Tag Archives: Fantasy

Gender, History and Fantasy

This one’s a multi-headed beast, so bear with me.

I guess this has been percolating away since I read The Mary Sue article  exposing James Gunn’s misogyny and homphobia. I’ve gotta say it took a lot of the shine off the Guardians of the Galaxy announcement.

Then I became aware of The Hawkeye Initiative on Tumblr, which does a disturbingly good job of depicting the inherent problems with the portrayal of female superheroes (and villains) as objects posing sexily (in impractical outfits).

I’ve been trying to sort out my thoughts on the matter and apply them to the world of Fantasy Fiction… but then Tansy Raynor Roberts up and does a better job than I could have done in her blogpost picked up by Tor.com.

At the same time(ish) Cracked.com publishes Luke McKinney’s article about the ridiculousness of calling out fangirls.

So I’m left with little to say, having to follow in the footsteps of those who have said it so well already. But when has that ever stopped me having my say?

In my own work I thought I had drafted a strong female character. She was a POV character (in a novel with several POV characters) and she was smart and independent and strong. The reader would have known this because I attached these adjectives to her repeatedly. I did this while she was pushed through a narrative in which she showed almost no agency, made no meaningful decisions for herself, was considered (by a patriarchal culture) to be superfluous, and appeared in scenes where women discussed what men did. But she was sassy. And I did several times describe her as strong, independent and smart.

The reviews from my test-readers (and one in particular) forced me to sit back and look, really look, at what I had written for her. I didn’t like what I saw. So changes were made and I believe there has been much improvement. I have also given another character gender re-assignment, and this has been one of my personal favourite improvements in the rewriting.

Ellen Ripley was, in an early draft, a male. (S)He was to be the ship’s security officer (an obviously male role on the ship) and would probably have been cast by an athletic, muscled square jawed type, who would have killed the Alien and survived (with or without the grey panties – damn you Hawkeye! Must you ruin everything?) to fight another day. And the film wouldn’t have been terrible, but I doubt it would have been as good. It certainly wouldn’t have featured in articles in The Guardian celebrating the 30th anniversary of the ‘first action heroine’.
Why does Ripley endure so long after the two Alien films were made? (There were only two weren’t there – I’m pretty sure that’s right) I believe it’s because she wasn’t written as a gender stereotype. She’s a woman, but she’s not defined by that, and nor is she the pendulum reaction of Velasquez in Aliens (who is one of my favourite characters, but in many ways just a different stereotype).

The film Salt is forgettable (I’m not even sure I’ve seen the whole thing, I’ve seen bits), but it is interesting for the fact that the central character was written as a man. Tom Cruise was meant for the role, but withdrew because it was too close to his MI character of Ethan Hunt. At the same time Angelina Jolie was determined that she didn’t want to be a Bond girl – she wanted to be Bond. So a chance came up for her to be the action hero. Contracts were signed, but the deadlines were looming and there wasn’t time for a full re-write. They started shooting with the script for a male Salt and a few shifted pronouns (they did manage to take Salt’s children away from him/her – because while it’s ok for a father to risk his life as a CIA Agent fighting Russians a mother would never do such a thing – so it’s not perfect). The outcome is a film in which the character is played by a female, but not saddled with the gender stereotypes that are written for Strong Female Protagonists. (and some confusing scenes where a rake thin Angelina overpowers goons with brute force).

I met Tansy RR at Genrecon recently (in the sense that I nervously said hello once or twice and joined in a conversation with about ten people – of which she was one). Her take on history is fantastic – and backed up by an impressive academic resume. If history is sexist, so be it. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t stories in which women played important roles. Hell, that doesn’t mean there weren’t women playing important roles in every story. It just means they were ignored. To take that fact and use it to justify continuing to ignore them is reflexive… and just straight-up dumb.

But even if we take patriarchal history as a basis, why should that apply to Fantasy? When Joe Abercrombie spoke at Genrecon he described his work as ‘Realistic Fantasy’ and admitted the concept sounded silly. I was relieved – I’ve been trying to define my own writing for some time now and I kept coming back to ‘Realistic Fantasy’ and getting caught in the oxymoron. The point is that as realistic as we want it to be its still our world to build. If Joe can be inspired by history and then have a character using magic spells to defeat his enemies then why is having a powerful woman going to break the story. How could a reader complain that women have too prominent a role on the basis of history, and yet happily accept the wizards?

And don’t think it doesn’t happen. Some readers make this complaint. It’s ignorant on two counts:

1. History is full of women doing cool stuff that could be the basis of Fantasy novels.

I’ll skip Cleopatra and move straight on to Lucretia, Cornelia, Vibia Sabina, Boadicea, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Empress Theodora, Catherine II of Russia, Queen Elizabeth the First! – and that’s just Western Europe. A quick googling will open up possible tales inspired by Hatshpsut (a female Pharaoh) or Empress Wu Zetian. Hell, tell Penelope’s story. Sure she’s just waiting at home for Odysseus, entertaining courtiers, but surely there’s an interesting tale to be told there. Tell the story of Queen Gorgo – just not one where she gets boned by Jimmy McNulty.

2. It’s Fantasy.

History might have cast women in certain roles, but the history of my fictional world has not – or more accurately it has cast them in different roles. And even if it’s a misogynist fictional world with a patriarchal hegemony, good fiction will come from the conflict of putting a powerful woman in there. How will she cope? How will society cope? What cracks will emerge? What conflicts? Will she be defeated? Forced into submission? Will the power structures shift, compromise? Will she inspire a revolution? This is what drives narrative. This is what makes it a fictional story worth the reading.

I’ll leave the last word to Scott Lynch, who here responds to complaints about one of the female characters in his second ‘Gentleman Bastard’ novel Red Seas under Red Skies.

Comment, criticise, condemn, condone, as you will.

Or debate me face-to-digital-face / pat my back on twitter @jmichaelmelican

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Genrecon Australia 2012

Last weekend I went to the inaugural Australian Genrecon and I have to say WOW! What an excellent decision that was. Yay me!

Of course the real congratulations should go to the likes of Peter M BallMeg Vann, and the ninja team from Queensland Writers’ Centre. What a magnificent event they organised and managed!

This was my first ever convention, and I have to admit I had no real idea what to expect (or what I was doing). I read a few tips. Chuck Wendig’s were pretty helpful. A lot of common sense of course but a good guide nonetheless. (He was also quoted in a panel by P M Newton: ‘Plot is Soylent Green’)

The other massive help was Twitter. I was flying basically solo… I knew a couple of people from online interactions, but only one person I’d met face-to-face. So when I walked in to the opening function on Friday night it was a massive relief to start recognising some twitter handles on name tags.

One face I did recognise was International guest of honour Joe Abercrombie. He was surrounded, and congenial and charming and gracious and relaxed and just a wonderful international guest. Full credit to him.

I managed to spark up a chat with Ginger Clark, about whom I knew enough from twitter to give me some icebreakers. We discussed zoos and Australian fauna and Sandy and suddenly the crushing weight of Curtis Brown NY was lifted a little. She’s really a nice person and I had a lot less fear for my Sunday pitch.

The adults only panel was excellent. Good natured and great fun. I worried that I had made a fool of myself in a discussion of the C-bomb, but everyone was great. I’d never considered the difficulty romance writers had choosing between descriptions which were either twee or coarse.

Afterwards I met some great Romance writers who were kind enough to explain to me some of the subtleties of their craft and how careers are forged from one’s writing. Thanks to Denise RossettiNikki LoganAnna Campbell and Alexis (sorry Alexis – I forgot your surname).

I’m on the right, with idiot grin!

Saturday morning was a great highlight. I was running a little late, stopped in for a quick toast and a take-away coffee with the intent of sneaking into a 9am seminar moments late, but Joe was alone at a table, enjoying a pretty good approximation of a full English brekky… what’s a fanboy to do?

Joe was great. We chatted like old pals for nearly an hour. Talked black pudding, Lancaster accents, kids, nappies, travel, Australiana, First Law, Red Country, westerns, my fledgling attempts at a career, Batman as vigilante and Superman as fascist. I got a photo in which I’m grinning like an idiot child on Christmas day.

That an author of his stature should be so welcoming and open, and for him to show such interest in what I was writing, was magnificent and I am so grateful!

The panels were universally excellent. Special mention goes to: Kim Wilkins and her impressive (to me especially) use of Old English; Crime author P M Newton for being so erudite and articulate in the face of Joe Abercrombie’s wise-cracking; Peter Ball and Alex Adsett for their insights into writing as a career; Ginger Clark for her excellent presentation on what an agent does (and how);  the Saturday night Snark from ‘Smart Bitch’ Sarah (Platypus of Doom, Gay Tarot Reading Vampire Were-Roos, Mr Darcy’s horrible secret…); the conversation with Joe Abercrombie (of course).

Thanks also to Peta Freestone and Amie Kaufman for helping me hone my pitch, and to Lindy Cameron of Clan Destine press for her encouraging feedback.

Thanks to everyone who made the weekend so wonderful (especially my wife, who looked after our two boys solo all weekend! How did I get so lucky to have such support?).

It ended with a successful pitch (with a caveat for length) to Ginger Clark and an invitation to submit pages. Could not have hoped for anything more!


On the Literary and Genre

Here a ‘literary author’ (whose work is unfamiliar to me) decries the popularity of ‘genre’.

To summarise:

Edward Docx (has he taken a file extension as a Nom-de-Plume?) has had an initially cheerful, but subsequently less cheerful experience on a recent train ride. Firstly to the positive – everyone was reading. This he hails as a triumph of the novel over the gadgetry and distractions of the modern world. Too soon though his cheer is soured by a realisation that they are all reading Steig Larsson (and presumably none are reading any of his three published ‘literary’ novels). This he bemoans.

Docx makes his targets two of the most successful (read profitable) authors of recent decades. The aforementioned Swede and the American Dan Brown. On the basis of these exemplars he proceeds to rail against the popularity of ‘genre’ (as if these two authors of formulaic thrillers can somehow represent the diversity of all genre fiction). He compares genre fiction to the multinational hamburger chain and Lit-Fic to eel lasagne (I think this is meant as a positive for Lit-Fic).

The problem of course is that these analogies are abject nonsense.

To accuse Brown and Larsson of amateurism is hardly revelatory. That they are populist is demonstrable. That their writing is replete with clichés, unimaginative metaphors, derivative plotting, unenlightened gender politics, naff wordplay and unoriginal formulae… these things can remain undisputed. They are inconsequential to the argument.

What is of consequence is that these writers are not exemplars of ‘genre’ writing. To these authors I could easily add others: E.L.James of ‘Fifty Shades’ fame (infamy) springs quickly to mind, as does Stephanie Meyer and her sparklingly ‘vampiric’ creation. The fallacy here is a classical ‘straw man‘ (or straw woman in my examples). That Literary Fiction should be of surpassing quality to these examples is obvious, but it is no less obvious to me that genre fiction (if indeed there is a coagulant to combine sci-fi, fantasy, crime, romance, thriller, noir, dystopian… into a single category of fiction still somehow distinct from ‘literary’) should not also surpass a standard set so low.

‘Genre Fiction’ is susceptible to the misconception that its success is defined by sales figures, and to some extent this is true of any creative work, be that literary, statuary, musical or acrylic on canvas, but to make this the sole determinant is erroneous, and no less so simply because the work is genre fiction.

To be fair to Docx he does admit that Brown and Larsson are not ‘good genre’ writers, but he never raises any examples of those that are. Where’s his discussion of China Miéville? of Neil Gaiman? even Stephen King, who amid the airport-shelf dross and formulaic horror has written some enduring cultural touchstones – The Shining, Misery, Carrie, The Green Mile, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, The Body (Stand by Me), not to mention the Dark Tower series.

And what of the ‘literary’ authors who write genre? What of Michel Chabon? What of Alan Moore’s Hugo Award winner?  Or Ursula Le Guin’s? What of Cormac McCarthy’s dystopia? or Margaret Atwood’s? And that’s before we begin on Yann Martel or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Le Guin herself has written frequently on the ‘false dichotomy’ of literary and genre fiction. Here she responds (brilliantly, and with a zombie) to Ruth Franklin’s review of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. The implication here seems to be that Chabon has transcended genre because Chabon’s writing is ‘good’. He hasn’t been limited by the constraints of genre… but this is a stifling and rather dated view of genre. I defy anyone to read Perdido St Station or American Gods or The Lies of Lock Lamora and suggest that its genre has curtailed the imagination of either Miéville, Gaiman or Scott Lynch (and of course generally people don’t; generally they declare these works genre-defying, or cross-genre – an ad hoc rescue of their argument that genre confines).

Perhaps the solution is in Ursula Le Guin’s hypothesis that “literature is the extant body of written art. All books belong to it.” That’s not to say that all books are good literature of course, but all are literature (yes, even Twilight).

I went through the Guardian’s 100 greatest Novels of all time and found eighteen (nearly 1/5)  ‘literary’ novels that are (secretly or openly) genre fiction (as defined by… me):

Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift:                                                      Fantasy / Alternative World / Satire

Frankenstein Mary Shelley:                                                                    Sci-Fi / Horror

The Count of Monte Christo Alexandre Dumas:                       Adventure / Revenge Thriller.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll:                  (Children’s) Fantasy

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson:                          Sci-Fi/Fantasy

The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde:                                        Uncanny / Fantasy

The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame:                                  Animist Fantasy

Brave New World Aldous Huxley:                                                          Dystopian Sci-Fi

The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler:                                                          Crime Noir

Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell:                                                 Dystopian Sc-Fi

Charlotte’s Web E. B. White:                                                                       Animist Fantasy

The Lord Of The Rings J. R. R. Tolkien:                                               High / Epic Fanatsy

One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez:          Magical Realism

The New York Trilogy Paul Auster (with which I’m unfamiliar but which is described by The Guardian as a “metaphysical thriller”)

The BFG Roald Dahl:                                                                                          Children’s Fantasy

La Confidential James Ellroy:                                                                     Crime

Wise Children Angela Carter: (with which I’m unfamiliar but which is described by The Guardian as a “Magical Realism”)

Northern Lights Philip Pullman:                                                               Young Adult Fantasy


Published!

My first publishing success story has hit the virtual shelves.

Check out the 2nd issue of ‘Dark Edifice’ magazine for a free dose of emergent Australian Speculative Fiction, including my own contribution: ‘A Choice of Kings’.

It’s a tale of competing obligations, of the difficult decisions that come with power, and of the consequences we must accept if we are to be true to our ideals.

Hope you enjoy it. Feedback most welcomed. Bonus points if you can spot the error which somehow slipped through my rigorous editing… (I hope there’s only one)

http://darkedifice.webs.com/magazine


My first publication

I’ve just had my short story “A Choice of Kings” accepted by “Dark Edifice”, a new Australian Speculative Fiction magazine. It’s a non-professional market, but it’s a publication!

Their website is http://darkedifice.webs.com/magazine. Edition #1 is available for free now. My story will be appearing in edition #2 in July or August.

Some of you may have read the story on my blog already but I’ve removed it from there and put a link to Dark Edifice instead.

It’d be great if you could support this new magazine, and in turn support emerging and established Australian writers. They’re also on FB: http://www.facebook.com/DarkEdificeMagazine.

I’m going to to pop some proverbial champagne.