commentary invited

Normally I wouldn’t single out a commenter on this journal for public (and communal) rebuttal. But in this case, the comment was posted anonymously. Now, maybe the person in question just doesn’t have an LJ account, and didn’t realize that it’s generally appreciated for such people to sign their comments. On the other hand, maybe not.

The comment was posted in response to my issues with The Lies of Locke Lamora. Here it is, in its entirety.

It seems to me that a lot of books these days throw in a mixed cast for the hell of it, to be PC, to try to please everybody. Some stories are just Man Stories; some are just Women Stories. Could you imagine a random female having been thrown into, say, DELIVERANCE? The whole idea is silly. I say you should write a story as it is–if it’s male adventure, then that’s what it is; throwing in a woman won’t make it different or better.

So: either an honest person who didn’t realize they should sign their comment, or someone hiding behind anonymity because of the substance of said comment. Either way, I don’t much care who it was, because I’m not looking to attack the person behind the words; I’m looking to attack the words themselves. Because I think this statement is very wrong-headed.

Here’s why I’m posting it: I know how I feel about the statement, but I’m having trouble articulating why. The thoughts are there; I just can’t catch them and make them settle down as words. (Not efficiently. I could maunder inefficiently on about the essentializing notion of Man Stories and Women Stories and the popular straw-man of “just to be PC.” But nobody wants to read four pages of me trying to get to the point.) So I turn to you, my mighty LJ readers, to help me out on this one. I know there are any number of you who could go to town on the fallacies of that comment, and I invite you to do so.

That way, the next time this comes up, I’ll be able to articulate my arguments against it more concisely than I can right now.

0 Responses to “commentary invited”

  1. unforth

    I’m not one of those people who are good at this sort of rebuttal, and anyway I know my views on this sort of thing are not quite normal. However, to me the problem is with the idea that the author of book is disenfranchised (not quite the right word, but I think it conveys the idea) by the statement that the mixed cast has been produced “for the hell of it.” Sure, there are some who do this just to be PC, but sometimes there are reasons, even if they are not deep and meaningful. I mean, depending on where you are from, a mixed group is perfectly normal, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be a possibility in fiction, either. Tell me that the all boys school drama set in…er…Sweden…has a cast that includes a cross dresser (either male or female), a two blacks, a latino, and an Asian, and I’ll be skeptical, unless it’s shojo manga. But set in most places, or in a fantasy setting…I don’t know, I don’t think I’m doing much better than you feared you would at saying what I mean but the part of that comment that bugs me is definitely the throw away of “for the hell of it.”

    Probably not what you’re getting at, but there you go. 😉

  2. d_c_m

    Outline of Thoughts:

    1. Stories are cool. They help us know who we are.

    2. Most stories about the full human condition revolve around men. Hence women often feel left out.

    3. By adding women into stories, we can see the human condition is universal and not just limited to white men.

    4. Thoughts: Hmmmm…. Deliverance with a woman. Yes, it would be interesting. Perhaps part of the Deliverance story was to show just how bad rape is, but due to our society, this could only be shown by men being victimized.

    5. Get over yourself. Your comment actually shows your bigotry.

  3. tessagratton

    The problem starts with the initial assumption of “man stories” and/or “woman stories.” That sets up a false dichotomy from the very beginning. It assumes that men and women automatically enjoy different things, have different adventures, and are inherently unable to comingle. That the inclusion of a woman in a story makes it LESS of a “man story,” or vice versa.

    Whenever we tell a story it should be deliberate. Everything about it should be deliberate: who the characters are, what happens, how they react, etc. If all the characters are men, or white (or whatever), there should be a reason – not just a priviledged, automatic set up. Especially in stories that take place in our current society (or a similar fantastical version of it).

    If I’m writing a story that takes place in a modern urban center, I’m not “just throwing in” people of various genders and races to be PC, I’m doing it to be realistic.

    • mrissa

      If I’m writing a story that takes place in a modern urban center, I’m not “just throwing in” people of various genders and races to be PC, I’m doing it to be realistic.

      And if you* are writing a story in a world that you made up whole cloth, the fact that you made it up whole cloth to exclude large groups from the kinds of stories you find interesting is not a fact of nature.

      I don’t actually think that that’s what Scott did here, having read the second book. But there are authors who consistently make up worlds where women can’t do anything interesting, far above and beyond historical and contemporary non-feminist societies, wherein — guess what? — women, like men, manage to find interesting things to do as long as there’s breath in their bodies. There are authors who consistently make up worlds where all the persons of color just happen to be primitive oafs. Saying, “Well, that’s just how that culture is,” doesn’t cut it in the long-run if you’re the one who made up that culture.

      *Where by “you,” I don’t mean you.

  4. auriaephiala

    I don’t agree with the anonymous comment.

    There are some stories where the setting will restrict which gender is participating: in Wellington’s Army in the Peninsula, for example, it would have been difficult to find a woman regular soldier (they did exist, but rarely), and effectively never a female officer.

    But what the commentator seems to be implying is that certain traits or certain stories are peculiar to men or women — and that’s a very narrow view of both genders.

    Single-gender stories can work, and can be appropriate. But it seems to me that should be the careful choice of the writer, after considering other options, and not just the lazy choice.

  5. kleenestar

    At some level, the poster here is totally right. Yes, there are some stories where the characters need to be male, and some where the characters need to be female. The problem is that he – and it’s almost always a he writing these kinds of things – is reasoning from extreme cases to the ordinary ones.

    To me, the problem is that the idea of what is “ordinary” and “normal” for many kinds of stories simply does not include women. This is something you run up against in all corners of the world: that when something is for or about or by men, it’s normal, but when a woman does it, it’s the exception. This is the worldview that’s being reflected by the comment above. When we define our narrative norms as being about men – except, of course, for the few, despised women-centered genres – then we are buying into the idea that men are at the center of the world.

    I also think that the notion of writing a story “as it is” is fucking ridiculous. That’s just a shabby excuse for refusing to take a critical or thoughtful attitude toward one’s own work. You are responsible for what you write, and for the ideas that you convey. If you write a story “as it is,” then that means you’re taking an active stance in favor of the narrative status quo. Me, I think we can do better than that.

    I know that’s neither pithy nor concise, but that’s the best I can do right now ….

  6. drydem

    alright, I dislike this sort of criticism because it highlights a frustrating misconception about the rhetorical purpose of narrative. Many english teachers have drilled into their students the purity of narrative art, saying that fictional literature is some sort of ‘pure art’ without communicative purposes beyond the aesthetic. Every story communicates more than simply the plot or the poetry, but also things like worldview and social context. For instance, Deliverance was a statement of establishment-oriented worldview, with the rural folk being portrayed as violent, inbred, and ignorant of things such as gender roles(in the homophobic horror sequence of Ned Beatty’s rape). This is beyond the simple plot or poetry of the story and communicates a certain worldview beyond the basics of narrative.
    So, to such people, I would say that stories that feature women or racial/ethnic minorities as subordinate characters or villains communicate a worldview of women and minorities as subordinate and evil. So by including a diverse set of characters in a diverse set of roles, a worldview of anti-racism/anti-sexism is portrayed. If this seems to be merely politically correct, that is because the dominant worldview of narrative into which we are all indoctrinated is a colonial patriarchal worldview in which women and the ethnic are objects of narrative, not subjects with agency. Princesses, villains, shopkeepers, sidekicks and dames, not heroes or active participants in their narratives. It seems unheimlich because narrative has indoctrinated us to think of stories as male/female and until we issue a period of narrative correction, it will not change.
    That being said, I am not a fan of tokenism. When a character included is merely a stereotype or an example for the sake of uncommented diversity, then it often serves the goalss of the colonial patriarchal worldview.

  7. warriorofworry

    comment comment

    That comment was a poorly thought out expression of bigotry, by someone who doesn’t understand the process of a) writing b) marketing, and possibly not c) reading.

    It seems to me that a lot of books these days throw in a mixed cast for the hell of it, to be PC, to try to please everybody

    HMM. All of the qualifiers in that sentence: “seems”, “a lot” “these days”. Can I haz sum actual examples?

    A “mixed cast” of what? Racially mixed? Sexually mixed? (hell, trans-sexually mixed?) from different planets of origin?

    In writing, more work to describe physically/culturally different than same
    More work ≠ “hell of it”
    “To be PC” PC to (fill in the blank)? Bush Republicans? Catholics? Gore Democrats? Pagans? Lesbian Separatists?
    “To try to please everybody” – see above.

    Some stories are just Man Stories; some are just Women Stories.

    The plots of some stories do revolve around a particular gender role during a particular cultural era. Given that these change over time and/or are malleable concepts in SFF (and I can hear you, childbirth INCLUDED), No such thing.

    I say you should write a story as it is–if it’s male adventure, then that’s what it is; throwing in a woman won’t make it different or better.

    “Throwing in” elements of a story never works. Careful plotting and characterization do. I say, you should write your stories. I’ll write mine.

    And Deliverance? Heh. Heh.

  8. anghara

    YES, there are stories that by definition might appeal more to a male or a female readership. The so-called chick-lit – genre – if men obsess with things that Bridget Jones is shown as obsessing with, they certainly don’t show it. But then, not even Bridget Jones obsesses with the things that Bridget Jones obsesses with, if you follow my meaning – certain things are brought into closer focus because that’s what the author wanted to concentrate on, that’s all.

    However, being self-evidently a woman, I resent the idea that I ought to be interested in Bridged Jones-type stories and those alone. There are no “man stories” or “woman stories”, there are stories that interest me and there are stories that do not, and frankly when it comes to that thing that’s between me and the story I am part of no “demographic”, it’s between me and that particular story.

    What I resent deeply is people “recasting” stories to make them more PC, actually. I hated the Lord of the Rings movies with a passion – so bloody what if there were no real female story lines in the LOTR story? That just wasn’t the story; the arbitrary introduction of Arwen -as-warrior-queen bugged the living daylights out of me. Frankly, I don’t count the gendered characters in a story and award it some arbitrary pass-or-fail level if it has or doesn’t have an adequate number of both human genders. The pass-or-fail comes on the strength of what is DONE with those genders within the context of that story. There are plenty of women in the Gor books; that still doesn’t make me want to rush out and read them. Characters, male OR female, should be active participants in their stories, should BELONG there, should have a part to play there – if they are there just for show, or for window dressing in order to make the story a “male” or a “female” one, then it’s just a bad story. It doesn’t matter WHAT sex you give to it.

  9. ratmmjess

    Leaving aside the essentialism of a “Man Story” or a “Woman Story,” do most people have lives that are filled with only men or only women? Or lives in which the opposite sex are only minor, secondary characters? I don’t think a mixed cast is P.C. so much as a move toward realism.

    Of course, this person’s objections can be made to the presence of non-whites and glbts in fiction as well, and the objections are as meaningless and reactionary there, too.

  10. dsgood

    In the 1950s, sf stories set after the end of civilization usually had little or no mention of places outside the (former) United States. Not very realistic, since there are two other countries in North America. It might be that later writers who mention Canada and Mexico do so only because it’s politically correct, but I doubt it.

    In that period, English sf writers tended to write about futures in which England was still a world power and had become a Great Power in space. And yes, that’s “England” rather than “United Kingdom.” Acknowledgement that there are other countries in the UK, and that the UK is no longer a major power (as it probably no longer was in the 1950s) might be seen as political correctness.

  11. anima_mecanique

    I’m just sort of boggling at the fact that I actually didn’t even notice the lack of women in the book. I need to stop reading so much turn-of-the-century pulp.

    MY problem with the comment is that it’s assuming that a book with a diverse cast is doing it to be ‘PC’…that men (or white people, or whatever) are included automatically but you have to have a pressing plot reason to have women and non-white people in there. The assumption being that an interesting female character can’t just be an interesting character like a male one — her inclusion has to somehow be justified outside of “this character is effective and important to the plot”.

    I don’t know, that annoys me.

    • Marie Brennan

      I don’t know if I would have noticed had I not spent some time waiting (fruitlessly) for Sabetha to show up.

      Good point, though, about what does and does not “need” to be justified.

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