The next book for Kate Elliott and mine’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club is Patricia Highsmith’s Carol.
The book was originally published under the title Price of Salt and under the pseudonym Claire Morgan as a Bantam paperback original in 1952. It sold extremely well and become a lesbian classic. Highsmith didn’t publicly admit the book was hers until the 1980s. This lovely article by Terry Castle at Slate gives some more context for the book.
It’s one of my favourite Highsmith novels and the one least like her other books. No one’s murdered, there are no psychopaths, and the ending does not fill your heart with despair.
You can join in the conversation by commenting on the post where Kate and I share our thoughts which will go up next Monday/Tuesday and/or by joining in the twitter discussion with #BWFBC
Kate and I look forward to discussing it with you on on Monday 28 Jul at 10 pm ET (USA)/ 7 pm PT (USA)/ 4 pm Hawaii Time and on Tuesday 29 July noon Eastern Standard Australian time.1
Welcome to this month’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club in which we discuss Metalious’s Peyton Place.
For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #BWFBC. You can also join the converation in the comments below.
If you haven’t read Peyton Place yet be warned there are many spoilers below.
Enough with the housekeeping here’s how we read it:
KE: I’m about halfway through. I’m really glad we’re doing this for book club as otherwise I would never have read this. I have mixed feelings about the novel but it is a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of the early 50s and also much franker about sex than I would have expected although I suppose that is why it made such a sensation.
JL: I’m really struggling. The opening is so boring and overwritten and ridiculous. An Indian summer is like a woman? What? I keep reading half a page at night and instantly falling asleep. The writing is so bad. Aaargh.
Haven’t got to any sex yet. Or anything much actually happening. I guess I’m gunna have to skim.
KE: It’s a perfect book for skimming. Full of mid century American moralism (a form of sentimentalism), “shorthand” sketches of classism, racism, sexism. Self satisfied and judgmental. I recognize it all from my youth!!! Overall I was surprised about the explicit references to so many aspects of sex. And the writing is, as you say, consciously overwrought.
JL: Finally got a purchase on it. And will now manage to finish in time. PHEW. All my deadlines haven’t helped. *shakes fist at them*
Anyways, once I started thinking of it as a book about how misogyny and racism function it improved out of sight for me. That combined with skimming the descriptive passages worked a treat. God, I hate Markis. I am so so so so so so over alpha male characters who somehow know what everyone else thinks and feels better than they do. The hate crime at UCSB has made Markis even more hateful to read about. Argh.
KE: Also a classic text on classism.
What fascinates me about Markis is that HE RAPES HER. It is described from Constance’s pov, in her memory, and it is horrible, and yet told from the distance of time after she has “fallen in love” with him (and yes, GOD, he is RIGHT ALL THE TIME).
The juxtapositions are whiplashing.
OMG Norman Page and the whippings and enemas. OMG OMG
JL: What do you mean, Alis? There’s no class differences in the USA.
Got up to that bit now. So. Awful. What is this?! And that’s the flashback on how they fell in love because he raped her. Aaargh! Reminded me of the scene in GWTW where Rhett rapes Scarlett and she realises she cares for him. I can’t . . . .
It’s not hard to see how we got to this moment in history—with the UCSB shootings—from the misogynist, rape-is-good mess of Peyton Place. It’s so depressing.
Also this book makes it clear why Jackson wrote “The Lottery.”
KE: The endless moralism. Everyone is judged and compartmentalized, as will become increasingly clear as you get through the rest of it. As far as I can tell not one person can escape their destined class fate.
JL: Finished! Wow, is this book one great big hot mess but I totally get why it was such a big success: whole lot of plot going on. If only it weren’t broken up by interminably long descriptions of the town and the weather. I believe these are accurate descriptions but YAWN.
KE: Metalious grew up in a mill town, so I am given to understand, so I expect she was describing a world she knew very well.
JL: I think its overly descriptiveness is part of why it didn’t love it the way I love Valley of the Dolls.
KE: It’s interesting, isn’t it? VotD has a big picture story but it is tightly told through the three narrative arcs of the three main women. In PP Metalious is, I think, trying to tell a big picture story but her method is to hammer down into a stew of moralism, sensationalism, judgmentalism, and editorializing. Thus, Susann’s book is (to my mind) far more effective as a piece of literature.
JL: Exactly. Also I liked some of Susann’s characters. Didn’t like any of the characters in PP. Especially not Tom. What a vile, self-regarding, I-know-what-everyone-is-thinking rapist jerk. UGH.
KE: I still cannot figure out whether Metalious purposefully makes it clear that he outright RAPES Connie that first time, or if she herself as writer does not see it as rape but rather him “showing” the woman “what is right for her” since Tom consistently is all about being the voice of Telling The Poor Benighted What Is Right. Ugh. So foul.
JL: I have no idea. Tom is so the hero and voice of EVERYTHING THAT IS RIGHT that his raping her doesn’t compute. That, yeah, I too wonder if she didn’t think it was a rape. And that makes me really really sad.
It sure does capture the stultifying closeness of small town living. (Or so I imagine I’ve never lived in a small town.)
KE: It captures a way of looking at small towns. I grew up in rural Oregon a mile outside a very small town (population 1800 when I was growing up, larger now). Now I grant you that as a child I could not have known what all was going on, but while I felt that Metalious captures the judgmental moralism that permeated society at that time (many of the attitudes were so familiar to me from growing up in the 60s and 70s), her portraits are extremely narrow and not remotely nuanced. The way she kept dipping into characters to tell us exactly what we need to think about them is effective in some ways (we are invited to judge them along with the narrator, which makes “us” the reader invest more, theoretically, as we are on the narrator’s side not the characters’ side) but it also stultifies and narrows the story because it can never escape from her very heavy-handed treatment.
JL: Yes, it definitely keeps us at a remove and meant that I didn’t like any of the characters. I didn’t like Connie. I didn’t understand her. Allison annoyed me. The doctor I was clearly supposed to love irritated me too. Selena Cross was the most sympathetic character. But I didn’t actually buy any of them. They were more like extremely detailed, well made and animated cardboard cut outs, who despite lots of really hard work never came alive for me.
KE: We are so very agreed here. The characters so often seemed to function to prove a point, or to shock.
JL: I think part of my problem was that so much of the writing just made me laugh out loud: “nipples as hard as diamonds.” Really? How would that work exactly? Wouldn’t it kind of hurt? Wouldn’t your nipples be constantly cutting holes in your bras?
Anyways several of the similes sent me off into such thoughts. It was distracting.
It did feel like a broader picture of society at the time than either Best of Everything or Valley of the Dolls. There is even a brief discussion of the desirability of racial equality. Almost as if there was a civil right’s movement happening somewhere off stage. There aren’t just white people. There are Jews and some mentions of African Americans, and a discussion of the most pejorative word–which gets used A LOT– in the US to refer to them, though no one black seems to be living in the town now. Peyton Place is very very white. It struck me as a place that might have been a sundown town.
There were only very brief mentions of homosexuality. So that’s a contrast to the New York books.
KE: I was fascinated by the backstory of the Samuel Peyton and the castle. It was on the one hand so deeply racist (how many times does she use the phrase “big handsome black man” or some version thereof? and that’s leaving aside the casual use of the n-word in a way that would have been entirely consistent with the times) and then on the other hand the acknowledgment that this was a thing that could happen (he goes to France to make his way because the racism of the USA closes opportunity to him) struck me as unusual in a book of its time and type.
JL: Yes, very. I honestly don’t know what to make off that whole section. Especially the bit about how Samuel Peyton was a Confederate sympathiser, smuggling guns to them and that’s why it was okay for a New Englander to call him the n-word. So many layers of WTF?! What is this book?
KE: It also made judgments on male characters in relationship to their service in World War II. We are alerted to Ted Carter’s unworthiness the moment we realize he stays in school instead of signing up. Selena’s brother turns out to have made good because he is a TRUE war hero/responsible man. And so on.
JL: Yeah, masculinity was as heavily policed as femininity. Yay! I did not love this book. There was none of the joy or humour of Valley and no proto-feminism. And it wasn’t even remotely as well written as Best of Everything.
This was not a book that had any criticism for the underlying structures of inequality except as they fell along class lines.
KE: While I agree that to some extent she critiques the underlying structures of class inequality, the story still felt as if many of the “lower class” characters were essentialized and thus unable to escape “their place.”
JL: Totally agree. Especially Betty who awful Rodney gets pregnant who’s sole character note seems to be “tramp.” Lovely. Though everyone was essentialised.
The normalised sexual harassment and rape felt like a very accurate portrayal. If anything I bet it was even worse back then. But it made me sick to my stomach. Especially reading it as a young man murdered six people at UCSB out of a deep seated hatred of women. I kept turning the pages and thinking, not hard to see the seeds of his misogyny when this is how men and women are taught to be men and women. Even the so-called good people of this book are misogynist and racist to their core.
KE: As I said earlier, the attitudes expressed struck me as true to the time, that these were pervasive in terms of the default way many people saw the world or how the world was expressed to them through the daily attitudes and interactions of life. When I or anyone speaks of systemic sexism and racism, for example, or when my dad would say, “if you grow up in a racist society, you are a racist” this is what he meant. That even while you yourself may strive to treat all people fairly, if you grow up steeped in this toxic stew you will absorb it and have to work to see past it and not fall into engrained ways of thinking about class, race, sex, gender, religion, and so on.
JL: Exactly. But there were books at the time that did rail against it. I mean Virginia Woolf rails against sexism and misogyny earlier in the twentieth century and she was by no means the first. I found this such a complacent book. None of the women had any sense of wanting more. Unlike, well, Best of Everything or The Valley of the Dolls. This is not a book where you think, “Well, feminism’s going to hit your lives in a big way soon.” The way I did after reading those other two books.
KE: I wanted to make one point about the one thing that did honestly surprise me in the book and that is the degree to which Metalious mentions sex in a blunt and realistic (if often really skeezy) way. Masturbation, hard ons, rape, incest, sexual feelings, and so on: all present. OMG Norman Page and the whippings and enemas from his mother, clearly outed as a form of incest. I did not expect any of that. Even the moralistic treatment of abortion.
JL: Right. It’s more explicit than any of the other bestsellers I’ve read from the period. There’s even a scene in which a pregnant woman’s husband goes down on her. Pretty radical back then saying a pregnant woman can feel desire.
The abortion was really interesting because the doctor very explicitly puts it as a choice between destroying the life of the foetus and destroying Serena Cross’s life and he choose Serena.
KE: I found this quote on Wikipedia as to the frankness of her work, Metalious stated, “Even Tom Sawyer had a girlfriend, and to talk about adults without talking about their sex drives is like talking about a window without glass.”
So I can see why the novel was a sensation.
JL: Yes, indeed. But notices that she expresses it in terms of male desire. It’s Tom Sawyer who has a nameless girlfriend. Who was the girlfriend, Grace? What was her name? Why did you give her no agency!
That struck me over and over: all the sex is initiated by the men. The language is about men “taking” or “having” women. Sex is something men do to women. The women have very little agency. Connie doesn’t want her daughter to go to NYC to be a writer. It’s Tom who actively encourages Allison to do so. It is, in fact, pretty much only Tom who says anything about sexism with his magical ability to know everything about everyone. What a stand up guy.
KE: I will never get over the enemas, Justine. NEVER. And that she went there with it. Props to her.
Welcome to our first Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club. We’re very excited to get the ball rolling with Susann’s Valley of the Doll.
For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #VofD #BWFBC. You can also leave a comment below. We love it when you leave comments.
If you haven’t read the book yet be warned there are many spoilers below.
Enough housekeeping here’s what we thought:
Kate Elliott (KE): So to begin, I have some initial impressions.
The pacing is just as fast as today. There is no messing around. Susann gets straight to the point.To that end it is very heavy on dialogue scenes.
I’m struck by the fascinating and obviously deliberate contrast between the absolute and immediate acceptance and attention Anne gets from men because of her stunning looks, and the interior life and intentions revealed by her pov. Her competence is assumed by the narrative because it is from her point of view, and I have to assume that the men who all admire and trust and respect her do so in large part because she has proven her level-headedness and competence.
I flinch at the casual use of the word fag, but I also note that no one so far in the text thinks twice about the presence of homosexual men in the entertainment industry. They’re there. Everyone knows it. In an odd way it is simply not a big deal (not yet, anyway).
JL: LOVE ANNE. Loving this book. Have so much to do but just want to read it. You are so right about the fast pace. Zooooom!
You’re right the homophobia is ridiculous. Tempted to keep a “fag” count. Barely a page goes by without it. Though as you say at least they’re not invisible. Why there are even lesbians in this book. Queen Victoria would faint.
I did find it very comfortable being in Anne’s pov for so long. The switch to Neely and Jennifer’s povs was quite a wrench. They’re much more uncomfortable places to be. Though once Anne was hopelessly in love with Lyon Burke, the biggest arsehole in the book, she became pretty uncomfortable too.
God, the men are awful. ALL OF THEM.
I’m a bit weirded out by the lack of scene breaks. I’m wondering if that’s an idiosyncracy of the book or something that wasn’t done as much back then or peculiar to the publisher or what? I don’t remember the last time I read a book where scenes changed with nothing more than a paragraph break. Odd.
KE: Yes. I keep waiting for a chapter or scene break and there is NOTHING. I have no idea why.
I sometimes think these “women’s novels” are about the deepest social commentary of all.
Because the men are all awful (so far). AWFUL. But I don’t find them “unrealistic.”
JL: No, they’re completely believable. Alas. Everything is so well observed. Painfully well observed. I feel like all the women are suffering from Stockholm syndrome except for Anne.
I finished. The subtitle of this book should be Patriarchy Destroys Everyone.
KE: I’m also finished. It’s compulsively readable.
There were several points in the narrative where I started getting worn out with the endless pointlessness of it all and just wanted there to be sword fighting and dragons.
JL: Poor Anne. Don’t think dragons or swords would’ve helped. So glad I wasn’t born until after this book takes place.
It’s very interesting to me how very sympathetic Anne is. I suspect that the fact that she doesn’t just get by on her looks for a big chunk of the novel is a big part of that. As opposed to Jennifer.
All three women’s lives do, however, wind up being almost entirely governed by how they look. Anne becomes a model. Jennifer models and acts. Neely becomes a singing movie star ordered to lose weight by the studio. It does not work out well for any of them.
Fascinating, isn’t it that Neely’s happiest moments after she’s famous are when she’s out of rehab and has gained a lot of weight and everyone’s freaked out by it. But the minute she loses the weight again she’s back to being a monster.
Then there’s Jennifer’s face lift because at the ancient age of 37 or whatever it is she cannot possibly face Hollywood’s glare without one. One of a million depressing moments.
It’s really shocking to me how truly awful the men are. I kept wondering if they were meant to be awful or if were supposed to like some of them. There really is not a single good guy. And they’re all so desperately unhappy. Who in this book is happy for more than a nanosecond?
I love that the women are miserable no matter what choice they make. Get married, be supportive spouse, (Jennifer in Hollywood) = utter misery. Pursue career = utter misery. Pursue career with supportive husband = utter misery. Marry the guy of your dreams = utter misery. Whatever you choose = utter misery.
Where are the happy role models? Where are the happy relationships? The book basically says that in a misogynistic, homphobic, patriarchal world everyone is miserable.
The unhappy endings. Pulling this out of my arse but the books I read now that are labelled “women’s fiction” tend to have happy endings in a way these earlier books don’t. My sample size for this pronouncement is ludicriously small. And I’m probably wrong.
KE: No one in this book has an intact family of any kind or any sort of healthy familial relationships. As far as I can tell there are two healthy relationships shown in the book:
1) Anne’s friendship with Jennifer, and 2) Anne’s friendship with Henry Bellamy (which has issues but seems to be based on mutual respect).
I would add there is a suggestion that Neely’s second husband Ted apparently goes on to have a happy marriage to the girl he was sexing in the pool although that can’t be confirmed.
Not a single person has an intact relationship with parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts & uncles, long-time friends, etc. They are all startlingly isolated and, to that degree, vulnerable.
JL: Right. They really are adrift. This is the world that the breakdown of the extended family and the rise of the broken nuclear family has led to. AND IT IS SO WRONG!
1) I’m not sure how healthy it is Anne and Jennifer’s friendship is. So much they don’t tell each other. But, yes, within the context of the book it’s not too bad. 2) And as for her relationship with Bellamy: but he lies to her! But, again, yes, compared to all the other relationships it’s not too bad. Henry Bellamy would be my nomination for most decent guy in the book and what a low bar that is.
Of all the awful men Anne’s husband, Lyon Burke, was the very worst. He’s who I’d stab.
I actually felt bad for Tony the mentally impaired singer. I liked his sister Miriam. Loved that he showed up at the sanitorium to sing with Neely. I’m a sook. That was one of my favourite bits.
Oh, also DRUGS ARE BAD. In fact, I’m never so much as looking at a drug ever again. Not even aspirin.
The ending left me really bummed. Poor Anne. May she discover feminism, quit the drugs, and leave the bastard soon.
I loved that it’s a book about work. As so many of these women’s fiction titles are. (Again small sample size. But it feels true.)
KE: I have a few other comments.
We both noticed the utter lack of people of color in the book (unless there is a mention of a maid or other servant that I flashed past because I was reading so fast). There are Catholics and Jews; other than that I guess it is presumed everyone is a white Protestant as the representation of the Standard Person.
There is a lot of sex in this book, and a lot of sexism—and constant measuring of women against regressive standards of weight, age, appearance, and so on (nothing new, and certainly standards that continue today, but it permeates the book so alarmingly and despairingly). The women engage in a lot of sex, often (mostly?) out of wedlock, and what I felt I did NOT see was reductive slut-shaming. It is assumed that women have sexual feelings, that they want to act on them, and that they (sometimes) take pleasure from sex. There are ways in which that may be undercut but I bet I could find many a more recent novel and novels published today that are much more “conservative” about women’s sexual activity than this book is. I wonder if that is one of the reasons it was so popular.
Finally I wanted to mention what might have been my favorite exchange in the book. I do agree that Anne and Jennifer’s relationship is not a full friendship in that they keep things from each other. I read VotD when I was 14, secretly, at might grandmother’s house, and while there is much in the novel that I recall, I have no memory of the episode about Jennifer’s relationship with Maria, the Spanish woman. While Maria herself is a controlling and abusive person, and while an argument can (should) be made that the book is hostile to lesbians with lines like “those awful freaks who cut their hair and wear mannish clothes,” (unless that is merely meant to reflect Maria’s hostile personality), for me the most heartfelt and sweet exchange in the book is between Jennifer and Anne:
“I love you, Jen—really.”
Jennifer smiled. “I know you do. It’s a pity we’re not queer—we’d make a marvelous team.”
Is the exchange then undercut by their agreement that there can never be equality in love? Or is this the one moment where Susann is suggesting that there can be but they just don’t see it because of their awful experiences in their various love affairs and their fractured social interactions? I don’t know.
What a downer of an ending, though, and yet entirely appropriate. Which is maybe why I always go back to reading about swords and dragons.
JL: Yes, to everything you just said. The world of The Valley of the Dolls is a white, white, white world.
That was a lovely exchange. I like to think that it’s not undercut by anything. But then the whole book undercuts it, doesn’t it? They none of them end well.
It reminded me that there were many lovely moments between the three women before Neely became famous and deranged. The first third of the book when they’re becoming friends is very touching.
Then there’s Neely, oh, Neely. It’s very hard not to think of her as Judy Garland. And knowing that the book is a roman a clef and that Jennifer North was based on Carole Landis who killed herself aged 29, that Helen Lawson was a thinly disguised Ethel Merman, makes me even sadder about the book because I can’t pretend it’s all fiction. Alas. According to Wikipedia Susann was “quoted in her biography Lovely Me saying that she got the idea for [Tony] Polar when she tried to interview Dean Martin after one of his shows; he was too engrossed in a comic book to pay attention to her.” As someone who quite likes comic books that strikes me as more than a little unfair, Ms Susann. Makes me want to read the bio though and re-watch the Bette Midler flick based on it.
I think the book was tremendously popular because, as we both found, it’s unputdownable, because it was a roman a clef, and because it was, as you say frank about sex and female sexual desire, also sometimes it’s hilarious. So let me finish with one of my favourite passages:
“Anne I think you’re afraid of sex.”
This time she looked at him. “I suppose you’re going to tell me that I’m unawakened…that you will change all that.”
She sipped the champagne to avoid his eyes.
“I suppose you’ve been told this before,” he said.
“No, I’ve heard it in some very bad movies.”
Hahahaha! Take that, loser. I can almost see Anne rolling her eyes.
So, that’s some of mine and Kate’s thoughts. (Trust me. We have many more.) What did you all think of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls?
Our April book will be Rona Jaffe’s Best of Everything which we’ll be discussing over on Kate’s blog. We will announce what date and time as soon as we figure it out.
Thanks so much everyone for all the fabulous suggestions in response to my previous post. Lots of great ideas there. We really appreciate it.
Your suggestions clarified two things for us:
1) We realised that we want to stick to the twentieth century. So we’ve decided to only read books from after WW1 up to 1994 (ie twenty years ago.) After WW1 because that’s when women across classes1 were joining the workforce in larger numbers; because I’ve done a lot of research on the 1930s; and because there’s an argument that that is when you see the beginnings of what is now called women’s fiction.
2) As much as possible we’d like to do books that are available as ebooks because that makes it much easier for everyone to take part. We will, however, make exceptions for books we’re very keen to read. Such as Han Suyin’s A Many Splendoured Thing.
We’re also making a decision about historicals. On the one hand I think they say a tonne about contemporary women’s lives and feminism and like that. But on the other hand I really do think they’re their own genre. Plenty of historicals by women never get talked about as women’s fiction. Hilary Mantel, Dorothy Dunnett etc. So I’m leaning against. Especially as women’s fiction today basically means fiction about women’s working lives that don’t fit the romance category. Also we’ve already got too many books to choose from! But like I said we’re still thinking about it.
Update: We’ve both decided we won’t be looking at historicals.
Looking forward to talking Valley of the Dolls with you this Wednesday night (US time) and Thursday afternoon (Australia time).
Working class women have pretty much always been in the workforce. [↩]
Kate Elliott and I have started a book club to talk about bestselling women’s fiction. First book we’ll discuss is Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls. A post with both our takes on it will go up here on 12 March (in the USA) 13 March (in Australia). We’d love to hear your thoughts on it too.
We’re both curious about the whole idea of the publishing category of “women’s fiction.” Particularly how and when that label started. And, of course, we also wanted to see how well the bestselling and most long lasting of the books with that label stand up. Because usually books like Valley of the Dolls (1966) and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (1958) and Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1958) are considered to be, at best, middle brow. Yet now some of these books are being taught in university and they’re all back in print or have remained in print.
But we’ll be pretty broad in what we consider as women’s fiction. Some of it will be bestselling fiction written by women that may not have been categorised as “women’s fiction” when published or even now.
At the moment we’re not considering any books published later than the early 1990s because we want at least twenty years distance from what we read. We definitely want to look at Flowers in the Attic (1979) for no other reason than Kate has never read it. It’s past time she experiences the joys of overthetop writing and crazy plotting that is V. C. Andrews’ first published novel.
I would love for us to read Han Suyin’s A Many Splendored Thing (1952). Her novel, The Mountain is Young has always been a favourite of mine. Sadly, though, Splendored seems to be out of print. It’s certainly not available as an ebook. Unfortunately that seems to be a problem for many of the ye olde bestsellers. Being in print, even if a book sells a gazillion copies and is made into a movie, can be fleeting, indeed.1
If you have any suggestions for other books you think we should look at. We’d love it if you shares.
TL;DR: 12 March (US), 13 March (Oz) we’ll be discussing Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls here. It will be joyous fun just like the book.
Though that will changing with ebooks. It’s still a prob for older books that have no digital files. [↩]
There was conflict in the world before there was an internet. Shocking, I know. Yet this notion keeps arising that all this conflict online somehow never existed before the internet. Or that in the early days of the internet everything was lovely and conflict-free and rose petals fell from above. And then it all went horribly wrong. The trolls descended.
Even when people admit that, yes, there was conflict in the olden days they often go on to say but it’s so much worse now.
I spent several years of my life researching the science fiction community in the USA from the 1920s through to the 1990s. I read many, many, many, fanzines, and prozines and issues of the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Bulletin. There were fights. Oh, Lord, there were fights. And, yes, sometimes it got nasty.
I looked specifically at debates around sex, sexuality and gender. You can see some letters on the subject here including some from a very young Isaac Asimov valiantly fighting to keep women out of science fiction. He’d be pleased to know there are men still fighting that fight almost eighty years later. Bless.
Every generation of feminists have had fights and disagreements over a huge range of issues.1 But usually those issues boil down to who counts as a woman? When women were fighting for the vote many white women suffragettes excluded women of colour because they did not see them as women.
I think many people feel like it’s worse now because the internet is faster and less mediated and reaches further than any previous means of mass communication. People who have not been able to speak publicly before can now be heard. That’s the key part: before the internet, before blogs and social media like Twitter, most people could not get their voices heard. The best they could do were letters to the editor. And it was extraordinarily hard to get your letter printed back then. Now all you have to do is push a button.
As Mikki Kendall points out what happened in publicly printed forums pre-internet was governed by “middle class social norms.” However, many online spaces like Twitter are not “the province of the middle class.” Different notions of what constitutes “polite” are clashing against each other.
More people are talking faster than ever before. They’re speaking from different places (in terms of geography and identity) and classes and different notions of what’s polite, what’s bullying, what should be discussed in public, and what shouldn’t. There is conflict and there will always be conflict. Some of it is exceedingly nasty and vicious and racist and sexist and homophobic and transphobic and etc.
I was online in the (relatively) early days. I have been a denizen of the internets since the 90s when I was a phd student. Back in the days when online social interaction took place on usenet newsgroups. There were trolls back then. There was conflict. The term “flame war” goes back to at least the late 1980s. According to the OED the first use of “troll” in its current sense goes back to 14 Dec 1992 when it was used on alt.folklore.urban.
But the biggest difference was there weren’t anywhere near as many people online back then and those who were online were overwhelmingly university educated–and mostly in the STEM fields, mostly white, male, and from the USA. The internet is not like that anymore. I am not at all nostalgic for those days because I truly was afraid to speak out back then. I knew that on most forums if I wanted to talked about racism or sexism I’d be ignored or the conversation would be swiftly changed. Sadly, there are still many corners of the internet that are like that. But there are plenty that aren’t.
Yes, there are more trolls now trying to shut down those conversations, but there also more allies, more people who want to talk about race and class and gender and so forth. I don’t feel nearly as alone as I did back then and I feel far more hopeful.2
Update: I really wish I’d read this wonderful article, “In Defense of Twitter Feminism,” by Suey Park (@suey_park) and Dr. David J. Leonard (@drdavidjleonard) before I wrote this post. Go read it: http://modelviewculture.com/pieces/in-defense-of-twitter-feminism
In the 1970s a friend of my mother’s was once excluded from a women’s group because she’d had a male child and was thus harbouring the enemy. I hasten to add that was a fringe view back then. [↩]
I mean today I do. There are days when not so much. [↩]
One of the constant criticisms of politicians, or anyone, really, who steps up to speak against a common social ill, like misogyny, is that they themselves are flawed. How dare you get on your high horse, Julia Gillard, about sexism when members of your own party, like Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd, have been sexist, when you and your party are trying stop paying many single parents their benefit, when you don’t support marriage equality?
Yes, it’s true, Julia Gillard is not perfect. She’s not even close. But if only the perfect may speak out and criticise the status quo then, well, we will be living in a very silent world.
Julia Gillard had to make many deals and many compromises to become PM. Many deals and compromises were made for her to be deposed. Many were made for Tony Abbott to become our current prime minister.
It’s the nature of democracy. Every leader of every country anywhere in the world has done so. Perfect ideological purity—no matter what your ideology—does not allow you to be a leader in democratic societies. But good news: you can still be a dictator! Phew, eh?
If I was the world dictator, er, um, I mean, in my perfect world there would be no sexism or racism or homophobia or classism or any of the other ugly isms. There would be religious tolerance which includes the right to not be religious. There would be no smoking and no chocolate or coffee. Because a massive EWWWW to all three of those. Or grape fruit. No gin either. Gin is gross. Or tonic water. Uggh, I hate that stuff. Formal shorts would be gone as well as bubble skirts and crocs and safari suits and yacht shoes and pastel anything.
Now I’m going to take a bit of a punt here and guess: that’s not your perfect world, is it? You love chocolate or coffee or both and you think I’m crazy. You wear pastel formal shorts every day and want to know what the hell is wrong with me.
My extremely crudely made point is that no one’s perfect world is the same as anyone else’s, let alone everyone else’s. Even people who have many common beliefs, such as Christians, disagree on many issues: whether women can be priests, whether the Bible is the literal word of God, whether homosexuality is an abomination etc etc. Even within the various different kinds of Christianity . . . Well, you get my point.
I’m a feminist but there are many feminists I disagree with profoundly. And many who would never call themselves feminist who I am in strong agreement with.
Beyond all that I believe perfection is not attainable. There is nothing in this world without flaw.
I think that’s a good thing.
Which is not to say we shouldn’t strive for perfection, that we should all just give up. “Eh, I may be a raging egomaniac who breaks everyone’s heart and steals everything that isn’t nailed down and has no friends but at least I don’t kick puppies.” Um, no. We should all be striving to be the best people we can and to produce the best work we can.
But, wow, can striving for perfection get in the way. I know people who have been working on the one book for years and years and years without ever allowing anyone to see it because they don’t think it’s perfect yet.
Newsflash: no book is ever perfect.
They could all be better.1 You’ve got to stop some time and let other people look at your work. And move on to write other not-perfect things.
This is especially true of novels. My favourite definition of a novel is that it is a long piece of prose that has something wrong with it.2 Every novel ever published fits that definition.
Keep on writing, everyone, especially you NaNoWriMoers, do not let perfection get in your way!
I adore Jane Austen but she rushed her endings. All her books end way too fast. [↩]
Can’t remember who first said that. Feel free to do my research for me. [↩]
Today I was able to watch the live stream of bell hooks and Melissa Harris Perry in conversation. It was erudite, moving, and flat-out brilliant with many wonderful flashes of wit. Particularly from hooks who said at the beginning of the Q&A: “Ask your question quickly because with buddhist compassion I will tell you not to give that speech.” And the audience cheered!1
When I was an undergraduate studying literature and language and semiotics, and thinking about feminism, and being introduced to a wide-range of theory for the very time, bell hooks was one of a handful of theorists who spoke to me. I found her language clear and inspiring and meaningful.
That last part is important. Many of the other feminist theorists I was reading for the first time back then I struggled to make meaning from. I bounced off the likes of Kristeva so hard it hurt. It seemed to me that they were writing about women in the abstract, that they were writing as if all women were the same.
bell hooks did not do that. In her first book, Ain’t I a Woman?, she discussed the real, material effects on real women in the real world. She talked about how black women and poor white women had been left out of mainstream feminism, that who counted as a woman for feminism was far narrower than the totality of all women.
Even this middle class white women could see that was true. All I had to do was look around me.
If you’re interested in a much more encompassing feminism, in intersectionality, in social justice, in simply understanding how the world works you should read bell hooks. If you’ve not read her before you could start with hooks’ recent critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In
An even better place to start is the conversation with Melissa Harris Perry which covers a great deal of ground and shows how generous, thoughtful and really, really razor sharp smart those two women are. Warning though it could make you cry. There are some particularly powerful moments during the Q&A.
And then you should read all of bell hooks’ books.
Though of course one question came from someone who would not be stopped in giving that speech. [↩]
women have been in SFF from the very beginning. We might not always have been visible, hidden away behind initials and masculine-sounding pseudonyms, quietly running the conventions at which men ran around pinching women’s bottoms, but we were there.
I would go further than that. Not only have women always been in SFF1, there have always been women (and some men) critiquing the misogyny and sexism of the genre. We have always been fighting this fight. As Jemisin says “memories in SFF are short, and the misconceptions vast and deep.”
As research for that book I spent years reading science fiction magazines from the 1920s through to the 1970s. I particularly paid close attention to the letter columns wherein I found gems like the ones featured here which argue about whether women have a place in science fiction. Here’s Mary Evelyn Byers in 1938 arguing against teenage sf fans, Isaac Asimov and David McIlwain (who went on to be the science fiction write Charles Eric Maine):
To [Asimov's] plea for less hooey I give my whole-hearted support, but less hooey does not mean less women; it means a difference in the way they are introduced into the story and the part they play. Let Mr. Asimov turn the pages of a good history book and see how many times mankind has held progress back; let him also take notice that any changes wrought by women have been more or less permanent, and that these changes were usually made against the prejudice and illogical arguments of men, and feel himself chastened.
I found many such discussions and arguments. Arguing about the place of women and sex in science fiction turned out to be one of the continuing themes of science fiction, which is what Battle of the Sexes is about. We have always been having these arguments and fighting these fights. Our rebuttals have gotten a lot more inclusive and nuanced but those arguing for sexism and misogyny? They’re playing the same old song. Read Asimov and McIlwain’s 1938 letters if you don’t believe me.
The biggest difference is that in the 1930s women like Mary Evelyn Byers were far rarer than they are now. And the men supporting them were even rarer. There are more of us now and we have more allies than ever before. Things have gotten better.
N K Jemisin also observes:
[P]eople of color have been in SFF from the very beginning, hiding behind the racial anonymity of names and pseudonyms—and sometimes forcibly prevented from publishing our work by well-meaning editors, lest SFF audiences be troubled by the sight of a brown person in the protagonist’s role.
I did not find letters from people of colour, or many arguments about race in those letter columns,2 but a) I wasn’t looking for them, I was looking for arguments about sex and gender and b) how would I know? As Nora points out, in print racial anonymity is easy. Also, judging by the rude, patronising, idiotic responses brave letter writers such as Mary Evelyn Byers got to their arguments that women are human too, any such letter writer would have gotten an even worse response.
Those letter columns were hostile spaces for women who didn’t want to play the role of good girl fan. Hell, there are enough online spaces right now that are still hostile to women who speak out about pretty much anything. What would those letter columns of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, have been like for a person of colour wondering where all the sf stories about the civil rights movement are? It’s bad enough when similar questions are asked now.
Which is why I fully endorse N. K. Jemisin’s call for reconciliation:
It is time that we all recognized the real history of this genre, and acknowledged the breadth and diversity of its contributors. It’s time we acknowledged the debt we owe to those who got us here — all of them. It’s time we made note of what ground we’ve trodden upon, and the wrongs we’ve done to those who trod it first. And it’s time we took steps—some symbolic, some substantive—to try and correct those errors. I do not mean a simple removal of the barriers that currently exist within the genre and its fandom, though doing that’s certainly the first step. I mean we must now make an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone.
Jemisin is so very right that learning the history of this genre and acknowledging that we have always been fighting these fights is a crucial first step.
NB: I have not done any research in this area for more than a decade. Someone else may have found such letters and fanzines. If anyone knows of such research it would be lovely if you could share in the comments.
The abbreviation is for science fiction and fantasy. [↩]
There were many stories in the old magazines dealing with questions of race. Almost all of which were very, very racist. One of the stories I discuss in Battle, “The Feminine Metamorphosis” by David H. Keller, is about uppity white women using Chinese gonads to turn themselves into men and rule the world. The gonads turn out to be syphilitic and the women all go mad as the hero lectures them on bucking God’s plan for them to be “loving wives and wonderful mothers.” No, I’m not making this up. The story was first published in 1929. [↩]
Yesterday the prime minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, gave a stirring, passionate and inspiring speech about misogyny and sexism in the Australian parliament and in particular the misogyny and sexism of the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott: Continue reading →
Every time there’s a discussion of what to do about men harassing women someone jumps up to proclaim: “Women never call it harassment if a good-looking man cracks on to them. You’re only a creeper if the woman doesn’t find you attractive.” I have addressed the second half of this argument at length here.
However, I did not address what I think of as the Brad Pitt defence. I.e. “If I was Brad Pitt you wouldn’t call this harassment!”
This argument drives me nuts. Here’s why.
Newsflash: Not everyone thinks Brad Pitt is hot.
I don’t. The idea that there’s a universally agreed standard of good looking is crap. Sure, many women seem to think George Clooney is gorgeous. But I have friends who think he looks like a smarmy creep. And shocking yet true: there are women who do not think Idris Elba is divine. I know, right?
Second newsflash: Thinking someone looks hot in the abstract does not mean you’ll find them attractive in real life.
A friend of mine had a huge crush for many years on a prominent cricketer. She was a journalist and one day she got to interview him IN REAL LIFE! Dream come true, right? Not so much. Within seconds he was hitting on her in a really creepy way. He made her skin crawl. He was awful!
There is often little connection between who you find attractive in real life and who you think looks great in a photo or on the silver screen. For me sense of humour is key. If I met Mr. Elba and he had no sense of humour? That would be the end of that little crush.
Then there’s the hard-to-describe physicality: the way the person moves, the way they smile, their scent. All of which has not much to do with what they look like in a photograph.
In real life some of the most repulsive men I’ve had the misfortune to interact with have been conventionally good looking. These were men who assumed all they have to do to get any woman into their bed is to snap their fingers. Often guys like that are not used to hearing the word “no” and react very badly to hearing it.
So, yes, there are good-looking men who can and do harass. There are good-looking men who can and do rape.
Of course, what I find most ironic about the Brad Pitt defence is that study after study after study shows that it is men—straight and gay—who are far more concerned about good looks, not women. It’s men who are far more likely to date a woman (or man) purely because they’re hot, not women.
In yesterday’s post Roxanna mentioned her dislike of YA protags who don’t like other girls. Oh, yes. What she said, indeed.
The women I have met who proclaim their dislike of women are, well, um, not my kind of people. So every time a protag proclaims that? I’m done with that book.1
Here’s why. I have no time for anyone, who on the basis of a poor experience with a very small sample size, declares that all women are dreadful. Ditto if they say it about all men, all black people, all Japanese people. All any kind of people.
Could be the correct conclusion is that this group of people are awful. Or it could be it’s the protag who’s the awful one. I know what I’d put my money on.
These women who hate women always have a long list of how women are: they all wear make up, they all gossip too much, all they care about are boys, they all chew gum. Etc. etc.
No matter what is on that list, I’m sitting there thinking of all the women I know who don’t wear make up, who don’t gossip, are lesbians and/or asexual and/or otherwise not much interested in boys, and don’t chew gum.
Your so-called statements of fact, Stupid Protag? They are not facts!
There are very few statements that are true of all women. Yes, including biological ones. There are women without breasts, wombs, ovaries. There are women without two X chromosomes.
The last time a woman said that to me I called her on it:
Me: “Last time I checked I was a woman. Are you saying you don’t like me?”
Woman-hater: “Oh, I didn’t mean you. You’re not like that at all. I meant all those other women.”
Me: “So I’m one of the blessed, few, not-horrible women? Gosh, thanks.”
As a teenager I didn’t know that many girls who were into all those so-called feminine things. Admittedly I went to an alternative school. But the girls I did know who were closest to the boy-obsessed, clothes-obsessed, make-up-wearing, girlie-music-listening stereotype? They were absolutely lovely. So were the boys who were like that. In fact, I knew more boys who fit that stereotype than girls. C’mon anyone who doesn’t like ABBA is dead on the inside.2
Besides which gossip and make up can be fun. They are neither a marker of shallowness nor of depth. No more than liking opera, skate boarding, or drinking tea are.
I am very uninterested in reading books with such stereotyped, boring representations of the much more interesting world we all live in. Any book that draws characters so crudely is unlikely to be any good.
The girl who says she hates girls is telling us a lot more about herself than she is about other girls. So a book that begins with the protag declaring that, which then supports her contention: uggh.
But a book that then proceeds to undercut her absurd claim? Where she turns out to be a very unreliable narrator with a limited view of the world that the book skewers?3
Or where the girl who hates girls does so as part of her rejection of the rigidly enforced femininity at her school and community and learns not to blame the other girls for that but the larger culture. And learns, too, ways to subvert or, at least, escape her community?
Now those are the kind of books I can get behind.
I was going to end this post there but then I realised I hadn’t explicitly said the most important thing in all of this: women who hate women do not emerge out of nowhere. They are no accident.
Girls are taught that they are inferior to boys from day one. Once people know whether the baby in the pram is a girl the majority speak to her totally differently than they do to a little boy. They say how gorgeous she is. How sweet. How delicate. The tiny baby boy who is every bit as gorgeous, sweet and delicate as the baby girl is complimented on the strength of his grip and how active he is. Even when sound asleep.
I heard a midwife say, when told the expected baby was a girl, that the baby would be born wearing a skirt. It is to vomit.
Being “girly” is not good. “Throwing like a girl” means you’re crap at throwing. “You’re such a girl” is a widespread insult. “Be a man” on the other hand is an admonition to be strong and assertive. Boys are taught to eschew anything with even the faintest hint of girliness. They soon learn to hate pink, books by women, wearing dresses, dressing up, dancing, netball, sparkles and Taylor Swift.
Most of the boys who stubbornly stick to pink and other girlish things—gay and straight—have the crap beaten out of them. Some don’t survive adolescent. Many of my favourite men are girly. Most of them are tough as nails. You have to be to survive. Being a man and walking down the street in Australia and the USA wearing a skirt—particularly away from the major cities? Now that’s courage.
This relentless gender stereotyping hurts us all, men, women, and anyone who is uncomfortable in either of those categories.
The girls who eschew pink and Taylor Swift have a more mixed reception. Some are accused of being dykes—whether they are or not—and are likewise beaten down. Others get approval. They sometimes become “one of the boys.” They are told over and over again: “you’re not like those other girls.” They sometimes become women who hate women.
But most girls, girly or not, learn that boys are where the action is. Boys are the ones who get to be assertive, not bitchy. They’re the ones who can be strong and play sport4 without having their sexuality questioned. They’re the ones who are mostly listened to and encouraged—if they’re being proper boys that is—way more than most girls.
Is it any wonder that some women are down on their gender? Why wouldn’t they be? Everyone else is.
They’re still completely wrong, but. Let’s fill the world with a million books and movies and television shows that proves it to them.
Unless people I really really really trust tell me it’s worth persevering. Maybe the book turns out to be a critique of that stance. [↩]
I’m not against judging. I’m just against inaccurate judgeiness. [↩]
Gone With The Wind is appallingly racist but one thing it does well is skewer its woman-hating protag. Scarlett is so awful she doesn’t even notice until Melanie is dying that Melanie is the one who loves Scarlett best and never does her a single wrong. Why Melanie is so loyal to such a narcissistic psychopath is a whole other question. My theory is that owning slaves breaks everyone’s brains, not just their ethics and morality. [↩]
Other than gymnastics, dressage, netball and other girly sports. [↩]
It is almost impossible to avoid writing work that can be read as racist. If you’re writing about people, you’re writing about identity, and a huge part of identity is race.
We are all seen through the lens of race. We all see through the lens of race.1 Whether we’re conscious of it or not. If you’re a writer you really need to be conscious of it. Because if you don’t think you are writing about race, you can wind up writing things visible to your readers that are not visible to you.
Often that is a not good thing.
When our work is accused of racism we writers tend to curl up into foetal position and get defensive: I AM NOT RACIST. I AM A GOOD PERSON. HOW CAN THEY SAY THAT?
First of all—no matter what the actual wording—it’s our work that’s being called racist, not us. The reviewer does not know us—only what we have written.
Secondly, we live in a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist etc. world. The odds of none of that leaking in to our work is zero. No matter how good our intentions. Besides intentions don’t count for much. If it’s not there on the page how is any reader supposed to guess what was in your head? On the other hand, there is no way you can completely bulletproof your work against criticism. Nor should you want to. Criticism will make you a better writer.
Thirdly, it’s not about us. It’s about the reader/reviewer’s life and experiences, about what they bring to the text in order to make meaning. This is how we all read and this is why we all have such different views of the same texts. It’s why I think Moby Dick is the worst, most boring piece of crap I’ve ever endured and why many people, even some whose views I respect,2 think it is a work of genius.
We writers have to accept that despite due diligence, despite how careful we are, readers’ responses to our work are exactly that: their responses. They will not always read our carefully crafted, thoughtful words the way we want them to. Sometimes they will find meanings in our work we did not intend them to find.
What follows is a discussion of how I have dealt with having my last solo novel, Liar, criticised for racism and transphobia. If you have not read Liar there are spoilers, though I have kept them to a minimum. But here’s a cut anyway: Continue reading →
Yes, even if you think you don’t see a person’s race. [↩]
One of the things I have heard men say innumerable times over the years is that the only difference between a creeper and a regular guy is whether the woman calling the bloke a creeper finds him attractive or not.
I can’t speak for all women—well, okay, I could but that would be ridiculous cause last time I looked I was only one woman—a woman who has had the odd pass made at her, er, I mean me, over the years. And, you know what? The ones who take no for an answer? Not creepy. The ones who keep pursuing me, staring at me, talking to me when I’ve made it clear I don’t want to talk to them, the ones who call me a bitch behind my back while still pursuing me? The ones who follow me home?
Women have made passes but they’ve never engaged in creeper behaviour. When I said I was not interested that was the end of it. Now, that’s just my experience. I know there are women creepers out there, too, just not in any where near the same kinds of numbers. For one thing most women are much better socialised at taking no for an answer.
Let me repeat: what’s creepy is not that someone I’m not attracted to is attracted to me. That’s just life. It’s been the other way round often enough. Most of us have suffered from unrequited love/lust. It’s awful, but we all get over it, and move on to people who requite our feelings.
That’s not the creepy part. The creepy part is when the person who is attracted to you won’t take no for an answer.
Think of Pride and Prejudice and Mr Collins’ proposal to Lizzy. He doesn’t give a damn what she thinks or what she says. He wants what he wants. He’s appalling. Everything he says is about him not his object of desire.1 He doesn’t care about Lizzy. He can’t even see who Lizzy is. He repeatedly does not take no for an answer. It doesn’t fit with his narrative so it doesn’t compute.
That’s how I feel when some bloke won’t take my no for their answer. Like Mr Collins they can’t see me as an actual sentient human being with thoughts and feelings and desires of my own. They don’t care what I want. They only care about getting what they want.
So. Not. Sexy.
Also having to explain to a grown human being that they can’t always have what they desire? That just because they like someone doesn’t mean that someone is going to like them? Seriously? Aren’t we all supposed to understand that by the time we’re, like, three?
I would like to eat mangosteens every single day but I have learned to accept the fact that they are not in season every single day. That even when they are in season sometimes the weather means the crops are inadequate or destroyed. Sucks. And is clearly a major design flaw with how the world is. But, you know, that’s life. Full of disappointment.
Other things I want but cannot have: a sphynx cat,2, to be taller, to play WNBA-level basketball, everyone in the universe to read my books, world peace, a pony.3
In conclusion: Um, I forget. For some reason I have this overwhelming craving for a mangosteen . . .
The conversation about how to deal with harassment in the science fiction world continues apace.1 What’s fascinating is the complete inability of certain participants in the convo to take in a basic fact:
We cannot control how others perceive us.
The I’m-not-a-creeper crowd keeps going on about good intentions and how social awkwardness can be misunderstood and how people with Asperger’s struggle to learn social cues etc. etc. All of which is true but irrelevant.
Because, as Scalzi argued in detail, people are not always going to respond to you the way you want them to. No matter who you are. Even if you are Brad Pitt.2 Not everyone will like you. This has always been true and will always be true.3
If we keep talking to someone when they don’t want us to, if we keep touching them when they don’t want us to, I guarantee you they don’t care what our intentions are: they just want us to stop.
You know what the argument reminds me of?
We authors who struggle to get it through our thick, thick skulls that our books will be read in ways we did not intend.
That our books will be hated by some readers, will be considered total crap, offensive, racist, sexist, or some other kind of evil, that readers do not owe us anything. They do not have to know our books exist, or read them, or finish them if they start them. They do not have to be polite when reviewing them.
We authors have zero control over how people respond to the words we have written.
Just as we people cannot control how others respond to us, to what we say, and what we wear.
What we do have control over is ourselves.
If we’re struggling to make friends, are constantly rebuffed in our attempts to make conversation with strangers, then it’s time to change ourselves, to do what we can to stop that happening.
Because, as I may have mentioned, we can’t change other people, but we can change ourselves.
Maybe it’s as basic as hygiene.
I have a friend, who has a terrible sense of smell, and grew up in the kind of household where they were not taught the basic hygiene most people are taught: to wash our underarms, between toes, belly button etc etc. To wash the not-obvious places as well as the obvious ones, to wash every single day. This friend did not know that clothes also need to be clean. So they went to school stinking. Until a teacher sat them down and gave them the instructions they weren’t getting at home. Plus soap.
Some people are unaware they smell really bad and never received any kind teacherly intervention.
Then there’s the harder stuff to fix. Many of us are socially awkward to varying degrees. How to interact with other people without freaking them out is something we’ve all had to learn. For some of us it is a lot more difficult than for others.
Fortunately, we now have the internet, which has lots of advice on how to learn those social skills. I am especially fond of Captain Awkward in this regard.
As for us authors:
If many readers are criticising our books for something that we didn’t intend—such as being sexist or racist—perhaps it’s time to listen. Maybe there’s something to what they’re saying?
Time to take a good look at the criticism. What exactly are they seeing in our books that we didn’t mean to be there? Read those bits again. Painful, I know. Is there anything to what they’re saying?
I know it’s hard to find yourself in the middle of a long-running conversation that you’d never heard of before. We’ve all been there. The only thing you can do is play catch up. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s book Writing the Other and the Feminism 101 blog are great places to start.
It’s key that we start internalising that none of us can control what other people think of us. We can’t make them like our books, nor can we make them like us.
All we can control is our words and ourselves.
Honestly? That’s more than enough to be going on with.
It’s also going on in other communities. But that’s where I’ve been following it. [↩]
The you-wouldn’t-mind-if-it-was-Brad-Pitt-harassing-you argument drives me nuts. Not everyone thinks Brad Pitt is hot. I don’t. Besides which if it’s harassment it is definitionally something you don’t want. And, yes, good looking people can harass. Because a) as noted not everyone agrees on what constitutes “good looking” b) being good-looking does not automatically mean the whole world finds you attractive c) being good-looking can also mean that you are not used to hearing the word “no” and kind of lose it when your advances are unwanted. [↩]
Yes, that’s a split infinitive. No, there’s no such thing in English. It’s a stupid grammar rule foisted on us by people who do not understand how English functions. [↩]
During the course of my PhD research for the book that became The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction I had to learn a lot about ye olden day beliefs about sex and sexuality, including conception. For instance I came across this in Thomas Laqueur’s book Making Sex:
Samuel Farr, in the first legal-medicine text to be written in English (1785), argued that “without an excitation of lust, or enjoyment in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place.” Whatever a woman might claim to have felt or whatever resistance she might have put up, conception in itself betrayed desire or at least a sufficient measure of acquiescence for her to enjoy the venereal act. This is a very old argument. Soranus had said in second-century Rome that “if some women who were forced to have intercourse conceived . . . the emotion of sexual appetite existed in them too, but was obscured by mental resolve,” and no one before the second half of the eighteenth century or early nineteenth century question the physiological basis of this judgement. The 1756 edition of Burn’s Justice of the Peace, the standard guide for English magistrates, cites authorities back to the Institutes of Justinian to the effect that “a woman can not conceive unless she doth consent.” It does, however, go on to point out that as matter of law, if not of biology, this doctrine is dubious. Another writer argued that pregnancy ought to be taken as proof of acquiescence since the fear, terror, and aversion that accompany a true rape would prevent an orgasm from occurring and thus make conception unlikely.
When I talk with women friends about sexual harassment it turns out that we’ve all experienced it at some point. But almost none of us have ever reported it. I have never been raped but I have friends who have been. None of them reported it.
The women who do report their rapes often say that it was like being raped all over. They were made to feel like they were the criminal, interrogated about what they wore, how they behaved, how they “provoked” the attack. Somehow the assault must have been their fault. Many say that if they could have a do over they would not report it.
Many of us no longer go to certain places—night clubs, friend’s places, science fiction conventions etc. etc., way too many places to list them all—because we don’t feel safe. Our best friend’s husband/brother/friend/nephew always finds a way to touch us in ways that creep us out. The bouncer at our favourite night club stands too close and won’t take no for an answer. The big name writer/fan/artist keeps following us around and no one will believe us when we complain. We’ve quit jobs to get away from harassers and stalkers.
Some of us have tried to report it and been silenced. “That’s not real harassment.” “You should learn to relax.” “He was just being friendly.” Or even worse, “Look, I know he’s an arsehole but he’s such a big name if we did something about him it would be disastrous.”
The punishment for women who report their harassers is ferocious. I know women who’ve lost their jobs, their health, their confidence, had to move cities. Who because they were brave enough to report the man who harassed them have suffered far more than the man they reported.
So most women don’t report it. We tell each other who the gropers and creepers are. For years women fans warned other fans to stay away from Isaac Asimov’s groping hands. Stories are still told about him. Humorous stories. Because ha ha that loveable Asimov and his wandering hands. What a silly duffer flirt! Harmless, of course. Didn’t mean anything by it.
Almost every job we’ve ever had we’ve been warned about someone. Almost every convention we’ve been to we’ve heard the rumours about who to avoid.
Bummer for the women who aren’t warned and don’t know who to stay away from.
If only these men were punished for making women’s lives a misery. Then we wouldn’t have to rely on gossip to stay safe. If only they were the ones who were fired and not invited back to conventions etc.
That’s why so few women report their harassers and rapists.
Because we live in a culture of apologists. We live in a culture that looks everywhere: at a woman’s clothes, body, behaviour, her being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the reason for why harassment, abuse, rape take place. Everywhere, that is, except at the perpetrator and the culture that enables him.
The culture that teaches the harasser, the rapist, that women’s bodies are up for grabs. Look at how she’s dressed! She’s totally asking for it! Teaches him that a woman who says no to him doesn’t really mean it or is a lesbian or frigid or a bitch and thus deserves whatever happens to her. That a woman who says yes and changes her mind is a tease. That a woman who says yes is a whore and doesn’t deserve her wishes and desires respected beyond that yes. That sex workers can never say no and mean it and so can never be raped and always get what they deserve.
I have heard people make these arguments who I thought were my friends. Who I thought were smarter and better than that. Who I thought shared my values and politics. They did not get those ideas out of nowhere. They are in the air we breathe. Every bit of culture we consume.
How the hell do we change this shithouse world we live in? This world where women’s and children’s word on sexual harassment and abuse is ALWAYS doubted.
Every time we’re brave enough to report our harassers and stalkers and rapists we’re standing up to rape culture. We’re making the world a tiny bit safer. But it is UNBELIEVABLY HARD to do so. I’ve never been brave enough.
We need men to do the reporting too. Men witness their friends harassing women. They need to STOP THEM. They have to speak up when other men make rape jokes. They have to stop laughing when their mates tells a story about sleeping with an unconscious woman or otherwise coercing a woman into sex when she clearly didn’t want it.
I know men who do fight back against rape culture. There need to be more of them. So many more.
I have also seen men change their behaviour. I’ve seen them realise that what they’d been doing was not okay. Despite the fact that their mates and their bosses and their culture said it was. Who realise that the advice they’d been given that “women like to be pursued” that “they don’t mean it when they say no” was crap and making the women they went after’s lives a misery. Not to mention their own lives.
Overwhelmingly it is women and children who are sexually harassed and assaulted and raped. But it does happen to men. Particularly in gaol. And because we live in such a misogynist world, where for a man to be in anyway aligned with a woman is the worst thing ever, those men who are raped are also largely silent and not taken seriously. Because, the twisted logic goes, if they were real men it never would have happened. Clearly they are effeminate and thus were asking for it. Misogyny doing what it does best: making everyone’s life wretched.
Yes, way too many people crawled out of the woodwork to explain away the harasser’s behaviour but far more people were moved to action. To support Genevieve and to demolish those stupid apologist arguments. Valentine has a couple of follow-ups on what’s been happening that are well worth reading.
I hate the world we live in. But I also love it. I do think things are getting better. But, oh, so very slowly. But at least we’re having this conversation. When my mother was a girl we weren’t. Hell, when I was a girl it wasn’t the loud and persistent conversation that it is now. That’s something. Not enough, but something.
Comments on this post: Any rape apologies, “harassers are misunderstood,” “why are you trying to ban flirting” etc. comments are going to be nuked. You’ve been warned.
Since a few of you expressed mild interest in the speech I gave at Sirens in October last year I thought I would share it with you. The theme was monsters and my speech involved me showing many monstrous images. Yes, that’s my disclaimer, I wrote this to be spoken to a real life audience with funny pictures and the funny may not work so well without the kind and appreciative live audience. Or something. *cough*
Here it is:
Monsters I Have Loved
Ideas = Brain Monkeys According to Maureen Johnson
Like every other writer ever I get asked “where do you get your ideas” a lot. Today I thought instead of answering that question in the Q & A at the end, I’d show you.
Here’s how I got the idea for the speech I’m about to give, which is very similar to how I get ideas for the novels I write.
Excellently recursive, yes?
I knew I had to write a speech for Sirens more than a year ago. For many, many many months I didn’t think about it at all because, you know, other deadlines, basketball games to watch, old movies to pillage for info about the early 1930s, issues of Vampires & Rosario to read. But in the deepest darkest recesses of my brain those monkeys were juggling the nouns associated with this year’s Sirens: feminism, YA, monsters.
Then one day in July, or possibly August, I was walking around New York City with my headphones on listening to music. That’s unusual for me. Usually I walk around listening to podcasts from Australia when I wander about the city. But on this particular day I’d run out. So I was listening to one of my favourite playlists. And for some reason I started writing this speech in my head. When I got to my office I immediately wrote everything down. It flowed out of me like magic.
Nah, not really.
When I got to the office I gossiped with the doorman on the way in, and answered a phone call from my agent on the stairs on the way up (how fancy am I?), and then gossiped with the receptionist. By the time I took off my walking-around-the-city-listening-to-podcasts-and-sometimes-music headphones and donned my-talking-to-the-voice-recognition-software headset I’d forgotten everything I’d thought of on the walk over except this:
Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis
Am I right?
I can tell long-term readers of my blog—both of you—knew where I was going with that.
Hmmm, looks like I may have to explain myself a bit more.
Me and Elvis
My parents are anthropologists/sociologists. (I always understood the difference to be that anthropologists studied people with a different skin colour to them and sociologists study those with the same skin colour. That may perhaps be a tad unfair.) When I was little my family lived for a time on two different Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory: Ngukurr in Arnhem Land and Djemberra (now called Jilkminggan) not far from the predominately white town of Mataranka. It is the part of my childhood I remember most vividly. For many reasons.
The red dot up top is Jilkminggan. The purple dot is Sydney. For scale: Australia is roughly the same size as mainland USA.
I remember the hard red earth, the heat making everything in the distance shimmer, towering termite nests, brolgas, eating food that had been hunted or found that day: kangaroo, emu, goanna, crayfish, turtle eggs, wild honey, fruits and tubers I don’t remember the names of and have never seen or (more sadly) eaten since.
I remember being allowed to run wild with a pack of kids (and dogs) of assorted ages and skin colours (though none so pale as me), swimming in the Roper River, playing games like red rover for hours. I remember learning that I was white and what that could mean, and that the Aboriginal kinship system my family had been adopted into meant that I could have many more mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousines and grandparents than the bare handful I’d been born with. I became fluent in a whole other language, of which only two words remain: “baba” meaning brother or sister, and “gammon” meaning bullshit (sort of).
Yes, um, that is a smaller me. I am being extremely helpful getting the fire hot enough for them to brand cattle. EXTREMELY helpful! Thanks for the photo, Dad.
(I’m making it sound more romantic than it was. I’m forgetting the flies—more flies than I’ve ever seen before in my life. So many you soon stop waving them away because there’s no point. Many of those kids had cataracts. And, yeah, we kids ran together and the dogs were always underfoot, but they were so underfoot that when the numbers got too big—authorities—mostly white—would come in and shoot them.)
I was a city child. I knew nothing about the outback. I was alien to those kids and those kids were alien to me. Until, after a few weeks, we weren’t.
That year changed me completely. Especially my thinking about race. I want to be clear, however, that I’m not saying those experiences made me magically understand what it is to be “The Other.” (And, ugh, to that term, by the way.) To my horror, when I’ve told these stories of my childhood in the Territory too many people have understood me to be saying “I lived with people who weren’t white so I know what it is to be oppressed.”
What I learned was that I was white. I had not thought about the colour of my skin or what it signified. I had not been aware of whiteness or what it meant.
What I learned was that race and racism exist. Which was something I’d had the privilege of not learning earlier because I was white growing up in a predominantly white country in predominantly white bits of that country. Spending time in a predominately black part of Australia made me aware of my whiteness before the majority of my white peers back in urban southern Australia did.3
It was also the year I discovered Elvis Presley.
My first Elvis memory is of the juke box in one of the pubs in the white town of Mataranka. There were only two pubs which in Australia means that it was a very, very small town. The jukebox had records by Slim Dusty and Elvis Presley and no-one else. When Slim Dusty played it caused the child-me physical pain. As far as I was concerned it was noise, not music. But when Elvis played, well, that was heaven. The best music, the best voice I’d ever heard. For years I couldn’t stand Slim Dusty, but I’ve always loved Elvis.
I was not alone in this judgement, by the way, cause almost all the kids—and a fair number of the adults—of Jilkmingan liked Elvis too. Added bonus: my dad couldn’t stand him.
My second memory is of watching a 1968 Elvis movie, Stay Away Joe, on the outdoor basketball court at Ngukurr. The screen was hung over the hoop. We all crowded onto the court, restless (the last few movies had been total busts) and excited (there was always the hope this one wouldn’t suck), sitting in each others’ laps or on our haunches on the gravel. We’d pull each others’ hair, poke each other with fingers, elbows, feet and knees, throw handfuls of gravel at each other. The adults would laugh at us, or tell us to shut up or both.
This time the rowdiness only lasted through the opening credits. We settled down quick because we loved it. Stay Away Joe is set on a Native American reservation. Elvis plays an Indian. Everyone on the basketball court recognised what they were seeing up on screen.
Like the movie reservation, Ngukurr was full of crap cars, there were dogs everywhere, houses fell apart, and there was high unemployment. There was also a tonne of singing and dancing.4
Some of us kids really thought Elvis was Native American.5 I’m sure my parents disabused me of that notion pretty quickly, but for a long time I wasn’t quite sure who or what Elvis was. When I returned to southern Australia none of my school friends liked Elvis (if they’d heard of him). They thought I was weird. I associated Elvis with indigenous Australia, with the Territory, with stockmen & rodeos & outdoor crappy movie projectors.
The way I discovered Elvis made him seem racially fluid.
I have always thought that one day I would write a novel about that Elvis.
I also thought Elvis wrote all his songs and that he was the first person to sing them. Frankly, until I was ten or so I’m pretty sure I thought Elvis invented rock’n’roll, if not all music.
Then someone played the original recording of Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton for me.
Turned out the song had been written for her by Leiber & Stoller and she recorded it in 1952. Her original version was number one on the billboard R&B charts for six weeks in 1953. There followed multiple cover versions, mostly by white bands. Elvis discovered the song, not through Thornton’s version, but through a white band, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys’s live version that he heard in Vegas. Freddie Bell and the Bellboys? (I for one cannot think of a sexier or more dangerous name for a group, can you? Don’t answer that.)
They changed the lyrics because they were considered too dirty for a white audience. “Snoopin’ round my door” was replaced with “cryin’ all the time,” and “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more” was replaced by “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.”
Elvis’s recorded the Bellboy’s lyrics. The original lyricist, Jerry Leiber, was appalled, pointing out that the new lyrics made “no sense.” Which they really don’t. In Elvis’ version I had no idea what the hound dog wanted or why it was a problem. Was the hound dog crying cause it couldn’t catch rabbits? Then why was Elvis so unsympathetic?
Here’s Elvis’ version for comparison:
I’ve never liked Elvis’ version as much since.
Listening to Big Mama Thornton’s version exploded the song for me. It didn’t mean what I thought it meant. It was bigger and sexier and BETTER.
Elvis was not an orginator. He was a borrower. He was a remaker of existing things. He didn’t write songs. Those lyric changes to “Hound Dog” weren’t even his changes—that was Freddie Bell & the Bellboys. At the time I decided that meant he was no good. He could wag his tail but I was done.6
Then not too much later I read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. Their retellings of the fairy tales I grew up with changed those stories utterly: made them bigger, sexier, better. Elvis had made “Hound Dog” worse. Was that the difference?
Had Elvis appropriated Big Mama Thornton’s Houng Dog?
Was it appropriation because Elvis was white and Mama Thornton black? Because his version went to no. 1 on all three Billboard charts of the time: pop, c&w, and r&b. Whereas her version was limited to the R&B chart only? Because to this day his version is more famous than hers as he is more famous than she is?
Elvis’s success was monstrous. Both in scale—it’s more than thirty years since he died—and he’s still one of the most famous people in the world. I have bonded with people over Elvis in Indonesia, Argentina, Turkey & Hawaii. He’s everywhere.
But there’s also an argument that his career is a testament to the monstrous power of racism. He was the first white kid to do what dozens—if not more—black performers had done before him. (Especially Little Richard.) His success was dependent on an appropriation of black music, black style, black dancing, black attitude. He become famous for bringing black music to a white audience. But if Elvis had actually been black then I would not be talking about him right now.
I have often thought of writing a novel about that black Elvis. The black female Elvis. It would probably turn out that she was Big Mama Thornton.
Given my track record as a white writer who has written multiple novels with non-white protags, appropriation is, naturally, something I think about a lot.
My initial reaction to discovering that Elvis, not only didn’t write his own songs, but that sometimes the original versions were better than his, was horror. I had, like, many of you, I’m sure, grown up with the notion that originality is the thing.
Before the 1960s a popular singer was not looked at askance if they did not write their own songs. They were singers! Why would they write their own songs? Then came the sixties and the singer-song writer revolution and suddenly if all you could do was sing then you better join a band with someone who could write songs for you or you were screwed. And song writers WHO COULD NOT SING AT ALL started singing. Yes, Bob Dylan, you are one of the worst. True fact: Dylan songs are way better when sung by Elvis.7
In English classes through high school & university the highest praise given to a writer was originality. I remember asking a lecturer why there were no women writers on his post-modernism course.
He gave me a disdainful look and asked, “Who would you suggest?”
“Angela Carter?” he sneered. “Light weight! Completely unoriginal!”
He then spent the rest of the course carefully delineating the antecedents of all the boy writers we’d been assigned. Astonishingly none of them had stepped fully formed from a clam shell either. No originality anywhere! But somehow magically their penises protected them from lightweightness. Maybe penises are really heavy or something?
It’s a moment that’s stayed with me. Not just because of his why-are-you-wasting-my-time dismissal but because of the way everyone else in the room looked at me. There was much rolling of eyes. But two of the women in the room smiled. We became friends.
At the time I thought about writing a novel in which a white middle-aged male lecturer writes a novel about seducing all his female students to ease his mid-life crisis, which every publishing house in the entire universe passes on, so that he ends his days in a padded cell with only Angela Carter to read. But the thought of staying in his point of view long enough to write a whole novel was too depressing so I wrote a 13th century Cambodian epic instead.8
And my point? Right, as you all know: all art comes from somewhere. Nothing is truly original. If it was we’d have no way of making sense of it.
Octavia Butler and Angela Carter and Tanith Lee are three of the biggest influences on my writing. I see traces of them in every novel I have written.
But so is Elvis and my childhood experience on Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory and a million and one other things. People who know me, and sometimes strangers, point to other influences I hadn’t even thought about. I find that scarily often they’re correct. My writing is the sum total of everything that has ever happened to me, everything I have ever seen, or read, or tasted, or heard, or felt, or smelled.9 That’s how writing works.
I am no more original than Elvis.
Can Feminists Love Elvis?
But how can a feminist love Elvis? How can someone who believes in social justice and racial equality love Elvis?
He starred in a movie sympathetic to the confederate lets-keep-slaves cause, Love Me Tender, there’s a tonne of Elvis memoribilia out there which juxtaposes his name and/or face and the confederate flag. Good ole boy Southerners often adore Elvis. Every single one of his movies is jaw droppingly sexist. In Elvis movies all a woman wants is a man. All a man want is a good woman, lots of bad women, and to be a racing car driver. Correction: a singing, dancing racing car driver.
How can we love any number of cultural figures and artefacts that are sexist, racist, homophobic etc? Can I remain untainted by my Elvis love? (Or by my love of Georgette Heyer’s anti-semitic, classist, sexist regency romances?)
In loving something that’s monstruous do we become monstrous? Which gives me another idea for a novel. What if a girl falls in love with someone who she’s always been taught to believe was a monster? And vice versa. Hmmm. I have a nagging feeling that’s been done.
No! Yes! Um, maybe.
Yes, your typical, sparkly jumpsuit wearing, monstruous-sideburned US male.
Here’s one of Elvis’s more egregiously sexist recordings, US Male, and not coincidentally one of his sillier songs. Written and first recorded by Jerry Reed, who plays guitar on the track. It is a dreadful and very wrong song. And pretty much impossible to take seriously. I do not for a second believe that it was written with a straight face.
I adore it.
US Male owns woman if she’s wearing his ring. If another man is interested in said woman US Male will do him in. Woman has no agency in any of this, the song isn’t addressed to her, it’s for the perceived rival. So far so cave man-esque10.
Yet it’s so over the top. So absurd. The terrible puns! “Male” as in a bloke plus “mail” as in letters. “Don’t tamper with the property of the U.S. Male” and “I catch you ’round my woman, champ, I’m gonna leave your head ’bout the shape of a stamp,” “Through the rain and the heat and the sleet and the snow the U.S. Male is on his toes.” And the half-spoken, half-sung tough guy-ese delivery! It makes me laugh. It’s so freaking camp.
I start to imagine the U.S. Male’s woman sitting there chewing gum and rolling her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. You done? No, the waiter was not looking at my rack. Gonna give the poor guy a tip already? A big one. Bigger. Okay. Now, sing me a song.” I suspect eventually she would set him on fire though that would probably qualify as tampering with the US male.
You all make up stories that go with songs, right?
That’s how I feel about a lot of Georgette Heyer’s work not uncoincidentally. Makes me laugh it’s so freaking camp. And also witty and well written. (Pity about the anti-semitism.)
Heyer’s regencies have had a ridiculously big influence on YA today. You would not believe how many YA writers are also huge Georgette Heyer fans. It’s scary. Come to think of it most of her heroines are teenage girls . . . So they’re practically YA in the first place.
I have been meaning to write my own Heyereseque YA for ages. One in which the rake-ish hero is actually the villian and has syphillis from all that raking around.
But, Heyer kind of already did that with Cotillion in which the hero is a barely-in-the-closet gentleman, who is not in the petticoat line, but adores picking out excellent gowns for the heroine. (The villain is the bloke who in many of Heyer’s other books was the hero. His syphllis is clearly implied.) They get married. I imagine them having an awesome future of many shopping trips to Paris and fabulous dinner parties with assorted lovers and friends.
So now my Heyeresque YA is going to take place below stairs because I’m sick to death of the equivalence between the aristocracy and worthiness. I want a democratic regency romance! Where people earn what they get from hard work and not because of who their family is! Workers’ revolution! Solidarity forever!11
As I mentioned way back at the beginning of this speech the germ of it came to me while I listened to music while walking to my office. That day it was my 1960s Elvis playlist with super campy songs like US Male and the scary stalker song Slowly But Surely, those songs set this whole chain of thoughts—and this speech—in motion.
And led me to wondering how I have come to adore such monstruously misogynist songs. I mean apart from them being AWESOME. I guess I manage to set aside the monstruous parts and revel in the campy deliciousness. But it’s not just that: I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can critique the bad, take the good, and add whatever I want. That is a pretty accurate description of my novel writing process. And of my reading (in the broadest sense) process.
My fond hope is that every time I do that—every time we do that—the power of those monsters is eroded.
So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the worst monsters: the monsters of misogyny, of bigotry . . .
Most especially the monsters in my brain and under my bed because they are where I get my ideas.
At the Sirens conference everyone in the audience looked at me like I was a crazy person and insisted that no one on the planet thinks that Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis. I remain unconvinced. Plus I am on this planet, am I not? Don’t answer that. [↩]
I was going to have NO appear a thousand times but I think I can trust you all to imagine it. [↩]
What I want to briefly comment on here is the notion that to write about rape or war or any other terrible thing is to automatically condone it. Cassie writes:
[T]he most important point to be made here is that to depict something is not to condone it. This is a mistake that is made all the time by people who you would think would know better. Megan Cox Gurdon in the Wall Street Journal, for instance, excoriated YA books for being too dark, zoning in specifically on “Suzanne Collins’s hyper-violent, best-selling Hunger Games trilogy” and Lauren Myracle’s Shine, which depicts a hate crime against a gay teenager. Anyone paying any attention, of course, can tell that while violence is depicted in the Hunger Games, it is hardly endorsed. It is, in fact, a treatise against violence and war, just as Shine is a treatise against violence and hate crimes. Gurdon notes only the content of the books and ignores the context, which is a unfortunate mistake for a book reviewer. If the only people in the book who approve of something are the villains (nobody but the bad guys thinks the Hunger Games are anything but a moral evil) then it is a fair bet the book is about how that thing is bad.
What Cassie said. If you follow that argument through to its logical conclusion than we who write books marketed at teenagers must not write about conflict. We must only write upbeat, happy books in which no one is hurt or upset and nothing bad ever happens. But even that would not be enough because I have seen books like Maureen Johnson’s The Bermudez Triangle described as “dark.” A gentle, funny, wry book about two girls who fall in love is dark? I’ve seen other upbeat, happy books described as “dark” because the protags have (barely described at all) sex.
The complaint that YA books are too “dark” usually does not come from teenagers. Teenagers write and complain to me that there’s no sequel to my standalone books, that there should be four or five books in my trilogy, that I take too long to write books, that I’m mean about unicorns, that zombies DO NOT rule, that they hated that I don’t make it clear what really happened in Liar, that Liar made them throw the book across the room,1 that their name is Esmeralda/Jason/Andrew so why did I have to make the character with that name in my books so mean, that one of the Fibonacci numbers in Magic Lessons isn’t, in fact, a Fibonacci.2 I also get the occasional complaint that their teacher made them read my book when it SUCKED OUT LOUD. People, that is SO NOT MY FAULT! BLAME YOUR TEACHER!3
But I digress the most annoying part of the “you wrote about it therefore you must approve of it” argument is that it shuts down discussion. If to write about rape or war is to approve of it than there’s nothing else to be said. The actual debate should be about how such fraught parts of human existence are written about.
Which is to agree again with Cassie. Context is everything. Arguing that merely depicting something means condoning it strips away all context, strips away the why and how of the depiction. It says that a book like Toni Morrison’s Beloved is exactly the same as any of John Norman’s Gor books. After all there’s rape and slavery in both of them.
Complaint letters about Liar make up the bulk of the specific complaints I get. [↩]
True fact, I goofed. And since there wasn’t a second edition it’s never been fixed. [↩]
Mostly though teenagers don’t write to complain, which is why I write for them. Just kidding. Sort of. [↩]
In a recent interview Becky Hammon, who plays for the San Antonio Silver Stars had some very smart things to say about feminism. She’s an amazing and very smart ball player, but her response to the following question made me love her even more.
Silver Stars Nation: What would you say to younger girls that play basketball but yet do not support women’s and girls basketball as a whole?
Becky: I think that is one of the saddest things I come across. For a couple reasons.
First of all, lets not forget our history ladies. It wasn’t so long ago that women weren’t allowed to compete in sports. So many unfulfilled dreams, so many opportunities that were denied simply because you were a woman. We all stand on the foundations that some one else who went ahead of us built. And more than likely the foundation was built out of blood, sweat, broken dreams, and tears. And if we’re not careful, and if we don’t support each other, all that hard work could crumble. The opportunity is not promised to be there tomorrow. Its still fragile, because its still a very young ideology.
Secondly, young girls, young women, middle aged women we are failing to see the bigger picture here! Its not just about the WNBA or sports, its about equality and respect-which every human being deserves, whether male or female. Breaking barriers and stereotypes so that when YOUR daughter, YOUR niece, YOUR mother walks into that job interview SHE will have an EQUAL shot getting hired and paid the same as if a male walks in for that same job position.
So ladies, we’re not there yet, we still have a long ways to go, but if we don’t have support each other now, it may not be as bright as a future for us as it could be.
So boys, girls, men, and women support the WNBA if you have a mother, a sister, a niece, a girlfriend, a cousin or whomever, because the bigger picture is its for all people and affects all people.
I love when a little boy or girl comes up and has my jersey on, or wants an autograph, why? Because they’re growing up in a culture that views women as strong, smart, athletic, capable, and worthy of respect.
Last point: I get tired of hearing people say, “well you walk into a women’s basketball game and you see so many women.” WELL, I’d counter, you walk into a men’s game and you see mostly men. THIS is an important point, because at the end of the day, it can’t be an “us” verses “them” mentality. We all need each other. In GENERAL it is mostly men who watch, support, follow sports, and that’s why I go back to my point of even if you’re not an athlete, or not a women, or you don’t know an athlete, it’s still important to support it, because in the end, it affects everyone one of us, male or female, because of the bigger picture is represents in our society. UNITY is an amazing word and when its captured, produces amazing results. But ladies, how can we ask the guys to support it, when we don’t support it ourselves! WE need EVERYONE, but, ladies, lets start with ourselves!
I have nothing to add other than: what she said.
Update: The photo is of wee Becky Hammon, 1.68 m (5 ft 6 in), guarding Margo Dydek, 2.18 m, (7 ft 2 in). Dydek was the tallest woman to ever play in the WNBA. Oh and the credit for that photo belongs to Gregory Bull, AP. I never tire of that photo.
I have decided that I love songs about women who don’t want to be married. I decided this while listening to lots of Gillian Welch. Twas the song “Look at Miss Ohio” which triggered this decision. Also my annoyance with certain lines in Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”. “Put a ring on it”? What are we living in the 1950s or something?! Uggh.
Then I realised I couldn’t think of any other songs about women who have priorities in life other than getting married.1 Other than the “I never will marry” song:
I never will marry
I’ll be no man’s bride
I expect to stay single
For the rest of my life2
But that’s usually sung as a heartbroken miserable song of despair, which is not what I’m talking about.
Can anyone think of cheerful songs of women who are happy to be single, who are not desperate to be married, of women who may want to marry some day but not right now? Please to share in comments if so.
Disclaimer: I have nothing against marriage. I am married myself. Happily even. Nor do I have anything against women wanting to be married. It’s just that they already have a tonne of songs. I want representation for all the girls who don’t dream of a big wedding and marriage when they grow up.
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Thanks to everyone for all the lovely get well wishes. I is touched. Truly I am on the mend and is not that bad an injury. Trust me, I’ve had worse. But, yes, I will continue to not be online much for the forseeable and, yes, there will be more guest bloggers. Thank you, wonderful guests, and thanks again, faithful readers, for bearing with me.
Have a good weekend everyone!
This probably reflects more on my dreadful memory than anything else. [↩]
Lyrics from memory thus could be wrong—too many keystrokes to google. [↩]
Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for the next week or so. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Today we have Sarah Rees Brennan, who is quite mad, which is often quite an advantage for the writing of fine fiction, as you will discover if you read any of SRB’s books. She was last here for an interview where she revealed the insanity of her writing technique.
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Sarah Rees Brennan is from Ireland, but she likes to roam the world causing havoc, and on one such mission encountered Justine Larbalestier in New York City and the rest is history (and spells your doom). She can be found saying stuff like this all the time on her own blog and she is the author of The Demon’s Lexicon trilogy, first instalment out, second instalment out this May, about which more here. Her own demonic possession is an unfounded rumour that has little to no basis in fact.
So, ladies and gentlemen of the audience sitting in your chairs, happily anticipating another blog post filled with the usual thoughtfulness and wit by your favourite author, Dr. Justine Larbalestier.
I am sorry to disappoint you: said Dr. Larbalestier is currently unavailable.
JUSTINE: Oh Sarah. I fear my blog readers will pine.
SARAH: I have no doubt they will. They seem loyal and devoted sorts: they will pine like Christmas trees. (This is the kind of ‘wit’ you guys are in for. You lucky, lucky guys.)
JUSTINE: Would you write a guest blog for me?
SARAH: Oh, sure! I will try to be wise like you! Fill the void in their souls!
TEN MINUTES LATER
SARAH: Well, it was a nice idea.
So instead of Justine Larbalestier, you have me, and I am going to be talking about movies and sex! (Cue that scene when people are at a petting zoo, approaching a sweet kitty, and then . . . ‘IT’S A LION HARVEY, JESUS CHRIST, IT’S A LION, GET IN THE CAR.’)
There is a thing you need to understand about me. Sometimes, I like truly terrible things. I have watched all three High School Musical movies.
Nevertheless, I would not have of my own free will chosen to watch a movie starring Matthew McConaughey. (Apologies to all fans of this fine thespian in the audience. You may want to look away now.) But I was on a plane and had finished my book, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past started playing, I made an error in judgement.
Said movie’s plot: Matthew McConaughey is a heartless playboy about to be taught the error of his ways by apparitions from his dating life! Jennifer Garner is the One Who Got Away, who needs to be recaptured once Matthew has learned his touching and totally unexpected lesson about true love being all that really matters!
Matters were proceeding exactly as anticipated right until the point where we have the flashback to Matthew and Jennifer’s past romance, in which they banter, she softens towards him, his heart grows three sizes, and they come together in one glorious night with all the torrid passion of a box of cornflakes left out in the rain. Matthew McConaughey, sneaky playboy that he is, flees his own feelings and tries to sneak out on her as she sleeps. She wakes up.
JENNIFER GARNER: Matthew McConaughey, you beast, I trusted you!
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: . . . Why? You had a clear view of my smirky, smarmy face at all times!
JENNIFER GARNER: Because we’re on the movie poster together! I mean that’s not important now! What’s important is that there are some women you sneak out on in the middle of the night, and there are some women you stay and snuggle with, and I am one of the women you stay and snuggle with.
At this point, I turned to the lady in the seat beside me.
SARAH: I cannot believe I just saw that! Can you believe you just saw that? Can you believe we literally, actually just saw a scene in which the heroine who we’re clearly meant to agree with explicitly says that, pretty much, some women are whores and deserve to be treated like trash! While obviously Matthew McConaughey has made a mistake dealing with these trashy wenches, he is not a trashy wench himself. He’s a dude, so it’s all good, as long as he treats a nice lady right when he’s got one. Because we’re all still divided into ladies and fallen women! Argh!
MY NEIGHBOUR ABOARD THE PLANE: Je ne comprends pas.
SARAH: Oh. Oh right. COOL. Excusez-moi. J’avais . . . a fit of feminist rage. Um. Excusez-moi.
The nice French plane lady patted my hand. Clearly, she thought I was insane. Obviously, she was right, but that is not the point at this time.
I have no excuse for watching Wild Child, which is a terrible teen comedy, except that I truly and deeply in my soul love terrible teen comedies, and I went to see 17 Again in the cinema. (‘Justine, Justine’ you all moan faintly. ‘Why hast thou forsaken us, Justine?’)
Wild Child is about a spoiled American teen who is sent to English boarding school, a place which is awfully stodgy, and where many people wear tweed, and some hunt! Obviously she learns valuable life lessons, and it all culminates in an epic lacrosse battle.
But there is a specific part of the movie I wish to focus on, and it is this: at one point, our heroine’s jolly dormitory mates ask if she has ‘done it’ yet, and she says with a toss of her mane that she has! A ton! And that seemed to be that, she got on with playing merry japes and romancing the prim headmistress’s son, and I thought to myself ‘You know. I think that’s pretty great.’
Oh, that was a rash thought of mine. For at the school dance, our heroine having bonded sufficiently with her dormitory mates, she tells them that no, actually, she never has! Just like them! She’s really been good all along.
Now, the heroine of Wild Child is meant to be sixteen or seventeen. I’m not saying ‘People, we need more teenage bangin’!’ Except maybe I kind of am. (Far away in New York City, my editor just had a tiny, tiny stroke. Sorry about that, Karen!) I trust I do not need to tell you guys that the decision not to bang is a totally okay and often wise decision on the part of people of both genders, at all ages.
But really. Really, in this day and age, do we so entirely equate a woman’s moral character with her sexual behaviour? Of course, we (and by we I mean, you know, Society) do. We have a whole lot of insults for ladies who like to have sex, and we don’t draw the same line in the sand for dudes. Having our books and movies reflect that attitude so very clearly just made me think—wow, how patterns go on and on repeating. We must sit down. And take a look. And say to ourselves, ‘Oh, wow, that is pretty gross.’ (Not that I’m encouraging people to go watch Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. MY LORD NO. I’ve taken that bullet for you all. Only too happy to have been of service. SAVE YOURSELVES. I can still hear the lambs on the plane screaming about feminism.)
Another thing that I’ve been doing lately, in between watching teen comedies, is reading romance novels. Because a) I was trying to overcome prejudice against certain types of books, as said prejudice is dumb and b) turns out a lot of romance novels are pretty great, so I wanted to read more.
Quite recently I read The Devil’s Delilah by Loretta Chase, in which our heroine Delilah makes out with a rake! And she likes it. And I was delighted. Not because I wanted her to end up with the rake: I loved the bookworm hero, and Delilah and the bookworm had already made out, and it had been most excellent. But because that’s something I’d noted in a lot of (not just romance, and not just historical) novels—that heroines were given a pass on desire, as long as they desired the heroes alone. The implication of that? Women, with sexy feelings not associated with True Love! They would be no more than common trollops!
So now I have a great love for books with heroines who make out with people who aren’t heroes, and like it, and go with the hero because said hero is a better match. (As an example, if Jane Austen had written make-out scenes, which she did not, I feel Elizabeth Bennet is obviously attracted to Wickham, and could’ve had a great time snogging him, though of course it would still have been followed with the Austen equivalent of ‘Whoops, you are a tool, MY MISTAKE.’)
And—well, I just think it would be great if we could have heroines, even teenage heroines—sure, some of whom have decided to wait or haven’t decided to wait but just haven’t decided not to, but some of whom didn’t wait, had a disastrous experience and came through it just fine. Some of whom didn’t wait, had a great time, parted ways, repeated same five or a hundred times, and were also just fine. (Obviously, the reverse should happen as well, and actually, I think it’s kind of cool that one of the Most Beloved Fictional Characters of Our Time, Edward Cullen, is a self-confessed and unashamed virgin hero of a century plus. So, you know, take a bow, Twilight! If I had to pick between you and Matthew McConaughey, Mr Cullen, you would most assuredly be my sparkly date to the school dance.)
And next time you see a heroine tell people she’s Pure as the Driven Incidentally, or Not Like the Other Girls (those trashy wenches)—well, frown at the screen or the page, and think ‘Oh wow, that is pretty gross.’
Ahem. Thank you for your kind attention, ladies and gentlemen! (*surveys the audience, some of whom seem to be weeping softly and saying things like ‘Get thee behind me, Satan . . . Oh Justine, Justine . . .’*) Please feel free to tell me to get thee behind you, or tell me about kind of gross or kind of excellent portrayals of sexuality in fiction, in the comments.
Every time I post about sexism, along come some men to make the conversation be about them. They usually start with a question about what they as a man can do, or how it applies to them. Before too long the entire comment thread becomes about them. Or even if the other commenters don’t take the bait, the blokes keep coming back with more related questions, all of which has the effect of not adressing the subject at hand, but trying to bring it back to its “proper” place: talking about men.
Often, these blokes are nice people and are asking genuine questions. Sometimes the post has caused an actual epiphany for them and the shutters of privilege are lifting and they really want to talk about that. I understand! Truly I do. I’m white. I’ve been having epiphany after epiphany about my own white privilege and what a blinkered view of the world it has given me. The shutters have been lifting. It’s a wonderful thing. But the time to talk about your privilege-epiphanies is not in a comment thread about sexism or racism. Because to do so has the effect of shutting down actual discussion of oppression. I.e., your privilege winds up derailing the conversation and making it all about the you when the point of it is that it’s not about you. Go share your epiphany and your struggles towards becoming a better person on your own blog. Better still, stick around and listen.
I’m sure I sound cranky. Oh, those humourless feminist harridans yelling at you again! As it happens, I’m not cranky, I’m just a wee bit bored. Such comments are as regular as clockwork. Every time one shows up I have to decide whether to delete it (so the conversation stays on track) or whether I’m in the mood to give an introduction to Feminism 101, or whether to simply ignore it, or to jump in with a gentle reminder to stay on subject. In my last post on mansplaining, I had to delete a record number of comments.1 I hate doing that. But they would have utterly derailed the conversation.
I understand the intense desire to talk about you. We all want to talk about us.2 The vast majority of people I’ve met, including me, will respond to any conversational topic with an anecdote about themselves. It’s how most of us process information. “How does this particular thing apply to me?”
Problem is that the world we live in centres on people like you; white men run it. So much so that when someone like Chris Matthews (a white male USian pundit) approves of something someone not like him—Barack Obama—says, Matthews literally forgets that Obama is black. Thereby making it impossible that anyone will ever forget that Chris Matthews is white. As if that were even a possibility . . .
If you’re a man and the conversation is about sexism and women are sharing stories of their oppresssion, think very carefully before you comment. Ask yourself, is my question on topic? Will an answer to my question be about women or about me? Am I about to point out that perhaps this behaviour, that all the other women in the thread have described as sexist, is just rude and that anyone can do it? Ask yourself what your motives are? What’s at stake for you in proving it’s not sexist? Are you trying to feel better about being a man? Prove that you’re the exception? That there are nice men who aren’t like that?3
If you’re not adding to the conversation, don’t comment. If your comment is all about you, don’t comment. And if you’re bent on proving something is not sexist, then really really really really don’t comment.
Let us take the example of mansplaining. I realise that my sidenote in that post was a red herring. I described some of my own past rudenesses. Explaining someone’s name to them.4 And someone else’s religion to them.5 That was very rude of me. But in both cases I was not speaking from a place of privilege. The Linda who I helpfully told her name means “beautiful” in Spanish was white middle class and female just like me. Ditto the Jewish friend.6
So, yes, I was being annoying and rude, but I was not disregarding what they said because of their gender, I was not using my position of power to deprive them of having a voice, and I was not speaking on high from my privilged position.
Note: While men do this all the time they rarely do it on purpose or even consciously. That’s part of the problem. If most men realised they were using their privilege in these ways it would be a lot easier to get them to change their behaviours. But, sadly, it’s not just a matter of bad behaviours. That’s the problem with systemic inequality, people don’t see it.
I have been in the position of wanting to explain to a black friend that the behaviour they saw as racist wasn’t. Why, I happened to know that that restaurant gives everyone crap service. They’re slow and rude and nasty to everyone. But how did I know that the bad service they’d experienced wasn’t different in kind from the bad service I’d experienced? That on top of that restaurant’s slowness and rudeness and nastiness was a layer of racism. Even if it was just bad service, the fact that it could just as easily have been racism speaks volumes to the kind of world we live in. When I eat out in my own country it never crosses my mind that the bad service could be because of racism. Why would it?
Understanding the effects of racism and sexism when you’re white and a man has to pretty much be theoretical. Even if you’re poor, gay and disabled you can only understand through the lens of a different kind of oppression, which is every bit as appalling, but remains different in kind. Which is to say that just because I have experienced sexism does not mean I understand what it is to experience racism.
So, yes, I do get why men want to take part in these conversations. I understand why you find them uncomfortable, why you want to be told that you’re the exception to all those bad nasty men. I mean, who wants to think of themselves as an oppressor? Who wants to realise that they’ve benefited from systemic oppression? We want to think that we are who we are and have what we have because of our own unique me-ness. Not because we had the luck to be born in one of the wealthy countries, with white parents, and XY chromosones.
I want you to take part in the conversations here on this blog. Truly, I love all my commenters. But I’ve had it with derailing. At this point I don’t care how nice you are, or how good your intentions, I will delete derailing comments and send the offender a link to this post.
Thus endeth the sermon.
Most of them mansplaining to me that “mansplaining” isn’t mainsplaining at all. It’s just rudeness. Silly little girly me for not realising that! [↩]
Well, until we’ve done twenty interviews in a row then all we want to talk about is anything but us. “Can I be Alaya Johnson now? I’m sick of being me. What about Maureen Johnson? No? Oh, please, please don’t make me talk about where I get my ideas again! Aaaarggh!” [↩]
Guess what? We know that. Many of us are married to, best friends with, related to, live with, work with, hang out with perfectly lovely men. [↩]
Ironic, since I have lost count of how many times people have explained what Larbalestier means to me. Annoying? Oh, yes. Very. [↩]
[w]hen a dude tells you, a woman, how to do something you already know how to do, or how you are wrong about something you are actually right about, or miscellaneous and inaccurate “facts” about something you know a hell of a lot more about than he does.
Bonus points if he is explaining how you are wrong about something being sexist!
Many have objected to this formulation as sexist claiming that women do it too. Nuh uh. SKM from Shakesville explains:
[M]en’s opinions and ideas are privileged over women’s, and men often receive positive feedback for holding forth, while women tend to be punished for doing the same. Anyone who has been chastised by a supervisor for being “too aggressive” while male coworkers were praised as “go-getters” for similar behavior knows what I’m talking about.
I saw this happen at a library conference at the bar, with only six men present (authors, not librarians), three of whom managed to ignore everything said by the women present. Including stuff that was then repeated by one of the men present and then applauded. I had to get up and leave I was so annoyed. So did several of the other women. But did we say anything at the time? No, because we’ve been so carefully trained not to call men on their sexism. It would have been rude and killjoy and just the kind of thing those no-fun feminists do. So, none of us did. Oh, and one of those men later noted to me that he couldn’t believe how much one of the women authors present (who had barely managed to get a word in) had talked. No, his head did not explode.
More from SKM:
Gender-neutral words for “mansplanation”-type behavior include great terms like “rule-crapping” and “info-dumping.” As much as I like these concepts, though, they remove reference to the male privilege that makes mansplaining what it is. Mansplaining is not just holding forth; it’s holding forth by someone who has the force of society behind him. A girl or woman can be a tiresome know-it-all, but she won’t be praised and supported in her efforts while those around her are discouraged from showing her up.
Seen and experienced this too many times to recount.
There is, of course, one situation where some women do engage in a similar behaviour. It’s called whitesplaining and often involves a white person explaining to a person of colour how they are wrong about something being racist. Often the whitesplainer will twist things around so much in the process of their whitesplaining that they wind up “demonstrating” to the person of colour how they are in fact racist for having brought up the subject of racism.
No, their heads don’t explode.
Side note: Just as a general rule if you ever find yourself in a position where you are explaining to someone who has lived experience on the subject at hand when you don’t, then perhaps you might want to, you know, shut up. Also listen. Examples run the gamut from telling someone whose name is Linda that their name means “beautiful” cause you just learned that in Spanish (you know, typically, people know what their own names mean)1 through to explaining Judaism to someone who is actually Jewish2.
In conclusion: Mansplaining and whitesplaining? Don’t do it.
Before someone says so in the comments:
No one is saying that all men mansplain. Many of my best friends are men who don’t. Hell, I even married a non-mansplaining man. Nor do all white people whitesplain. I sure as hell hope I never have. But my apologies if I ever have. I know better now.
Might have done this one too. Why am I alive? In my defence I was young. REALLY young. Also possibly drunk. I hope I was, anyways. This was before I became a YA writer and stopped drinking because YA writers don’t drink. [↩]
Recently, the brilliant Sarah Rees Brennan talked about her love of romance and reviewed a few in her inimitable style.1 She mentioned in passing her least favourite kind of heroine:
I truly hate the Blank Page Heroine. She is in a lot of books—I don’t mean to pick on romance, because sadly I have seen her in every genre, including my own—and sometimes she seems to be there as a match for the hero who won’t bother him with things like ‘hobbies’ and ‘opinions.’ Sometimes she is carefully featureless (still missing those pesky hobbies and opinions) so that, apparently, the reader can identify with her and slot their own personalities onto a blank page. As I don’t identify with blank pages, I find the whole business disturbing.
I had always thought of this as The Girlfriend. She is in many many many Hollywood movies and is absolutely interchangeable in them. Because it’s the male characters who are important in movies like . . . Nah. I won’t name them so the comments don’t become an argument about how I am wrong and So & So movie is not like that and blah blah blah. The girl, if she’s there at all, is merely decoration and a reward for the hero. She is entirely without personality. And thus completely without interest for me, which is why I do not like such movies.
I was quite shocked to find the same character in books written by women. I’d become convinced that she was a straight male fantasy. Surely women know that we women have opinions and hobbies and an internal life? Why would they write a female character without dimensions? It’s still a mystery. I adore Sarah Rees Brennan’s name for them: Blank Page Heroine. That’s exactly it. There’s no there there. Just a blankness. A very sad making blankness. Bad enough that we women are all too often told to shut up and not take up space in real life, but for it to happen in our escapist literature too? Aaargh!
And what kind of a lesson does Blank Page Heroine Love teach? If the love between two people involves one of them giving up everything for the other one including their personality, their own likes and desires and needs, then that love is not going to last long or end well. Trust me, I have seen it happen. If you have to suppress who you are in order for your relationship to last2 then that relationship does not deserve to last. It’s not good for you or the person you love.
But thankfully, as SRB points out, there have been many wonderful romances of late.3 Heroines who exist for many reasons other than to find the love of that one true hero.4 My favourite recent romance writer is Sherry Thomas, who not only writes wonderfully believable men and women but some of them are even older than 25! Bless! Go check out SRB’s post for more romance recommendations.
One of the discoveries I made while doing research for my PhD thesis, which ultimately became The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, was that women had always read and written science fiction. I found letters to science fiction magazines from women as early as the late 1920s, a short story contest winner in 1927.1 This was contrary to so many people’s views that there were no women engaged with science fiction until the 1950s. (Though some said not till the 1960s.) There were also a few women who attended science fiction conventions from the very beginning.
As I read through fanzines and science fiction magazines from the 1920s onwards, I found many article dismissing these women, which is largely what Battle of the Sexes is about:
The letters were from bored housewives with nothing else to do, the stories by women were crap and only published cause it was like a dog walking on its hind legs, and the women at conventions were only there because their boyfriend/husband dragged them along. And look how few in numbers! See? There are no women in science fiction!2
What those arguments have always failed to recognise is that the majority of readers/viewers of anything are not active in their engagement with a genre/show. Vastly more people were reading science fiction magazines than ever wrote a letter to the editor of an sf magazine or fanzine or went to a con. There are always huge numbers of people who are avid readers/viewers who are never counted by the people who are active in their engagement so those active fans start to assume that they are the centre of their genre and no one else exists.
Throughout my time as a doctoral student (which was pre-internet) I would meet people I never would have pegged as science fiction fans, who upon hearing of my research would start reminiscing about the sf magazines they read as a kid, of the Heinlein/Le Guin/McCaffrey books they adored, and their love affair with Star Trek/Doctor Who/Blake’s Seven. Most of these people had never heard of fandom, had no idea there were conventions etc. They just loved science fiction on their lonesome. I met others who had heard of it but there was no way they would have attended a con because back then it was all white boys and they knew they wouldn’t fit in.
Science fiction cons have been white and male for most of their existence. I remember the first con I went to more than a decade ago. I was terrified. It was mostly male. And, yes, I was sexually harassed. (A very common experience for women at cons.) But I also met many wonderful people who have remained friends to this day and before too long I discovered WisCon, the feminist convention, which was a much more hospitable place for me.3
There has long been speculation about why there are so few non-white fans of the genre. I have always been convinced, based on my research, that it’s hard to know how big that readership is. If as a woman in the 1990s I felt uncomfortable walking into a convention that was about 30% female how much more uncomfortable would someone not white feeling walking into a space that was 99% white?
Over at Deadbrowalking: the People of Color Deathwatch there’s a wild unicorn check in where people of colour who read/watch genre and love it are putting up their hands. So far there have been more than 900 comments. And many of the people talk about their parents’ love of science fiction and their grandparents too. Those 900 plus declarations are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more fans out there who don’t own computers, or if they do, have no idea that Deadbrowalking exists.
As I read through the pages and pages of comments over there I couldn’t help thinking about all the “Science Fiction is Dying” panels at cons I’ve seen over the years. I’ve always been bewildered by that claim and the prevalence of those panels. But it wasn’t until I read all the wild unicorn comments that I realised what those panels are really about. They’re talking about their brand of science fiction: the stuff that began in the late 1920s and and has been largely white, male, and all too frequently misogynist and racist. They’re not talking about the other streams that were growing up in Japan and China and Europe and, yes, the USA and elsewhere. They’re not talking about feminist science fiction or manga or anime or YA. None of that counts to them.
They’re saying that the white, male-dominated science fiction of boys with their hard science toys is dying.
And, you know what? I won’t weep if they’re right.
Which is essentially when USian science fiction began. [↩]
Maybe this is just me, but if I was selected for an honour solely because I’m a woman, I would be less than thrilled. In fact, I was once asked to contribute to an anthology because they didn’t have enough stories by women. I said no thanks.
I am cranky. Two main things are contributing to this state.
1. As some of you may have noticed my site has been down on and off today. Grrr. Also for the last two days my email has been mostly down. Double Grr.
2. Maureen Dowd.
To try and uncranky myself I sat down to read today’s New York Times. I carefully skipped the newsy parts cause they often cause crankiness to multiply. Unfortunately, the first thing I read was Maureen Dowd’s breathtakingly stupid column about chicklit.
Bloody hell! What a morass of ignorance and misinformation. On the one hand, she’s trying to say that all chick lit sucks. On the other, she talks about books like Sylvia Plath’s The Belljar and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet being rebranded in pink. Presumably, she does not think those texts are worthless.
As it happens many books are billed as chicklit that are not, and some that are, well, they’re very bloody good (Love Walked In for instance).
Dowd starts by talking about chicklit’s invasion of the serious adult literature shelves (Heels over Hemingway! Run for the hills!). But the only text she quotes is a young adult title, Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging. Of course it sounds young! Its protag is a teenager! It was written for the twelve years old and up market. It’s also bloody funny. But Dowd is too pure of mind to have noticed. Sloppy journalism much?
And then there’s this:
Giving the books an even more interchangeable feeling is the bacholerette party of log-rolling blurbs by chick-lit authors. Jennifer Good in Bed Weiner blurbs Sarah Mlynowski’s Me vs Me and Karen McCullah Lutz’s The Bachelorette Party. Lauren Weisberger blurbs Emily Something Borrowed Giffin.
Stop the bleeding presses. Someone in the same genre is blurbing someone else in the same genre? Oh. My. God. It must be stopped.
But wait! Here is the back of a Peter Carey book. He is blurbed by Salman Rushdie. They both write mainstream literature that gets reviewed and lauded by the NYT. They know each other! Another freaking conspiracy.
Hmm, I wonder why the publishing industry would do something so bizarre as have people in the same genre blurb each other? Could it be because folks who’ve read Jennifer Weiner are the folks likely to enjoy Sarah Mlynowski? And those who love Salman Rushdie may well get into Peter Carey? No, that can’t be it.
Here are my questions:
Why the endless deriding of this genre? Why aren’t there people getting het up about the pernicious influence of techno thrillers? Some of those are shockingly written, but I’ve never seen a columnist lose any sleep over how well those books sell, or the fact that they’re mostly written and read by men. In all genres there are many badly written books. Including mainstream literature. What makes chicklit so evil?
Also how come it counts as journalism to walk around a bookshop mouthing off ignorantly about a genre you know nothing about, grabbing three dozen of them to take home, flip through, and then mock in your newspaper column?
Why did it not occur to Dowd to interview some of the writers, editors, publishers and consumers of the genre? Or to ask them what their faves are and why? Too much hard work for you, Ms Dowd?
Why does Dowd not explain exactly what’s wrong with the existence of chicklit? I mean, seriously, what is the point of her column? Why is she so threatened by the colour pink?
As me, Nalo Hopkinson, Scott and Ellen Klages walked from our hotel to the Wisconsin Historical Society Auditorium the heavens opened up. Best. Storm. Ever.
Well, except for the little detail that we were on our way to give a panel and wound up soaked through and knowing that our audience had been at least halved. Thank you so much to the eighty or so brave, brave souls who made it.
I can say that I was dead pleased that we didn’t just pat ourselves on the back and talk about how fabulous WisCon is (which it is), but also addressed some of the tensions around race and class that aren’t talked about nearly enough. And, indeed, once again we managed to raise the issue of class and then back the hell away from it. Cause, you know, scary!
In less than two weeks (gulp) me and Scott will be attending WisCon the feminist science fiction convention in Madison, Wisconsin. I’ve been attending since 1996, I’ve read there, been on panels, been a part of the auction (mostly as a spender of money, but once as one of Ellen Klages’ lovely assistants) and have worked as part of the organising committee— I’m biased.
And yet strangely I’ve come to take it for granted. So much so that my not being able to attend next year (prior engagement to be part of something awesome in Australia) didn’t really phase me. Then I read Sheree Thomas’s eloquent explanation of why she loves WisCon and all of a sudden I’m miserable that I’m going to be missing next year’s WisCon even as I get ready for this year’s.
Sheree loves it so much she’s urging people to attend:
What I really want to do is encourage you to check out WISCON, because if you don’t never go to but ONE science fiction conference in your big, beautiful life, then let it be, let it be WISCON 30, because this year is going to be amazing.WisCon takes place annually in downtown Madison, WI over Memorial Day weekend (May 25-30) at the Concourse Hotel. It’s considered “The World’s Leading Feminist Science Fiction Convention,” and is attended by a lot of cool and interesting women and yes, men (got to say that because some folk see ‘feminist’ and read ‘man hata’ and ‘crazy’) . Now, I ain’t saying there ain’t no crazy folk there (LOL!), I’m just saying that all kinda folk flow through and it is a celebration of science fiction work. This year, they invited back their previous Guest of Honors, including Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Jane Yolen, Pat Murphy, Pamela Sargent, Vonda McIntyre, chile, I could go on and on.
And they got damned good child care, too! For real, with Legos and robots n’ shit! I mean really, what kinda feminist gathering would it be without an excellent program track for young readers?
The bad news is that this year’s WisCon is sold out. That’s right, you can put your name on the waiting list, but unless there’s a whole slew of last-minute dropouts you won’t be attending. But don’t let that stop you from going to next year’s. I’ve heard a little rumour about who the guests of honour will be and, well, let me tell you, stellar is the word.
This year’s is going to be unbelievablely fabulous. I was at WisCon 20 and I’ll never forget it. That weekend changed my life. But even the worst WisCon is a million times better than any other convention or conference I’ve ever been to. If you have any interest in genre or feminism or exploring new and old ideas WisCon is the place for you.
Food in SF&F (Reading SF&F)
Saturday, 1:00-2:15 p.m. Saturday, 1:00-2:15 p.m.
Melissa Scott, Justine Larbalestier, Janet Lafler, Mary Kay Kare, Nora Jemison
Literary History of Women in Science Fiction. (Feminism, Sex, and Gender)
Saturday, 2:30-3:45 p.m. Saturday, 2:30-3:45 p.m.
Pamela Sargent, Justine Larbalestier, Andrea D. Hairston, Janice Marie Bogstad, Brian Attebery
Banned & Challenged Books (Reading SF&F)
Saturday, 9:00-10:15 p.m. Saturday, 9:00-10:15 p.m.
Deborah Stone, Veronica L. Schanoes, Anne Marie Redalen Fraser, Justine Larbalestier, Kira Franz
The Death of the Panel (Reading SF&F)
Sunday, 2:30-3:45 p.m. Sunday, 2:30-3:45 p.m.
Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Paul Kincaid, Gwenda Bond, Christopher “i just sold my first novel” Barzak, Lenny Bailes
I think these all look fabulous—I get to talk about feminism, food, Young Adult lit, and death—what could be better? I can’t wait.
I’m especially excited cause Daughters of Earth will definitely be out. In fact I’m hearing rumours it may already be available. Has anyone seen it in shops in the US of A yet?
See you all in Madison! It’s going to be the best WisCon yet. Samuel R. Delany! Ursula K. Le Guin! Jane Yolen! Kate Wilhelm! Oh my Elvis! I must lie down now to recover.
How’s about that for a post title to put everyone off?
I’ve been hearing some complaints about writers who are too self promotery, who go on panels at cons waving their book around, saying,”Look at me! Look at me! I’m a published writer! Buy my book!” There are also complaints about certain writers’ blogs which only talk about their books and their latest publishing news with links that only lead to places that sell their books. As well as whinges about the folks who relentlessly campaign for awards.
Accusations of being too self promotery make me a bit jittery. Promoting your books is part of a writer’s job. If no one knows the book exists how is it going to sell? A writer should be out there lining up bookshop appearances, sending out postcards/business cards/tshoshkas of some kind. You should be attending cons/trade shows/schools/libraries or whatever will help get the word out about your work. It may not have that much effect (no one really knows how to get word of mouth going1), but it might, and besides, for your own peace of mind it helps to know that you’re doing something. No one cares how well your book does as much you what wrote it. Not your agent, your editor or your publicist. It seems mighty unfair to complain about a writer doing what they can to secure their livelihood.
I’m sensitive about such accusations because I was accused of it. My promotion of my first book (a non-fiction tome) at WisCon some years back got up some people’s noses. But it was WisCon: the feminist science fiction convention, the only place in the world where my book on, yes, feminist science fiction had a real shot at selling lots of copies. So I kind of overdid the whole “look at me! I have a book” thing. Yes, I did wave around my book on panels and trumpet its availability in the dealers’ room. I’m still sort of embarrassed, but also defensive about it. It was my first book! I was excited! And you know what? Every copy of the book sold out and my publisher was pleased with me. I was doing my job. I’m pretty sure if I hadn’t done what I could to promote the book not as many copies would have sold.
On the other hand, I have seen writers relentlessly promoting themselves at various gatherings. (Hence my embarrassment when I think back on that WisCon.) Drowning out everyone else on their panels, continually using their own work as an example when it’s only tangentally relevant. On one occasion I was accosted by a writer at a party who interrupted my conversation with someone else to tell me all about his book, ply me with postcards of it, and information on how I could buy it. Not a good look.
Obviously a balance needs to be struck. Pissing people off is not actually very self promotery. Neither is being rude. (And really being polite should be the ground rule for all interactions.) But I wish the folks who complain about over-the-top self promotion would cut some slack to first- or second-time authors. You know, the way most of us make allowances for our friends with their brand new baby, who can’t shut up about it, and endlessly show you photos. Yes, it’s boring, but in most cases it will pass.
My third book is about to come out, but I’m too busy working on the fourth to put as much energy into promoting it as I did my first and second books. I’m no longer an enthusiastic first-time author. I’m dead proud of it and I’ll be doing signings and readings to promote it. But I will not be bouncing up and down, thrusting postcards into everyone’s hands, and talking it up at every opportunity. Been there, done that.
Do I not think this book is as good as my others? Magic Lessons is the best book I’ve published thus far. But I’m older and wiser and less energetic. I guess I’m well on my way to being a hardened old pro.
NYC, 12:12PM, 12 March 2006
I’m convinced that the most useful thing you can do to promote your work is get copies into the hands of the opinion makers in your genre. The people who write the most read and discussed blogs, the librarians and booksellers who love to push their favourite titles. How to do that is a whole other question, but, obviously, writing the very best books you can is essential! Getting out and meeting said opinion makers comes in second. [↩]
A few weeks back I was asking about who the feminist sf writers are now. I had an ulterior motive: I’d just been asked to put together a panel for Madison’s Centre for the Humanities“Rooted Cosmopolitans” lecture series (if like me, you are Australian, you will find that title rather amusing). That panel is now a go:
I hope some of you can come to cheer us on (or heckle, whatever you prefer).
We’d like to refer to two stories during the panel: one older and one more recent. And we’d like to let everyone know before the panel what those stories are so they’ll have time to read them. The older story will prolly be Joanna Russ’ “When It Changed”. But we’re not sure about a more recent story. So:
What’s the best recent feminist short story you’ve read?
Recent as in published this century and preferably this year or last. Even more points if you come up with a story that’s available online, which will make it easier for more people to be able to read it. We’re not considering stories written by the esteemed panellists.
Update: There will be a long list of essential feminist sf reading that will be a hand out at the panel. So if you have suggestions for that, fire away. If you can think of less obvious ones that would be extra helpful. You can rest assured that Suzy McKee Charnas, Ursula Le Guin and Joanna Russ will all be on the list.
I have a question for sf/fantasy/horror etc readers. Who are the new feminist voices you’re most excited about? I’m hearing great things about Sarah Monette. And I know all about Lauren McLaughlin and Meghan McCarron. But who am I missing out on? Who now is writing books and stories that look at questions of identity, gender, sex, race, class in cool and interesting ways? Who talks about these issues in exciting ways on their blogs? Tell me!
I just heard that, Daughters of Earth, my feminist sf anthology will be out 1 May. Just in time for WisCon! Most excellent!
I’ve been working on a post for awhile now about all the fabby blogs about the publishing industry and the glories of Miss Snark et al. Fortunately for me Diana Peterfreund has beaten me to the punch so now I don’t have to bother. What she said.
Meghan McCarron has just written eloquently about sexism in publishing. Why do so many anthologies and short stories magazines have way more stories by men than by women? Why do men get more awards and reviewed more widely? The ensuing discussion is very cool, too.
Fortunately, I’m now in a genre—Young Adult fiction—that’s overwhelmingly written by women. And its awards reflect that. The Prinz has only been awarded six times thus far and so far it’s 50% women. The US National Book Award has had a Young People’s Literature award since 1996 and women have won six times to the bloke’s three. The Australian Children’s Book Council Awards for Best Book of the Year (Older Readers) was first awarded in 1987: women eleven; blokes eight. (My counts may be out because I’m innumerate and jetlagged.)
Only two panels, so there’ll be heaps of time to hang out in the bar. Woo hoo!
Gender-Bending Fantasy (Capitol A)
Inhabitants of fantastic worlds typically disregard the laws of physics, and frequently re-cast societal norms to fit an un-earthly reality. This panel will discuss recent fantasy fiction that challenges assumptions of sex and gender.
Terry A. Garey, Ellen Klages, Justine Larbalestier(M), Diane Martin, Jill Roberts
Images of Women in Fantasy Literature (Capitol A)
The home of WisCon, Madison is the center for feminism in fantasy and science fiction. We will discuss the roles women have had in fantasy since Tolkien. Fantasy has become populated with women, finally, but are they realistic women who provide good role models? Can modern feminist ideals be successfully inserted into a medieval story? What are the best examples of a feminist character in fantasy?
Kate Elliott, Anne Harris, Graham Joyce, Justine Larbalestier, Jane Lindskold
Update: Turns out that Megan McCarron’s WFC schedule is way cooler than mine. I’m so jealous! (Except for the Clarion one. Never went to Clarion, me.)
Yes, like everyone else in the entire sf world, I will be jetting over to Glasgow to partake of science fictiony thingies for several days at the World Science Fiction Convention. I’ll hang out with me mates, meet new people, and spend a lot of time in the bar watching England being destroyed by Australia in the second test at Edgbaston. Can’t wait. (I’m just sad that it won’t be in an English bar. Fortunately there’ll be enough English sf fans around that my gloating enjoyment of their team’s destruction will have an audience. In fact I’m going to greet every new person by asking if they’re English or not. And if they are, I’ll say, “Cricket. Ashes. Ha ha ha!”)
Friday 2:30pm Reading
I’ll read some stuff. Maybe from Magic or Madness, or Magic Lessons (the sequel to Magic or Madness—the reading will contain no spoilers), or I could read from my brand new novel which no one knows nuthink about and I’ve never read out loud to anyone but me spousal. Dunno. I’ve got half an hour, but that’s ridiculously long. I don’t like to read for more than 15 minutes, that way me and me audience (both of us) can go to the bar and watch England being destroyed in the second test.
Saturday 12:00 noon Feminism as Setting
Anne K. Gay (M)
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Description: Feminism is no longer the story, instead it’s the setting—what has this meant for feminist writers?
My take: Huh? I don’t agree with the premise. Feminism can be both setting and story, these are not contradictory terms. Plus it will be tricky to work a discussion of the cricket in.
Sunday 11:00am The 1950s, 50 Years On
Mark Rich (M)
Description: The 1950s saw the Golden Era of Science Fiction film and the blossoming of writers such as Asimov, Sturgeon, Dick, Farmer, Walter M. Miller and Poul Anderson. What do we think of them now?
My Take: How could you list the best of the 1950s sf writers and not include Alfred Bester? Or Theodore Sturgeon? Or Margaret St. Clair? I’ll argue that sf writing in the 1950s was indeed a golden age, the period when sf turned its attention to the social sciences and examined social issues more than ever before. It’s often argued that that didn’t start happening until the 1960s which is crap. Also the 1950s saw some of Keith Miller‘s finest batting and bowling.
Saturday’s conversation between Carol Emshwiller and Ursula Le Guin was fabulous and moving and for me the highlight of the 2003 WisCon. Eileen Gunn fed them the occasional question, but mostly they chatted amongst themselves, covering writing about the recent war (Ursula needs to stew on things for a while, so hasn’t yet; for Carol the process is more immediate—she’s already sold a number of stories on the subject, at least one of which is in print), teaching the craft of writing (Ursula loves to steer her students towards contemplating the fine art of comma placement), raising childen while trying to write (apparently the trick is to get them to go to bed by 7:30pm) and a great deal more about the road they’ve had to hoe as writers. It was glorious wittnessing such a warm and easy friendship between two very different women. Ursula’s path has been for the most part golden (does anyone truly have an easy path?) with supportive parents and spouse, while Carol came to writing later, with little support and a certain amount of hinderance from her spouse. Her discussion of the difficulties of stealing time to write whle raising her children ("I felt like I couldn’t breathe," she said at one point, smiling) elicited hisses for her late husband from the audience, and yet there was no condemnation in her words nor even the faintest whiff of bitterness. Ursula claimed to be a rabbit in comparison to Carol’s bravery. Carol claimed that she too was a rabbit. John Kessel dryly pointed out from the audience that, if so, she was a very brave rabbit. The audience laughed a great deal, and I know that I was not the only one whose eyes filled with tears.
Carol is in her eighties and Ursula in her seventies. The average life expectancy of a woman in the USA is 79, so they’re doing well, but have hardly reached Guiness Book of World Records ages. So why the big deal? Carol and Ursula—at any age—are extraordinary people. Warm, witty, compassionate brilliant writers. Part of the big deal is that they are doing some of the best writing of their careers right now. They show that the life of a writer can just keep on going. If you’re healthy and still sparking on all cylinders—though both Carol and Ursula seem to have way more cylinders than most of us—you can write, and more importantly, you can keep getting better. Who doesn’t want to hear that message?
But what filled my eyes with tears as I listened to those two white-haired, sharp-witted, funny, funny women was that not only are they ubelievably cool folk that anyone would give their eyeteeth to hang out with but they run counter to the predominate images of old women we get in the west. Most of us under fifty have never seen anyone remotely like them on television, or on film. We were given no expectations as we grew up that old age for a woman is anything other than a time of horror, ugliness and stupidity. You’ll lose your looks (someone must’ve forgotten to tell Carol and Ursula about that one), your mind (ditto) and will either turn into a mean, screeching witch who eats children or a gentle, silver-haired Stepford grandma with an endless supply of home-baked cookies and homilies and little interest in anything other than her grandchildren.
Most of us in the west are afraid of old age. On Saturday, watching Carol and Ursula talk and laugh about their writing lives, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t remotely afraid.