Posts Tagged ‘Sad Puppies’

A common gag in comedy – and, sometimes, in drama – goes like this: Person A asks Person B to explain a particular thing, then cuts them off or ignores them when they do. Invariably, the point is that Person A is varying degrees of rude, overbearing and oblivious, and/or that Person B is boring, bullied or inept. It’s a cruel bit of humour, and while it can occasionally be employed with a light, teasing touch among characters who are and remain friends, the most common usage highlights the casual ease with which egotists silence others.

For Person B, it’s never a joke, even if the script requires them to shrug it off and keep going. For Person B, there’s no point asserting themselves in the face of Person A’s rudeness, because Person A doesn’t care.

And right now, I’ve been made into Person B.

Rationally, I know there’s no point in arguing with a stranger who declares himself an expert on my life, but who pointedly won’t listen to or engage with anything I say. Any testimony I make, no matter how truthful or heartfelt, can’t possibly sway him: he’s as convinced of his own unassailable rightness as he is my mendacity. Whatever I do or fail to do next, this person will see it as proof of his own intelligence. If I fail to respond, he’ll say I’m afraid of hearing the truth; if I do respond, he’ll claim my defensiveness proves his point. That being so, if I’m damned in his eyes no matter what, the only sane choice is to please myself and speak, not to this Person A, but to our mutual audience, in the hope they prove more receptive to sense than he.

As I mentioned in my last post, various men in the Sad Puppy camp have recently started claiming that my husband Toby is the anti-Puppy blogger Camestros Felapton. I have already stated, for the record, that he is not, as has Camestros: nonetheless, Brad Torgersen, Lou Antonelli and Dave Freer, none of whom I’ve ever met in person, refuse to believe either one of us.

By the public admission of both Freer and Antonelli, the “evidence” they have is circumstantial: they have an IP address they know belongs to Camestros and an identical IP they claim belongs to my husband – though on what basis, they’ve never said; certainly, my husband has never had just one IP in the entire time I’ve known him, and almost never comments online outside Facebook – and have thus concluded that they must be the same person. Apparently, “Australian with a philosophy background and a connection to SFF who’s recently lived in the UK” is such a weird, specific category of person as to defy any possibility of coincidence otherwise.

The fact that tens of thousands of people travel between Australia and the UK each year and that a large number of them must necessarily have similar interests is, to their mindset, irrelevant. Likewise, the fairly substantial overlap between philosophers and SFF fans, a commonality which has been a personal source of many enduring friendships, has seemingly not occurred to them. Back in 2015, I even reviewedPhilosophy and Terry Pratchett, a collection of academic essays about Pratchett’s work; a fact I mention, not because I expect the Puppies to agree with my analysis, but because the existence of such a book should serve as some proof, at least, that fantasy-loving philosophers aren’t an anomaly.

To say nothing of philosophy-loving fantasists, either: off the top of my head, I can think of multiple SFF authors with a more than passing relationship to philosophy and its associated disciplines, most notably Jo Walton and China Mieville. Indeed, I’m hard-pressed to think of any really good SFF author who doesn’t, at some point in their writing, employ at least a basic level of philosophical musing. The whole of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is basically one long, comic-philosophic ramble, and while Douglas Adams was – and remains – a truly unique individual, it’s impossible to claim that his writing has had no impact on the genre.

The point being, “SFF-reading Australian who knows some philosophy and has travelled to the UK” is not exactly an elite, exclusive category of person, and once you acknowledge this fact, it’s pretty much impossible to justify concluding that the few, superficial similarities between Camestros and my husband negate any possibility of coincidence.

Let’s be brutally honest, here: the only reason the Puppies think that Toby is Camestros is because he’s my husband. If Toby Meadows, philosopher, was a person with no connection to Foz Meadows, would Freer, Antonelli and Torgersen still be so goddamn certain that he was Camestros? Even if they’d managed to find some tweet or public comment of Toby’s to validate his interest in SFF – and he does enjoy some SFF, though his tastes are often different to mine – I doubt they’d have been as certain as they profess to be now. It’s my name that’s their smoking gun, and as such, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that they’ve taken me as their starting point and worked backwards from there. Toby, as mentioned, has a fairly small internet footprint beyond his professional life, and as none of the Puppies are academic logicians, the chance that they’d have heard of him in that capacity seems remote. No: instead, they remembered that I have a philosopher husband – a fact I’ve never kept secret – and decided to look for clues that fit him into their theory.

Or rather, Dave Freer did, and the others followed him. In all this mess, it now seems pretty clear that Freer is the key instigator of the Toby Is Camestros theory, and having already doubled down on that front, he has now constructed a second tier to his beautifully crafted argument (to steal a phrase from the late, great John Clarke) to explain why neither I nor Camestros has rushed to confirm his suspicions.

That theory? Oh, simple: I’m out as genderqueer, therefore Toby is gay, our marriage is a sham, and we don’t want people in the SFF community to ask questions about our relationship because we’re afraid of being compared to child predators Breen and Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Yeah. That’s literally Freer’s argument. Note: “Fieldsy” is his name for Toby, who he thinks is Camestros, because Meadows = fields, obviously. You can read the whole screed for yourself at the link, but here’s the salient section:

dave freer mzb quote

And it’s here that we reach the point where Freer has well and truly made me Person B to his Person A. This entire theory hinges on his unhinged, offensive and deeply homophobic assessment of my life, identity and marriage, but I already know that Freer doesn’t care to hear from me, nor will he believe whatever I have to say for myself. So what I say now, I don’t say for him, nor do I say it for Lou Antonelli or Brad Torgersen. I say it for myself, for the truth of the record, and for the benefit of anyone else who cares to view me as a more reliable source of information about myself, my husband and our lives than a man who has never met us and who demonstrably disdains what he thinks we are.

So:

I didn’t know I was genderqueer until after my son was born, and even then, it was hardly a straightforward realisation. At the time, I no more had a context for the dysphoria pregnancy gave me than my childhood self had understood why I often wanted to pass as a boy, or why I split my room into gendered halves, or why, in my teenage years, I sometimes wanted to rip off my skin when my clothes and body felt wrong. I didn’t have a word for what I was, let alone a framework to help me ask the right questions about it. I knew I wasn’t straight – I figured out I was bi in my teens – but gender identity remained beyond me for years.

I’ve been with my husband for a little over eleven years, and married to him for ten. He’s always known I was bi, and when I finally worked up the courage to tell him I’d realised I was genderqueer, he supported me, even though it was something he hadn’t expected. He supports me still, and I love him for that, and for a great many other reasons besides. My husband is straight, but I am not – and that’s not an oddity, either. I could make a list of SFF authors who are straight with a bi or genderqueer partner, or who are bi or genderqueer themselves with a straight partner, but I’d rather not subject anyone else in the queer SFF community to Freer’s toxic searchlight. Sufficed to say, we’re far from being the only ones, and if Freer thinks that my relationship merits a comparison to that of child abusers just because of my queerness, then I’m not the only person he’s thus insulted.

And it is an insult, regardless of Freer’s claims that he’s only saying what anyone might think. It is also uniquely hurtful – and again, I say this with no expectation that Freer himself cares for my feelings. Manifestly, he does not, and will doubtless rejoice to know that he’s upset me. Nonetheless, I am upset. I’ve tried to pretend that I’m not, but I am, and having admitted as much to myself, I feel no shame in admitting it here. Before all this, I’d never heard of Freer at all, and while I’m aware that the public nature of my life online means that I am, in a sense, accessible to strangers, there’s a great deal of difference between having someone object to my writing, and having them construct malicious falsehoods about my personal life.

In the past few days, at least one person has asked me if I’m really sure that Toby isn’t Camestros; that maybe he’s doing it all behind my back. Freer, Torgersen and Antonelli have laughed at the idea that, if Camestros isn’t Toby, then surely I must be grateful for their alerting me to the presence of a stalker-impersonator – as though they aren’t the ones rifling through my marriage in pursuit of a link that is not, was never, there.

I am, in many ways, a privileged person. In certain others, I’m not. It’s no exaggeration to say that the last five years nearly killed me: I’ve been physically sick since my son was born, debilitated by a postpartum infection whose consequences went medically undetected until late last year, playing merry hob with my immune system and mental health all the while. Even unaware of the physical side of my illness, I was still fighting Seasonal Affective Disorder, postpartum depression, gender dysphoria and the situational depression of being trapped in a cold, isolated part of the world with a new baby. It took years of desperate, difficult work to get to a point where my mental illness was addressed sufficiently for the physical symptoms, always omnipresent, to finally stand out as having a separate root cause, rather than being purely a side-effect of everything else. I was not okay for a long time, and I’m only now just starting to get really, truly better.

Which means that, for most of the past few years, in ways both large and small, my husband has been my carer. When I was debilitated, unable to get out of bed,  he was the one who dressed, fed and drove our son to childcare in the mornings, taking on innumerable domestic duties far beyond his usual half share, all while maintaining a full-time job as a lecturer and researcher. The fact that he has been superlative at his work in this time is a credit to his skill. He has published original papers in top-tier journals for his field, won prestigious grants and been invited to speak at multiple institutions in the UK, Australia and Europe, all while teaching a full courseload, and if you know anything about academia, you know that takes an enormous amount of effort.

My husband works harder than anyone else I know. Whatever he does, he does to 100% of his capability, and – which is even rarer – while constantly self-reflecting on his methods. The fact that he has achieved so much while frequently looking after our son – and after me – is a testament to his dedication. The idea that, amidst all the strife of the last five years, on top of everything else, he somehow found time to run a secret SFF blog that keeps more abreast of the Puppies than I’ve ever cared to be – that he found time to read novels, watch films and binge TV shows with which I’m unfamiliar, and that he did this all without my knowledge? Pull the other one.

From my perspective, the whole thing is absurd. I know who I am and who Toby is, and that ought to be good enough for anyone.

Except that, right now, I’ve been declared unqualified to speak truthfully about my own life. In the eyes of Freer, Antonelli and Torgersen, I’m too biased to be trusted. The idea that they have biases of their own – that they want Camestros to be Toby; that they want me to be lying – doesn’t rate a mention. So, yes: I’m upset that anyone would use my gender identity as a reason to try and invalidate my marriage, or to compare either me or my husband to predators, and I’m tired and highly irritated at having to spend precious time rebuking such obvious bigotry.

But what really infuriates me – what makes this all feel so viscerally personal – is the extent to which the theory that Toby is Camestros utterly dismisses, ignores and invalidates the lived reality of everything my husband and I have struggled through together. The past five years have contained a lot of individual wonder, but they’ve also been hellish. We’ve seen our son grow from infancy to school-age. We’ve moved from Bristol to Aberdeen to Brisbane. We’ve battled illness and mental health issues and the UK Visa Authority; we’ve thrown every spare scrap of energy into parenting, into furthering our careers, into helping each other through it all, and damned if it hasn’t been difficult.

It’s been so fucking hard, in the way that everyday life is hard: there are no trophies for getting out of bed when you want to die, no prizes for calming down after the umpteenth unnecessary argument or finally agreeing to try therapy. There’s just a new list of things to do, a new set of obstacles to overcome, and little moments in between where your child says I love you and paints dinosaur pictures that you stick on the fridge, and bigger moments strung throughout of friends and family, friends and family, shoring you up through the storm of your life like a levee.

I don’t owe anyone an interior view on my identity, my marriage or my health, but what I’ve offered here, I’ve offered for myself, because I’m angry and hurt and tired, and I want to react like a person. It’s human to be upset when someone lies about you, and if you have to pile conspiracy on conspiracy to explain why that isn’t actually true – why normal human reactions are really signs of Treachery – then maybe, just maybe, you’re not as rational as you thought.

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As January gallops on at the speed of light, as Januaries are wont to do, I’m pleased to announce two awesome pieces of news: firstly, that I’m part of this year’s Shadow Clarke jury; and secondly, that I’ll be appearing at Swancon 2018 as a Guest of Honour. I’m incredibly excited on both counts, and look forward to participating in both events.

On a far more irritating note, I find myself moved to issue a clarification in light of recent fuckery. Based on nothing but circumstantial evidence and their own antipathy, certain persons in the Sad Puppy camp – namely Lou Antonelli, Dave Freer and Brad Torgersen, though the noxious Vox Day has also joined in – have decided that an Australian anti-Puppy blogger, known by the pseudonym Camestros Felapton, is really my husband Toby. I hadn’t heard of Camestros until they emailed me a few days ago to give me a heads-up and apologise that my family was being dragged into things, but though I left a comment on Brad Torgersen’s blog to that effect, he’s thus far declined to publish it, claiming instead that Camestros’s denial is really proof that he is, in fact, Toby.

I’ve already responded to the issue at length on Twitter, and would like to note that Dave Freer in particular is being super gross about it all, while Antonelli seems weirdly bitter about Toby’s hotness. Nonetheless, for the record: my husband is not Camestros, and anyone saying otherwise is gullible, incompetent, a liar or all three. Having already doubled down on their claims, I highly doubt that Antonelli, Freer or Torgersen is likely to issue a retraction, let alone an apology; the prospect of admitting to that sort of error – or worse, conceding that I’m capable of being right – really sticks in their puppyish craws. But, well. Facts are facts, and given how many of my friends and colleagues in the SFF community have actually met my husband and can attest to his non-Camestrosness, it’s pretty clear that their credibility in this matter is, as in so many others, nil.

So, with that out of the way – and with two wonderful SFF commitments to look forward to in 2018 – I’ll leave you with the random generator of Overly Specific SFF Subgenres I made today, and hope you have fun with it.

On the phone from the Middle East, where he is currently deployed, Torgersen lamented what he called “the cognitive dissonance of people saying, ‘No, the Hugos are about quality,’ and then at the same time they’re like: ‘Ooh, we can vote for this author because they’re gay, or for this story because it’s got gay characters,’ or, ‘Ooh, we’re going to vote for this author because they’re not white.’ As soon as that becomes the criteria, well, quality goes out the window.”

Who Won Science Fiction’s Hugo Awards, and Why It Matters, by Amy Wallace

In light of this year’s Hugo Award results, and with particular reference to Amy Wallace’s excellent rundown on the Puppies affair, I feel moved to address the Sad, rather than the Rabid, contingent. Per Torgersen’s remarks above, and setting aside every other aspect of the debate that renders me alternately queasy or enraged, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something fairly fundamental to the problem that’s consistently misunderstood by the Puppies, and which, when explained, might go a long way towards explaining the dissonance between what they think is happening and what is actually happening. Not that I particularly expect Torgersen or Correia to listen to me at this point; or if they did, I’d be greatly surprised. Even so, the point seems worth stating, if only for the sake of greater clarity.

When it comes to debating strangers with radically different perspectives, you sometimes encounter what I refer to as Onion Arguments: seemingly simple questions that can’t possibly be answered to either your satisfaction or your interlocutor’s because their ignorance of concepts vital to whatever you might say is so lacking, so fundamentally incorrect, that there’s no way to answer the first point without first explaining eight other things in detail. There are layers to what’s being misunderstood, to what’s missing from the conversation, and unless you’ve got the time and inclination to dig down to the onion-core of where your perspectives ultimately diverge, there’s precious little chance of the conversation progressing peacefully. After all, if your interlocutor thinks they’ve asked a reasonable, easy question, your inability to answer it plainly is likely to make them think they’ve scored a point. It’s like a cocky first-year student asking a 101 question and feeling smug when their professor can’t condense the four years of study needed to understand why it’s a 101 question into a three-sentence answer. The problem is one as much of attitude as ignorance: having anticipated a quick response, your interlocutor has to be both willing and interested enough to want to hear what might, at least initially, sound like an explanation of a wholly unrelated issue – and that’s assuming you’re able to intuit the real sticking point straight off the bat.

So: inasmuch as any of the Puppies can be said to have a reasonable concern at the bottom of all their rhetoric, which often comes off as little more than “we think books about people who aren’t straight white dudes are boring”, it’s the worry that certain stories are being rewarded because they contain X character or are written by Y author rather than because they’re actually good. And given the way such books are often discussed and lauded by those who love them, where these aspects are openly stated as pros, you can see where the concern comes from. After all, the difference between saying “this book is great because it had a queer protagonist” and “this book is great because it had a well-written protagonist” seems, on the surface, pretty obvious: one is concerned with a single aspect of characterisation regardless of its execution, and the other is concerned with execution alone. So clearly, if you’re vaunting queerness (for instance) as though it’s a synonym for quality, you’re at risk of recommending mediocre stories on a tokenistic, uninformed basis.

Right?

Wrong.

But in order to explain why this is so, there’s six onion layers we need to unravel: context, experience, awareness, representation, language and taste.

Let’s start with layer one: context. While there’s always been an element of diversity in SFF – you can’t ignore the contributions of writers like Ursula K. Le Guin or Octavia Butler, or pretend that the Golden Age greats never wrote about politics – as the Puppies themselves agree, it’s only comparatively recently that a movement in favour of promoting diversity has flourished. Setting aside the question of whether this is a good or a bad thing, or merely just a thing, at a practical level, increased diversity in narrative means you’re adding a new set of variables to any critical equation, which in turn requires a new way to discuss them. For example: if the vast majority of protagonists in a given genre are straight, white men, then critically speaking, there’s little need to mention their straightness/whiteness/maleness when making reviews or recommendations, because none of these details are relevant in distinguishing Story A from Story B, or Character A from Character B. Instead, you talk about other things – the quality of the characterisation, for instance – and consider it a job well done.

Which, contextually, it is. And somewhat understandably, if this is what you’re used to, it can be easy to assume that ever mentioning race or gender or sexuality in a review is irrelevant – even when the characters are more diverse – because these details, whatever else they might indicate, have no bearing on the quality of the story.

Except, of course, they do, as per the evidence of layer two: experience. Who we are and where we’ve come from impacts on our construction; on our beliefs and personalities. Returning to a situation where straight white male characters are the default, a reviewer would be within their rights – would, indeed, be doing a good job – to discuss how Character A’s working class upbringing informs his personality, especially when compared with Character B’s more aristocratic heritage and attitudes. A veteran soldier will have a different perspective on combat to someone who’s only ever studied tactics at a remove, just as an old man who’s recently outlived the love of his life will think differently about romance to a teenager in the throes of his first infatuation. These details are critically pertinent because they demonstrate how and why two characters can experience the same story in radically different ways, and if we as readers happen to have some points in common with Character A or Character B, we’re always going to compare our own experiences with theirs, no matter how fantastical or futuristic the setting, because it helps us gauge whether, in our opinion, the writer has done a good job of portraying their thoughts and feelings realistically.

And so it is with details like race and gender and sexuality. A queer character will have different experiences to a straight one, particularly if they live in a homophobic culture; someone who’s religious will have a different outlook on life to someone who’s an atheist; a person from a racial and cultural minority will experience their surroundings differently to someone from the racial and cultural majority; someone who grows up poor will approach wealth differently to someone who’s always had it. How relevant these details are to individual characterisation and worldbuilding – and how successfully they’re executed within a given story – will, of course, vary on a case by case basis; but of necessity, they matter more often than not, and therefore deserve to be mentioned.

Which means that, if the straight white man is no longer the default character, but is rather just one of a number of options, his straightness, whiteness and maleness will be subject to new scrutiny, both in the present and as a retroactive phenomenon. This is layer three: awareness. All stories, no matter how fantastic or futuristic, are ultimately the product of their times, because their writers are the product of their times, too. We might envisage new worlds, but what we consider new depends as much on what we think is old as what we think is possible; our taboos change with the decade or century or according to cultural context; particular writing styles go in and out of vogue; and audiences, depending on their tastes and when they’re raised, expect a range of different things from narrative.

The retroactive criticism and analysis of old works has always been part of literary tradition; what changes is the present-day yardstick against which we measure them. Right now, we’re in the middle of a cultural shift spanning multiple fronts, both political and creative: we’re aware that stories are being told now which, for various reasons, haven’t often been told before, or which didn’t receive much prominence when they were, and which are consequently being told by a wider range of people. Depending on your personal political stance, and as with the question of diversity in the context layer, you might view this as a good thing, a bad thing, or merely a thing – but regardless of your beliefs, you can’t deny that it’s happening, and that it’s having an impact. As a direct result of this, many of us are now looking at old stories – and at old defaults – in a new light, which means that certain narratives and narrative elements which, by dint of once being so common as to void discussion, were considered thematically neutral, are now being treated as political. (Which, really, they always were – but more on that later.)

As our cultural taboos have shifted – as queerness has become decriminalised (if not always accepted) and rights extended to everyone regardless of race and gender (though still often enacted with prejudice) – the types of stories it’s acceptable to tell have changed, just as it’s now possible for a wider range of storytellers to be heard. We’re all aware of these changes, and whether we like them or not, their visibility makes us question our stories in ways we haven’t before. Thus: while there is nothing noteworthy in choosing to write a straight, white male protagonist in a cultural milieu where almost all protagonists share these qualities, the same act carries more meaning when the combination is understood to be just one of a number of possible choices; and especially where, of all those choices, it’s the one we’ve seen most often, and is therefore, in one sense, the least original. Which doesn’t make such characters inherently bad, or boring, or anything like that; nor does the presence of such characters – or the success of such writers – preclude the simultaneous presence of diversity. It simple means we have an increased awareness of the fact that, up until very recently, a certain type of character was the narrative default, and now that he’s not – or at least, now that he’s not to some people – it’s worth asking whether his presence is a sign that the writer, whether consciously or unconsciously, is perpetuating that default, and what that says about the story in either case.

Which brings us to the fourth layer: representation. Following on from the issue of awareness, consider that, as a wider variety of stories are now being told by a wider variety of people, a wider range of protagonists has consequently entered the narrative market. As with context and awareness, you might think this is a good thing, a bad thing, or merely a thing: regardless, it is happening, and will doubtless continue to happen. As such, a wider percentage of the audience is now having stories written both by and about them – or at least, about people like them – than in previous years; which means that, in response to the former dearth of such narratives, there’s been a corresponding rise in people requesting or recommending them primarily or prominently on the basis of their representational elements.

Ignoring for the moment all questions of quality – which, yes; I’m aware that’s the discussion we’re ultimately having, but bear with me – it should be a point of basic human empathy to understand why this is important; or at the very least, why representation matters to so many people. Despite our ability to empathise and connect with characters whose lives and experiences are utterly different to our own, we still like to see ourselves represented in fiction from time to time, not only as a form of validation – you’re worth telling stories about – but because, amidst so much difference, it’s a point of connection, affirmation, identity. Yet because straight white male characters were so long the default – and because that default, by virtue of its ubiquity, was considered politically neutral – changing the recipe, as it were, is still a visibly deliberate act: it makes the reader aware that the author chose for the character to be male or female, queer or straight, black or white (to give the simplest binary permutations), which awareness refutes the mythical idea of characters as the immaculate, fully-fledged gifts of some inviolable Muse, beyond the writer’s ability to pick or alter; and as such, there’s a reflexive tendency to conflate deliberate with forced, where the latter term carries implications of artificial, false, arbitrary, tokenistic. When these attributes don’t describe us, it’s easy to forget that actually, people like that do exist in the real world, and in considerable numbers; they’re not just something the author has made up out of whole cloth, and the fact that we might be surprised to see them in a given story doesn’t mean, ipso facto, that they’re incongruous within it.

As such, there’s a developing trend towards recommending stories which feature traditionally under-represented groups, not just as some arbitrary exercise, but because we’re aware that members of those groups might actually want to read those stories, and will, as a consequence, have a material interest in that aspect of the contents. But for precisely this reason, such recommendations are seldom indiscriminate, based, as Torgersen and the Puppies fear, solely on the presence of Character A regardless of execution or context – because even though protagonists have long defaulted to being straight, white and male, there’s an equally long tradition of other groups being portrayed badly. The fact that a book contains multiple female characters is no guarantee that those characters are written well, let alone inoffensively, just as the presence of POC within a classic text doesn’t mean their portrayal and treatment isn’t screamingly racist – which is why, when you see  diversity advocates recommending books on the basis that Character A is queer (for instance), the implication is that the filtering for quality has already taken place; that Character A both exists in a well-written narrative and isn’t a walking stereotype. The entire point of the exercise is to promote stories, not on the basis of token or forced diversity alone, but which portray diversity well – and because an author writing from their personal, in-depth experience is likely to have an extensive understanding of the topic, this support naturally extends to mentioning if, for instance, the author of a story starring multiple queer characters is queer themselves, not because there’s an assumption that straight people can’t write excellent stories about queer individuals, but because within any field or group, there’s always going to be a degree of insight or insider knowledge that can only be understood through personal experience, and it’s worth recognising which books are likely to replicate it, especially if we’re insiders, too, and are therefore more likely to notice if those perspectives are missing.

Consider, for instance, the probable insights contained in a military SF novel written by serving soldier, as distinct from one written by a military historian, as distinct again from one whose author’s knowledge of combat, tactics and fighting comes primarily from what they’ve read or seen in other fictional stories. The different backgrounds and knowledge-bases of these hypothetical authors says nothing about how well they write fiction, or how skilled they might be at other aspects of storytelling; they might have wildly different narrative styles and work within very different worlds, such that comparing their books, for all that they ostensibly share a genre, is a tricky proposition. All three books could be excellent in different ways, and all three books could be poor. But if someone you knew  to be both a good judge of fiction and possessed of actual combat experience – let’s call them Sam – handed you the first writer’s book and said, “Read this! The author actually served overseas!”, you’d probably deduce from context that, having served themselves, Sam was telling you that this writer gets it; their experience is my experience, or close enough to mine to be recognisable, and they know what they’re talking about. 

Similarly, if Sam praised either of the other two books for the military content, you’d understand that they were speaking from a position of personal experience: that, to someone with firsthand knowledge of fighting, the tactical/combat elements didn’t feel unrealistic or forced. By the same token, if Sam disliked the first book, you might take the criticism seriously while considering that, as the author was writing from their own first-hand perspective, too, a lack of realism wasn’t necessarily at fault, so much as a clash of opinions. But if Sam told you categorically that the third writer had no idea what they were talking about – that, regardless of any other qualities the book might have, the military aspect was hopeless – you’d be inclined to take that criticism more seriously than if a civilian friend with no grasp of tactics recommended it wholeheartedly; but depending on your own status as civilian, historian or soldier – and how badly you wanted to read the book for other reasons – your own reaction could be different again.

What I mean to say is this: seen from the outside, it’s easy to look at the members of a community recommending stories on what seems to you a superficial basis, and to conclude that, actually, nobody in that conversation is concerned with quality at all. But as per the fifth layer – language – what you’re really witnessing is a collectively understood shorthand: a way of signalling quickly that this book or that is worthy of attention based on a deeper awareness of commonly-held priorities, with respect accorded to those whose recommendations are supported by their personal experiences. Particularly on Twitter, where conversations between small groups are visible to non-participants and where character limitations make exposition difficult, it makes sense that bloggers, writers and critics alike try to be as succinct and powerful in their advocacy as possible. Just as I would accord a greater critical weight to the judgement of a soldier recommending a military SF novel, if a person of colour praises a book for its positive racial representation – or, conversely, criticises its lack thereof – I’m going to consider that relevant.

Which all ties in neatly to the final layer: taste. I’ve said before, and will say again, that I’m a firm believer in the value of negative reviews. Not only do they serve an important critical function, but as another person’s taste is seldom identical to our own, they help us construct a more useful idea of where our interests overlap with the critic’s, and where they diverge. Demonstrably, there’s an audience right now for diverse fiction: for stories which reject the old defaults and showcase a wider range of people, themes and places. The fact that some people enjoy such works does not, in and of itself, make them good works, just as popularity is no guarantee of goodness, either. The Venn diagram of why we love something is seldom a perfect circle with its objective strengths, inasmuch as such strengths can be reasonably said to exist: creative endeavours are funny like that. There’s always going to be a sort of tension between technique and passion, skill and heart, not because those things are in any way diametric opposites, but because we can never quite agree on whether one is more important than the other, or if you can really have one without the other, or where the distinction between them lies if, for instance, the most heartfelt aspects of a story are only so because of their technically sound expression.

As such, creative awards are contentious creatures – have always been so; will always be so – inasmuch as presenting one represents the imposition of an objective judgement into a fundamentally subjective medium; and because all claims to objectivity are inherently political, so must awards be political, too. This isn’t new information, though some people, like the Puppies, have become mightily outraged at the revelation that what they’ve historically perceived as a lack of politics was, in fact, merely a political bias towards their own comfort. That they are no longer predominantly catered to, they perceive as being under attack; what they call the forced introduction of politics into a formerly neutral space is rather the revelation of existing politics through a natural process of change. A sandbar might be solid for years, but when it shifts with the ocean and so makes new waves, it hasn’t betrayed the people standing on it – though possibly, it might have collapsed sooner beneath their weight, especially if they mistook it for solid and made it the foundation of an improbable edifice.

I guess what I want to say is this: despite what the Puppies think, the rest of us aren’t interested in diversity without quality, and as we’re all acutely aware, the failure mode of diversity is stereotype, which concept isn’t exactly on handshake terms with quality in the first place. That we want to celebrate historically silenced voices and perspectives doesn’t mean we’re doing so purely to spite you, or that we’ve lost all sense of judgement: if our tastes extend to seeing in fiction those versions of ourselves you’re disinclined to write, then who are you to tell us we aren’t entitled to our preferences? Nobody is saying you can’t tell your stories; we just might not want to read them, the same as you evidently have no desire to read ours. That’s not the genre being attacked – it’s the genre changing, and whether you change with it or not, we’re still going to like what we like.

Stop fighting the riptide, Puppies. As any Australian could tell you, it’s the surest way to drown.

1.

A few years ago, I tried to read Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott. I made it about halfway through before the roaring anti-Semitism finally drove me to fling the book at the wall, never to be resumed. I still don’t know how the story ends, but once I’d calmed down enough to think about it, I was struck by the difference in characterisation between Rowena and Rebecca, and what that particular contrast still says about the way we write women in fiction. Rowena, as Ivanhoe’s beloved, is meant to be the personification of all the feminine virtues of Scott’s period – beautiful and pure and obedient and yearning – while Rebecca, reading between the very broad lines, is someone we’re meant to root for despite her Jewishness without ever liking her best.

Except that, for precisely this reason, we do; but even though he wrote her that way, Scott doesn’t seem to realise it. Rowena never reads like an actual human woman because she was never intended to be one: she is, quite literally, a platonic ideal, and that makes her dull and lifeless in addition to being passive. But because Rebecca has to work to even be seen as a person in the first place, she’s much more fully human than Rowena ever is. Rebecca fights; she wins admiration by her actions, by sinking her teeth into the story and demanding to be seen: she has rough edges and strength of character, she’s narratively active, and as such, it’s impossible not to like her.

Here is what I took away from Scott’s treatment of these women: Rowena, passive and set on a pedestal, is what he thought women should be, while Rebecca, active and human, is what he grudgingly acknowledged women were; or could be, at the very least, if they actively tried to overcome the handicap of their gender.

And thus the question I ask myself, when examining female characters on the page or screen: is this woman a Rowena, or a Rebecca? Meaning: has she been written as an ideal, so defined by what the author wants her to do – usually for a man’s benefit, or to benefit his narrative (which classification, I hasten to point out, applies equally to female villains, who benefit the hero’s narrative by being Evil Because Cartoonish Misandry And/Or Incompetence) that she doesn’t come across as an actual human being? Or has she been written as a person, comprehensive and flawed and possessed of agency, even or especially if it makes her seem unlikeable or imperfect?

Slowly but surely, we’re getting more Rebeccas. But most of the time, for a very long time, Rowena has dominated.

2.

There’s this feeling I get, whenever I read a Rowena-heavy story. It’s a physical sensation, a sort of ephemeral chill that sinks into me with every male-only page, every chapter where women only exist to fill in the edges of stories that are really concerned with men. It feels cramped, like I’m crawling into some metaphysical box, and the older I get, the less comfortable it is, and the sooner I have to pull out again, the narrow confines chafing across my shoulders. It feels small in those stories, as though there’s no room for me there. I feel the same way about heteronormative storytelling: the more aware of myself I become, the more conscious of my own identity, the stronger the impulse to scream at books that don’t so much as acknowledge my existence. I feel a similar level of disgust about whitewashed stories, but being white myself, that visceral, squeezing element is missing – it’s an intellectual outrage, rather than a personal affront, and while it still makes me angry, I can’t pretend it’s the same thing. Not, to be perfectly clear, because I think the absence or stereotyping of POC is somehow less important; rather, it’s the difference between seeing your best friend punched in the face, and being punched yourself. Both assaults are utterly unacceptable, but one blow you feel secondhand, and the other in the flesh.

In 2010, I went to see the film Buried, which is shot almost entirely from the perspective of someone buried alive in a small box. It made for an intensely claustrophobic viewing experience: even knowing the camera wasn’t going to suddenly cut to a different scene, you still expected it, still wanted it to, and the lack of variation swiftly became a physical itch, a writhing unease and discomfort.

That’s what homogeneous storytelling feels like from the other side, when all the characters like you are either Rowena or stereotyped or absent altogether: claustrophobic. Go away and watch Buried, and whatever else you think of it – I hated it for reasons that had nothing to do with the cramped perspective – at least you’ll learn what it’s like to read a book or watch a show where part of you keeps waiting for the POV to leap to something new, something other than unrelenting sameness, only it never does, and all you feel is the tension caused by the absence of innovation.

Like being buried alive.

3.

I’m sick of the Sad Puppies.

Look: let’s be honest. The Puppies, by their own admission, aren’t interested in stories about people like me, or the stories of other people who aren’t like them, or stories which feature political arguments other than their own. There’s something fundamentally paradoxical about their hatred of diversity: they seem to think of it as a box-checking exercise, some arbitrary, unrealistic obsession with describing impossible, or at least implausible, persons – but at the same time, they clearly believe such individuals not only exist, but do so in vast, conspiracy-carrying numbers, because who else do they think they’re arguing with? The real world, according to Puppy gospel, is being steadily overrun with politically correct SJWs who are all queer or black or female or disabled or – gasp! – some dread combination thereof, and because they resent this tyranny, they don’t want to encourage it by acknowledging those demographics in fictional stories. This doesn’t stop them arguing, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that their stories are really reflective of the real world, even though their daily lives (they claim) are defined by a ceaseless political struggle that their fiction never reflects, partly because it’s meant for entertainment purposes only (they say), but mostly (one suspects) because the only actual struggle they’ve experienced can be better described as a personal failure of empathy, viz: why the hell would anyone want to read a book about her?

“Her” being Rebecca, both literally and metaphorically. The Puppies are agoraphobic in a genre otherwise defined by sweeping claustrophobia: they want to stay in the buried box with the dwindling air supply, while the rest of us are desperately clawing to get out, away from them and into the sunlight. We want to breathe, to change the scene, and they’d rather we suffocated wholesale than let us.

4.

Here’s what fanfiction understands that the Puppies don’t: inversion and subversion don’t ruin the story – they just give you new ways to tell it, and new tools to tell it with. Take a platonic relationship and make it romantic; there’s a story in that. Take a romantic relationship and make it platonic; there’s a story in that, too. Take a human and make her a werewolf; take a werewolf and make him human. Don’t try and sidle up on hurt/comfort like it’s something you’re ashamed to be indulging in; embrace the tropes until you have their mastery. Take a gang of broken souls surviving the apocalypse and make them happy in high school; take a bunch of funny, loving high school kids and shove them in the apocalypse. Like Archimedes, fanfic writers find the soul, the essence of what makes the characters real, and use it as a fulcrum on which to pivot entire worlds, with inversion/subversion as their lever of infinite length.

Without order, nothing can exist; without chaos, nothing can evolve. So the saying goes, and so it is.

5.

A tip for male writers: if your female characters never defy your expectations – if they never surprise you, never throw a wrench in your plans, never successfully beg a greater share of the story and your attention than you’d initially planned on giving them – then you’re not really writing women. You’re giving us Rowena, not Rebecca; over and over and over.

Be wise to the difference.