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Just saw this fantastic response by author Scott Lynch to small-mindedness in speculative fiction.

I've been talking with several people lately about this very issue, ever since clevermanka got me started thinking. She gave up on Game of Thrones right away upon realizing that, socio-politically, women have been suffering the same sexism there in that fantasty world as they have in our world. (She also has a good discussion going on over at her LJ on this topic.)

Fantasy so often fails to try new things because "that's not the way they were." BULLPOOP. It's FANTASY, people, which means IT'S NOT AND NEVER WAS REAL. Why re-create the same sexist, racist, religionist, etcetera-ist stereotypes from our own history when you can create fresh, vivid, DIFFERENT worlds? It just reveals the authors' own imagination limitations. In fact, if you're writing any form of speculative fiction, you have no excuse for limiting yourself to the way things were or the way things are; it's SPECULATIVE, which means you can - and ought to, if you want to write something that stands out - do things like invent futures where elections aren't affected by someone's genetic heritage, or whether they belong to a religion, or how many times they've been married, or if they're even fully organic after the shipwreck. Heck, that's the whole point: to speculate on possibilities, to examine what it means to be human encountering change.

PS: Also, FRAK the closed-minded people who say "Men can't write about the women's experience." This author, who at least appears to be a man, isn't writing about the women's experience, but a woman's experience. Which is another way to not just write stereotypes. Bravo.

PPS: If you haven't yet, be sure to read this Tor.com article: Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That.

PPPS: Here's a great discussion about "How to be a fan of problematic things" (with the subtext of "without being an a-hole").

What are your thoughts on this? Can you accept the problematic, sigh a bit, then go on to enjoy a work? Or does it stop you from being able to read it?



( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 9th, 2012 05:48 pm (UTC)
You'll take dragons, wizards, spontaneous births and zombified armies, and magical atom bombs but strong women pull you out of a story? You're not a traditionalist, you're a misogynistic asshole.
Dec. 9th, 2012 05:54 pm (UTC)
Dec. 9th, 2012 06:14 pm (UTC)
Dec. 9th, 2012 07:45 pm (UTC)
Where is the +1 button I am confused.
Dec. 13th, 2012 01:37 pm (UTC)
I have so many <3's for you. SO MANY. I am going to put them all in little jars and send them to you in New York to keep on your desk.
Dec. 9th, 2012 06:00 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the link to Scott's post. It was AWESOME!

I think speculative fiction needs to grow and expand (most of my protagonists are women and/or POC) whether the real world does or not.

Speculative fiction gives us hope that maybe SOME day (not the near future, I fear) these groups of people will be treated like equals in the real world, too.
Dec. 9th, 2012 06:08 pm (UTC)
Hear, hear! Remember A WHOLE GENERATION AGO when Star Trek blazed the trail for equality, and the future loooked hopeful? Well, sometimes I wonder if we've really come very far since then....
Dec. 9th, 2012 06:10 pm (UTC)
Can you accept the problematic, sigh a bit, then go on to enjoy a work? Or does it stop you from being able to read it?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no, and it depends on the medium.

I am most forgiving of movies, because they represent a limited time investment. I love the old Bond movies, even though they're hugely racist and sexist. But they're pretty and light and fun and I can enjoy them even while I acknowledge the problems. However, when a movie of the genre has good women characters (or at least a lack of overt misogyny), I certainly enjoy it more.

I'm pickier about television shows. They take up a lot more time. I'm more patient (if not exactly forgiving) if it's a genre I especially like (cop shows, horror). This is why I can relish Supernatural despite its glaring mistreatment of women, but can't be bothered to sit through an entire episode of Mad Men. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say The Pretty in Supernatural is another incentive to overlook the problematic elements.

Books, even though they (usually) don't last as long as television shows (Eight Seasons Supernatural? Good Lord), require an enormous intellectual and emotional investment because I'm creating a world in my head as I read. This is where I absolutely draw the line when it comes to sexism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. Because I do not want to create those worlds in my head. At all. Ever. I did my time in the sexist fantasy world as a teenager and I have absolutely no desire to return.

Slightly tangential: I never attempt to coax someone into watching something I like if s/he complains about problematic elements. Someone on my LJ recently groaned about the misogynist sausage-fest of Superwholock and even though I love two of those three shows, I would never ask her to just-give-them-a-try or whatever. It's 100% her choice to avoid those shows based on her observations about them and her own knowledge of her tolerance levels for problematic elements. It annoys the hell out of me when I talk about not wanting to watch or read something because of X and some fanboy/girl goes into a sales pitch about "how good it is by the second book/third season." Just...no. Stop. You may feel I'm missing out on something amazing, but it's my choice not to watch it. Stop proselytizing.
Dec. 9th, 2012 06:18 pm (UTC)
I completely understand your reasoning. When I read SF that's anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-change, or so forth, I quickly get disgusted and can't keep reading. As you say, it's neither enjoyable to create such a world in my head nor do I feel it honestly represents human nature. So I miss out on a lot.

Same's true for a lot of series books: Yes, I understand you love it to pieces, but how can you get over the [insert problematic element]?

Even if I think there's a lot you'd love about something, I have learned to not attempt to get you to watch/read/listen to it. 'Cause I get it now.
Dec. 9th, 2012 06:23 pm (UTC)
Even if I think there's a lot you'd love about something, I have learned to not attempt to get you to watch/read/listen to it. 'Cause I get it now.

This is because you are awesome and a good friend and partner.
Dec. 9th, 2012 10:07 pm (UTC)
Aw. Thank you.
Dec. 9th, 2012 07:02 pm (UTC)
De gustibus non est disputandem. I don't see that an author choosing a framework that doesn't suit one's individual tastes as implying a lack of imagination on the author's part, however much it may take the work out of one's own range of readability. (I totally get not wanting to continue reading such. I just don't blame it on the author.)
Dec. 9th, 2012 08:57 pm (UTC)
Oh, I totally agree with you. But so many times I hear authors say (in defense of something that reiterates, say, sexist stereotypes) something like, "But that's the way history was." I admit that I've used this sort of argument, myself, in defense of problematic works I like.

But you know what? This really says it all about people who resort to that defense.

Now, if you WANT to create a culture that fits a certain set of historical notions, that's totally cool, and I don't have to read it. Heck, my novel Empire Ship has a culture centered around a partriarchal military dictator that keeps slaves and devalues women (mostly because, in the far past, a women's movement brought down the old "Eternal Galactic Empire of Man").

Here, building such a society supports my argument about how that is wrong-headed, harmful to almost everyone in such a society, and and how we really ought to avoid such things. Someone else could read it as some kind of validation of any or all of those notions - reader-response is half of what makes a work come alive! - but an astute reader will immediately understand that I'm not writing about such a thing because that's how humans organize.

On the other hand, another author might write about such a society because he honestly believes it would happen that way, and that's fine, but I think it's operating out of a lack of understanding of human nature.

Not everyone thinks alike, and this is why we're regularly surprised as readers, especially in speculative fiction, where we question EVERYTHING! Including the inherent goodness or value of human nature ;-)
Dec. 9th, 2012 07:36 pm (UTC)
The people claiming that X-oppression is "because it is historically so" as a rule display very limited knowledge of real history. They also tend to ignore counterexamples when presented by people who actually know their history. These people also use "but it's speculative!!" as an excuse to perpetuate their unexamined privilege.

However, there are serious practical problems for those of us working against this trend. First of all, when writing a diverse piece of work, it is hard to do something well. It is easy to screw up. Laziness does not require effort, but hard work does not guarantee success. I am saying this as a person who has invested a lot of thinking and work into this issue; I think the effort is imminently worthwhile, but the work is hard, and the rewards are not great.

Which brings me to the second point. Diverse work is a harder sell. Which is not to say it is impossible, but it is a harder sell. And the reactions to the work can be painful. I have seen someone complain that there were too many queer couples in Cashore's Bitterblue and that it was "not motivated." This is just one example.

It's a process.

I am past the point where I can just accept problematic shit in fiction. I'm reading better stuff as a result, though sometimes it is harder to find.

Edited at 2012-12-09 07:38 pm (UTC)
Dec. 9th, 2012 10:11 pm (UTC)
This is all true. When I read something that does this badly, I tend to not finish it and/or not recommend it to others. On the other hand, when I read something refreshing, I have the opportunity to recommend it via classes, the SF club, conventions, and the Campbell Award. If enough of us point out the good stuff, we'll get more attention for it and help draw a little away from the problematic stuff.
Dec. 10th, 2012 03:30 am (UTC)
the toned down version of the snarky response
Having written several responses...

The short version is that, as a reader, while I'm usually able to accept problematic issues in a novel by someone of sufficient talent, I'm more inclined to do so for an author of a generation where this was more commonplace. Clarke, Heinlein and Asimov get a free pass, with a nod to Tolkien and Morris. Authors whose literary output came primarily after 1970 or thereabouts, not so much.

And I'm willing to concede the point about authors writing about experiences not their own. If I could not do otherwise, there wouldn't be much left of writing for me to read: men about women, women about men, now about then, melanin-challenged people about our darkly-tanned brethren, persons of one country about those of another...and so on. All I ask is that the authors do a sympathetic job.

More specifically, I'll confess I gave up on Game of Thrones (the books) because it struck me as a rehash of all the...searches for correct literary term and gives up...medieval alternate history science fiction in the genre started by Morris and continued by Tolkien. I am not, however, inclined to try again for something akin to the reasons that clevermanka discusses: women have precious little part in this subset of science [insert term here]. Authentic (in the sense of historical backdrop) has nothing to do with this. We're talking fantasy, not historical fiction. Even within the limitations of her chosen milieu, Ellis Peters can do better within the confines of the medieval period with a monk as her protagonist. Why can't modern science fiction/fantasy authors do better? HOnestly, you're MAKING THINGS UP.

RAR. Hiss. RAR. PantPantPantGaspPant. Phew.
Dec. 10th, 2012 03:32 am (UTC)
Re: the toned down version of the snarky response
...hit the reply button before I was done with the reply....

...and I am one of the people who is recommending to others, a librarian.
Dec. 10th, 2012 02:44 pm (UTC)
Re: the toned down version of the snarky response

Yay for having a librarian in the ranks!
Dec. 10th, 2012 03:31 pm (UTC)
Re: the toned down version of the snarky response
I hear you! Thankfully, most modern writers are doing better than they used to, but it's glaringly obvious when we see post-1960 work that fails, or whose authors feel "authenticity" or "historical accuracy" means they must keep writing as if that's the way it should be, because we had a lot of it. But, as the Tor.com article points out, much of history is invisible, because white men from wealthy nations wrote most of what we call "history."
Dec. 10th, 2012 11:27 am (UTC)
I don't think you or Scott go far enough, because you're both missing an important point: there were actual women pirates. The only part that's totally fantasy in his concept of them is that he seems (I haven't read the book, *yet*) to be designing a world where women sailors are preferred, instead of having to face enormous odds and prejudice in a world not designed for them.

Of course that doesn't stop them *also* being wish fulfillment, in the way that male pirates are a historical fact and also wish-fulfillment for many modern readers.
Dec. 10th, 2012 11:34 am (UTC)
ETA: no one has to believe me - there are a ton of books on actual, historical female pirates, including a couple by Jane Yolen, a woman who knows her way around fantasy but wasn't writing it here.
Dec. 10th, 2012 03:12 pm (UTC)
I'm pretty sure he's aware of that, too! The discussion isn't about this, specifically, but how women/non-whites/non-20-somethings are portrayed, and how sexist/racist/ageist readers (and writers, and so on) often have a problem with this sort of thing. For "REASONS!" according to "HISTORY!" In this case, it's because "history" rarely recorded 40ish-year-old black women pirate leaders ;-)
Dec. 10th, 2012 03:15 pm (UTC)
Too bad I didn't see this article earlier: How to be a fan of problematic things.
Dec. 10th, 2012 03:50 pm (UTC)
That's perfect. I posted a link to this one on the parallel Facebook discussion, because one participant over there needs to read it.
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )

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