three conversations at once

I have other things I should be doing, but wshaffer made a very good point in the comments to my last post, so I’m back for another round. And at this point I’ve made a tag for the grimdark discussion, because I’ve said enough that you might want to be able to track it all down.

To quote wshaffer:

The thing that strikes me about the grimdark discussion is that there are multiple different-but-interlocking conversations going on at once. One is an argument about whether “realism” is grounds for granting a work a higher degree of artistic merit. Another is an argument about to what extent realism actually requires focusing on the darker and more unpleasant aspects of life. And the third is: supposing that we grant that the historical prevalence of misogyny and rape requires that they be addressed in realistic fiction, are there ways of portraying them that do no themselves reinforce misogyny and rape culture?

I love things like this, because they simultaneously clear up a bunch of confusion in my head, and make it possible to see things I couldn’t before. Let’s take her questions one at a time.

Is “realism” grounds for granting a work a higher degree of artistic merit?

As soon as we put it like that, I know my answer: no. Because if the answer were yes, then mimetic fiction would automatically become superior to fantasy of any stripe — and while that may be the attitude pushed by modernism and the literary establishment, it isn’t one I have ever agreed with. We use non-realism all the time to make artistic/moral/thematic/etc points. The same is true of the sorts of “realism” this debate is concerned with. So, moving on.

To what extent does realism actually require focusing on the darker and more unpleasant aspects of life?

I myself committed the error of conflating realism with “darker and more unpleasant,” so I want to walk that back. I think that in this context, when we use that word, what we mean is “pragmatism.” Or “practicality.” If your hero can leap on a horse and gallop all day to deliver a message, you’re ignoring the practical reality of what horses can and cannot do. But not all practical matters are necessary dark and unpleasant: it is very pragmatic to bear in mind that a person in a medieval-type-society can’t break their word at every turn, or they will become a social pariah that nobody wants to deal with. Yes, sometimes people turn traitor — but making a consistent pattern of people doing so is both dark and unrealistic.

(Which means this touches on my personal definition of hard fantasy. Social issues aren’t as clear-cut and predictable as natural laws, but there is a logic there, which you may choose to follow or not in your stories. I tend to like the stories that do, and disconnect from the ones that don’t, whether they go in a Pollyanna or dis-Pollyanna direction — hat tip to matociquala and John Gardner for the latter term.)

rachelmanija brought up a corollary issue to this: is “realism” selectively defined by sexist (and other biased) criteria? As she points out, the average woman in medieval society might have been pretty powerless, but then again, so was the average man. Certain kinds of readers will rush to point out the “unrealism” of having a peasant woman become a warrior or whatever when in truth she would have been stuck at home raising kids . . . but they ignore the fact that a peasant man was going to be stuck at home plowing the fields and milking the cows and so on. Men didn’t live unrestricted lives, in those kinds of societies; they lived under different restrictions. We do, as a genre, asymmetrically apply our obedience to those truths, allowing exceptional men more easily than exceptional women.

Under my new definition, the “realistic” thing to do would be to look at what obstacles lie in the way of both men and women, and what conditions would need to be met/what obstacles they would have to overcome in order for the story to happen. And I don’t mean the obstacles we all assume should be there because that’s what we’ve seen in other fantasy novels; I mean the ones that genuinely occurred at similar points in history. Then, once you have those, you think through whether they should apply to your invented society, or whether the changed circumstances mean you should rethink this matter, too. (We call it “hard fantasy” because writing it is haaaaaaaaaaaard.)

Supposing that we grant that the historical prevalence of misogyny and rape requires that they be addressed in realistic fiction, are there ways of portraying them that do not themselves reinforce misogyny and rape culture?

Yes — but again, it takes work. Taking rape as the specific example: you have to pay attention to the countervailing factors against that danger, and the strategies used to defend against it. I don’t just mean strategies on the part of the victim, either; societies push back against this kind of thing, too. While it is true that the opportunity provided by chaos means some men will whip it out and try to stick it in anything that can’t run away fast enough, that isn’t true of every man. The offender’s peers may disapprove; authority figures may enact prohibitions, and punish those who break them. Military discipline is not an invention of the modern West.

Also — returning to the point above — you can’t let your assumptions dictate your framing. One of the attitudes provided by rape culture is that men are animals who can’t be expected to control themselves in the face of temptation; well, that simply isn’t true. Not unless you choose to write a society in which men are socialized to behave that way. It therefore isn’t “unrealistic” or even especially heroic to have your male characters resist the temptation to sexually assault women, or never feel that temptation in the first place. (It’s been too long since I read the book for me to form my own opinion, but one of the criticisms I’ve seen of Martin is that the narrative expects us to give Tyrion a good-guy cookie for not raping Sansa when he has the chance.) Another rape-culture assumption is that only women’s bodies are the targets of sexual violence, never men’s, so including such threats against men helps counter the standard narrative. (Even if you don’t go to the point of violence, remember that the taboo against homosexuality is far from universal, and there have been times and places where the pimpin’ lifestyle for a man was to have male lovers/visit male whores as well as female ones.) And then there’s the whole matter of nuance, which so often gets left out of these stories: if you’re going to put the rape of women into your book, then pay attention to the reality of how women actually deal with that, rather than pulling out Stock Trope #3 (She Gets Revenge!).

Above all, give those women a voice. Or the minorities, or the disabled, or whoever. Having one or more female protagonists isn’t proof against misogyny in the story, but it helps; it puts you in a position to counter the misogynistic pattern of women only being objects, never actors. I find Martin less problematic on this matter than some other authors because he has an abundance of women in his story, in a variety of different roles, many of them with point of view. He falls down in places — oh, does he ever — but if he had all that rapeyness and our only important female character was Arya the Tomboy? That would be worse. I have bounced off any number of recent fantasies because I am quite simply tired of stories in which there are virtually no women, and when those stories are also grimdark . . . yeah, I’m outta there.

And then we can bring this back around by saying, if your portrayal of rape is biased, and you’re defending it as realistic, and implying (or outright claiming) that it’s better on account of its realism . . . then you’re compounding the starting problem, and making the misogyny factor much more prominent than it would otherwise have been.

So my take on these multiple conversations would be to toss the “realism = superior” thing out the window, to decouple realism/grittiness/etc from grimdarkness (as per my last post), and then to have a more focused discussion about the specific portrayal of negative issues, and where the line is between depicting those things to critique them and depicting them out of habit, or for the shock value. Which is a situation where you’re mostly going to benefit from analyzing specific texts, before you try to make statements about trends — and that, I will admit, is where I probably have to step out, because I don’t have the data to argue my point. I haven’t read Martin since A Feast for Crows was released, got only halfway through Abercrombie’s first book, and so on with the rest of the key names in this debate. I know I don’t agree with every criticism I’ve seen of Martin (nor every defense), but I also know I should re-familiarize myself with the text before I try to debate it.

I doubt we’ll be able to get the debate to focus on that third question, because this is the internet. The conversation is going on in two dozen places, not all of which are aware of one another, and it’s sliding in new directions with each post. But I do think it helps to bear in mind that the question exists, and isn’t coterminous with the other things we’re talking about.

0 Responses to “three conversations at once”

  1. alecaustin

    As I attempted to say (I think with limited success) in my response to your previous post, I think there are not just three(+) conversations going on, but also different dimensions of grimness and grittiness and their relationship to a work as a whole which seem to be being treated as if they’re all the same thing. (Which I have just noticed you’ve pointed out in a different form, so yay.) Different participants are making different assumptions about whether realism and grit and grimness are the same thing, or necessarily related, and what that means about the content of books.

    I’m all for decoupling literary worthy from ‘realism’ or the rhetorical claim thereof, but I’m not sure it’s feasible, given how much of our response to fiction tends to be based on its emotional plausibility (if nothing else – and there often is at least something else).

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, that’s part of why I laid out a more complete and accurate definition of what I personally consider to be “realistic” and “gritty.” Because I have come around to the position that they aren’t the same thing as grimness, and so I want to separate discussion of that aesthetic choice from the aesthetics of mood (and, as pointed out, of morality as well).

      It’s interesting to me that you switched to the word “plausibility” when you brought up emotion. Probably that was just you avoiding word repetition, but it makes me consider the difference between realism and plausibility — the former, perhaps, requiring adherence to the rules of the world as we know it, and the latter allowing room for those rules to be altered, but then requiring them to play out sensibly thereafter. We’re quite firmly attached to emotional plausibility in modern fiction; that’s something I discussed in my most recent BVC post. But we don’t insist on it: lots of comedy, for example, depends on people behaving in ways exaggerated far beyond the bounds of normal behavior. (Of course, we tend to not value comedy as highly as drama.) I will grant, though, that emotion is one axis on which I’m less willing to allow the starting conditions to be changed. I don’t want perfect realism — if I were a character in a lot of stories I enjoy, I’d curl up into a ball and wibble, which none of them ever seem to do — but I want something recognizably human, unless the character I’m reading about is supposed to be an alien.

      • alecaustin

        Right, that gets straight to the heart of what I meant there. We may be perfectly happy to accept floating cities and Deus ex Machinae galore, but if someone responds to a thoughtful present that’s just what they wanted by vowing revenge or topping themselves or doing something else wildly inappropriate, most people’s reaction is going to be “Bwuh?” in the absence of *some* kind of explanation. And even then we’re very likely to be eying the author and their explanation suspiciously.

        The thing with plausibility is that it’s a lens that we apply silently and nearly universally, based on the genre conventions in play and what the text itself is telling us about the tone of the story. Comedy and farce are allowed to be implausible in terms of coincidence and the exaggeration of characters and their reactions, but the author usually needs to be “playing fair” in other regards – hell, the audience would be disappointed if there weren’t consequences for the various shenanigans in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or The Producers.

        Further, the exaggerations and coincidences that have the most impact are usually the ones that seem to express some kind of non-literal truth. The reason Miles Gloriosus singing “Bring me my Bride” is funny is because the audience knows every horrible thing it references happened and was, in fact, glorified in Rome.

        • Marie Brennan

          There’s also the matter of how characterization is often the idealized form of possibility. Most of us probably wouldn’t keep our heads and make pithy wisecracks in the face of mortal peril, but some of us might, at least a little. The emotional reaction bears the same resemblance to reality that dialogue does to speech: it’s the tidied-up, intensified version of things. But it has to feel naturalistic, or else be operating in a mode that signals the reader to expect non-naturalism — and even then, it had better be making some useful point, in its oblique way.

      • mindstalk

        So combined with “Social issues aren’t as clear-cut and predictable as natural laws, but there is a logic there”

        I guess part of the argument is “we can imagine different physico-magical laws that still allow for humans, but we can’t imagine medievalish societies of humans in which women don’t have the shittier end of the stick. Or we could, but it’d be just fantasy, nothing relevant to or based in any actual human society.”

        Which has some oomph at that level, though loses power when it gets specific about exactly how more shitty it has to be.

        (Magic? Mmm. Arguably if you haven enough magic to change gender relations, you have enough magic that you don’t have a medievalish society, or one like any other real society…)

  2. rachelmanija

    hat tip to matociquala brought up a corollary issue to this: is “realism” selectively defined by sexist (and other biased) criteria?

    I think that was actually me. πŸ˜‰

    • Marie Brennan

      Ack! Actually, what happened there was that I failed to close the lj user tag correctly, and the resulting code snarl ate the end of that paragraph along with your username at the start of the following one. I’m fixing it now.

      • rachelmanija

        It’s okay. πŸ˜‰

        One thing I’ve been thinking about is how one judges the level of sensitivity, for lack of a better term.

        I have literally never met anyone who thinks the depiction of rape in Deerskin is exploitative or contributes to an atmosphere in which the fictional rape of women is nothing more than a marker of grimdark.

        But other books which depict rape are wildly controversial – GRRM’s, for instance, or Beth Bernobich’s Passion Play. I haven’t read the latter, but I know it contains a gang rape and that people were very divided on whether or not it was exploitative. (I did notice that the people in the “not” camp were more likely to have actually read the book.)

        Some readers differentiate by a simple rule: do generally sympathetic characters clearly denounce rape as wrong and never the survivor’s fault? Does the victim/survivor clearly state that it was wrong and not blame herself? If yes, not exploitative; if no, probably exploitative.

        That’s a bit simplistic for my taste. But so is “rape exists, so rape is always there solely for realism.”

        • Marie Brennan

          Part of the problem is that we do have a trend of exploiting women’s suffering in a sexualized manner, for the titillation of the audience. So you have to be very, very careful in how you depict the scene, and even then, some of your readers may take a different message from it than you intended.

          Somewhere in all the link-diving, I came across a piece that brought up how Martin predominantly depicts sexual violence from the pov of the victim, rather than the perpetrator, and suggested this is at least a data point in favor of him trying not to be exploitative about it. I agree it’s at least another factor to throw into the pot, alongside the reactions of other characters, etc.

  3. sartorias

    Yes, exactly. This is why I’ve stayed out of it (besides that fact that I have better things to do than talk to the wall.) Too many conversations–that and the same names keep cropping up, and many of those I find unreadable for various reasons.

    • Marie Brennan

      The good news is, I think there’s people to talk to this time around who are more receptive than a wall. πŸ™‚ Which isn’t to say there aren’t people out there sticking their fingers in their ears and going “la la la” — Mr. “I can’t be bothered to say more than ‘meh'” comes to mind — but I think productive discussion is happening among other people.

  4. mrissa

    One of the thing about voices is that when people start talking about the unrelenting doomful oppression of women as How History Is Dammit, they are ignoring the actual recorded voices of actual women that we actually have. Take Steven Ozment’s Magdalena and Balthasar, for example: the titular Magdalena is not actually all that exceptional. She is a German merchant woman whose letters we happen to have. The things she says about her life and her relationships are not, “OH UNRELENTING DOOM WOE IS ME WOE I SAY WOE.” The appropriate response to this is not, in fact, “Shut up, bitch, what do you know?” Sure, we can imagine all sorts of things to improve this woman’s life, some of which she would have had a hard time even comprehending. But that doesn’t mean that it was unrelentingly awful, even from a modern perspective, much less according to the person who was living it.

    I was thinking, as I thought about this stuff, about my grandmother’s generation. My grandmother and her friends all worried about getting BLANK. They avoided doing things that we would consider fairly normal for fear that they would get BLANK. One of her dearest friends actually did get BLANK, and it affected her for the rest of her life.

    If you’re the grimmest of grimdarkest fantasy writers, the only possible word BLANK could be is “raped.” But in fact BLANK is “polio.”

    The past has a lot more to say on a lot more topics than we tend to have ears to listen.

    • mindstalk

      I was substituting “pregnant” for BLANK myself; well played.

      • mrissa

        Well, and I certainly don’t mean to say that none of my grandma’s friends ever spared a thought for rape or unplanned pregnancy. But I think we’re much more likely to jump to sex-related conclusions in this field than the multiple foci of people’s actual lives warrant.

        • Marie Brennan

          I suspect it’s very difficult for those of us who grew up with birth control as a ubiquitous thing to switch gears and understand how unplanned pregnancy was thought about before it was easy to prevent. Our associations with the entire concept are different.

          • mindstalk

            Of course, it is rather easy to give sexual satisfaction with 100% prevention of pregnancy, if one doesn’t insist on P-i-V sex…

            (Something Cersei refers to when asked how she avoided having more babies by Robert. No magical herbal birth control, just getting a drunkard off before he could stick in her. Healthier relationships might manage mutual pleasure…)

          • Marie Brennan

            Yup. And we’ll never be able to prove it, because this isn’t the sort of thing people documented, but it’s likely that such methods have been used as birth control for thousands of years.

    • rachelmanija

      That is an excellent example.

    • Marie Brennan

      Magdalena makes me think of Marian de Charetty in Niccolo Rising. Fifteenth-century Flanders is not not my métier, but she struck me as a very reasonable depiction of an educated, urbanized, moderately wealthy widow in that time period: facing difficulties, some of which were due to her gender, and then finding ways to deal with them. But if you asked a lot of people to describe the life of a European woman in the 1400s, they wouldn’t describe Marian de Charetty, and they might not even believe she’s possible.

      As for your BLANK, disease did occur to me, though not polio specifically. Then again, I appear to be making a habit of giving my characters diseases, so. πŸ™‚

  5. mindstalk

    Mmm, I partially admit error, especially with regard to my last paragraph wording (“change gender relations”); birth control certainly isn’t “unlike any real society” though I think it’s unlike medieval ones.

    OTOH, I can’t think of any society in which women in no way whatsoever have the shittier end of the stick, so that’s harder to imagine… may not be relevant for typical authorial purposes, though.

    What’s the effect of matrilineality? I’ve read it’s not necessarily a panacea for women’s issues in general — “women make the beer, men drink it” — but it solves sexual lock-up issues, right? Fantasy tends to ignore such societies, and also the role of divination magic in paternity testing, which I suspect would sexually liberalize even patrilineal cultures. I don’t think I’ve seen *any* fantasy touch on that, even though it’s rather simple and straightforward.

  6. Marie Brennan

    Haven’t read that one, so I can’t say. But you’re reminding me that one of the things I haaaaaaaaaaated about P.C. Cast’s Warrior Rising was the way the modern characters reacted to being chucked back in time to the Trojan War. It was tone-deaf in a dozen different ways.

  7. mindstalk

    Oh yeah, I had the Aka in the back of my mind. And maybe the Iroquois/Cherokee. I don’t know if they were “in no way the shittier end” but certainly seem a lot shallower at least.

    Thanks for the linearity notes.
    IIRC Aka women ‘own’ their huts, and Tuareg women own their tents while men own the animals; the former might be a case of women owning everything but then, hunter-gatherer, ownership not that relevant. Both allegedly have a divorce model of “I came home and she’d put my stuff outside.”

    ‘it’s the wrong kind of wish fulfillment to pass muster with a certain block of the readership.’

    Yeah. Fireballs and dragons are fine, but magic replication of useful technology attracts ridicule. We want Merlin, not artificial lighting for peasants!

    • Marie Brennan

      Lots of societies have had a divorce method that amounts to “I came home and she’d put my stuff outside.” πŸ™‚ As for property, honestly, our ways of thinking about it are kind of firmly locked into the assumptions of a state-level society, so when we talk about people “owning” things, we’re frequently on the wrong foot to begin with. But yes, it’s not uncommon for women to have authority over the house and domestic matters, in a way that is more significant than we (with our denigration of domestic matters) tend to understand.

      Fireballs and dragons are fine, but magic replication of useful technology attracts ridicule. We want Merlin, not artificial lighting for peasants!

      One of the ways in which the worldbuilding of the Harry Potter books falls down for me, hard, is that it fails to think through the implications of being able to do XYZ with magic, and what kinds of moral obligations that imposes on wizarding society re: the rest of the world.

  8. Anonymous

    Oh yeah, been heard about Viking ‘keyholders’. And Japanese wives running the finances, giving their husbands an allowance out of the salary the man brings home.

    Potter implications and obligations: ?

  9. Marie Brennan

    Men in one region of Turkey pretty much have to beg their wives for cigarette money, because the women control the income from their carpet-weaving, which is the vast majority of the income in the household.

    Re: Harry Potter — to pick one example, they can magically mend all kinds of horrific injuries that are more difficult and risky for modern science. And at one point you get a character (a sympathetic one, if memory serves) saying that they have to stay hidden from the Muggles, because otherwise “they’d want us to solve all their problems for them.”


    (And then there’s the flip side, which is that the wizarding world insists on sticking with quills and scrolls when Muggles have computers. Basically, most of the worldbuilding is driven by “what Rowling thought was shiny,” rather than any thought for logic.)

    • mindstalk

      Don’t magic and (electronic?) technology interact badly, or is that just Hogwarts?

      But, yeah. Books still fun, though, and strong in their own ways. Kind of like Mr. “Yay for your conlangs, now what did elves and dwarves eat before the Sun came up?” Tolkien.

  10. Anonymous

    And *especially* Thud!

  11. Anonymous

    Muses think this kind of thing is hilarous.

  12. Anonymous

    And I mean, there’s some chance that Zoe is going to have significant overlap. But there will be the times in the variant universe when Carter took Zoe to the beach instead of working, or vice versa, and–some of those times would show up. In conversation. In influence. There won’t be as many of them as with autistic vs. not-autistic Kevin, because with the severity of his autism, there had to be many times when things would have been hideously unpleasant for him and great fun for variant-Kevin. But even the process of finding that out matters. What assumptions your parents start to make about how new things will go, they matter so much.


  13. Anonymous

    Yay! The more the merrier.

  14. Anonymous

    Yay, title!

    Yay, other cool news!

  15. Anonymous

    I just started reading “History of Dragons”. Enjoying it very much. πŸ™‚

  16. Anonymous

    And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood

    The cover was on a WWJD book that provided scriptural guidance for the trials and tribulations of being a teenager. Like peer pressure and sarcasm.

    I don’t know why everyone kept threatening to give it to me.

  17. Anonymous

    and his name is called the Word of God

    Ahhhhh, right. For some reason I misremembered it as being a CD cover. I should have known it was nothing so innocuous.

  18. Anonymous

    On Alex’s motivation: I recently heard the author answer that question in her GOH talk at Vericon, would you like to hear how she answered it? (I’m not suggesting that that would change what you want in a fic, just offering it in case you’d like to hear it as well.)

  19. Anonymous

    I have a confession to make. I never even began the books. I watched the show, well, *cold*, as it were, and if they veered out of canon on TV (which I gather they did at some point, from True Fans of teh books…) it never touched me because I didn’t know that canon organically, as it were, myself. And honestly, I never did feel teh urge to read the books. I mean I do like me some epic fantasy but it can get TOO epic, if you like, and if it starts running to THOUSANDS of pages (in which nothing happens) and decades of chronolgical real-time in order for it to resolve, well, I just kind of quit without starting…

    …but this…

    “Martin falls victim of the stereotypical vice of the epic fantasy writer, the Interminable Journey (With Bonus Infodumps).”

    …I so SERIOUSLY love you for writing that sentence. πŸ™‚

  20. Anonymous

    My employer made a decision at the corporate level that we will not install Windows 8. We run 7, and are going to sit tight and hope that whatever follows 8 will be more usable. That’s all the recommendation I need to avoid it when the current laptop expires and I need to upgrade (still running XP right now).

    I’ve had good success with Dells, but I’m not a power-gamer. My wife bought a gaming-optimized PC because she plays lot of on-line games (Everquest, City of Heroes, etc.) made by Ibuypower, which has been OK. The fan has gotten noisy lately, but it is 2 years old and lives in a house full of cats. I should probably open it up and clean things out.

    My last 2 laptops and our last last 2 desktops have come from I recommend them highly for price and selection. I’ve never had occasion to deal with customer service.

  21. Anonymous

    That looks like an awesome syllabus you came up with.

Comments are closed.