General

Early Exposure to SF/F

I read a comment on a Fantasy Faction article earlier today that made me sad. In an article about how women are systematically under-represented and under-marketed in the SF/F genres, some dudebro felt the need to comment asking, and I quote, “Honestly, who really cares if there aren’t as many female authors as male authors…?” Apart from the obvious answer — the person who wrote the article, the many female authors, their fans, and anyone else with two brain cells to rub together — he then somehow managed to top his own ignorant, entitled self by explicating that fantasy is male dominated because things like adventure, exploration, self-realization, and wanting to protect and provide for a family are experiences that are particular to the male gender.

Yeah.

This attitude is both depressing and offensive. It’s almost bewildering to me that people can still actually think that in 2014 — but, then again, it’s not, because I’m all too familiar with just how little so many people think of women. Being politically active will dispel you of any illusions to the contrary real quick, as will just, y’know, being a woman in public.

But it still baffles me that this attitude can be sustained in the world we live in now. The blinkers that someone has to put on not to see women for what they are must just be astonishingly large. To so wholly fail to understand that half of the species has hopes and dreams and desires just like your half… I understand that many men (and some women) can do this. I just don’t comprehend how they manage it.

And it got me thinking about my very first experience with the fantasy genre and how that may have shaped my own outlook.

I'm readyMy earliest experience with fantasy, at least that I can remember, wasn’t Disney. It wasn’t the cherished book of fairy tales I had, whose illustrations are still what pop into my mind first when anyone mentions Rapunzel, the Snow Queen, or the Princess and the Pea. It wasn’t My Little Pony. It was The Last Unicorn. The film, not the book — but when I later discovered the book at age 12, I thought it was one of the most brilliant things that had ever happened to me. I know I wasn’t any older than 3 when I first saw the movie, though, and it had a profound impact on me. I wanted to watch it over and over again. I memorized all my favorite lines. I had my cousins playing “free the unicorns” with me in the crashing waves of the Outer Banks. Over the next few years, the games got more complex. I have vivid memories of, age 5 or so, essentially role-playing a sequel to the book in my grandmother’s backyard. Schmendrick had gotten kidnapped by an evil sorcerer, and we plucky band of young girls had to go save him. There was much climbing of trees and scraping of knees.

These memories are important to me for a lot of reasons. It one-thousand-percent discredits the notion that fantasy is a boys-only genre, that little girls don’t like adventuring, that women fundamentally lack those relationships. And it discredits the idea that little girls can only see themselves as damsels in distress. It never even occurred to me. Probably because the women in that story, my first exposure to the genre, were anything but helpless maidens waiting for a rescue. Molly and Amalthea smash that trope all over the place. It may have been written by a male author, but it’s definitely a female-centric story. Molly is a cantankerous mature woman, far from virginal and innocent, who up and decides that, yes, she is joining this adventure. Just shows up and says, “I’m ready.” She works hard, isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty, and says what she thinks. For her, the reclamation of herself comes later in life than the stereotypical coming-of-age, but it’s no less important for that. (Indeed, as I close in on 30 myself, I think it may be even moreso). Amalthea is, as a unicorn, proud and standoffish, yet somewhat reluctant to embrace her destiny as the last of her kind. When she gets turned into a woman, she spends a while looking like the stereotypical damsel in distress, maybe even wanting to be — but it doesn’t fit. Her destiny — her birthright, which that commenter believes only male characters are endowed with — catches up with her. She has to stand up to evil. She has to drive the Red Bull into the sea and free her people. She has to avenge Prince Lir. No one, least of all the ladies themselves, suggests that their female bodies preclude them from these experiences.

Would my outlook have been much altered if this hadn’t been my first experience in the genre? I doubt it. I grew up with such supportive parents who were equally happy to buy me dolls or dinosaurs, to take me to dance classes or to teach me to rappel, that I developed an immunity to a lot of the gender-coding that affects kids. (Which is certainly not to say I never internalized any misogyny, just that it wasn’t of that particular girls’ toys/stories vs boys’ toys/stories type). But I’m still glad that The Last Unicorn was my first introduction to the genre. It meant I never had to doubt if there was a place for me in it.

Bits of Fun

Book Meme

Another survey borrowed from Jodie Llewellyn.

What are your top three book pet hates?

1. The virginity/hymen myth getting perpetuated in romance novels. It’s bad enough to keep telling the people reading them (many of them young women who may not have sexual experience yet – it’s certainly where I got plenty of my early sex ed from) that a woman’s first time should be painful, but the fact that these female authors don’t even seem aware of the basic anatomy of the situation just drives me up the wall. Spoiler: the hymen isn’t a couple of inches inside the vagina, and in almost all women, it’s not a barrier, but rather a membrane that already has perforations and has generally stretched plenty enough to accommodate invited appendages (or, y’know, tampons, for that matter). If it is a barrier, that’s an actual medical condition it generally requires surgery (not intercourse) to perforate it. The internet is full of debunkings for further reading, yet almost all romance authors still get this spectacularly wrong, thus perpetuating the misinformation to millions of girls and women each year.

2. First person present tense. It takes a *lot* to get me to stick with a book written that way.

3. When the climax and denouement are all crammed together into the last three pages of the book. (Looking at you, Mercedes Lackey). I have no problem with it taking a while to get there, I like backstory, I like world-building, I don’t mind tangents if they’re interesting — but once we get there, I want my investment to pay off.

Describe your perfect reading spot

This right here:

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The beach at Corolla Light, NC. When the sun is just right and it’s not too blazingly hot, about 80-odd degrees, with a nice breeze off of the water. Of course, if it’s too hot outside (as it often is in July and August), then our house has the second-best place: a white chaise lounge on the top floor underneath a ceiling fan.

Tell us three book confessions

1. I’m a book hoarder. I have trouble getting rid of books even when I know damn good and well I’m not going to read them again. (Though most things on my shelves I have re-read at least once).

2. I tend not to like “literary fiction”. I’m definitely a genre girl. Things that are too real, too present bore me.

3. Nonfiction puts me to sleep. I don’t know why. I suspect it has something to do with being mildly narcoleptic. Even when I’m super-interested in the topic, like Roman legions or Tudor fashion or what have you, I can rarely get through many pages before I nod off. (This occasionally makes research really difficult, and gave me no end of trouble during college and grad school).

When was the last time you cried during a book?

A couple of days ago, while reading Son of the Shadows by Julliet Marillier. There’s a character death that hit me super hard. But I’m a sentimental wretch; I cry at everything.

 How many books are on your bedside table?

Three at the moment. Two books on my bed (because I have a queen-sized mattress and sleep alone except for the cat, so really the other half of the bed is there for storage). And then there are eleven on the shelf above my radiator, right next to the bed — they’re divided into “things I just read and haven’t re-shelved yet” and “things I’m going to read next in more or less the order I might read them”.

 What is your favourite snack to eat while you’re reading?

Goldfish crackers. But that’s my favorite snack for anything.

 Name three books you would recommend to everyone

1. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

2. The Orphan’s Tales, by Catherynne Valente

3. Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman

 Show us a picture of your favourite bookshelf on your bookcase

Couldn’t pick just one, so you’re getting three:

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Harry Potter shelf of my Favorites case (all 7 books, all the supplementary books, my con journal, con programs, various bits of memoribilia, and also a couple of swords)

 

medieval shelft of my history bookcase (complete with knights to guard it)
medieval shelf of my history bookcase (complete with knights to guard it)

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one of my overflowing romance shelves (haters to the left)
Write how much books mean to you in just three words

Friends. Fantasy. Felicity.

General

Binge Writing

This week, the New York Times published “Impatience Has its Reward: Books Are Rolled Out Faster“, an article discussing the trend towards releasing book sequels faster and faster, three within a year or even all at the same time, to encourage “binge reading”. It’s a response to the way Netflix encourages binge watching.

A lot of people have been scrambling to frame this as a good thing, but I’m far from convinced. From a reader’s perspective, it is perhaps good, in that “instant gratification” sort of way — but, as a reader, I worry tremendously that it will mean sacrificing quality in favor of quantity. People are holding up GRRM as an example of what happens when there’s not enough pressure on a writer to get a story completed. I don’t think he proves their point as well as they’d like, though. A Dance with Dragons may have taken him six years to write, but then they seem to have skimped on the editing. I understand the impulse — people had been waiting so long, they wanted to turn it from pen to profit as soon as possible. I got it the day it came out, and the first edition had at least five typos, not to mention that it just plain seems to have needed at least one more round of revisions, to scrape out some of the unnecessary repetitions and extraneous bits. Neither a fast nor a slow process guarantee you a good book — only good writing and good editing will do that.

I also know plenty of readers who “binge read” already. Just not in the same fashion. When I first started reading Julia Quinn’s romance novels, it was two books into her Bridgerton series. There were six more yet to come. I didn’t mind waiting for those — but in the meantime, I had her entire backlist to tear through. And then I started looking at the authors she liked, and the ones who liked her — Lisa Kleypas, Suzanne Enoch, Kat Martin — and then I got to tear through their backlogs. I’ve done the same thing with fantasy authors, with historical fiction, with thrillers. That’s part of the joy of exploration, and I worry about discouraging that.

And, I worry about what this sort of release schedule will do to a series’s ability to build a fandom. Part of the great joy of being in the Harry Potter fandom while the books were still being released was the waiting. It gave everything time to percolate — time to re-read and find new hints, time to speculate, time to introduce the series to new readers, time to adjust to new canon once it did come out. I feel like, if everything comes out so quick, new series won’t have that chance to grow. Many may just find themselves as flashes in the pan, hot for a brief time, then quickly fading and forgotten. And how sad that would be.

As a writer, it concerns me even more than as a reader. One commenter on the article’s breakdown on Jezebel characterized it as pretending to encourage binge reading, when really it’s encouraging binge writing. I think that’s precisely the right way to put it. Another expressed suspicions that this is more to cater to the movie industry than to readership, which is certainly not out of the realm of likelihood. Whoever’s benefit it’s for, it certainly doesn’t seem to be the writer’s.

Now, if an author really can turn out good work that quickly, and have it revised and edited and properly prepared for publication that quickly, then so much the better. But not everyone can. I would argue that most can’t. Many of those authors who do have multiple books appear in a year have a team of ghost writers assisting them, from my understanding. I’ve been reading romance novels long enough to have seen that, when authors who’ve been on a book every 12-18 months suddenly start pushing to every 6, the quality suffers. I’ve actually really enjoyed watching Gail Carriger’s career the past few years, because she’s outright admitted when projects need more work, when trying to put out multiple books in a year has been damaging the quality of her work. I like that she’s pushed back against the pressure.

More concerning still, this model would do a lot, I suspect, to push out those writers who cannot yet write full-time — ie, most writers. Under these expectations, your option is either to have a full trilogy finished before you start querying and then be able to devote the time to revising it as a whole as your agent and editor deem necessary — or else to sell the first book and know you’ll be able to finish the other two within a year. If you’re working a full-time job (or more) as well to pay the bills, that’s less likely.

I’ve learned that, under optimal circumstances, I can write 3000-4000 words a day. I don’t get optimal circumstances very often. Optimal means that I’m on vacation from my other two jobs, free of all other obligations. But even if I had the liberty and leisure to do that six days a week, even if I could turn out the minimum word count in a month or two, the book would still need further attention. Not all of those words would be good. Not all of them would be serve the story. The book would still need rounds of revision. Even if you’re quick at that — as I believe I am — it still just takes time, going back and forth, re-reading what’s there, making the changes. And I would still need to research at some point, and to read — because a writer has to read, to be a good writer. And all of that takes time.

Books take time. Books should take time. That’s my thought on the matter.

General

I will see a division

Reading “SFF in Conversation: Women Write SFF” by guest blogger Andrea K Höst over at The Book Smugglers kicked me in the pants to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while — actually tally up all of my books and see what the male-female ratio is.

So. My shelves as they currently stand contain 302 books by female authors, 219 by male.

It breaks down thusly:

Fantasy: Female – 47, Male – 58
Historical: Female – 108, Male – 67
Romance: Female – 96, Male – 0
Thriller: Female – 3, Male – 22
Spiritual: Female – 11, Male -3
Academic (Shakespeare): Female – 12, Male – 21
SciFi/Speculative: Female – 23, Male – 31
SciFi Reference (Star Wars): Female – 2, Male – 17

Some further notes on all of that —

This tally does not actually include all the books that I own, just those currently out on my shelves. There are three boxes of “miscellaneous” that have remained in boxes since I moved a year and a half ago, and I was not quite dedicated enough to this little whim project to unpack them. (Yes, I know I own a ridiculous number of books and should probably downsize).

The fantasy shelf would be almost equal if it weren’t for Terry Pratchett, since I own about half of his Discworld series. Neil Gaiman accounts for a large chunk of the rest. But, in fairness, a good chunk of the female novels on those shelves are due to Mercedes Lackey.

The historical shelf is not divided between fiction and nonfiction. I didn’t tally this up, but I can tell at a glance that most of the “hard” histories — primary sources like Suetonius or Boccacio, or nonfiction secondary sources — are by male authors, most of the “soft” historical fiction novels are by female authors like Jean Plaidy, Michele Moran, etc.

It is perhaps no surprise that my entire extensive collection of romances (primarily Regency, some Victorian, a very few Georgian, a very few contemporary) has been written by female authors. It is interesting that if you take out this category, my books are otherwise almost equally represented.

The thriller shelf is dominated by the fact that I own everything Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have ever written. (I counted them as one person, so that number almost doubles if you count them individually).

My spiritual books are all pagan in nature, another realm often dominated by female authors.

The disparity on the academic shelf is saddening but not surprising. Women are making considerable strides in that field but haven’t closed the gap yet.

Sci-Fi/Speculative, though, was the big shocker to me. Those numbers were actually almost even until I got to my Star Wars shelf, thanks to a variety of authors like Gail Carriger, Suzanne Collins, and Veronica Roth. And then, when I hit my nostalgic SW shelf, the women disappear almost entirely, which is why I actually separated out the reference books — because, yes, I still have and proudly display my Star Wars encyclopedia, role-playing handbooks, and the guides to droids/weapons/planets/characters/aliens/etc. And the disparity there is breathtaking. In this tally, I only included the top listed name for each book, usually the editor or project director. But things like the roleplaying handbooks had dozens of contributors. The one I opened and counted up had nearly 40 male contributors and 2 female. Just. Astonishing. That franchise needs some female voices in it, fast.

So — I don’t know that I have any grand point about this, but it was a curiosity I had and felt the need to sate.

General

Book Meme (with bonus matching game and sociopolitical commentary)

So, I stole this meme from Facebook, but decided to post it here because I wanted more of a chance to pontificate about these books — specifically, what sort of a reader and writer I think they’ve turned me into.

List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and don’t think too hard. They don’t have to be ‘right’ or ‘great’ books just the ones that have touched you.

  1. The Scarlet Pimpernel – Emmunska Orczy
  2. Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley
  3. Deathless – Catherynne Valente
  4. The Last Unicorn – Peter Beagle
  5. Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  6. Catherine, Called Birdy – Karen Cushman
  7. Kushiel’s Chosen – Jacqueline Carey
  8. Lords and Ladies – Terry Pratchett
  9. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J K Rowling
  10. Sandman Volume 3: Dream Country – Neil Gaiman

First off, I’m pretty pleased with myself that the list features six female authors. I walk the walk when it comes to supporting women in media. (Numbers 11 and 12, for what it’s worth, would probably be Gone with the Wind and Julia Quinn’s Everything and the Moon. And The Handmaid’s Tale probably comes in at 13 — so there’s three more female authors who rank highly in my esteem, all for very different reasons). I don’t know what it says that of the three male authors, two of them are featured twice, except that I really like what those guys write. I’m also fairly pleased with myself for not copping out and listing entire series, as I often do with these memes. Narrowing it down made me think harder about what it is that has stuck with me, even out of those series that I most cherish. But the list came easily, for the most part. These are all books I revisit frequently, old friends who always welcome me back.

So what does this list say about me? I like epics. I like sweeping romance, but I like it complicated. I like the middle volumes of things, where it’s dark and twisted and unresolved. I like history and fantasy, and I have little interest in modern reality, so far as my pleasure reading goes. A lot of these books have stuck with me for a really long time. I first read Catherine, Called Birdy when I was nine and The Last Unicorn when I was twelve (though I’d seen and loved the movie since I was two). A good chunk come from my mid-teenage years: The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mists of Avalon, Good Omens. The most recent addition, Deathless, I only read last year, but it made a huge impression.

I’m certainly attracted to an elegant turn of phrase. While not all of these authors write in the same style, I would say they’re pretty much all writers who really love language for its own sake — and that lends itself to a similar felicity of expression, even if it manifests in dissimilar ways. I can definitely quote all ten of those books off the top of my head. Which is making me want to play a matching game. So we will! Because it’s my blog and I do what I want.

  1. “Things need not have happened to be true.”
  2. “A woman’s heart is such a complex problem – the owner thereof is often most incompetent to find the solution of this puzzle.”
  3. “If I had to be born a lady, why not a rich lady, so someone else could do the work and I could lie on a silken bed and listen to a beautiful minstrel while my servants hemmed? Instead I am the daughter of a country knight with but ten servants, seventy villagers, no minstrel, and acres of unhemmed linen. It grumbles my guts.”
  4. “…muttering prayers and love-words like a curse…”
  5. “And they branch. But, and this is important, not all the time. The universe doesn’t much care if you tread on a butterfly. There are plenty more butterflies. Gods might note the fall of a sparrow but they don’t make any effort to catch them.”
  6. “‘All this time, and you speak to me as though I were a flighty pinprick of a girl. I am a magician! Did you never think, even once, that I loved lipstick and rouge for more than their color alone? I am a student of their lore, and it is arcane and hermetic beyond the dreams of alchemists.'”
  7. “Pride, she thought drearily, was a cold bedfellow.”
  8. “The men in the room suddenly realized they didn’t want to know her better. She was beautiful, but she was beautiful in the way a forest fire was beautiful: something to be admired from a distance, but not up close.”
  9. “‘They deserve their fate, they deserve worse.  To leave a child out in the snow…’   ‘Well, if they hadn’t, he couldn’t have grown up to be the prince.  Haven’t you ever been in a fairy tale before?'”
  10. “‘Don’t worry. You’re just as sane as I am.'”

I also (shockingly) like heroines. Of the ten books on that list, only two, maybe three, don’t have what I would consider central female characters — Harry Potter, since no character manages to be as central as he does (but we do still get, y’know, Hermione and Minerva and Luna and Ginny, all of whom shine so brilliantly in that book in particular), Good Omens is such an ensemble work (but still features Anathema, Pepper, War, etc), and Sandman, since if it has a central figure, that would be Morpheus, but that particular volume is even more ensemble than most of them. Of the rest? Marguerite Blakeney. Phedre no Delaunay and Ysandre de la Courcel. Morgaine and Vivivane. Amalthea and Molly Grue. Birdy. Marya Morevna. Esme and Gytha and Magrat. It’s a wide spectrum and no mistake. There’s not just one way to be a heroine. The only thing all those women have in common, really, is that they act. And this has always been true, in other media as well as in books. My heroines growing up were Princess Leia, Xena, and Queen Elizabeth I.

There’s a chicken and egg thing here, I think. Did I like these books with these amazing heroines (and anti-heroines, and occasionally female villains) because of the type of person I am, or did reading books with those characters shape me into that person? A little of both, probably. I can credit my parents with the fact that I think I internalized a lot less misogyny than a lot of women of my generation. Not none, mind — I’m not sure that would be possible, even in the most liberated of environments. But it was never, ever implied that there were things I couldn’t or shouldn’t do because I was a girl, whether it was playing with dinosaurs or learning to rappel at the age of five or dressing up like Disney princesses for Halloween. I could do all of those things — and did. And that spread into the media I consumed, too. My parents bought me books by both male and female authors, with both male and female characters. When they made up bedtime stories, it was always a little girl going out and adventuring. And so that’s what I sought out as I grew old enough to choose my own media.

I can look back at my very earliest writings — the stories about the people inhabiting my Playmobil dollhouse, the Star Wars fanfic — and from the very beginning, I was writing ensemble casts that were at least 50% female, if not weighted even more heavily to the distaff side. I was too young then to have done it to prove a point — that was just the way I saw my word, and so it was the way I sought to tell stories. It startles me sometimes, to remember that some people actually have to put conscious thought into that — that the idea of more than one prominent female character in a story is still radical in some ways.

Now, what I know I’ve had to get better at is racial diversity. That’s a very white list up there, both for authors and characters. That, I did internalize. I certainly never sought to be exclusionary, but I started off with some default assumptions that needed interrogation and, often, demolition. And so, the past several years have been a quest to better educate myself on those cultures that don’t derive from western Europe and to incorporate them — and I’m damn sure my stories are better for it.

I think a lot of narratives about writing focus on the writer discovering him or herself, but I think you get better stories when you’re more interested in discovering the world.