Changes here and there

I have been “off” facebook for, I think, about 6 months now. It feels exactly the same as being “on” facebook, from an emotional standpoint, except for the fact that I no longer feel that clingy addiction-buzz that I used to get when I was a user. I like how the word “user” has a double-meaning here. Convenient.

I have also quit WOW relatively recently; it hasn’t even been a full month yet, and again, it feels emotionally around about the same.

It’s not the same, though, and that’s good.

To make up for these pasttimes, I have been picking up others – not new ones, not really, but they feel pretty new. Specifically, I’ve been reading.

Even more specifically, I’ve been reading The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher and the Dark Swan series by Richelle Mead. Do I have problems with them? Fuck yes. I could – and maybe will – write several long, ranty-ass opinion pieces about them when I’m through, or when my problems become so intense that I can’t keep myself from venting any longer.

But goddamn, I need this. I need so badly to be reading, a lot, and without any designs to write revies about them. I enjoyed my YA kick a few years ago, but at least part of that was motivated by an urge to gather material for this blog. This blog really hasn’t seen much use from me lately – or it feels like that at least. Mostly because I’m not writing as much. Maybe writing a whole book plus a whole MA manuscript has taken it out of me more than I realise. Whatever the reason, I no longer feel that urge to create content for this blog, which means that it’s inevitably growing stagnant and stale. And I’m okay with that, but it’s not exactly a winning formula for running a blog. I’m okay with that too, though.

Mostly because I’m enjoying what I’m doing currently, more than I’ve been enjoying much of anything for quite a while. It’s nice to just read, and these books especially facilitate that activity – problematic content abound, but fuck are these things easy to get through. It’s a similar feeling to binge-watching, only with less of an effort on my part. No need for an internet connection or to even sit upright to enjoy this media; all I have to do is just lie there and let it happen.

Speaking of which – yeah, I think I will have to at least give an overview of these books at some point. Particularly the Dark Swan series with regard to my above innuendo.

Fuck it I’ll do it now SPOILER WARNING.

While reading Storm Born today, I literally asked myself out loud how this could possibly be the premise of a book, and wondered much earlier how this was even possibly published. Not because it’s badly-written, obviously; this shit is not high literature but it’s designed to be readable, and that is a form of good writing. No, it’s because I have never come across a book – or any media product – so obsessed with rape, and handling the topic with all the thoughtfulness and tact of a comments section. And yes, that is hyperbole, but if you’ve read it you may be able to appreciate my use of it here.

Then there’s The Dresden Files, and while the issue there is more general, insidious, “no that’s just how the character thinks it’s totally not really actually sexism actually” sexism, it’s bad enough by book 3 – Grave Peril, for those interested – that it’s almost enough to make me stop reading.

Almost.

Because both of these series, again, are remarkably readable. It’s kind of hilarious, in a depressing way, what I will actually tolerate content-wise if it’s delivered in comfortable enough prose. Like Harry Dresden in Grave Peril, for instance: by the end of the book he’s basically a full-on mass murderer, and all that happens is that he feels bad about it, kinda, for a little bit, a pain that is quickly superseded by that of his girlfriend – who has been bitten by and is on the verge of turning into a vampire and suffering the psychological, physical and emotional consequences of it – breaking up with him. Man, poor Harry. He has it so hard.

It’s gross.

It’s also gross in Storm Born how main character Eugene becomes the target of every male Otherworld entity because of a prophecy concerning her child reigning in the Otherworld’s conquest of the human world. You know how in typical urban fantasy novels, the action sequences generally revolve around trying to get information out of supernatural beings or avoiding being killed by them? Here, the action sequences are all sexual assaults. Every single fucking one.

And then, Eugene enters into a weird contract-based relationship with Fae lord Dorian, wherein she will make out with him in public and make all the other Fae think she’s sleeping with him in exchange for 1) him teaching her how to use her latent Fae powers (she’s half Fae, specifically half-the-most-powerful-fae-to-ever-live), and 2) getting all – or at least most – of her would-be rapists off her back for fear of reprisal from Dorian. During his training, he ties her up to chairs a lot, for the purposes of forcing her to focus her thoughts to control her powers. Of course, she finds this secretly really hot, while being put off by the fact that he’s Fae and she’s been raised to see his kind as marauding rapist monsters that she’s trained to kill. They make out a couple of times, and both times she feels an instinctual urge to stop, and blames herself for feeling like she wants to stop. Literally, she asks herself why she can’t just force herself to fuck him despite her instinctual urge to not do so, in the same way you might ask yourself why you never really appreciated your ex while you were still together.

Because, you see, she finds him tying her up to be quite exciting, and even though she doesn’t trust him while they’re making out, she does trust him when he ties her up, and this is conflicting for her.

And then they do actually fuck, and the way she gets herself to do it is by telling him to tie her up. Her inner monologue informs us that this is because she wants the decision taken out of her hands. Dorian, to his credit – or something like credit anyway – does ask her to tell him what to do and not do, they have pretty vanilla kinky bondage sex, she likes it.

AND THEN she next day she feels bad, because after all of these other Fae dudes trying to rape her, she “gave in” and “submitted” and “what does this say about me” and, like, yeah that’s actually a nice bit of character-work and I appreciate it. It works, it makes sense, it feels real. I always appreciate that.

What I do NOT appreciate is that fucking DORIAN is the one to then go on a big rant about what does and does not constitute rape. And that’s where I’m up to, because whatever kind of deal I need to make with myself in order to read beyond this point, I have yet to make it.

The bit that really gets me is when he says this: “rape is brutal.” The general patronising tone is bad enough, but this?

It’s just untrue.

Rape is horrific, but it’s not always brutal. Sometimes it’s soft and gentle. Doesn’t make it any less horrific; probably makes it more horrific in some cases. But it does make it fall outside of the narrative parameters that we have set up around rape, particulary what does and doesn’t count. And look, I’ve become a lot more tolerant of problematic shit just from reading these 3 books; I don’t have any less of a problem with it on a moral level, but I can get through it for the sake of enjoying myself overall. Hell, even Storm Born falls into that category. And at the very least, Dorian wraps up with an important point: if there’s consent, it’s not rape, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of having the kind of sex you like as long as there is consent.

I might be able to appreciate this more if it wasn’t … I mean, Richelle Mead is a woman, so this maybe doesn’t count as mansplaining in a literal sense, but … no. This is mansplaining. And not just mansplaining; it’s mansplaining rape, to a woman, who spends the entire fucking book fighting off potential rapists. And this dude is the main love interest.

Even so, I’ll take him over Kiyo, the red-herring love interest. At least he doesn’t mansplain rape; but he is a whingy, jealous, manipulative liar. There’s actually a serious level of Edward/Jacob mirroring going on here; Kiyo is not only the Ethnic One (Japanese), and therefore obviously not the proper love-interest, but he turns into a giant fox. Bigger than normal foxes. And he’s primal and aggressive and made of sex, whereas Dorian is refined and elegant and pretty and has pale fucking skin and OH MY GOD HOW DID I NOT SEE THIS UNTIL NOW, UNCLEAN, UNCLEEEAAANNN …

I have said that I prefer Jacob to Edward multiple times, but not to the point where I’d rather Bella had ended up with him instead. Neither of them deserved her; and while she’s a pretty shitty person, she’s at least a shitty person who could potentially amount to something better if given the chance, like some decent friends or role-models. I feel similarly about Jacob, but not Edward. He’s a lost cause, and it’s the lost cause part that makes me prefer Dorian to Kiyo. Kiyo reminds me of Clayton from Bitten by Kelley Armstrong, which I also wrote a sort-of review about a while back. Not because he’s a literal rapist, which Clayton is, but because he’s played up to be sexy based on the fact that he’s so primal and animalistic. But that same animalistic nature is what also makes him feel extremely “set”, unable to change. Dorian, I feel, could learn to stop fucking mansplaining and become a better charming asshole. But Kiyo would surprise me if he proved capable of learning a sex position other than missionary or, of course, doggy-style. (How Richelle Mead kept herself from making that joke after 4 sex scenes between Eugene and Kiyo, I do not know.) And in the end, even a character who fucks me off tremendously will escape the full extent of my ire if I feel there is any potential for redemption, and Kiyo doesn’t have that potential.

Having said all of this, I am still going to finish not just this book, but the whole series – it’s a four-parter, so it’s not that much to get through, and I have to admit I’m just kind of morbidly curious. Not to see the ending; thanks to goodreads I’ve had that spoiled and, well, I’m hardly surprised. But just to see how it plays out.

And because, at the end of the day, readability is the most important aspect of these books for me. I fucking read Beautiful Creatures in one fucking day, and that’s not a short book, nor is it written even half as well as Dark Swan or The Dresden Files. But it was utterly captivating, and right now I just want to be captivated. Perhaps there is higher-quality captivating media that I could be consuming – but honestly, I don’t care if there is. Not yet, anyway. I can feel my internal reserve of tolerance for this shit waning, but until it’s gone completely I’m sticking it out, because it is fun. I am having a good time. And that’s more important to me than critical thinking right now.

Just hopefully not forever.

But what’s really important to me is that, while the specifics will always have issues, on the whole I can feel a shift in my life and how I feel about it – something has changed within me; something is not the same. And I’m down with that.

 

The curious incident of authenticity of voice

Yesterday was my 27th birthday, in which I turned 27 on the 27th and felt pretty great about it. I was at a book club that afternoon, in which nobody knew it was my birthday but it was all right because I brought my own cake, casually dropped into the conversation that it was my birthday and then there was some amusing and good-natured awkwardness to follow. It was a good birthday, nice and low-key.

Anyway; at this book club we were discussing The Curious Incident of the Dog and the Night-Time. It is written, ostensibly, from the POV of 15-year-old Christopher, who we are to assume has Asperger’s Syndrome. I did some quick Googling and found out that not only did Mark Haddon not know anything about Asperger’s Syndrome when he wrote it, but he also did no research, saying that “imagination trumps research”.

As a result, we got into a discussion about the intersection of creative licence and authenticity. As somebody who’s spent the last two years writing about a 17-year-old high-school girl, the issue of authenticity of voice is certainly something I’ve had experience with. The issue is not just where, but why to draw the line. It is clear to me that, with a book like Curious Incident,  a line must be drawn. People with mental disorders exist in real-life, and stigma against and misunderstanding of them, including humiliating and dehumanising stereotyping, also exists in real life.

Here’s the thing: it was a neat idea, if you remove the real-life referent that wasn’t. If Christopher had instead been, say, a robot or an alien or a demon (actually something I’ll talk about when I eventually review The Demon’s Lexicon), then his distinct world-view would have been just as interesting, and the offensiveness would have been avoided – and the damaging misinformation. When I brought up the results of my research to my reading-group, nobody else was aware that he hadn’t done his research, because Asperger’s is not something that the majority of the population is able to readily identify. People don’t really know about it. It doesn’t help that Curious Incident is very humanising to Christopher – it’s hard not to get into his frame of mind and really experience what he’s going through, so it’s undoubtedly written well, but it’s not written ethically. Getting to understand Christopher is not the same as getting to understand somebody with Asperger’s, and yet that’s what it’s advertising. Obviously people shouldn’t believe everything they read, but people also shouldn’t make fun of people with disabilities, of other ethnicities or genders/sexualities/ages/religions, and yet they do. There shouldn’t be prejudice and a lack of understanding and massive political inequality that leads to systems of social injustice, but there are. Which is why writing a book about an underrepresented minority with little to zero political power of their own without even making an effort to understand them as people is despicable, work of fiction or not.

Now, where this gets tricky is the whole creative licence thing. The conventional wisdom and mantra of artists everywhere is that art should not be censored, because self-expression should not be censored. Free speech and all that. But free speech does not give you the right to hurt other people.

The first time I really started considering the implications of this oft-cited ethos was when I heard the story behind the song “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam. I like the song, but what makes me uneasy about it (and songs like “Polly” by Nirvana) is that they’re based on real events – in the case of Jeremy it’s a school shooting (two in fact), and that means that the other people involved in that incident could be triggered by it. Same deal with Polly; that girl had a family and, due to it being a Nirvana song, it’s highly likely that they heard the song. Did either victim’s family get to sign off on them? Were they consulted at all?

Art kind of has to come from real-life inspiration, so in a sense you can’t avoid appropriating the lives of others every now and then. It could even be that the families of these kids (or, in the case of “Polly”, the girl in question) appreciated the fact that these famous bands were using their platform to spread awareness of the fact that these things happen and we should be aware of them. But if they weren’t consulted, it’s kind of like having somebody spread rumours about you or talking about you behind your back – only it’s world-famous rock bands doing it, and making money out of it. It’s somebody speaking for you; Curious Incident is at least not based on somebody specific (that I know of), but it is talking about an experience that many people live with, and it’s an experience that the artist admitted to not understanding or even trying to understand.

Yet if something sparks your imagination, don’t you have the right to express that through art? That inspiration at least is your experience, and we all have the right to self-expression.

Well, yes – but it really does depend on what that inspiration is. Does it involve other people? Because if so, then I don’t think that you do have the right – unless you do. For instance, if you’re a survivor of abuse of any kind, that obviously involves more than just yourself, yet I’d say you absolutely have the right to write about it and name names. It may not be safe to do that, but it would be within your rights, at least as far as I’m concerned.

If you’re the abuser, though?

Ultimately my metric is one of respect. If it’s not respectful, then in my book you don’t have the right to do it.

An example I like is the NZ tv show Mataku, which used Maori mythology as the premise. It was an entirely Maori-produced show, and the show’s two creators not only had their own personal experiences to draw on but also worked with tribal elders to make sure their use of these cultural resources was respectful.

This of course brings up the issue of who has how much say on the final product, and compromising artistic vision for the sake of being “politically correct”.  I don’t like people using disdain of “political correctness” to excuse disrespectful behaviour, but there is definitely that tension, and as an artistically-inclined person I am incredibly protective of my creative ideas.

However, there’s a difference between somebody just trying to take over your project because they’re a entitled prick and somebody protesting against your use of their personal experiences, including their cultural heritage, because it’s offensive or misinformed. There is a difference between somebody telling you that X thing in your story needs to be changed because they prefer something else, and somebody telling you that X thing in your story needs to be changed because it’s offensive and hurtful. Indigenous peoples have not exactly been given the fairest of depictions in the media, as the controversy surrounding the recent Lone Ranger and Star Trek: Into Darkness films highlighted. The same goes for people with disabilities, people with “alternative” sexualities and gender identities, and this mirrors a cultural underrepresentation in terms of policies, legislation, and how and when they are upheld, and for and by whom. In this political context, it is only ethical to defer creative impulses to the experiences and will of those who your ideas are representing – unless you don’t mind being an asshole, in which case, hey, at least you’re being honest about it.

So then what if you want to write about something and, for whatever reason, you can’t do research on it? Can you still write about it?

I think this is the most important thing to realise: at least if you’re a white, straight, able-bodied, cisgender, middle-class-or-higher man, there isn’t much you can’t get away with, compared to other people. As Mark Haddon proved, you can write about something you know absolutely nothing about, and even openly admit to not giving a damn about your own ignorance, without anything harsher than a minority of (completely legitimate) criticisms from people who were hurt by it. The irony is that these people who actually have Asperger’s syndrome’s voices have gone largely unnoticed, while the offending book has become part of our contemporary literary canon.

It’s an issue of privilege. If you have the privilege of writing whatever the hell you want, getting it published and having only harsh language coming your way as a consequence, then the question is not whether you can do it – it’s whether you should. If you’re in a position where nobody can really stop you from doing something, it becomes your responsibility to make a judgment on whether it’s something you have the moral right to do.

I’ve been fairly lucky in that I’ve been able to do ‘research’ for Tallulah in terms of having a lot of women friends who were generous enough to offer feedback on my zero draft. I am probably never going to send out a zero draft for feedback again, but that’s just because a zero draft is not really something that warrants feedback. The other stuff is supernatural in nature and I’ve done some research into selkie folklore, as well as research (very light research) into nursing home staff work-hours, lesbian relationships, what actually goes on at high-school, and how houses are designed (the Kitchen Triangle continues to fascinate me). My point is that I’ve had a pretty great run in terms of getting the authenticity that I wanted, because I was able to do the relevant research and get the relevant feedback that helped make it authentic. It’s an authenticity that ultimately has to come from me as the storyteller, but part of that is respecting that it also goes far beyond me, because I do not tell stories just for myself.

There are a lot of other things that I don’t know how I’d go about researching, and they’re the things that I am pretty scared to write about. I’ll cross those bridges when I get to them, but for now I’ll just say that, when the time comes, I hope that I practice what I preach and actually do the necessary research, whether it’s informally just talking to people or using Google like everybody else. Because without research, without ethics guiding your creativity – well, even the Nazis were creative. And authentic. It doesn’t mean anything on its own.

Don’t be a Nazi. If there’s one thing you take away from this post, let it be that.

No but seriously, do your research. Be a good person and a responsible, respectful, politically-conscientious artist. When it comes to authenticity, always go straight to the source.