Posts Tagged ‘SF/F’

Earlier this week, Chuck Wendig posted a piece on his blog – I Smell Your Rookie Moves, New Writers – which, as the title suggests, is a takedown of particular errors he feels newbie authors make. It’s been doing the rounds on my tumblr, Facebook and Twitter feeds, because quite a lot of people I follow seem to share his sentiments; but as often as I’ve agreed with Wendig’s rants in this past, this isn’t one of those times. In fact, my abiding reaction to the early sections in particular has been one of teeth-grinding fury.

Before we get started, let me make two things clear up front: firstly, that I have an inherent dislike of writing advice that lays down specific mandates regardless of where it comes from; and secondly, that I have enormous respect for Wendig himself as a writer. His prose is punchy, sharp and bruisingly beautiful, quite like getting mugged by a street poet, and I have zero qualms about his ability to offer good advice otherwise. This isn’t me quibbling with Wendig’s technique, nor am I taking issue with the fact that he, specifically, is the one who’s spoken – it’s just that, on this occasion, he’s said a few things I think are fucking stupid, and I’d rather like to address them.

So.

Straight up, there’s a need to compare what Wendig says in his very first paragraph to what he says in the fourth (bolding mine):

I am occasionally in a place where I read work by new writers. Sometimes this is at cons or conferences. Sometimes it’s in the sample of work that’s free online or a fragment from a self-published work…

What I’m trying to say is, your rookie efforts are not automatically worth putting out into the world, especially if those efforts cost readers money to access them. The mere existence of a story is not justification for its publication. Don’t make people give you cash for your inferior efforts. Get it right before you ask money to reward you for getting it wrong.

Oh my fucking GOD, I will flip a table. Where do I even begin with this bullshit? If someone is publishing their work free online, THEY AREN’T ASKING FOR CASH – and what’s more, no one is fucking asking you to read it. There are myriad online communities that exist precisely so that new writers can ‘publish’ their work and share it with each other, up to and including specific fandom and fanwriter sites, and I reject utterly the implication that there’s no point to those venues or those communities – that such new stories aren’t “worth putting out into the world” – just because they’re not up to Wendig’s standards. I’d take less issue with the sentiment of an established writer selflessly offering help to rookies if that’s what Wendig was actually doing; instead, his piece reads like a successful author castigating first-timers for daring to aspire to his level before he thinks they’re ready.

Listen: I am all for writers improving themselves, and in the event that I fork over money for a book, I am all in favour of that book not sucking! But look at the wording, here: “don’t make people give you cash for your inferior efforts” – don’t MAKE them, as though the author is standing behind the consumer with a loaded gun, forcing them to buy their latest Kindle release. The entire point of the goddamn marketplace is that consumers take risks on products and then share their opinions about what they bought, thereby potentially attracting or deterring others from purchasing likewise. Wanting to engage in this process in good faith is not a fucking crime, okay? This whole section reads like a form of literary class policing: know your place, and know that it isn’t good enough. 

I also think it’s telling – and grossly hypocritical, given that Wendig himself started as a self-published writer – that he explicitly mentions writers who self-publish, who are unpublished or who write for free, but not rookie authors published via traditional means. (The only nod to traditional publishing is when he talks about “tested authors,” though even then, he could just as easily mean writers who’ve released multiple stories in other formats.) Because, let me tell you: I have read my share of traditionally published works that were fucking shit, and I guarantee I paid more for each of them than I ever have for any self-published release. Never mind that “inferior efforts” is a monumental and incredibly subjective value judgement in the first place: what traditionally published authors have that their unpaid or self-supporting brethren don’t – or not usually, at any rate – is the help of professional editors. Which doesn’t mean that their first drafts are somehow magically lacking the same mistakes Wendig is so angry about here; just that they’ve got an extra pair of eyes to catch them on the first pass. Does Wendig recommend his non-traditional rookies use editors or beta readers, which is an unequivocally useful piece of advice? No, he does not – which means, in essence, that he’s holding such writers to a higher standard than their traditionally published counterparts: be so good the first time that you don’t need an editor.

And look. Okay. Wendig never mentions fanwriters by name, but speaking as someone who’s pretty heavily invested in fan culture at this point, applied in that context, his advice here is the exact fucking OPPOSITE of useful. I mean, I have my own issues with the idea in some fanwriting circles that unsolicited criticism of any kind, even concrit, is verboten, because at the end of the day, if you’re putting something online where people not your friends can read it, you’ve got to be prepared for some degree of feedback. The internet is not your perfect, criticism-free bubble, and there’s no rule saying you get to enjoy the advantages of having an audience minus that audience having its own opinions just because you’d rather not deal with them. But when people share their writing for pleasure ahead of profit – when the content you’re reading is produced for free – that rightly changes the nature of how any feedback should be offered, assuming you care about not being an asshole. A person writing for free is not necessarily interested in improvement, or in anything other than having fun as part of an online community – in which case, telling them to stop posting until they suck less is rather like running up to a bunch of kids playing ball at the park and yelling that they need to run more drills before they do that shit in public, otherwise they’re never going to get scouted. I know it’s hard for published writers to remember this, but some people do write for pleasure alone, and the internet makes that easier than ever.

More to the point, though: writing shouldn’t begin as a woodshed exercise for every single person who wants to try it for money, and part of what makes new authors better – especially if they’re the type of rookie who can’t afford an editor and has no access to reliable betas – is getting feedback on their work. I mean, let’s be real: Wendig is acting like charging money for crap books is a crime, instead of just part of the literary-commercial ecosystem. Crap books – and we won’t always agree on what they are, because it’s a judgement call – are always going to be published, and some people are always going to regret buying them, but that doesn’t mean they should never have been written or published in the first place.

Except 50 Shades of Gray, maybe. That is some abusive, rape-apologist bullshit right there.

But I digress.    

Here’s my point: so long as you continue to write, your writing style will change. Maybe you’ll get better, maybe you’ll get worse, and maybe you’ll just get different – write for long enough, and you’ll probably do all three. But if you really want to succeed as a writer, hesitating to publish through fear of your own inadequacies is going to get you vastly fewer places than publishing in confidence, but learning to accept criticism. That being so, I’m not angry that Wendig wants new writers to improve; that’s fair enough. I’m angry because a statement like “don’t make people give you cash for your inferior efforts” isn’t going stop an uncritical egotist who already thinks they’re the next John Green, but it’s sure as hell going to stop the kind of self-doubting beginner whose problem isn’t accepting criticism, but finding the necessary confidence to parse it intelligently.

Which brings me to the topic of Wendig’s actual advice, and the reason I’m always sceptical whenever I see anyone lay down hard rules about what to do, or not do, in the course of writing: it’s because, 90% of the time, that sort of advice doesn’t account for differences in individual style any more than it accounts for differences in individual taste, and therefore has the effect of teaching someone, not how to write well, where well is a universal, but how to write like the person giving the advice.

It is compelling, I know, to figure out every single thing that is happening all the time always in your story. Characters smile and laugh. Okay. They fidget. Fine. They drink a cup of tea with their pinky out. Sure, why not? But if you’re writing out every hiccup, burp, fart, wince, flinch, sip, and gobble, you got problems. A character turns on a lamp? Super, you don’t need to describe how they turn it on. I don’t need to see John Q. Dicknoggin unzipping his fly before he pisses, and frankly, I may not need to see that he pisses unless it’s telling us something about his character.     

On the surface, this is a reasonable thing to say. The problem is that it’s only contextually reasonable, in that some people will be helped by taking this advice, and others hindered. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, for instance -widely regarded as a genre classic – could never have been written if Peake wrote to Wendig’s specifications, and regardless of whether his work is your cup of tea, you can’t deny that many people are extremely fond of it, even though – or especially because, depending on your perspective – it contains passages like this:

The speed of the door as it swung on its hinges was extraordinary, but what was just as dramatic was the silence – a silence so complete that Bellgrove, with his head turned towards his staff and his hand still groping in the air for the bell-pull, could not grasp the reason for the peculiar behaviour of his colleagues. When a man is about to make a speech, however modest, he is glad to have the attention of his audience. To see on every face that stared in his direction an expression of intense interest, but an interest that obviously had nothing to do with him, was more than disturbing. What had happened to them? Why were all those eyes so out of focus – or if they were in focus why should they skim his own as though there were something absorbing about the woodwork of the high green door behind him? And why was Throd standing on tiptoe in order to look through him?

Bellgrove was about to turn – not because he thought there could be anything to see but because he was experiencing that sensation that causes men to turn their heads on deserted roads in order to make sure they are alone. But before he could turn of his own free will he received two sharp yet deferential knuckle-taps on his left shoulder-blade – and leaping about as though at the touch of a ghost he found himself face to face with the tall Christmas-cracker of a butler.

Intense, tight, detailed description of settings, people and actions is a valid stylistic choice. That doesn’t mean it can’t be executed badly – just that doing so is not synonymous with executing it at all.

Enter Wendig’s second objection:

We tell stories because they are interesting. We offer narrative because narrative is a bone-breaker: it snaps the femur of the status quo. It is in fact the sharp, gunshot-loud fracture-break of the expected story is what perks our attention. Guy goes to work, works, comes home, has dinner, goes to bed? Not interesting. Guy goes to work, has the same troubles with his boss, endures the standard problems of the day (“where are my goddamn staples?”), goes home, eats an unsatisfying dinner, goes to bed and sleeps restlessly until the next day of the same thing? Still not interesting. Guy goes to work and gets fired? Okay, maybe, depending on if he does something unexpected with it. Guy goes to work and gets fired out of a cannon into a warehouse full of ninjas? I’M LISTENING.

Well, of course you are, Chuck: you write SFF, and are therefore highly likely to prefer ninjas to the minutiae of daily office life. But this doesn’t change the fact that there’s an entire literary tradition based around slice-of-life realism: stories where the big emotional tension really does hinge on the fact that someone was fired after struggling with their boss, and what this means for their family. Hell, you basically just described the first third of American Beauty. What you’re really railing at here is the idea that domesticity is fundamentally uninteresting – which, don’t even get me started on the gendered implications of that logic when applied in wider contexts, aka The Reason Why So Many Goddamn Fantasy Stories Focus On Big Dudes With Swords Because What Women Do In The Castle Is Girly And Unimportant – in conjunction with a dislike of stories that privilege a character’s emotions and internality above external conflict. Which is to say: this paragraph tells us a great deal about what Chuck Wendig looks for in a novel, but conflates this preference with what good novels look like, period.

Description is the same way. You don’t need to tell me what everything looks like because I already know –

Not if I’m describing something that’s purely fictional, you don’t. Which is to say: the fact that I don’t need to tell you what everything looks like doesn’t mean I shouldn’t tell you what anything looks like.

– and most things aren’t that interesting. Leaves on a tree are leaves on a tree. For the impact of story, how many points each leaf has or how they move in the wind is not compelling.

AUGH. Look: I get that this is meant to be a random example illustrating why we shouldn’t include information that’s totally irrelevant to the plot, but it’s a really shitty example, because even ignoring the fact that sometimes, it’s just nice to set the scene, I can think of a dozen reasons off the top of my head why detailing leaves specifically might be relevant. A ranger describes a particular plant which, in addition to its historical significance, can be used as life-saving medicine. The king’s poisoner tends their herb garden, teaching their protégé the various uses of each. A paleobotanist suddenly encounters plants she thought extinct, and promptly goes into raptures. But Foz! I hear you cry, Aren’t you being unfairly specific? When would that ever happen, really?

Reader, I just described to you actual canonically important scenes from The Lord of the Rings, Robin Hobb’s Assassin series and Jurassic Park. The devil is in the motherfucking details, dudes. Sometimes you can do without them, but sometimes you really can’t.

Trim, tighten, slice, dice. Pare it all down. Render. Render!…

Whatever it is you’re writing, it’s too long. Cut it by a third or more. Do it now. I don’t care if you think you should do it, just do it. Try it. You can go back to it if you don’t like it. Consider it an intellectual challenge — can you utterly obliterate 33% of your story? Can you do it mercilessly and yet still tell the story you want to tell? I bet you jolly well fucking can.

Merciful fucking Christ, if I never see another piece of writing advice that involves the phrase “pare it all down” it’ll be too soon. I mean, look: I love a stylistically wham, bam, thank-you ma’am novel as much as the next person, but sometimes I want to indulge myself. Really settle in with the slow-burn detail, rolling around in lush descriptions of bright new worlds. Sometimes you want a bit of junk in the literary trunk, you know? Every single novel does not have to whip its metaphorical dick out on the first page and then spend the next thirty chapters furiously jacking itself to climax like a pornstar trying to hit his mark for a neatly-timed cumshot. Your novel won’t implicitly suck if you slow down and take your time teasing the reader.

Plus and also? I know we have a cultural stereotype that says rookie writers consistently produce pages and pages of unnecessary drivel, but a lot of newbies underwrite, too – in which case, telling them to pare back an already barren story isn’t going to help. There’s a reason why so many early creative writing exercises teach students how to describe, how to build: you need to get to the point of creating excess before you can learn how to cut it back, such that assuming the presence of excess as a default is a bad way to go.

The story begins on page one.

Repeat: the story begins on page one.

It doesn’t begin on page ten. It doesn’t start in chapter five.

It starts on page one.

Get to the point. Get to the story. Intro characters and their problem and the stakes to those problems as immediately as you are able. You think you’re doing some clever shit by denying this? You think you need to invest us in your luscious prose and the rich loamy soil of the worldbuilding and the deep nature of these characters — ha ha ha, no. We’re here for a reason. We’re here for a story. If by the end of the first page there isn’t the sign of a story starting up? Then we’re pulling the ripcord and ejecting. We’ll parachute out of your airless atmosphere and land on the ground where things are actually happening.

This is one way to tell a story, certainly. But it’s not the only way, and it’s not always a good one. I have had my absolute fill of – to pick a single example – first-person YA fantasy novels that start with the character in the middle of a battle for precisely this reason, but which never slow down sufficiently to explain why the fight unfolded that way in the first place, because the author never bothered to figure it out. Listen: I’m aware that there’s a debate about the utility of prologues in SFF, and some people hate them for exactly the reasons Wendig has outlined above. The story should start when it starts; if you can’t communicate that earlier information in the first chapter, then it doesn’t deserve a prologue. And in some cases, that’s correct.

But prologues also constitute an important stylistic break. In a story that’s otherwise written entirely in the first person, for instance, having a prologue in the third, containing information the viewpoint character couldn’t possibly know, but which is materially relevant to interpreting their actions, can be an extremely clever move. Think about every film you’ve ever seen that starts in one place before the opening credits roll, then cuts to the protagonist once they’ve finished. That, right there? That’s setting the scene, and even though it’s not always obvious how that first scene relates to the subsequent ones, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t ever have been there in the first place.

Despite his presumptuous use of the royal ‘we’, Chuck Wendig is not speaking for everyone when he says that readers aren’t interested in stories that take longer than a fucking page to establish worldbuilding or character. Good novels can be slow. Not to bring up Tolkien again, because I get hives when people hold him up as the be-all, end-all of the genre, but Christ: do you even remember how The Fellowship of the Ring starts? It’s with a prologue entitled Concerning Hobbits that goes on for pages before Frodo Baggins is ever even mentioned by name, and that doesn’t stop people loving it. Writing books is not a goddamn race, is my point, and I’m sick and tired of seeing brevity held up as an unequivocal literary virtue when it’s just as liable to produce dross as gold when used inexpertly.

Dialogue, for instance, is one of those things that has rules. And for some reason, it’s one of the most common things I see get utterly fucked.

On this point, I agree with Wendig. But then, he’s not discussing style here so much as the basic rules of grammar – and even then, if you’re doing it intelligently, with purpose, as opposed to because you’re unaware of the conventions, even these can be fluid. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet eschews all quotation marks, and it’s a gorgeous novel: yes, it’s an exception to the norm, but I mention it because Wendig’s decision to situate adherence to actual grammatical/formatting rules as identical to meeting his personal narrative preferences makes me bristle. Generally speaking, electing to fuck with the standard protocols is not something you’d do with a first novel, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t ever been done successfully. Returning to an earlier point, it’s the kind of problem that, for a traditionally published author, would (one hopes) be caught in editing – so if you’re not too sharp on the basic conventions and you care about getting them right, you can either look them up, ask a knowledgeable friend to beta your work, or hire an editor. This is line-edit drama, not a problem with poorly-executed style, and there’s a goddamn difference, please and thank you.

You need to let your characters talk.

Dialogue is grease that slicks the wheels of your story.

And eventually it gets tiresome. You love the characters and you think they should be allowed to go on and on all day long because you think they’re just aces. They’re not. Shut them up. Keep the dialogue trim and vital. Concise and powerful. Let them have their say in the way they need to say it — in the way that best exemplifies who those characters are and what they want — and then close their mouths. Move onto the next thing. Let’s hear from someone else or something else.

Generally speaking, I agree with this, too. Unless your character is giving a speech, monologuing to a captive audience or engaging in a soliloquy, they’re probably not going to speak uninterrupted for any length of time. The conversation will go back and forth, and eventually, it’s going to end, and you don’t always need to show every single exchange in order to get the point across. I will, however, take issue with the idea that dialogue must always be “trim and vital, concise and powerful” – because many people aren’t. Naturalistic dialogue can be a powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal, letting you establish voice, dialect, setting and any manner of other things. That doesn’t mean letting the characters talk about anything under the sun with no reference to plotting; it means that not every single exchange has to be geared towards the narrative end-game in order to make a positive contribution to the story.

Each character needs to be a shining beam — each distinct from the next. Bright and demonstrative of its own color. Not archetypes, not stereotypes, but complex and easily distinguished people. And I want a reason to care about them.

This, I agree with: absolutely, 1000%.

Right out of the gate, I want this. I need to know what they want, why they want it, and what they’re willing to do to get it. I need, in very short terms, their quest. Whether desired or a burden, I gotta know why they’re here on the page in front of me. That’s not true only of the protagonist, but of all the characters.

Who are they?

If you can’t tell me quickly, they become noise instead of operating as signal.

Aaaand we’re back to disagreeing again. Because, look, Chuck – I don’t know what your fucking deal with speed is, here, but I’m going to say it again: storytelling isn’t a race. There are times when I want to know quickly what a character’s motivation is, and times where I can stand to wait a little. Sometimes, the best characters slowly emerge from the background, insinuating themselves into the story in ways you didn’t expect at the outset. A great recent example of this was Csevet in Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. A courier who initially brings the protagonist, Maia, the news of his ascension to the throne, Csevet seems at first to be a background character, someone who’ll disappear once he’s fulfilled his immediate purpose. This isn’t because Addison fails to make him a distinct individual, but is rather a consequence of the story being told with a tight focus on Maia’s perspective: Csevet’s needs aren’t as important in the first chapters as Maia’s are, and as Csevet initially appears to deliver a specific piece of news, we’re not expecting Maia to keep him around. But he does, and so the character expands, steadily revealing more and more of himself as the narrative progresses.

You don’t need to give a physical description of every single character the second they first appear in the story, because that information might not be immediately relevant. A character can move in the background as a seeming bit player before ever coming to the fore, and even once you can see them, their motives won’t always be transparent. I don’t just mean this in the facetiously obvious sense, that some characters have hidden agendas: I mean that if you’ve got six characters in a scene, the fact that the primary focus is on two of them doesn’t mean the other four won’t come into their own later. This is even more important to remember if you’re writing in first person, where describing a character or making an observation is synonymous with the character doing those things – and while the author might want to give certain details, the character might not even pick up on them for another three chapters.

What I’m saying is this: Wendig is completely correct in saying that your characters, even the minor ones, should be real, distinct individuals. But that doesn’t mean you have to give their quest away up front, or make it immediately obvious that a seemingly minor character is going to come into greater prominence later. I dislike working from the assumption that your audience is impatient, easily bored and allergic to surprises – especially as I’m not that sort of reader myself.

It’s very hard to manage a lot of characters.

I do it in some books and the way that I do it is by introducing them piecemeal — not in one big dump like I’m emptying a bag of apples onto the counter (where they promptly all roll away from me), but one or two at a time.

Which is kind of what I’m getting at, but from the opposite perspective: it’s okay to empty your bag of apples, provided you subsequently gather them all back up again. Otherwise, you’re permanently restricting yourself to writing early scenes where only one or two characters are present, which… personally? I find that boring; or at least, I wouldn’t want it as a staple. I like stories that challenge me by throwing me in the deep end, asking that I figure out a bunch of characters and navigate their relationships on the fly by way of teaching me the setting. Elizabeth Bear does this wonderfully, as do Kate Elliott and Alaya Dawn Johnson, which is a big part of why I love their books. Particularly in SFF, the social roles the characters inhabit can tell you as much about them – and the world – as their personalities and motives, and the fact that there might be a tension between how a character behaves in an official capacity and who they are otherwise can lead to some extremely satisfying characterisation. Thus: you might first show me the faceless Executioner in Chapter 1, letting them appear as a background authority in Chapter 2, so that when I finally learn their name and their hatred of the Emperor they purport to serve in Chapter 3, I feel the contradiction far more strongly than if you’d simply said as much to begin with.

…if each character sounds like a replicant of the next, you’ve got a problem. It’s not just about vocal patterns. It’s about what they’re saying in addition to how they’re saying it. It’s about their ideas and vision and desires. Look at it this way: it’s not just your prose that makes you your author. It’s not just your style. It’s whatyou write. It’s the themes you express. Characters operate the same way. They have different viewpoints and needs. They have their own ways of expressing those viewpoints and needs, too. Get on that. Otherwise, they’re all just clones with different names and faces. 

Exactly.

Stop doing stunt moves. You can do that later. Right now, assume that you have a single goal: clarity. Clarity is key. It is king. If I do not know what is going on, then I’m out… Do yourself a favor and aim to just tell the story. Get out of the way. Be clear. Be forthright. Be confident and assertive and show us what’s happening without compromise and without burying it under a lot of mud.

You don’t get points for being deliberately ambiguous.

On the surface, this is good advice: it’s just that, given the emphasis on speed in the rest of this piece, I’m inclined to think that Wendig thinks of clarity as a synonym for simplicity, as per the injunction against “trick moves”. Which, yes: if you’re a very new writer, you need to make sure you’re being understood before you can play with expression. But natively, not everyone is going to have the same style or be interested in writing the same sort of book. It’s not a “trick move” to want to have a big cast, or to tell a slow-burn story, or to be interested in description. In fact, I’d argue that writing in a sparse, clean style takes just as much skill as writing more lavishly: there’s an art to economy, and I’ve never liked the idea that it’s somehow a better, easier choice for beginners just because it uses fewer words. Ask any artist: understanding negative space and its impact on the picture takes skill and practice, just like drawing does.

I guess what I’m saying is this: Chuck Wendig has written a piece that’s enormously helpful if you want to learn to write like Chuck Wendig and/or have a natural inclination towards his style, but which is vastly less helpful if you want to learn to write like anyone else; like you, for instance. There’s some good advice there, to be sure, but the parts that aren’t – which conflate his personal preferences with universal truths; which tell new writers they’re not good enough to be worth the cost of admission, no matter how cheap – those parts can fuck right off. Not everybody needs to write books the exact same way, just as everyone doesn’t need to read and love the exact same things, and I’m sick of writing advice that’s really just one person’s taste masquerading as objective truth.

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.

Warning: spoilers.

When I first sat down to write a review of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, all I managed to produce was a narrative about my own queerness. This is my second attempt, and even now, I’m struggling not to make it personal. I feel – defensive of queerness, I think, or maybe just tired. A few months ago, I finally realised I was genderqueer as well as bisexual, which epiphany I’m still fully processing, and it’s left me feeling raw. It’s disorienting to suddenly look back over nearly three decades of your life and realise, with a sort of belated weariness, how hella fucking repressed you’ve always been – how repressed you still are, in fact, because identifying your own reactions doesn’t magically change them – and as such, I’m on something of a hair trigger as regards queer tragedy in narrative.

It doesn’t help, of course, that there’s a lot of queer tragedy going around these days. I loved Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs, but I could really have done without the dead queer man at the finale. Being queer and a fan of Supernatural is an exercise in masochism at the best of times, but then Charlie Bradbury winds up slashed to death in a bathtub, and you start questioning your choices all over again. I was looking forward to The Traitor Baru Cormorant for ages, but I couldn’t even get through the first two chapters without screaming internally.

And now there’s The Fifth Season, and I just –

Look. This is a really hard review to write, okay? Because I fucking love Jemisin’s books, and in terms of technical execution, The Fifth Season is her strongest yet.  The worldbuilding is phenomenal; ditto the characterisation, the writing, the plot. Her decision to write Essun’s sections in the seldom-used second person immediate is a stylistic gamble that absolutely pays off, forcing the reader to not just identify with, but to be addressed as a complicated, powerful, competent woman of colour – a woman mourning the murder of her son, no less – and if I have to explain to you why that’s an inherently radical thing right now, then clearly, you haven’t been watching the news. I devoured the whole book python-style, and even as we speak, I’m still making mental grabby hands for the sequel. The Fifth Season is very expressly a novel about oppression; about the monstrous things people do when they stop believing this group or that is fully, truly human, and why you cannot collaborate with or usefully work to change from within a system that’s fundamentally predicated on your inborn inferiority. In the world of the Stillness, orogenes – magic-users who control seismic activity – are both feared and hated, either killed outright for their differences or brutally enslaved, and right from the get-go, zero punches are pulled. The story begins with a mother, Essun, reacting to her husband’s murder of their three-year-old orogene child, and throughout the story, the ways in which children especially are brutalised, abused and dehumanised by a system that deems them monstrous from birth is depicted with a chilling internality: the descriptions aren’t graphic, but then, they hardly need to be.

Far more insidious than overt displays of physical violence are the ways in which such children – and, by extension, the adults they become – are taught to fear and hate themselves. Essun often thinks of herself as a monster, as less than human, and whereas Seth Dickinson, at the start of Baru Cormorant, failed to convince me of how and why a homophobic culture could so thoroughly and swiftly indoctrinate children into mistrusting their own loving families, the orogene self-hated of Jemisin’s world is utterly believable. It’s not just evident in the cruelty and intolerance of the pervading culture: it’s that trained orogenes are denied a full understanding of their magic, not just intellectually, but linguistically, constantly struggling to articulate core parts of themselves for lack of a language tailored to their experiences. Though Jemisin’s world is racially diverse and, in some ways, egalitarian – both men and women can be designated Breeders or hold Leadership positions; trans individuals are accepted in some castes, but not in others – orogenes are slaves, and though they might lie to themselves about it, accepting what they’re taught, that doesn’t make their oppression any less vicious.

Which is, I suspect, why the treatment of the queer characters rubs me so raw. Being orogene is metaphorically representative of various forms of systematic oppression; but as queer characters in this setting still explicitly suffer for and with their queerness as well as for being orogene, it’s much, much harder for a queer reader to maintain a healthy degree of emotional distance. And thus, the problem of Alabaster: a queer man repeatedly forced to have sex with women as part of, effectively, an orogene breeding programme. All his past relationships with men have ended, it’s either implied or stated outright, in tragedy. Not, of course, that any orogene in this setup is exactly free to choose their partners, but whereas Syenite, with whom he’s asked to produce his latest child, is coerced into sex she doesn’t want only by dint of being orogene, Alabaster is additionally coerced to act against his own sexual orientation – a fact of which Syen, and therefore the reader, is initially unaware.

Which leaves me torn: because, on the one hand, it’s important that Jemisin has acknowledged the additional, heteronormative burden of sex in these circumstances – that is, where two parties are being forced to produce a child at someone’s request, regardless of their own desires – as imposed on queer orogenes; but on the other hand, it means you’ve got queer characters being subject to an extra layer of oppression. And if the story ended differently, then I’d be applauding right now, because genrewise, The Fifth Season is arguably a fantasy dystopia, and I am 9000% done with the recent trend in sexually coercive dystopias that are too solidly fixated on magical straight romance saving the day to even bother acknowledging queerness at all, let alone prominently.

But.

Alabaster just broke my fucking heart. Which isn’t to say the rest of the story didn’t move me; it did, powerfully so. Jemisin doesn’t flinch from dark subject matter, and being as how The Fifth Season is the first book in an apocalyptic series, it was hardly going to end on a cheerful note. Nobody in this novel gets a happy ending, partly because the narrative hasn’t actually ended yet, but mostly because there’s nothing happy about it. Essun’s son is still dead, her murdering husband has still absconded with their daughter, the world is still ending, and orogenes are still hunted and feared. I wasn’t expecting Alabaster to prove the exception to the rule just because he’s a queer man, you know? I just didn’t want him to suffer in ways that are explicitly related to – inextricably bound with – our narratives of queer tragedy. He could have suffered in parallel to his queerness, rather than because of it, or in ways that were compounded by it, without compromising the thematic integrity of the story.

But this is what happens instead: his lover, a bisexual man, is brutally murdered, his family is destroyed, and when he shows up at the finale, we’re told he’s dying, physically incapacitated by a sort of magical illness-slash-transformation that’s steadily turning parts of him to stone, leaving him in excruciating pain, and I just – that is the fucking essence of queer tragedy, you know? Dead lover, no family, physically debilitated, terminally ill. And I know, I know this is a book about oppression, I know it’s literally Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies all round, but nobody else in the novel suffers explicitly racist, explicitly sexist persecution in the same way the queer characters experience explicitly queer persecution, like Tonkee being kicked out of her family for being trans or underage Jasper being publicly shamed and outed and punished for enjoying it (we’re told) when an older man touches him sexually: everyone else is persecuted just for being orogene, and while we’re never explicitly told that queerness is bad, we’re never shown any positive iterations of it that don’t end in tragedy, either.

So: The Fifth Season is a powerful, important novel with a lot of intelligent, lamentably relevant things to say about structural violence, bigotry, dehumanisation, colonisation, historical erasure and systematic oppression. But as much as I love the rest of it, I can’t overlook the queer tragedy elements; because in a novel where every ugliness of persecution is being put under the microscope and subversively examined through the lens of orogeny, it stands out that this one trope still holds true. And from the bottom of my poor queer heart, I really wish it didn’t.

For a while now, I’ve been hearing chatter about Seth Dickinson’s upcoming debut, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, due for release in September this year. Some of what I’ve heard has been extremely positive; some has been less so. Either way, I was intrigued enough to be interested, and today I finally read the first two chapters, which are currently available online at Tor.com.

My gut reaction thus far: creeping unease.

At a technical level, Dickinson writes extremely well. His prose is clean and sharp and compelling with a good sense of pace, and he has a knack for conveying great scope with few words. He’s also telling a story about queer people, people of colour, women, imperialism, politics and colonialism, which is always going to interest me at a visceral level, and as such, I was never bored.

However.

The thing about writing SFFnal stories is that, no matter how fantastic the setting or distant the future we might write, they’re still ultimately shaped by our very real, very human now: by our cultures, past and present, with all the attendant histories and contexts that entails. Sometimes, the connection is more obvious than others, as when we’re deliberately trying to evoke the shadow of ancient Rome or Renaissance Italy, but however we might invent, dissemble, hybridise, paraphrase or otherwise imagine new worlds, we’re not making anything out of whole cloth. Our fingerprints pattern the weave, reminding us of the reality we’re trying, however briefly, to escape, and whether we do it consciously or not, the process still occurs, as inevitable as sunrise.

Thus: when Dickinson writes about the Empire of Masks, with its paper money, bureaucratic service exam and sterile hatred of unhygienic behaviour, which here means homosexuality in all its permutations, what I think of is a cross between Imperial Britain and Imperial China, the language and bigotry of the former married to the institutions and scale of the latter. Adding to this impression, the denizens of Falcrest, home of this chimerical empire, are described as follows:

“This was the first impression Baru had of the Falcrest people: stubborn jaws, flat noses, deep folded eyes, their skin a paler shade of brown or copper or oat. At the time they hardly seemed so different.” 

Anglophone language and epicanthic folds: it’s not a subtle marriage, and in these two chapters, it feels like Dickinson has smashed imperial China and Britain together without much regard for the consequences of the fit. Which, ordinarily, might raise my eyebrow without stirring complaint – generally speaking, I’m a fan of cultural mashups, especially incongruous or startling ones. But here, given the prominent focus on homophobia and queer persecution, I can’t get past the real world implications; or, more specifically, the real world history.

Because beyond the horrific history between Britain and China, which frequently involves the former exploiting the latter, there’s the inescapable fact that Imperial China didn’t have anything even vaguely resembling the institutional homophobia Dickinson is describing, because in China – as in so many other parts of the world impacted by white colonialism – the sort of scientific, medicalised, systematic homophobia that situated being queer as an illness was a Western import. Nor is this a difficult fact to ascertain, as per the very first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on homosexuality in China:

“The existence of homosexuality in China has been well documented since ancient times. According to one study, homosexuality in China was regarded as a normal facet of life in China, prior to the Western impact of 1840 onwards. However, this has been disputed. Many early Chinese emperors are speculated to have had homosexual relationships, accompanied by heterosexual ones. Opposition to homosexuality, according to the study by Hinsch, did not become firmly established in China until the 19th and 20th centuries, through the Westernization efforts of the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic of China. On the other hand, Gulik’s influential study argued that the Mongol Yuan dynasty introduced a more ascetic attitude to sexuality in general… Either way, it is indisputable that homosexual sex was banned in the People’s Republic of China from at least the twentieth century, until it was legalized in 1997.”

By comparison, the first British anti-sodomy law was the Buggery Act of 1533, which gave the crown the power to deal with an offence that had previously been handled exclusively by the Christian ecclesiastical courts. Consider this excerpt, for instance, from the Wikipedia article on homosexuality and psychiatry in a Western context:

“The view of homosexuality as a psychological disorder has been seen in literature since research on homosexuality first began. However, psychology as a discipline has evolved over the years in its position on homosexuality. Current attitudes have their roots in religious, legal and cultural underpinnings. In the early Middle Ages the Christian Church tolerated, or at least ignored homosexuality in secular cultures outside the Church. However, by the end of the 12th century hostility towards homosexuality began to emerge and spread through Europe’s secular and religious institutions. There were official expressions condemning the “unnatural” nature of homosexual behavior in the works of Thomas Aquinas and others. Unti the 19th century, homosexual activity was referred to as “unnatural, crimes against nature”, sodomy or buggery and was punishable by law, and even death. As people became more interested in discovering the causes of homosexuality, Medicine and Psychiatry began competing with the law and religion for jurisdiction. In the beginning of the 19th century, people began studying homosexuality scientifically. At this time, most theories regarded homosexuality as a disease, which had a great influence on how it was viewed culturally.”

With these two different narratives in mind, here’s the view of homosexuality held by Dickinson’s fictitious imperial Falcrest, as described in Chapter One:

“She went into the school, with her own uniform and her own bed in the crowded dormitory, and there in her first class on Scientific Society and Incrasticism she learned the words sodomite and tribadist and social crime and sanitary inheritance, and even the mantra of rule: order is preferable to disorder. There were rhymes and syllogisms to learn, the Qualms of revolutionary philosophy, readings from a child’s version of the Falcresti Handbook of Manumission.”

Clearly, then, this is type of homophobia is far more in the British mould than the Chinese. And thus my unease: because while Dickinson’s Masquerade, as his empire is externally known, is a fictional culture, what it evokes, in terms of real world comparisons, is a narrative wherein an undeniably white, colonial, homophobic agenda is being utilised by POC against other POC. Throw in the fact that, post-Western influence, modern China was, for a period, intensely homophobic – something the casual reader is more likely to know about than, say, the passion of the cut sleeve – and you have a narrative that, whether intentionally or not, subtly reinforces the stereotype of homophobia as a predominantly non-Western, non-white problem.

Further complicating matters is the planned trajectory of the titular protagonist – that is, of Baru Cormorant – as a woman from a formerly queer-friendly culture having to repress that part of her identity in order to rise through the Falcresti ranks, the better to one day change their ideology. To be clear: I have absolutely nothing against the idea of a story where a secret outsider strives to change a toxic system from within; that’s good stuff. The problem is that, by the end of Chapter Two, Baru – now eighteen – is set to leave her home island of Taranoke for life in the imperial service, having aged eleven years since the start of Chapter One. And while, as stated, Dickinson writes with great technical skill, for a story that’s being set up to portray Baru as the intended saviour of Taranoke culture, it’s troubling that we see her behaviour almost exclusively through the lens of Falcresti mores.

By which I mean: beyond its queer and polyamorous acceptance, we’re shown very little about Taranoke culture, and thus don’t have the proper sense of what Baru is setting out to avenge or protect beyond a deeply simplistic narrative of Homophobia Is Wrong. Baru’s time at the Falcresti school under the sponsorship of her patron, Cairdine Farrier, is the kind of thing I could easily read books about in its own right, but which in either case demands far more attention than two brief chapters can supply, no matter how well written they might be. Instead, we see far more of Baru’s acceptance of Falcresti logic than we do comparisons or conflicts with what she was taught before then; even the other students seem to have accepted the colonial mandate that the families and family structures they’ve known all their lives are wrong, as per this section in Chapter Two:

“Children began to vanish from the school, sent back out onto the island, into the plague. “Their behaviour was not hygienic,” the teachers said. Social conditions, the students whispered. He was found playing the game of fathers –

The teachers watched them coldly as their puberty came, waiting for unhygienic behaviour to manifest itself. Baru saw why Cairdine Farrier had advised her on her friendships. Some of the students collaborated in the surveillance.”

This level of indoctrination and complicity, presented in the absence of any compelling reason as to why the Taranoke students are so quick to abandon their own culture, is utterly jarring. We don’t get a sense of fear or coercion or other social changes beyond the plague and its impact; the children are seemingly cut off from their parents and families long before then, and it’s all glossed so quickly that what should be a nuanced explanation of cultural change and colonialism – but which is still the apparent heart of the novel, given that Baru is meant to be motivated by her time here to come back and fix everything – is instead rendered in brief, like an unimportant aside before the real story starts.

As a queer reader, the portrait Dickinson paints of Falcresti homophobia is genuinely unsettling, which is why the commensurate lack of attention paid to Taranoke customs feels like such an imbalance. Two chapters in, and all we know of queerness so far is that people suffer for it: Baru loses one of her fathers to the invaders, her cousin is threatened with molestation under the guise of corrective rape, Taranoke is colonised, and Baru’s two external allies both abandon her when they learn what she did to try and protect her cousin.

It’s queer tragedy porn in a fantasy context, and from what I’ve been told about how the book ends, that never really changes; arguably gets worse, in fact. And while I applaud Seth Dickinson for wanting to tell a story about how Homophobia Is Bad, complete with a cast of characters who are queer and female and POC, I can’t applaud his apparent decision to do so by making said characters suffer unbearably because of their orientation, the better to let the audience know that Homophobia Is Wrong.

The problem, then, is that The Traitor Baru Cormorant comes across as being a novel about queer oppression that is – whether intentionally or not – written for a straight audience: that is, for people who can find novelty and drama in stories about unrelenting queer oppression because they’ve never personally experienced it, whereas those of us who have just want, by and large, to read about queer people being people, preferably complex ones who get their fair share of happy endings rather than the traditional tragedy.

So, yeah. I’ll reserve full judgement for when (and if) I make it through the rest of the book, but right now, it doesn’t bode well.

Earlier this week, K. Tempest Bradford wrote an article encouraging readers to forego books by straight, white, cismale authors for a year, the better to “change the way you read and the way you go about picking things to read”. Bradford is not alone in her approach; as she herself mentions, Sunili Govinnage read only authors of colour in 2014, while Lilit Marcus spent a year reading only books by women. The point of such experiments should be obvious to anyone who’s been paying even a small amount of attention to literary and SFFnal politics over the past few years: thanks to a combination of conscious and unconscious bias, works by straight white men are reviewed more, praised more, promoted more and generally given disproportionate prominence in the literary scene than those by other writers, and as such, it’s easy to miss out on excellent books – to say nothing of contributing to a culture where their authors are routinely dismissed – by never questioning what and who we’re reading.

Enter Laura Resnick, who has missed the point so spectacularly, it’s hard to know where to begin. To quote:

…my reaction to being challenged to give up Straight White Male writers for a year goes like this.

I can’t think of any writers whose names indicate their sexual orientation. Can you? Is there any such thing as a gay/lesbian/transgender name? Or do authors routinely list their sexual orientation in their formal jacket bios?…

Nor does an author’s fiction give the reader a reliable indication of his or her sexual orientation. For example, the New York Times bestselling Lord John novels feature a gay protagonist; the author of his adventures is heterosexual (Diana Gabaldon). There are also gay authors who write straight protagonists. I can think of several current examples, but since I’m not sure how public they are about their sexual orientation, I’ll stick with naming the late E.M. Forster and the (very) late Oscar Wilde.

And even when an author’s photo clearly indicates their gender and racial/ethnic heritage, how often do photos reveal their sexual orientation? (Rarely, if ever, would be my guess.)

And what if there is no photo?

And I just.

OK.

This is one of the stupidest strawman misdirects I’ve ever fucking seen. Christ on a bicycle, Resnick is literally writing this on the goddamn internet while flapping her hands like the internet doesn’t exist; like there’s just no way to learn anything about an author’s identity beyond what’s contained in a physical fucking paperback; like Bradford is really just asking us to stand in a bookstore and guess. Bradford, in fact, doesn’t say anything about how readers should go about determining authorial identity, presumably on the basis that explaining how to Google things might come off as condescending. I mean, look, yes: Resnick is correct to assert that you can’t just assume someone’s race or sexual orientation on the basis of their name or the content of their writing, and that identity is a thing with many facets. Obviously. But Bradford has never claimed otherwise, and acting like there’s literally no easy way to learn these things, the whole enterprise is tragically doomed from the start when you are, as mentioned, actually on the internet, is just a whole new level of derailment.

Because once you get down a few paragraphs, Resnick’s real problem with Bradford’s challenge becomes clear: it’s not that she thinks this information doesn’t exist, but that she can’t be bothered to look it up:

So in order to ensure that I am not reading straight white male authors, I’d have to do far more googling and research on writers than I am willing to do, since my interest is in their fiction rather than in the authors or their personal details. And even if I wanted to go to such effort, some of that information isn’t available without a bizarre intrusion into their privacy, since some writers choose not to discuss various aspects of their lives in interviews and social media.

My god, it’s just so hard.

The way Resnick has it, you’d think that Bradford was exhorting us all to start acting like digital stalkers, as though considering the personhood of the author is necessarily synonymous with needing the author’s details any cost, regardless of time or privacy. I mean, does Resnick even understand the part where this is proposed as a challenge – that is to say, as a call or summons to engage in a contest – rather than a set of hard rules for everyone to adopt, forever and ever, amen? And even if Resnick was minded to accept, it’s hardly a policed event: K. Tempest Bradford isn’t lurking outside her house, machete in hand, ready to barge in and demand an accounting if she accidentally reads a straight dude’s book. The actual point in all of this, which Resnick has stubbornly missed, is to encourage people to read more widely; to engage with perspectives other than their own; and to maybe consider the race, the gender, the sexuality of the authors they read as relevant, given the proven cultural bias towards promoting the works of straight white men over others.

The idea that this approach is somehow inimical to having an interest in the content of a writer’s fiction is the exact opposite of what Bradford and Govinnage are positing: namely, that an author’s real-world identity and experiences are sometimes – though not always – reflected in their works, and that if we’ve defaulted to reading only or predominantly one type of author, then perhaps we’ve defaulted to only or predominantly reading one type of content, too. As such, if we are, as Resnick claims to be, sincerely interested in reading good stories, then ignoring the relationship between author and work – as though every book, like the goddess Athena, is cut fully-formed from the flesh of some oblivious, authorial Zeus – is something we should be wary of doing.

And then it gets worse:

Additionally, apart from having no interest in trying to research writers’ personal information before deciding whether to read their fiction, my reaction to Bradford’s article is that I would have found her argument more effective if phrased in a positive and constructive way, rather than phrased in the negative, counter-productive way she chose—by advising on authors (straight white male) not to read.

Ladies, gentlemen and others of the internet, behold this sterling example of tone policing, aka You Didn’t Discuss Your Experiences Politely Enough (According To Me) And So I Choose To Disregard Your Argument. The fact that this approach is favourite among sexists – the “I’d listen to feminists if they weren’t so angry” brigade – makes it doubly cringeworthy when deployed by a white woman against a woman of colour: as Flavia Dzodan famously said, my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit, and in the wake of Patricia Arquette’s tone-deaf call for women who aren’t straight, white or cisgendered to step up and help white ladies achieve equality for themselves, I find myself with even less patience for this sort of White Feminism than usual. I don’t know if Resnick identifies as a feminist or not, but for the love of god, fellow white women: do not fucking tone police women of colour on issues of diversity. More to the point, what article was Resnick reading? Bradford’s piece isn’t an angry polemic against the evils of patriarchy; it’s a calm, articulate acknowledgement of the fact that yes, there’s a bias in the literary world, but here’s a suggestion for countering it.

Again, I feel obliged to point out that nobody is forcing Resnick to read anything she doesn’t want to. Hell, it would’ve been quite easy for her to say, for instance, “I support the sentiment of Bradford’s article, and even if you don’t want to skip your favourite white male authors for a year, there’s still a lot to be gained by diversifying your reading”, and left it at that. Instead, she goes out of her way to attack the logic of Bradford’s challenge, which makes what she says next seem more than a little insincere:

I agree completely that reading a wide variety of authors and themes is a wonderful idea, one to be embraced. This practice has always been encouraged in my family, and it’s practiced by many of my friends, too. I also agree that reading about women, other societies, and other sexual orientations from the perspective of authors who are women, or who are from other societies than our own, or who have other sexual orientations other than “straight” is a suggestion to be embraced. But I don’t agree that limiting my reading in any way is a good idea. Not even if it’s the group—straight white male writers—whose voices have been heard the longest, loudest, and most consistently in our society’s reading culture.

I say again: Bradford is proposing a fucking challenge. By definition, a challenge in any context has rules and limitations, which is how you differentiate your participation in it from the norms of everyday living. That being so, it’s fair to ask: is Resnick opposed to all reading challenges on principle, or just to this one? And if Resnick is really so concerned with the prospect of limited reading, then why has she just spent umpteen paragraphs complaining about how unreasonably difficult it is to try and read diversely?

Years ago, some stranger at a party asked me what I read, as people often do with writers. I named a bunch of books I’d read lately, and named a bunch of writers that were among my favorites, and when I was done… The person asked, “Don’t you ever read any male authors?” I had named only women, and I hadn’t even noticed! Not until this person remarked on it.

Although I still tend to read more women than men, ever since that conversation made me realize I’d been limiting my reading, I make more of an effort to read male novelists. Your mileage may vary, but eliminating straight white male authors from my reading would probably set me back, in terms of the variety I read, since male authors (of any ethnicity or sexual orientation) used to be noticeably absent from my fiction reading.

Look, I’ll be honest: I tend to read mostly women these days, too. But when it comes to my cultural consumption in other areas – when it comes to films, comics, TV shows? Those arenas are pretty fucking heavily male-dominated, even when you actively want to diversify, and as such, I feel no particular urge to try and redress the balance when it comes to written fiction, which is the one narrative arena in which I can come anywhere close to finding parity, let alone surpassing it in my favour. Straight white dudes have a fucking monopoly on visual storytelling, and not just in front of the camera, but behind it, too – directing, scriptwriting, animation and countless other fields are all so squarely white and male, it’s like staring at a box of envelopes. And while I’m not suggesting Resnick should tailor her fiction consumption to fit my preferences, I take issue with the inference that there’s no correlation between straight white male dominance in fiction and straight white male dominance elsewhere; as though this isn’t a single facet of a bigger, more complex problem.

Look at it this way: if you’re eating bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but have fruit for desert, and someone comes along and exclaims over how strange it is that you don’t eat bread for that one last meal, too, then switching to a baguette before bedtime will not add variety to your diet, even if you keep the strawberries. By all means, Laura Resnick, read what you like – but don’t confuse your personal reticence to change your habits, even temporarily, for a reason why the rest of us shouldn’t even try.

 

Whenever we watch a film or read a book, regardless of genre, we always approach the narrative with a set of basic assumptions about its content. If the story is set in the present day, we’ll expect a certain degree of familiarity with the context, though obviously, these expectations will vary in accordance with where we live and where the story is set. If the story involves a discipline or profession with which we’re intimately acquainted, we’ll likely be more critical of its portrayal than otherwise, because any liberties taken or errors enforced will stand out to us. By contrast, if the subject matter is new, or if it involves something we only recognise as a vague conceptual outline, we’ll be more inclined to take the writer’s word for it – an accurate until proven in- mentality. Which is, somewhat paradoxically, how genre stereotypes often get started: if our only, first or primary exposure to a concept is through fiction, and if we automatically assume that what we’re shown is well-researched, then seeing it presented differently at a later date – even if the subsequent portrayal is more accurate – might trigger our scepticism, especially if we’ve seen multiple versions of the original lie, now leant a greater authority by the act of reiteration.

As such, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between an assumption based on fact, like our own, first-hand knowledge of a profession or practice, and an assumption which is itself based on other assumptions, like a popular, romanticised version of a certain historical era. For all that humans are voracious learners, we don’t always consider how or why we’re absorbing information until someone asks us to provide a source, and by then, it’s often too late.

But what happens when you apply this habit of assumptions to purely fictional concepts?

Science fiction and fantasy stories are full of impossible ideas which nonetheless influence our thinking, taking on lives of their own. Dragons don’t exist, but depending on how we first encountered them, we’re likely to have an opinion about their essential nature; on whether (for instance) they’re more properly treasure-hoarding monsters like Smaug, mystical protectors like Falcor, or soul-bonding companions like Mnementh and Ramoth. But while we might prefer a certain type of dragon, we’re also willing to accommodate changes to their mythology: our assumptions are more fluid than fixed, and if we see something new, our first thought won’t be that the writer is incompetent or misinformed, because we understand that fictional truths are malleable.

As such, we’re supremely unlikely to challenge the presence of a wide and varied range of dragons in SFF: the comic swamp dragons of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld don’t preclude the ferocity of Daenerys’s Drogon or the thoughtfulness of Temeraire, and even when we encounter dragons who completely subvert our Platonic ideal of the species – who don’t breathe fire, who can’t fly, who might be feathered instead of scaled – we still accept the possibility of them, because, well, it’s fiction! Dragons aren’t real, and so they can be whatever we want them to be, up to and including a shapeshifting race of scaly humanoids who live in a mountain-tree. But at the same time, we often hesitate to extend the same degree of narrative diversity to persons who actually exist, even within the parameters of fiction, because it violates one of our assumptions-based-on-assumptions, that women can’t or Vikings didn’t, and therefore hits a mental stumbling-block.

Which, as I’ve said before, is a problem. Particularly in SFF, we’re used to the idea that unreal elements – magic, dragons, FTL travel – are anchored to the narrative by the presence of realism in other areas, like believable characters and settings; but when we start using familiar as a proxy-term for real, we run the risk of letting ill-formed assumptions dictate the limits of the possible – and when we’re dealing with fundamentally impossible situations, that’s an even more pernicious habit than usual. Which begs the question: what are our limits, exactly, when it comes to accepting fictional scenarios? Obviously, there won’t be a universal answer, but in terms of trying to establish a personal one, I’m going to borrow a terminology of limits from BDSM, which is surprisingly applicable: that is, the concept of hard limits, soft limits and requirement limits.

For these purposes – that is, a discussion of narrative preferences – I’m using the following definitions: a hard limit is an element whose inclusion we won’t tolerate under any conditions; a soft limit is an element we’ll entertain under particular conditions, but which otherwise breaks us out of the story and/or compromises its realism; and a requirement limit is an element without which we’ll struggle to enjoy the story at all. Speaking personally, then, and by way of quick example: I would consider the presence of three-dimensional female characters to be a requirement limit. If you effectively eliminate women from the narrative, then you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that you’ve constructed a realistic setting; and even if you include a host of plausible, plot-centric reasons for their absence (all male armies, gender-based plague) I’m still going to look askance at your decision to do so. By the same token, a soft limit would be something like owner/slave romances: I’m not wholly averse to them, but I strongly dislike seeing the issues of consent and power imbalance handwaved Because Feelings.

As to my hard limits, though: that’s an interesting question. Certainly, there are narrative elements for which I have a strong dislike, but in most instances, I’d still classify them as soft limits – that is, as devices that only bother me when they’re done badly, instead of at all – and with the exception of specific triggers, I suspect the same is true for most people. But if we’ve only ever seen an element written badly, or if it’s something we haven’t encountered before, we might reflexively write it off as unrealistic, when what we really mean is that it pushes a limit we weren’t conscious of having, or that its unfamiliarity takes us out of our comfort zone. Engaging with narrative is ultimately a question of immersion, the willingness of a reader to suspend their disbelief, and as with BDSM scenes, it’s difficult to do that if we don’t trust the other party not to accidentally hurt us.

(I have a theory that the emotional comedown we sometimes feel on finishing a powerful story is an equivalent phenomenon to sub-drop, which suggests the interesting counter-possibility that the lethargy and self-doubt often experienced by authors on completing a novel is a type of dom-drop, too. In both instances, there’s a neurochemical rush brought about by intense emotional stimulus – the act of either connecting with a story, or controlling it – that comes to a sudden end, and if we then, for instance, find ourselves feeling guilty about the extent to which we’re obsessing over fictional characters or frightened that what happens next is beyond our control, I see no reason why that couldn’t lead to other knock-on, physical effects. That being so, there’s a commensurate argument to be made that participation in fandom may work as a form of aftercare for creators and consumers alike: a way of reassuring ourselves that our feelings are valid and reaffirming our preferences, which adds a whole new dimension to creator/fan interactions. But I digress.)

Perhaps, then, our idea of realism in this context is less to do with facts and more a question of feelings. A story doesn’t have to be literally realistic, in the sense of conforming to real-world rules, in order for us to believe in the premise; rather, it just has to feel authentic, in the sense of convincing us that the setting is internally consistent, and while our notions of narrative authenticity are always going to be informed by our assumptions, we can still take a flexible approach.

Enter the concept of fanfiction: stories written about settings and characters with which we’re already familiar, but which exist for the express purpose of changing them. By its very nature, fanfiction plays with our expectations: we go in knowing exactly what happens in canon, but every story still interprets and alters that canon differently, and if the original work is incomplete – a show still airing, a film trilogy missing the final instalment, an ongoing series of novels – any fics written before the end are going to have different jumping-off points to those written post-completion. For instance, while it’s common practice for fanwriters to reverse or ignore particular canon deaths, not every fic which features canonically dead characters is a retcon. Instead, it might have been written at a point in time before the deaths had happened, extrapolating future events on the basis of an endpoint that was subsequently superseded: a bifurcation in the timeline, rather than an attempt at overwriting it, and readers will have to navigate the distinction.

As such, fanfiction requires its audience to continually adjust their assumptions, not just about what might happen, but about what has happened already, even when this means uprooting our base concept of the original story. Donald Rumsfeld’s famous line about known unknowns is a strangely apt description of this process, and is therefore worth quoting, not least because the man himself would probably shudder at the comparison:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Or, to put it another way: we know the fic will draw from canon (known knowns) and that parts of it will be excluded or altered (known unknowns), but not what original material the writer will contribute (unknown unknowns). To this, I would also add a fourth category, constituting our base assumptions about narrative and worldbuilding in general: things we hold to be relevant or true, but don’t consciously take into consideration unless forced to do so (unknown knowns). And fanfiction likes to play with these, too – for instance, by making small, pertinent alterations to an otherwise real-world setting and treating them as normative, rather than as an integral aspect of the plot. Which isn’t to say that original fiction doesn’t do likewise. It’s just that, for whatever reason, fanworks seem more willing to take the concept further, making blanket changes to social/sexual norms instead of simply inserting magic into familiar settings.

By way of example, I recently read a Wild West AU where everything was as you’d expect, except for the blanket social acceptance of homosexuality and lack of racism; the primary romance was between two newly married men, while the external conflict involved a pernicious neighbour trying to steal their ranch, and none of the cultural changes were ever questioned. For all that Hollywood can produce something as utterly batshit and ahistorical as Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, I’ve never seen a mainstream narrative write an alternate history for the express purpose of exploring social equality in a different era – but steampunk guns, anachronistic swearing and giant mechanical spiders? No problem.

As an inevitable consequence of being human and having opinions about the world, we’re always going to take our assumptions with us into fiction. But being concerned with realism – or rather, with authenticity – and Malinda Lo has a fascinating essay on the subject, for anyone who wants to explore it in greater detail – doesn’t mean we should have to sacrifice whole fields of narrative possibility for lack of historical or personal precedent. The point of SFF isn’t to convince us that these stories could happen here, but to create a hypothetical elsewhere, parallel to our own, that’s sufficiently internally consistent, or engaging, or preferably both, for us to immerse ourselves anyway.

And if there are dragons involved, then so much the better.