Thoughts and thought-wrangling on fanfic

Lately I have been reading a truly copious quantity of fanfic, and not many actual books.  Mind you, plenty of fanfic winds up book-length, or even series-length, so that’s not what distinguishes it from “actual” books.  Quotes point to my internal debate over whether or not to write about fanfic here, which I’ve been having for a while now.  Well, I say I’ve been having a debate – I’ve been waffling about it mentally without ever pinning down and organizing my thoughts.  Really, what it comes down to is the little voice in my brain listing off reasons why fanfic doesn’t count versus the rest of my brain saying those reasons don’t actually hold up.

  1. Fanfic isn’t published.  Well, not traditionally, no, but what counts as “publishing” is expanding and growing more flexible all the time.  Loads of people have begun self-publishing e-books, and entire books have even been posted online in serialized form before going to print in more traditional format.  Once upon a time, before the internet, books used to be published chapter by chapter in magazines and the like, which people today would probably consider a bit weird.  So the fact that fanfic isn’t published in a particular way doesn’t seem like a good reason to brush it off.
  2. Fanfic isn’t book-length.  Touched on this one already, and no, a lot of it isn’t – but then, some of it is.  Also, other stories aren’t required to attain a certain word-length before anyone pays attention to them; that’s where the words “flash fiction,” “short story,” “novelette,” and “novella” come from.
  3. Fanfic isn’t creative; it just re-uses other people’s characters, settings, etc.  Sure, but so does basically everything else ever written.  I’ve never heard of an author saying, “I create all my works in a vacuum, without any influence or inspiration from anything or anyone else that makes its way into my stories, ever.”  Most of them say the exact opposite.  And sure, the little voice in my head can pitch a fit about how fanfic is more directly and obviously derivative than most of literature, and I suppose that’s probably true, in general.  But not entirely.  I have read more works than I can readily name which are deliberate retellings of someone else’s characters and stories.  I just finished reading a whole anthology of short stories called Rags and Bones in which the entire point was for authors to take a story that they loved or that deeply impacted them, boil it down to its essence, and then re-write it.  It can even be done from, and become, what the canon has elevated to “great literature” – Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, anyone?  No one tells those authors their works don’t count because they drew on another author’s work to create them.
  4. Fanfic is just bad!  This is the last (least rational) redoubt of the little voice in my head.  Frankly, I think it’s just an urban legend, a la “D&D will turn your kids freaky and evil.”  I mean, I’m sure there’s terrible fanfic out there.  But there’s also really good fanfic out there.  And the fact that absolutely terrible works exist in the world of traditionally-published books does not, again, render all other works in that world worthless.  I mean, wow, there are some absolutely terrible books out there, and I question how they ever managed to get published, but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating the other books out there.  Fanfic doesn’t have to be universally good to be worth talking about.

So maybe, at some point, I will write about fanfic here.  Hm, maybe Luminosity

Delan the Mislaid: an adventure with ambition

A while back I was looking for more books by an author I like, Laurie J. Marks, and discovered that she’d written a book that had resonated with me as a kid: Delan the Mislaid.  I’d forgotten the name and couldn’t find it again, so I was delighted to rediscover it, and to learn that it has sequels.  Unfortunately, since she wrote it in 1989, it’s been out of print for quite a while and my beloved local library doesn’t have it in regular circulation.  Eventually, I decided to just buy it used.  I haven’t gotten its sequels yet, though, because sometimes books we love in childhood don’t really hold up in adulthood.

I wouldn’t say this one didn’t hold up.  But boy, there was a lot I didn’t remember about it, and a lot I couldn’t appreciate or critique when I read it as a child.  The part that I remember, the part that really struck me, happens maybe a quarter of the way into the book.  The main character, Delan, thinks he’s some sort of deformed freak and then discovers he’s actually an immature member of a race of winged people, a caterpillar who was waiting to turn into a butterfly.*  The rest of the plot has to do with him being captured and used as part of a plot to destroy his people, learning more about his heritage, etc.  It’s all fairly ordinary as these things go, though still plenty enjoyable.

What was absolutely not ordinary that I didn’t remember is that Delan’s entire race is hermaphroditic and given to non-monogamous, non-binary relationships.  Delan isn’t actually male, or at least, isn’t only male.  It’s probably not surprising that I didn’t remember it; as a kid I didn’t have the mental framework to understand it, so my brain must have just skipped over it.

Now, it’s probably the most fascinating thing about the book to me.  Along with my reaction to it.  It was tremendously difficult for me to remember that all Aeyries were hermaphroditic.  Something in my head kept wanting to assign genders to them.  Delan was male; Eia, his first crush/love, was female; Gein, one of his first friends, was male; his long-lost parent was female; and so on.  This undoubtedly says as much (or more) about me as it does about the book itself.  At the same time, I couldn’t help comparing the handling of gender Delan the Mislaid to how it’s done in Ancillary Justice, in which all of the characters must have some kind of gender, but in which I never felt the need to assign one.  I wish Delan the Mislaid had been able to accomplish the same thing.  On reflection, though, that isn’t really fair and might not even be possible.  Ancillary Justice accomplishes what it does in part because of my (and presumably many other readers’) need to assign gender and assumption that by default people are male.  It deliberately disorients those learned biases by referring to everyone as “she.”  That isn’t really an option for Delan the Mislaid, however.  One race (Walkers, the human analogue) does have two genders and distinguishes between them in speech using gendered pronouns.  The Aeyries have effectively one gender and use their own set of pronouns: id, idre, ids (she, her, hers/he, him, his).  The book couldn’t make the distinctions it wants to by confusing and eliding gender.  Since the Aeyrie pronouns were basically nonsense syllables to me, though, I didn’t register them properly as a designation of the Aeyries’ unique gender.  In fact, whenever “id” was used, I had the persistent impression that someone named id was acting or speaking.  It was disorienting, but in a way that took away from the story rather than improving it for me.  I can’t immediately think of a better solution, though, and it might well work better for others than it did for me.  Still, I wish I’d gotten better immersion in that regard.

On the other hand, sometimes it really, really worked.  I remember one particular line of Gein’s: “It must be very strange to grow up in a society with two sexes.  To be forbidden to love someone because by some accident both of you can lay eggs, or cannot lay eggs.  What a strange and arbitrary notion!”  That line hit me like a lightning bolt, a sudden blinding shift in perspective.  It’s basically impossible to live in the society I do and not be aware of controversy around queer people and relationships.  Even for people who don’t take issue with them, they are still A Thing, separate from non-queer people and relationships.  It’s like race: some white people can claim not to see it, but pretending the distinctions aren’t there doesn’t make them go away.  They’re still here, even if we work to change that.  But for Gein, the world isn’t like that.  All relationships with all people are valid, and drawing distinctions between them seems random and bizarre to him.  For just a moment, I could see a world like that.  It would be like arbitrarily declaring that, say, each relationship must consist of exactly one person who was double-jointed and one person who was not double-jointed.  It would be nonsensical, proclaiming who could be in relationships simply because they were or were not physically capable of one thing or another.  Thinking of it in those terms makes the whole issue look different.  While I often wished the book did a better job normalizing various forms of queerness for me, I’m glad it tried, and I’m delighted for the moments it succeeded.

On that front, I’m still sorting out how I feel about the race/gender combined dynamics in the book.  As I said, not only are the Aeyries hermaphroditic, they’re also given to non-(human-)traditional relationships.  Forming long-term three-way relationships is common, and monogamous relationships are rare.  Plus, the Aeyries are much more casual about sex in general than Walkers, our human analogue in the book.  On the one hand, my initial reaction is that this is an interesting reversal of what’s normally privileged.  Aeyries are set up as the “special” race, fount of technology and culture and even hinted at being more intelligent than Walkers.  And for Delan, the perspective character, of course, they’re salvation from a life as a misfit outcast.  They’re even literally above the Walkers, since they can fly.  And because the Aeyries themselves are privileged, so is their queerness.  Which, on the one hand, is a positive reversal of what’s often denigrated in real life and is great for that.

On the other hand…a lot of things.  My thoughts are many, and my feelings are complicated.  Having a “special” race at all is deeply problematic for reasons that need no explanation.  On the other hand, is their “specialness” error or intent?  Maybe part of it is just my leftover childhood identification with a character who feels like a freak and then finds out there’s someplace he fits (better, anyway), so of course it feels fantastic and magical.  Plus, the book does show that while the Aeyries are perceived as special, some of that perception is inaccurate.  Walkers think the Aeyries believe themselves better because they hold themselves physically apart from other races, wear luxury fabrics, trade at high cost for their technological innovations, etc.  But when Delan talks to Aeyries for the first time, he hears other explanations for these facts: Aeyries stay separate because Walkers in general dislike or even hate them and are capable of harming them easily, so the Aeyries keep away to avoid being attacked; they wear luxury fabrics because they’re the only cloth light enough and warm enough to fly in; they trade at a high cost for their tech because it’s basically all they have.  They’re at an extreme physical disadvantage in farming because they’re built to fly, so they’re used to getting food from gathering, but Walkers accuse them of stealing and attack them.  Because of that, they live on the edge of starvation and have to carefully monitor their birthrate to ensure they won’t have more mouths than they can feed.  And individuals clearly exhibit plenty of negative traits, including their own xenophobia, pride, stubbornness, etc.  Some of this seems a little too pat to me, but with a grain of salt and the knowledge that this was Marks’ first published novel, I can accept it.  Mostly.

So maybe the problem isn’t so much that Aeyries are presented as “special” without nuance, as that Walkers are presented as bad without nuance.  The Walkers are, mostly, a faceless mass of unthinking bigots.  At one point, some of them are hunting Delan, and he says to one of them, “[Name], I helped you get rid of the pests in your garden just a few months ago.  I’m a person just like you.”  The guy basically just stares at him, which seems to underscore both the Walkers’ general lack of individuation and their seeming dullness.  There are a few who’ve made a community with some Aeyries, but it’s clear that most people of both races view this community as peculiar at best, definitely an exception to all rules.  Even then, only one Walker in the community is actually a named character with any amount of development.  She’s great and all, but she’s not enough.  The main villain, Teksan, is a Walker sorcerer, and he’s just plain Evil with a capital Evil.  Sadistic, frothingly bigoted, power-hungry, the whole bit.  And let’s not forget that the Walkers are the race that made our perspective character’s entire childhood a living hell.  Sure, his perspective is undoubtedly biased, but his is the perspective we have as readers.  That’s a structural decision that has consequences.  Similarly, Walker magic is presented as inherently evil.  It’s powered by pain, requires the infliction of pain to accomplish anything, and involves effects like enslaving people with insubstantial ropes of despair and conjuring horrible flesh-melting monsters.  By contrast, the book states repeatedly that “Aeyrie magic begins where Walker magic ends.”  What exactly Aeyrie magic is, how it works, what it does (aside from scrying), and so on aren’t really clear, but it is very definitely Not That Awful Thing that the Other Guys do.

So yeah, all together I do think the book presents Aeyries as better than Walkers.  Not deliberately, maybe, but even if it was just a clumsy mistake that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a problem.  Plus, the codification of racial differences in sexual mores makes me uneasy.  In real life, that often gets nasty very quickly, with a privileged group declaring an oppressed one debased or the like.  Of course, this isn’t real life, and the book at least tries to mix up oppressor and oppressed.  Both groups feel arbitrarily mistreated by the other, and the group the reader is inclined to side with and privilege corresponds with the group that’s underprivileged in real life, at least in terms of gender and sexuality.  And in those terms, at least, the privilege is less toxic precisely because it’s directly opposed to the direction of real life privilege.  I can imagine that for a queer child, this would be an even better escape into a world where suddenly who they are is right, not freakish.

And it’s not as if the book is totally devoted to this opposition and conflict.  The shared community does exist, even if most people of both races consider it an aberration.  It’s depicted as a happier, healthier community than either pure Walker or Aeyrie communities, in which people come together, learn from one another, and accomplish more together than they could alone.  The effective cold war between most Aeyrie and Walker communities, in contrast, is depicted as pernicious for both.  Still, it feels as if the book emphasizes immediate conflicts more than these bigger-picture concerns.  

Overall, I think Delan the Mislaid has ambitious aims and stumbles in the execution of them.  But from the synopses of the next two books, it seems the story continues to grapple with the same issues from different angles.  Since that’s exactly what I wanted to see after reading the first one, I’ll be picking them up at some point.  I’m curious to see what will happen and which of my impressions will be born out – or not.

* Later he finds out he’s a mage, and that he’s the long-lost heir of a ruler.  This is one of those parts that doesn’t hold up as well.  It was clearly a nice fantasy for a misfit kid, though.

The great white sharks of the reading world

I just read a piece here about Scribd’s attempt at a Kindle-Unlimited-style subscription service for books and how Scribd’s lack of data, and possibly math and just plain attention, led to the service’s semi-downfall.  The article is interesting and fun – while I’m rather prone to philosophy, the nuts and bolts of the book business always intrigues* me.  However, it intrigues me in part because it’s not something I know much about, so I can’t really contribute to that discussion.

Instead, I want to talk about a line that stuck out to me, partly because it was funny and partly because it surprised me (and partly because I had to go look up some of the stuff in it): “Romance readers are the Great White Sharks of the reading world. They are the 80 in the 80/20 rule. They are the power in a power law.”

Okay, let’s be honest, comparing bookworms to great white sharks is just funny.  Thank you for that, Carolyn Jewel.  Also, it might just be that before I hit up Wikipedia I had no idea what the 80/20 rule and power law were, but something in that second part of the line (and possibly a primer from the great white shark comment) give me this sense of some immense, powerful force lurking out there, unbeknownst to most.  Maybe it’s less romantic if you know more about economics and what have you, but to me it’s a pretty cool image.  And even without the mystery of lurking in the darkness, you still get the sense of raw force, which is powerful.

And I’m going to stop geeking out over the craftsmanship of it and move on.  (Look, I’m an English nerd, you have to expect that kind of thing.**)

The author of the piece (Carolyn Jewel) says that the typical romance reader will go through four to five books a week, hence the shark comparison.  From what she says, Scribd wound up cutting nearly all the romance books from their service because people were reading them too much and costing Scribd too much money.  That surprised me.  I mean, there’s no particular reason I think romance readers wouldn’t read that much, I just didn’t know they did.  It made me curious – why is that?  I don’t really know any big romance readers (that I’m aware of), so I don’t know anyone I could ask.

Anyway, the voracity of romance readers apparently surprised Scribd, too.  Jewel suggests that it’s because they just weren’t paying attention – that since romance readers are primarily women, Scribd effectively dismissed the genre as being “for girls” rather than “real books” and didn’t put much more thought into it.  She never suggests they did it deliberately, which makes sense; many instances of prejudice aren’t deliberate.  People just don’t think about some group of people, and then something gets messed up.  (See: face-tracking software can’t see black people.)  It’s too bad Scribd handled it by wiping out their romance selection, though.  It may have been the only way to save their budget, and if so it’s understandable, but that’s a lot of disappointed readers.

But going back to Jewel’s theory on why it became a problem to begin with: I was happy to see someone else propose that some books are looked down on because of their readers.  It’s not as if I thought no one else had ever come up with the idea, but I hadn’t ever heard someone else say it.  On the other hand, I’ve already said I have my own prejudices when it comes to romance, and I have the nagging feeling that my surprise at how many books romance readers go through is the product of that.  Problematic.  Well, another day, another lesson.  I learned some interesting things, enjoyed a well-written line, and broadened my horizons a little.  Not bad for a few minutes’ reading.

* Intrigue?  “Nuts and bolts” is technically a compound subject and should thus take a plural verb, but on the other hand it’s also an idiom and thus weird.  Hm.  I mean, the obvious solution would be to just use a different expression, but where’s the fun in that?

** On a related note, the book How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish is fantastic, and if you are also an English nerd, you should absolutely read it.  Hm, maybe I should re-read it…

Live and let read (or whatever)

A little while back I read a short essay by a man opining on audiobooks.  He seemed very negative about them overall, suggesting that any kind of intermediary interfered with the proper communication of the book from the author to the reader.  (Or maybe the audience, in the case of audiobooks.)  He even went so far as to call it tyranny.  Particularly, he had a bug in his ear about gender because, apparently, men and women have categorically different voices.  When he reads a book by a female writer, he’s always acutely aware that it’s an act of translation.  He did unbend enough to admit that some audiobook readers manage to efface themselves thoroughly enough to serve as proper conduits for the book.  And when one is fortunate enough to hear authors read their own work, of course, it’s a near-transcendent experience.

As you might be able to tell, I found it all rather overwrought and opinionated.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m a fan of transcendent experiences.  And some authors are excellent readers as well, and no doubt hearing them read their own work is incredible.  However, I’m skeptical of this idea of a mystical channel between author and reader.  Specifically, it seems to imply a kind of omnipotent bestowal of meaning on the part of the author and a passive reception on the part of the reader (unless, of course, one is of the opposite sex of the author, in which case one must translate).  This is obviously not an accurate concept of how the meaning of texts is arrived at.  For example, this particular author is clearly not simply pouring the meaning he chooses into my head.  People spend years learning to analyze texts, and not just for the meanings authors intend to impart.  As most people know, intention and outcome don’t always match up.  The quintessential example is Ray Bradbury, who insisted that Fahrenheit 451 was about the rise of TV destroying interest in literature rather than about censorship, as basically all his readers believe.  Once upon a time I wrote a rather long paper about all this, but the short version is that authors aren’t the only people who get to define the meanings of their works – just the first people.  That’s likely why reading is sometimes referred to as a conversation between author and reader.  Meaning doesn’t just flow in one direction.

But back to the gentleman who objects to audiobooks.  I suspect he prefers his encounters with books to be private conversations between himself and the author only, and that’s why he objects so strenuously to intermediaries.  Which is fair enough; he’s allowed his preferences, and as it happens mine are the same.  That doesn’t mean everyone else’s are, however.  Around the same time I read his essay, I also read one by a blind woman who preferred the experience of listening to someone else read books aloud.  She said she enjoyed hearing the shifts of tone and cadence that showed how the reader was engaging with the book.  She enjoyed having someone else there in the conversation, and that’s also valid.  I love talking to other people about books (obviously), even if I prefer to do the actual reading by myself, and I often find I appreciate books more after hearing another perspective on them.  So, gentleman who decries audiobooks, keep in mind that a thing is not somehow inherently terrible simply because it’s not your cup of tea.

It’s also important to keep in mind that not everyone is capable of experiencing books (and other things) in the same ways.  The blind woman could read books in Braille, and that would provide the private interaction with the book that Mr. Dislikes-Audio desires.  I can’t say whether it would be exactly the same as reading a book in more usual text, though, not having experienced both – or if it is different, whether the difference is meaningful.  And there are other examples.  A family friend prefers audiobooks because she has strong dyslexia, and reading anything lengthy is a chore for her.  It’s rather rude to suggest that the way she chooses to enjoy books is intrinsically inferior just because you prefer something else.

The point is, people should be able to enjoy books the way they want to.  (I mean, unless they want to kidnap authors and force said authors to read for them.  That’s going a little far.)  If you don’t enjoy someone else’s way – so what?

Thoughts on “genre fiction”

Here is a thing that bothers me: why does quote-unquote “genre” fiction get a bad rap?  It’s not just among literature snobs (I’m sure such dastardly people exist, though even as an English major I’m not sure I’ve met any); even in the general population, people seem to turn up their noses at genre fiction.  Unless, of course, it’s genre fiction they personally read, in which case they feel the need to defend it.

This bothers me for a couple reasons.  One is that I like some genre fiction, and I don’t want to feel as if I ought to be ashamed or embarrassed somehow or as if I have to defend my hobbies.  Plus, I don’t like having irrational prejudices in my head.  And they are in my head – whenever romance novels come up I cringe mentally.  Then I feel bad and tell myself not to think that way, because it’s unfair and wrong.  I don’t like doing either of those mental dances.

And I shouldn’t have to do these mental dances because treating broad categories of stories as second-class citizens in the book world is nonsensical.  For one thing, what constitutes “genre fiction” has been historically changeable.  Two centuries ago, gothic novels were the rubbish that rotted minds, but today Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is celebrated.  Three centuries ago, all novels were suspect, clearly a degrading influence on morals.  Needless to say, we’ve tossed that idea and aren’t looking back.  If ideas about what constitutes good or bad genres changes that much over time, it’s probably not the genres that are actually the problem.

Not only that, “genre” books can and do ascend to literary canon.  Brave New World is a dystopian science fiction story and Pride and Prejudice is a romance, but few people would deny either their place in the canon.  Instead, when genre fiction is elevated to literary status, its essential icky genre-ness tends to get elided.  People don’t discuss it in those terms, as if somehow it can’t really be genre fiction – because it’s good.  Of course, that’s patently absurd, and infuriating to boot.

So why do these ideas persist?  I’ve run across a couple of explanations, but they seem to agree that genre fiction at least partly deserves its bad reputation.  The most common is that there are just more bad writers and bad writing in genre fiction.  Aspiring authors believe that they can turn out formulaic, poorly-written stories and still profit.  This strikes me as possible, but unfair and incomplete.  First of all, becoming a published author is difficult, so anyone who actually makes it there really wants to do it and is probably writing stories that they really want to write.  It’s unfair to suggest they’re simply lazy and look for the easiest road.  And second of all, formulaic, poorly-written stories that still profit are hardly limited to genre fiction.  Any story can be formulaic and poorly-written.

It is possible that there are more bad writers and bad writing in genre fiction.  It’s not as if I can do a scientific survey to determine it for certain.  But if there are, there are also other possible explanations for it than writers believing they can get away with it.  For example, it could be a self-perpetuating cycle in which people who read a lot of bad genre writing absorb those standards and go on to create bad genre writing because those are the exemplars they encountered.  However, this doesn’t explain how genre writing would have become bad to begin with.  There are possible explanations for that, too, but finding explanations is a rabbit hole that just keeps going.  I’m not convinced that genre fiction does get its trashy reputation because it’s actually worse than anything else, and if I’m going to go down a rabbit hole, I’d rather ask why it gets that reputation if it doesn’t deserve it.

So I will.  Why does genre fiction have a reputation for being bad if it hasn’t actually earned it?  I think one possible contributing factor is that, like I said earlier, the best examples of genre fiction tend to get lifted out of their genre and claimed by the canon.  Because of that, it seems likely genres aren’t judged by the full range of quality they’re capable of.  They’re judged by the middle-of-the-road examples and the bad examples, which would skew the overall perception of quality unfairly downward.

Wuthering Heights is an interesting contrast to the phenomenon of ascended genre fiction and a potentially illustrative example.  Emily Bronte published it under a male pseudonym in the 1800s.  It was hailed as a great book when it came out, and critics said it was a story about the nature of evil.  When the fact that the author was female became publicly known, however, they backpedaled and called it a romance story.  The book experienced something like the reverse of uplifted genre fiction: it was demoted from the highest echelons of literature (at the time) because a woman wrote it.

So maybe some genres get undeserved bad reputations because they’re associated with marginalized populations.  (A well-known circumstance for some aspects of culture.  See: rap music.)  That’s a plausible explanation for why romance and urban fiction are looked down on.  Romance is strongly associated with women and urban fiction with racial minorities, particularly blacks.  It’s not as obviously a good explanation for why speculative fiction like science fiction or fantasy is belittled.  On the other hand, sci-fi and fantasy are primarily associated with geeks, who, while certainly not marginalized to the extent of other groups, have traditionally been viewed as low-prestige.*  Also, it seems like genres that aren’t closely associated with marginalized groups are less likely to be undervalued.  For example, mystery and historical fiction don’t provoke the same negative reactions that romance does.

Obviously, none of this is a complete explanation.  It’s a few pieces of the puzzle.  Still, I think it’s important to consider alternate reasons why “genre” fiction is so consistently belittled – especially because I don’t think it ought to be.

* General scorn for geeks does seem to have been decreasing lately, though I can’t be sure about long-term trends – I haven’t been around long enough to (intelligently) observe them unfold, and I’m not a sociologist or a historian.  If it is decreasing, though, one would expect to see science fiction and fantasy stories becoming more widely accepted.  That seems to have been happening, too, but again, I can’t tell for sure.  It’d be interesting to know whether they have or not.  Among other things, it would provide a more concrete data point for the theory that sci-fi and fantasy have been scorned by association, and by extension, whether that might have happened to other genres, as well.