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::