Fantasy, Pulp, and the Bechdel Test

Posted: November 2, 2010 in Braak, poetics
Tags: , , , ,

Some days ago, a fellow named Brian Murphy wrote this article on the Black Gate blog, positing that Realms of Fantasy‘s fold had to do with a glut of fantasy-type stories on the market.  I’ll admit that his argument is at least intuitive; the more I go into the bookstore, the more and more disenchanted I start to become with fantasy, in particular with epic fantasy. (Though other reasons for Realms‘ failure could be involved).  Not only is it everywhere, but it’s all the same.  If I never read a story about a guy who turns out to be a secret king, or needs to fulfill a secret prophecy, or regain a kingdom from a corrupt usurper — well, I’ll be happy about that.

Charles Stross, over in his “books I’ll never write” series on his website, points out that a lot of fantasy, and high fantasy in 2002 in particular, is conciliatory — that it’s about restoring the world to a state of “benign tyranny”, and that it’s an implicit endorsement of a political system (hereditary monarchy) that’s really pretty shitty.  He has a point, I think.

Anyway, though, if you look down at the comment section on that article, in particular the comments by two cats — GreenGestalt and Theo — both of whom argue that the reason that fantasy is failing is because it was “lamed out” by the “PC Agenda.”  That at some point (I’m assuming — GreenGestalt talks about Lin Carter, who died in the late 80s, but let’s figure what he’s really talking about had its roots in the mid 70s?) all of the editors of the fantasy houses stopped publishing stories with hideous caricatures of “blacks” and “orientals” (Jesus), but that those same blacks and orientals didn’t start buying the non-grotesquely offensive books.

Theo makes largely the same case, though he carefully phrases it in terms of economics — that the fantasy publishers alienated their existing markets (“macho white men”, according to GreenGestalt, who clearly has never met anyone that is an avid reader of fantasy novels) without establishing a new market.  He points to the Inklings, and how guys like Tolkien or Lewis would never have gotten published today, due to their novels being too Christian or too reactionary.

(The last bit is especially peculiar in light of it’s referent; “too reactionary” as a pejorative is per China Mieville, but China Mieville wrote his socialist revolutionary fantasy precisely in response to the reactionary fiction that he already saw on the market.  So, well, I don’t know what he’s talking about.)

Anyway.  I don’t agree with either of these guys.  GreenGestalt actually appears to be insane, as he’s positing a political conspiracy on behalf of PC Agenda Overlords who somehow managed to get organized enough to seize control over all the publishing houses (possibly by deliberately infecting someone with cancer) in America so that they could ban all of the books that weren’t about some huge white dude raping women and kicking cannibal black men in the face.

As for the Inklings (and their covert religious agendas), I don’t know whether or not Tolkien or Lewis could have gotten published today.  And alienating “macho white men” did actually open the doors for women to start enjoying fantasy, and now women make up some fairly substantial portion of fantasy book buyers.  But this is sort of beside the point, to me.

Anyway, hang on, I’m getting to the point.  The point is this:  when I first wrote The Translated Man, someone asked me if it passed the Bechdel Test, which goes as follows:  is there more than one woman in your book?  Do the (at least) two women ever talk to each other about something other than one of the men in the book?  It’s an interesting question; The Translated Man doesn’t pass this test; Mr. Stitch does.

But when this woman asked me about it, and I started looking at it more closely, I realized that, rough shorthand though it may be, I wanted my books to be able to pass the Bechdel Test.  Not because failing the test was an affront to women, but because it was an affront to my characters.

It doesn’t have anything to do with fulfilling a PC agenda, or appeasing feminist lesbinazis, or making sure that all parties with an interest are heard from.  It has to do with just good fucking writing.

Look, here.  I love H. P. Lovecraft.  He’s a classic horror writer, maybe THE seminal horror writer.  He was also a misogynist and a bigot, and you know what?  That hurts his writing.  Not because bigotry is wrong (though it, in fact, IS wrong), but because bigoted writing is bad writing.  Lovecraft deserves to be admired for many things, among them the breadth of his imagination, his extensive vocabulary, his unflinching willingness to write bleakly — but one thing he doesn’t deserve to be admired for is his characterization.

His characterization is shitty, and it’s shitty because he was a bigot.  Because after he’d gotten past the “over-sensitive white guy who reads a lot and has an interest in the occult” phase of character development, he just resorted to crude stereotypes.  And it doesn’t matter if he that was how the world looked to him, or if that was what people thought at the time; he could have figured it out, and he didn’t bother, and his writing suffers as a result.

Now, I don’t expect everyone to approach the work this way.  Some people (like commenter Theo, I believe) are economists in their day jobs, and if they want to evaluate the quality and nature of writing wholly according to its ability to appeal to particular demographics — well, those guys are going to be way more successful than I am.  They are going to be super successful.

But I think that if you really care about actually writing well then you’ve got to care about more than just showing people what you think they want to see. You’re going to look at things like Bechdel Test as a fairly useful gauge for just how well you’re able to step outside your own perspective — you start to see it as a tool for creating characters that are complete, as opposed to just recreating what you see to the limits of your vision.

All of this is to say that, whatever your politics are, you can’t actually be a great writer without a basic sense of empathy.  H. P. Lovecraft is a classic writer, a seminal writer, a verbose, imaginative, visionary writer.  But he’s not a great writer, because he couldn’t see any human beings except himself.

Now, I’ll admit to being less than perfect on my empathy score, but I’m a firm believer that everyone deserves to be understood, and that doing so is, at the very least, possible.  And it’s that desire to understand other human beings that makes me revolt against women portrayed as nothing but sex objects, or “primitive Africans” being portrayed as merely cannibal savages.  It’s not some “Politically Correct” agenda that I think I’m supposed to follow because otherwise I’ll get in trouble; it’s because I actually think it’s disgusting.

And not even that, right?  Because I understand that the world is full of bigots, and I don’t necessarily want my literature to be full of only things that are nice and don’t offend me.  I get that there are bigots and misogynists out there, but what it boils down to is this:  writing misogyny is NOT the same thing as writing about misogynists.

But it is inferior writing.

  1. I read James Blish’s _Cities in Flight_ novels a few years ago. All of them were predicated on the same idea, that the invention of gravity-manipulating technology allows entire cities, from bedrock to skyscraper, to become spaceships. The novels mostly follow the far-flung future of New York city.

    I was perhaps in the third novel in this hardback omnibus of several medium-length novels before I realized… I’d never seen a female character. Oh sure, the men talked about their girlfriends, or the family they left back home, or some woman would be seen ushering a man out of his domicile with the warning that he shouldn’t get his spacesuit too dirty and don’t come home too early or supper won’t be ready, etc.

    When he finally did try to write a “real” female character — a love interest for New York City’s second in command — it was the most horrifying, misogynist treatment I’d ever seen in print. She was fickle and flitted between the male characters, she was hopelessly awed by formal rank and power, she betrayed everyone around her, and when I finally gave up on the series she was trying to guilt the captain of the city into fathering a baby with her, despite the fact that she had a healthy and loving family at home already. With his second in command!

    I began to wonder if Blish was a hopeless basement-dwelling neckbeard who never met a woman other than his own mother. Blish died in 1975, so I guess I’ll never know.

  2. braak says:

    And it’s so weird, because you say something like that, and people say, “Aw, you’re just being PC.” But no, the problem isn’t just that it’s a bad woman character. It’s a bad character first, and ALSO a bad woman character.

  3. Moff says:

    But when this woman asked me about it, and I started looking at it more closely, I realized that, rough shorthand though it may be, I wanted my books to be able to pass the Bechdel Test. Not because failing the test was an affront to women, but because it was an affront to my characters.

    This nails it precisely. I’ve been procrastinating writing by plotting out the stories I want to tell, building the world, and I looked at my character list and realized the ratio of dudes to ladies was about nine to one. You know the problem with that is? It’s not that you can’t tell a decent story that’s just about guys; it’s that if your setting is supposed to resemble the real world, as mine is, THE REAL WORLD DOES NOT HAVE A NINE-TO-ONE RATIO OF MEN TO WOMEN.

    As for Tolkien and Lewis, I suspect that in a world where the Left Behind series is a raging success — not, of course, to compare their practice of Christianity to that brand of imbecile fundamentalism — they’d find a market. But it’s a stupid, impossible argument anyway: The question of whether they’d sell in 2010 has nothing to do with their Christianity, and everything to do with the fact that they’re seminal. If Tolkien didn’t sell today, it’d be because people would say, “There are so many stories like this! This is basically the novelization of Willow!”

  4. wench says:

    Yeah, I tend to think that it takes a little more than “hey look, this time I didn’t insult your genetics, your personal habits or your mother!” to sell a story to a demographic.

  5. braak says:

    @Moff: or, alternately, if Tolkien tried to get published today, then he presumably hadn’t gotten published when he did, meaning we’d be living in an alternate reality in which epic fantasy had never existed.

    @wench: Right? “Basic human decency isn’t going to get Chinamen to read this, so….yeah, let’s not bother.”

  6. Jefferson Robbins says:

    It doesn’t key off bigotry/misogyny per se so much as paternalism and reactionary thought in genre fiction … but I’ve been reading the hell out of Michael Moorcock’s epic 1978 “Starship Stormtroopers” essay. I think Moorcock would agree with you that a lack of empathy across cultural and gender lines hobbles a lot of the SF and fantasy that’s today accepted as “great.”

  7. braak says:

    Holy cow, look at Michael Moorcock go to town on those guys. Whoah.

  8. Jefferson Robbins says:

    It is a bracing read. I wish to God YouTube had existed in 1965, so I could embed video of Moorcock and John Brunner demolishing John W. Campbell at that convention.

  9. braak says:

    Tangential, but interesting: Oliver Sacks saying some things. Oliver Sacks is one of my favorite non-fiction writers, and it’s gratifying to hear that the thing that he thinks is the most important about what he does it being able to imagine what life is like for his patients.

  10. Lolly says:

    I actually think that a bigoted writer can create a compelling character. But it requires two things: 1) he (or she, though unlikely), as you mention, must have empathy despite his bigotry; and 2) he must be a DAMN good writer!

    Example: The Merchant of Venice. Now, it would be pretty fair to say that is a pretty darn antisemitic book. Yet, because Shakespeare 1) shows sympathy to the Jewish character and 2) is one of the greatest writers of all time it can be lauded, admired and staged even today (and referenced by Jewish directors like Mel Brooks).

    But this really only serves to invalidate the whole “The PC police won’t let writers do what they want/need” argument. Because if someone managed to write a compelling book about shrewish women (err… The Taming of the Shrew, perhaps?) or cannibalistic Africans (err… Nope. I got nothing) that was good and where those stereotypical characters had actual depth and were treated with respect, I don’t think the “PC Police” (I wish there was such a thing, really. Like, with uniforms and everything) would complain too much.

  11. Lolly says:

    Oh, and I realize that Shakespeare doesn’t really fall under either fantasy or pulp, but hell good writing is good writing…

  12. braak says:

    But doesn’t this beg the question as to how much of a bigot Shakespeare really was? Is Merchant of Venice an anti-semitic play, or is it a play the features antisemitism?

    Antisemitism was such thorough part of Shakespeare’s world that to ignore it would be disingenuous. And to ignore its effect even on characters that might be intended to be sympathetic — to say that all people who are oppressed are naturally good despite being hated, or to say that that oppression doesn’t sometimes yield the negative characteristics for which those characters are unjustly stereotyped — is to be equally disingenuous.

  13. Lolly says:

    No, I agree. My post was probably somewhat disingenuous, since I do think that in Shakespeare’s case it was more a matter of his work reflecting the prevailing attitudes of his time, rather than his own bigotry. And really, I suppose this emphasizes your point: a true bigot couldn’t write a well-rounded character of the race, gender, etc. he despises because his artistic judgment would be clouded by his bigotry. Which is why truly antisemitic works feature Jews that are nothing more than caricatures, the same as truly racist or truly misogynistic works.

    I wonder if it IS possible for a very good writer to create a well-rounded, interesting character who reflects the author’s bigoted views… I guess it’s possible to write a very good books that expresses bigoted views (but only as a minor part of its narrative, like, say a book about the Crusades that has violent, blood-thirsty Turks, or something), but the characters written through the prism of those views won’t be very good.

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