The OF Blog: What's in a name?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What's in a name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
Semantics is the part of linguistic studies that intrigues me the most. Words are never static, monolithic symbolic/meaning entities, but rather fluid, changeable sorts whose meanings shift like beach sand with the tides. Yesterday's bit quoting Lilith Saintcrow has begotten another article by her, one that in turns is defensive and dismissive in tone. It's quoting time!

So, the Angry Chicks In Leather post got a few comments. The anonymous/troll comments fell into two categories: one, that I was a Bad Feminist (in several senses at once, from “shrill harpy” to “traitor to femininity”) and that smaller, more delicate women couldn’t kick ass; and two, that authors like Charles de Lint and Emma Bull and Jim Butcher were true Urban Fantasy and the stuff I was talking about was just lowbrow schlock.

Thanks for making my point for me on both counts, trolls.

Glancing through the entries to her original post, while a few were admittingly brusque and almost nasty in tone (I believe I quoted a few of those comments at the end of my original post), Saintcrow's use of "troll" to label not just the misogynistic comments but also those who had an honest difference of opinion regarding her use of the term "urban fantasy" is a bit odd, to say the least. Broad brushes for spreading tar when a narrow brush for defining conversational terms would be better.

I actually consider Charles de Lint and Emma Bull magical realists, not urban fantasists. (And China Mieville I consider steampunk fantasy, but that’s just me.) They also published a lot earlier than the current spike of titles I consider urban fantasy, and in any case I defined my terms pretty thoroughly–urban fantasy as the chicks-in-leather flood we’re having right now. There are exceptions like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden (which to me seems more straight fantasy than urban fantasy, cityscape notwithstanding, for a variety of reasons).

The borders between urban fantasy, steampunk fantasy, straight fantasy with urban elements, some brands of magical realism, and paranormal romance are FLUID. They are not SOLID. Genre is more an ad hoc designation by bookstores than anything else, because you have to be able to find a book to sell it to the person who wants it. Genre is also something for fans to argue about, because let’s face it, fandom isn’t fun without feuds[1]. Genre is also a set of conventions that give a writer some shape to aim for, somewhere to aim the arrow.

First comes the troll claims, then comes her own definition of urban fantasy that trumps these? I think her point would have been better made (and received) if she had dropped the first quote and elaborated here. Urban fantasy is a term that has been around for a long time. Saintcrow does have a point when she notes that not only has it become a marketing category, but that there is a greater identification of that term with "chicks-in-leather" novels that are currently a hot sell in the market. However, why not go further and explore why this has taken place? What about the older urban fantasies - are they still not metaphorical roses, even if one casts a new name upon them? How does one reconcile these different types of books that reside often under the umbrella title of "urban fantasy"?

What genre isn’t is this: a straitjacket. Or a way to denigrate someone else’s experience.

I made it pretty clear I was talking about the current wave of books designated urban fantasy. I gave my definitions and some of the reasons why I think this type of book is so “hot” right now. I also passionately defended it, because I think this genre is important and I do think there’s a lot of social conversation going on under the surface in these books–conversations about sex, violence, justice, gender, expectations, identity, a whole kit and caboodle of issues. These issues are not the story.

Part of telling a good story (to answer the concern trolls who bleated “what happened to just telling a good stoooory?”) is telling a relevant story. These are issues we’re thinking about now, as a society. Just like Star Trek and hard sci-fi took on issues relevant to their day (and hard sci-fi still does) and high fantasy took (and takes) on issues relevant to their day through the lens and filter of genre, so too does urban fantasy. Only we’re not supposed to analyze or talk about it, either because these are scary taboo subjects…or because we’re getting Too Big For Our Britches, because we only write schlock, dontcha know.

I seem to recall an adage where the best way to catch flies is with honey, not vinegar. I'd love to discuss (and to learn more) about these issues that Saintcrow mentions in passing. Yes, telling a relevant story is important. But instead of railing against those who are unconvinced or who can't be convinced, why not dare to push forward and reach those who might be open for discussion on these issues? I sense a failed opportunity here, one that was exacerbated by her poor choice of epithets for those who disagreed with her.

Yeah. Sure.

A lot of commenters also scoffed, saying that chicks kicking ass wasn’t a recent invention in Litrachur. Sure, there have been strong female protagonists in fiction for a long time. But the scale of the examination of women, violence, and guilt (or lack of it) urban fantasy engages in is a new bag, I think, because the women aren’t portrayed as Bad or as Guilt-Racked over using violence. These female protagonists who are using violence are also not getting what I call the Bad Girls In Movies treatment–this is the principle that any sexually active (or perceived to be sexually active) woman in the movies will either be killed, redeemed (translated: her sexuality co-opted) by the (male) hero, or horribly disfigured. Strong female protagonists in fiction have overwhelmingly been seen through the lens of the male.[2] (I know I’m simplifying the problem here for the sake of argument. Bear with me–not least because litrachur has overwhelmingly been a male pursuit in Western history, mmmkay?)

Urban fantasy seems to be examining these questions of power, violence, sex, and gender through the lens of the female, or at the very least not penalizing the female protagonists for utilizing violence. This creates spaces of ambiguity, which is why I think so many urban fantasy novels feel “noir”.[3]

Ignoring her oddly dismissive stance in regards to "literature" (itself bearing certain semantical relationships that probably vary quite a bit from person to person; most likely mine is the polar opposite of hers, if I'm understanding her correctly here), Saintcrow almost sets up a great point that has been examined in Marxist and Feminist literature over the past two decades: the questions of power, violence, and sex/gender through the interpretative schema of the female, the traditionally passive, the traditonally "weak," the traditionally "other" gender. But she doesn't push through with this. Why not open up a dialogue for discussing how gender roles are themselves fluid and are dependent upon time and place, even within a single society? Why not talk more about the "ambiguity" that the female characters themselves feel, as they struggle against the dictates of a more patriarchial society?

This is also why plenty of urban fantasy novels have explanations of how a female protag gets jacked-up/superhuman strength or speed, or how they’re arranged with the protag out-thinking/outsmarting the bad guys. This is a problem every UF author with a female protag has wrestled with and solved with varying degrees of finesse and success. It is the methods of wrestling and solving, I think, that make UF so cool. Those methods also show a lot about attitudes toward violence and justice, and allow the writer (consciously or unconsciously) to slip in a theme or two.

This is no different than, say, Thackeray showing attitudes about social climbing or hypocrisy by picking the type of protagonist and structure that he did. Or Dickens showing attitudes toward poverty, criminality, and morality by picking the protagonists and plots that he did. Or Heinlein showing attitudes toward sexuality, intelligence, and social organization by–you get the idea. All writers do this with varying degrees of relevance and success. Telling a good story doesn’t mean your work has to be free of thought or themes. Themes will creep up and insert themselves in your work without you knowing. It’s the nature of the beast.

While I agree with what she says about the authors being able to tell good stories that contain thoughts and themes, I believe Saintcrow should have devoted more time to explicating her comments above than to introducing an apologia that doesn't forward her other arguments. In the end, this second article feels like a bad sequel - the promise was there, but the execution and the furthering of the discussion faltered and collapsed into an oscillation between name calling and defensive posturing that doesn't serve to create an actual conversation about the topic at hand.


Elena said...

i read through the comments on her original post and found most of them less inflammatory than expected.

in my opinion one of the quickest ways to strike a nerve lies in semantics (to address your point). some of the most heated arguments i have had...also some of the LONGEST...have sprung from an inability of the involved parties to agree on what a term means. and it's damn hard to discuss an idea when you can't even agree on what the idea is.

one movie i couldn't help but think of as addressing issues of women and violence and some kind of equalizing force (in this case a gun) is the brave one. which yes is basically a remake of an older movie, but i thought it was a great exploration of some of the ideas saintcrow (and some of the commenters) were bringing up about women and how they relate to violence. certainly that protagonist questioned the use of violence but in the end was pretty unapologetic about it.

E. L. Fay said...

You know, I think I was too hard on Saintcrow initially. As I began writing about the issue myself, I found myself thinking more about it. The labels of "high" and "low," when applied to culture, are actually pretty vague and frequently overlap. The genre of Gothic fiction, for example, has produced both great works (Poe, the Bronte sisters, Dracula, Rebecca) and melodramatic schlock. I finally concluded that authors and artists should just let their products speak for themselves. Saintcrow is absolutely right when she argues that "low-brow" books sell because they resonate with people. And in an open, democratic society, the people are also legitimate guardians of culture. A previously dismissed work that lives long enough in the popular imagination will eventually be re-evaluated.

SQT said...

Interesting post. You know, I don't have an issue with "low brow" fiction. Heck. I'm a fan. But I think it's interesting that Saintcrow is defending her writing by trying to make the point that she's making it "relevant." Um huh?

Perhaps I'm being a bit unfair. I only read her first book and kind of thought "meh." It just seemed kind of derivative to me. It resembled a lot of what I had already read so I don't really know what the relevance of that particular story was. But maybe things have changed since then.

I also agree that her form of response could have been better phrased. I'm not a fan of the "litrachur" reference because it seems dismissive and I don't think that's fair.

RobB said...

HHH, Jeff Hardy and Lita? What?!?!

Seriously, another good post Larry. I think the thing that bothers me is how much appropriation is going on in Saintcrow's articles about the Urban Fantasy genre. Sort of like "Well, the label is popular now and a lot of the popular books have tattoed chicks in leather kicking ass, so lets ignore the stuff that was Urban Fantasy before Anita Blake and appropriate the label just to make a point."

I don't know if the de Lint, Bull Butcher comment of her's was directed at me specifically but I did mention Butcher only because she said "We'll get to that." and she never did.

It is also tough to buy into an argument that vacillates between rigidly defining something, like a subgenre, in on paragraph then goes ahead and says the boundaries between the subgenres are fluid.

Jeff C said...

Looks like you had the same thoughts about her second post that I did. Though as always you made a much more coherent and well stated opinion than I could. Nice post (that goes for your thoughts on her original post as well).

So at least it wasnt just me who thought her latest blog was a bit dismissive, smug, and righteous.

Larry said...




Good point on the "low brow" connecting more. I spent a previous work life as a cultural history grad school student and your comments about how each generation re-evaluates its popular culture is very apt for this issue.


I really want to give Saintcrow the benefit of the doubt, but she herself doesn't let me with comments like the one you note.


It's all about Sting and Lex Lugar at this point...or maybe Hulk and the Macho Man over Miss Elizabeth (RIP). ;)

Agreed about the bad fuzziness of her arguments in that second post. I think I was a bit too easy-going on her in that regard.


Thanks! I think it was likely a common reaction. I wish I had access to more reactions to her article, as it's hard to find links since Pat doesn't have the Links feature activated on his blog.

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