A few years back I picked up a book by Chimamanda Adichie. I enjoyed it so I read some more of her work. Amazon and Goodreads being what they are, I clearly set off the SHE READS THE NIGERIAN FICTION algorithm because suddenly my recommendations were all from Nigerian authors. I hadn’t been specifically searching for Nigerian authors but I thought sod it I’ll see what the good people of Nigeria have for me. So I read a few more and the recommendations broadened to other African countries and I read a bunch of books from all over the continent.
Hm. If I say “I was surprised by how good they all were” I sound like a patronising racist white colonial, but bear with me! I wasn’t expecting these African writers to be any better or worse than anyone else. So when book after book turned out to be utterly brilliant, I was confused. I’m not an easy reader to please. I do not usually encounter a long string of hits without misses. It took me an embarrassingly long time to register why the books were so good. Was it something about Africans? No. At least I don’t think so. It was about the height of the bar. For an African novelist living in their home country to get published / distributed / publicised in the UK, they have to be very special.
It’s the same way it always goes with prejudice and opportunities. Don’t look at how easy it is for a totally brilliant person to succeed. Look how easy it is for a mediocre person. A black guy has to be as competent, knowledgeable and charismatic as Obama to become US President. A rich white guy only has to… Well. Yeahhh.
It isn’t that marginalised people are BANNED from success – not usually, anyway. But the bar moves. I have this on my mind at the moment because I’m reading my way around the genre that I write, which is humorous fantasy. I have picked up a lot of mediocre fantasy. Books that are… Well they’re fine. The writing is basically competent. The plot holes have been smoothed out. The story is coherent. But there’s nothing there that will stay with me. Here are three books that were written by white men and are frequently given as examples of good humorous fantasy.
The Palace Job by Patrick Weekes looked interesting but became dull when the tension in the plot was lost. It was pretty clear that the characters would get into another perilous situation and get back out of it again. And if you took every last adverb from that book it’d be half the length. Weekes has a real problem with them. His attempts to include representation were well-meaning, but a white man writing about a black woman protagonist who is constantly subjected to vile racism (in this fantasy world which is by no means obligated to have the exact same prejudices as our own) felt a bit try hard and her responses didn’t ring true to me. It wasn’t especially funny.
Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien de Castell was even worse for lurching from one improbably perilous situation to the next, and having the characters kick their way out of them with their mad skills. Also for introducing every female character in terms of how fuckable she was. That gets old quickly. The humour was in the “wisecracks” and “banter” which was pretty dire.
Disenchanted by Robert Kroese was a bit confused about what it was trying to be. It started out strong on the humour and then forgot it was trying to be funny a couple of chapters in. After that it would periodically remember it was trying to be funny and bring in an attempt. One such attempt included what was almost a word for word transcript of Monty Python’s Black Knight scene. I cringed. That’s something I might have done when I was a teenager, before I trusted my own ability to be funny. The prose was not very skillful: there was no attempt to vary the rhythm and flow of the sentences and there was far too much use of the protagonist’s name where it wasn’t needed. These are both pretty amateurish mistakes. The ending was extremely forced. The place that really turned me off the book, however, was when the protagonist was introduced to the girl he would be forced to marry. She is unattractive. But not just that: Kroese clearly thinks he’s expressing the height of hilarity as he explains that she really looks like a man. I mean, why not throw in a little heavily implied transphobia, right? I know that Boric is supposed to be written as a bit of a dickhead. We’re not always supposed to be sympathetic to him. But sympathetic and unsympathetic characters don’t just fall out of the sky and onto the page and the reader makes up their completely objective mind about them. Writers pretty much tell their readers how to feel about characters. There is no doubt at all that the author is expecting the reader to sympathise with Boric on his being obliged to marry an uggo. Said bride to be is of course a completely powerless 13 year old girl who is likewise forced, but also humiliated and rejected. The author doesn’t seem concerned about her experience. The idea that someone might identify more with this young girl who is feeling humiliated and afraid, than they identify with Boric who is being forced to marry an uggo, doesn’t appear to have occurred to Kroese.
I remember picking up a much-publicised book by a now Very Famous Fantasy Writer who I won’t name because I really don’t like him. The story opens with a group of mercenaries – which includes the protagonist – looting and pillaging a civilian village and raping the women – or at least saying that they intend to. I don’t think there’s a graphic depiction of rape. I noped the hell out and never returned to the books. I do not want to read the story of a rapist. The fans will say the same thing that we might say about Boric: a protagonist does not have to be morally pure, or even likeable, to be a good protagonist. This is true. However, they do have to bring you into a story that you want to discover. They have to be relatable at some level, and the author is absolutely responsible for teasing out that level on which they are relatable. (Perfect) Scott Lynch (And His Perfect Hair) writes a series about con artists. Almost every one of his characters is a crook on some level. And yet they are relatable, partly because they have an internal moral compass which is consistent and understandable. He has a scene with an attempted rape in it, and Patrick Rothfuss has a scene where Kvothe rescues a couple of traumatised gang rape victims. Both writers get it right,* however, in that they both recognise that rape is completely abhorrent and the reader’s sympathy should in no way be even slightly aligned with the rapists. And I’d suggest that that is at least partly because they’re thinking about the women who will read the book, many of whom will have experienced rape, and all of whom are aware it could happen to them.**
When other women have made the point that rape is used too often and too flippantly within fantasy stories, they generally get shouted down by male fans who tell them that rape is a thing that happens – as if women don’t already know that. The fans tell them that medieval Europe – or the weird version of it that these fantasy stories are generally set in – was extremely patriarchal and rapey, without really examining that claim. (Patriarchal, yes. I’m not entirely sure, however, that it was any more rapey than the current day. I don’t really know how we’d know.) This is a pathetic response. The mere fact that rape occurs, or occurred in medieval times, is not a reason why it has to feature in your story. Dysentery was another frequent occurrence, but I’m fine if you don’t want to write a bunch of graphic scenes of your protagonist shitting his guts out. The author makes literally every decision about where to direct the reader’s gaze. If you want to write about a rapist, or you want to write rape scenes, you should own it.
The Very Famous guy is actually a pretty good prose artist, so I’ll give him that. But the only interaction I’ve witnessed between him and a fan involved him being a complete dick. So I suspect that he is not a nice chap. The other three are probably very nice chaps. They’re just pretty mediocre writers. Particularly in the case of de Castell and Kroese, their particular form of mediocrity is tied to their being white men.
Before going on I want to be clear that I don’t think that white men are, on average, any better or worse at writing than anyone else. White men have written incredible things. Many of them have soared over the bar. The list of white men who live or have lived includes many immensely talented SFF writers. But the bar is lower. You can write a mediocre fantasy book and get it published if you are a white man. If you are a black woman… You may just discover that you need the prodigious talent of N. K. Jemisin in order to get anywhere at all. And when you have the foresight to go ahead and be N. K. Jemisin you get stuff like this.
The first paragraph is fine, but hoo boy does it go downhill after that. First up, Jemisin is one of the top
female fantasy authors of this generation. Let’s shed the implied expectation that she will, for some reason, be less good because she’s a woman.
I’ve read this series. It’s the story of a deeply traumatised world, broken apart by volcanic activity, in which a mother and her young daughter are separated when the husband/father murders his son and kidnaps the girl. Ultimately the girl’s exceptional gifts will be key to bringing the whole world back into a stable state, but the characters are all fighting to survive in a brutally hostile environment, all the while knowing that humanity is probably not going to make it through this time. I have never, in my life, found another author who can convey a sense of trauma combined with bitter determination like Jemisin does. Many have tried, and it’s quite fashionable to give your characters some version of what the author thinks PTSD is probably like. But Jemisin is a total master of resilience and emotional ambiguity. In this final book, the paths of mother and daughter are once again coming together. There are flashbacks to different points in the mother’s life, and yes there is a complicated polyamorous relationship.
I can’t see how anyone would read this book and come up with “you could get a typical YA romantic fantasy… from these typical elements” unless they had their expectations utterly shifted because the author is a woman. It’s a well known trend that when women write SFF their works often get marketed and reviewed as YA even though they were not written for that market. Then they hit upon the problem that the YA market is currently saturated, and many of the books in it are not relatable for actual teenagers because the supposedly teenage characters all behave like they’re thirty. Speaking of which, the protagonist of this story is what… forty years old? So there’s that.
Nobody would ever remark on a fantasy book having a male protagonist, let alone having to state that he’s strong and compelling. And the love interest is a fully realised character – but way to just dismiss him as a bad boy archetype. And for that matter, way to be dismissive about YA romantic fantasy, dude. It’s not my thing, but turning your nose up at a whole subgenre is also a dick move. Aaaand probably stems from your disdain for teenage girls. What is so frustrating is that this reviewer would probably think “what’s the problem? I loved this book. I praised this book.” He praised it by strongly implying that it was better than he expected. From a woman. And that very expectation is part of the height of the bar.
There are a lot of SFF fans out there who think that the only reason you’d have anyone other than a cishet white man as protagonist is if you’re a nasty little SJW*** trying to force your agenda of political correctness on all of us by reminding us that women and PoC and THE GAYS exist when really I just read these books for the spaceships and droids with massive tits and the dragons who turn into beautiful women with massive tits and as we all know fantasy is set in medieval Europe where brown people hadn’t yet been invented**** and the only women who existed were tragic rape victims or feisty serving wenches with massive tits.
I’m not saying that individuals within publishing are making a concerted effort to make things easier for white men – although a few probably are. It’s the same way that sector-wide discrimination always goes: the expectation of who will succeed gets ingrained into everyone’s minds. Much of the prejudice that makes a very real difference is subconscious and automatic, and industry professionals probably do not even realise they’re discriminating. Talented marginalised people don’t have a go, because they get the message that they’re not welcome in this treehouse. Or they fail because their book gets marketed to the wrong people. Regrettably, I can’t remember who it is I’m paraphrasing here, but I did see someone say something like: “Unfortunately, I don’t know the gender of this book’s author, so I can’t tell you if it’s a brave and insightful coming-of-age masterpiece, or some silly YA fluff about feelings.”
There is, at least, an acknowledgement that these things are a problem. There are efforts to do better, and it’s heartening to see how many brilliant women, particularly women of colour, are now appearing in the genre. It’s interesting to see authors bring in settings that don’t draw from the same medieval Europe + wizards and dragons setting that has been ubiquitous for decades. You want to bring in folklore from around the world? I am so there for that.
Although… if the publishing industry can suddenly decide it wants women of colour to write fantasy books, and immediately finds a whole bunch of them to bring in as debuts, what that tells us is that they’ve always been there. They’ve just been stuck behind a bar the whole time.
I’m not going to talk about a pen in this post. I was about to say that the link would be tentative, but then I remembered that I have been writing about writers the whole way through. OH WELL. But I will follow up soon with another post that can be 100% pen joy.
* Well. Sort of. Rothfuss does immediately have Kvothe actually bloody #notallmen at these poor women. Substantial facepalm. Sub. Stan. Tial.
** Yes, men get raped too. Yes, it is just as bad when this happens. For the vast majority of men, the threat of rape is simply not an ever-present concern as it is for women.
*** Not gonna lie. I am that person.
**** I don’t know what I find weirder: the doggedly-held position that every single person in medieval Europe was white (not true) or the constant wanking on about “historical accuracy” from people who are absolutely fine about there being wizards and dragons everywhere.