Friday, April 14, 2006

In Which the Protagonist Takes the Road Less Traveled

So, after breaking it off with our respective emotionally exhausting exes, Jenn and I spent some time engaged in conversations that went something like, "If only I could date someone who wasn't emotionally retarded!" and "If only someone was interested in me who understood my need to write!" and "If only I could date someone I could really relax around and feel safe with!" and "If only I could date someone who understood me!"

And so on and so on and so on.

And you know, at some point, we looked at each other and were like, "Well, duh."

So, after much disucussion, we decided to date *each other*.

Like, yes, for real.

I - identifying as "mostly straight" - was the real variable here, but to my non-surprise, the relationship has worked out on all fronts for some time now.

Now *there's* a Clarion bedroom pairing none of my classmates bet on.

We've started the relationship knowing it'll end when and if I move to Edmonton or when and if she gets her job - wherever it may be (I'd really like to try and join the Peace Corps if Edmonton turns me down). It's the first time I've started a relationship with someone that wasn't built on the stifling, "WE MUST LIVE TOGETHER FOREVER AND FALL ON OUR SWORDS IF THINGS DON'T WORK OUT," thing.

So it's really nice. It's the first time I've been in a relationship where I don't feel like I'm suffocating all the time and/or fighting for my independence and the right to change my mind.

Jenn and I have liked each other for some time. By the time I was ready to broach the subject, she was dating K, and when she broke up with K, I was still with B.

Timing was always really off, and there's the friendship side to consider. I don't exactly have a great track record with my exes.

Anyway, here's a short Q&A for longtime readers:

Q: So, Kameron, have you "turned gay"?
A: No. I've always been "mostly" straight. That "mostly" gives me some wiggle room. It just so happens Jenn is one of those few women I'm attracted to. I still don't consider myself a lesbian feminist boxer. heh heh

Q: Do you now Identify as bisexual?
A: No, though it's hypocritical not to when you're lying in bed with a woman. It's just a weird category for me. It doesn't fit right. Jenn calls me bisexual, because yes, it's really stupid to be in bed with a girl and talk about how "straight" you are. Really stupid. Give me some slack, people.

Q: How long have you been hot on Jenn?
A: About two years, but I didn't want to screw up the friendship.

And so on and so on and so on.

In any case, I'm very happy, and rumor has it, Jenn is very happy too. Happier than we've been in a long, long, time I think.

It's nice.

I'm also getting a lot of writing done, which is also nice. I was uncertain as to whether I could both write *and* have a relationship, and it appears they are not mutually exclusive things.

I've just dated spastic people.

And Jenn, of course, is not spastic.

Which is nice.

Now we just need to get some cats. Or is it lesbians and dogs?

In any case, I have an interesting life.

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.

Why "Lost" Must Be Written By Robert Jordan

heh heh

At What Point Do Your Realize You're Good?

Earlier this week, a writer friend and I touched on the topic of the infamous Delany Clarion circle. For those not familiar with this ritual, when Sam Delany teaches at Clarion, he has an optional group get-together in which he taps you with his God stick and tells you whether or not he thinks you'll make it as a writer.

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it's now optional, so it's not like he forces you to stand up among your peers and receive his wisdom. On the other hand, the sheer audacity of anyone presuming to guess - let alone "know" - whether or not someone will "make it" as a writer really pisses me off.

As my friend pointed out, however:

1) some people need to be told early on to quit, because so many of them are just bad.

The flip side to this is:

2) anybody who can be so easily disuaded from writing probably isn't going to be a writer anyway (imagine what they'd do when Jim Baen called them a "twit," SH called one of their stories too "didactic" to publish, and random web surfers and blog personalities crawled out of the woodwork to decry that they were crap writers and straw feminists to boot!).

This got me to thinking about when I knew I was any good at writing - at what point did I realize it was worth it to keep trudging on? When did I decide that I wasn't deluding myself?

I'd always been the "best writer" in every writing class I attended, from age 14, right up through college, but that wasn't much of a pool to draw from. There were so many crap writers that it was pretty easy to stand out. But in real life, you're competing with a lot of people who are a lot better than you are, and every step of the way, you're reminded of just how tough it is to publish anything, let alone make a living doing it.

At Clarion, you meet all the other kids who were the "best writer" in class, and for me, it was the first time I was in a room full of people who were on par with me. There was no "best writer" anymore. And at every party, every instructor sighed and said, "Some of the best writers I've taught put everything they write into a drawer, and you never hear from them after Clarion. So you can't really tell who'll keep writing and who won't. Talent isn't everything in this business."

No, it's persistence.

My buddy Patrick said something to the effect of, "All you can do is keep writing and getting better and sending stuff off. At some point, the forces might all converge, and you'll sign a contract and hopefully another one and another one after that. But until then, you just keep writing and be the best you can be so that by the time you get signed, you're really good."

How do you know you're good, though? Does Sam Delany have to tap you with his God stick? Do you have to have a mentor pushing you the whole way? And so what if you're "good"? "Good" doesn't seem to have much bearing on who gets published (take a look at the bestseller shelves).

I've had some really down times. The last one was when tDW came back from the Agent and she said she loved it, but it didn't start until page 200 and needed a year's worth of rewrites.

It was like getting hit in the gut. I've been writing this book on and off for something like six years. At what point do you give it up? If not give up writing all together, then at least give up the project?

But I love this book, so I bit down my depression over the whole, "Doesn't really get going until page 200 part," and started the big rewrite. I kept up with God's War as well, and kept sending out stories.

When I sold "Wonder Maul Doll," and "The Women of Our Occupation," this year, I was a little stunned. I realized, perhaps for the first time, that I wasn't writing bad stories. They just needed to find the right markets. I'd never seen so many positive rejections (except for "Two Girls," which also needs to find a home). It was just a matter of finding the stories' target market. One of my writing buddies, who's an SF/F critic, pointed out that one of the toughest sells in the short SF/F form is explicitly feminist fiction. Still. Really.

It doesn't help that I'm not all that good in short form.

So when do you know you're good? Maybe you have to have a contract or a dozen, or an agent.


But my realization came last night.

I was sitting in bed poring over my copy of tDW, doing line edits. I hadn't managed to get past the prologue this week because the idea of doing so much work seemed overwhelming.

Then, as I sat in bed and read, I kept reading. And reading. Not because I had to, no - because I wanted to.

I stayed up half an hour past my bedtime thinking, "Just one more chapter! They're short! I want to see what happens!"

My rewriting process concentrated on two POV strings, which meant I hadn't read the entire book from start to finish in a long, long time. I'd reshuffled the chapters since then, cut about 100 pages, and rewritten long sections.

My own book was keeping me up past my bedtime. A book that should be stale as old sheets at this point.

When I finally put it aside, I thought, "Wow. This is good."

I may never sell it. It might end up in a drawer. But that was the moment it finally dawned on me: I'm getting better at this. It's moved beyond mere, "Oh, yea, I guess I have some talent," to "Holy crap, it almost looks like I know what I'm doing."

There's a long road to travel yet, and I intend to keep pushing myself, getting better, watching the words bloom into something far greater than I intended, but for now, I know it myself. I don't need anybody else to pat me on the head and declare it.

I think I'm good.

I don't need anybody to tell me that.

So I'm either delusional, or good.

Whether or not I'll "make it" (whatever "making it" means), isn't up to anybody, however. Not even (especially not even) me. You just keep writing. You keep getting better. You keep sending it out.

After awhile, you do it because you can't imagine not doing. For somebody to quit at this point, I don't know - I guess you'd have to get a gut-bomb far worse than agents telling you your story doesn't start until page 200 and a publisher telling you you're a twit.

You would have to get hit by a bus.

I would, anyway.

Let's hope I don't.

I have a lot of books to write.