A place for the Other in genre fiction

There was an interesting little essay excerpted on Requires Hate a few weeks ago:

When you read an x-men book today, you’re not reading it because of what is in the actual book–you’re reading it because it’s the X-men and the feeling it gives you reminds you of positive memories you have of the very best of the x-men stories.

But what I would argue is that that process is inherently destructive to an audience, and culture, and it perpetuates the worst kind of escapism, which is a non-aspirational escapism. These are not comics that take you forward to some fantastic place you could only dream about. They take you back toward the womb, they regress you.

This immediately struck me as quite true, and applicable far beyond comic books, because anyone who’s consumed any amount of media in a given genre can hardly fail to notice that it’s often quite repetitive and formulaic. Fanfiction does this, in that it endlessly remixes the things we liked from a particular canon, or the things we wanted to happen. Regency romance does this, trying to recapture the glory of Georgette Heyer, as do the swathes of derivative fantasy trying to reproduce the magic of Tolkien.

It’s entirely understandable — when readers love a story or a world, they want to roll around in it and enjoy it for as long as they can, but even the most prolific writer can only put out so many words a year, and eventually they’re going to die, or just start sucking. And because the most enthusiastic readers are often writers as well, that’s when fanfic steps in to pick up the slack, and when elements from Tolkien and Heyer start turning up in books from the next generation of genre writers.

But this is where I break with the above writer, because she follows that with:

So my answer is two fold: 1. that there are no replacements for DC/Marvel comics and 2. That they are bad, and reading a lot of them in place of more aspirational or challenging works is a fools errand. [Emphasis mine]

I think it’s fair to assume that you could replace “DC/Marvel” with “Tolkien/Heyer” and she would still endorse that sentiment — which produced some rather mixed feelings in me, because I simultaneously agreed with it (the majority of any subset is crap, after all) and also felt cut by it. Because I am a genre reader and a genre writer, fantasy is my stomping ground, but truth be told, I haven’t actually read a great deal of the mainstream Tolkien-replacement fantasy fiction. (Or, for that matter, much Tolkien.) I never read Robert Jordan or the Terrys Brooks and Goodkind. I’ve read maybe five Mercedes Lackey books, half a Marion Zimmer Bradley, four GRR Martins (and now I’m done), and sampled a handful of GRIMDARK books.

(Which is odd, because I’m pretty confident in saying that Jordan and the Terrys are derivative chauvinists with mediocre prose, end of story, even though I’ve never read them. But by this point, I’ve read enough of the criticism levelled at them to be pretty damn certain that I wouldn’t like them. And I feel weird for saying “I don’t like them” when I haven’t even read the books, but do I need to give them a fair shake if I’ve already read samples of their deathless prose, and comprehensive analyses of their abhorrent handling of race/gender/sexuality? I get the feeling it would just make me rageface and want to take cluebats to kneecaps, as Requires Hate puts it. And frankly, I’m in grad school, I don’t have the time to read the things I do like, much less slog through crap I don’t.)

It gave me an odd moment to spell that out just now, because I was like, Jeez, then what have you read? How do you even consider yourself a fantasy fan? But no, it’s just that the writers who made me fall in love with fantasy are slightly more peripheral: Tanya Huff, Robin McKinley, Jacqueline Carey, Patricia C. Wrede. After I’d figured out what I liked and gone looking for more, I came across Lynn Flewelling, Guy Gavriel Kay, Sarah Monette, Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennet, Lois McMasters Bujold, Jim Grimsley, Scott Lynch and Ellen Kushner.

(And none of them are perfect, a lot of them are quite faily in their own unique snowflake ways, but it’s not a coincidence that female writers outnumber males about 5:1 on that list — because so often the novels written by straight men are nothing more than vehicles for straight-male sex-and-power fantasies, divorced from reality in ways that the authors are entirely oblivious to, and there are few things I find more tedious.)

Mind you, I’m not playing some kind of hipster “the writers I like are more obscure than the writers you like” card, because those books that I enjoyed still fall squarely in the category of genre fiction. Most of them are set in Ye Olde Done-to-Death whitewashed, medieval-flavored fantasylandia, and although I feel they’re doing it more enjoyably than most mainstream writers, they’re not usually doing it new.

Furthermore, that’s the same sandbox that I want to play in as a writer. Not the whitewashing bit, because multiculturalism and the question of how different societies and ethnicities interact with each other is hugely interesting and fundamental to the world-building I do, but the country that Keilja hails from, which I often use as the jumping off point for exploring other places, is unmistakably European-flavored fantasylandia. (Closer to renaissance than medieval, but that’s splitting hairs.)

So when I want to defend genre fiction, there’s certainly an element of defensiveness in it — because it’s what I want to read and it’s what I want to write. And by the same token, I quite enjoy fanfiction. Who wouldn’t? It’s all the best bits, all the time.

When I was growing up, it wasn’t the bizarre and the genre-bending that caught my interest. I liked fantasy and space opera, I wanted the same epic stories that everyone else did, but I desperately wanted to see myself in them, wanted to see queer people getting to be the protagonists. I started writing in middle school when I realized that the only way to get the stories I wanted was to write them myself. To tell stories that were more friendly to people like me.

And as I’ve gotten older and realized how other groups have also been marginalized by traditional fantasy fiction — women who are alienated by always being an object, never a subject; non-whites who are alienated by always being the Other, and usually an inferior Other at that — the more I want to redress some of those wrongs too. This doesn’t mean writing a utopia, ofc not. It means not letting author bias inform the reality of your world. No monolithically evil races that, huh, happen to be brown. Not every queer character is rapey and evil, not every woman is either a virgin or a whore, or weepy and frivolous and useless. (Or hey, you could have sex workers with agency, pretty fucking wild, right.) Not every protagonist is straight, or white, or male. These are not high bars to clear — or they shouldn’t be, anyway.

I’m better at gender issues than race issues, still trying to learn to see around my white-privilege blinders, but I’m reading and educating myself and hopefully getting better at that too. (If you’ve got books to recommend on the subject, please do!) I would not presume to write contemporary fiction about, say, the experiences of black Americans; I’m 100% sure that I wouldn’t get it right and I would be just another white author muddying public perceptions about what it means to be black in modern America. (a la Jeffrey Eugenides, the cis dude heaped with laurels for telling other cis people what it’s like to be intersexed.) But in fantasy, when you’re inventing cultures and peoples wholecloth? Why should skin color in that world correlate in any way with the distribution of ethnicities in our world, or their associated stereotypes and prejudices? Why are so many fantasy writers still writing all-white societies, or only including non-whites as peripheral barbarians who wear bones through their noses?

What I would like to do, ultimately, what would make me satisfied with myself and my life if I could accomplish, would be to write compelling, character-driven stories that can be enjoyed by everyone currently marginalized by mainstream fantasy. I don’t know that it’s possible to actually include “something for everyone,” but I want to write protagonists from across the spectrum, and to make sure that the supporting cast represents the full diversity of a living world. This is not political correctness — it’s noticing that other people exist. And doing that within a conventional fantasy framework is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, positing the opposite seems as good as saying that feminists, queers, and non-whites have no place in fantasy, that they should just take their toys and go home.

And lastly, even though every genre needs its Catherynne Valentes and its China Mievilles to push the boundaries, not every book is pushing on the same boundaries. I’m thinking here of Karin Lowachee’s brilliant space operas, Warchild, Burndive, and Cagebird, all of which are firmly “soft” sci-fi. She uses the regular complement of sci-fi tropes, space pirates and space marines and planetary politics. She glosses the technological elements, doesn’t know how faster-than-light travel would work and doesn’t really care. The race of aliens that humans have encountered are not significantly different from ourselves, biologically or culturally, certainly nothing like the creatures that spring from the mind of Mieville or various “hard” sci-fi writers.

Instead, she takes one simple idea and plays it out across a sci-fi landscape: that war creates more orphans than heroes.

And holy hell, but her books will make you bleed. Lowachee is, in my none-too-humble opinion, proof that you don’t need to change the trappings to do something revolutionary with your story. Even if all you’re doing is challenging the dominant narrative on its own turf, you can still have a story worth telling.

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