Tag Archives: critical thought

Cover Matters

mugcoverusIt’s all kicking off again – many of you will remember the controversy over the cover of Justine Larbalestier’s US (Bloomsbury) Liar cover some months back, where the image of a white girl was chosen as the cover image for a book about a black girl. Justine herself spoke up about it, and the internet & media response was so (rightfully) fierce that the offending cover was replaced.

This time the book is written by a newbie author without Justine’s clout and support circle, and unlike Justine, she hasn’t said a word about it. The book is Magic under Glass, and once again the protagonist is dark-skinned, and the publisher – Bloomsbury, again – has chosen a cover depicting her as white.

This isn’t good enough. It really isn’t. Book covers are a form of advertising, yes, but that does not mean that moral choices should go out the window – especially when we are talking about products marketed at teenagers. There’s enough crap out there to make teenagers feel bad about themselves, without disguising the books for teens which do promote diversity in their text.

Deceitful book covers are never a good idea – whether it’s presenting a book as a fluffy chick lit when it’s actually a miserable ball of misery (thank you, Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing), misleading the prospective reader about genre (nothing worse than a publisher who is embarrassed about publishing science fiction), publishing the first book of a trilogy that deliberately withholds that kind of vital information on the cover, or publishing a book where the protagonist is pictured as a skinny white model when the whole point of the story is that she is not skinny, or white.

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Alyx and the Doctor (Understanding Joanna Russ Part 2)

The Adventures of Alyx (1976)
On Joanna Russ (2009)

I’m certainly glad that I read the Gary K Wolfe article, “Alyx Among the Genres” in On Joanna Russ, because without it I would have been rather alarmed and confused by the oddities of the Alyx collection. The individual pieces (mostly short stories, plus one extraordinary short novel) are marvellous on their own, but trying to figure out how they fit together is something of a puzzle. Luckily, having read the article, I knew it was supposed to be a puzzle, and enjoyed the process of thinking it out and being challenged by the seeming contradictions, rather than just being baffled.

It reminded me of a discussion I listened to recently on the Bridging the Rift podcast, about the origin of the word “canon” as regards to fandom as opposed to religious texts, which was utterly fascinating, largely for the history of Sherlock Holmes fandom, but also because of the idea of the Doctor as a mythological figure rather than a one-off literary creation – certainly having a character covered by so many different creative teams over nearly five decades has produced almost as many inconsistencies as the centuries of Greek myth!

Alyx, like the Doctor, is presented in these stories as a character without necessarily a perfectly consistent chronology, background or origin story, who remains nevertheless narratively constant so that the stories all contribute to an idea of who or what Alyx is, without needing to agree on little things like what age she is, where she comes from, whether she comes from our prehistoric times or an alternate fantasy world, and whether or not Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd is her ex-boyfriend.

Picnic on Paradise in particular is an astounding story which sets up Alyx as a person taken out of her own time and set to work without having been thoroughly educated on what this odd future has to offer. It’s a marvellous story of someone alienated by an entire culture, who never quite grasps the details of what is going on, but is savvy and fierce enough to deal with just about anything that is thrown at her. The quirks that come from her not understanding anything from what they eat, or how they interact with each other, let alone the recreational drugs and their attitude to aging/death are what makes this tiny novel so incredibly thought provoking while still being a ripping, high-paced read.

Thinking about it in retrospect, and the way that Alyx is established over her handful of fictional appearances, the book reminds me somewhat of Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum’s Fallen Gods, a novella which very much explored the idea of the Doctor as a mythological character.

Meanwhile my reading of On Joanna Russ continues. I’m still on Helen Merrick’s excellent article, which shows how Joanna struggled with the same issue that feminists have today: in attempting to criticise the institutionalised and social issues that limit or constrain women in a particular field, such as science fiction, as part of a larger pattern you end up either criticising or appearing to criticise your peers – the discussion too easily turns personal, and becomes small while the larger issues remain ignored. There’s also a fascinating exploration of ongoing debates/tensions between Marion Zimmer Bradley and Russ, which became far more congenial the more that the two women learned about each other. Then there’s some rather fascinatingly frustrated exchanges between Russ and Poul Anderson, which caused her to complain about time-wasters with whom one ended up arguing with forever, thus distracting from one’s own writing:

He’s a nice man in a personal way but it’s hopeless; I feel like a rock climber at the 14,000-foot pass in the Rockies looking back through a telescope at an enthusiastic amateur in the Flatirons… who’s proceeding Eastward, yelling “Hey, you’re going the wrong way! The mountains are this way!” (On Joanna Russ p. 61)

All in all, this is my favourite essay so far – the Wolfe one on Alyx was definitely useful to me in reading Russ, but Merrick’s has all the gossip and may well be something I comb for quotes many times in the future. I’m ridiculously excited now about reading Merrick’s The Secret Feminist Cabal which is sitting on my To Read shelf, but not yet, not yet.

More Joanna Russ! Further in, further in.

Hoping to Understand Joanna Russ (Part I)

One of my projects for this year was to educate myself about Joanna Russ, a major figure in the history of feminist SF. I have read quite a lot about her, but very little of her actual work.

I started with On Joanna Russ, edited by Farah Mendlesohn, and only a few essays in, I’m thoroughly mesmerised. At the same time, I ordered a pile of paperbacks, including The Adventures of Alyx and How to Suppress Women’s Writing.

I read the first story of the Alyx collection, “Bluestocking,” immediately upon reading the first essay of the Mendlesohn book, “Alyx among the genres” by Gary K Wolfe. All very meta, but I enjoyed the experience very much. I was surprised to discover that Alyx is not, as I thought, another of those Jirel of Joiry types (glamorous swordswomen on horseback) but is instead more of a trickster character – small, unassuming, with more in common with the Grey Mouser or the noir private detectives than with the pulp fiction glamazons.

Even more interesting, according to Wolfe, the stories get more meta the deeper in you get to them, and move from heroic adventure through to planetary romance: in other words, from fantasy to science fiction. Also, Alyx’s stories often revolve around other women: the first one has her playing bodyguard/mentor to a fluffy redhead, and having quite an effect on her. The ending bemused me, and entertained me, and I’m still thinking about the story days later. Considering how many stories I read a year for LSS, that’s quite an achievement.

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Realms of Fantasy: now for Ladies!

There’s been some reaction to Realms of Fantasy’s recent announcement of a women’s special issue in 2011. Celebrating women in fantasy, it will contain fiction and art entirely produced by women, and preference will be given to stories that engage with gender, sexism and um “other areas important to feminine speculative literature.” Across the internet, some women are welcoming the issue, while others are decrying it as an anachronistic way of dealing with a real problem (or indeed arguing that there is no need for it at all).

Sarah Monette posts on the issue here, with some very valid points. The comments are worth reading, too. Likewise, the comments on the Rof blog, which include Douglas Cohen explaining a bit more about how the issue came about – in a way far more sympathetic to me than the initial call for submission, which frankly rubbed me the wrong way with its patronising tone. Meanwhile, Cat Valente has an awesome post up that pretty much sums up the way I feel – that is, torn between responses.

Here’s the thing: I believe in affirmative action in the spec fic short fiction scene. I’ve gone back and forth on this one, but I do. I think the only way we’re going to get a better and more diverse mix of quality, interesting short fiction in the scene is by a) having and supporting the editors whose tastes automatically skew towards a diverse mix of authors and fictional themes, and b) challenging the best and most respected editors in the field to look beyond their automatic taste response to see the value in some stories other than those written by straight white men, or those which largely feature the problems, concerns and imaginary futures of straight white men.

Publishing is a meritocracy. But merit is subjective, and it is fluid. Editors who read “without considering matters or gender, race or author background” and yet consistently publish work which is about the default white male gaze do need to be challenged by their audience, if that audience has an interest in diversity in fiction. Sometimes affirmative action, of whatever kind, is necessary to help editors (not necessarily male editors) find value in stories that they might have missed out on otherwise – not because they are deliberately creating a culture of sexism (or racism, etc, let’s stick to sexism for now) but because their actions and to some extent their personal taste are unconsciously supporting said culture.

Which, you know, if you’re only interested in an (aging) readership of a certain kind of bloke, is just fine. Slap a label on the magazine which says ‘SF/Fantasy for Men’ and be done with it. (or just put a cover on it where a madeuppy woman has her boobs falling out of chain mail, this has a similar effect) Sure, you might lose some audience – both male and female readers – but at least you’re being honest about where your priorities are.

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More on Multiple Women in Fantasy

For the record, I didn’t intend for yesterday’s post to be particularly negative! I was hoping for more evidence that there were in fact whole slews of fantasy fiction which centres around more than one female character, and their interactions. Thanks to comments here and on LJ, I have a few more to add to the list:

Thoraiya Dyer reminded me that while big chunks of the Mists of Avalon are about Morgaine-Arthur-Lancelot-Gwenhyfar with the women being the only ones not really having a relationship, Morgaine does have relationships with Viviane and Morgause and basically the whole book is about women talking to each other. Sometimes not even about men. Which is true, and my only excuse for not remembering is that I read it in my teens and the book represents my first ever literary experience with an Arthurian threesome.

[in addition I’d like to shout out to Merlin, which looks on the surface to be a Boys Own show but does have Gwen and Morgana who are, though very very divergent from the traditional versions of said characters, are at least two girls who talk to each other, and this is much better than poor old Marian in Robin Hood who was only allowed to talk to smelly men in armour. I haven’t got to see the second season yet but I just read Sarah Rees Brennan’s summary about sensible girls and the romantic boys who love them, and sadly it looks like there isn’t nearly enough Morgana in season 2…]

This discussion of Mists of Avalon reminded me of The Firebrand, which I think is a magnificent and much better book than MoA (basically does everything Bradley did in MoA but with TROY which is infinitely cooler than the Arthurian cycle imho) which gave me Kassandra and Andromache and Hekuba and Amazons and the wimpiest most annoying Paris ever and is basically awesome and stacked with womenfolk.

Rowan mentioned The Oathbound by Mercedes Lackey, which features two women from widely different backgrounds who become blood sisters, work together in everything and generally appear on the covers together. Mercedes Lackey! I definitely should have remembered her, and it makes me sad that I didn’t read enough of her books in my teens when I think they would have been at their best. I have quite liked her recent fairy tale books especially The Fairy Godmother.
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Lone Princesses and Girly Books

I’ve had a tab open to this post by Jim C Hines on Girly Books and gender stereotyping all week, pretty sure that I wanted to say something about it, but not sure what.

I understand his bafflement at male readers being hesitant to pick up his new books, the ones with girls on the cover. I remember the almost physical blow I felt the first time an acquaintance told me to my face that he wasn’t going to read my books because he didn’t read anything with female protagonists. (ten years later I’m still going, seriously? Seriously?)

Looking at Hines’ covers, which are gorgeous, it occurs to me how unusual they are in the fantasy genre. Having a female character on the cover, even a female and no male character, is not that unusual – but three women, with no man in sight? I can’t think of another fantasy cover ever that has had such a composition.

Fantasy fiction is not short of female characters, even memorable and important female characters, but it’s hard to escape the fact that so many of the sourceworks, the deeply respected historical texts that helped to form people’s idea of fantasy fiction, tend to place female characters in a vacuum.

From fairy tales through the pulp stories and Tolkien to the epic fantasies of the 1980’s – whether women are crunchy protagonists and point-of-view characters or cardboard love-interests and prizes, what they most have in common is feminine isolation. The princess’s most important relationship is with her potential prince, and her value is often calculated on how well she gets along with male characters. Often this is well meaning – an awesome female character stands out very effectively when surrounded by blokes. Also her awesomeness is often created by an unflattering contrast with other women – she is special, they are drips.

(I do this too, I’m horrified to realise, most of my female relationships in novels are based on conflict, and the best friendships represented are male-female)

These traditions bleed through to modern storytelling, and I can think of so few examples of fantasy fiction which has an emphasis on family or friendship relationships or even teamwork between women. I have to admit, when I first heard about Hines’ Stepsister Scheme my first thoughts were very cynical, that the idea of fairy tale princesses ganging up together and kicking arse/fighting crime was a bit of an old cliche. But thinking about it again – no, it isn’t. It’s horribly original. There just aren’t that many fantasy stories out there that are predominantly about women – and women plural, not just one really great woman.
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Pop Women

One of the cool things I will remember about the blogosphere in 2009 was the amazing response to the TripleJ Hottest 100 of all time, as people across Australia responded to the gaping (and for many of us, quite shocking) lack of female representation in that list by celebrating women’s music. The conversation that spanned across so many blogs and Twitter accounts was layered and fascinating, and went a long way to making up for some of the more jawdropping kneejerk reactions/excuses for so many people not voting in female artists (women’s voices are higher… men are more likely to write/perform those epic songs…)

An uncomfortable theme that was raised in various circles was that women’s art is still seen as less, and that when forced to think about it, people can come up with a long list of justifications why this is so, because ‘actually I’ve been socialised to think that male=better/stronger/wiser’ is often a hard thing to admit, let alone come to terms with. One list that did have a substantial proportion of women was the “songs I am embarrassed to admit I like.”

Which brings me to Amanda Palmer, singing a song about Lady Gaga and herself and Madonna, apparently the final act of an ongoing debate with Neil Gaiman. It seems to belong to that conversation from several months ago – or maybe it’s the beginning of a new conversation. In any case, it’s a very cool song, not least because of the circumstances under which it was created. If you’re not already following Amanda’s blog (her posts are, this one notwithstanding, loooong and hard to navigate at times), she is definitely an artist to watch for the ways in which she experiments with form, social media and the changing face of technology and the internet. She’s basically the rock chick version of Cory Doctorow (ha, okay, someone has to get those two on a stage together if it hasn’t already happened), and its her willingness to throw herself, unrehearsed, into her art; her willingness to get messy, screw up & show her knickers (both metaphorically and literally) in various public forums that make her such a compelling figure.

I love the fact that Neil and Amanda have basically become the Posh and Becks of the lit/rock music world.

Kissing Frogs, and Reader Expectations

tiana-the-princess-and-the-frogNnedi Okorafor talks about the Princess and the Frog – it’s a pretty positive review overall, and she addresses the racially/culturally problematic aspects of the story. Raeli’s been looking forward to this movie for more than six months (it’s out on Boxing Day here!), so I was relieved to hear that it actually isn’t total crap, and that Princess Tiana (whom she is already completely in love with) sounds pretty cool. Nnedi’s commentary on voodoo and how it’s handled in the film was particularly interesting to me, and it sounds like there are parallels there to how Disney presented the Greek gods & myths in Hercules through a ‘default Christian’ lens.

Ask Daphne (a blog I’ve never heard of) discusses the question of how to refer to race/colour in fictional characters without making a big deal about it, with a guest appearance by Maureen Johnson. Maureen’s main issue is about the way that expectations of the reader can conflict with an author’s intentions – the discomfort of throwing readers out of the story by making a big deal out of racial characteristics of some characters and not others vs. the problem of readers automatically assuming all the characters are white. Much though it would be nice to have a simple answer to this issue, there isn’t one, and Maureen acknowledges this, while also doing a good job of discussing the complexities.

Diana Peterfreund picks up on the topic and explores it further, looking at the ways in which author’s carefully constructed descriptions can still conflict with reader expectations, and this is in fact one time when the potential response of the reader *is* something that an author may need to address ahead of time. In particular she talks about Giovanni, the love interest in her latest novel Rampant, who is black. I have to admit I’m one of those readers who assumed that blonde Astrid’s POV descriptions of G as having dark skin and dark curly hair meant that he was Mediterranean-white. “Dark” after all is a very subjective word. It’s easy to see how people of different ethnicities can disappear in fiction, without a visual frame of reference, especially if colour is not directly relevant to the plot or character arcs.

The whole issue of reader expectation is fascinating to me. I have some very firm expectations that I take with me into books and perhaps because I have always been such a fast reader (cough, I miss stuff a lot) it does affect how I read and think of a book. Sometimes I have such a clear image of a character that I can’t change it once the text contradicts it – I just ignore. In the Falco books, which I have been reading in my teens, I became convinced very early on that Helena was blonde. The only possible reason for this is that the first time he meets a ‘Helena Justina’ it is her blonde cousin using her name. But I developed a very firm image of blonde, acerbic Helena in my head and no matter how many times the author (or Falco himself, or the cover art) tells me how dark and serious-looking she is (as most women of Ancient Rome *would* be), my brain shrieks ‘blonde’ at me.

POV can be a good tool for expressing description in a personable, interesting way, especially first person POV, but you’re then stuck with the issue of how to describe your actual POV character. Which is fine if they’re vain, but if they’re someone whose image of themselves conflicts with how others see them, it becomes an absolute minefield. Unless you’re willing to have them look in the mirror and comment on what they see which is Bad Writing, Bad Writing. I recently had the experience of trying to edit a first person book where I had a very clear image of how the POV character looked, but struggled to express that through her voice, because she was the kind of person who didn’t know how cute she was – and also one whose main characteristics were style and personality. Her self-deprecating humour about herself meant that some readers were confused.

How much do you need to know about how a first person character looks? Isn’t their relationship to their body/clothing taste/other people/hair more interesting than a photographic description? Do you need to know what colour a character’s hair is, or how wide her hips are? Are your expectations different in this with male vs. female characters?

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scraps and loose threads

1. It’s been a huge month in Australian speculative fiction – the carnival is over here.

2. I really tried to buy Raeli a Barbie for her Christmas pile. I went into Big W and everything. But they just annoyed me. All of them. From the glam retro Barbies to the mermaids. Even the merchandise tie ins for the Barbie Musketeer movie was annoying, and I didn’t spot any swords! Just fairy tale frocks. I moved on to Polly Pocket and was tempted, but apart from one cool set involving umbrellas, every single piece of Polly Pocket scenery involved beauty treatments or shopping. Bah. She can settle for the Musketeer movie and a yoyo. And, you know, lots of other stuff. Including a slide. She so has nothing to complain about. (coolest and weirdest thing on her Santa list – a net to catch things with. Do they still sell butterfly nets, or is that non-PC?)

3. Hot today. Stinking, sweltering, hot hot hot. The kind that feels like an oven door opening when you step out your front door. I picked up Raeli from her final day of kindergarten (omg she is a PREP student next year) and took her and Inigo back to [info] godiyeva‘s house to make use of her magic-cold-air machine and drink iced tea.

4. Needless to say, no baking of gingerbread daleks happened. Hopefully tomorrow.

5. My review of Rampant has excited a bit of interest, and inspired this fascinating blog post by Diana Peterfreund (the author) herself: You see, boy heroes in fantasy get elderly wizard-types who are conveniently killed by the enemy. Girl heroes get sardonic older-but-sexy types who want to sleep with them. She also talks about how people’s expectations of character types can affect the reading of the book. So true.

6. Postal strikes tomorrow, across Australia. Bloody hell. I knew I should have finished my needs-to-be-posted list today. I’d like to tender my official apology to my agent, and my cousin in England.

7. The government has finally relaxed the security regulations and are allowing knitting needles on planes again! No, this isn’t a frivolous news story. Have you ever seen a nervous knitter? They need their needles, damn it.

Possibly some other things happen today. I’ll try to summon up something intelligent to say about the “clean feed” beyond “I’m against it,” when I am less hot, scratchy and sunburnt. So, you know, April.

Sex, YA and Cory Doctorow

I was reading Locus Magazine this morning over my porridge and nag-the-child-into-getting-through-morning-chores ritual. There were many pleasant aspects of it, not least the fact that I have caught up enough with my [info] lastshortstory reading that I was able to have a dialogue with the short story columns (yes this does mean reading bits I agree/disagree with aloud).

But it was Cory Doctorow’s column (also available online) that caught my eye. Cory’s column is usually about platforms rather than content – copyright issues, freeware, publishing, new media, that whole Doctorow grab-bag of goodies. This month, though, it’s very much about content: it’s about the complaints he has received about his YA novel Little Brother, and specifically the complaints about the 17-year-old protagonist having sex. Not, he takes pains to point out, that the book is remotely sexually explicit:

I admit that I remain baffled by adults who object to the sex in this book. Not because it’s prudish to object, but because the off-camera sex occurs in the middle of a story that features rioting, graphic torture, and detailed instructions for successful truancy.

Young Adult fiction fascinates me, largely because it has formed a good three quarters of my novel-reading material for the last several years. There are a whole lot of interesting meta-stories that go along with YA fiction and publishing – the hip, popular authors who blog and tweet and tour and all seem to be friends with each other like a colossal literary sitcom, the enthusiastic teens and their responses to the books, and then… there are the parents.

I feel rather as if there should have been ominous chords at that point.

It seems like you can’t turn around in the blogosphere these days without some kind of drama or protest or scandal about what teenagers are reading, and what certain people would like to prevent them from reading.

I’m pretty sure it’s a win when teenagers are reading at all, right?

Sure, there are dangerous books in the world. By all accounts (I haven’t read it yet), Little Brother comes down on the side of dangerous books for teens, dealing with lots of controversial ideas and themes. But is it still really that controversial to depict two seventeen-year-olds in a loving, long-term (by teenage standards) relationship having sex? Especially if that sex takes place off stage, with no graphic description.

It seems, though, that no matter what pains YA writers take to be responsible in the writing of scenes depicting sex or other disapprove-worthy behaviour, there are always complainers who would prefer that those scenes not be written at all – indeed, that the topics be completely left out of any books intended to be read by teens.

The recent Lauren Myracle-Scholastic started with the mega-company asking that Lauren edit the fact that one of her 10 yr old protagonists had two moms, and the protest only died down when they decided to distribute her book anyway – but only to middle school audiences, not to the age group the book was meant for. Before that there was the British newspaper reaction to Margo’s admittedly difficult novel Tender Morsels, declaring that even older teenagers should be sheltered from such concepts as rape and incest, regardless of how tastefully said themes were depicted in a work of literature. There have been many more examples, for as long as this YA boom has been around. People – and not just parents – seem determined to try and control what teens read, as if books somehow are going to be their main source of troubling themes and information in the current age of new media.

Possibly I’ve said all this before. But the thing that gets me is that – if it’s the fact of sex, or drugs, or underage drinking, or whatever, that gets the anti-book brigade into such a flap, then it doesn’t actually matter whether the authors deal with said issues responsibly. In Cory Doctorow’s column he said that all the complaints about Little Brother boiled down to one question “Why have your characters done something that is likely to upset their parents, and why don’t you punish them for doing this?”

Hmm. Is that why all those horror movies tended to kill off the teenage girls right after they had sex? Suddenly it all seems so clear. The important thing is to punish them fictional characters for making parentally-disapproved choices. Yep, that’s going to drag the teens away from their mobile phones and back into the libraries, now isn’t it?