The OF Blog: Tripe...and a burning vag

Friday, May 23, 2008

Tripe...and a burning vag

Another insomnia special here, brought to you by coughing and retching, but not the #2:

Reading through some of the links in my Blogroll and I read where Cheryl Morgan has noted yet another in a long series of attention-grabbing inane writings from The Guardian. This time, a novelist named Bidisha takes umbrage about the unkind words some (male) critics have said about J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and has extrapolated from there in such a fashion as to make a mere tangent seem more deeply-rooted in the matter at hand.

Now for a juicy bit that will explain the title of this post (and why I'm mocking it):

A subtle mechanism is operating here, clanking into gear to restore the dominant man-worshipping default mode while reserving a few token high-priestess places for the ladies. In speculative fiction that would be Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood and Ursula K Le Guin, geniuses all. These women are the real deal, rightly worshipped for their vision, philosophical trenchancy and pertinence. But apart from the hallowed three it's men-only when it comes to casual recommendations of mainstream books.

In terms of which books sell plentifully and are acclaimed among knowledgeable fans, speculative fiction is not male-dominated at all - quite the opposite. It is the critical establishment which marginalises women. Bestselling female contenders remain unacknowledged while their male counterparts are robustly namechecked, absorbed reliably into the official history of the genre.

Readers who rave about the scope of Lord of the Rings, in which a club of white men flee (a) a big burning vagina and (b) some black guys in hoods, are simply unaware of the awesome complexity of Katharine Kerr's Deverry sequence of Celtic fantasy novels. They hail William Gibson's prescience, oblivious to Marge Piercy's prophetic sci-fi masterpieces Body of Glass and Woman on the Edge of Time and Liz Williams's intelligent, knotty novels like Darkland.

Nice to see such universals being spouted here. Didn't know I was engaging in "man-worshipping," especially since I routinely praise female authors for their stories being excellent stories. Don't think that means I checked in my penis at the door. And speaking of genitalia, the "big burning vagina" bit did cause me to chuckle a bit, since that was more of a movie image and not quite the "cat-like eye" description in the book. But I suppose Bidisha wanted to capture this presumed sense of vaginophobia by using such a vivid (and recent) visual from a movie.

However, I cannot help but to wonder if she herself might be guilty of not being all that aware of viewer praise. There is only a passing, rather odd mention of Robin Hobb, whose books are often praised to the skies on epic fantasy forums. No mention of books such as Sarah Hall's Clarke Award-nominated The Carhallan Army (Daughters of the North here in the US). Don't know if she's read Nalo Hopkinson's Aurora Prize-winning and Nebula finalist 2007 novel, The New Moon's Arms, which I consider to be one of the best 2007 novels that I've read. Nothing about the recent World Fantasy Award-nominated authors like Susanna Clarke or Catherynne M. Valente, just to name a couple from the past few years alone. None of those except for the Canadian Aurora Awards are "fan" awards; most are chosen from within the writing community or by "the establishment."

But I don't think this is what Bidisha really cared to address. Nuances and subtleties don't make for exciting discussion or controversy. They just make for an increased chance of questioning and exploring, things that run counter to what she is railing against. In a bichrome world, there is no room for such shadings and colorizations. All there is room for, it seems, are big burning vaginas from which pasty white males flee in terror and loathing.


Cheryl said...

I don't think that Bidisha knows much about the SF community; either that or she found it convenient to ignore the fact that we exist. I'd like to see her try to explain to, say, Farah or Tempest, that they are tools of the Patriarchy. On the other hand, I feel honor bound to point out that actually the Auroras are fan awards. You are perhaps confusing them with the Sunburst.

Then again, Nalo's book is wonderful, and I' hoping to see it do well in others awards as well.

Lsrry said...

Yeah, I did confuse those two - oops! And coincidentally, I am set to read Farah's Rhetorics of Fantasy in the very near future, as it was one of the books Jeff VanderMeer sent me in payment for that Amazon review I wrote for him. And I have to admit that I would like to see Bidish try to explain to Tempest in particular those statements...

Anonymous said...

From her post:

Darren Shan and Garth Nix are rising stars thanks to the Potter-fuelled fantasy bandwagon, but there's no casual namedropping of female speculative authors Robin Hobb, Mary Gentle or Malorie Blackman, whose Noughts and Crosses is a modern classic.

I don't agree with her argument but it is obvious that Bidisha does in fact know quite a bit about speculative fiction.

Lsrry said...

Damn, I must have missed that when reading it at almost 3 AM! But I still can't help but feel that she conflates way too much there and makes a rather complex series of relationships into a rather simplistic argument.

Lsrry said...

I also want to add that I did edit the post as per comments here. Thanks again for pointing them out to me.

Anonymous said...

So, what's your thesis? There's no sexism at all in the SFF community, and male writers are never commented on more loudly and recced more heavily? And I suppose that's also why writers like KJ Parker or CS Friedman (until recently) don't use gender-neutral initials?

As for the Am I the only one who distrusts female fantasy authors thread from Ran's Board that you were pointing out the other day, I suppose it is a figment of my imagination? Yes, of course that's a fannish board. But given the number of bloggers who also post at Ran's, and the sometims blurry borders between fan and pro, and how much fan makes the establishment, this is worth having a look at.

Bidisha probably has a few things wrong, and not a deep knowledge of all SFF communities (since you yourself posted on how different the blog community, for exemple, is from boards, you should have been aware that she might be knowledgeable in some of those communities without knowing all of them, though); that doesn't mean there's nothing worth addressing in the issue of sexism and how female writers aren't always as hyped as male ones (and no, not necessarly by you, yourself, you're probably hardly the worst there, but why did you jump to talk about how you, yourself are innocent of such traits, because being self congratulatory about one's praising of female writers' book is hardly an attractive trait). However, I think that's not what you really cared to address. Nuances and subtleties don't make for exciting mocking and caricatures.


Lsrry said...

Thesis? I have theses at 3 AM when coughing my lungs out? :P

I'll sum this up briefly: Just as there are those who are so naive in their sexism that they don't admit that it exists, just as there are those who dismiss concerns too quickly, there are those who are too quick to assign blame for this or that. I'm no innocent in most anything - I just distrust easy, pat answers, take that last part as you may ;)

Cheryl said...

I am in no doubt that there are some male critics who will pan anything a woman writes. I am also in no doubt that there are many male readers who won't read any book by a woman. But the Guardian article reminded me of the people who say that if you vote for Obama rather than Clinton then you must be sexist. It is not a helpful position to take.

Anonymous said...

Simple pat answer? As relating to what? JKR's getting bashed by some criticisms? Yes, certainly, if that was only that. I don't think that was what the article was only saying. I do agree there's a phenomenon in SFF where some female writer are seen as good enough and whose names are often mentionned : Leguin, Connie Willis, Robin Hobb - while most other female writers will be dismissed actively or passively. Sure, you'd need to look more into it to find good evidences of that, but so far it seems to me you went for more of a simple pat answer on this subject than the guardian writer did. I wish that post with nuances and subtleties was forthcoming from... well, anywhere.

Lsrry said...

Etrangere, double entendre in that post - think back to the "chick lit" debate, for "pat" :P

As Cheryl says above, there are those who do pan things just because of gender (or religion, ethnicity, type of fiction being written, etc.) and not because of a particular work's merits. I have my own "blind spots," many of which revolve around historical fiction and the antipathy I have toward much of it and alt-histories due to my academic background. I'm not going to downplay this, but when it would take a few books' worth of writings to explore this issue, all I can do at this time is but note that for many readers, there isn't an absolute this or that and that I myself distrust the simplest answers that seem to take the steamroller to the mountains and valleys and cracks of all the various reasons why people like one thing and another thing doesn't appeal to them. Sexism exists and is pervasive - I agree with that. Most of my adult life, I've worked in a female-dominated field and I've seen this first-hand, in how I'm treated (good and bad alike) and how others have been treated. I'm not downplaying that, only noting that Bidisha fires a broadside without providing anything in the way of acknowledgment of what routes dissenting opinions might take.

Anonymous said...

*sighs* I can agree with that, at least. I guess I just didn't think you made that good a rebuttal because you were only looking at mocking the article.

Oooopsie, on the double entendre :)

Lsrry said...

Yeah, I didn't mean to write a thoughtful rebuttal, because 3 AM, cough-wracked thoughts are not conducive for those, alas.

But at least I won't make a facile argument about that "chick lit," right? ;)

Anonymous said...

*chuckles* Yes, Larry. You are officially better than Pat IMHO. Do you want a cookie for being a not entirely stupid and decent human being? Make that cough medicine, perhaps. :)

Lsrry said...

I'll take the cough medicine, as long as stupid and decent aren't completely intertwined there! :P

Anonymous said...

good Job! :)

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