While I was getting dressed this morning the following question ambushed me–like they do, when you’re on a writing deadline–so violently that I felt compelled to tweet about it:
Can you critique a thing while indulging in its worst excesses?
I have to finish this effing book and I’m not supposed to be on twitter and I’m not supposed to be blogging so I’m pretty embarrassed that I’ve broken my vow so quickly. And I admit when I asked this question I was maybe gearing up to go off on one. But I have changed my mind. So (although I’m digesting the comments & links, thank you for offering them) this post isn’t going to be about The Books That Got It Wrong. It’s going to veer somewhat.
Earlier today when I asked the question, I was thinking of some works that have been hailed as wonderful though they struck me as meatheaded poop playing straight for the worst side of Hollywood. Fortunately for us all, in the course of the subsequent chat I have realized something more interesting.
In asking the question I wanted the answer to be NO you CANNOT critique something and indulge in its worst excesses also. Can. Not. Be. Done.
Then I thought a bit and within about ten seconds I thought of The Shining Girls.
And then, right on the heels of that came two other books that have been talked about a lot lately, God’s War and Ancillary Justice.
(I tested NK Jemisin’s work in my mind against this question. What I’ve read of her is not so much subversion as a complete rehaul—different story)
To my mind, these works take male-dominated forms (serial killer, military fantasy, space opera) and critique their content while at the same time being good strong examples of the form and that are not afraid to go into darkness, sensation. ‘Worst excesses?’ Well, no. But if they did I’m not sure I’d blame them.
So we see male-created forms being repurposed, reclaimed perhaps, by women. It’s got to take some considerable insight, care, and cleverness to pull this off successfully. Does it also take the empathy of living inside a woman’s skin?
Could a man have written The Shining Girls? If the author had been a dude, would the book have pissed me off?
I’m afraid that it probably would have. Good thing Lauren didn’t need to use a male pseudonym.
These are some of the questions I ask myself when interrogating my sense of what feels OK, interesting and what feels horrible. It seems unfair of me. Shouldn’t the author’s name be scrubbed off the book when receiving their work? Am I not ashamed to admit how I really feel?
I’m so done with being ashamed of stuff like that. There are things I feel bad about but this isn’t one of them.
Of course, in some cases there’s no judgment call to be made. It’s obvious that the cutting-edge edge-cutter I’ve just read is unconsidered, ill-thought, and lazy to a degree that’s inexcusable even if the author’s name is Skippy the Bush Kangaroo.
And then I realise what is really going on in my head. I am feeling oppressed by the sexy violent thriller form, which always seems to be lurking there as ‘What the System Wants.’ It has always felt like a straightjacket to me. And I feel like it’s blocking my light.
I once tried to write a story about pushing back against The Hollywood. I could do the critique part easy. I could do the played-for-laughs part about getting a bit of crunchy revenge, as a woman–that was almost embarrassingly easy. And then I came to the part where the alternative had to be offered up. And I had nothing.
Absolutely fuck all, I had.
It was like the time after a few pregnancies when I tried lean way over and grab something off a high shelf and I lost balance and fell because there was a gaping hole in the middle of my abdomen where my recti muscles used to be. I reached and I got nothing.
You know what else it was like? It was like the end of Thelma and Louise. I mean, when you’re turned your back on the whole charade, when you’ve said FUUUUUCKKKK YOOOUUUUUU where do you go except off into the blue sky? The blue sky is empty. The blue sky is falling.
So if you are Louise and/or Thelma and/or their unfortunate automobile, how do you do a Ray Bradbury: jump off a cliff and build your own wings on the way down?
This is what I ask myself as a woman SF writer—and I’m a white, American woman SF writer, so I’m like only maybe a degree or two Different to the accepted ‘norm’ insofar as origins go. And I feel daunted.
It’s one thing to push back against a known adversary. It’s another thing to build something from scratch.
Especially when nobody wants baked-from-scratch. They want something that fits in a package. The package determines the product, it seems to me. And I see newer writers getting discouraged because of this, placing limitations on themselves when they should be in the blue sky.
There are many story forms on this planet that lie beneath the Western cultural radar. Wouldn’t it be cool to discover them? Wouldn’t it be cool to invent new ones.