Welcome to a new blog feature, wherein I share articles relevant to the book industry that have been published in the last few months and have provided some serious food for thought. Let me know what you think in the comments!
Such dismissals, to my mind, reflect a larger cultural anxiety. To their critics, these books’ popularity might point to a subversive energy among their readers. After all, these novels are explicitly uncomfortable with the standard roles accorded to women. They refuse to be satisfied, to play the victim. Classic sensation novels are safer propositions, because in them order is restored at the end, errant women are contained, no horrors are left gaping. Meanwhile, our contemporary “Girl” novels, bearing the influence of the noir tradition, and the messier landscape of true crime, aren’t much for tidy endings. They even bear a kind of threat: their readers, at least in fantasy, may not remain passive spectators to trauma and violence but may take action, by (metaphoric) box cutter or corkscrew.
What does it mean to be a white cis boy reading these books and watching these new shows? The same thing it has meant for everyone else to watch every other show that’s ever been made. It means identifying with people who don’t look like you, talk like you or fuck like you. It’s a challenge, and it’s as radical and useful for white cis boys as it is for the rest of us – because stories are mirrors, but they are also windows. They let you see yourself transfigured, but they also let you live lives you haven’t had the chance to imagine, as many other lives as there are stories yet to be told, without once leaving your chair.
What to do when you’re not the hero anymore (I highly recommend this one.)
Let’s leave aside the argument that, in fantasy, if you’re going to include dragons you can also plausibly include women in a range of roles. That’s absolutely correct, although it veers uncomfortably close to equating women’s presence in epic narrative to that of mythical creatures. As an argument to include women it’s not even necessary.
Of course there are already many fascinating and memorable female characters in epic fantasy, with more being added every year. So, yes, write women—write people—however you want, with no limits and constraints.
More importantly, any cursory reading of scholarship published in the last fifty years uncovers a plethora of evidence revealing the complexity and diversity of women’s lives in past eras and across geographical and cultural regions.
Writing Women Characters into Epic Fantasy Without Quotas (Provides a wonderfully comprehensive list of the roles women took on in ancient times, that aren’t just wife/nanny/prostitute.)
When I’m not writing, I work in a museum archive handling research requests and I can tell you that half the time what people are looking for simply does not exist, though they spend years searching. Records burn, get tossed or, more often, were not kept in the first place. Journals kept in the past were, of course, written by literate people with the leisure for self-contemplation. In the 1850s, in the early days of photography, guess what the rich people who could afford it weren’t taking pictures of: busy streets, servants, factories, markets, fairs, jails, hospitals, churches, farms and businesses. Can you guess what they were taking pictures of? Themselves. With that, our idea of the past tends to be generalized and sanitized into the lofty and romantic doings of the upper-classes: all balls, inheritances, and female propriety befitting a BBC drama. And even the working class people we do get in these shows still inhabit that world, just on the outskirts. Who wants to watch a show featuring an illiterate, drunk syphilitic who works fifteen hours a day in a rope factory?