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.


But.


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.

18 comments:

Nicole said...

Hear, hear!

Though, I must say: fiction written by men and fiction written by women do, by and large, have very different focuses. I would be curious to see what a man thinks of a women author's take on male feelings and emotions, because I can not think of a male author who has written a female character's feelings in a way I can believe.

(Not saying I dislike male authors. Just that I usually find myself laughing at their emotional/sensual scenes when written from a female POV.)

An Again said...

Hmm...are you talking a female character's feelings or does emotional/sensual mean pretty much sensual? Cuz I'll admit that I've read far less by male authors since UF titles have been coming out faster than I can keep up, I can't say that those that I've read have, at any point, stood out as guy unable to convey female emotion. Can't say that I've read any sensual scenes in a female pov written by a man, though.

(Feel free to give me some recommendations for the chuckle factor.)

Angela Addams said...

I have to say, while I was in university I really got trapped in the high-brow attitude of literature over genre fiction...I think it's just part of the culture there. I studied a lot of Victorian Literature - and I mean a lot of it! Many of the texts that were considered literature (like Wilkie Collins for example) was, at the time that it was written, considered trashy, women's fiction. Isn't that funny? Now when one reads Wilkie Collins it's considered educational LITERATURE.

Ummmmm...makes you think doesn't it? I sure hope so.

An Again said...

It does make you think, Angela. I wonder if a lot of our trashy novels will be classics someday just because they've become old enough.

(The lit attitude is why, though I'm a would-be-novelist, I've returned to college for an American Studies major! I didn't want to spend years reading things that I don't care for surrounded by people who looked down on what I write.)

Falcata Times said...

Great post avangy,
It's always a joy to read others Point of view on things like genre when its a confuddling business all in.

Jessica Peter said...

Hm. Interesting post, and interesting find too. I was reading at the edge of my seat.

My personal definition of urban fantasy: stories with fantastical elements set in an urban setting in our world. Often features a grittiness factor. It does NOT, necessarily, have: a kickass heroine, a love interest, a non-HEA ending, those same supernatural groups (you know the ones). That said, a lot of what's on the market for urban fantasy now seems to have some if not all of those qualifiers. It doesn't change the definition! But now that those groups are overriding the market, it's like we feel uncomfortable calling anything else UF.

An observation: we don't seem to have any simple magic anymore (Charles de Lint aside; he's almost in a category of his own), just "magical realism" in the literary world. Hm.

And... Nicole: I don't particularly think the gender of the writer matters. I think most people can write the opposite gender's POV better than they think, it just might not be as common to do so (it's sad that some of the few male romance writers have to have female pen names!). One great example of a (non-spec fic) woman POV written by a man: Memoirs of a Geisha.

dannigrrl said...

Great post An. I've never understood why people believe mainstream fiction is so much better than anything with a fantasy element. I read mostly UF, but that's not to say that I don't read other genres. If it's an interesting story, well-written, with good characters, I'm in. I don't get all the genre snobbery.

An Again said...

"An observation: we don't seem to have any simple magic anymore (Charles de Lint aside; he's almost in a category of his own), just "magical realism" in the literary world. Hm."

While (after more coffee), I might argue that what we have no isn't magical realism, I'm with you on the rest of this, Jessica. About a year ago, Kristopher Reisz (hope, I'm spelling it right; it's a short name, but I generally seem to get it wrong when I'm not looking) commented on the genre being overrun by people who writing it "because it's hot". I'd been busily toiling away and defended myself and others who genuinely loved the genre and had for a long time...but I'm wondering if he wasn't right. That would certainly explain why the genre seems to have morphed from what it used to be and then stalled with a ton of new titles, most cut from the same cloth.

Danni, I think (maybe hope) that the genre snobbery comes from people not considering their reactions. Prior to the OWG, I *hated* romance. I've grown up since, and have respect for anyone who can see a story from idea to polished product--all the more so for surviving the submission process--even if the work isn't for me. It seems a lot of folks haven't grown past the "I don't like it, therefore it sucks" stage.

michellemuto said...

I'm not a heavy romance fan, so Roberts is out for me. Hubby loves Clancy, but I don't read military stuff. He loves Star Wars, but that's not me, either.

I read all kinds of other stuff from Sci-Fi to Fantasy, Horror, Mainstream, Literary, and YA. I have fav authors, sure. But the whole male/female thing doesn't factor for me. It's always been about the story and if the author's style flows well with me.

Diane Girard said...

When any type/genre of fiction becomes extremely popular publishers jump on the band wagon and the market is flooded with stuff - horrid, sorta-bad, passable, good and excellent. Thanks to the speed of communications these days, this all happens very quickly and then when the fad fades, one can only hope that the good stuff won't end up on the remainder pile but sadly, I think a lot does.

Women who write have had an even harder time of it in the past. Think of the great writers who had to use male names, just to get an editor's eye. Then, they were condescended to and were told how very lucky they were to even be considered. I think that has changed at least somewhat, because publishers recognize that readers WANT good work that has been written by women, or men. Even so, many ,more male writers than femal writers are considered part of the literary canon and I think that's the result of sexism - period.

Books that stick in your mind long after you have read them can be from any 'genre' - because they transcend categories and refuse to fit into any box.

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An Again said...

Diane wrote: "Even so, many ,more male writers than femal writers are considered part of the literary canon and I think that's the result of sexism - period."

I can agree with that. What I resist is the idea that sexism existing (then or now) makes me an eternal estrogen-filled victim. And I resist the sense that men have been sexist, so now we should be. NOT that you're giving that sense, but a lot of 'rah, rah, go girls!' cheerleading ends up being "yeah, and the boys suck aren't in touch with their feelings so they can't write well anyway."

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