Dear Genre Fiction Writers: Quit This Sh*t

K. Tempest Bradford • December 10th, 2008 @ 5:39 pm • Uncategorized

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.

76 Responses to “Dear Genre Fiction Writers: Quit This Sh*t”

  1. Andrew C says:

    I feel the same way about other things. Such as, stories which have no heart and no soul to them, and leave me angry and unsatisfied. It’s hard to explain what qualifies a story as soulless, but some just are.

  2. noisms says:

    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?”

    Is that not a conflation of character and author that you’re guilty of here? Maybe the authors of these stories and books would personally be in complete agreement with you; it is the character who thinks the objectionable or stupid thoughts.

    To put it another way, just because Bill Sykes kills Nancy, that doesn’t mean Dickens advocated murder.

  3. K. Tempest Bradford says:

    noisms —

    That kind of fits into my point at #3. That may be the intention of some writers who do this, but due to lack of skill or laziness or something else, the whole thing just falls flat.

    Also, if you’re going to pull this thing off without annoying the reader, you’ve got to have a certain amount of skill. And it takes a lot of skill to pull off a stereotype like “woman who has sex all the time feels like a slut simply because sex was had”. Not because she didn’t enjoy it, or because she did it to further some goal, or because she seeks sex as validation (which is another cliche and should be handled with great care and skill), but simply because she has “too much” sex, and therefore she is BAD.

  4. Zoe Winters says:

    Eh, I’m pretty anti-feminist. Sure, I believe in equal rights and such like that, but I don’t believe crazy feminist ideas should be brought into our bedrooms (there’s part of the shame about sex right there), or that we necessarily have to label the concept of equal rights as “feminism.” That would be like a man saying he’s a “masculinist” but he’s for equal rights between the sexes.

    And I concur with you on the sex thing. I’m seriously considering writing a romance with a male/female/male threesome. Where it is a romance not erotica, and where it’s about a relationship. And where nobody thinks the chick is evil or horrible or dirty for it.

    As for rape, or almost rape, or whatever. It’s a fact of life. It’s a fact of life that many women either have direct personal experience with or know someone who has. I’ve written “almost rape” and I would probably write it again. But folks who don’t like it are free to read something else.

  5. DDog says:

    @Zoe Winters,

    Sometimes, the problem with male-sexual-assault-against-females isn’t that such things don’t happen in real life, because they do. But rape is not the only narrative that women and female-bodied-people have, and it shouldn’t be the default setting for a story. When it becomes a ridiculous pattern in fiction, it is not simply mirroring life in the sense that sexual assault against women is way, way too prevalent, it is shaping a reality where rape is the only narrative available to women. Fiction (print and TV/movies) tends to show that gay men get AIDS and die, women get raped, black people get lynched, transfolk get outed and brutally killed, and the list goes on.

    The point is not that these things don’t happen now and never did happen, because they do. But there are more stories to tell. Even if you are trying to make the point that oppression is a terrible thing, which it is, oppression takes myriad forms and we don’t learn how to recognize it unless we tell all the stories we have.

  6. Strong words of advice from K. Tempest Bradford : I Should Be Writing 2.0 says:

    [...] Tempest Bradford is guest blogging at Jeff Vandermeer’s blog, which is where I found this gem of a blog post. I love it when someone puts into words stuff that I feel but never bothered to write down. #1 is a [...]

  7. SMD says:

    I have to disagree a little with some of the points you raised in #1. I’m not saying this is common, as in the case of the raping of women, however men do rape other men, or violate them sexually in some way. Obviously it’s not all over the news or in massive numbers, but it does happen. I think it’s too simplistic to say “if a man gets mad at another man, he just beats him up,” because that sort of ignores the various ways someone can get pissed off at someone.

    That’s just my beef, though. I totally get what you’re saying in that section and generally agree, but I couldn’t leave that unsaid. I think it would be interesting if more writers tried to look into the darker side of brutality towards men as perpetrated by men. There’s a lot of disgusting, crazy crap there (particularly against gay men).

  8. Shane says:

    Wow. What an annoying article.

    How many women in the world have sex with multiple partners and feel bad about it?
    How many women get raped?

    So, uh, two emotionally charged, and relatively common, events occur in Real Life. And they’re inappropriate for fiction why again?

  9. Zoe Winters says:

    DDog, you make a good point, but just because there are a lot of books about it, doesn’t mean new writers can’t explore it. It’s kind of like the sudden prohibition against vampires by some readers who are sick of them. That’s fine, but not all readers are.

    And then in the case of romance, you have an entire genre largely in part based upon the “bodice-ripping theme” Which isn’t to say it’s about rape or “almost rape” it’s not really. It’s not the same thing. But that there is a certain pattern in the “guy seems scary” but then “guy isn’t scary” theme. It repeats over and over in the genre. And readers gobble it up. Yes, some want Beta males, and less slamming against the wall and pseudo-threatening and such, but it doesn’t mean the big group who still want the bad boys should be ignored.

  10. Magnus Edlund says:

    Well, Shane, if the events are used in the fiction without much though i’d rather be without them.

  11. Indiana Jim says:

    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?

    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?

  12. Zoe Winters says:

    LMAO Indiana Jim, agreed! That’s more of a chick-lit thing though isn’t it? (the all men are stupid thing) Or is it everywhere?

  13. Kelly Barnhnhill says:

    Shane, is it the veracity of the arguments themselves that you find “annoying”, or, perhaps, is it just that you disagree with the politics? I think it happens a lot that when an expressed point of view makes us uncomfortable we will often simply discount it as “annoying” as a way to alleviate the stress of actually confronting and questioning the source of our discomfort.

    Or so I tell my seventh graders on an almost daily basis.

    Personally, I think that Ms. Bradford’s frustration with lazy writing is right on the money. If a female character is introduced in the story and I know right off the bat that she will be sexually humiliated in the first third of the action, then I think I can safely assume that there is some lazy writing a’foot. Because in that sense, the rape is used as a very blunt (and, I may add, ridiculously over used) plot tool to *show* how bad this guy is, or how misguided he is, or how vulnerable she is, or what a survivor or any other trite plot-in-a-box.

    Isn’t it the job of the writer to go beyond what the reader expects? Isn’t it the job of the writer to force us to question our expectations and assumptions.

    I tell my students all the time – if you’re not re-thinking, you’re not thinking, and you’ve reduced yourself to a goddamned waste of space…..except I skip the goddamned. most of the time.

    Obviously rape occurs every goddamned day and obviously, as an element of the human experience, it has a reasonable place in storytelling. It’s the *how* that is worrisome. And I say this as a former rape counselor and a teacher who, over the years, has taken six of her students to the emergency room and contacted the police rape unit to meet us over there. It sets my teeth on edge to see their experience simplified into a plot device.

    I say, if a writer’s gonna put one of their characters through that ordeal, they need to be prepared to feel it for themselves. And make their readers feel it too. Otherwise, what’s the effing point?

  14. Curious says:

    Are there really that many fiction pieces with rape in them? I can’t remember a single short story this year in the major publications were that was included. Maybe I didn’t read enough.

  15. Flippanter says:

    I want to agree with all these points, but the cynic in me (he’s taken a long-term sublet) speculates that a story in which every character behaved in accordance with blogger-approved strictures would be disappointing and annoying in its own special way.

  16. Zoe Winters says:

    bwahahahahaha Flippanter!

  17. Kelly Barnhnhill says:

    Not as much as in previous years with adult women, but i’ve been seeing a boatload of stories with an incest or child-rape – again, as a plot device – because do you see how the writer is being Deep and using the violation of a human being as a Symbol for the Loss of Innocence or whatever. It’s the boogy-man du jour and it’s getting old. No, it’s *been* old.

    But I’ve been thinking about what noisms said about the Nancy murder in Oliver Twist. Clearly, Dickens is not advocating murder, but the fact that it is Nancy who bites it in the end shows the rigidity of his story building. I actually wrote a paper on this very subject in college, and became stuck on the idea that if it was switched – if Nancy killed Bill, Twist would have been a much stronger novel. Not only would it give Nancy’s character a chance to see her growing toughness to its natural fruition, but it would also force her to face the consequences of that act of courage – AND it would have altered Oliver’s perception of her from angelic mother-figure to something very different.

    And even better, it would be what the reader doesn’t expect. Because that’s what good fiction does – rather than have the sinister uncle follow the sweet little, white-nightied virgin up the stairs, have her clock him with a vase and then post it on her facebook page. Or something.

  18. jeff vandermeer says:

    tempest–great great post!

  19. Stephen says:

    In the coincidence file, Jo Walton has a post up at Tor talking about rape of men by women in C.J. Cherryh’s work.

    @SMD
    You might want to check out Kavalier & Clay. It deals a little with what you’re talking about.

    I find myself wishing that this post had a little more information on how things are being done badly and how they could be done better, but I guess a simple caveat scriptor as it were that these things are hard to write well is useful information.

    Hopefully my html tags will work right. *crosses fingers*

  20. Brendan says:

    It would be interesting to see some samples of point 3. I understand what you are talking about, but would find it interesting to see some specific samples.

  21. J. T. Glover says:

    I’ve never read slush before, nor have I read widely for contests or anthologies, so I don’t really know how the entire field looks. It’s got to be really irritating to see the same motifs come up again and again, badly handled, and make you lose a certain amount of faith in both writers and humanity generally.

    Objection the First: While it would be a better world if there weren’t any rape, Puritan hangover, badly deployed irony, or covert sexism, that ain’t our world. How else are writers going to learn to represent the world (or worlds) if they don’t write what they see? I’ve seen the effects of all of your above no-nos in person, and it would be deeply dishonest of me as a writer not to include them when they’re right for the story. Doing so is a form of self-censorship that I can’t see as anything other than crippling for a writer.

    Objection the Second: People write about weird, gut-wrenching shit all the time. Terrorist attacks, or orc invasions, or whatever all result in countless deaths, rape, torture, and deprivation. These things are often glossed over by writers because bombs and swordfighting are exciting plot devices… however rarely we encounter them, or anything like them, in real life. Isn’t it better to try to learn to write about rape, racism, sexism, etc. realistically? Even if you wind up doing so inelegantly at the start?

    The people out there who actually are pro-rape, hate women and minorities, and believe women who’ve slept with more than one man are whores–their mind isn’t going to be changed by what you write, I don’t think. Do you think new writers, trying to improve their craft, will learn more effectively if they self-censor the way you suggest?

  22. J. T. Glover says:

    EDIT:

    “Do you think new writers, who aren’t like the former group and are trying to improve their craft, will learn more effectively if they self-censor the way you suggest? That’s a serious question, BTW, not snark.”

  23. links for 2008-12-11 < Piruett says:

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  24. Nicole Cushing says:

    I think there’s a difference between a writer pulling sexual abuse/rape/domestic violence out of the blue and using it as a plot devise and a writer who know the emotional dynamics of these events, and can write about it with some sensitivity. There’s also a difference between a character who is a static, cardboard-cutout victim and one who is dynamic, who survives, who thrives.

    My day job involves daily contact with kids who have been abused (both physically and sexually), as well as adults who were abused as kids. As a newer writer, I am told to write what I know. The hideous nature of these events lead me to ask questions about the nature of the universe — about why such things occur. Moreover, the reality-bending invasion of post-traumatic stress disorder lends itself to exploration in weird fiction.

    Certainly I don’t write about abuse exclusively — but I have written stories with abuse as a central aspect of the story. At times I have written these stories with great reluctance — and considered whether I could at all soft-pedal the events into something — I don’t know — less abrasive, less jarring. But when I listened to the characters and heard what was going on — it was sexual abuse.

    But I think I know how you feel, Jeff. Sometimes my day job feels like the grim parts of a M.A.S.H. episode (“attention all personnel, incoming wounded”). If I see one more child who has been raped, almost raped, or threatened with rape, I am seriously going to blow some shit up.

  25. Bill Ectric says:

    No time to reply . . . hurriedly rewriting . . .

  26. LiquidWeird says:

    Not enough of a ‘writing diva’ to aim for cheap pseudo-depth this way, but I generally agree with this post. I blame the tendency of these writers to try too hard to write ‘for the ages’ and to ‘explore the human condition’ in an artsy-fartsy way for this as much as I do the clumsy handling of these topics, however.

  27. Laird Barron says:

    Thou shalt nots are generally crap. Your post pretty much boils down to — don’t suck. Awesome advice. I hope young, impressionable writers aren’t taking this seriously.

  28. K. Tempest Bradford says:

    Multi-answer comment ahoy!

    Laird — Actually my post boils down to something a bit deeper than that, which I hope new writers will grasp: Think carefully about what you write and why you write it. Also: don’t choose the easy way — it’s lazy and makes for bad writing. What I’ve said is not so different from what any good writing teacher will say, I just happened to give some specific instances of lazy writing and non-thinking.

    Lazy thinking abounds; not just in fiction writing, but in blog comments, too.

    Flippanter — you make a good point. But my answer to that is similar to my answer above. Whether you take my specific examples to heart or not, fiction writers should just stop being lazy.

    SMD – You’re absolutely right that men do rape other men, though it’s not as common. I thought about including a caveat — heterosexual men, or “usually”, but I figured someone would bring it up in the comments. You’re right that there are many and various ways people get angry with each other. I think writers should explore more of them, especially where women are involved.

    To those who said something along the lines of “well these things do happen in real life, why shouldn’t they happen in fiction?” I have this to say: Think carefully about the kinds of narratives you come across (in all media) for women and for men (this can also be applied to ethnic minorities vs. majorities, religion, sexual orientation).

    If you pay attention at all, you’ll start to notice that many narratives are used over and over, mainly because they’re easy, recognizable tropes. Does the greater use of those narrative accurately reflect the greater instance of them in life? I doubt it. Especially narratives that have to do with any minority.

    Narratives often shape our perceptions of groups we don’t know much about or take no interest in understanding. It’s no accident that women in fiction and media end up raped or almost raped all the time, because it’s a dominant narrative. For some, it’s the only thing they understand about being a woman: that we’re afraid of being raped all the time.

    Thing is, we’re afraid of a lot of other stuff, too. Losing our jobs, losing our significant other, being able to pay the rent, being able to take care of our parents, bees. But other, non-gendered fears are often not explored or even considered. That makes for boring-ass narratives.

    Kelly Barnhnhill: is it the veracity of the arguments themselves that you find “annoying”, or, perhaps, is it just that you disagree with the politics? I think it happens a lot that when an expressed point of view makes us uncomfortable we will often simply discount it as “annoying” as a way to alleviate the stress of actually confronting and questioning the source of our discomfort.

    THANK YOU

    Stephen: I find myself wishing that this post had a little more information on how things are being done badly and how they could be done better

    Honestly? It would take more than a post. This kind of stuff is the reason people go to writing workshops or attend writing classes. Not to mention classes in literature. But one day I hope there will be a review site that focuses on really deep explorations of books and stories with these and other issues in order to pick apart what they’re doing wrong and how others might avoid the same mistakes. Some of that goes on in various blogs, particularly ones with an anti-oppression slant (like Feminist SF The Blog).

    That’s all for now :)

  29. Laird Barron says:

    “Actually my post boils down to something a bit deeper than that…”

    If I had such as impression I wouldn’t have given your screed the pushback it merits.

    You conflate laziness with pith at your own peril. You also seem to confuse yourself with an eminent professional who’s paid to flagellate students. But do carry on.

  30. Laird Barron says:

    I misstyped: pithiness, I should say.

  31. Andrew C says:

    While I agree overall with this post, I would like to add that ANYTHING, if well done and necessary, can add to a story. However some things just make people uncomfortable and in a lot of cases shouldn’t be written about.

  32. mitchell says:

    thanks for these remarks! i share your reaction to these examples, and would add a few more of my own, such as the eternal and boring and eternally boring male meets female blah blah blah blah. the argument that using such situations somehow reflects “real life” misses the point. even realism isn’t real, it’s a technique chosen, more or less consciously, by the writer to tell the story. and fantasy, in general, (do i really need to say this on this blog?) isn’t about real life. why, when a writer invents a world (to take the most extreme context) do the rules of behavior in that world need to map directly on to rules of behavior in this mundane world we live in every day? characteriziation? vraisemblance? lack of imagination? if the hero (yuck) doesn’t ride a horse, why should s/he be a sexist? and i think that’s what your critique approaches, is a critique of the sexist (and racist, to mention the most common two) epistemology that still affects how literature (narrative) is created.

  33. K. Tempest Bradford says:

    Actually, Laird, I am a professional. I don’t know that I would label myself an eminent one, though. Beyond that, I don’t think one needs to be a professional in order to observe trends in media and say: this is not good. I’m a writer and an editor, but I’m also a consumer. That doesn’t make me an ultimate authority, but it does give me leave to offer an informed opinion.

    If you confuse laziness with pith, then I think I’m not the one with the deficit.

    Andrew C. — True, things done well, even tropes, even overused tropes, can work out in the hands of a writer who is deft and skilled enough. Writers with skill rarely take the lazy route, I would hazard.

  34. Mike Allen says:

    I think the value of this post is undermined by the lack of a specific example, or even a generic one presented as a for-instance. Sure, rape is a sensitive serious issue that a writer trifles with at his or her peril. Sure, it’s easy to read the sentiments expressed here and cheer without thinking too hard about it.

    But I haven’t seen any evidence that bringing female characters on stage to degrade them for entertainment value is a remotely rampant practice, at least not in the speculative fiction that I’ve read in the past year; for that matter, not even in the slush I’ve read. Whatever you’re reading, it’s not what I’m reading.

    So, where are you seeing these things?

  35. Mike Allen says:

    An addendum: if it turns out what you really mean is TV or movies, yes, it is rampant there.

    But if you really specifically mean printed science fiction and fantasy, then I have to ask, where are you seeing it? Bestselling urban fantasies? Obscure small press anthologies? Analog SF? Fantasy Magazine slush?

  36. A_Z says:

    Annoying article, indeed. You start to have some good points, but fail to argue them thoroughly, which makes you guilty lazy writing. Give us some examples of #3 and maybe this would be worth a lengthier comment.

  37. K. Tempest Bradford says:

    As I stated clearly at the beginning of the post “I’m not going to name names or give examples”. I have reasons for doing so, some of which may become clear if you read the beginning again.

    Beyond that, I have a feeling that eve if I provided some concrete examples, some folks would find a way to say “Oh well that’s just those books/stories, this isn’t a problem that I’ve seen.” As if said person has read all there is to read and would therefore know. I have to doubt that you read widely, Mike, but there are a lot of books published, and a shit-ton of short stories.

    Additionally, are these issues that you think deeply about on a regular basis? If not, then it could be that you’ve read plenty of fiction with these issues and not noticed. Just a theory.

    Both issues #1 and #2 come up in all sub-genres of SF/F and in other genres as well. If you want some examples from years gone by, off the top of my head I can think of two novels: The Furies of Calderon, Book 1 of the Codex Alera by Jim Butcher (#1 and some #2); Life by Gwyneth Jones (#1) — this one in particular pained me, because I admire Jones so much and the rest of the book was so good. I more often ind #3 in short stories, and it’s harder for me to recall them well because the ones that I don’t care for or I stop reading in the middle I forget about. I might remember who wrote it or what magazine it was in, but not when or the title.

    And then, of course, there’s all the slush I’ve read. I still have nightmares…

    All that aside, anyone who has encountered these annoying tropes recognizes what I’m talking about — it’s not as if I and a whole lot of other people haven’t made these complaints before about specific pieces of fiction and in general.

    In order to avoid these traps, do writers really need specific examples of books or stories? Is it not enough to say, “Before you consider having your female character raped in order to get some cheap characterization in there, perhaps consider building character some other, less cheap way”? Do I need to host a literature class that explores, in-depth, this problem before writers can understand that this is a Bad Thing? If so, I weep for writers as thick as all that.

    If you still can’t wrap your head around these points, then I suggest you start reading the many blogs of anti-sexist or anti-racist or anti-prejudice writers who also read. No single one is going to write about every book or story out there, but as they come across fiction and other media and examine them, you might start to form a picture. It will most certainly take more than one post and more than one person to illuminate the darkness.

  38. Oliver says:

    The German Fritz Haarmann was executed for raping, killing and eating several boys/young men in 1925. In the court he confessed that he quite enjoyed it – in the aftermath he didn’t felt bad about it. This kind of stuff happened in the real world.
    Because this happens in the real world, every male protagonist of a fantasy/sf-story – whether soldier, pacifist, salesman or whatever – should once in a while rape, kill and eat boys. And feel good about it.

    This is, of course, irony. I hope that every reader – well, at least the vast majority of readers – would cry out:” Stop this sh*t, I don’t want to read about it repeatedly!”
    There are of course stories about rape that are worth writing and reading. These are generally stories that stop being a story, when references to rape are deleted. I talk about stories like Mary Gentle’s “The Architecture of Desire” or Ursula LeGuin’s “Tehanu”.
    How comes, that stereotypes are that often defended, when they are about sex/gender?

    It’s depressing how many fantasy-authors fantasize about rape, and frightening how many fantasy-readers start to scream, when they consider their regular fix of rape-fiction in danger.

    Oliver

  39. GlenH says:

    The point of this post, if I understand rightly, is NOT to say that these things should never be written about. It IS to say that if you do write about them then you’d better make damned sure that you’re not being lazy and simply writing it because it’s the trope that physical violence perpetrated against women is sexual violence but rather because you’ve got something enlightening to say on the topic or because it adds more to your character then, say, showing that they’re a really bad person.

  40. GlenH says:

    Which was the point of the post above (and many others). I really need to stop and read what people say.

  41. Martina says:

    #1 is something that I´ve ranted on about a couple of times (ok, more than a couple) myself – I really, REALLY hate rape in books. It´s SO the easy way out, and you just KNOW that when a female character is introduced, she´s going to be raped (or at least threatened with rape) EVERY TIME.

    Just as you wrote: just because rape is a reality in the real world, it doesn´t have to be present in every f*cking book out there. It´s indeed lazy and the easy way out, and it´s damn annoying to read about (especially as a woman, I think).

    And I would like to add another argument that I believe to be true: when writers use rape as a way to intimidate och oppress women, they also make it ok to use it as exactly that in the real world. When people read about rape as a way to put women in their place (or see it in movies/on TV or whatnot), it´s ok for them to do it as well. Basically, it´s a permission (it may be on a subconsious level, but still) to act like that in real life. To write about rape as a tool of power, is to say: “this is the correct, and even approved, way to behave towards a woman you want to dominate”.

    And then we have a society where we blame the raped women instead of the rapists. Because everyone knows, that rape is a legitimised tool to keep your woman (or a woman) in place.

    Oops, long post. But this is something I´m really annoyed about…

  42. jeff vandermeer says:

    Laird–inasmuch as I don’t believe I would ever see a specific or non-specific post on these topics on your own blog, I am not sure why I understand the dismissiveness. Here you have a female reader,writer, and editor giving an interesting list of *specific* flaws in fiction related to certain types of portrayals in fiction. I would hope it would make any beginning writer think more about what they’re doing.

    Inasmuch as our own subconscious bias with regard to class, race, gender, etc., impact how we portray character, every writer has the obligation to test their work against cliche, stereotype, and generalization. To be politically correct? No. Because not doing so leads to writing a story that isn’t as good as it could be.

  43. Bill Ectric says:

    To me, Tempest’s advice makes perfect sense. Had these problems been obvious, she wouldn’t have found it necessary to mention them.

  44. Luke Jackson says:

    We are all grateful to have you policing us, I am sure. I look forward to the next chapter in your mandatory manifesto.

  45. jeff vandermeer says:

    luke don’t make me come up into your house and slap you upside your head.

  46. A. Golaski says:

    Not to argue Laird’s point for Laird–since I cannot know how he would respond (but am so glad he wrote in)–but Jeff, Tempest’s “specific flaws” read less like useful advice to young/new authors and more like a ruling: absolutes that must be obeyed. Especially frustrating is the failure to identify examples. She can’t write “I’m not going to name names or give examples” and expect anyone to take her argument any more seriously than any other rant about fiction. If Tempest doesn’t wish to give negative examples, can she at least give us examples of “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”? If we knew who Tempest thinks handles these topics well, we would be in a better position to decide if her suggestions are worth considering.

    And, of course, presenting no alternative but to “Quit this sh*t” is extremely unappealing and ultimately not very interesting. If Tempest doesn’t wish to present alternate solutions, might she at least try to examine why these tropes are as prevelant as she claims they are, without simply dismissing most authors who use these tropes as rape fetishists and sexists?

    I’m afraid she’ll have to weep for me, because telling me something is “cheap” and “bad” isn’t enough. She may be onto something–I bet she is–but as you wrote, Jeff, “every writer has the obligation to test their work against cliche, stereotype, and generalization.” Generalization being the problem with Tempest’s post (and subsequent comments).

  47. jeff vandermeer says:

    I just don’t know why ya couldn’t just take the points and apply them. in other words, I don’t know what the big deal is. every writing book out there says stuff from an authoritative point of view. expressing oneself aggressively shouldn’t be faulted. I think “take what works for you and discard the rest” is always implied. that’s all I am saying. and for the record I really like laird’s work but I see nothing in it to indicate he’s an expert in this particular area.

  48. jeff vandermeer says:

    I just don’t know why ya couldn’t just take the points and apply them. in other words, I don’t know what the big deal is. every writing book out there says stuff from an authoritative point of view. expressing oneself aggressively shouldn’t be faulted. I think “take what works for you and discard the rest” is always implied. that’s all I am saying. and for the record I really like laird’s work but I see nothing in it to indicate he’s an expert in this particular area.

  49. Stephen says:

    Thanks for the reply, Tempest. When I said “a little more” I was thinking about like a paragraph or two elaborating on “poor characterization skills and inability to plot.” However I totally get that it would be beyond the scope of a simple blog post to completely cover the subject.

    I guess if I was a more experienced writer or had read more stories with rape in them, especially bad slush stories, I would know exactly what you meant. Since that isn’t the case I didn’t quite understand, but I meant it when I said that the warning in itself is useful.

  50. K. Tempest Bradford says:

    Stephen,

    Check the link I provided in the first section. That was one of my earlier posts about the rape in fiction thing. It goes in-depth on that very issue and may be illuminating for you.

  51. Specmysticon says:

    Tempest, great post!

    Jeff, Tempest is a great choice as guest blogger.

    My two cents: I can’t tell you how many rape stories “grace” our slushpile. In the vast majority of these stories, one gets the feeling that the writer is describing a sick fantasy of his. The worst part is when they ignore our ‘no excessive gore’ rule after the rape has been perpetrated by having the victim viciously murdered.

    I agree that in some cases it’s just lazy writing in some cases. A lot other times, the rape does not fit the plot of the story and seems tacked on for some unfathomable reason.

    For those writers who say rape is a part of everyday life and should therefore be in a lot of stories, learn to balance reflecting ‘reality’ with creating your own world.

    It makes me want to rewrite our Guidelines page sometimes – rewording it more strongly. Don’t know if that will help.

  52. Laird says:

    Jeff: i”m not why you’d seek to muzzle the ox that pulls the plow — a strong post deserves a strong response. I’m no more dismissive/annoyed with this particular pronouncement than you are of the “thou shalt not commit ornate prose” argument. As for being an expert, I wouldn’t claim to be one. Definition of expert:

    Ex is a has been and a spurt is a drip under pressure.

  53. 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.

  54. Jeff VanderMeer 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

  55. What Doesn’t Kill You (2008) | Movie Aktuell says:

    [...] Ec­sta­tic Days » Blog Ar­chive » Dear Gen­re Fic­tion Writers: Quit &#82… [...]

  56. 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.

  57. Jeff VanderMeer 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

  58. Laird says:

    Thank you, Jeff. Back to my cave for now. ;)

  59. Conall says:

    I don’t think Terry Goodkind got the memo about almost-rape being an overused plot device.

  60. Chaser 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.

  61. 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.

  62. Fantasy Magazine » Taboos And Tropes: Part I says:

    [...] Saturday, April 4th, 2009permalink, jump to commentsOn December 10, 2008, Ecstatic Days ran “Dear Genre Fiction Writers: Quit This Sh*t” by Fantasy Magazine Managing Editor, Tempest K. Bradford. This article expanded into side bar [...]

  63. Fantasy Magazine » Taboos And Tropes: Part II “Rhetoric And Writing About Rape” says:

    [...] K. “Dear Genre Fiction Writers: Quit This Sh*t.” Ecstatic Days. Jeff Vandermeer: http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2008/12/10/dear-genre-fiction-writers-quit-this-sht/. December 10, [...]

  64. Jackie 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.

  65. Jackie M. says:

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

  66. 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.

  67. Shruti Chandra Gupta says:

    You scared me. I am a fiction writer, currently working on a novel. I will need to tread very carefully; with such strong reactions, my readers would kill me. lol.

  68. 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.

  69. 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.

  70. 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?

  71. Portrayals of Rape in Fiction: An Exploration of Where It’s Done Wrong or Right and Why | K. Tempest Bradford says:

    [...] railed against the way writers of books and television shows and movies use rape at least twice before. But there are obviously some people who still don’t get it, and they don’t know [...]

  72. 2Kshop says:

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  74. 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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