I’ll start by positing an hypothesis (H0), and its logical alternative (H1):
H0: Epic fantasy is dominated, if not by male authors, then by a “masculine” aestheticism, ethos, and structural focus (it’s “the hero’s journey”, not the heroine’s). And, as with other male-dominated bastions “threatened” by egalitarianism (a.k.a. feminism and femininity), it systematically defends this masculinity with great vigor.
H1: Epic fantasy is already egalitarian in its aesthetics, ethos, and structure, and its domination by male authors is just a reflection of greater society. There is no reaction, positive or negative, against feminine encroachment. The more the merrier, we can all just get along, Kumbaya, etc.
I know this is a terrible hypothesis setup, by the way, for those of you familiar with social science and statistics. It’s facetious, far too complex, and not remotely neutral. (I think the “Kumbaya” might giveaway my bias… if, uh, the entire rest of this blog hadn’t already done that.) Please don’t take it seriously.
Do, however, consider the idea I’m putting forward. I’m willing to be swayed on it, which is why I’m putting it forward as an hypothesis rather than a bold declaration; it’s still an open question for me. But here’s some context: This popped into my head after a conversation about the genre with fellow fantasy writer Rajan Khanna last night, as we sat stuck on a train for 20 minutes after our Altered Fluid meeting. When I mentioned that (a minority of) readers seemed put off by the sex scenes in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms, he pointed out that he’s seen any number of equally-or-more explicit sex scenes elsewhere in fantasy (he mentioned Richard Morgan, whom I haven’t yet read), and didn’t think they’d gotten the same reaction. I could think of just as many, which makes me think the problem isn’t explicitness; there’s something else going on.
It could certainly be the case that I just didn’t do as good a job of depicting the weirdness and wildness of the whole godsex thing as I’d intended. It’s also possible that it just didn’t suit some readers’ tastes. But one notable difference was also that all those more explicit scenes I could think of were written by men, and featured for the most part the male gaze. That is, the sex scenes were written from a man’s point of view, and focused on things that ostensibly male readers would like to see, whatever those might be. The only exceptions I can think of are Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books and Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu books — both of which also took heat over their sex scenes. (It’s debatable whether “female gaze” applies to Constantine’s books, since the characters in Wraeththu are hermaphrodites who started out as men, but let’s toss it in for discussion.)
I’m keeping the definition of epic fantasy fairly narrow, note. One of the first “more explicit” examples that popped into my head was Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s A Companion to Wolves. I’d personally label that one epic since it clearly emulates some of the epic tales of the Vikings, but I don’t think it was marketed as such. So let’s stick with things that are marketed as epic fantasy. Drop the Wraeththu example, above; my copy of it is just labeled “Fantasy” on the spine, and it’s described as “sci-fi” at Wikipedia, so clearly there’s some controversy as to whether that one counts despite its world-spanning, mythic scope.
…Then again, that’s something else to consider: not just the rejection of sexuality but the… hmm, what to call it? The rigidity, or not, with which genre labels are applied. I’ve seen a number of epic fantasies by female authors dismissed as such by fans for reasons that don’t make much sense. How is Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series not epic fantasy? Carole Berg’s Rai-Kirah? (I haven’t seen her later fantasies quibbled over as much as that one.) I’ve even seen some people complain that C. S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy — reality-changing doorstoppers set in an explicitly quasi-European quasi-feudal world — aren’t epic fantasy; they’re actually a “buddy story”. (I don’t have my copy of that trilogy handy, but if I recall, the books are labeled “Fantasy/Science Fiction” on the spine.) All of these tales fit easily within the strictures of epic fantasy… but even for me, they’re not the first tales that spring to mind when I toss out examples of the genre. I think there’s some reason that part of me resists calling a spade a spade.
I can think of a few other story elements or tropes that seem to get pushback from traditional epic fantasy readers — first-person or single-character PoVs, for example, which are common to female-dominated subgenres like urban fantasy — but I think I’ve tossed out enough to start the discussion. Granted; not all people are going to agree on anything as subjective and arbitrary as a genre classification. Still, I think I’m seeing a pattern here — one that suggests epic fantasy itself, as a genre, resists the inclusion of any elements (or authors) it deems “too feminine”.
Do you see this pattern? Discuss!
98 thoughts on ““Feminization” in epic fantasy?”
Maybe I’m over-simplifying, but isn’t this an offshoot of the derision sometimes aimed at the romance genre? Full disclosure: I write urban fantasy romance, so I’ve seen plenty of upturned noses (male and female) when it comes discussing female-centric stories with more intense levels of physical and emotional intimacy.
If you are a female writer, writing stories with central female characters who display a full range of mental and bodily functions — not just the pristine goddess-figure who launches the quest or the two-dimensional love interest who dies to kick off the black moment — then I think it’s inevitable you’ll run into the attitude that your books should be OVER THERE (points to romance shelves) lest you shock an unsuspecting non-romance reader.
True romance readers know there’s more to a romance than strong female characters and fully realized love scenes, but the distinctions are often lost on other genre readers.
As to WHY non-romance readers reject “feminine” elements… Aren’t we mostly talking about deep POV emotional connection? Connection to one’s own feelings and beliefs, connection between characters, connection to tribe and nature. Lots of people (not just men, but I am sorta looking at you, guys) don’t want to deal with that connection in real life; why inflict it on themselves in their escapist fiction?
BTW, I loved your god-inspired sex. It made me like gods more :)
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I have this theory that, in the process of society coming to terms with feminism – and, more specifically, with the idea that women can enjoy “male” things without being deemed weird – an issue that is increasingly cropping up is the corresponding inability of men to enjoy “female” things without being deemed weird. I mention this because the further feminism progresses, the more this reverse inequality becomes apparent and important; apart from anything else, it impacts enormously on the possible success of feminism as a whole. So, for instance, talking about sex scenes in fantasy novels being written primarily from the male gaze – that is to say, wherein the sexiness of women is the main thing described – society is content that women enjoy those scenes, too, but is much less happy with the idea that men enjoy scenes written from the female gaze, because we’re just not there yet, socially. Women can wear pants; men can’t wear skirts. Little girls can dress in blue and play with trucks and want to be firemen when they grow up, and certain parts of society might roll their eyes, but by and large, we let is pass; whereas little boys who want to wear pink and play with dolls and grow up to be ballerinas are (I suspect) still stigmatised to a far greater extent.
It’s like this whole stupid argument in cinema at the moment, that girls will watch male-oriented films, but boys won’t watch girl-oriented films, and so the movie industry tries to make more male-oriented films because it automatically means a wider audience will approve of them. And on the one hand, yes: the argument needed to change the status quo is massively, significantly feminist, because it requires women to convince men that not only are we equal partnerts in traditionally “male” activities, but that activities which have been traditionally “feminine” don’t need to be stigmatised, and can in fact be enjoyed by men, too. But we are also reaching the point where men need to start to argue for their own right to be feminine as well, or to enjoy feminine things, because unless we’re all pulling in the same direction, it just won’t work.
Long story short: we’ve seen a huge rise in recent years of “masculine” heroines – girls who are physically kickass warriors and so on, or who are emotionally distant noir loners, but without a corresponding rise in “feminine” heroes – men who heal rather than fight, who take on those traditionally female narrative fantasy roles and embrace them in a positive way – we’re always going to be in a place where feminine perspectives in fantasy ultimately fall short of full acceptance; not because women aren’t writing for themselves, but because men don’t feel that they’re allowed to empathise with it.
Hope this makes sense. There is a very large bottle of cider indeed sitting by the computer, so possibly my normal dazzling eloquence has turned into so much unintelligible blah :)
Oh, don’t even get me started. I need to go revise my girly book.
First I don’t know if Richard Morgan has had negative reactions to the explicitness of his sex scenes but from reading his fiction I would say that anyone offended by a sex scene would probably be offended by his entire book, back to front.
I do know that George R.R. Martin has been sometimes surprised by the negative reactions to the sex scenes in his books considering how violent and generally ‘R-rated’ they are.
So I think you’d be surprised how many people react negatively to sex.
More to your point about feminization: Finding a sex scene (and more specifically a romantic sex scene) in an epic fantasy makes some readers think they are reading a romance novel. In most epic fantasy the sex is incidental to the plot: in your work specifically it’s tied tightly to the workings of both plot and theme.
To some it’s a feeling akin to getting a bad-ass mountain bike, wheeling it around town for a few hours and then realizing it’s pink. Some people just can’t handle that.
Does that mean that Epic fantasy is antithetical to feminization? Maybe a little bit. But I think since everyone knows genre tropes so well at this point, it’s time for them to be shaken up a bit. One of my favorite parts of your work is how it defies racial and gender expectations while still maintaining its cohesiveness as a story apart from those elements. The only reason they are shocking to us is because we aren’t used to them. That makes the genre exciting in a way that it usually isn’t to me.
Wow that was a ramble of thoughts. Hope it made sense.
Honestly I view this as a no brainer. Epic Fantasy is still male oriented. The fact that women still do not publish under their actual names and instead uses their initials or pen names should be obvious enough.
That aside, simply trying to draw up a list of works that have predominantly female leads and female viewpoints is not exactly easy. Drawing up a list of male lead books is more a question of when to stop and not how many can you name.
Now, where I think this gets tricky is asking why epic fantasy is this way. Use of words, (hero vs heroine) I think is a weak argument as that is more of a limitation with the language.
Personally, my opinion would be that epic fantasy is masculine simply because of a perceived market. The market is male or was male. Combine this with the fact that the majority of publishing executive are male, and I think you generate a fairly significant bias.
I think that market is shifting and that is why there is such an influx of female writers and female viewpoints.
Anecdotally, I have gotten my wife to read more fantasy lately and some of the books I have recommended have female leads. One of her remarks was that the female viewpoint was difficult as she was not used to reading from that viewpoint. To me that is classic proof that epic fantasy is still fairly “male”. Myself, it is a challenge to read from the female viewpoint since I just simply do not have the experience to understand the viewpoint. I am fixing this blind spot but it still a challenge.
I thought the sex scenes in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms were a breath of fresh air. They were unique to me in that they challenged the social norms and helped accentuate the “otherness” of the gods.
This blog post made me think of Lois McMaster Bujold’s essay on Writing Sex — http://www.dendarii.com/sex.html — you may find it of interest.
*rubs hands happily*
I love this sort of conversation.
I am 55. I remember the backlash in the 1980s when male authors were yelling bloody murder about “soft” fantasy shoving the “hard” sf off the shelves (not to mention some women! a few! winning sf awards! even the Hugos!). Nowadays the guys seem to be yelling about paranormal romances/vampires!
I think there are two related issues going on here–first, explicit sex scenes (which didn’t appear much in any sf or fantasy throughout most of the 20th century, and when it did for a while in the New Wave, it was mostly from the male gaze/male authors, and it was very much not a dominant mode), and the issue of how genre conventions are defined more in the context of marketing/sales categories rather than literary conventions–because you’re absolutely right, if we’re going by textual conventions (character types and tropes, plot arcs, ‘scope’ of narrative), then a lot of work by authors who are not straight white men can be categorized as ‘epic fantasy.’
But that’s not how they’re marketed or understood by fans, especially male fans.
I once wrote a paper on how Sheri Tepper’s GRASS was a feminist epic reconstruction of DUNE–I really need to dig that out and post it on my LJ/DW sometime (it was back in the day before I had daily access to a computer so it was chiselled on a stone tablet, er, typed on an electric typewriter). It was a feminist revision of Dune because Marjorie Westriding was a mother of nearly adult children, and she was the epic hero (there’s a whole bunch of feminist scholarship debating “hero” vs. “heroine” and whether we can use “female hero” as a meaningful term, and the implications of it especially in Jungian/archetypal criticism–which is one form of literary criticism that gives me hives, so I am totally biassed and unfair here).
There are certain conventions in western/european/american epic fantasy that are textual–and if you’re a purist, i.e. going back to the historical/classical epics, explicit descriptions of sex or romance are not a part of it (except for the ongoing rape of women, but still rarely described in detail, and not condemned because, well, that was life for women).
Of course if you’re a purist with snark, you’ll point out that those classical epics are all POEMS, epic POEMS (Illiad, Odyssey–which actually has a lot more about women than the others), so people writing novels are adapting the form while keeping some of the conventions. (Insert obligatory reference to Tolkien who brought a lot of the epic and medieval romance traditions into the popular genre arena.)
But as a feminist and a fan and an academic, if anybody tries to tell me that all these genre discussions that diss on gender lines are all based on pure objective textual evidence–I start laughing in a medusa like fashion.
SF/F as a culture has a long history of trying to keep all the girls/POC out, often by contorting themselves into pretzels to claim that what those icky girls and POC are writing isn’t true/authentic/real sf or epic fantasy or whatever-as Justine Larbalestier and Helen Merrick have pointed out, that’s been going on for nearly a century now. Nasty ugly outbrakes still occur on a regular basis.
The sex thing: now that is something I would love to talk more about. American sf was so (cannot resist am trying but cannot) castrated in terms of portrayal of sex because omg it was adolescents (perceived as such for so many years) that there’s very little out there about writing more explicit sex in the genres (the repressed stuff, well, that’s also been analyzed).
I liked your sex scenes in both novels–and by like, I mean that they are HOT and I responded to that hotness.
George Martin’s sex scenes make me feel a bit queasy–but there’s a lot of rape in his novels (to give him credit, most of the time, I do not see him trying to present the rape as sexy), and I would characterize his storyverse as very much perceived through a masculine perspective (even when he the author is creating female characters some of whom, as I’ve mentioned before, I find intriguing and appealing).
I haven’t been able to get into Karey’s books at all, and while I read Constantine’s Wraethuthu series, I found the characters and relationships and sexual interactions to work in ways that I could characterize as adolescent/masculinized — and in the end, boring (the work as a whole, not just the sex scenes).
We have discussions in fandom around slash and het and other fan fics where the issue sometimes comes down to whether or not a certain fic is “id-tastic” enough, i.e. whether it fits one’s preferences/kinks/choices — and acknowledge that sometimes that has little to do with “literary quality” whatever that is — and I suspect that any readers’ response to sex scenes in pro fic will have that element to it.
I’ve been reading a slew of paranormal romances lately, and find that while I lot a whole lot of the stories and characters, the sex scenes (all nicely graphic, and all het) just don’t do it for me for the most part (and when it does, in the few times it does, it’s all about relative power and power games, which was certainly the case in godsex, and certainly the case in the slash that I like).
I know that was all tl;dr, but basically: H0, YES!
I remember the widespread mockery of Janine Cross’s Dragon Temple Saga based on excerpts mentionning insufficient worship of the venom cock. That suggests a cultural discomfort about fantasy that doesn’t cater to the male gaze.
I would argue that sex scenes being integrally tied to the plot have nothing to do with whether something is a “romance novel.” Romance is a very specific genre, and what makes it romance is not whether it has sex that’s tied to the plot (entire subgenres, such as Christian romances and “sweet” romances, have no sex)–but that the A-plot, the main plot is concerned with the central romance and obstacles to it. B-plots may concern spies or investment trading or starting a business or war between kingdoms or whatever. But the primary plot, primary action, and primary emotional payoff are centered around the protagonist and (usually her) romance.
I have not read Jemison’s books, but if the A-plot is not solely about the protagonist’s romance and obstacles to it, I don’t think any number of plot-integral sex scenes will make it seem like a romance novel. I’m getting the impression that some SFF readers feel like any sex that’s not gratuitously pasted on and/or violent rape makes a book “romance,” which I find weird–it’s long been the case in literary fiction that sex scenes should ideally advance the plot and convey information about the characters. I fail to see why that can’t also be the case in SFF.
I’m sort of betting that the people who think romantic sex scene = romance novel haven’t read a lot of romance novels, though.
Personally, I’ve always been put off epic fantasy as a genre because I generally haven’t been able to care about the characters, and perhaps that’s tied with the expectations of a genre that thinks sex and romance should be gratuitous or absent, instead of growing organically out of the plot and advancing characterization.
The thing is in The 10K Kingdoms the A plot is BOTH the romance and the battle between Gods. They are not separate things. One is very much tied to the other. Which is why it feels like a romance. I don’t think it IS a romance; I think it’s still closest to what we would call epic fantasy*. It’s just that as the sex is happening you can see the entire plot through a different genre rubric and the shift is somewhat unsettling; I would think intentionally so (Ms. Jemison can jump in here if I’m wrong).
It is the point of the book where it comes closest to saying outright “this is coming from a different perspective than you are used to in fantasy” and the difference is not just a superficial change of putting a woman in a traditionally male role.
This is less the case in The Broken Kingdoms where romance is fairly intrinsically tied into the characterization of the main players, but isn’t the driving force behind the main plot of the book. (Though it is still the driving force behind the metaplot of the series.)
*(Though if you are looking at overall genre tropes, I would say the lack of a physical journey is what separates it most from traditional epic fantasy.)
Yes, I’d say this is definitely an offshoot of what the romance genre gets from SFF folks on the regular. That said, from what I’ve observed, it’s mostly female readers who complain about the sex scenes in my books. Granted; that could just be because the majority of readers and bookbuyers are female, period. And granted, internalized sexism is just as much of a problem for women as it is for men.
This so hard. I’m not even a “true romance reader” and I know this — just from reading a few romance novels without deciding in advance that the whole genre is crap, all those books are trash, etc. (all the complaints I see about romance among SFF fans, most of whom have never read one) I’d amend your statement above to just say, “Anyone who gives romance the same shot that they’ve given another genre, without assumptions and stereotypes in place, will know there’s more to it than strong female characters and love scenes.”
Women can wear pants; men can’t wear skirts. Little girls can dress in blue and play with trucks and want to be firemen when they grow up, and certain parts of society might roll their eyes, but by and large, we let is pass; whereas little boys who want to wear pink and play with dolls and grow up to be ballerinas are (I suspect) still stigmatised to a far greater extent.
Foz, I think you’ve hit onto something here. I hadn’t considered that the problem here was as much homophobia (men’s fear of their own feminization, even though feminization =/= male homosexuality) as sexism (men’s fear of women having equal power). Let me noodle this some more.
And let us see that sex scene! Woo! ::swings arm around::
I’ve also seen negative reactions to the sex scenes in Martin’s books, but that’s of a different order — mostly what I’ve seen have been women objecting to the sexualized violence of the books (see Ithiliana’s comment further down). They’re not objecting to the presence of the sex. And frankly, many of the people I’ve seen who’ve objected to my books’ sex — and my gender — have been avowed Martin fans.
And since when did romantic sex scenes — really, any scene in which two characters are having healthy, consensual sex from the woman’s PoV, because Carey’s scenes aren’t usually romantic and like I said, she’s gotten a lot of flak too — suddenly become the sole province of romance novels? Read half a dozen mainstream or literary books and you’ll probably seen at least six sex scenes, most of which will be explicit, the majority of which will be perfectly normal and not creepy stuff like incest or rape. Many of them will involve love. Are those romance novels too?
I’d say this is more societal; there aren’t as many women writers (except in genres like romance and subgenres like urban fantasy) as there are male, and even the women writers tended to do the male gaze until relatively recently. That’s the result of internalized sexism; we’re all, regardless of gender, trained to see things through male eyes. And you’re right; learning to see through women’s eyes is challenging just because it goes against societal pressure and experience.
There are many things I want to say in response, but will be late for work if I do. :P
Two quickie responses: I believe Constantine wrote the Wraeththu novels very young — they were pub’d when she was in her twenties, if I recall. So that might account for the adolescence (and yeah, they do have a certain tendency to valorize the wild teenage lifestyle, especially the first one), and the fact that her characters are still (at root) male accounts for the masculinization. That, and society: it’s always easy for women to write the male PoV. It’s hard for all writers to write the female PoV.
I really, really want to say more about “id-tastic”; I think that concept applies not just to fanfic but to literature in general. Your reaction to Martin’s sex scenes, frex. …But I gotta go to work. :)
I would disagree that the romance is the A plot in 100K. The A plot is Yeine finding out the truth about herself, her mother, etc. The B plot is Yeine dealing with the contest of heirs. The romance between her and Naha is the C plot, I’d say, and it’s ultimately irrelevant to the A and B plots. Granted, the romance provides clues as to the secret she carries, but so does her relationship with Sieh, and her interactions with Viraine, and her oblique interaction with her mother throughout the book. But Yeine pursues the thing with Naha purely for hedonistic purposes, and she doesn’t need to be Nahadoth’s romantic partner in order to do anything. Frankly, she just wanted to get laid one last time before she kicked off.
Nahadoth’s (offscreen) romance with Itempas has far more impact on the plot. But I haven’t seen many people reacting to the implications of that — maybe because it was offscreen.
The relationship between Shiny and Oree in book 2 is plot-integral to the overall trilogy, but I can’t talk about that yet. :)
I think you’re jumping from A to B, and A and B aren’t even on the same *PLANET*.
People’s tastes in sex scenes vary. People’s tastes in everything vary, so that shouldn’t be too surprising.
I don’t think you can leap from “some person didn’t like one of your sex scenes, but DID like Richard Morgan’s” to “the world is out to get feminist fantasy writers!”.
For what it’s worth, I’m male, I liked your first book a lot, but don’t recall what I thought of the sex scenes – they certainly didn’t stop me from enjoying the book :) I haven’t finished book 2 yet, but I expect my reaction will be similar (except that due to this thread, I’m likelier to over-analyze the sex scenes….)
Sorry I wasn’t the clearest: I didn’t mean that the romance nessisarily was the A plot, but that it was all mashed together with the A-plot to make them feel completely intertwined (as makes sense, we don’t separate our lives into A, B and C plots). And specifically during the sex scene it felt like it was the most important thing in the book (the world literally fell away around them), hence the idea of shifting genre rubric.
I wonder: Did you get complaints about the earlier sex scene which, if I remember correctly was just as explicit but focused mostly on physical details (and how boring the sex was) or was it mostly on the later sex where they blasted through the universe?
Perhaps that is the difference: not the physical details of the sex, but the focus on the emotional nature of the sex. Which I think, fits your male gaze thesis quite well.
I think everything you said is spot on.
@ Mike G.
I think the Richard Morgan comparison may be a bit of red herring: any one who is open enough to have read any of Morgan’s stuff and Jemison’s stuff will not be the kind of person complainng about sex scenes. It is just a way to kick off the (very interesting) conversation about female voices in epic fantasy. And I’m sure Morgan gets LOTS of complaints about all aspects of his books. They aim to make the reader uncomfortable.
(One thing that is notable about Morgan’s work is that it is explocitly masculine. He really draws attention to the maleness of his characters, and he seems to view that maleness as a somewhat self destructive force in a way that is different from most SF and Fantasy.)
Ugh, that’s “Jemisin” of course. Stupid iPad.
Spoilers for anyone reading, for the whole trilogy!
More clarification — wrote that last one in a hurry. (Was late for work. -_-) More time to think now.
Readers are going to interpret things in their own ways, and that’s fine and valid; fiction is interactive. So I shouldn’t disagree with your ranking; that’s what you got out of it, and that’s cool. What I’m saying here is just my take on it. So: what I intended was that the A plot would be the mystery of Yeine’s background and Kinneth’s choices. I think of the contest of heirs and the romance as red herrings, in a way. The contest of heirs was Dekarta’s effort to find out stuff about Kinneth — not just who killed her, but why she died, and why she turned on him. I’m not sure he logically expected to get any answers, but people who are grieving aren’t usually logical; he was just angry and seeking closure with the only thing (person) left that he had of Kinneth. Yeine never had a chance, as I tried to make clear throughout the story — but I think a lot of people just kept hoping for a Hollywood happy ending there. Or maybe that’s just the story they wanted to read, rather than the story I wanted to write. Anyway, re the romance, Yeine’s relationship with Nahadoth wasn’t a real romance.* She’s not remotely sure that she loves him by the end of the story — she certainly doesn’t know him — and she has no idea how he feels about her. It’s impossible to say where Yeine’s own motivations end and those of the remnant of Enefa inside her begin. Equally impossible to say whether Nahadoth sees Yeine as a separate being or as a reincarnation, sort of, of his sister — in fact it’s very likely the latter, as he’s really got no reason to give a damn about yet another mortal, and yet another Arameri. There’s also some complicating factors, like a) the fact that the Naha she’s known throughout the story has been an incomplete being, severely damaged by his incarceration, and b) Itempas. She’s not pairing up with a god, she’s tripling up with two gods, and she cannot overlook the fact that Nahadoth and Itempas are the star-crossed lovers of the trilogy. Then there’s the kids. This is why, in book 2, I try to show that Yeine has her hands full trying to join this bizarro family; nothing is happily-ever-after or neatly resolved.
Don’t know if all that came across, but again, that was what I tried to do.
*This is what kills me about the people who try and label it as romance fiction, because it really proves that those people don’t know anything about romance. Romance is about specific tropes, not just relationships. Yeine/Nahadoth are barely Happily Ever After enough to satisfy a romance audience. Just. If you squint. And the only reason that actual romance readers haven’t tarred and feathered me over book 2 is because it’s fantasy, not romance. Example: great review, thorough and thoughtful, but also one that illustrates quite clearly the difference between romance readers and SFF readers. Most of the fantasy-reader reviews I’ve seen called book 2 better than book 1, in part because book 2 didn’t have a happy ending. Romance readers’ mileage varies — hoo boy, does it.
The thing is in The 10K Kingdoms the A plot is BOTH the romance and the battle between Gods. They are not separate things. One is very much tied to the other. Which is why it feels like a romance.
That really wouldn’t feel like a genre romance to me at all. *shrug* I think the insistence on a clear separation between romance and otherplot is kind of an SFF thing, not a general literature thing. As others have pointed out, literary and mainstream fiction have sex scenes, often consensual and romantic ones, in them all the time, without being confused with romance as a genre. I can definitely believe that making that choice in an SFF novel can be genre-transgressing, challenging the reader, whatever.
Returning to the main question: I’m not surprised there’s backlash about sex scenes. Sex is hard to write, hard to write well, and mileage will vary wildly by reader (personally, I loled pretty hard about the excerpts I saw from the venom cock book, and I initially thought it was written by a man–those excerpts really did not scream “female gaze” to me). Witness the Guardian’s Bad Sex Awards. So I do think there are always going to be readers going “Ahahaha, author X writes the most ridiculous sex scenes! Look at this bizarre metaphor!” whether or not author X is male or female. Other readers will go “No, author X’s sex scenes are amazing! So hot! That metaphor was brilliant!” On the other hand, I do think there is a backlash against some ways of incorporating sex and romance into SFF that female authors seem more predisposed to.
Just look at the immense backlash (from both men and women who are vested in being “cool” to men or something) against the romantic vampire trope–“Vampires are supposed to be scary and horrifying!” they say, “Teenage girls have RUINED vampires!” I admit that Twilight is not to my personal tastes, but vampires are fictional and there are an infinite number of ways to write them. I don’t see why romantic vampires can’t coexist with horror-movie vampires and disturbing mind-controlling supposedly sympathetic vampires who look like children into their 50s a la Octavia Butler’s Fledgling. But no! Those women (worse, teenage girls!) are having unapproved sexual/romantic fantasies that men find uncool!
I don’t see why the publishing industry can’t have room for both the traditional male-centric epic fantasy with pasted-on sex scenes and non-traditional female-centric epic fantasy with–gasp–romance and integral sex scenes (and, for that matter, non-traditional female-centric epic fantasy without sex or romance).
Noodle away! And for the record, I found the whole Nahadoth/Yeine thing HELLA sexy.
I think I could agree with your theory, but on the basis that there’s a lot of resistance to change in general in the readership (and plots, characters and actions having a feminine turn to it is definitely a change) and that there’s a rather low-key obsession with labeling things.
I always considered Tome of the Undergates to be epic fantasy, but I’m told I’m apparently Sword and Sorcery because the individual is in peril more than the world is. It seems sort of a given to me that the individual should be in peril for us to have any investment in the conflict, but I think we’re only just now refining the concept of character-driven fantasy and placing a bigger emphasis on character over quests, world or magic systems.
I can’t imagine what goes through one’s head when reading a sex scene and thinking: “Well, this can’t be epic fantasy. There’s sex in it.” But I also have to say I’m not that invested in the labels. I think they’re largely pointless.
I don’t know which Richard Morgan book Rajan Khanna was referring to, but I think he got a lot of flak for THE STEEL REMAINS in which the protagonist fists an elf and gets turned on by the smell of feces.
There is so much to comment on here. . . but let me make just one point (based on what I wrote over at SFSignal a couple of weeks ago):
“Epic fantasies are all about power: who keeps it, who uses it wisely, who defends against it, and how the reader experiences that story of power.” Note that I refer here to the “usual” epic fantasy, the ones that seem to have the most popularity and influence in the wider genre. And just about all of them have males in the power positions. It is not just about a masculine overtone: it is, I find, about representing power that is entangled with some (primarily Euro-American) notations of who is powerful, how is heroic, and who guides the progress of history.
Nora’s books mess with that idea in great ways, which may be part of the unease that a few readers have with them. And I think that’s fantastic. Writers should create both unease and understanding in their work, and the Inheritance trilogy does that very well. I wish there were a lot more writers out there doing that, not just attacking the problem of masculine overtones, but the symbols and tropes that support the linkage of male heroism to world-altering power.
That really wouldn’t feel like a genre romance to me at all. *shrug* I think the insistence on a clear separation between romance and otherplot is kind of an SFF thing, not a general literature thing.
Hmm… I’m not sure I agree with that. In mainstream lit, I see some reaction against the presence of romantic tropes. Literary writers and critics are quick to dismiss any women’s fiction with girly bits as “chicklit”, and they constantly rage about, ignore, and malign it. SFF’s no different in that, except focused more on the romance genre than women’s literature/”chicklit” in general, because category romance is more of a specific threat (e.g., paranormal romance’s popularity). So this insistence on separating out girly stuff is, IMO, a societal thing — yay, sexism — and not limited to SFF.
It’s true that the insistence doesn’t come from romance’s end, though. Or is that what you meant?
Agreed on the rest of what you said.
Re: Morgan. Geh. Not my kink at all, but I try to refrain from judging others. I’m assuming the fisting was consensual? I haven’t read his stuff nor seen any reactions to it, flak or otherwise.
Ditto on the genre revising itself to include/accept character-driven fantasy, versus quest/worldbuilding/etc.-driven. Though now that you bring it up, Sword and Sorcery already is character-driven. What’s the difference between that and, say, a character-driven epic(?) fantasy a la Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy? Is all this talk about “gritty fantasy” just a rebranding of S&S?
Thanks. :) Agreed that epic fantasies are about power, and that it would be nice to see more stories challenging accepted notions about power. Actually “it would be nice” is an understatement; I am greedy for more such stories. Ones I don’t have to write myself!
I’d like to add something to what Steve said, that also upholds your first thesis:
Because Epic Fantasy is about power and that power is *SO* percieved as a masculine trait, many [if not most] instances of powerful something/one/group being female are still propped up as male, or at least masculine.
my FAVORITE example of this; If I Pay Thee Not In Gold, a lovely novel written by Piers Anthony and Mercedes Lackey.
the plot: a young orphaned girl must prepare for her “womanhood ritual” – because, you see, in her culture, women have all the power. because they have all the magic. men have no power, no voice, no rights. men are slaves – ever male in the Queendom is a slave, unless *specifically* freed [the son of a freeman is a slave].
this is a Matriarchy, we are told, that was built on the specific premise that women had all the power because they had all the magic.
and yet… the “hero” of our tale is outcast, shunned and unwanted, because she looks like a hollywood starlet. she’s slight, but very curvy – had bitched about her breasts “large and soft and in the way, not like a *proper* woman’s, hard and muscular” – a loooooong mane of golden hair “soft and silky, like a man’s, because a *warrior* cannot afford long hair in battle.” and ON and ON and ON –
in fact, the *ONLY* way that women are able to have the power – the ONLY conceivable Matriarchy in most SFF – is if the women ACT LIKE MEN.
in the novel above, the country is feared, their warriors are feared – their men are scorned. the “womanhood rite” is a fight [possibly to the death] with a slave – EVERY woman in this country must fight this match to *prove* that she’s a *warrior* [so, of course, most girls look for soft men who don’t WANT to fight, etc, etc.]
very, very few writers in SFF can convieve of REAL power that is not masculine. “feminine power” isn’t about power at all, if one thinks that only the masculine is powerful. masculine is direct and strong! stand up straight, polish the armor, keep to your honor, direct the battle, find the princess/ring/monster, save the day. feminine power is [generally] more subtle; convince the one best suited to the tast to complete the task; control the men around you, with teasing or mystery, make them do it for you**.
and, of course, sex.
sex is a VERY masculine power – thrust and drive and delve and pound!
sex is a VERY feminine power – caress and stroke and open and accepting**
and, for the most part, in Epic Fantasy, the women are written as “masculine” in the strictest sense of the word – they *act* in these masculine ways [which is NOT the same “acting like a man”, of course], and the acts that they are committing are masculine acts – save the victim, fight the monster, have sex with the hot booty as the reward. it’s the same script, in PARTIAL drag.
**please note: this is not *MY* view of feminine power or feminine sex – this just seems to be “Epic Fantasy’s” view on feminine power
I agree with some of what you’re saying; epic fantasy — and literature in general — tends to stereotype men and women, and reinforce traditional ideas about power by insisting that the ways in which women have always shown power are somehow “passive”. So we tend to dismiss a woman’s agency while she’s struggling to escape an abusive relationship, for example (“Why doesn’t she just leave?”)– and we valorize only one method of escape, which is for the woman to use the same violence that the abuser is using. Yet anyone who’s worked with such women, or been such a woman, knows just how much incredible strength and clever strategy it takes to survive that kind of situation. I’ve wondered before whether there was a way to reclaim the many ways in which women have shown power (in “Western” society) — like via collaboration, endurance, etc. But I’m not sure if there is, since readers (women included) have been just as inculcated with sexist (and racist, and heterosexist, and…) ideas about how power should work as everyone else. Seeing how readers have reacted to characters I considered very strong — not even talking about my own here — has made me wonder if we haven’t gone to the other extreme. I’m beginning to think fantasy readers prefer to see fantasies of women’s empowerment, rather than women who are powerful in realistic and varied ways.
All that said, maybe that extreme is necessary. ::sigh:: Maybe as a society we’ve spent so much time forcing women into limited, laughable roles (e.g., “Women are always healers!”) that we need to spend some time at the other end of the spectrum (e.g., “Women shoot bazookas and keep a harem!”) before readers will be willing to accept the women in the middle. I dunno.
Yes, I agree – Epic fantasy is afraid of ‘feminization’. Part of the problem is that female characters are still directly influenced by feminine stereotypes for the most part. Either they are the embodiment of feminine stereotypes, or they are its inverse. That’s why there are so many tough warrior girls in fantasy – it’s very easy to conceive of such a thing because its the opposite of the weak, passive girl.
So I think there are two things going on. One is the fear of anything female, as you mentioned, and the other is a complete lack of understanding of any power other than masculine, as denelian said because such power never gets expressed. Lack of a template of understanding often leads people to reject something, very hostilely. This has happened numerous times with great art created before its time.
A clear example of this hostility is in the reactions to a YA fantasy, Kristin Cashore’s ‘Fire’. (spoiler warning). The main character, Fire, is a very warm, maternal person, and is also very strong. She loves children and wants them desperately. However, she is the last remaining human monster. Monsters have great power over humans, and can read their minds as well as control them. Fire’s father was a monster, and did monstrous things. He was responsible for the death of thousands. Fire knows that any child of hers will also be a monster, and that she has no control over the character of the child – look at how different she is from her own father. Whatever child she has will have terrible power, and she doesn’t know if they will use it for good or for evil. So she sterilizes herself, in order to end the line of human monsters with her. She doesn’t want to be responsible for bringing evil into the world. This is a very heroic act and takes a lot of strength. It nearly breaks her.
People’s reactions? They were angry with Fire, and angry with Cashore for ‘needlessly’ hurting Fire to bring what they considered to be a political message to the story. They didn’t understand Fire’s strength and heroism in this action because it was different from heroism they had read.
I think lack of exposure to feminine strength and complex feminine characters, or lack of a template, is what causes such negative reactions to anything that’s not traditionally masculine. Actually, now that I’ve written this I think it’s just another aspect of the same problem you were expressing.
Interesting article with some great responses! I would have to agree with that second comment by Foz Meadows; very true. It’s something that’s ALWAYS bothered me, that double standard. Especially the whole childhood thing. I suppose there’s not much I can do but to put my two cents in when I can. BUT not everyone is opened minded lol.
One comment I really enjoyed was: “men who heal rather than fight, who take on those traditionally female narrative fantasy roles and embrace them in a positive way.
I’ve written as a few characters in this type of role, and I always enjoy the perspective more from male characters who are more (for lack of a better word -__-) feminine in narrative. However, I’m always worried that the characters won’t be liked because they are not traditional (I.E. super-masculine) male characters.
Now, I’ve never written a novel and my writing skills have only begun to develop (I’m 20, but I didn’t begin seriously writing until two years ago). I’ve been involved with some pretty indepth and interesting writing based RPs, but my experiences with this topic (male-dominated, male gaze, homophobia and feminism) are already fairly prominent.
One, and probably the best, example that I have stems from one of my characters. As I said earlier, I have written male characters who take on a more feminine narrative a few times now. In one fantasy based RP, I had one such character: a male healer who was clearly on the nurture side of of nature vs. nurture. Essentially, “the victorian ideal” in male form. The pure healer (literal healing or not) archetype is usually (if at all) played by a female character, and I noticed how uncomfortable some of the other male writers were with the male equivalent; the character mainly “felt” versus “acted,” and some people couldn’t seem to handle it lol.
When one guy told me “You write like a girl,” I wondered exactly what that meant. I’m not sure if it was meant as an insult, but I felt pretty indignant about it (not that he said I write like a girl, but that writing like a girl was implied as a negative, which, in turn, was also a negative view on the character). He even went as far to say that he thought the character WAS female, which made no sense to me as I was writing in male pronouns.
For all intents and purposes, the character WAS more in touch with the feminine and (at least I was trying to) it was relfected positively. After reading this article (as well as some of the excellent comments) I am beginning to think that, in being told I wrote like a girl, he was saying that my male character was visibly experiencing deep emotions, and it made him uncomfortable.
I’ll admit, the character started out very flat, essentially being that ‘pure’ archetype, but my plans for him to develop throughout the story (experience pain, disappointment, anger, jealousy, lust, etc) would have made him a round character by the end (which I suppose is the goal in writing, yes?).
Regardless, I try to express the emotions of ALL characters I write about. Male or female, masculine or feminine (I hate those words). For me, a character who simply fights off swarms of monsters without having some type of thought process or emotional aspect is rather boring and flat.
Well, not sure if I contributed anything of worth, but I thought I would respond since the topic seemed so interesting to me!
It’s difficult for me to weigh in on a topic like this because I write epic fantasy. Crown of Stars is clearly epic fantasy by every measure of the sub genre, and the Crossroads Trilogy is an examination of the nature of power. So this is where I live.
I was once accused by a reader/reviewer of having a “homosexual agenda”– a comment which puzzled me. I suppose I do if by that one means I support LGTB rights as well as marriage equality, but the reader meant a deliberate hidden agenda inserted into the books to warp young minds. I usually don’t argue with reviewers, but this really did puzzle me. We went back and forth for a while until the lightbulb went on in my head.
This guy was reacting without understanding why to the fact that I write men with a female (heterosexual) gaze. When I write female characters, I describe them sexually only if they’re being observed by a male character who is sexually interested in them. But male characters are generally described by my narrative eye seeing them sexually. And he was picking up on that, and I expect it was making him uncomfortable because it was (inadvertently) forcing him as the reader to “see” male characters through a sexual gaze.
To give him credit, when I pointed this out, he agreed that this was what was happening.
It was one of the more productive and interesting email exchanges I’ve ever had (this was years and years ago) because it was illuminating on many levels.
Super quick thought spawned from an above comment: I wonder if the conflation of romance novels with epic fantasy that includes sex has more to do with cultural ideas of female sexuality than anything else. There are still a lot of pervasive myths that women don’t like or desire sex, will only agree to have sex within relationships (and only want Serious Business Relationships, never anything less or different), that for women, sex is only about love and emotional closeness, etc… So when an epic fantasy novel that’s mostly about men includes sex, meh, no big deal; but when it’s about women and includes sex, people conclude that of course it’s secretly a romance novel, because if it wasn’t about romance (and she isn’t raped), why else would the female protagonist be having sex? Particularly when the author is also female, and the sex scenes are very female gaze-friendly.
That’s fascinating, and I love hearing stories like that of reader/author interactions that leave both sides enlightened. I’ve had a few of those thus far, and they’re incredibly satisfying.
It’s especially fascinating, though (or mind-boggling) that you had to point this out to him. I would think that a reader, knowing you’re female, guessing you’re in the ostensible 90% of the population that’s not gay, would default to assuming that what he’s seeing is the straight female gaze, not the gay male gaze.
I didn’t just have to point it out to him. I had to figure out myself that that was going on and it was what he was reacting to. Having read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing years ago helped with the whole object/subject viewing business.
But it really made me reflect on our expectations we bring into a novel. Not just in how female characters or male characters are “seen” — although that is a big part of it — but in how narratives and stories are negotiated.
So when male epic fantasy writers say that they have fewer female characters in their huge stories because it is a “masculine” narrative and there really aren’t many female roles available, to me it’s kind of the same thing: except for certain extremely specific kinds of stories or places like Mouth Athos in Greece, the all male monastery, it doesn’t matter what the narrative is: eliding women from the narrative is not a matter of the narrative demanding it, it is a matter of your viewing perspective.
A few quick responses:
@Kate Elliot: yeah, Berger’s book was very eye-opening for me as well. It’s not just what is in the novel, it’s about readers’ expectations, both individual and culturally-shaped. We need to not just change the way we write epic fantasy (or literature in general), we need to figure out how to change perceptions, which is a far harder task.
@Nora: You’re very welcome! I’m thinking about this topic a lot, about both the general question of power and the gendered nature of agency in epic fantasy. This is one of the issues I am dealing with in my novel-in-progress, and becomes more central as I write it. Your reply to @denelian was resonant for me because I am struggling with not just making the female characters into echoes of the masculine types who make fantasy-history or beat people up as the answer to complex political problems. What happens is that things get more complicated, and require more explication, and I’m worried about writing something that is too long (being still unpublished in fiction, I am quite aware of the expectations placed on new writers). I am quite happy, however, to write something that subverts or re-lenses the more common tropes and conventions.
Your work has certainly been an inspiration for this!
I’ve read the Kushiel’s series, I’ve read the Anita Blake books, I’ve even read some of Nora Roberts’ books. I read Ilona Andrews, David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist. There are different levels of intimacy in all of them. Feist and Eddings kind of gloss over it with feelings of love, and let the reader decide how far they want to take it. Ilona Andrews takes it slightly deeper. Granted, her books stay in one spot, but there’s more to an epic (to me) than travelling all over the world putting fires out. In the Kate Danials series (Starting with Magic Bites), she has a heritage that she fights against, and will ultimatly face. Will she survive? Only two people know that at this time.
Nora Roberts is a romance author, though she’s thrown a bit of fantasy into some of her books, such as the Ghalligar of Ardmore and Three Sisters Island trilogies. Are they epics? Hard to say, though in their own way they are. Both span time, and one has an island facing utter destruction.
Jaqueline Carey takes her scenes about as far, if not farther, than Nora Roberts, being very explicit in detail while still leaving a bit up to the reader. In the Kushiel’s series, she DOES span most of Europe, part of Asia, and part of Africa (If you look at the maps, the names are different but the land masses are recognizable. Terre d’Ange’s counterpart would be France). Being a make reader, I enjoyed that look at things. I have difficulty rereading the books not because of the scenes, but because I know what happens and get agitated because of it. Hard to read when you can’t sit still.
The only series that I have issues with is the Anita Blake books. Started out fine, as a fantasy, but somewhere along the way the main plot seems to have gotten lost as an excuse to string sex scenes together, almost like a bad porno. While Laurell K Hamilton is a good author, I feel like I’m being kicked in the head with the sex scenes. After a certain point, the character looses track of who and what she is, and it reads as her sole purpose for living is to have sex. I don’t begrudge anyone having sex, but still, when I read a book, I don’t like things slipping in like that. So, I think there’s going to be a shelf opening up in my bookcase next month.
To wrap this up, when Ii’m in the mood for high fantasy, I reach for David Eddings and Raymond E Feist. When I want something a little more fun to read, Ilona Andrews is my go-to author (I rather like the fact that none of her characters are perfect, and even ‘immortals’ may die). When I want something a bit more steamy, Nora Roberts and Jaqueline Carey are the ones I reach for. It all depends on my mood.
And yes, I’m a straight male who occasionally reads romance novels. I’m proud to say this.
So it’s Epic Fantasy if any sex scenes are gratuitous, and it’s Fantasy-Romance if they are part of the character development and plot? I can see this as a divide in reviews (girl cooties?). I also wonder how books such as Flewelling and Bear and Monette write with male/male romances might shift the divide.
Hadn’t thought previously about the female gaze, Kate. I have a suspicious that growing up reading Norton and Heinlein and Herbert and such that I assume male gaze in my reading, which makes me want to reread your books. Fascinating. (Thanks for linking to this discussion.) And now 10K Kingdoms is on my request list at my local library.
Looking through one of the responses, the characters I feel most in tune with are the ones I can feel an emotional connection with. One of my favorite characters is a paladin from D&D. His entire goal is to save his people from utter destruction, so he plane-hops. He’s more of an Eddings-style paladin, in that he’ll use whatever means necessary to survive, because he HAS to. He often falls into a depression, since he doesn’t know if his people are still alive or not. The only thing keeping him going is hope.
From my viewpoint, he’s well balanced on the masculine/feminine angle. The ability to kill tempered with the wisdom of knowing when to and when not to. I tend to prefer a more balanced character, because I myself prize balance as a virtue.
You’re definitely on to something. I think some readers will impose that myth (women don’t like sex and want love, and that this = romance) on female characters even despite copious evidence to the contrary, and will reject or literally unsee that evidence to make it fit their assumptions — rather than change their assumptions. (But of course, this is the nature of prejudice.) I mentioned upthread that Yeine isn’t sure of her feelings towards Nahadoth by the end of 100K, for example. Though this is mentioned several times in the text — even at the end she’s still wondering (as she’s dead) whether he mourns her or is just re-mourning Enefa — still some of my readers will insist that she’s madly in love him, he’s in love with her, it’s all so gooshy and/or revolting, and this means the book should’ve been sold in the category romances. Or else they go to the opposite extreme, and condemn her as shallow for not being unquestionably, definitively in love. People who think this way seem to be literally incapable of realizing that it’s more complicated than that — real life is more complicated than that — because they don’t want it to be. They want genre classification to be simple, and they want women’s sexuality to be simple. Girl feels love: romance. Girl gets laid: romance. (Boy gets laid: Tuesday. Boy feels love: must be gay.) Girl’s not sure what she feels: wishy-washy. Girl feels lust and gets laid while unsure about love: slutshallowbitchpornromance@#$% OMG WHAT IS THIS WOMEN AREN’T SUPPOSED TO DO THIS&$^@#grrrr YOU GOT YOUR GIRLYBITS IN MY FANTASY teeechkkk$$%% DOES NOT COMPUTE.
I think women think like this just as much as men, note. Women are just as quick to internalize sexism and police gender roles, if not quicker.
Side-note: I wouldn’t have minded selling in the romance genre, frankly; romances sell much better than SFF. But there’s a reason my agent — who’s very genre-savvy and in fact does as much business in romance as fantasy, if not more — sent it to fantasy publishers, and that’s because it’s not romantic enough. You cannot have questionable, maybe-love-maybe-not relationships in romance; that defeats the whole point. Romance readers will reject it. But people who scorn romance have rarely read enough of it to know this.
Something that I neglected to mention in my first post: I have to give Laurell K Hamilton credit for one thing. You don’t often see the woman having a harem of men. While not my thing, I CAN see how it is popular…
As a TG male I agree with much of what Foz said. The traditional gender roles, especially for the male, are far more strictly enforced by both men and women. Most women, in my experience, while liking the concept of a more feminized male, don’t like the reality. A male who is nurturing, caring and displays many of the feminine traits actually threatens female identity, the female base of power.
I think that women being more collaboraters, give in to the male way of thinking, sacrificing some of their own power. It keeps the peace, so to speak, to go along with his wishes, see things from his perspective than it is to try to get him to co-operate with hers. For one it’s far more socially acceptable for a woman to be doing male things than it is for a male to be seen doing something considered feminine.
One good example of this is the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. Men started getting interested in this series but were embarassed to be seen carrying around a book with a typical romance cover so the first three books in the series were re-released with solid color covers and the rest of the books in the series were never released with covers to match the first issue of the first three books.
I think your first hypothesis is closer to the truth. Though epic fantasy does reflect society at large (I’ll explain further shortly) the defending of the male bastion of power is very much alive and well. Traits seen to be feminine are ingrained into our society as less desirable but they’re tolerated in a woman, but not a man.
I would imagine it’s eaiser to write the male gaze as it’s much simpler. If you want it, take it. If it makes you angry or threatens you kill it. There are very few problems in the world (real or imaginary) that can’t be “solved” with a gun, sword or booze.
In reflecting society at large. I see soceity gettng far more aggressive. People being rude is very common, our cars and trucks look far more aggressive and are designed to be annoying. I’m thinking this could be a reaction to higher levels of insecurity that we’re feeling because of the changes since the World Trade Towers attack. We’re facing an enemy, that inspite of all our money and efforts to nullify, is still at large (though on the run and hiding) and still has the capability of inflicting some damage (physically or mentally/emotionally) to us. So we want easy, quick, simple answers.
All more masculine traits.
If you’re talking about Andre Norton–she was a girl. But girls–especially in that era–internalized the male gaze so well, she could write it. The male attitude has been assumed the “normal” POV for centuries.
I know that now, but back in the 60s I didn’t, and she wrote with a male gaze, which is why I included her/him.
It may be worth considering that that male gaze we’re discussing may be primarily North American. If you look at Doctor Who, for example, say the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), he did not cope by destroying his enemy but through other means he still won. Not a traditional North American male activity. So maybe part of this is cultural as well as gender.
Given my nature and the deity I have given my aligance(however it’s spelled. Not in my dictionary, apparently) to, I should take the Conan the Barbarian method of dealing with my issues. However, I’ve learned that a little diplomacy goes a long way in solving my problems, and realizing that getting angry in most cases is a waste of time when I should focus more on the task at hand.
Janine Cross’s Dragon Temple Saga and its reception particularly by women has been entering my mind frequently this winter. Wondering how the author is doing and if there are more of these books, or if she’s writing something else now. Meaning just on it’s own, with me, not because of this discussion here.
What Cross did wasn’t pretty, but it was strong, stronger than most Fantasy written by any gender. It reminded me so much in that fashion of Suzy Charnas’s Walk to the End of the World. Suzy got hit very hard too, for writing that book.
But even Cross had to make her protagonist a Liberator in the end. We cannot have epics without the protagonist becoming the apex of the Fantasy pyramid, whatever gender.
That’s the second mention of these books in this thread; I’m going to have to check them out. I’ll admit that all I heard was the edge of the “venom cock” brouhaha, complete with lots of out-of-context excerpts that — yeah, made it sound not so hot. Couldn’t dig deeper at the time because I was in deadline hell. But your comparison here to Charnas’ books piques my interest, because I can see how out-of-context excerpts from that would revolt me, and I ultimately was glad I’d read those books. (I won’t say I enjoyed them, because I think they’re meant to be thought-provoking, not fun. They were hard to read, but worth the effort.)
As for the protagonist becoming the apex of the pyramid — I think that’s where John’s statement about fantasy, esp. epic fantasy, being about power, comes in. Epic fantasies are, whatever else they might be, focused on putting the protagonist at the epicenter of some kind of power transformation. And why go through all that just to make the protagonist the advisor or pigkeeper of someone else in power? Easiest just to stick that character into the top slot.
One of the reasons I ultimately like Tolkien, BTW, despite LotR’s many issues — at the end, though Aragorn becomes king, he hasn’t really been the focus of the trilogy; Frodo was. And Frodo pretty much said, “Screw this, I’m going fishing” (forever, with elves, in paradise, but still).
Sorry for the belated response; been busy, and this thread grew faster than I could keep up. But I have a nitpicky response, because one line in your comment triggered several interesting thoughts! Good stuff here.
I don’t think you can leap from “some person didn’t like one of your sex scenes, but DID like Richard Morgan’s” to “the world is out to get feminist fantasy writers!”.
Weeeeellll, that’s not quite what I’m trying to say here, but I can see how the OP reads that way. Sorry for being unclear. But to clarify, I haven’t read Morgan (though I’m curious now) and haven’t noticed how people reacted to his work; that was another author’s statement, and it was just the background of this conversation. Second off, “feminist fantasy writer” can mean a lot of things. If you mean “feminist who is a fantasy writer”, that works. If you mean “writer who does feminist fantasy”, then that’s something entirely different, and it’s not an identity I’ll claim (any more than I write “black fantasy” as opposed to being a black person who writes fantasy). I try to write universally, to whatever degree that’s possible, even if I do allow the various elements of my identity to flavor my work — but every writer does that. I just talk about it.
Now back to your point. My hypothesis is actually based on several years’ observation of the fantasy genre, as a fan and as a writer; I mentioned all those other books in my OP to show some other works that I think are affected by the same phenomenon. The problem here is that, as a writer, I can’t really pretend to be a neutral party here; of course I’m going to extrapolate some of what I’m thinking about and apply it to my own work. So I figured I’d just be open about that, too.
And I am seeing a pattern. I can’t articulate it, but there’s some kind of “there” there. Sexism permeates our cultural zeitgeist (this applies to pretty much any Anglophone society, thus the “our”), and it affects all of us in insidious ways. We’ve all got a colonized mindset, so to speak — and the only way to lose that mindset is to constantly question any patterns that we see. And voice aloud any niggling intuitive cues we get, no matter how much society pressures us to dismiss them. I could be wrong; that’s why I put it out this way, and invited other people to chime in. But if I’m wrong, I want to discard the idea (the hypothesis) only after some serious noodling.
And I don’t know if you intended to, but you brought up an interesting minor point — one of my sex scenes has gotten far more reaction than the other. Nobody seems all that freaked out by the first sex scene in 100K. Honestly that was the one I thought would get the bigger reaction; holycrap, tentacles! And she likes ’em! And in light of the women’s sexuality and gaze stuff we’re talking about — it’s a woman getting a handjob from another lover because her first lover didn’t lay the pipe right! But it was the later, more surreal but also more “vanilla” scene that seems to get more comments. I don’t honestly know what to make of that.
Except to add more tentacles to future books.Kidding. Really. I promise.
i thought of another point;
what are the AGES of the people complaining that you’re “writing romance” [and – ya know what, i am bloody sick of this whole “it’s ROMANCE, scream!” BS. i don’t read romance often, but when i do, it’s VERY much formulaic – the reason they were called “boilerplate”. and… the end of 100k was NOT a HEA. NOT. maybe it was a “win” for Naha – but… NOT a HEA]
i grew up reading older books – Heinlein was “risque” in what he wrote [and people laugh at his “lame sex scenes” today]. i’ve noted that sex with DETAILS of the sex [as opposed to just a fade or a cut] gets under people’s skin [i admit that i am sometimes one of them. :) and i’m not “old”!] and i’ve heard that flat-out HORROR books should be classed as “romance” because there was sex; hard sci-fi had sex, it “should” be romance… etc
that’s an age thing – people under 40 don’t tend to feel that way. i noticed it with John Scalzi’s work – ESPECIALLY “Old Men’s War”, the complaint of “it’s a romance book HIDING as sci-fi” was loud [being that there *IS* a HEA, at least if you don’t read later books…]
i don’t agree. i also don’t think that “romance” means “icky” [i don’t read a lot of romance because A) i tend to not like the pushy “Alpha” men who are the “heros” and B) i don’t like things being totally “pat” at the end. life is MESSY. and doesn’t end at marriage! sheesh!!!] and i can’t think of ANY modern book that DOESN’T have at least SOME romance in it – it may be the C, or even the D, plot, but it’s THERE.
add that to the rest of what I, and everyone else, has brought up – the “fear” of feminization, the idea that “power” must be masculine, that “feelings” somehow mean “ROMANCE”, and that women WON’T have casual sex [ha! man, have i pissed off a number of guys, totally insulted that i slept with them and wanting nothing else. THEY didn’t want a relationship – but WTF was WRONG with me, that i didn’t?! i must be crazy! he was AWESOME in bed and i need to yearn for him and validate him! and i’m like “no, i got my happy, i’m done. you’re totally not WORTH a relationship with. shoo”. hee! i wasn’t MEAN, but really – apparantly, the way to get a guy is to not want him. lol]
and it’s all weird and convoluted and STUPID – but, much like there are “movies” and there are “chick flicks” and there can be NO interelation between them, there is “fiction” and “romance” and shame on you! for getting some romance in this poor person’s fiction!
i really truly fear the future, sometimes :(
I have no clue of these folks’ ages; haven’t met any of them in person. I think they’re mostly female, though — probably a function of most readers, period, being female, with an added factor of most fantasy readers (probably) being female.
There’s a few male fans on various fantasy boards who are the classic he-man woman-hating club; saw a few in the George R. R. Martin forum (or it might have been the Asimov’s forum… actually it was awhile ago, so I forget) who flat-out said they didn’t like stuff by women, didn’t like epic fantasy with female protagonists, how dare them wimmins make so much money with their urbany fantashe and their romancyfancy, etc. I suppose I should be glad they were willing to say it openly, so I could then stop wasting my time reading anything else they said. A few more (male and female, but mostly male) who read it and pulled the whole “OMG, I thought I was getting epic fantasy but THERE WERE COOTIES IN IT AAAARGH” thing. (And a few who reacted that way, then admitted they actually liked it.) Saw most of those after I did an interview at Aidan’s blog where I explained that the book’s original title was The Sky God’s Lover; the cootie-phobes nodded sagely and decided that the presence of the word “lover” was proof the book belonged in romance. But the original title was a double-entendre: there are two sky gods, and two lovers, and it’s the war between the three that’s the basis of the series. ::shrug:: People see what they want to see.
In a few cases there were people (mostly female) who clearly just didn’t like the story, so went off on some aspect or another of it in lieu of articulating what actually bothered them. Saw one reader review that was little more than a long rant about my use of asterisms. It was actually hilarious; I liked that one.
But ages? Dunno.
ETA I forgot to mention the racist ones, that dismissed the story as “black power fantasy” or complained that it had a “veneer of African American studies”, whatever the hell that means, and so on. Really, the people who don’t like my novels are a varied and interesting bunch, but there’s a few of ’em whom I’d as soon toss off a train as shine their shoes, as my grandmother used to say.
• You have to also factor in that the most notable and popular entry into the modern-day fantastic romance genre is awkwardly written, anti-woman and throughly anti-sex (and boring, though I can understand why that last one might just be my maleness poking through). That must be at least some of the reason people are soured on the genre. (Maybe they got better, I only could get through the first one before having to give up).
//”Second off, “feminist fantasy writer” can mean a lot of things. If you mean “feminist who is a fantasy writer”, that works. If you mean “writer who does feminist fantasy”, then that’s something entirely different, and it’s not an identity I’ll claim”//
• This is one of my favorite aspects of your writing. It is clearly a work by a feminist (who writes fantasy), but it isn’t a polemic. It works on its own terms: If it makes the reader feel uncomfortable it’s because of their expectations of voice and to not because it’s forcing a point down their throat. The fact that it seems to have made so many people uncomfortable I think says more about the readers than it does about any particular politics of the writing.
I have to admit to not being a great fan of sex in novels. To my mind 9 times out of 10 it is either about:
A) Characters love/need for each other, in which case I don’t need it; or
B) One character’s power over another(rape) in which case I don’t want it.
Unfortunately 9 times out of 10 for that one exception I find the writing to be over-wrought or gratuitous leaving me with ~1% that I feel comfortable with, works well, or is needed.
Someone above mentioned Sherri S Tepper. My favourite line from her books that I have read is from Dervish Daughter
“We were not even tempted to make love. Something sadder and higher had us by the throats, and we slept in one another’s arms, needing nothing more than that.”
Anything else would have been superfluous.
Regarding the Venom books: this reader at least did not read the sex scenes as ‘hot’ at all, or even that they were supposed to be hot, or even erotic per se. What they were, were a continum in the women’s struggle, even determination and self-will, to survive, at any cost. In circumstances of a world of absolute power by the few over all the rest, circumstances in which even food is so hard to come by that you live most of your life in semi-starvation, where you don’t even have the tools to perform the labor to which you coerced — anything that will provide the least surcease from your pain — you WILL take, grab and even fight over. Any warmth, you will beg for.
We as fantasy readers don’t like such worlds, and that is where the recoil from Cross’s novels seemed to come from. Or so it seemed to me.
I admire Cross with all my heart for her courage in writing these books. Like with Suzy writing Walk to the End of the World, these are not wish fulfillment novels. Like Suzy’s these books have nothing smirking, self-conscious, and they do not take any pleasure in the sufferings of the populations or the protagonists.
I vote for more tentacles.
Ah, but Twilight isn’t an entry into the fantastic romance genre. It was marketed as YA, and mainstream for that. It’s not aimed at people who may have read a million fantasy novels or a million romance novels and are all too, too tired of the old cliches. It’s aimed at an audience that didn’t grow up on Anne Rice, and for whom even “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is last-gen. If I’d been sixteen when I’d encountered Twilight, I would’ve eaten it up with a spoon — because sixteen-year-old girls usually have appalling taste, and outgrowing that is part of becoming a woman. :) More seriously, sixteen-year-old girls are experimenting with their own identities and social norms, and trying to figure out where they want to stand on the continuum of traditional to progressive womanhood. Stuff like the Twilight books is a safe way for them to dabble in the traditional end without looking like dorks. Fairy tales serve the same purpose. And then — hopefully — they grow up.
::looks guiltily at tattered, once-beloved old novels on bookshelf; tosses pretty handkerchief over them so no one will see::
But at this point Twilight has become such a distorting force on multiple genres and tropes. A 22 friend of mine who generally has good taste, told me that she has no intention of watching Buffy because it seems too much like Twilight to her. Aside from making me feel old, it shows me that people see Twilight and associate it with a lot of things, and not just books in its rather narrow marketing category.
And to be clear I’m just talking about Twilight. The Vampire Diaries (the books) from 20 years ago fit nicely into the almost exact same genre hole and, while not phenomenal (they are still for 14-year-olds), are much better reads.
BTW, you might like to read this, on the Black Gate Blog, about Fantasy and ‘realism.’
“As Wojcik points out, grim and gritty realistic fantasy is not entirely new under the sun, although I don’t think we’ve previously seen the likes of George R.R. Martin’s incredibly brutal A Song of Ice and Fire.”
I, for one, disagree! Fantasy series written by women have gone much further in this than GRRM’s has — Venom is just one of them. Does anyone recall the Frost and Thorn? — Stone and Thorn? series? When I attempted to refresh my memory of that truncated series, the titles I can’t recall (though very old falling apart copies are in my apt. back in NYC, somewhere) — author, publisher, years — I can’t even find them with my deep google foo — that’s what happens to grim and gritty realistic fantasy written by women.
Venom is on the same trajectory, it seems.
hate to say it, but you’re 22-year-old friend needs to be SMACKED. “Too much like Twilight” – the HELL
don’t get me wrong – there are problems with Buffy. all over the place problems! but, the bestest thing ever [and the REASON i broke down and read the Twilight “Saga”] is the video “Buffy vs Edward”
and i’ve NEVER had a prouder moment than just this last weekend, when my not-quite-15-y-o niece casually tossed off “Edward’s a stalker“!!!
rage aside –
i can’t read GRRM Fire&Ice. tried. failed. had nightmares [if ANYTHING ever needed a trigger warning for those of us with PTSD or similiar, THOSE are it!]
i didn’t really expect you to have an age chart or anything – you can [generally] tell a person’s approx age by how they write. generally. sort of. at least, you can tell who’s a teen and who’s a grandparent..
ok, i’m making *myself* roll my eyes.
Given that twice as many books are bought by women than men, I’m surprised this hasn’t happened before. Sort of like how despite the evidence of “Gone with the Wind” and “Titanic” Hollywood still puts its bets on the tastes of teenage boys.
What you’re saying is that Twilight is the current teenage/young adult generation’s emo vampire tale. It’s been incorporated into their zeitgeist; it’s Their Vampire. And it makes perfect sense to me that a given generation would reject Our (in my case Gen Xer) Vampires, or any other gen’s vamps. It means nothing to the young people of today that their legwarmers were what I wore in high school; they refuse to think of it as rebooted Eighties fashion. Didn’t mean anything me during the late Nineties (finished college around then)/early Noughties that the bellbottoms I wore were what my parents wore in high school; that was Our Style. And in my eyes, Our bellbottoms were much cooler than the bellbottoms of Those People back in the Seventies… even though really it was the same damn thing.
There’s a sense of ownership that young adults tend to apply to everything, which is what we’re talking about here. To a degree all of us do this. I can remember being absolutely ranted at by a fan at one of the grayer SF cons I attended awhile back, because I said something negative about Clarke. I think this was triggered by me saying something about how poorly written, chock full o’ bigotry, and frankly embarrassing a lot of his stuff was when viewed through modern eyes, and especially when viewed by modern literary writers who didn’t know anything about current SF and were thoughtlessly referred to the old stuff by enthusiastic SF fans (like her). I was trying to say that however effective that stuff had been to convert fans back in the day, it wasn’t the way to win the genre any converts now. She absolutely went off; declared that this was why she hated younger SF fans, that we didn’t respect our roots, that just because something was old didn’t make it bad, and so on. I was flabbergasted — until I realized that from my perspective, I’d simply been considering the genre as a whole, but from her perspective I was attacking the specific part of it that had the greatest meaning for her: I was attacking her taste, her passion, experiences that she’d clearly incorporated into her identity. (There was more going on than that — some racefail, frankly — but I’ll limit the anecdote to that point.)
Anyway, I think what’s being associated with Twilight is something that goes beyond literature — a sense of group identity, in other words. It’s that which I think has the biggest impact on literature — and that also explains some of the reactions of older SFF fans to Twilight, and their frequent “Twilight is DESTROYING LITERATURE!!eleventy!” overreactions. It’s kind of a mass, “Hey you kids, get offa my lawn” effect, compounded by the fact that the kids are girls and the lawn used to belong pretty much exclusively to the boys.
Re not being a fan of sex: to a degree I agree with you. I’m personally only a fan of sex in novels when it fits and feels right, and there are many, many cases where it doesn’t. (I certainly don’t always write it; I did so in the Inheritance Trilogy because my gods are an homage to many cultures’ pantheons, and most pre-Abrahamic pantheons are rife with sexuality.) But that’s a necessary qualification: I’m not a fan of bad sex. Sex as a whole isn’t something I can blanket-condemn, because that’s simply too broad to mean anything. It’s like saying I’m not a fan of children in novels, or pre-industrial civilizations, or something generic like that.
And re your A and B classifications… I agree wholeheartedly with B, but rape is not sex. Re A… Sure, there’s lots of ways in which characters can express tenderness/desire toward one another — but what’s wrong with expressing it through sex, esp. healthy consensual sex? Are you trying to say that this is overdone in SFF? Please clarify.
Hmm. The excerpts I saw seemed to clearly be going for an erotic effect. But OK, I’ll give the books a shot. Re your later comment on the Fantasy and Realism discussion: link please?
I’ll add tentacles to my next book, JUST FOR YOU.
Oh, FINE. This is like tit for tat, right? I’ll AT LEAST add smooching. In fact, I’ve figured out how to expand that scene to include jacket unbuttoning.
re: Twilight. I gave a talk to a large group of high school students here 2 weeks ago, and at one point I asked how many had read the Twilight books. I think about 80% of the girls raised their hands. That is astonishing.
(The boys wanted to talk about Harry Potter, which seemed to be the one series that everyone could relate to.)
I’m agreeing, really–not that Twilight is a distorting force if distortion is seen as intrinsically bad/warping in a bad way, but that expectations and tastes inevitably change. For writers, to some degree, it is adapt or die.
I do feel that epic fantasy is, in an odd way, as much of a boys’ club as it was 20-30 years ago, but I attribute that to the explosion of other subgenres of fantasy with a bigger presence for women.
Kate [and Nora, too]
i’d argue that the explosion of sub-genres “with a bigger presence for women” is actual a function of the sexism inherent in Epic Fantasy.
not that NO women can write Epic Fantasy, but…
a great [personal] example/anecdote: in a writing class, we had to write a genre story a week. i did fine in the Sci-fi portion [other than a “would women REALLY use artificial means to have children? what about the JOYS of pregnancy and the CONNECTION between mother and fetus?” from my male professor. who, by the way, tried to claim i was a trans, because i replied that i hate babies and find pregnancy disgusting. so…]
but, the “Epic Fantasy” week [as opposed to the “Light Fantasy” week – our examples were, for EF, the Belgariad, the Amber books, Wheel of Time, and of course Fire and Ice; for Light Fantasy, Discworld, Robert Asprin’s Myth series, and the Xanth novels] was…
ok. so, i had what i considered a “standard” epic fantasy plot; post-magic returns world, where everything ran amok. LOTS people died very quickly, most by accidentally doing something magical that killed them [the “rule” of magic was that song = magic. so singing a song would call up magic] a generation after the “return”, girl finds a hidden CD player [by government mandate, all artificial music makers were destroyed] and she realizes that music CAN be played without calling magic, i.e. recorded music doesn’t necessarily call magic – but if one uses recorded music, it amps your magic tenfold. at first, she’s just on a personal quest to find more CDs to become a better Singer [instead of wizard or mage. i THOUGHT i was being clever. i was 19. sigh] but, along the way, she discovers that the gov’t is abusing magic, doing horrible things with it, and has a HUGE storehouses of records, tapes and CDs [this was also 1996. :) ] and so she now has a REAL quest – free the country from the gov’t tyranny.
TORN. TO. SHREDS! a CD *couldn’t* be a “magical artifact” and i apparantly had SILLY rules of magic, music and magic are NOT the same thing and only a silly girl would think so! also, Epic Fantasy can’t take place if there’s any tech. and my “hero” was a GIRL!
and that’s how i found out about “urban fantasy”. i don’t think it was CALLED that, yet, he called it “modern fantasy” [and sometimes “women’s fantasy”] and said it was a “hack genre”, that REAL writers wouldn’t write in it, etc.
[he loved Mercedes Lackey. he also insisted she was male, even after i showed him PROOF. erm. anyway, couple months later, i found one of her Diane Tregard novels. he almost CRIED that one of his fav authors was writing “hack”! lol]
there uses to be a SIMPLE division [and before that, NO division – it was ALL “fantasy”] – if there was magic, it was fantasy, if there was “science” of any sort, it was sci-fi, and if it had both, it was fantasy, but if it didn’t have either [i.e. it was set “now”] then it was neither.
why do we have SO MANY sub-genres now? i’d argue it’s so that people can judge, without taking any time to do so, whether or not it’s “Real” Epic Fantasy, or if it’s “Women’s Fantasy”
hell, i was told JUST LAST WEEK, that the “Dresden Files” are “Epic Fantasy” because they’re written by Jim Butcher. that was the entire argument. written by Jim Butcher = EF. when i asked WHY, i was told that “men don’t write Urban Fantasy”.
Wow, that story is infuriating. I want to strangle your professor.
I think you’re right though, about the sub-genres. In fact, I saw people do it for the 100k books, which I guess is what triggered this conversation in the first place. It was paranormal romance, not epic fantasy, because of the sex with the gods. No, it was straight up romance. And the second book was urban fantasy, not epic fantasy. Now, I don’t read a lot of urban fantasy, but doesn’t it take place in the real world, in modern cities, with magic, even if the cities themselves are made up? I didn’t think urban fantasy took place in completely secondary worlds. I could be wrong, though, as I don’t read very much of it.
Anyway, I found the attempts to re-categorize the books bizarre, especially since it was mostly done by negative reviewers. What was the point? Especially since people don’t seem to mind a blend of science fiction and fantasy, like Nnedi Okorafor’s books. They accept those books for what they are. (Although that could be because they’re really unique)
It does seem like people are trying to prevent ‘contamination’ of epic fantasy, through the creation of sub genres. I don’t understand why they care, though. If it’s a good fantasy book, who cares about the sub genre?
PoC and feminist writing? Your book had been on my to-do list but reading your post has made me realize I need to buy it this week!
(And to above- I don’t know why someone who is 22 would not watch Buffy…nor how they can even make comparisons to her. I would recommend that they watch something like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZwM3GvaTRM Buffy vs Edward: Twilight Remixed…Oh whoops, looks like someone else wrote about it already.)
Denelian: yeah, I agree. I think that when there weren’t as many subgenres with fantastic elements, that there almost “had” to be more room for women in epic fantasy. Kinda sorta. But now, it’s easy to reclassify and shove things around to fit other perceived stereotypes.
@ Kate – Which is just sad… i was actually hoping one of you would tell me how i was wrong! sigh
@ Ilana – i’d love to smack him, myself. at the time, i was 19 and not really feminist [i hadn’t really HEARD of feminism as a thing still going on, if that makes sense] if i had him as a professor TODAY, and he pulled that crap… let’s just say, today, i COULD fight back :)
@ Deena – i didn’t have the nifty useful link to Buffy Vs Edward – so thank you for that!
I may need to clarify perhaps. When I say I don’t like sex in books I don’t mean characters can’t have sex, I just mean I am not really in favour of reading about the actual act. If the confident lady wants to carry the shy young man she has been snogging upstairs to the cat-calls from all and sundry while he hides his blushing face in her hair, that is all well and good. I can just imagine they are heading up to have a really intense game of Pattycake.
Do SFF writers write sex well? I would say on the whole no. Of the Hugo nominees last year that most prominently featured sex; Spar I am not really sure can be called a story, and a friend of mine called it bad tentacle rape porn; and Palimpsest, well I am not sure why the characters needed to have sex to go back to the other world, unless it was a test of endurance to see who was willing to wade through it all to reach the rather limp conclusion(pun intended). If there were any others I have forgotten them, which goes to show how integral they must have been to their stories.
I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree here. I haven’t read Valente’s Palimpsest yet, though I’ve heard readings from it and I’m aware of the sexual content. Given that the whole story seems to be both a fairly original use of the liminal in fantasy — I’ve seen a lot of mundane things given the fantasy treatment, but never sexually transmitted diseases before now — and a metaphor for the loneliness of urban life, I can’t see how both purposes could’ve been served without sex as a key plot element. Granted, that sexuality can be shown to different degrees of explicitness, but personally speaking I think I would be put off by anything so sexual that flinched away from showing the sex. Like writing a story about war that tiptoed around its violence; that’s certainly been done — especially in stories with a propagandizing message — but I can’t think of a case where it was done well.
Anyway, ditto “Spar”, which I did read. If I hadn’t been up for the same award, I would’ve voted for that one for the Nebula and Hugo last year. I can’t speak for your friend’s tastes, but in my eyes it wasn’t porn because it wasn’t pleasurable to read and clearly wasn’t meant to be erotic. I doubt even the creepy types who get off on rape as a kink would’ve found much wank material in that one. And IMO the sexuality served two purposes: again a metaphor (for many things — grief, cultural conflict, survival at any cost, dehumanization, obligation), plus also an unflinching look at the idea of first contact with a truly alien — as in, incomprehensible — being. The truth is we’re not likely to be able to talk to the first alien lifeforms we meet; there won’t be any basis for common understanding via anything so complex as speech. We’ll have to communicate in some more basic form. Better sex than some other options — disease, them eating us or vice versa, extermination.
So I saw the sexuality in both of your examples as very integral.
Interesting to hear your take on Spar. The problem with it being an incomprehensible contact is it becomes meaningless. The protagonist could have found herself stuck with a rapist tentacle monster on the lam from the prison planet of Alpha Ceti 9, or have accidentally walked into a malfunctioning holo-deck, or been effected by some weird radiation from the accident causing a psychosomatic seizure, and to her there would have been no difference to the reality she seems to be facing.
And if you can have multiple reasons for the incomprehensible (and to my mind meaningless) stimuli the story really becomes an purely personal journey which could be taken without any stimulus at all. While sometimes we do need a bump for us to wake up to ourselves, sometimes too all it takes is a bottle of Chardonnay and for there to be nothing on the TV.
Like I said, it’s something we’re going to have to agree to disagree on. I personally like stories that have multiple interpretations because they make me think. And I’ve already told you that I found powerful meaning in what to you seemed meaningless. Fortunately there’s plenty of room in SFdom for both of our opinions — but I offered my own explanation so you could see why others might have taken more from the story than you did.
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/just to be annoying/
speaking as someone more or less asexual. i don’t really want do it or read about it. Reading sex scenes results in a mixture of depressing and revolted feelings.
three cheers for chaste protagonists!
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Does anyone recall the Frost and Thorn? — Stone and Thorn? series? When I attempted to refresh my memory of that truncated series, the titles I can’t recall (though very old falling apart copies are in my apt. back in NYC, somewhere) — author, publisher, years — I can’t even find them with my deep google foo — that’s what happens to grim and gritty realistic fantasy written by women.
Do you mean Phyllis Ann Kar’s Frostflower and Thorn books?
re: Andre Norton, you wrote:
“I know that now, but back in the 60s I didn’t, and she wrote with a male gaze, which is why I included her/him.”
I’m not so sure. I read a lot of Norton in the 70’s, as a budding sci-fi fan, and for years and years I assumed that “Andre” was a woman’s name, because it was so obvious to me that the author was a woman.
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“Do you mean Phyllis Ann Kar’s Frostflower and Thorn books?”
Yes! I do mean them.
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As an aspiring writer myself trying to hone my craft, these are great things to consider. I often wonder if, when I’m writing a female character, if I’m “getting it right” and treating her with the same respect that I do the male characters.
I greatly enjoyed all of J. Carey’s Kushiel saga (both trilogies) and I remember reading the Coldfire Trilogy years ago. Both are unquestionably epic fantasy to me, even if the Kushiel books put magic in an unexplained and possibly dismissed role. I think I’m going to have to find Coldfire again now!
I proudly wear the labels “geek” and “nerd, but as such I often find examples of what I’ve come to term a “soft” sexism, where the offending party doesn’t even realize they’re being patronizing, and that makes it even more irritating.
I honestly think there’s a gender assignment to novels. Women are assumed to write romance and fluff, leave the “serious” work to the men who can “handle it”.
In short I support H0.
I’d say the truth lies between your two hypothesis, leaning more towards the first. The main problem is that women authors and women readers tend to get regarded as a threat. It’s not that they don’t think that they should exist; it’s just that they worry that women authors and women readers will get so vastly popular that they’ll take over — even some women readers worry about this. This is a combination of concerns, first of the tendency of SFF fans to always assume incorrectly that rather than expanding the market to accept new readers, the success of one sector of the market instead replaces another sector of the market — if fantasy is popular than SF is being killed off, if really dark fantasy is popular than not so dark fantasy will be killed off, etc. So the fear is that there will be less and less stuff for manly men written by manly men. And that fear is particularly acute because, as you note, of the dislike of female viewpoint, particularly when it comes to sex, and of the tendency — also sometimes with female readers — to see a female viewpoint as romantic and therefore female books as tending towards romance. This particularly occurred when contemporary fantasy took off and a lot of female authors were successful at it. A lot of male ones were too, but the success of female authors led to that fear that the women were taking over, which combined with the growth of paranormal romance, led a lot of folk to believe the entire category market was being romanticized by those annoying women.
And if you’re romantic, you can’t be epic. If you’re writing about a woman dealing with gods and you’re a woman, you are obviously more interested in the relationships, not the epic political war thing. It is a cultural assumption we still have. So while women writers are welcome and many are curious to see what they will do, and women readers are welcome, they are also feared because they may radically change things and de-male things too much, though of course they don’t. It’s a view that our voices are locked by gender, that people can “tell” when a woman is writing, which always makes me think of James Tiptree and Robert Silverberg.
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You guys should watch anime. Japan is way ahead of us on this.
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