Writing Violence (or, Virgins Studying Sex)

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of reading some middling piece of fanfic, only to hit the sex scene and be immediately thrown out of it because, Good god, don’t you know it doesn’t work like that, have you ever even HAD sex?

The answer, it seems, is no, and there’s a reason why we snark about sex scenes written by middle school virgins — they don’t often get it right. It’s no exaggeration to say that sex (however you want to define it), or lack thereof, is a binary experience. Either you have, or you haven’t; either you know what intimacy is, or you don’t. Moreover, sex is already so fraught, bypassing the cerebral and jabbing emotional buttons that are difficult to express in words even when you do have first-hand knowledge, that attempting to write it from pure speculation seems like a doomed endeavor from the start. At best, they’ll slip by under the radar, successfully regurgitating what they’ve read in other places; at worst, they’ll embarrass themselves with their ignorance. Either way, they can’t write it honestly.

I’m certainly the last person to say that teenagers shouldn’t be allowed to write fanfic (we were all fourteen once, oh yes, and you write a million bad words before you start writing any good ones, best to get it out of your system early), but I do think they’d be well advised to hold off on the subject of sex until they know what they’re talking about.

So why, then, do we have such an easier time accepting narratives about characters who kill, from writers who have no idea what that’s like?

The book that should be required reading for anyone writing violence

China Mieville: my adoration knows no bounds

For those of you who may not be familiar with his works, Mieville is a writer in a literary movement termed “The New Weirdists,” utterly brilliant, not even my type but still totally freaking hot, and a dyed-in-the-wool Socialist. I think I fell in love with him when I learned about 50 new words from reading Perdido Street Station, and then went on to discover that he has a PhD in economics, wrote a textbook on theories of international law, and ran for Parliament on the Socialist platform.

(For new readers, Kraken or The City & The City are good ones to start off on, much more immediately accessible than his New Crobuzon books. DO NOT START WITH IRON COUNCIL. I personally preferred Kraken, hands down, but it seems that most other people thought C&tC was better.)

I haven’t read his newest book, Embassytown, yet, but I came across an interview with him in which he articulates a number of opinions about writing in general and fantasy in particular that make me go, YES. THIS.

In particular, his appreciation for nuance and complexity when it comes to world-building:

One of the things about genre fantasy that I loathe is that race becomes a pigeonhole for a character type. Your elf is kind of deft and mysterious, and your dwarf is always grumpy but the salt of the earth, and it becomes a way of defining character rather than actually dealing with culture.

What I wanted to do with Perdido was have a book in which the characters were much more malleable and culturally mediated. And what that meant was that cultures would not be distinct hermetic balloons, they were going to taint each other. And also, very importantly, that individuals of all races, not just humans, could reject their culture, could feel at odds with their culture, but are still going be to defined by it in some way.
One of the things that is dangerous about genre fantasy and science fiction is that ethnic stereotyping is true. It is absolutely the case that trolls are stupid and bad and like to smash things up. What I have tried to do in Perdido is have an idea of culture that is both constraining and enabling, but doesn’t describe you in cold genetic terms.

And despite being political, Ayn Rand he is not:

Just because you are a leftist writer doesn’t mean that you have to be into propaganda. I would never try to convince someone of socialism through my novels. It would probably make a very bad novel, and a very bad case of socialism.

Ending with an observation that lies at the core of my own feelings about literature:

One reason why I don’t like Lord of the Rings or the Narnia books is because they have no sense of narrative as being an organic thing created by the actions of individual people. It is all predetermined.

X-Men First Class, HO YAY

So when I first saw the movie poster for an X-Men prequel (which could only be about Magneto and Professor X) I was like, “Heee, that’s probably going to be terrible, but I adore my comic book movies, even bad ones, so as long as they play it no less gay than Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen did, I will be a happy, happy man!”


1) It’s not a terrible movie at all. In fact I would go so far as to call it OMG FUCKING AWESOME.

2) It is MOAR GAY than Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. I know, how is this even possible, right?

James McAvoy as Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr (aka Magneto) were brilliantly cast. McAvoy plays Xavier beautifully, with his intensity and his optimism and just his infectious joy for this whole brave new world that they’re discovering together, and Magneto’s not the villain yet, but his potential for it is written clearly on the walls; we see his capacity for violence and ruthlessness, but also his capacity for love and loyalty and friendship.

And oh, my good goddamn, but do they have chemistry. They played it so well, how you can see the train wreck of their ideologies coming a mile away, but they’re both so in love with each other (or such close friends, whatever, it doesn’t even matter) that they can’t acknowledge each other’s flaws. Xavier knows how Erik feels, knows how ruthless he can be, and he’s trying SO HARD to pretend that he doesn’t — there are several of those scenes and they are intense. (Also, hot-young-Magneto is one badass motherfucker and the sexiest thing I have seen on the television machine in a long, long time.)

In short, I am so looking forward to the fic of this movie. It is going to be legendary.

ETA: McAvoy is on record as saying that it is a tragedy how Xavier and Magneto did not stay together and have sex and get married.

Plus a handful of spoiler-y observations for people who've already seen it.