Monday Crankiness

I am cranky this morning. Which is probably why I’m more irked than usual about a couple of reviews I saw over the weekend which included lines like (paraphrasing) “I bet this author thinks…” and “This is obviously Jemisin’s kink…” and so on.

Okay. The author is dead, right, yes, I have to take responsibility for my own part in dancing along the edges of readers’ expectations, and sometimes I screw up. Sometimes, when I try to play with a common trope, I don’t do as good a job as I think of subverting it. That said, how a reader chooses to read something is entirely different from what is actually in my head, and trying to read my mind crosses the line from critical analysis into projection. (Also: rude.) Thing is, I am all over social media. I’m right here on this blog. If you want to know what’s in my head, seriously, just ask. Absent that, your speculations are almost sure to be wrong.

Case in point: over the years I’ve seen a number of comments speculating on why the books of the Inheritance Trilogy feature explicitly sexual relationships between humans and gods. Some folks figure I’m just following stock romance tropes (particularly in the first two books), pairing a woman with a powerful “bad boy” character a la Twilight, maybe trying to capitalize on the erotica market (this one usually comes from people who clearly have never read erotica). Or something. Superficially the books do read like a collection of commonly-used tropes, and that’s intentional. Heck, I’m emulating some of the most ancient storytelling forms in human existence; of course a lot of what I’m doing is going to feel familiar. But there’s more to this than a superficial reading will show you.

First, I’ve said in many interviews that the Inheritance Trilogy was my attempt to write epic fantasy in emulation of ancient epics. Ancient epics were chock full of explicitly sexual godly relations, frequently between gods and humans and most frequently between male gods and human women. In quite a few cases these romantic and/or sexual encounters literally changed the world. So given that focus, it was always going to be a story about love and sex. Second, in the Inheritance Trilogy, I devote a lot of page space to describing the abject horror of living in a world of godly shenanigans: nations wiped out overnight, environmental catastrophes, totalitarian theocracies. Pages and pages of magical mutilation, torture, and violence on a global scale. Nobody bats an eyelash at this sort of thing when it appears in fantasy; it’s normal. But I wanted to devote equal space to describing the wonders that such a world might also offer: castles that float through the air, godlings slinging drugs on streetcorners and selling happiness in whorehouses, a universe-spanning revolution packed into in one woman’s heart (literally). I didn’t quite manage to make it equal; if you do a point-by-point comparison, there’s substantially more pain depicted in the books than pleasure. But I tried… and apparently, that much pleasure is “gratuitous” to some readers. It’s traditional to delicately elide such things, see, and tiptoe around moments of pleasure as if they are somehow indulgent. But I don’t delicately elide anything.

I have a lot more thoughts about the inherent gratuitousness of healthy relationships, whole people, and pleasure, but I’ll save those for another blog post.

Third, look at who is involved in these relationships. How often do you see a woman of color being treated as a romantic object in fantasy? What might be an overdone trope for white women isn’t, for the rest of us — quite the opposite. A story in which a powerful god wants to earn the affections of a brown-skinned woman, or one in which the world nearly ended because of a polyamorous breakup, or one in which a man must compete against his more powerful sister for the affections of an Asian-looking male god… These “cheesy romances” are my challenge to white supremacy, sexism, and heteronormativity. And I suspect that one of the reasons some readers are so quick to disdain these challenges is because that’s how people in our society are trained to react to violations of the status quo.

And no, I’m not usually thinking of all this as I write. Usually, I’m just trying to write something I’ll enjoy. But that’s the kind of thing I enjoy, see: stories that look like X and are actually Y, stories in which Y has multiple layers of meaning. If you can reasonably infer anything about my personality from reading my work, it’s the following: I get bored easily. I despise tradition just for tradition’s sake. And if I’m doing something that looks superficially traditional? Look deeper. Ask yourself why.

Or if that doesn’t work, ask me. ::grumble::

10 thoughts on “Monday Crankiness”

  1. I devoured all of your books over the last few months – and spent much of The Fifth Season trying (often failing) not to weep, as I have an almost-two-year-old boy. But I still read it breathlessly, irritated that I had to put it down at work.

    Since finishing, I’ve been reading other fantasy books, and keep feeling disappointed and annoyed by how white everyone is, how one-dimensional, and how little their authors seem to understand them. (One acknowledgment I read thanked the author’s colleague who helped him understand the “always difficult” mind of a young girl. I seethed, a bit.)

    Anyway. That isn’t a direct response to your frustrations so much as a “keep on keeping on, please!” because the world needs your voice, voices like yours, even if some people miss the point entirely. Because otherwise our stories will continue to be fair-of-face and shallow-of-meaning, and our hearts will be a little less full.

  2. One thing I think is really interesting about your online presence is that you have no qualms about engaging with poorly-informed and/or negative readers and reviews. I don’t think I could bear to take other people’s (at best) half-considered opinions as seriously as you do, but I’m glad that you’re able to make something honest and constructive of it, and I love your transparency about both the writing process and your idea of yourself as a writer ‘trying to do something’ with the stories you tell. Writers like you are moving literature forward.

  3. > That said, how a reader chooses to read something is entirely different from what is actually in my head, and trying to read my mind crosses the line from critical analysis into projection. (Also: rude.)

    On my MFA programme, we studied Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author. I loathed the idea that a reader or critic’s interpretation of what my story meant was as valid as mine. My MFA critical theory essay was a single-minded attempt to show why Barthes was wrong. I must have done a reasonable job – I got a first.

  4. There is such condescension when people mention “author’s kink.” When writing we are supposed to express ourselves in everything -in fact, honesty is a measure of how well you write- but when it comes to romance you are supposed to turn from your own favorites lest you are considered superficial or cheesy?
    There is too much to be said on this. Better go and write the novels we want to read instead!

  5. Readers are often offhand and blithe and frequently idiotic. Please don’t let it get you down! You’ve been writing some absolutely brilliant work and don’t think for a moment that you aren’t appreciated. You are.

    I love what you’ve been doing with fiction, not only in your storytelling, but in being true to yourself. I’ve been seeing the few books I’ve read by you in a mythopoetic light and I couldn’t get more giddy when I get my hands on another.

    No, there isn’t a question here.

    Just a ravenous consumer and fanboy expressing his appreciation. I’m really looking forward to another quake. ;)

  6. Anyone who is familiar with religious myth (and isn’t deluding themselves to the point of not seeing it in their own) will recognize that gods, humans, and kinkiness go hand in groping hand. You’ve just reworked the system so that it isn’t just white men/gods having a good time. If someone is unhappy with that they’ve got a few thousand years of storytelling to read instead.

  7. @Dimitra: Talking of “so-and-so’s kink” isn’t necessarily derogatory or condescending, or even particularly personal, especially among circles that are steeped in fic culture. I trust that our esteemed host recognized such an overtone in *these* specific reviews, of course; speaking *in general*, however, it’s not necessarily anything negative or personally-speculative in and of itself.

  8. As English major, I loved analyzing literature but deciding exactly what the author was thinking always seemed a lost and arrogant cause to me. As a reader (and as a librarian) what most readers are after is a good read. A rousing good story that takes me on a journey, which engages my senses, my interest and my intellect, is all I ask. I don’t have to *like* the characters, but I want to be intrigued by them. I’m not sure I liked Essun at the beginning, but I was intrigued and wanted to know more about how she got to that points (and you delivered on that).

    If I don’t like a book, I don’t have to finish it. If a book by an loved author doesn’t engage me, I don’t see it as a betrayal of some kind. Writers are free to write and I’m free to read or not. Maybe it’s the librarian in me, but writers have no responsibility to me. Their only responsibility is to themselves to tell the story they want to tell. I can choose to read or not.

    Having said that, Fifth Season grabbed me and there’s nothing better than finding a *new* author (to me) and finding a slew of books they’ve already written. I’m making my way through your books and enjoying every minute.

  9. I love reading your blog posts (even though I don’t comment that much), I reckon that what’s in your head is far more interesting than what those random people are speculating about. Love your work, keep writing please! :D

  10. What a shame about those reviewers, but don’t let them get you down! I found the switch-up of roles refreshing :) I’m really glad you write a diversity of characters, because while I like fantasy/sci-fi, the field is pretty white T_T.

    I think you write really wonderfully true characters that feel real, rather than 2-D sketches that ring hollow, or don’t feel quite right.

    Ps, thanks for your reply about the e-book, I got really busy with school work, and didn’t have a chance to reply T_T

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