspect, is not among them.

The utter gobsmacking cluelessness of his approach to the matter can best be summed up in the following quote:

This brought to mind other criticisms. One woman commented on the scene where Odette (a character I introduced in The Demi-Monde: Spring) was admiring her breasts in a mirror by opining that ‘Women don’t do that!’ I was tempted to reply, ‘Oh, yes they do!’

OK. Look. As I’ve recently had occasion to say elsewhere, women are not a hivemind. No one woman speaks for all women. And obviously, men can have genuine insight into women as individuals that some women might not have. But part of that insight must necessarily come from listening to women, and especially on the topic of women themselves. So when Rees’s response to criticism on the topic of women, by a woman, is a straight-up desire to gainsay her – as though her lived experience of actually being a woman is automatically inferior to his observations of same? That, I’m prepared to say, is the TOTAL FUCKING OPPOSITE of a healthy, helpful attitude.

As for admiring our breasts in the mirror, some women certainly do that. Hell, I’d even go so far as to say it’s something I’ve done myself. But if I’m agreeing with Rees, then what’s the issue? The answer is twofold: first, his reaction to the criticism as outlined above; and second, the text of the actual passage in question, which it just so happens I’ve read. Because there’s a big, honking difference between showing someone doing something normally, and showing someone doing something normal in an exaggerated, problematic fashion – such as, to pick just one example, the difference between the way women actually eat salad, and the way we’re depicted eating salad in a disturbingly large number of advertisements. Which, once again, isn’t to say that no woman in the entire history of human civilisation has ever sat at home, alone, laughing manically while delicately lofting a piece of cos in the direction of her epiglottis – it’s just that, by and large, this isn’t what happens.

This is how Rees describes Odette at the start of The Demi-Monde: Spring:

Examining herself carefully in her looking glass, Odette Aroca decided that she made quite a striking Liberte. That she stood tall and proud… and that the breast she had exposed was full and plump, all meant that she was the living embodiment of the figure shown in Delacroix’s famous painting…

Moreover, the instructions had continued, the robe had to be cut so that the right breast – and it had to be the right breast, the UnScrewed Committee members were devils for detail – was unsheathed. ‘Tempting but Untouchable’ was to be the UnScreweds’ catchphrase, and for a woman like Odette this was good news. She regarded her breasts as her second- and third-best features, having, as was often remarked upon by her admirers – many of her regrettably few admirers – big breasts. But then Odette was a very big woman, so it was natural that she should have breasts to match her great height and her equally great girth. Still, never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Odette gave a wiggle and was pleased to see that her untethered breast jiggled in quite a charming fashion. 

Which is to say, he spends near as dammit two whole paragraphs describing her boobs in that telltale way invariably used by people without boobs of their own who are nonetheless possessed of a great interest in the boobs of others, viz: by using the language and phraseology of a sexually interested outsider, as opposed to the language and phraseology of someone who, regardless of their levels of self and sexual confidence, is talking about their own body. Because – and I’m speaking from experience, here – the idea of a woman who thinks that “her untethered breast jiggled in quite a charming fashion” is about seven different shades of ludicrous, never mind the “full and plump” part. More to the point, though: these are descriptions that Rees has actively chosen to incorporate into his narrative. We don’t need to hear a lengthy paean to Odette’s breasts in order to picture her physically, and we certainly don’t need one in order for the story to make sense, but we have them, because Rees likes boobs and thinks that his readers might like them, too. And that’s fine! It is totally cool that Rod Rees likes boobs, and wants to share his boob-love with the world. But that doesn’t mean that Odette’s thoughts about her breasts are any way realistic, and it certainly doesn’t mean that his decision to start the first paragraph of the first chapter with lots of gratuitous boobietalk isn’t going to look like a cheap, sensationalist ploy to grab the attention of male readers.

Returning, then, to Rees’s blog post, I find his apparent belief that male characters are typically the victims of more negative, pervasive stereotyping than female ones to be not only bizarre, but wildly inaccurate. He writes:

Female characters are, in my humble opinion… free of the limitations and pre-conceptions imposed by the curse of stereotype-itis that afflicts male characters. A male lead is beset by doubts and indecision and the appellation ‘weak’ heads his way: a female lead is beset by doubts and indecision and she is seen as ‘sensitive’. A male character panics in the face of adversity and he’s one step away from being labelled ‘a coward’; a female character does the same thing and she thought of as a pragmatist. A male character charges unthinkingly into a perilous situation and he’s ‘high on testosterone’; a female character . . . well, I doubt if she would, females being the smarter half of the h.sapiens double act.

Ignoring the gender essentialism of that last sentence – because benevolent sexism is still sexism, Mr Rees, however much you’d like to believe it’s a complimentary attitude – my reaction to this paragraph can best be summarised as follows: are you fucking KIDDING me? In what universe aren’t female characters subject to rampant stereotyping? In what universe are they stereotyped less than guys? I mean, where do I even begin debunking this bullshit? With the omnipresent damsel in distress trope? With the ubiquity of women in refrigerators? With an in-depth conversation about just how many stories don’t pass the Bechdel test, and why film schools actively teach screenwriters to fail it? I mean, Christ on a fucking BICYCLE – this is 101 stuff, and it is EVERYWHERE. And if Rees honestly thinks that male stereotyping in narrative is a bigger goddamn problem than the stereotyping of women – by which I mean, if he honestly thinks that male stereotyping in narrative is more common, more pernicious, and more deeply intertwined with fucked-up, sexist cultural notions about traditional gender roles than female stereotyping*? Then we have more and bigger problems than the boobie issue.

Such as, for instance, the fact that Rees thinks that learning exclusively about radical feminism is the same thing as being “pretty clued up” about the entirety of feminism:

What I discovered is that like all quasi-religions, Feminism has its zealots: so much so that I found it damned difficult to make HerEticalism more extreme than the world envisaged by the out-there radical-feminists. The upshot of all this reading and pondering was that I thought I was pretty clued up on feminism.

Maybe I was wrong.

Firstly, if you’re going to describe feminism as a “quasi-religion” – as opposed to, you know, the crazy belief that women are people who deserve equal rights, and coincidentally, where the fuck is my MRA bingo card when I need it, oh wait, it’s right here, and lookie! “Feminism is a religion” IS ACTUALLY ON IT, please wait while I headdesk unto infinity – then you have officially forfeited the right to talk about feminism as though you understand it. Period. Secondly, if you are incapable of distinguishing between radical ANYTHING and the non-radical version, then CONGRATULATIONS, YOU FAIL BASIC COMPREHENSION FOREVER. I mean, is it really THAT FUCKING DIFFICULT? He’s got the word radical IN there, and yet is evidently unaware of its role as a descriptive qualifier. Thirdly, why do I feel like the radical feminism Rees is referring to belongs to the same, outdated, Andrea Dworkin school of fringe theories that Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg are so fond of conflating with the movement as a whole? What, did all these old, embittered white guys go to the same seminar on Why Feminism Is Insane back in 1973 and just take it as gospel forever and ever, amen? Do I even want to know the answer to that question?

And then, it gets even worse.

What I found most unsettling about these criticisms was their nugatory nature. My characters were being criticised not for doing what strong, independent women should be doing, but for doing what a section of the readership believes they shouldn’t be doing. Rather than look at the broader attributes/attitudes of a character, it is the minutiae that was being picked over… I am drawn to the Biblical parable about motes and beams and could take this religious analogy further: feminist criticism has many of the features of the theological debates in mediaeval times where being pilloried for heresy turned on the most trivial of deviations from the accepted canon.

Bear in mind, this comment is made in response to a female reader objecting to the fact that one of his female characters described herself  as “a lush thrush with a tight tush”.

Seriously.

Savour that phrase for a moment. It might well be worse than the bit about the jiggling, untethered breasts, but either way, it’s sort of like comparing guano to horseshit, if animal faeces were composed entirely of gross, sexually objectifying language. But, I digress, because Rees has once again missed the point by a margin so epic, it’s like watching a man trying to drive to Dover and ending up in Calais. The issue isn’t with what your female characters are doing – it’s how and why you portray them doing it, and whether or not you’ve stereotyped them horribly in the process. Which, given the fact that Rees is evidently oblivious to the issue of female stereotyping – he even goes on to lament his “troubling suspicion” that feminist critique is trying to “confine female characters in much the same way as male characters have been” – sends up a red flag the size of Neptune about his total inability to recognise and avoid it. (As do his unthinking use of the Big Breast Pride and Omniscient Breasts tropes. For instance.)

Then I reached the penultimate paragraph.

But I have a suspicion that these proscriptions affect female writers as much as they affect male ones. It seems to be a fixture at the SF conventions I’ve attended to have a panel discussion debating why there are so few women writing in the adult SF and fantasy genres. Could it be that the success of female writers in YA fantasy fiction is in part attributable to their young female characters being better able to adhere to this template of the ideal female? Once female writers venture into the more visceral world of adult fiction they find this stereotype doesn’t work and hence struggle. Just a thought.

Let me get this straight: according to Rees, female authors only succeed in writing YA fantasy novels because it’s easy, and that once they try to venture into the “more visceral world of adult fiction”, they “struggle” to move beyond the “stereotype” of non-passive, actively feminist characters – and this is “why there are so few women writing in the adult SF and fantasy genres”?

WHAT. THE. ACTUAL. FUCK.

Here’s an alternate theory: adult SF and fantasy are chock-full of spectacular women writers despite the fact that troglodytic, sexist asshats like Rod Rees think that most of us are incapable of writing grown-up characters due to our Hindering Ladyfeelings. Plus and also? The idea that you graduate to writing adult novels after starting out in YA – or rather, that WOMEN can graduate to writing adult novels after starting out in YA, presumably because men who write about jiggling tits are sculpting literary masterpieces whatever the age of their intended audience – is fucking INSULTING.

And I just. I CANNOT with this fuckery, this I’m-so-enlightened-because-I-have-a-wife-and-daughters, therefore it’s COMPLETELY OK that I sexually objectify my female characters using the grossest language possible, ignore all female criticism of same because I know more about being a woman than women do, write off feminism as a radical religion while claiming to know all about it, and plead total and comprehensive ignorance of even the most basic forms of stereotyping that affect women in narrative, all while positing that the dearth of female writers in my field is due to female incompetence. YES. YOU ARE TRULY A PRINCE AMONG FEMINISTS.

AUGH.

I don't want to live on this planet any more

Angry dome

*Which isn’t to say that male stereotyping isn’t a problem: it is, and it’s rife with problematic gender essentialism, too, particularly around the perpetuation of culturally constructed, restrictive and ultimately toxic notions of masculinity. Sexism in stereotyping cuts both ways, because that’s what sexism does: it hurts everyone, even the people it’s ostensibly meant to benefit. But there’s also a deep imbalance in terms of the scope and ubiquity of the representation afforded to men as opposed to women, and a much greater variety of male portrayals as opposed to female, which is why (for instance) you have Seth Rogan acknowledging the fact that Pineapple Express would never have been made if it were about two girls, and that he wouldn’t have a career if he were female.

30 June 2013, ETA: As of today, Jo Fletcher Books has taken down both Rees’s original post and a post published subsequently wherein Jo Fletcher explained why she’d allowed it to appear in the first place. (In a nutshell: Because Free Speech, I don’t censor my authors even though it’s not something I’d have written myself, which is fine, except that this isn’t what people were objecting to – or at least, not insofar as the decision to publish went – and therefore came across as missing the point. As was explained by several people in comments on that second post, the issue on that count was more to do with the fact that, if you publish something on your company blog, regardless of whether or not You, The Person agree with it, then people are, not unreasonably, going to assume that You, The Organisation does – or at the very least, that your company doesn’t *disagree* enough with the content not to have refrained from publishing it in the first place. Thus: if you publish a sexist piece on the company blog, then while Because Free Speech will certainly explain your personal decision to do so, this explanation is neither synonymous with nor a substitute for an explanation about why you chose to associate your company with sexism – or, more pertinently in this case, with why you’d then be surprised that people were disappointed in you for having done so.)

Anyway. The original blog might be gone, but this being the internet, it lives on in cache and screencap, in which form it can still be found here.

3 July 2013, ETA: With no explanation, both posts are now back up at the Jo Fletcher Books Blog. So, there’s that.