The countdown is started. It’s a month until Vicious Grace hits shelves, and I’m getting nervous about it. I always do this. You know, covertly start checking the Amazon ranking (even though I know it doesn’t actually provide solid, useful data), checking for early reviews, and generally throwing the bones in hopes that it’s going to do well.
It’s an illness. It really is.
But something happened at my reading at MileHiCon that I wanted to talk about.
So let’s start here.
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. The typical UF heroine (as I’ve come to understand her) is a kick-ass woman with a variety of possible lovers. 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.
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.
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. And so — while urban fantasy embodies so many of the insecurities about women and power — here, it falls into real fantasy. 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.
As the beneficiary of masculine power, I’m also skeptical of it (which is part of what made the Black Sun’s Daughter books a nifty project for me). But I’ll go into that another time.
(Daniel pauses, looks at the third rail, sighs.)
So. With that in mind, let’s talk about Orson Scott Card.
Card is many, many things, several of them admirable, many of them odious, but whether you admire him or hate him or pity him, or all three at once, give the man this: he’s not dumb. One of the pieces of writing advice I’ve gotten (second-hand — I’ve never met the man) from him was this: If the story’s about something, you can’t say it. The example cites was that if a story is about guilt, you can’t use the word guilt when you’re writing the story. it takes the power out of it. By putting too fine a point on it, you give the game away.
If you look at the reactions to those urban fantasists brave and thoughtful enough to address rape intentionally in their books (and I’m thinking of Patricia Briggs here), even when the readers like the books and care about the character, there’s a strong negative reaction. Enough that (my thoroughly unscientific survey shows) people step away from the series.
I don’t know Patricia Briggs. I’ve never met her. I haven’t talked to her about this. But she’s a damn good writer, her books were some of the work that convinced me there was something interesting going on in this genre, and I understand why she would go there: because it’s where all the arrows are pointing.
So at MileHiCon, I did a reading. I had half an hour, and I did a sampler plate of all my present projects. A section from the forthcoming Leviathan Wakes, part of a chapter from The Dragon’s Path, and the full introduction from the fourth Black Sun’s Daughter book, Killing Rites. (It’s going to be about a year before that one comes out. Vicious Grace is the next one. It’s coming out shortly. Did I mention I was a little nervous about that? Anyway . . .)
In the introduction to Killing Rites, I wanted to play a little change on the Evil Thing on Lover’s Lane trope. I had my couple out in the middle of nowhere. I had my supernatural evil in the woods. But instead of having my Boogum interrupt the wholesome mating ritual of the American adolescent, I had it break up a rape in progress. Now, I knew what I was doing, so I wasn’t ever worried for the poor girl in the story. The listeners didn’t have that.
Ty was sitting in the back of the room. He said that when I first used the word rape, he could see the people in the room tense, and that when the Boogum appeared and it became clear that I wasn’t going to pull an Irreversible on them, there was relived laughter. Even when, later in the section, people began to think that the Boogum might kill the girl, the tension never rose again to the level it had been at before.
The fact of the matter is that I can’t write about rape. Not directly. Not explicitly. For one thing, I’m a man writing a woman under a suspiciously gender-neutral pseudonym; the questions of subtext and privilege get too squicky too fast. But for another, it breaks the contract I’ve implicitly made with the readers. I can talk about betrayal and death, trauma and the aftermath of trauma, sex and fear and violence, but just not all at once. I write Urban Fantasy, and I feel this is the boundary of my chosen genre. If I were to write hard-boiled crime or mimetic literature, the rules would be different. But 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.
It breaks the rules, and the rules are there for a reason.