Genre and gender

Paul Raven @ 05-05-2011

One of the things that interests me most about the genre fiction community is its politics of race, sex and gender. While only a fool would call it a utopia of enlightened equality (far from it), I’ve long suspected that the frequent flarings-up around these sorts of issues are actually a sign of subcultural health; to make a brief comparison with one of my other favourite cultural spheres, to even attempt to discuss the objectification of women or the undercurrents of homophobia in rock and metal music is an exercise in futility that does little more than remind you of the sheer extent of the problems you’re trying to address*.

I suspect that genre’s status as a comparatively safe harbour for alternative politics is due at least in part to the fact that it’s always been a group that identified as non-mainstream (which brings certain counter-compensatory problems with it, but that’s a discussion for another time). Another important component is that genre fiction itself provides a toolkit for creating thought experiments where alternative politics can be played out, and Kyle Munkittrick of Discover‘s Science Not Fiction blog has come to a similar conclusion with respect to sex, gender and sexuality:

Sci-fi sex is fun to talk about, of course, but how can all of that help us understand the actual future of humanity? Simply put: we imagine what we hope to see. So the question is: what is it we imagine and hope for? An utter free-for-all of alien-cyborg-A.I. bacchanalia? I don’t think so. Instead, sci-fi is teaching the diversity of our own human sexuality back to us.

It’s an interesting piece, though I think it could be accused of taking the most optimistic reading possible of the genre as a whole, and of individual texts. Munkittrick sees The Fifth Element‘s Ruby Rhod as “perfectly and outrageously androgynous”, for example, while the same character crops up at io9 in a top ten list of embarrassingly terrible racial stereotypes; the reader’s perspective holds primacy in their own world, and for every player who finds playing a female character in a computer game enlightening for its ability to let them empathise with an unfamiliar sexuality, I suspect there’s rather more than one that does it because they simply like watching a pixellated female form more than a male one.

But Munkittrick’s underlying point is very valid, I think; by setting itself in worlds different to the one of our daily experience, non-mimetic media – especially science fiction, but by no means exclusively – gives artists a chance to sneak issues of gender and sexuality “under the wire” to an audience that might well baulk at the same ideas presented in a more everyday context. The battle for understanding and empathy is far from won – in the genre community and the wider world alike – but genre remains an important theatre for it, and that’s something to be proud of, I think.

[ * The persistent misogyny, homophobia and playground-grade discourse of mainstream metal may well explain my continued drift toward its fringes. That, and the fact that I get bored easily. ]

How others see us (literary agent edition)

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2011

The aspiring writers in the audience may already be aware of QueryShark. If you’re not, you should be; few things teach more effectively in a creative field like writing (in my experience at least) than having a selection of negative examples to hold up against the positives, and QueryShark offers anonymous eviscerations of query letters that’ll show you how to do it properly. Or at least how not to do it properly, which is almost as useful.

But I mention QueryShark today for a different reason, namely one of the rarer successful queries. First, here’s the query sans critique:

Part warm body, part social chameleon, fourths have become an accepted part of the commuting landscape. Every highway in the newly-invigorated Detroit is restricted to four-passenger cars, Carpools that come up short must either take surface streets through dangerous neighborhoods or hire extra riders to fill their cars.

It’s an easy way to earn some extra cash–or to end up dead. Someone is killing fourths and the only one who seems to care is burnt-out homicide cop Francis LaCroix, who moonlights as a fourth himself.

LaCroix discovers the dead fourths are terrorists sabotaging the highways, causing horrific crashes. Worse, his own nephew may be involved in the plot. With both careers on the line, LaCroix needs a shot at redemption, but continuing the investigation paints a target on his family and leaves the terrorists free to strike again. Suddenly, he isn’t so sure bringing the killer to justice is the right thing to do.

Sounds interesting, right? Here’s how the writer capped it off:

TAKING THE HIGHWAY,a science fiction novel, is complete at 93,000 words.

And here the bit of the agent’s response I’m interested in:

This isn’t science fiction. And I’d STRONGLY urge you to not call it science fiction even if you think it is.  There’s a lot of room for cross-over into crime fiction here, and by calling it science fiction you might miss an agent who doesn’t handle SF but would read this.   Like…me.

OK – that book as laid out in that query is definitely science fiction, even if only by the old Damon Knight “what I point to when I say it” rule of thumb. It’s set in a speculative future, for goodness’ sake; it may be a harsh thing to say, but using a reinvigorated Detroit as your setting puts you firmly into alternate world territory.

What actually I’m interested in here is the chicken-and-egg problem that sf has with mainstream acceptance. There above is a solid query for an interesting science fictional novel… but there also is a warning that calling it such will make it harder to sell. It’s an acknowledgement of industry prejudices, in other words, and the action of an agent who wants to see a good book get bought.

But what I see here is something similar to the way in which female writers feel pressured to write under masculine pseudonyms or use their initials; it’s an invitation that says “OK, look, we think you’ve got the beans to play the game, but you can’t come in wearing that outfit; it’s not that we’ve got anything against it, but, y’know, people will look at you funny…” It’s an enablement of prejudice, in other words, though it’s being done with pure motives.

Just to be clear, this isn’t me getting out my tiny violin and serenading the poor oppressed genre; as mentioned before, I think that’s a counterproductive thing, an entrenchment in one’s own cult of ghettoised victimhood. Nor am I raging at an agent for not understanding what science fiction is, or rather what it can be. But the query response above highlights the very arbitrariness of the distinction between sf and ‘proper’ fiction: in fact, it’s a note for note replaying of the classic “it’s too good to be science fiction!” riff.

So why mention it at all? Because it makes plain that the problem is with the label, not the product. Look at the commenters saying “ooh, I don’t like sc-ifi, but I think I’d love this!” Well, y’know, maybe you would like sci-fi if you read some of it. But you’re not going to do that when it comes with a label that says “sci-fi”. Green eggs and ham, innit?

I’m increasingly starting to think that advocating for science fiction (or even genre in general) is a failed strategy. If you want to conquer that prejudice, you need to start doing it with one book at a time. If labelling your work science fiction will exclude it from a certain venue, then don’t label it; submit it without its convention badge and Beeblebear, and see what happens. Give them a chance to bounce or buy it on its own merits, rather than the connotations of a label that even we fans can’t agree on a definition for.

And then, once they’ve published it, tell all the journalists about how it’s actually a science fiction novel. You’ve got to get inside the building before you set the bomb off, you see… 😉

Genre uncovered: books and their jackets

Paul Raven @ 19-01-2011

Looks like one of genre fiction’s more perennial debates is about to resurface, so why not stir the pot a little bit? Damien Walter takes the podium at The Guardian to ponder the question of  cover art:

… there is no denying that genre fiction also has its share of fashion victims. The tedious parade of tattooed, faceless young women gracing thousands of paranormal romance novels is a fashion that can only be improved by ending. And the original US cover for the 12th volume of The Wheel of Time saga actually seems to be issuing a challenge to the reader, via its stumpy-armed hero, daring us to test if the quality of the prose matches the illustration. But American independent publisher Baen Books have raised bad genre covers to an art in itself, producing covers so shamelessly packed with SF clichés and militaristic jingoism that it is hard to believe they are not some ironic spoof.

To some extent, I think there’s a subcultural effect at work here: with Baen’s covers, for instance, I expect the very cliches that ensure I avoid Baen titles as if they were megaphone-toting high-street evangelists are the visual aspects that make them appeal to their (undeniably large and consistent) audience: the packaging matches the product, in other words. But fashions and trends sweep with increasing rapidity across the covers of genre in general, and experience dictates that sometimes the best books have the worst covers of all – a feeling sometimes shared by their writers, as was the case with Peter Watts’ Blindsight. (Watts actually went so far as to make an alternative jacket available.)

My suspicion, based on personal experience, is that cover art is there to hook neophyte genre readers rather than us old veterans. I ate my way through countless Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms RPG tie-ins in my early teens, and the covers spoke bluntly and efficiently of what I’d find withing their pages. By the time I was old enough to be slightly embarrassed by the cheese factor of the covers, I was already an addict… and already valued the product far more than the packaging.

So as to avoid tarring everything with the same brush, there are some genuinely wonderful and seductive examples of cover art out there, though they seem to come predominantly from the better small presses (ChiZine Publications’ covers totally blew me away at a room party at last year’s EasterCon, for instance) and the titles that are deliberately being aimed further afield (China Mieville’s literary urban fantasy romp Kraken, for example, or Charlie Stross’ the-future-is-now nerd-lit novel Halting State). But I find that personal recommendations and author/publisher reputation is far more likely to sell me a book than its cover… indeed, sometimes they manage it in spite of the cover!

Perhaps the rise of ebooks (and the associated need to have a cover that looks good as a thumbnail on a virtual shelf) will change the landscape; indeed, as book-buying becomes more “social” (in the web2.0 sense of the term), perhaps the book cover’s role in enticing purchasers will fade. In the meantime, there’s plenty of yucks to be had at Good Show Sir!, a blog that unearths and photographs some of the more egregious examples of genre cover-art cliche for the amusement (or bemusement) of all. (At the risk of seeming to pick on an easy target, the posts tagged “Baen Books” are a great place to start…)

Got a favourite book jacket that sold the book to you fair and square? Got a shining example of cheddary cliche that sums up every stereotype of genre fiction held by non-readers, or of a brilliant book in a dreadful disguise? Link ’em up in the comments!

Punking steampunk

Paul Raven @ 28-10-2010

The inevitable high-profile backlash at steampunk’s oversaturation of the cultural Zeitgeist finally arrives (and about time, too). Take it away, Charlie Stross:

It’s not that I actively dislike steampunk […] It’s just that there’s too damn much of it about right now, and furthermore, it’s in danger of vanishing up its own arse due to second artist effect. (The first artist sees a landscape and paints what they see; the second artist sees the first artist’s work and paints that, instead of a real landscape.)

We’ve been at this point before with other sub-genres, with cyberpunk and, more recently, paranormal romance fang fuckers bodice rippers with vamp- Sparkly Vampyres in Lurve: it’s poised on the edge of over-exposure. Maybe it’s on its way to becoming a new sub-genre, or even a new shelf category in the bookstores. But in the meantime, it’s over-blown. The category is filling up with trashy, derivative junk and also with good authors who damn well ought to know better than to jump on a bandwagon.

If I was less busy today, I’d spin out a lengthy rant about the inevitability of this sort of cultural shift; it happens all the time in the world of music, for example (and it happens insanely fast nowadays, thanks to music being predominantly a digital domain populated by the young and computer-savvy). But for now, a brief summary:

Subcultural colonialism, in other words, works in very similar ways to the other, older sort of colonialism… though I don’t mean to imply its repercussions are anywhere near as serious. It’s a similarity of process rather than impact, you might say.

Stross goes on to point out that romanticising the Victorian era is a rather odd thing to do, given that it was extraordinarily grim for the vast majority of people. Personally I think that’s a large part of the impulse; I’m reading a rather excellent book on the era at the moment (Building Jerusalem by Tristram Hunt), and it makes the point that the early phases of the industrial revolution were marked by a wistful yearning for the pastoral/feudal England it had left behind… an England in many ways as mythological and idealised as steampunk’s glossy faux-Victoriana.

Because we know we can never go back, we feel free to reimagine the past as a haven from of the existential horrors of The Now; dreaming about a holiday you can never take is safe, because you can never be disappointed by the reality. Yesterday’s Now isn’t so scary, firstly because its bad sides are almost unimaginable from our current vantage point of Panglossian privilege, and secondly because our very existence implies it was survivable at a civilisational scale – two certainties that The Now doesn’t deliver.

The past is a poster on your bedroom wall. Hi-ho, atemporality.

A new thesis of genre

Paul Raven @ 20-10-2010

Via Jim Van Pelt, here’s an essay from Daniel Abraham wherein he ponders the nature of fiction genres, those flexible, permeable and indistinct categories that we all recognise when we see them… even though we all see them in slightly (or sometimes not-so-slightly) different places. Abraham points out right at the start that his train of thought here is a work in progress, but don’t let that put you off following his reasoning through.

However, I’ll cut to the chase and quote his closing thesis, which chimes strongly with my own thoughts on the short-term fate of science fiction:

If genre fiction is the natural coalescence of similar literary projects in conversation and reaction to one another centered on issues of social anxiety and insecurity, science fiction will see an increasingly esoteric rigorous hard sf following the path of poetry and modern jazz music by appealing to a narrower and narrower audience who are sophisticated in its reading, a swan-song resurgence of nostalgic science fiction recapturing and commenting on the work of the 7os that will die out entirely within a generation, and continued growth in the (oh hell, let’s coin it) Bacigalupean dystopias addressing environmental and political issues.

Individual works will almost certainly buck the trend, but as genre isn’t an individual work but a relationship between them, the body of literature should trend that way.

I think we can already see this happening, to be honest. And while I lack the spare time to sit down and thrash it out into something coherent, I think there’s probably a complementary narrative one can build around the fantasy and horror genres, too: a briefly-booming-then-shrinking hard-core market for inherently nostalgic forms, and a growth market for the new evolutions which graft the traditional tropes onto contemporary issues.

Your thoughts?

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