Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Books have gender? (Or 'Watch An Stick Her Foot in Her Mouth')

I was looking up a certain interview to respond to the wonderful gentleman from Falcata Times when I stumbled upon Angry Chicks in Leather by Lilith Saintcrow.  

What defines urban fantasy?

That's simple, you might say. Chicks kicking ass. Well, leather-clad chicks kicking ass. Leather-clad chicks kicking ass in an urban environment where some form of "magic" is part of the world. There. That’s about it.

The sound you just heard was the grinding of my teeth.  It's just the old resistance; I grew up with the old UF that was really fantasy set in a modern, urban setting.  It was bad enough when any urban setting got lumped regardless of time period (cuz no high fantasy has been set within a city?), and worse still when paranormal action adventures, not actually having a genre of their own with that title, became UF, but leather clad chicks kicking ass...Basically none of the original UF is UF.  Fine for De Lint...he's long called his work "mythic fiction" rather than urban fantasy, but what about the...others who wouldn't give a damn to know that I'm defending their honor?  On to what really got me to post...

But that's not all there is to it.

Urban fantasy, they tell me, is "hot" right now. Paranormal romance (vampire/werewolf/something girl meets vampire/werewolf/something guy, wackiness or danger ensues, happy ending happens) is just as hot, but the "romance" tag keeps it from being literature. The "fantasy" tag keeps urban fantasy from being classified as Serious Literature as well.

It reminds me of Tom's Glossary of Book Publishing, where LITERATURE is "Designation applied to titles judged unsaleable", and MAINSTREAM FICTION is "The pretense that there is a group of readers who can be reached through writing that is sufficiently unspecific as to exclude no one". There's just one thing lacking from this set of definitions--the fact that Literature and Mainstream Fiction are seen as highbrow.

They're genres you don't have to act ashamed of writing in. But romance or urban fantasy? You might as well start embroidering your own scarlet letter, honey.

Paranormal romance is considered lowbrow and trashy because it's female. Despite the fact that it's a multibillion-dollar business (and every dollar a woman shells out for it costs more because let's face it, we earn a lot less), it's still that pink-jacketed crap for bored housewives. Tom Clancy is supposed to be Real and Hard-Hitting, even if his "novels" are thinly-veiled technical manuals. Nora Roberts is supposedly less Real because she writes about feeeeeeelings. While we could debate the relative merits of Clancy vs. La Nora all day--and not agree, mind you, because Roberts is just plain the better writer--the fact remains that Clancy has a better shot at being considered "serious" because his is MAN'S FICTION.

Smell that testosterone, baby.

Urban fantasy is mostly women's fiction too. (Yes, I know there are significant exceptions, like Jim Butcher, Simon Green, and Charles de Lint. We'll get to that.) There's a lot of crossover between paranormal romance and urban fantasy. I like to say that UF is PR without the HEA (that's Happily Ever After, for those just joining us.)

I know that's a really long block of text to quote, but I really don't want to chop it up and remove context for anyone who chooses not to open the link (which, of course, you should do). Let's ignore my own Clancy vs. Roberts opinion.  We can even ignore that I nearly fractured my jaw grinding my teeth on "UF is PR without the HEA."  (What. The. F...no, I said I'll ignore and I'll genuinely pretend to.)  The women's fiction bit hits the same "dude, what?!" bell with me as "no one reads any more" and "men don't read."

No one reads any more.  All the bookstores we city dwellers pass all the time, and Amazon plus all the lesser known online bookstores are entirely products of our imagination.  If no one reads, no one buys books, so there are no bookstores.  (Of course, this has nothing to do with what Saintcrow wrote.  In fact, my rant at her text is nothing that changes my adoration for her work. Like I said, though, it all rings the same bell.)

Men don't read.  Those genres aimed specifically at men as well as those rumored to (like sci-fi) are place holders in the imaginary stores that don't exist because no one reads.

Those false facts have bugged me for a long time.  I'd hear--or worse, read--someone going on about nobody reading and want to shake the silliness out of them.  Now, lots of people don't read (er, beyond what's necessary to function).  I don't understand these folks, but they exist.  And while Jason Pinter wrote a really good article on why men don't read, if the actual words were true, how could there women's lit?  Wouldn't it just be...lit?

Of course Lili's (it's how she refers to herself, it's how I think about her...'til I'm disagreeing and distance myself in case she reads it and gets annoyed) statement that urban fantasy is mostly women's fiction isn't as senseless.  But it is...disempowering.  

On the one hand, OK, a lot of it is written by women and/or  marketed to women, so what else would you call it?  On the other hand...WTF?  I've written and deleted the following, rewriting it differently, many times over.  I think I can divide it into two more hands...

1. There is an unfixable wrong in naming romance women's fiction.  I come from a speculative fiction background, as do many of the woman who write UF rather than PR, and the fans who read one over the other.  We have tits and ovaries.  We're demonstrably as female as the women who read PR interchangeably with UF or who prefer all manner of romance, but a good amount of us hate that stuff.  Unfortunately, it wouldn't do to start calling romance "fiction for a large group of women and a handful of men."  It's irreparably labeled as it is.

2. A lot of men like UF and other spec. fic. with female leads.  It's anecdotal, but I want to use one of my brothers as an example.  He was, for a long time, a scary dude.  I'm not going to put all his business out there, but ...yeah, scary dude fits.  He turned his life around and followed in our dad's footsteps to become a big, burly fire fighter.  He is, in short, one of the alpha males that most romances require.  Hanging out at my place, he glanced at a certain book, and later couldn't get it out of his mind.  He had to read it, then he had to have the whole series.  With no one telling him it was women's fiction, his testosterone had no need to keep him in his usual non-fiction mode.  

Why shouldn't he?  Great characters, fantastic action, and being UF rather than PR, there were deep and complicated relationships beyond the romantic ones.  

Aaaand (since this really isn't about Lilith's post so much as my angst each time I see these labels; she just happened to write in a way that allowed me to examine the reaction), does money from men have cooties?  On the off chance that my fiction doesn't suck and I get over the issues that keep me from sending it out, could we please not convince men that the genre isn't for them until after I get my royalties?  I'm just saying.

Part of what makes this so fascinating to me is the fact that female UF protagonists are almost without exception extraordinarily tough, and that violence is acceptable for them to use. This is a huge revolution in the type of stories our culture tells itself. Violence in our culture is a man's game...

Bat Girl.  Rogue.  Storm.  Marvel Girl (though I've always thought that such an unfortunate name).  Firestar.  They and countless other comic heroines who don't make my list because they aren't mostly good (like Cat Woman) or are fall to late in my awareness 'cause I'm thinking pre-UF (Witchblade)  or because the list is long enough (Scarlet Witch, et all)... all tough females for whom violence is acceptable for them to use.  All from a "classically male" genre. 

It's not that I think there is no room here to talk about the marginalization of women or that I don't think that's still a very real thing in this day and age.


Every genre sucks.  The day I moved beyond See Spot Run, I dove into spec. fic., augmented by the occasional good mystery, and that has barely changed in the decades since.  It's how I'm wired.  That same wiring gives me a huge distaste for all non-paranormal romance and most mainstream.  All spec. fic. lovers have had to deal with highbrow lit. fic. lovers lecturing about the useless escapism of their genre, and none of us like lit. fic. either.  And while we make obnoxious comments about one another's genres, those who prefer non-fiction think we're all filling our minds with junk.  

Hmmm...maybe it's time we all stop alienating one another and focus those who can't appreciate a well written fiction of any type.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Just Anita Blake and Me.

Here, there be spoilers.  If you've read the series, have no intention of reading the series, or, like many, are a mix of both, the spoilers won't bother you.  If you're don't fall into one of those categories, seriously, there will be spoilers.  And TMI of other sorts.

Why even go there?

This is not yet the world famous blog that it will be (..yeah, go tell your writerly or readerly friends to get in now), so most readers are long time internet buddies; you know my stance against reading more of Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake books.  If you're not a long time internet buddy, and can't infer that I have such a stance from what I just wrote, I don't know what to tell yah.

So I was exploring the not-so-wonderful world of borrowing ebooks from the library--fantastic concept, less than stellar inventory--and I saw Flirt (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, Book 18).  Yes, I know better.  But it was free!  My rules for buying Anita Blake books went from MORE! NOW! getting each new release the weekend, if not the day, they came out, to never again at cover price, to not for one thin dime.  I put it out of my mind completely as I slipped into "Um...well, maybe if someone's paying me, but probably not."

....That requires back story.  Many, many years ago, I needed, desperately to replace Diana Tregarde (Children of the Night: A Diana Tregarde Investigation).  Mercedes Lackey, for both personal and publishing reasons, decided to stop the series at book three.  I decided to stop reading at book two, for the silly impulse of "if I don't hunt down the last, there will always be one more book."  What can I say?  I was in love.

In my mad search, I discovered Guilty Pleasures (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter).  Perfect!  Same type of story, Anita even looked like Diana...but, not so perfect...I didn't actually like Anita.  I put the book down, unfinished, and eventually did this twice more with consecutive books.  It seems the fourth time became the charm.  Facing a long overnight shift in which I would have to do a flurry of work and then simply stay awake until I could do another flurry of work, I grabbed a book, *any* book so long as I hadn't already read it.

Burnt Offerings (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, Book 7) gave me something that allowed me to embrace Anita's flaws.  I devoured the book, went back and read the first three, then quickly bought the missing books in between.  Then I had to wait for the next to be published, so I read them all again.

An discovers the wider world of fandom...and the ick factor

I always knew I wasn't alone in my geekhood.  All of my close friends and I read the original Dragonlance books at around the same time.  A boyfriend introduced me to Anne Rice, and a buddy dragged me (happily, as it turned out) back into reading sci-fi by forcing eluki bes shahar.  I'd had friends, of course, who didn't read the same things as me, and more rarely, who weren't readers, but I hadn't really thought about the throngs of fans out there until connecting to others on the internet.

And one of the things I did was look for other AB fans.  One person, reporting on a convention, wrote about LKH cuddling with a man who was not her husband.  I felt a little greasy, just reading about someone else's private life and tried to put it out of my head.  You don't really think of writers in the same celebrity terms that you think of actors, especially back a little more than a decade ago, so accidently receiving the information was a lot more uncomfortable than knowing way more than is my business about Sandra Bullock and Jesse James.

It was nastier still when the AB blog--which I followed seriously, both as a fan of the series and a would-be novelist soaking up all the tidbits about the writing process that were dropped--turned into LKH's blog and she shared details about her and hubby #2 that bordered on graphic.  Yeah, ick.

As she let us (or pulled us...for those who really just wanted the character and writing stuff) more into her personal life and the content of her novels changed more and more, a grumpiness grew among her fans until a large faction became anti-fans.  I was among them, hoping upon hope to get the old Anita back, trying to shoosh the loudest complainers--or at least those who had to take their complaints to the source--because she told us, repeatedly, that she was contrary by nature (her words) and would keep writing crap (our words) if anyone tried to tell her she couldn't.

Why we loved it and why we split into those who still do and those who want to scream

Oh, my.  How do I put this?  Have you ever had a place that was part of who you are?  For me, it was Paragon Park (opens to video...::sniffle:: I gotta share on Facebook so my brother can see this..::misty eyed sniffle:: ).  I could try to explain the dynamics of my family and how this was one of the things that pulled us all together every summer, but the highest rated reply perhaps says it best for both those who miss this place or any other, including the world of Anita Blake: I would give every remaining second of my life to ride in the kooky kastle just one more time.  Maybe that's going a bit far for me, but it gives the idea...

Hamilton made the "Anitaverse" such a place.  Maybe even back in the early days we'd complain about Anita's version of feminism being taken from a confused ten year old, or other wee problems of the character or the prose.  But when you got down to it, a part of us moved into a Saint Louis where vampire politics sometimes spilled out on the innocent, and that teacher you crushed on was secretly a werewolf.  We shared the characters' sufferings and triumphs.  Having Anita's ultra violence by proxy helped me through a painful divorce.  We were invested.

And then there was the sex.

I went looking for LKH's old blog post where she defended the sex--and insulted old fans still clinging to hope--but alas, she's got a new integrated version and the archives are gone.  (I wonder if it were just for the better look or if something happened like the shit storm on the old deleted guestbook that broke out when my husband flipped over her remarks....I digress.)

Just the facts, ma'am.  Anita was (annoyingly to some) celibate in the early books.  Her heart had been broken pre-novels, and unlike everyone else on the planet, she didn't hurt and get over it, she metaphorically glued her legs together and nurtured the pain as only Anita can.  But you can't stay celibate surrounded by the hottest guys in fiction who want you.  Who would she choose...the sexy French master vampire, or the gorgeous All-American alpha werewolf?  If you use a sliding scale for the definition of "choose", she picked one.  People who don't use a sliding scale (obviously, that would be me) accepted it, and others rejoiced.  Surely, there would a deepening of relationships and the stories would be even better!

...Or no.  Don't get me wrong--two of the three next books were the best she's written, and the odd one out, though it happens to be the one of three with sex (real sex and on the page, as opposed to sensual situations that don't go that far or off-stage rape) isn't bad at all.  But the sex just meant there was more whining, not that things went deeper.  Anita had been a good Catholic girl before the Church excommunicated all necromancers; while that did not keep her from having sex before marriage, it did make her a stickler for monogamy.  For a while...

There were arguments, back in the day, about which was better: Burnt Offerings (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, Book 7) or Obsidian Butterfly (An Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, Book 9).  OB does read as though LKH wrote it while reading Burning Water (Diana Tregarde Investigation), but I'm sure that's a tribute to the lesser known series rather than something less pleasant.  Either way, it's a damned fine book, that maybe edges out BO by virtue of taking place out of town, away from the angst that loving two men has caused...(Oh, had I forgotten to mention that once she had one, she had to have the other?)

I remember that LKH's A Kiss of Shadows (Meredith Gentry, Book 1) came out around the time of OB.  I thought "Ah, here's the sex she wanted to write before.  I'm glad she has an outlet."  And I wasn't just happy for her; I actually enjoyed the book.  I didn't know that I should've taken it as a warning.

Things got bad while Anita was out of town and Narcissus in Chains (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, Book 10) starts with violence that nearly kills her.  But there are (see how I change tense when I get like this?) new shifters in town with the power to bring her back from the brink.  A few pages/minutes after regaining consciousness and meeting Micah, the leader of the group, he rapes her and becomes the (additional) love of her life...

In one printing of the story, at least.  The next--and sadly, I am missing one of the texts and the patience to go through the archives of the one place where I know I've faithfully copied each--edition changed the text so she finally gave in before he enters her.  That was the beginning of the end.

Anita gains the ardeur from her vampire boyfriend, which makes her have to feed on sex everyday, several times a day.


It wasn't painful yet.  The sex didn't get in the way of the plot yet, and the plot wasn't bad.  Some of it, combined with knowing too much about the author's personal life was ick, (and super-Mary-Sue-meets-are-you-fucking-kidding-me) but there was a solid story and resolution.This became less and less true until, four books later, she totally phoned the ending in.  Screw resolution, there were just too many penises to examine.


Upon purchase of the book before, the clerk felt the duty to explain that there wasn't any actual plot (as fans of a paranormal thriller would see it--if you were in the market for stupid relationship angst, there was plenty) for the first 200 pages.  But but that couldn't be true, right?  By the end, more than wanting my money back, I wanted those hours of my life back.

But I still bought the next one.  Yeah, this time I waited until it was sold at significant discount, but I bought it. I read it.  I stared in horror after reaching the end that was basically a letter reading, Dear good guy, I was the bad guy all along.  Bwahahaha!  I commiserated on message boards, read all the posts saying, "OK...you've got a lot of readers drawn to the sex and your career has exploded, but what about those of us who have been here since the beginning?  We've gotten all our friends to read your novels.  We've put up with the bad editing and fought the urge buy plane tickets and find your house to personally hand you a thesaurus.  We're not even asking you to take the sex out, we just want real stories again."

Anger grew as we read interviews explaining that Americas are repressed sexually.  Certainly far too many of us are, but do you really think these are the same people reading your books?  Hell, anyone who bought into the series through book clubs got the book in spite or because of the explicit sex warnings.  I can't speak for all of us, but lemme tell yah, I like sex.  A lot.  Most of us read other series that include sex--some, I'm given to believe from the boards, come from romance or erotica backgrounds and don't read much that doesn't include sex.  But remember when the adventures were so much more than that?  We just want to come home.

That, if you haven't guessed, is why so many bitched for so long while the stories got worse and worse.  Why so many talked about the books (often for years) after we stopped reading.  And why so many still complain and yet buy the books as soon as they come out, taking what they can of the characters and world no matter what happens.  Some of those who "type" the loudest about Anita and her magical vagina will still pre-order the book or be in the stores for the first day of sales, wanting to come home.

 I would give every remaining second of my life to ride in the kooky kastle just one more time.

So I read Flirt.  By the end of the first chapter, I knew what the action of the story would be--and had a moment of being annoyed that Anita pulled a 'too stupid to live' move and didn't see the threat coming--but I didn't care.  It was Anita.  The "why do you all love me?" and revelation of her grandmother's nastiness was little more than a rehash of crap from before I stopped reading, and almost kept me from going on.  It certainly made me want to sit character and author both down and introduce them to (a) the wonderful world of therapy and (b) the real world where millions of white women are not blond haired and blue eyed, let alone billions of non-white women, and neither dark hair nor bitchy relatives make you ugly.  

I kept reading.  I lived through the almost sex and the inevitable sex with the bad guys (no less), because there was plot.  There was the old Anita, using her mind and her power, and not just her magical vagina.  It was almost like coming home.

Friday, June 11, 2010


When I was...a junior, maybe a sophomore...in high school, I hung out with this particular senior.  I don't think we had anything in common besides a love of Julian May books, but that isn't the point.  He lived on Beacon Hill, a place that circumstances had me near all the time, and he dragged me around one night.  He showed me his job--some shop that I no longer remember--and took me into the cellar to show me the tunnel that had been used first for the Underground Railroad.  It was, for a few feet in, anyway, just extra storage by then, but he said that there were lots of secret holes and tunnels in odd places about the Hill.  He had me at "secret."

My mind would wander to those tunnels over the years, wondering if they connected to the subway at any point, if Fairies had moved within like sidhe mounds now that they've been abandoned.  I've searched the net--you know, now that it's decades later and ordinary people can search the net, for info that's never there.

Beauty and the Beast - The Complete Series introduced me to ordinary (and in Vincent, not so ordinary) tunnel dwellers back in 1990, while Gaiman's Neverwhere: A Novel made the idea more magical, and took me to the rooftops and over suspension bridges in 1998.

This morning in the shower, for no reason in particular, I imagined a Boston where the fay rule the underground, urban shape shifters mingle with humanity in the streets, and vampires and angels fight for supremacy in the skyscrapers.

That's usually how it works for me.  Rather than a lightening bolt of inspiration that develops into a book, I have a spark, that might sit in my mind or in a notebook for years, meeting other sparks along the way until I have something to work with.  I have built stories from flashes of inspiration, but those are all waiting for pieces to make them whole, while the book that I'm revising to eventually send out came from bits and pieces collected over a good handful of years.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

A quick glimpse into An's mind

Usually, I'm late because I've got too much classwork (but I'm free 'til September) or I've got writer's block.  This time around, I've had too much crap in my brain.  I wrote overlong posts that even I didn't want to read by the end, nevermind hoping anyone else would.  I'll share the bit that I like from Monday's post, and then tell you why e-readers have won me over.

My son is arriving from Texas tonight.  This threw me into a fiction finding frenzy.  I'm reading, and loving, The Blue Girl, by Charles de Lint, and wondered if he'd like it, too.  Actually, I so relate to the main character, I considered making him read it whether he liked it or not.  Then there's Kelley Armstrong's The Awakening (Darkest Powers), and Cassandra Clare's City of Bones (Mortal Instruments).  How many female protagonists can a young man take?  Maybe he'd dig Unleashed by Kris Reisz?  Speaking of Reisz, wasn't him compiling a list of young adult fiction for guys?  I'd look it up but how could I forget Elsewhere?

Elsewhere This book redefined my youth (don't let the Aug 2004 date fool yah).  Sure, I had Moonheart (which came to mean more to me as grew older) and then War for the Oaks: A Novel, but Elsewhere really marked a place where I became an urban fantasy fan.  More, some inner part of me said, This is who I am.

OK, I never hopped a train to Bordertown where The World meets Faerie.  Not physically.  Emotionally, I'd been squatting there since I was 12; Elsewhere, and the follow up Nevernever, gave it a name and me someone to hang with while he blew up his life and found himself.

...I could go on about that, but I'll follow the twist my thoughts took.

Now about e-readers.

They're neat.

....I'm tempted to leave it there because the discussion about it seems...pointless.  And this from a chick who likes to discuss.  The people who insist they're here, and they'll do to books with CDs did to albums and MP3 players did to Discmen (who was the winner who came up with that name?) are probably right.  Then again. there may be enough people who insist that you'll take their physical, paper books away when you pry them out of their dead, cold hands to make e-readers additional technology rather than replacement tech.  We won't know 'til we know.

Years ago, my hubby bought a handheld computer and I thought it was a dumb waste of money.  It came in handy, though, when we were called out of town suddenly and I was able to buy a couple of ebooks.  Some time later, our toddler broke it and, other than my being still annoyed about the money, neither of us missed it.    We still went to bookstores (or ordered online) and libraries, and barely batted a lash when the Kindle came out.  OK, I liked the hype.  I batted a lash, until the price drew my hard stare.  I was even excited about the iPad, but I'm spending my rent money (or two car payments if I were to actually buy a car, or...well, input your own "this is way more important to me than a gadget" bill) for tech that makes tech I already own portable.  When I can fully use it as a laptop without Steve Jobs keeping me free from porn, I'll think about it.

Then my husband got me a Sony Pocket Reader  on sale for Mother's Day, I...was OK.  With two ebooks waiting for review, I thought that would be a good thing, and at the price, I could barely argue.  He loaded all the backup Kelley Armstrong books that he had bought (ok, cool, but I've read all the hard copies several times and wasn't about to do so again) and his Star Wars ebooks (I haven't read a Star Wars book since Mara Jade was first introduced, what? 20 years ago?).  It was more interesting when a series of links while net surfing landed me at the Ellora's Cave free short stories page.  Woohoo!  Now I could really try out erotica (if I only I could stop editing it as I read).

Long story slightly less long, if you're ever in place where you need 1500 (or 300 for those of us with the cheap version) books, you'll be too screwed to read.  If you discover, like I just did, that the "First Time in Print!" stamp that St. Martin put on the book you bought does not mean "first book in the series" (jerks), you could spend a couple of minutes finding, buying, and downloading the right book.  Quick and easy....assuming there's an e-version of the book.  I guess I'll go look.