Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

MLN on UF: The Anonymous Interview

11.09.10
by Daniel Abraham

So I talked about rape and urban fantasy, and — as is often the case — not everyone agreed with me.  As if often the case, I learned some things I hadn’t known, specifically that there are a *lot* more explicit rapes in UF than I’d been aware of.  That’s making me review and revise my thesis, but it hasn’t yet changed my mind.

A few years ago, I was at a worldcon with Walter Mosley.  He was talking about how writers get pigeonholed, and told an anecdote about going into a bookstore and finding one of his own science fiction books shelved in mystery.  He took it to the information desk and let the bookseller know that it was mis-shelved.  The bookseller said something along the line of “No.  That’s by Walter Mosley, and he writes mystery.”  Mosley got to say “I’m Walter Mosley.” And what he said at Worldcon was that he could see the words running across the bookseller’s forehead  . . . and you write mystery.

I’m that bookseller right now.  Clearly it is perfectly possible to write explicitly about rape in urban fantasy because a bunch of successful people do it.  And yet I am convinced it’s a mistake to do it.  It’s weird having a conviction.  I employ them so seldom.

But I’m off track.

Someone signed on the blog anonymously and took issue with my post.  We had a couple interchanges (they’re still there, you can take a look), and she came up with a list of questions grilling me on gender in my work.  They’re interesting, so I thought I’d haul them out for all y’all to look at.  Let’s shall we?

My interviewer?

ANON: I do have a few non-confrontational questions in order to take a step back and because it occurred to me to be curious about something. And I do understand that you may choose not to answer them but I’d really like to know:  How does/do the female protag(s) in your Urban Fantasy book(s)compare to those you describe in this post? Do they fear rape? Have they been forced into power? Do they have ambition? Do they have a circle of females surrounding them, are they surrounded by men or a combination? Are any of their potential lovers potential domestic abusers? Is that because this female(s) is/are better able to choose among her male choices or is it because there were no domestic abusers created among her choices to begin with?

MLN: Jayné Heller is my protagonist in the Black Sun’s Daughter books.  The third of those is about to come out.  I designed her to be — especially in the first books of the series *exactly* what I was describing in my earlier post.  Her powers are thrust upon her.  She is surrounded (and supported by) men.  Not exclusively, quite, but close.  She does not fear rape, nor have I brought sexual assault into the series as a plot point.  (I don’t intend to do so.)

Her present lover is a sensitive, nice guy.  None of the potential love interests in the series would pose her any danger of abuse.  (In part because she has magic powers and could defend herself, but they’re also not those guys.)

The Black Sun’s Daughter series was built to be ten books long.  The idea was (and is) to start with something as close to the standard as I can get, and then over the course of the series, peel it away.  I don’t want to get into too many spoilers, especially as the books aren’t all written yet, but the underlying matter that interests me about urban fantasy is the protagonist’s journey from an urban fantasy heroine to someone that can be strong without being weaponized.  I don’t like to use the word “empowered” because it’s been misused so often, but the idea’s related.

ANON: Are the villains and their minions primarily male or female? How many rapists are within their ranks?

MLN: My relationship with villains is a little idiosyncratic.  In the series, the magic things are bodiless — unclean spirits.  While some are gendered, the person being ridden by them doesn’t have to have to be of any particular sex.  But that’s not really the answer to your question.

The primary villain of the story is male.  He is a rapist by any sane definition, but we aren’t going to have any descriptions of a woman being raped, we aren’t going to see him chuckling evilly as he prepares to assault anyone.  And my protagonist, while damaged by his agency in other ways, won’t be raped.

There are incidental characters — I’m thinking of one in particular — who is guilty of sexual assault.  He ends poorly.

ANON: Now why did you fashion your world this way?  Did you create your world as a purposeful commentary on cultural discomfort about women and power or is it something that has unconsciously developed as the narrative evolved? Or do you feel that your narrative has nothing to do with commentary on women and power but is about something else? If so, what is that something else?

A knife? Or the subtext of cutting stuff?

MLN: Oh, I built it in a government lab to do this.  I’m lucky in that I’ve gotten to hang out with some really first-class minds for years and kick these kinds of ideas around before I ever started the project.  Carrie Vaughn is probably the most important of those.  But the points about ambition and being in community with other women came from conversations with Suzy McKee Charnas and Maureen McHugh.  I went into urban fantasy because I as interested in taking what I see as the wish fulfillment of urban fantasy and remaking it in what is for me a more interesting image: a woman who achieves power without identifying herself with violence.

You see, I’m skeptical about the redemptive power of violence.  I don’t think that a woman who kicks ass is the same thing as a strong woman.  The gap between those two ideas is where I’m writing these books.

ANON: Do reviewers agree with your assessment or see the underlying theme you are trying to convey?

MLN: Damned if I know.  I’d be a little surprised if they did.  They’ve got at most a little less than a third of the project to judge from, but even putting that aside, estimating someone by their reviewers puts a lot of faith in the reviewers.  Part of my job is to stand out in public for the casual judgment of whoever happens to be wandering by.  I’ve been called all sorts of names by folks who had opinions about me and my work.  Pedophile, racist, misogynist, queer, metrosexual.  It’s undignified and often humiliating, but it’s the price I pay for a job I enjoy, so I put up with it.

If you would like a snapshot of the project without the mess and bother of buying all the books, though, I’d recommend you pick up or borrow or go stand in the aisle at your local bookstore and read the new Dozois & Martin anthology Songs of Love and Death.  The MLN Hanover story in there — “Hurt Me” — will pretty much tell you whether the Black Sun’s Daughter books are worth considering.

And now, with respect, I had a few questions for my interviewer. The problem is I don’t know how she can answer them.  She is, after all, anonymous, and this is the Internet.  I may have several people answer.  Or none.  Or someone entirely different who’s wearing the same mask.  Part of the problem with this kind of imbalance of power.  I suppose anyone’s welcome to answer, just so long as we keep the conversation civil and troll-free.  I kill trolls without comment.  All y’all know it now.

— I started off this conversation by saying that I thought it was a bad idea to address rape directly in urban fantasy.  I still think that, though my justifications aren’t as solid as they need to be.  Anon, you found that insulting.  Could you paraphrase what I said before in a way that makes the offensive parts clearer for me?  I’m wondering how much of what you eventually heard was in what I meant to say.

— You’re an urban fantasy reader.  What do you want from a good book?  Would you have the same expectations of non-fiction as of a novel?  A literary novel as of a genre one? Do you think the role of the best fiction is to be realistic? Escapist?

— What is your experience of subtext? Do you think it’s a proper and appropriate tool of fiction even when it requires *not* stating something directly or is that kind of intentional omission something writers do when they’re being show-offy and twee?  Or does the level of skill make all the difference?

— Oscar Wilde wrote “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.  That’s what fiction means.”  To put you on the spot as much an an anonymous voice in the ether can be, Anon, what does fiction mean?

Tagged as: ,

24 Responses »

  1. Yes, it’s me. I’m going to do something a little different here and break my responses into more manageable pieces. I’ll wait for your responses and ask for clarification or follow-ups before continuing onto the next section.

    I will deconstruct my issues with the first post but I ask for a few days to reflect and then break the argument down and write an appropriate response. In the meantime, I will answer the questions you specifically directed to me as a reader.

    …She does not fear rape…

    1. But why doesn’t she fear rape?
    2. Why have you chosen to surrounded her with men?
    3. Why doesn’t she have ambition? Or does she?
    4. Why is ambition a cultural sin for females?

    Her present lover is a sensitive, nice guy. None of the potential love interests in the series would pose her any danger of abuse. (In part because she has magic powers and could defend herself, but they’re also not those guys.)

    But this is a purposeful choice on your part. Why did you specifically choose to make this part of your story arc? Are love interests necessary to tell your story or there in order to flesh out your character?

    …as close to the standard as I can get…

    Standard? Should I take this to mean some type of Urban Fantasy genre expectation? If so, how did you determine what those expectations were?

    …protagonist’s journey from an urban fantasy heroine to someone that can be strong without being weaponized.

    Can you explain in more detail what weaponization means in the context of this discussion because I fear that our connotations of the term may be different. Using specific examples from the genre that you have personally read as opposed to heard about would be helpful in order to establish a basis of understanding but it is not required.

    …The primary villain of the story is male.  … He ends poorly. …

    1. Does your villain target the protag as one of his potential victims?
    2. Why or why not?

    • …She does not fear rape…

      1. But why doesn’t she fear rape?

      Because she has magical powers that make her essentially immune to violence of any kind.

      2. Why have you chosen to surrounded her with men?

      A few years back I was on a panel with Suzy McKee Charnas where she talked about the difference between strong women characters and strong woman characters, and that one of the central differences between the one and the other is whether the character is in relationship with women. I began Jayne in the strong woman role because that’s the start position I wanted. Watching her grow out of it is part of what I want for the series. (I feel as if I’d made this point before? If it seems like I’m repeating myself, maybe you could give me a slightly different angle on the question so that I can better understand what you mean by asking.)

      3. Why doesn’t she have ambition? Or does she?

      She doesn’t now. She will by the end. See above.

      4. Why is ambition a cultural sin for females?

      Damned if I know. I do see that women who want power are demonized (see: Hillary Clinton) and women who seem to have it thrust upon them are celebrated (see: Sarah Palin).

      I’m not sure how to read your question as different than why are we in a sexist culture’? Are you asking for more examples of ambitious women being punished for their ambition?

      (On love interests) But this is a purposeful choice on your part. Why did you specifically choose to make this part of your story arc? Are love interests necessary to tell your story or there in order to flesh out your character?

      I chose to make Jayne’s love life part of her story arc in part because I see that as central to the expectations of the genre I’m writing in. Her individual relationships to the characters in question change her. I could probably have found other ways to achieve some of the same effects, but I’m not sure what I would have won by doing it.

      Can you explain in more detail what weaponization means in the context of this discussion because I fear that our connotations of the term may be different. Using specific examples from the genre that you have personally read as opposed to heard about would be helpful in order to establish a basis of understanding but it is not required.

      Mmm. You’re putting me in an awkward position. You’re asking me to define what I think is the essential problem with urban fantasy and cite examples. Pretty much any of the really salient examples are my professional colleagues. I wouldn’t want them to hold me up as a bad example, and it seems rude to do that to them. Even in the original post when I was talking about a decision Patricia Briggs made with which I disagree I felt like I was walking the ragged edge.

      When I say weaponization, I mean giving a female character access to (and a habit of) redemptive violence. I’ll go ahead and take Joss Whedon since I figure someone with my career is probably beneath his notice. Buffy Summers was the great first example of a character who was given access to violence in lieu of very nearly any other virtue (besides cracking sharp dialog). Or River Tam. A kick-ass female protagonist who is celebrated because she is better capable of violence than the men around her.

      It goes back to before UF, of course. It’s the same idea of feminine power that you’d see in I Spit on Your Grave, only its present form is less obviously repulsive and a lot of it’s being created by women.

      Standard? Should I take this to mean some type of Urban Fantasy genre expectation? If so, how did you determine what those expectations were?

      Using my best judgment. I don’t mean to be glib here, but I don’t know what other answer I could give. I read a lot, I talked to a lot of other professional writers, and I drew my conclusions. How else *would* you determine something like this?

      1. Does your villain target the protag as one of his potential victims?
      2. Why or why not?

      You’re talking about two different folks here. The primary villain of the piece and fella that ends poorly.

      If you mean the fella, no, he and the protagonist never meet.

      If you mean the villain, then yes, he does target her, but not for sexual assault. I won’t give you his reasons for that, but I will give you mine: a story in which the protagonist and antagonist aren’t in conflict is usually a bad story. I designed the story such that the big bad is gunning for my hero. I chose *not* to have that express as sexual assault because I think it would be a worse story if I did. Specifically because literalizing the subtext of sexuality and violence and power in that way would make it a different story than the one I feel I’ve contracted with my readers to tell.

      I have nothing against Irreversible, but I don’t want to watch it. I have nothing against explicit, realistic explorations of rape and its consequences, but I don’t want to write them. If for some reason I want to read them, I’m more likely to reach for nonfiction. And I especially don’t want to write them as genre pieces with fantasy elements.

      • Because she has magical powers that make her essentially immune to violence of any kind.

        And why did you create her this way?

        …the strong woman role because that’s the start position I wanted.

        And the strong woman role is what exactly? You haven’t actually explained the differences that you speak of or how this applies to having her in a community made up entirely or mostly of men.

        You’re putting me in an awkward position.

        And you’re doing the same to me here. I understand about the bad colleagues but my problem with your statement about being well read in the Urban Fantasy genre is that this appearance is that you haven’t read some of the major female characters with very solid large fanbases, so it calls into question the accuracy of the analysis of your hypothesis because I can’t test your data in order to see the claims you’re making. I do understand the quandary though.

        She doesn’t now. She will by the end. See above.

        Okay, but how are you defining ambition.

        Damned if I know. I do see that women who want power are demonized (see: Hillary Clinton) and women who seem to have it thrust upon them are celebrated (see: Sarah Palin).

        I’m not even going there with you.

        You’ve claimed Urban Fantasy female protag as the basis of your argument surely there are fictional examples of what you speak of within your collected data or even within the collective myths of our society/culture.

        I read a lot, I talked to a lot of other professional writers, and I drew my conclusions. How else *would* you determine something like this?

        And yet your data was flawed because the sampling was too small regarding your hypothesis that Urban Fantasy female protags don’t fear rape. How can the data then be trusted when it comes to your other hypothesis unless it can be held up to scrutiny?

        I have nothing against Irreversible, but I don’t want to watch it. I have nothing against explicit, realistic explorations of rape and its consequences, but I don’t want to write them.

        But there is a very big difference between having the protag targeted as a potential victim by the antag and actually showing the rape battle as the part of the direct narrative conflict. I’m very curious why she’s not on his potential victim list. The challenge and the potential feather in his villain’s cap would seem to be reason enough to add her. Taking down the big game so to speak in gross generalities.

        So barring any further explanation on your villain’s reasoning, could you give me the primary goals / conflict between the protag and the antag in this story.

  2. I did write a response on your questions to me but my computer crashed so I’ll need to rewrite it some time tomorrow.

    • Looking back at it, it might be enough to help me if you could say in just a sentence or two 1) what you think my thesis here is and 2) why you disagree.

      And regardless, I hope your computer feels better. 🙂

      • Alright I’ll skip the personal reader questions you asked of me. But I can’t/won’t paraphrase why I found the original post insulting. I’ve deconstructed it.

        I will wait before posting it though because it ain’t pretty and I’d rather continue this part of the discussion before heading back into what some might refer to as the land of confrontation.

        No, I don’t think Urban Fantasy would be better if there were more and more explicit rape scenes. I don’t NEED rape in my fiction at all.

    • (Specifically, when you disagree with me on this one, you *aren’t* saying that urban fantasy would generally be better if there were more and more explicit rape scenes, are you? I kind of hope you’re not.)

  3. Carrie Vaughn is probably the most important of those.

    And yet based on the summaries I’ve read about her Kitty Norville stories, they contain literal and metaphorical rape. I can certainly understand about not using personal friend’s work as part of a data set because the interpretation can too easily become skewed; however, since she is an important reference I’m surprised that her use of the subject matter didn’t come up while the data gathering process was being conducted.

    …wish fulfillment of urban fantasy…

    1. Please define what wish fulfillment.
    2. Does this wish fulfillment differ when Urban Fantasy male protags are added to the data sample? if data sample is not available, what about male protags in fantasy novels? If so, how?

    a woman who achieves power without identifying herself with violence.

    to be clear here you are speaking of stereotypical male fantasy level physical violence?

    I ask because magical violence although does not have to be directly physical violence is still well violence. So I can’t distinguish where the nuances of the power structure or even the level of violence.

    You see, I’m skeptical about the redemptive power of violence.

    I’m skeptical as well but for all genders and all genres not just females and Urban Fantasy.

    I don’t think that a woman who kicks ass is the same thing as a strong woman.

    And I don’t think a man who kick ass is the same thing as a strong man.

    Damned if I know. I’d be a little surprised if they did.

    I admit it very poorly worded question. Let me try again.

    Do you believe based the indirect and direct feedback that you have received so far regarding the stories within this series that the subtext you’re hoping to convey is being received by your general readership or is it necessary for the subtext to be deconstructed by someone well versed in this type of story analysis? (this question is a little elitists but I can’t figure out at the moment how to re-word and get my meaning across. I apologize in advance because I’m going with it as is.)

    What are some of the motifs you’ve sprinkled into your narrative which might reinforce the underlying series theme you’re attempting to convey? Like Buffy do individual themes in running through each season (book) that further strengthens your underlying series theme? Would you describe them for the currently released books and explain how they are the building blocks of your overall theme? Or point me to a wiki page or a board where it is discussed?

    …I’ve been called all sorts of names by folks who had opinions about me and my work. Pedophile, racist, misogynist, queer, metrosexual. It’s undignified and often humiliating, but it’s the price I pay for a job I enjoy, so I put up with it.

    I’m not willing to stoop name-calling but I will say that I found your original post on this topic very misogynistic and I’ve broken out the subtext I received from your argument to better articulate my initial anger over it. I will post it after we finish this discussion. After which I will stand ready to clarify, defend and apologize for rudeness should that become necessary.

    I tried to keep it civil but it’s raw as was my reaction and I saw value in putting it out there rather than trying to soften my reaction to be “polite” as it’s termed in female circles.

    • And yet based on the summaries I’ve read about her Kitty Norville stories, they contain literal and metaphorical rape. I can certainly understand about not using personal friend’s work as part of a data set because the interpretation can too easily become skewed; however, since she is an important reference I’m surprised that her use of the subject matter didn’t come up while the data gathering process was being conducted.

      A lot of my take on the Kitty books comes from the changes in the character. Yes, there were literal and metaphorical rapes in the first book. And I was mistaken about the number of rapes and sexual assaults in UF, that’s true. There’s a lot more of ’em than I thought. The relationship between the kick-ass heroine and sexual assault leaves a lot more room for her victimization than I’d originally thought. And I hope the previous conversation and the preamble to this post made it clear that I am having to rethink some of that. But it doesn’t change the underlying issue that I started these posts out with: why Jayne Heller won’t get raped.

      I have the impression from your previous comment that you don’t think explicit rape scenes make a book stronger, and if I’ve understood you, then we agree about that point.

      If your point is that my scholarship was lacking, and that I underestimated the level of explicit sexual violence in UF, that’s fair and valid. There’s a lot more room for the overt victimization of the protagonist than I had thought.

      But what I’m hearing you say here — and I assume I’m getting this wrong, because as little as I know you, it really doesn’t seem like an argument you’d make — is that urban fantasy novels are better for that. And there, I’m getting lost.

      I’m also feeling a little buried in the number of questions you’ve dropped on me here, any one of which could have a pretty long answer. I’m going to try to start pulling some of these threads together, just so the conversation doesn’t delta out into an open-ended thing where you ask me a lot of questions to which I give unsatisfying answers. 🙂

      I think that a kick-ass, weaponized heroine who has coopted traditional masculine violence but is still constrained by a vision of femininity that defines her through her relationships to men and her adherence to cultural norms and expectations shouldn’t be mistaken for a strong character.

      I think that urban fantasy in particular takes its power by — I won’t say addressing — tapping into a cultural unease about the relationship between women, power, and violence.

      And I think that literal rape in this venue is a mistake and a failure of craft.

  4. I didn’t want to post this right away but I need it to be off my plate and I have tasks to complete so I’m off until I return. Take it for what it’s worth. Ask questions/clarifications or put it in file thirteen. It’s yours to do with as you will.

    I think — as I’ve said elsewhere — that urban fantasy is a genre sitting on top of a great big huge cultural discomfort about women and power.

    This starting hypothesis is not supported by any argument within the post nor is a link for further clarification of your position. Further by your own admission, the data used for this post is flawed. And the entire Urban Fantasy genre includes more than female protagonists so are the stories with male protagonists also about this “great big huge cultural discomfort with women and power.” And is there any difference is either the context or the portrayal of the cultural discomfort when comparing male authors with female author within the genre? Does the gender of the protag show any marked difference within data for the previous question?

    The typical UF heroine (as I’ve come to understand her) is a kick-ass woman with a variety of possible lovers. 

    Generic statement. Many women fictional and real women are kick-ass and have a variety of possible lovers. How do female protags within Urban Fantasy differ? What are the nuances not seen in the other genres?

    She’s been forced into power which she often doesn’t understand, and can face down any danger while at the same time captivating the romantic attention of the dangerous, edgy men around her.  She’s been forced into power — either through accident of birth or by being transformed without her permission — and is therefore innocent of one of the central feminine cultural sins: ambition.  She is in relationships primarily with men rather than in community with women.  “Bad boys” want her, and they won’t be bad to her. Etc, etc, etc.

    What I receive from these sentences are: the female protagonists in Urban Fantasy is victims (it’s even said twice in case I missed it the first time). The victim gets romantic attention from what should be a pool of potential victimizers but because she’s not a female who’s ambitious—hey, she’s really a virgin/madonna dressed up to look like a whore but she’s not guilty of original sin AND we all KNOW in our heart of hearts that men have a madonna / whore complex (yep, this part of the sentence is completely uncalled for)—those bad boys will treat her with respect unlike those ambitious whores.

    Yep, that’s the subtext I received here. And yes, this section pissed me off even once I parsed the subtext out.

    Further some slight word changes and this same thing could be and has been said about fictional male protags in general. It’s part of the hero arc. Forced into a journey they never wanted or were prepared for, don’t understand their own power, didn’t ask for this hero’s quest, can’t pass the upcoming battle onto someone else, blah, blah, blah…

    There may a pattern in the community with women tangent, however, it’s not an absolute and I’d need to see the supporting data and suspect more data would need to be gathered before drawing any concrete conclusions on that aspect of the tangent.

    The thing that sets almost (and there are exceptions I’ll talk about in a minute here) all the urban fantasy heroines apart from real women as found in the real world is this:  they don’t fear rape.

    The exceptions: madonnas because after all only whores get raped, right? (Yep I went there. This is part of the cultural consciousness/narrative that women hear whispered to them all the time in real life.) As far as the exception is concerned, the Briggs example has a non-stereotypical bad boy raping the heroine. How does that fit into the Urban Fantasy narrative you’ve identified. What additional role do these bad boys play in the underlying themes presented?

    Again the data used for the analysis was flawed therefore the conclusion reached are also flawed.

    I understand and sympathize with them.  As a man, I don’t fear rape either.  I understand intellectually that I could be a victim of it, but it just doesn’t seem plausible.  It doesn’t impinge on my consciousness the way that it does for women.

    By this point, I receive this as a backhanded paragraph from a privileged male who’s making an attempt to placate me by telling me he can relate to me on the one hand yet stating that I’m misinterpreting the slams his argument dishes out on the other.

    And so — while urban fantasy embodies so many of the insecurities about women and power — here, it falls into real fantasy. 

    Whose insecurities are we talking about here? Women’s insecurities about themselves and power, the privileged male viewpoint or perhaps culture itself? How do these insecurities manifest themselves with the stories in your data sample?

    They’re immune to traditional masculine power (that’s to say violence) because they have internalized it.  They’ve become it.  Urban Fantasy heroines are — for the most part — weaponized.

    So these females aren’t really females any more. Some might even go so far as to say “unnatural.” Perhaps on the order the Amazonian warrior myths used in ancient Greece to prove how wrong it is to have females who resides outside of patriarchal control.

    —–
    Section one complete: This section has nothing directly to do with why Jayne won’t get raped. IMO, it’s only a section to throw things at the wall to see what sticks. The data presented is flawed so any patterns identified are those that support the original hypothesis. From my perspective the text is meant to incite rather than inform or persuade.

    Card:
    Some of Card’s viewpoints have been labeled misogynistic. I happen to agree with that assessment although if pressed, I’d have to research to identify his specific statements/posts leading me to that conclusion. So invoking his name here at this point of the present argument is like striking the nail with the hammer. It reinforces the misogyny I’ve received so far. The other reinforcement is that this section simply isn’t necessary for the chosen topic and could easily be removed and restated in your own words without impacting the presented argument.

    Mercy Thompson:
    Did you read the book you used as an example or did you only use the online discussions as data here? If you read the novel, what was your reaction to the story as a whole? How did the rape and power dynamics played out from your perspective? Did you find them realistic? What was the subtext about gender, violence, and power within the narrative of this story?

    From my personal reading experience Briggs captured a privileged white female’s rape. Oh, most definitely. She made me cry even though I knew exactly what was coming almost right from the beginning. As an author she absolutely fulfilled her “obligations” (for lack of a more precise word) when she decided to tackle the topic. That said, her character is not a privileged white female. Hence my original objection and yes, the distinction is quite subtle. The niggles don’t occur during the actual rape. See even within the female gender the response to sexual violence before, during and after is very different. There’s no right or wrong to react or feel.

    Did you do any research beyond your “thoroughly unscientific survey” to determine how sales numbers compared for the next book in the series? And even though some readers in your sampling had negative reactions and said they were giving up on the series, did the ones used in sample actually do so? On the flipside did Briggs gain readers by dealing with this difficult subject?

    I’ve often heard from women on the boards who’ve experienced sexual abuse say that JD Robb’s Eve Dallas series helped them heal/deal with their abuse and how they’ve glommed the entire series because of how JD Robb’s female protagonist is a character who relives her nightmares, fights here inner demons, etc.

    Eve Dallas could easily be a female Urban Fantasy protag if the series had been started today instead say 25 years ago. I have no actual data with numbers and I’m not really sure how one could gather the data easily but I’d try to include in a data sample for the purpose of analysis of this tangent of the argument.

    I understand why she would go there: because it’s where all the arrows are pointing.

    My immediate response: So all the arrows are pointing to the female protag getting raped. Are you F***ing kidding me?!?!?!?! I had to be misinterpreting the intent of that sentence so I took a step back and my secondary response: Says who. Why are all the arrows pointing there and where exactly is there?

    Then this sentence:
    I believe Urban Fantasy is about gender and power and violence, and that I can imply and suggest and disguise, but — as Card said — I can’t come right out with it.

    Then what does Urban Fantasy say about the male protagonists because Urban Fantasy isn’t only about the females? How about the female secondary characters supporting the male protagonists or even the female villains?

    Surely whatever it is that can’t be explicitly stated directly within your narrative can be examined in a post and the subsequent discussion to see how your hypothesis holds up during external scrutiny.

    —-
    The final paragraph is still a cop-out. As a privileged male, you have the unique opportunity to throw yourself into a situation where your power is taken from you. You feel safe, secure. You don’t think of yourself as a victim. You don’t have a cultural script running through your head about how you should act, dress, talk in the same fashion as a real life woman does. In all probability you’ve created a female protag who mimics more of your real life privilege than a real life female. I’m not complaining about that. But strip yourself of all of it. Allow yourself to become a victim. Don’t like rape. How about someone experiencing the holocaust or even a mugging.

    That said, I don’t need you to go there ever. In fact, I respect your right to not go there. But I reject your need to announce to the world that you’re not going there and then use flawed data to present an incomplete argument using that data when you never had any plans to go there in the first place.

    • And just as I send my last post, this comes through… timing. Gotta love it.

      First off, Anon, I want to say how much I appreciate your taking the time and energy to have this conversation with me. The internet ain’t well set up for folks like us to have an honest, civil conflict. I know this has been unpleasant for me, and I’m sure you had things to do that would have been more fun than talking this through. I appreciate what you’ve done here. It’s good work.

      Yes, I have asserted that urban fantasy takes its power from cultural unease about women, violence, and power (and to clarify, unease on the part of both men and women). I haven’t cited backup for myself on that one, and I’m not going to. I’m taking it as axiomatic. That’s what I think, and I think I’m right. 🙂

      Now the bit where they don’t — and don’t need to — fear rape turns out to be a failure of scholarship on my part. Turns out UF writers are much more open to explicit sexual victimization of their protagonists than I’d thought. Briggs isn’t even an outlier. I’m uncomfortable with that. Struggling even. Aghast. But there it is.

      When I wrote the first post, I thought including that kind of incredibly powerful, explicit sexual violence was a mistake. And I still do, it’s just now I think it’s a really common mistake. I’m sitting with that.

      I’m thinking about what you said about UF heroines as victims. I can understand your reading, but it’s not the one I have. I think the UF heroine I was talking about is a wish fulfillment character just the way that the hard-boiled private eye is, but with a different set of stresses coming in. I’m just thinking on my feet here, but it seems to me that Lew Archer and Sam Spade are about an emotional invulnerability in a way that Anita Blake and Buffy Summers aren’t. But I’m getting side-tracked here…

      What I guess I never stated here is that I think UF is a genre whose mandate is to offer comfort. Going back to Buffy, she was a character who could assume great power without having to change. She could be the Slayer and still “just a girl.” That’s where all the tension came from for at least the first five seasons.

      The question I see at the base of UF is this: can a woman coopt violence without being changed by it. Or, rephrased, can a woman take power without questioning the structures of femininity, and would she want to? I don’t think there are comfortable answers to those questions, but it would be lovely if there were. And the stories I’m thinking of — in all my limited scholarship 🙂 — are the ones where some reconciliation of that informs the story. To draw an analogy, it’s like the romantic comedies where two people’s love actually can solve any problem. It’s not life, and that’s why I go there.

      The Black Sun’s Daughter is my attempt to eat my cake and have it too. I want to write a series that gives me all the comfort and escapism that I’ve taken from Anita Blake and Buffy Summers and also offers the consolation that actually the changes that come with power aren’t so bad, so long as you miss some of the really bad ideas.

      I’m guessing that you may find that vision of fiction less noble or justified than one in which hard-hitting truths are presented in powerful ways. If that’s true, we may have a basic difference in taste.

      I’m going to clarify a couple points, and then talk a little about your closing statement. And then, I may be done. We’ll see.

      First off, when I said that all the arrow point there, I meant that when you’re working with issues of power and gender and violence, rape is a subject that’s going to come up. Turns out I was *way* right about that. And I still think it’s a mistake to go there.

      Second, let me just clarify that while I respect some of the technical expertise and writing craft insight that Orson Scott Card has, he’s just as misogynist (and homophobic) as you think, and worse. I am not his ally, nor is he mine. When, in the original post I talked about grabbing the third rail, I didn’t mean rape, I meant mentioning Scott Card any anything besides a condemning tone of voice. But it’s just I think he’s right about the role of subtext.

      And what I can’t come right out with is the subtext. If I were to write an urban fantasy with a protagonist saying “Well, I have tremendous power, but I am uncomfortable with how this reflects upon those attributes and roles by which I have traditionally defined myself” it wouldn’t be very good fiction. It’s too dry and on-the-nose. Raping the protagonist is also too on-the-nose. Questions like what it means for a woman to have the upper hand in situations of physical violence have to be addressed, what the proper relationship of femininity to agency is, and how to reconcile a new power dynamic with old-school scripts for sexuality and romance have to be addressed. But I think for the story to work as a story, it’s better done on the slant.

      So the question I’m coming back to is this: was it a mistake for me to write that original post? There’s an argument that it was. I was wrong about a bunch of stuff it in, and if I’d spent more time reading more books, gotten more and better data than I did, I wouldn’t have made some arguments that turned out to be untenable. I don’t enjoy making mistakes in public, which does kind of beg the question of why I get this job, but there you go.

      But the biggest mistake I think I made was radically underestimating the amount of explicit rape in urban fantasy. If anything, I think that makes the decision not to go there with Jayne Heller more to the point. I may be missing something.

      When you say that you reject my need to announce to the world that I’m not going there, using incomplete data and a less-than-sturdy argument when I never had any plans to go there in the first place, I respect that. I also reserve the right to go right on thinking out loud based on my experience, however limited it may be. And being wrong. In public, and embarrassingly.

      And. Yeah. I’m getting to where I don’t feel like I’ve got much more that’s useful to say, at least until the well refills. You want to make some closing remarks and fold up the stage here? What are your feelings on the process?

  5. “As a privileged male, you…”

    Dear anon, I was very interested to read your ‘interview’ with Mr. Abraham, but this is coming off as angry venting. Why not take a more rational tone? I think many readers would appreciate it, and it would be easier to determine if your argument has any substance.

    • Ah, j? I am a privileged male. White and heterosexual too. She’s just calling that what it is. And there’s no harm in her being angry. She’s been perfectly civil and rational about it, and I invited the conflict.

      I am a little unhappy with the format. I wish I’d found a way to have the conversation without it getting quite to that unclimbable-wall-of-short-essay-questions feel. And I wish she’d gotten to answer some of my questions about the role or subtext and fiction.

      Next time, maybe.

  6. “You feel safe, secure. You don’t think of yourself as a victim.”

    Why so persuaded of your privilege as a male? Perhaps these will unpersuade you:

    2008 male victims of violent crime per 1000: 21.4
    2008 female victims of violent crime per 1000: 16.7
    http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/glance/tables/vsxtab.cfm

    u.s. life expectancy for men: 75.6
    u.s. life expectancy for women: 80.8
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy#List_by_the_United_Nations_.282005-2010.29

    current unemployment rate for men over 20: 9.7
    current unemployment rate for women over 20: 8.2
    http://www.bls.gov/webapps/legacy/cpsatab1.htm

    Safe and secure?

    • Oh, j. No, dude. We’re privileged. We pay some pretty freaking steep prices for that privilege, but you have to cherry-pick the data hard to make us out to have the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

      We make more money for the same work. Our opinions are automatically given greater weight. We get to talk more in class. Most of the medical studies that therapies are based off were done with men as the test subjects. We’re cheated less often by salesfolk. we get more promotions at work. We’ve been able to vote for more than a hundred years. Our reproductive systems aren’t subject to legislative control. We’re raped *much* less often. I mean the list goes on forever.

      And yeah, it’s still a shitty job, and we badly need a real men’s movement in this culture (not one of these retrograde get-in-touch-with-your-inner-warrior yaya-fests). If you haven’t checked out the Good Men Project, you might should. It’s about the closest thing I’ve found to a real conversation about masculinity (even if I don’t always agree with the writers).

      But the part where I don’t live a life of unearned deference? Yeah, that’s a hard sell, my friend.

  7. The question as I saw it was simply: are men more safe and secure than women?

    Now, regarding the question of violence, safety, and security as it relates to gender, I can’t think of any statistics more relevant than the ones I cited, so it doesn’t make much sense to say they’re cherry-picked. The statistics show pretty unequivocally that men are more likely to be victims of violence, that they live shorter, less secure lives. So the answer is that, no, men are not more safe and secure than women.

    To restate the substance of your counterargument: men are richer, and they’re less likely to be raped (outside of prison, at least).

    Well, yes, that’s true, but all the same they’re not safer and more secure.

    As for the issue of privilege, I will have to defer to you on that one, though I’m not sure it’s entirely earned…

    • Ah, yeah, I didn’t see that being the argument.

      I’ll absolutely give you that men are more likely to die by violence than women. And if you restrict it to acts of sexual violence (which is where this whole thing started up), men have both a lower victimization rate and a lower subjective feeling of threat.

      We’re all on the same page now.

  8. Yes, I wasn’t very clear, probably because I was trying to make two different points:

    First, that I distrusted anon’s ‘privileged’ ad hominem argument, simply because it was an ad hominem argument, and

    Second, that the substance of this privilege as she described it (i.e. being safe and secure) was not factually accurate, or at least needed some very hefty qualifiers.

    If there is a privilege of some kind, it’s one that, as you describe it, ‘We pay some pretty freaking steep prices for.’

  9. I am here from Ferretbrain, where your original post, and this one, were linked, and I just wanted to say two things:

    You are a gentleman, and I very much admire the tone in which this discussion has been handled.

    I agree with you both about Card – who disturbs me quite a bit – and about agency. It really is better to leave the main subject of a story unstated. As an (admittedly privileged, because white and middle-class) woman, I also agree that the stereotypical kick-ass heroine is not my idea of a strong woman. For both men and women, violence and power are not the same.

    Fascinating discussion!

  10. Daniel, I might have to disagree with you in calling yourself a privileged individual. Yes, you have not had to fear hunger, violence, racism, or sexism (though some might argue against the last 2, that is a different topic all together). But that is what we are calling privileged these days?!? You should be a prime example of the “norm”. Why we look at someone who has anything less than that, and call it acceptable, is absurd. Some may call this naïve, but shouldn’t they be out convincing others that this should be the norm, instead of yelling at me for accepting anything less.

    I am a bit disappointed that anon spat that “privileged status” at you, like somehow you could not relate, or discuss a topic that you had not experienced. I have found, that most people who experienced a negative situation, generally are the most biased, and unable to relate to it other than their personal experience. I would think being outside the tropes of the person you are writing about, would give you much more creative freedom to work with the topic. (note the use of the work “think”, and that I was assuming a logical, open-minded group. Close-minded people have difficulty relating to any situation)

    You are the first author I have given a chance in the Urban Fantasy genre (basically cause I enjoy all of your other work, I have given it a shot). I have probably shied away from it because my definition of a woman completely contradicts everything I see Urban Fantasy to be about. I have a hard time equating women with violence (I consider that a good thing), and anyone grasping for Power has always left a bad taste in my mouth. Perhaps because either their motivations for power are poor, or Power corrupts, or a bit of both. So, anytime someone uses the phrase “powerful woman”, I cringe**. I have always gravitated towards intelligent/strong/confident women…and they need neither violence nor an automatic command of deference, to be that person.

    But the only good stories are ones with flawed characters, so please keep writing them!

    **Oh, men’s need / use of Power have been well documented over the years, but I am very intrigued (read: scared) how a woman would use power in a corrupt way. (Get crackin on a short story for us!)

Trackbacks

  1. Urban Fantasy and Fandom Hate | Cora Buhlert
  2. Moonfail: Or, Why I Look Forward to Being a Dinosaur
  3. Super Sad True Link Story « Torque Control

Leave a Response