Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Slash Fiction & the Venom Cock (Oh, You Knew This Was Coming!)

I happened to be comatose when this particular subject hit the blogs, but I caught up in the hotel at Wiscon when I got wind that a piece of mpreg slash fiction made the Tiptree Award longlist (and yet, my 2004 story, Genderbending at the Madhattered didn't make any 2004 list, long or short. I'm not bitter, really, but I'm trying to put this in perspective). Right next to the unfinished, badly written slash choice was our old favorite, the Venom Cock.

Every once in a while, somebody comes along who wants to be really controversial. Often, they're good at arguing and steeped in academia. Sometimes, they're just a little batty.

If I believed the cutting edge of genderbending/sex expanding/controversial/envelope pushing fiction was in the slash world, I'd be all for nominating those stories.

But grabbing the most slap-dash piece of fiction you can troll from the net and putting it onto an awards long-list to "make a point" strikes me as a little selfish and quite ill-thought-out. It embarasses oneself, may well embarass the author, the other judges, lessens the honor of the award, and perverts the purpose of the list - the list is for pointing out interesting fiction that explores sex and gender. Pointing out stories that are not only badly written but 1) merely consist of switching gender roles in the "Wheeee! Men will be pregnant and get sore nipples just like women!" sort or 2) merely restates the fact that being a woman Really Sucks and is Really Hard does nothing to expand anybody's thoughts on sex and gender.

In fact, reading such stories can enforce one's stereotypes of the sexes.

Before I go any further, I'd like to say that yes, I've met Liz Henry. Yes, she is very nice. I enjoy her effort at radicalism, because I get really tired of spouting off about misogynists like gabe, Trent, and David Brin. I enjoy disagreeing with somebody whose politics are far left. And I want to make that clear: Liz is great. I just disagree with her. That's very healthy. And before anyone recommends that she and I auction off a boxing match at next year's Tiptree auction, well, anybody who's seen us standing side-by-side knows who'll win that match, even in my weakened state.

heh heh.

In any case, VanderMeer and I are closer in weight class anyway (I need to put on about 10 lbs of muscle before it's a fair fight, tho).

It's up to each year's Tiptree jury to define what a Tipworthy story really is. As I'm not on a jury, my opinion doesn't officially count, but as a reader and writer, I have very strong opinions about what I'm looking for in my genderfucking fiction.

Egalia's Daughters bored the shit out of me. It wasn't the best-written book in the world. I didn't connect with any of the characters and it kept head-hopping. What it did do, however, was posit a world in which men took care of children and women birthed them. Not in an even-split gender-reversal way, but in a way that challenged ideas about what birth is, what it means to a woman, to society, and the ways we speak about biological destiny, virginity, and penetration-is-the-only-"real"-sex paradigm. I believe that the value of the book's ideas outweigh the shitacular writing and inane ending that made me want to throw it across the room (women are naturally nurturing and have an instrinsic understanding of nature and The Land, and because this is a matriarchy, nature is totally balanced. It's the same old "if only women were in charge society would be soooo peaceful!" cliche. I tend to think that any society that's socially unbalanced will also be unbalanced in regard to their treatment of the "natural" world around them). Because it fucked with my conceptions of biology-as-destiny and the ways our society treats birth and child rearing, I'd put it on any genderfuck-you-should-read list.

Several years ago, I wrote a story called, "The History of Anson U." I took Freud's account of Anna O., reversed the genders, plunked it on a foreign world, and ran with it. Problem was, all I really did was switch the genders. I even opened with a nearly identical opening to Egalia's Daughters in which mom's reading the paper at the breakfast table and dad's serving up the victuals (and no, I hadn't read ED at this point, which says a lot about social stereotypes and how ingrained they are). Needless to say, the story was rejected again and again and eventually retired.

If I tossed "The History of Anson U." up on my personal website and changed the names so I was writing a piece of Harry Potter/Buffy slash where Buffy played the Freud character and Harry was Anson U., and then cut it in half because I didn't like the ending, so it remained unfinished, would that story be Tiptree worthy?

I mean, the fact that it's self-published and slash fiction means it's "edgy" and "raw," right? And we need more of that sort of stuff in SF!

No.

Just because it's self-published slash doesn't mean it's anything new or contains anything controversial. The controversy isn't springing from the story's ideas but from the fact that all it's doing is rehashing old ideas that have been better done elsewhere. There's even a name for that genre of slash: mpreg. This means that unless the story's saying something new or different or fucking with ideas relating to that already time-worn topic, it's not worthy for inclusion on a list of fiction that should be getting more mind-blowing and envelope-pushing every year. When people start saying that the most radical genderfuck is going on in real life and not in SF, there's a problem. It means writers are being lazy. If "genderfuck" means slapdashing off a piece of old hack (ohhhhhh wouldn't it be kewl if men got pregnant and had to deal with swollen ankles????), what's that say about the current state of Tipworthy fiction?

It makes me embarassed to be an SF/F writer. Particularly one who's interested in pushing the genderfuck envelope. I want a long list of what's out there that pushes me to think in new ways, not fiction that reinforces dominant patriarchal heteronormative ideas about what sex, reproduction, and gender mean.

Which brings me to the Cock.

As one of the few people who've actually managed to finish this book, I was appalled to see it on the long list almost as much as I was appalled to see a shitty piece of slash fiction.

Almost.

At least Janine can put together a sentence.

I've heard it said that Cock's inclusion on the long list wasn't because it showed how crappy life is for women under patriarchy (yawn), but because of the "subversiveness" of the dragonfucking.

Here's the thing with dragonfucking: it's just bestiality. There's nothing new about bestiality, or having sex with animals as part of a religious or mind-altering experience.

But, you may protest, these dragons are sentient!!!!!!

Fucking a dolphin isn't any more subversive than a girl and donkey show.

The woman may believe she's edgy and subversive while she's fucking a donkey, but in the end, she's fucking a donkey.

I came away from Venom Cock thinking, "Is that it? Sucks to be a woman? Is that all the message you've got for me after this masochistic shit-fest?"

Because you know what? The Marquis de Sade was pretty edgy and raw, too. He believed women wouldn't be equal to men until they could do the same depraved, evil, terrible things men could do, but I wouldn't nominate Justine for a Tiptree either. It's a work that exists for another reason: to titillate. Sex sells books. Sexual freedom is certainly a tenet of feminism, but there's a fine line between sexual freedom and sexual exploitation. It's up to every woman to decide for herself where that line is (with the help of some great consciousness-raising sessions, I hope). If Cock - about the abuse and slavery of women - were written by a man, would anybody call it revolutionary and feminist? Something tells me Joe Cross would be seen as a little less thought-fucking.

I suppose this is the point where I come out of the closet as a power feminist. Are things shitty for women in most places? They sure are. Will they always be that way? Is showing worlds where it will always be that way forwarding feminism or challenging our thoughts about biological destiny?

I certainly agree with De Sade that before women are equal it must be acknowledged that we can do things that are just as shitty and depraved as what some men can do. If women were in charge, things wouldn't be much better. There are tools one uses to stay in power. Anytime you set up a power system, you're going to have to use certain methods to retain your power, and men have used those because they work. Those methods would likely be similiar in a matriarchy, though recast through the lens of woman-as-norm/template.

Reading yet another book about a feudal patriarchy makes me tired, even if it's set in the jungle with green women as protagonists.

I certainly want controversy around the Tiptree. But I want that controversy to spring from a story's ideas and the ways those ideas change the way we think. I don't want a controversy for the sake of controversy ("Should we include slash??" Of course we should, when and if anybody finds a piece that blows their head off. The one on the top of one's neck, preferably). I want somebody to recommend a book or story that changes my conceptions of sex and gender. That's a Tiptree.

There are plenty of works out there reinforcing patriarchal heteronormative ideas about sex, gender, and reproduction.

I don't want them recommended to me on my Tiptree list.

11 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

David Moles said...

I really should be asleep, but Kameron, as far as I'm concerned you can be on the Tiptree jury any time you want.

Natalie said...

And at least one of the books on the short list isn't even SF/F--Wesley Stace's Misfortune . I can't recommend it highly enough, because it is a very good novel (disclaimer: Wes and I are friendly acquaintances so I'm disposed to like his creative output--he's also known as the singer/wongwriter John Wesley Harding), but it's not SF/F at ALL. But he does do a number of interesting things with gender and identity, so I was happy to see it recognized by the Tiptree jury. Less happy to see mpreg slash and Venom Cock (I was unable to finish Venom Cock, I did try, though), for the same reasons you outline. I have a decided fondness for books that fuck around with gender, but not ones that do it poorly or that are just plain bad. 

Posted by Natalie

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the Venom Cock book, but I tend to agree with the "don't write about bestiality" - ick, ick, and who cares? (not including erotic encounters between sentient species in the ick, ick, who cares category). As a plot device it is pretty lame, too. I thought it was the most pointless part of the otherwise very good series of Suzie Mckee Charnas.

NancyP

David D. Levine said...

I happened to be comatose when this particular subject hit the blogs 

You know, usually that's a metaphor...

Thanks for a cogent reply to a difficult situation. I hadn't met Liz before this Wiscon and I found her delightful and charming. I don't think she really put those items on the longlist to stir up a fuss, but I can't believe she thought they were really worthwhile. I'm puzzled why she did do it. 

Posted by David D. Levine

John Kim said...

Hello.

Short form here -- I didn't like "Arcana" much, but I did appreciate "Touched By Venom". I don't tend to read more depressing works like, say, "The Handmaid's Tale" or Charnas' Motherlines. However, on the occaisions when I do, I find value in them -- as I did with "Touched By Venom".

Broadly, your line seems to be that the Tiptree needs to keep being more "mind-blowing and envelope-pushing" -- and that therefore if any topic been "done before", then it shouldn't be on even the long list. Thus, since patriarchal oppression and bestiality have appeared in prior works, then "Touched By Venom" shouldn't be considered.

In contrast, I like that there is variety in the short list and the long list. I don't want every work to only be about the most envelope-pushing concepts there are. I feel that the most interesting works are often those which aren't trying to be as mind-blowing as possible with their concept, but rather develop them more fully. Feminism is not a battle won, and I don't feel that we should drop "old topics" like patriarchy because it's so last decade.

BTW, I just read "Genderbending at the Madhattered" -- nice! (Obviously, envelope-pushing is good too. I just don't want that to be all there is on the lists, especially the long list.)

lori said...

1) I think you not only disagree with Liz Henry, but misunderstand her stance.

2) I would totally nominate de Sade to the Tiptree.

3) Once again, I think people are misunderstanding the purpose of the long list (and possibly the short list too). The long list isn't a list of items that were considered ground-breaking, envelope-pushing, Tiptree-worthy. They are a list of works the jury read that they think might be of interest to some people for some reason related to the topics the Tiptree covers. That's it. That's all. Nothing else.

4) I speak both as a former Tiptree jurist and as a former longlistee, fwiw.

Patrick said...

If the longlist is that vague and the bar is that low, it sounds like a gross watering-down of the Tiptree. And even at that low "might be of interest" standard, the fanfic piece falls flat. What exactly was the point of interest?

"Hey, here's an unfinished story that isn't unique, isn't a sterling example of its genre, isn't well written, and doesn't do anything new. Let's longlist it!"

Nothing in the fanfic story was new. Schwarzenegger had a movie about it 12 years ago. It was done in a dream-sequence episode of the Cosby Show. There's a whole mpreg genre that includes several examples that are better, not to mention, you know, FINISHED. In many of these other stories, they even get the voices of the characters right.

And Liz's defenses don't jive.

First, she claims not to be an authority on the subject... which is silly, because you probably shouldn't try to push the envelope of the Tiptree in something you don't know very well.

Then, when everyone says that, she claims that people misread her, and she's certainly read some. That's wonderful, but it speaks volumes about Liz's critical reasoning skills if this is the best mpreg piece she could find.

Then, when people call her on THAT, she gets defensive and says that Tiptree jurists don't have time to go hunting around for the absolute best stuff they can find. Which is... well, again, a silly thing to say. If you're on the damn jury, you take the time to do the job right. If you're on the jury and you've decided to push the envelope by trying to get an mpreg fanfic piece longlisted, you go out and find the best damn mpreg fanfic piece out there. You DON'T take the first thing you find and then claim that you didn't have time to look harder. You DON'T spearhead a movement and then ask somebody else to go buy the spear.

Finally, when called on the carpet, Liz goes into the "It's always a matter of taste, we can't really tell what's groundbreaking and what isn't, the line is blurry" dance that internet people go into when they know they don't have a leg to stand on. And you know, I'll give Liz credit. The line is blurry. It's not black and white, what's worth a Tiptree longlist and what isn't. I'll give her that. Lots of blurriness in the line, there. But an unfinished fanfic piece that's not unique or exceptional in the mpreg genre ISN'T IN THE BLURRY PART.

But hey, she's making a scene, and people are talking about her, so I'm guessing the mission was accomplished.
 

Posted by Patrick

John Kim said...

To Patrick: You're making the debate about Liz personally, when the long list was agreed upon by consensus of all the Tiptree jury. Here's Matt Ruff's explanation   of the entry of "Arcana" in the jury, in case you missed it.

Regarding expertise, I do not feel that Tiptree jury should refuse to list works unless they have an "expert" in the particular subgenre(s) in question. That sets up the Tiptree lists to be far too limited. I would much prefer that they go ahead and make judgements (even without "professional expertise"). They should make their best judgement based on what has been recommended to them and what they have found independently. That will undoubtably mean that some works get missed, but I feel that is the lesser of evils.  

Patrick said...

Hey, John:

Then, with all due respect to the jury, they were either incompetent, untutored in the ways of fanfic, or putting up with Liz. I read Matt's piece, actually, and it struck me as quibbling, for the most part: he never answers #1 and #3. I care little about the fact that the piece is fanfic or not formally published or even possibly illegal, but it is, in fact, BAD as fiction and BAD as genderbending and BAD as an example of the mpreg genre.

And to pre-emptively answer the "lots of people have different opinions" quibble that inevitably follows that, and which Matt himself tries... No. I have no objection to the idea that the line between quality work and no-quality work is a blurry line with lots of gray space where people can disagree... but "Arcana" is not in the blurry part. Anyone who believes otherwise is incapable of objective thought on the matter, either because mpreg is one of their personal issues of interest, because they're a good friend of the author or Liz, or because objective thought is generally not one of their strong points to begin with.

(Note: I have my own issues of personal interest, and I'm incapable of objective thought upon them. I can wax rhapsodic about fight scenes and choice bits of witty repartee like nobody's business. I'm not claiming that I have no areas where I lack objectivity. I am, however, fairly confident in my belief that mpreg fanfic isn't one of those areas. It doesn't offend me or transgress upon anything I hold particularly sacred.)

So unless there's another point to be made on that track, let's concede that it's not a good story. In fact, even other fanfic people have said that it wasn't a great story BY THE STANDARDS OF THE GENRE. So again, what's the deal?

- Deals with gender in a well-written fashion: No, because it isn't well-written
- Deals with gender in a unique and original fashion: No, because it's part of a well-established genre
- Deals with gender by pushing the boundaries of an existing idea: No, because it's pretty much a run-of-the-mill version of the story. In fact, it's tame by mpreg standards, as it goes with hermaphroditism rather than sex change or male pregnancy.

To answer your followup point that the jury shouldn't be responsible for doing their homework, even if they aren't experts in the field: with respect, no. While I don't believe that "Arcana" shouldn't have been listed specifically because it was fanfic, I DO believe that a jury that decides to longlist a fanfic piece for the first time should make sure that the first fanfic piece they listed was a good one, ideally by the standards of general literature and at LEAST by the standards of its genre and subgenre. And as I noted above, anybody who can read "Arcana" and tell me it's a good story is either a big fanfic supporter or a big Liz Henry supporter.

As to the argument that it's about the whole jury and not Liz: I respect the closing of ranks to protect Liz, but Liz admits being the one who pushed for it to be longlisted. And if Liz didn't nominate the piece herself, it was nominated by either one of her friends as a dare or one of her enemies as a joke. Liz is big on transgressing, and this isn't Liz's first time pushing mpreg on people. Take a look at Liz's friend's poetry-writing site, where Liz offers a helpful 5-minute writing exercise in an old archive from November:

http://www.cmmayo.com/d5mwearchives.november.html

Take that with Liz owning up to being the one who pushed it, and, well, it IS about Liz Henry. The jury either caved to arguments that it's impossible to actually tell if anything is good or bad, really... or they just shrugged and let Liz put her pet piece in. Neither one helps the Tiptree award stay respectable.
 

Posted by Patrick

laura quilter said...

Patrick,

You're basically flaming Liz Henry, and it's not productive. Two examples: You lay out her arguments in a "then ...THEN" style, as if she is moving from one to the other as she loses, in a progressively dodgier fashion. That's crap; she's making different responses to different arguments at different times, but she's been largely consistent.

You're also personal with the intimation that Liz "wants attention".

And then we also just disagree on substance ... like when you say there is nothing new; I would say that "newness" (of gender-bending) is not a criteria. And you suggest that the Tip jurors are responsible for going out and scouring to find the best in a field - that's crap; it relies on submissions.

But basically I was moved to write because of the flaming, which is counterproductive & insulting. I imagine that you, and most readers, would acknowledge that it would be counterproductive & insulting for me to speculate, for instance, on why you might choose to flame: hurt feelings? personal axe to grind? bad experience with Tiptree? disempowered academic ranting semi-anonymously to feel more powerful? or just a crank? Boundless options. But it would be more productive for all concerned for us to avoid that sort of countless flaming & the inevitable rejoinders. For instance, if instead of trying to get the last word on this argument, you would accept that were wrong to use strawman arguments, subtle ad hominem attacks, and other rhetorical tricks of deception -- and instead quietly go write out your standards for juries & awards, with examples & counterexamples, and then try to find something useful to do with it.

Laura Quilter

Patrick said...

Laura,

If it's starting a discussion, it's not NONproductive, at the very least. As for flaming, I disagree. I'm speaking in strong terms, certainly, but I don't consider pointing out the logical flaws in someone's argument to be flaming. I laid out her arguments in a "then... THEN" style because that's how I read them on Elizabeth Bear's site. Someone wrote, "This is a lousy example of mpreg," and Liz responded that she wasn't an expert and couldn't be expected to go out hunting for the best one. Then someone else wrote, "If you're not an expert, you shouldn't have tried to be the first one up the ladder with the fanfic," and Liz responded that she knew more than people gave her credit for.

So when I read it, she WAS moving from one to the other in progressively dodgier fashion.

As for why I chose to respond as strongly as I did: you are of course free to hypothesize reasons. I'm moderately self-righteous, and I get annoyed when I see someone use something I respect, like the Tiptree award, to further her own pet issue at the expense of the award itself. For Liz to push the fanfic piece demonstrates either a complete lack of critical reasoning skills or plain old laziness.

I think the big point of contention for me is the "Tiptree jurors can't go out and look for stuff on their own" argument. I'm sure they've got a lot of stuff to read, but that doesn't hide two important things: first, that if you're pushing the boundaries of the longlist by including something new like fanfic, you MAKE the time to get the best damn example of the field you can, and second, that it's an amazingly unlikely coincidence that someone would submit an mpreg fanfic story the same year that someone with a demonstrated mpreg fascination (see the link in my previous post) happened to be on the jury.

The first is a simple issue of work ethic: if you're going to do something, do it right. Liz didn't do the fanfic community any favors with what she did, and I don't think she's impressed a lot of people with her critical reasoning skills, either. The second is where I see Liz as being dishonest. If she's interested in a real discussion, she should drop the pretense and own up to having nominated AND pushed the story.

If I'm attacking Liz Henry, it's because Liz Henry made it about her. I'm not going to attack the fanfic story -- the author didn't write it with a Tiptree-reading audience in mind, and it's unfair to judge it by those standards. Liz is the one who started the kerfluffle. Liz is the one who pushed for an unfinished, unoriginal, and demonstrably bad fanfic story to be on the longlist. If she can't come up with anything stronger than, "I didn't have time to read everything, but I read a lot, and I'm not an expert, but I do know some stuff, and I thought this unfinished piece of fanfic was raw and gritty," then yes, I'm going to call her on it. For all that someone on someone else's blog calling an absent third party on anything is worth. :)
 

Posted by Patrick