Dear Genre Fiction Writers: Quit This Sh*t

This past year I’ve read a lot more fiction than my usual yearly average. That’s a result of two things — the first being that I’m on an awards jury, the second being that I challenged myself to read more widely short fiction-wise.

Having expanded my fiction horizons this year, I now have some broad opinions and advice to impart to all genre writers. I’m not going to name names or give examples, but if anything I say from here on out hits home then I suggest you take it personally. Ready? Okay.

1

If I see one more piece of fiction wherein a female character — particularly a main character or protagonist — is raped, almost raped, or threatened with rape, I am seriously going to blow some shit up. I am so, so very tired of this. It not only annoys me, it angers me. Deeply.

I’ve written about this before, but apparently not everyone got the memo.

I will say, briefly, that there are a few instances where rape in fiction does not anger me and is justified within the text. Those instances tend to involve very good writers who know what they’re on about. Though there are plenty of good writers who don’t know what they’re on about; at least as concerns this issue.

I do understand that rape is a reality. And I’m not about to say that because fiction isn’t reality, there shouldn’t be rape in it. What I will say is that rape, in fiction, is often unnecessary, badly used, a symptom of poor characterization skills and inability to plot, and often serves to titillate and excite. If you do not see how all of these are unequivocally bad, then don’t even bother trying to argue your point: you lose.

Writers, when you create the world that your characters inhabit, be it future, past, present, secondary, imaginary or any combination thereof, you get to make choices about that world. And though it is true that rape happens, that doesn’t mean it is inevitable whenever a female character walks onto the page. You can decide that characters who wish to harm, threaten, or exert their power over a female character do it in other ways.

Consider this: if a man was intimidated by another man and decided to strike out and somehow de-empower his rival, he wouldn’t think “I’ll get him drunk and take advantage of him!” If a man found out a secret about another man and wanted to use that to his advantage, he wouldn’t say, “Have sex with me or I’ll tell your secret to the world.” If a man gets pissed off at another man, he doesn’t beat him up and rape him, he just beats him up.

There are hundreds of ways that people can relate to one another in anger, hatred, control and frustration that don’t have anything to do with sexual assault. Why not try considering one of those before turning to the easy one?

I guess it comes down to this: quit being lazy, writers. I won’t have it.

2

The idea that women should be ashamed of enjoying sex and having it with more than one person in their life is damned stupid. If fiction writers continue to perpetuate this idea, I will be forced to blow something up.

I read a few really good stories and books this year that were marred by weird sidelines wherein female protagonists felt themselves to be worthless and slutty because they enjoyed sex (usually unconventional) and had multiple partners in their life. Not multiple partners at a time, mind you, but in general. “How could I be such a horrible person as to have wasted myself on anyone but my true love?”

Shoot me.

Sex is not evil. Enjoying sex is not evil. Enjoying sex that falls outside puritanical ideas of “normal” sex is not evil. Yes, some women feel this way, but again: you, the writer, get to choose the way your characters feel, and I wish you wouldn’t choose this. It’s stupid and boring and, when shoehorned into an otherwise intelligent female character, makes it seem like you have some problems that perhaps a therapist should help you with.

3

Not many people can pull off the Ironic -isms story. Like, “I’m being ironically sexist with this male character and you’re supposed to know that!” Or “I’m being ironically racist with my horrible stereotypes!” It’s hard to pull off because, forgive me, but most writers who try have never actually experienced racism or sexism or the -ism they are trying to be ironic about. Also, I often just don’t believe you when you say you’re trying to be ironic. Experience tells me that you’re either being clueless or malicious, and I won’t tolerate either one.

4

If you have to insist loudly and often that your story or novel is really feminist because you are a woman and a feminist and therefore you could never, ever write anything that is anti-feminist or cluelessly sexist in the same banal way that many stories and novels written by men who are unconsciously sexist are written, then perhaps your piece of fiction isn’t as feminist as you think it is.  I’m just sayin’.


These things wouldn’t bother me so much if I didn’t invest so deeply in the books and stories I read. In fact, if the stories or novels themselves were just crap, I could write it all off as hack writing. But many of the things I read that pissed me off were written by otherwise excellent writers. They drew me in with great prose, an interesting premise, mostly great characterization, and a story that intrigued me. When I hit upon those speed bumps I felt rather betrayed. Like, how dare you make me think you knew what you were doing!?

It’s similar to the way fans get upset at their favorite television shows. There is so much potential there, and yet it’s squandered. It is enough to break our hearts. Or to make me break heads.

Comments

  1. Laird says

    Jeff:

    And no, you probably won’t see any pronouncements regarding what’s okay or not in writing on my journal. Nor do I presume to issue “memos” regarding tropes that bore me and thus merit extinction.

  2. says

    Laird: I guess I just don’t agree it was pronouncement-ish. I also would *love* to see you issue pronouncements. I mean, what? You want disclaimers on anything anyone ever posts out there that seems at all authoritative? I just don’t get that.
    Jeff

  3. Laird says

    Don’t be coy, Roy. If You don’t feel the need to reconcile what I pointed to as your published and lengthily dissected frustration with “on high” rhetoric such as the above, you aren’t being honest with me so much as interested in chastising my audacity to speak up. Consider my buttocks to be red and stinging. I’ll probably type standing for a week.

  4. says

    Laird: I hope you’ll always speak out. I don’t agree with you about Tempest’s post, but neither do I suppose you’re in some way slanting your criticism because of any external factors–you’re just disagreeing with the post, I believe. And I will always love your work and respect your opinion.

    Jeff

  5. says

    Brilliant post–thanks. I just want to add that the bottom line in fiction is not whether you (the reader or the author) approve of feminism or what the statistics are about who does what to whom “in reality.” Nobody goes to genre fiction for social science; they go to escape, and on occasion they find in fiction a truth about the human condition that transcends particulars. Fiction is about whether you tell a good, fresh, compelling story and execute it well plot-wise, character-wise, narrative-wise, and prose-wise. Yeah, sure Goodkind gets away with violating all those; so does Nora Robert (who tells the same story, with the same characters, over and over and has made a mint doing it). 99 percent of the authors in the world have to work harder than those who are already famous brand names. The advice that is being offered here is: don’t fall back on the same boring-ass conventions and motivations about women that everybody else is using.

    My particular trite pet peeves are:

    1. Eyes of a startling color. The whole fiction world is populated with people who have “startling green” or “ice blue” eyes and all that does is conjure up images of The Village of the Damned.

    2. Tortured animals and pets. Yeah, boy. This is done over and over and over. Yes, sociopaths practice on animals in reality. People also wipe their butts in reality and we don’t need to see it in detail unless it moves the plot forward–and chances are, it doesn’t. There’s no bloody screetching whimpering dog scene that you can do that will out-bloody and out-shock the one Stephen King wrote. Best let a bunch of that stuff happen off-camera, as Hollywooders do–such as with Peter Moore Smith’s brilliant Raveling or with Elizabeth Hand’s very good Generation Loss.

  6. leilla says

    Interesting post. However, while you may be right about rape being over-used and used in the wrong way, rape does happen a lot and sexual abuse is used in order to exert power over an enemy in order to break them (along with other tactics). Look at the Abu Ghraib scandal. Read accounts of what happened to the women in Berlin after the Russians and Americans conquered it (and they were the good guys, right?). Read accounts of the Greek-Turkish war and every other war. There are plenty of examples on smaller and more personal scale (but I’m a history student so I remember wars). To ignore the fact that sex is very much connected to power is to ignore the facts. Mind you, while rape is abominable, I think these cases and many others show that a person can rape in certain circumstances without being a rapist i.e. without being inherently evil and the rape can be very impersonal (which may be more terrifying). This should come out in genre books more. Fantasy seems to simplify things in this area a bit too much but sex and sexual abuse should be used as plot devices.

  7. says

    I made it to this blog post by way of the above link from Fantasy magazine. It’s a terrific article, and Tempest’s post has generated a valuable discussion of related topics. Good stuff.

    My comment is, however, that any advice–professional or otherwise–that blankets a subject with “Stop writing this” is dangerous advice. We’re all allowed to have opinions, we’re allowed to roll our eyes when we come across another trope we feel has been done to death, or poorly executed, or handled without care. If it’s in a slush pile, one sets it aside and prepares a “Thank you, but no thank you” reply. As an editor, that’s part of the job. Reading lots of stories, appealing or otherwise.

    But any and all writers should filter advice through their own sensors. In the blog world, usually a rant about pet peeves is simply that.

  8. Jackie M. says

    I’m extremely disappointed that after point #2, no further blowing up of shit was theatened.

  9. Misti says

    *studies points and considers her WiPs*

    A writer should always make sure he knows what he’s doing and why in a story. Do I use rape in my stories? Yes. Do I rely on it as my first choice? No. I always scrutinize the scene and consider why it’s there. If the story will stand without a certain bit of disturbing content, I shred it and try again. Even the rape that remains is off-screen, usually in backstory.

    Indiana Jim
    However, I have to agree with Shane a smidge. While I agree rape is overused, the idea of a woman feeling guilty for having multiple partners (to varying degrees and varieties) is extremely common, and in fact more likely than the other angle. I think men who have multiple partners are slutty too, so how’s that for equal time?

    Call me a Puritan if you like, but I actually agree with Indiana Jim on thinking multiple-partnered men every bit as slutty as multiple-partnered women. That said, I do realize sex outside marriage is common. While my characters overall reflect my belief that sex belongs inside marriage, I do my best to balance my characters. I don’t strictly follow “girl virgin = good/not virgin = evil” stereotype. That’s as rude as the “any deeply religious conservative person is a Bible-thumping fanatic” stereotype. Which I endeavor not to take personally.

    Irony is harder to pull off than writers like admitting. If you have to TELL me that you intended to be ironic (or anything else, for that matter), then your writing needs work. Go practice until I know what you’re doing without you telling me you’re (failing at) doing it, then keep at it until someone who doesn’t write herself can figure it out, too.

    Indiana Jim
    I kind of get pissed when fiction writers do the “men are all stupid and self-absorbed” bit, and also the whole “I could tell you this one simple fact which would explain my position, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll let this character continue to be pissed at the other for no real apparent reason other than it provides conflict” thing. You know?

    Yeah, those drive me batty, too. The movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith was fun, but it really demonstrated the entire silly guy vs. smart girl cliches. Seems like in a lot of works, either the man or the woman has to be right ALL the time. Why not sometimes the girl, sometimes the guy?

    In a similar vein, what about the idiot parents vs. savvy kids trope? Older CAN be wiser. (Of course, now I think of YA books that agree with me, there, and pull it off well.) Now, I realize that it’s difficult to have the reader know what’s REALLY going on without making the ignorant narrator seem like a complete idiot. But “difficult” has a different meaning than “impossible.”

    And seriously, there’s such thing as trying too hard. I won’t name names, but I recently read a novel with a character who’s a murderous sociopath–and the writer’s writing was screaming “Wow, look at HIM! Isn’t he so COOL?!” Um, no, he’s a murderous sociopath, and I think I’ll quietly excuse myself and hope I never meet you at a convention.

    No offense intended by any of this reply.

  10. Daniel says

    I was supposed to read this book for University, The Bluest Eye, and I just threw it down when it got to the bit that can be described simply as “The black man comes home drunk and rapes his daughter”. I don’t exactly feel like my life was incomplete before I read this book. And I don’t even want to think about Metro, a story entirely about sex, closet homosexuals, arrogant pricks and objectifying women, with not a single redeemable character in it… Point is, I want to get away from “normal stories” about rape and masculine-dominance-sexual-objectification and all that crap that’s nonetheless international best-seller material. So yes, I’d like fantasy authors to steer away from rape unless there’s absolutely no way around it, thanks.

  11. Nero says

    Can you tell me if the ebook biz of http://www.darkcastle.com is for real? It looks like they’re still developing the site, but the premise looks interesting. Anyway, has anyone here heard of them; and, are they legit? Thanks.

  12. Dixon L. Creasey, Jr. says

    Sooooo…the real point of this whole thing is; give a hack enough trope and s/he will hang him/herself?

  13. says

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  14. Cylon says

    Funny fact: if you don’t like what is written, don’t buy it.

    Hooray for a free market.

    You don’t like what writer A writes? Don’t buy his/her stuff. That simple. But telling writer A what he/she must write in order to appease you? Shall I say: “LOL”? Yes, I shall. You’re one of 6+ billion humans. Nobody cares what you want.

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