Friday, April 14, 2006

Power Feminism & the Venom Cock

No, I just don't know when to leave well enough alone.

Like some others, I snickered over the Venom Cock hullabaloo and got ready to forget about it - until I read this article by Liz Henry that declared Janine Cross's book, Touched by Venom to be on par with feminist SF work like Emshwiller's Carmen Dog and Ryman's Air.

Being someone who likes to keep abreast of feminist fiction, I decided to take one for the team and read Venom Cock for myself.

Henry should have called it the most feminist work to hit the shelves since Ann Bishop's child-rape fetish fantasy Black Jewels trilogy.

There seems to be this belief that if a book like, say, Black Jewels or Venom Cock makes people uncomfortable, it must be a great work of literature.

Henry, after describing the violence and squalor of Venom Cock's main character, Zarq's, upbringing says:

As a dystopia this is already disturbing enough, but it seemed even more so when I realized how close it comes to what women in the world experience today. I came to realize, while reading the book, that my initial reaction of shock and disbelief was the result of my own happily ignorant privilege.

You know, the Marquis de Sade's work isn't cozy either, but I wouldn't call any of it a Great Work of Feminist Fiction.

I mean, I have no problem with obscenity in fiction. I've read American Pyscho. Violence is a tool in fiction, a way to drive your plot, to show something about your characters and your world, and good writers know how to use it to maximum effect.

The justification for the long, unending horror and violence of Cross's book appears to be that it's OK because, it "happens in real life."

Gee, where have I heard that before? Just because it really happened to you or somebody you know doesn't make it any more palatable or believable or even readable.

And you know what's even worse in this case?

I don't believe people live like this.

I don't believe people live without friendship, without laughter, without any joy in their lives. Women who've had cliterodectimies do, in fact, still have a sense of humor and take joy (or not) in their children (maybe they take joy in flowers instead. Or making pottery. Or whatever). Even slaves dance. Abused women have been known to sing. If your protagonist has absolutely nothing to live for, no love, no hope, no belief, why don't they pack it in? And why would I want to read about them? They aren't real people - they're half-people.

About the time the main character tried to drug one of her fellow priestesses so she could addict her to venom and rape her, I'd lost all sympathy for the character. These are not likable people, and not interesting. So why should I read about them?

Because as much as it's oh-so-important to be alerted to the plight of abused women in restictive patriarchical cultures (and I'm not so certain writing this book is a great way to go about that. Read Louise Marley's The Terrorists of Irustan instead. It has real people in it who actually feel things), there's this thing in fiction where you need to be writing about somebody I give a shit about. And frankly, I kept wanting this girl to just die. She was a coward, had no ambition, tried to drug some chick so she could rape her, threatened people to get her way, was pretty indifferent to her sister's fate.

The real tragedy of this book, however, isn't even the "and then things got worse" litany that strings the random, violet events of the book together.

The tragedy is that yes, Cross can write. She can string good sentenes together. Her worldbuilding is great, her sense of place evocative, and even if her characters are all totally unlikable (the one sorta likable one with any ambition is too sexy, and so sold off into sexual slavery - that'll teach those women to be too sexy), they are certainly characters.

So watching the shit-storm that was this book was doubly painful - here was this great worldbuilding being put to use to illustrate just how much it Sucks to Be a Woman.

As if I didn't know that.

Trying to compare this book to anything written by Mary Renault, however, is an insult to Renault. Renault has things like plot. And characters with actual lives that includ aforementioned other half of human life: dancing, singing, games, smiling, laughing, friendship, real love. Renault has plot. Renault has story.

This book had none of that. Having none of that, it didn't have human beings in it.

It had a bunch of violence and dragonfucking, because somebody said, "Write something like the Kushiel books," and violence and dragonfucking is all that anybody can think up. They don't keep in mind that the Kushiel books have something called PLOT. And LIKEABLE CHARACTERS.

But Henry says:

Cross has done something still too rare in fantasy and SF, despite these precedents—she's dealt with very hard-hitting, difficult issues, distancing them from real-world cultures and pushing them to extremes, forcing us to think.

Because fantasy that doesn't jam in your face how much it sucks to be a woman doesn't make you think. The only real, hard-hitting fantasy out there is shit like this that pounds you over the head with one brutal event after another that has no point except to be brutal. I don't think dragonfucking is exactly a hard-hitting or difficult issue. It's just titillating. It's there to sell books.

She continues to live. In fact, I found it notable that a large number of the women who are un-sexed by genital mutilation in the book continue to have a sex life. This is the real "gone too far" moment. On one level such characters are grotesque starving nuns, hallucinating on dragon spit in the midst of a weird bestiality-focused ritual orgy. On another they're visionary, strong women engaged in a collective revolutionary act, bonding with the dragons who are perhaps not domestic animals, but sentient creatures, and fellow slaves.

On the contrary, the dragonfucking isn't going too far at all. It's just bestiality. It's been done before in other books. As Cross said, there's been some pseudo-dragonfucking all through the Pern books, and lord knows we have enough talking animal stories around that you can bet somebody out there is getting off on it. Furries do exist.

I think Henry is grasping for straws when she calls these women "visionary" and "revolutionary." They're fucking dragons because it feels good. Yea, they're breaking the law, but many are stuck doing it because they're addicted to dragon venom. They're a bunch of horny drug addicts fucking dragons. Let's not dress this up, OK?

And the reason this book passes the "two women engaged in conversation that doesn't have to do with men" test is because they live in a misogynist society that separates men and women. Who else would they talk to or about when they only ever see each other?

Many other subtle touches demonstrate the sophistication of Cross's feminist analysis.

Excuse me while I emit a long, high-pitched scream.

Feminist analysis of what?? How shitty it is to be a woman? Gee, thanks, I didn't know that! That's not pushed into my face every day. What a revolutionary idea: women are beaten and starved and have their female parts taken out and get raped and that's the entirety of their lives. Might as well kill yourself now.

What an uplifting message for the women of today: just roll over. You're going to get fucked up the ass anyway.

The cover illustration shows a bejewelled, porno-posing fembot caressing herself in a sexy gown; it should show a violent revolutionary, emaciated and wild-eyed, with a buzz cut and a rusty, bloody machete, stabbing an aristocrat. Zarq's liberation and happy ending, if it is possible, would come not from the establishment of a secure nuclear family, but from revolution.

She doesn't stab any aristocrats. And it would be great to see that revolt someday. I'm just doubting that we needed this entire book full of how shitty life is before we get there. Can't we start a book with a real plot and say, "Zarq's life was pretty shitty, so she decided to kill an aristocrat, and was pulled from the crowd to become a dragon priest whatever instead."

Why do we need and entire fucking book detailing all of the terrible things that happen to her that have absolutely no resemblance to a plot? What we have is a grocery list of all the most terrible things that can happen to women in a fantasyland that's so lame that instead of having black people, we have green people as the savage other. What's up with that? Are we reverting to the 50s and Octavia Butler books with green women on the cover? If you mean black, say black, for fuck's sake.

Yet despite all this, it seems to me that the book is being misread; seen not as the deeply political and feminist work that it is but as a sub-par, status-quo-reifying, conventional fantasy.

Just because you have a beaten, abused woman as your main character doesn't mean you're writing the next Great Feminist Treatise. It's a book about anger and violence and people being shitty to each other and dragonfucking because that sells books. Don't give me this "it's feminist and political because a woman gets her clit ripped out" crap. And certainly don't give me the, "This is a Great Book because a woman gets her clit ripped out."

Portraying violence against woman in a patriarchal society doesn't mean you've written a feminist book, much less a good one. If I wrote a book that did the sorts of things to a man that this book does to a woman and had no plot to boot, people would be like, "What the fuck is this? It's one lost list of torture scenes with no plot and an unlikeable, cowardly hero. This woman must get off on torturing guys."

I don't think I'd have anybody standing up and saying people were out of line for making fun of my hero's venom-induced erection. I'd probably think it was pretty silly too.

But oh! This is about a woman getting beaten and abused, so that must be feminist. It must be earth-shattering, and the violence must be being mis-read. Really, it's all about shining a light on how bad patriarchy is, so that makes up for the fact that it has no plot and crappy characters.

Just because a book is held up as being feminist doesn't mean it's a good book.

And it doesn't mean it's feminist.

What's the great plan our heroine has at the end of the book? She wants to enslave her own dragons and own her own feudal lands so she can go on perpetuating the cycle of serfdom and poverty she grew up in, only now she'll be at the top of the food chain.

You could just as easily jump up and down and say this was a book talking about how Bad feudalism is.

Bad, bad feudalism.

Cause I really needed to be convinced of that.

About as much as I needed to be convinced about how much it Sucks to Be a Woman.

What I see in people's reactions to the story is not Cross's sensation-seeking, but the discomfort of the very privileged when they are made to look, or tricked into looking, at something terrible. I suspect it is less the brutality and violence in this book that gives some readers the heebie jeebies, and more the thought that violence is all around us.

Yea, I lived in South Africa. I get that. I also get harrassed on the street, on train platforms, and read endless rants from feminist bloggers about rape statistics, and watch how shitty women are treated if they dare bring charges against a guy. I know all about violence and threats of domestic violence from experience.

That doesn't mean this is a good book. If anybody thinks people have to read Venom Cock to realize that violence is all around us, then yea, maybe they are overprivileged.

And beyond my appreciation of its thematic and political complexity, it is also a book that I enjoyed on the simple level of story—of dying to know what happens next. Books two and three can't come soon enough.

Oh, I already know what'll happen next, which is why I have no interest in reading anything else in this "series":

Things will get worse.

Because, after all, the protagonist is a woman.

And we all know how shitty that is.

I'm going to go read about the WNBA, the first woman to climb Everest, women revolutionary fighters, Sally Ride, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Williams sisters, female pirates, and Laila Ali.

And so on and so on and so on.

Things can be really different.

Yea, there's violence in our lives. But there a hell of a lot more going on, too, and the violence is only part of the story.

7 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

chance said...

wow - hey thanks for this rebuttal of the SH review. I can't make myself buy the book after reading the excerpt, so I'm really glad to read your analysis of it.

belledame222 said...

Huh. Don't know this one, but it does seem like "grocery lists" of seriously miserable shit are quite popular these days, if not eternally. That was pretty much J.T. Leroy's and James Frey's whole schtick, after all. Well, in Frey's case, the narrative of "and this and this and this and THIS, and THEN, i TRIUMPHED. too bad about the other poor bastards. i cried. a lot. but, go me!! I did overcome!!--oops, well actually i made it all up. but, I WOULD have, overcome all those horrible things. i'm quite sure of it."

La Gringa said...

no more coffee for you!

VJ said...

Indeed, "grocery lists" of seriously miserable shit' have been essential to SF for a very long time. Discuss... Cheers & Good Luck! 'VJ'

badgerbag said...

Wow, you really really really hated it!

Are you coming to Wiscon? I'm looking forward to meeting you!


- Liz

minnie said...

i dont think it is is shitty to be a woman... is this some new sort of feminism where you hate being a woman? what about all the laughter and singing and dancing slaves do?

A.R.Yngve said...

I'm in the process of writing a fantasy novel for young adults, and I was thinking at the outset:

"Should I follow the standard pattern in this type of story... that the young wizard hero is a lonely orphan and lives in a cupboard under the stairs and everybody is really mean and abusive to him BUT HE TRIUMPHS IN THE END...?"

And I thought, "Naaah! A person who grows up in that kind of horrorshow ends up being a total psychopath."

The "And Then It Got Worse" trope is a stupid literary cliché which should be exorcised from fiction... with the exception of parodies and send-ups. (For example, Flann O'Brien's classic THE POOR MOUTH which sends up the "Poor Irishmen Nobly Enduring Endless Misery" theme.) 

Posted by A.R.Yngve