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?
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?