The OF Blog: Keeping it "real": Reader values, Textual controversies

Monday, May 28, 2007

Keeping it "real": Reader values, Textual controversies

There is an interesting post over at Westeros that has raised some interesting points in regards to a particular series, that being R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing trilogy. Many readers there have taken issue with how the sordid topic of rape and the treatment of women has been presented when juxtaposed with similar traumas suffered by certain male characters there. Some have accused the author of being misogynistic in his writing, of "glorifying" female rape, while not showing the male rape in as "graphic" terms. Others have pointed out that the differences are negligible in descriptive terms; that unlike most other fantasy authors, Bakker has dared to show males suffering sexual violence; and that even if there were more female rapes to male rapes (bean counters?), that such occurrences would be within the norms of the type of society (late antiquity/Crusader era Mediterranean model) presented within the storyline.

But underlying this, I find something deeper and less easily shown than just reactions to one specific problem within one specific epic fantasy series. It appears that despite the claims of many that they read for "escapism" (a claim that I've used enough electronic ink in the past here and elsewhere to refute), that there are indeed certain core Reader values (I'll use this term instead of "cultural baggage," as it sounds more neutral) that are brought to the table
when a Reader begins to read and interpret a Text.

Claims to the contrary, it appears to me that most fantasy readers like a sense of "realism" to their stories. While they might enjoy imagining a "world" such as a Middle-Earth or Westeros or Three-Seas to name just a few of the myriad epic fantasy "secondary world creations," they appear, on the basis of numerous website messageboard posts, to eschew situations or ethics that run counter to theirs. In societies such as most "Western" ones where terms such as multiculturalism and gender equity have become grudgingly accepted at the very least, notions of a fair-skinned, light-eyed colored group battling swarthier, hairy, strange-speaking hordes of malicious intent seems to be at best quaint and at worst downright racist. Hot, sultry babes in latex-like leather fitting, eager to throw themselves at the mercy of the "Hero" have mostly gone the way of the dinosaur, replaced by competent, sophisticated, equal to any male-type of women who combine beauty, brawn, and wiles to make a more perfect package that is intended to symbolize the increasingly equal ground that women play in our own lives, even if there are still some idealizations left to be corrected. And same sex relationships, for centuries in many societies "the love which dare not speak its name," those are being shown more and more frequently as being as mutually loving and committed relationships as more "traditional" heterosexual relationships within the confines of fantasy literature.

All well and good. But what happens when there are discontinuities, when societies are based not on a loving patriarchal model (almost akin to some antebellum Southern comparisons of slavery to a kind-hearted master watching over and keeping his "children" in line, as if they were little more than livestock that needed to be fenced in and managed for the greater good of society) but on more brutal and cynical power structures, where people are not always people in the eyes of the privileged, that women and slaves were little more than chattel, and that rape was viewed as the release of sexual energies rather than as being the brutal imposition of force upon another to make the subjugated feel possessed and owned? In those cases, is the problem of the fantasy society being too "unreal" or being all too "real?"

From what I've observed, it seems that two seeming opposites are conflated at times. Talk about traumas such as rape, and many are going to want it to be more "off screen" or handled in a way showing the rape survivor's (incidentally, my use of this word shows a societal shift in the terms employed when discussing the passive sufferers of such traumas) dignity rather than being treated to any viewpoints of the rapers (rapist being a word that is not active enough, as it implies to me a singular, completed action rather than an ongoing system of unequal power relations) and how they view the world.

But yet our attitudes have changed. In as recent as the two World Wars of the 20th century, it was not uncommon or unexpected of advancing soldiers to "have their fun" and "release their frustrations" on unwilling recently-subjugated peoples. Torture, death, rape - these three all occurred quite a bit. Maybe not exactly encouraged, but certainly condoned on occasion by commanding officers and even practically accepted (in the same way that criminals accept that they will be punished after being sentenced) by the victims. Such a mindset is almost totally alien to us, but yet is often hinted at or displayed explicitly within the confines of many epic fantasies to show not just the "otherness" of these societies, but to demonstrate a bedrock "realism" that such fantasies based on medieval societies in particular must have in order to make their alterations and idealizations of a vanished past more palatable for the readers. Very real and yet unreal at the same time to many.

Is there any "fault" to assign here? Should writers be held accountable and be asked to consider how our society wants to view gender relations, power dynamics, attitudes towards the concept of being "human," etc. rather than almost slavishly (yes, I used this word quite intentionally) taking elements from our own past, from our own presumed and actual crimes, and dressing them up and presenting them in their full grotesqueness to a "modern" audience that wants to consider itself above such misogynistic (I think misanthropic would be a better word to use here, seeing how it's not just one gender but all of "humanity" that I'm considering in this piece, but I'll use for now the term thrown about in that one debate linked to above) notions? To a degree, I would say "yes," but not in the sense of requiring authors not to be sparing of the details of atrocity. I think that in the hands of talented and daring authors, such nasty and brutish details about our past can be used to turn a mirror on ourselves, to see our injustices that parade about in full display, to force us within the confines of an "imagined world" to consider the implications of our beliefs, our actions, and perhaps to inspire us to do something about it. If a writing is particularly brutal but is written with the intent to confront us with our blindness to such inequities, then such a writing might be considered a "moral" story, just as similar plays, poems, and stories (especially the Greek and Roman tragedies of Antiquity) over time have come to symbolize (hu)man's mistreatment of (hu)man. To accuse someone of "glorifying" things such as rape or murder or slavery would mean that the writer would have to not just mention it in detail, but would have to condone it, at least implicitly, rather than just showing how truly "evil" we have been in our pasts and in our presents today towards each other. Referring back to the book in question that sparked this post, I do not see any such glorification of such brutality. Instead, I recall quite vividly (not just in the reading, but in email exchanges with the author as I conducted two interviews with him in 2004 and 2005) that there was a sense of pessimism about our ability to cast off such nasty details of our collective past, especially when so many of us willingly blind ourselves to such horrors by use of things such as certainty in belief or in idealistic codes. So no, I wouldn't think of Bakker as being one condoning such atrocities (as we now at last see them), but rather pointing them out as being part and parcel of humans being blind and needy creatures who want order but yet cannot establish where order emerges from "the darkness that comes before."

However, such reader reactions are neither "right" nor "wrong." They reflect how we see the world. The novelist on the other hand, well... I think I will leave you, dear Reader, with this quotation from Stendhal's The Red and the Black:

A novel is a mirror which passes over a highway. Sometimes it reflects to your eyes the blue of the skies, at others the churned-up mud of the road.
And sometimes, as Stendhal full-well knew, the novelist is castigated for the mud reflected, being accused on occasion as being the creator of such filth. C'est la vie, o como prefiero decir en español, así es la vida.

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