I’ve been off Twitter a lot lately, but I did pop in a few days ago, and one of the first things I caught was a post from SciFiNow for an author I don’t know, but it was an “influences”-type recommendation list so I decided to check it out.  To my somewhat unsurprised dismay, the list created by a guy had only guys on it.   Which many in the SFF sphere may recognize as a pattern with male authors of any renown.  Even a guy I like, Alastair Reynolds, lists only males in his influences list at the end of his newest novella Slow Bullets.  And having read a fair few of his earlier novels, it’s pretty apparent to me that he has been influenced by someone who identifies as a woman because the way he writes women and about women is significantly different than your run-of-the-mill SFF dude.  

But on to the point of this post.

As I said, it’s been a trend lately that we’re noticing a lot more of these all-male recommendation lists.  Whether their appearance is the trend or our ability to notice is—as blogger/book/media critic extraordinaire @Renay noted in her retweet of my original tweet about that SciFiNow post

—males who point out only other males is a problem in a lot of ways, including what it says about the values and world-views of those particular authors.  Of course #notallmen are misogynists or sexists or idiots, and we’re not out to ruin their day just because they came across as a bit ignorant on their list but it does point to a lot of larger problems within the SFF world, and indeed the larger publishing world.

1. By only giving credit to male authors for influencing your work, or for participating in your genre, you’re marginalizing the great work that non-male, non-white authors are doing.  You could just as easily give the spotlight to someone who, due to systemic racism or sexism, has had a much harder time getting published or getting publicity for their work after being published.  More on this at Natalie Luhrs’ post “Examine Your Priorities,” after the whole Ernest Cline debacle.  As a successful author, you have a chance to give a massive signal boost to someone who really needs it, rather than boosting the same dead guys who have been recommended forever, in a genre that’s all about change and progress.

2. You’re short-changing your readers.  While it’s certainly true that some readers are only interested in a very narrow slice of whatever genre they read, many are looking for new and different and mind-bending and interesting.  While I see where Beaulieu might imagine a whole wagonload of diversity in his list because of the ways in which the novels on his list tangentially touch on the topic of metropolis, if your recommendation list contains a total of ten books and two are by the same author and all the authors are male, your idea of diversity might need a bit of an adjustment.  Think about what you’re really saying about the genre with an all-male recommendation list: Essentially, you’re telling your readers that this is what SFF is, so anyone not already up to their ears in SFF or not already actively looking for diversity, is going to take you at your word and keep on reading only white males.

Which leads us to perhaps the biggest reason to diversify your recommendation lists, especially if you’re a white male author:

3. As Renay stated in her follow-up tweet, it makes one question what that author really values, in terms of perspectives not only within fiction but without.  One might get the impression, from a list like that, that you the creator of the list view SFF as a boys’ club where the only people who have anything interesting to say about culture, the world, the future, are white males.  Or at the very least that the only ones deserving of credit for SFF, its future, and the ideas that come out of it, are white males.  Is that the kind of impression you want to give?  But then again maybe you just don’t care.

Because anyone who is actually looking, who actually cares, couldn’t help but at least notice N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and its companion novels in the series, when they came out, and the way that the capital city figures as not only a setting but a character in those novels.  Or Ursula K. Le Guin’s imaginings of an alien city on a frozen world and the ways that geography creates necessity in The Left Hand of Darkness.  Or how Elizabeth Bear built a steampunk city out of memories of memories of wild west frontier towns in Karen Memory, or Margaret Atwood’s dystopian metro sprawl in the MaddAddam series or David Anthony Durham’s re-centering of civilization in his Acacia series, or the way that Detroit plays such a crucial role as setting in Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, if you feel the need to go back a bit further to Pratchett and Asprin.  And that’s just for novels that deal with the concept of metropolis.  

I don’t know who Bradley Beaulieu is, so I’m not trying to call him out or bring a mob down on him.  The point is, I don’t know who he is, but based on this list he’s created, I don’t plan to, either.

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Divide My Love in Half: The Dangerous Pull of the Dual Narrative Novel

Authors use various narrative devices in their work to achieve particular ends.  Sometimes they are straightforward plot advancers, sometimes they have something to say about life, and sometimes they even have something to say about narrative itself.  I believe that with Kate Mosse’s two novels, Labyrinth and Sepulchre, she uses the dual narrative device to do a little of all three.  But where does the speaking end and the action begin?

In an interview on the blog Women’s Fiction Writers, Kristina McMorris explains that readers enjoy dual-narrative or dual timeline novels because, “Through interwoven timelines, we’re able to witness how the act of one person even decades ago can unknowingly alter the course of another person’s life down the road”.  There is a certain type of suspense that comes from a novel written in two entirely different time periods, but which intertwine throughout the novel.  It’s a feeling of inexorability, a sense that we almost already know what will happen because of what is happening right now, and yet a palpable thrilling sense of mystery multiplied twofold, due to the dual plots, the conflict that each main character is experiencing.  

Readers also get the best of both worlds, in a way, as the earlier narrative is often a historical one, full of the wonderful depictions of another time and place; it’s agreed in historical fiction circles that the biggest pitfall to writing a historical novel is not doing the right research, because just the right detail to perfect the story might be only a book or document away.   Authors of historical novels sometimes perform years of research just to write one novel, and they carefully insert historical facts into the narrative to bring the historical setting to life.   But readers don’t just get the historical narrative; a contemporary narrative complements the historical —two stories for the price of one!

But.

What makes a good historical fiction writer?  What makes a good contemporary fiction writer?  Can the two meet?  In many regards, writing fiction that takes place in the here and now is just like writing historical fiction.  If you write a novel that is supposed to be set in Chicago, but the only aspects of the narrative meant to elicit a sense of place are stereotypes and vague references to how windy it always is, readers are going to be turned off by your story.  Writing contemporary fiction takes a certain amount of introspection, and sometimes even research, to elicit the feel of a place—what it looks like, who lives there, the weather, the sense of place and history.  One would think that for historical fiction writers, adding a second timeline would be relatively simple—same methods, less guessing because you can actually go there right now.

But on a recent foray into historical dual narrative novel-reading, I’ve found that quite the opposite can come true all to easily.  In Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth and Sepulchre, the historical settings and narratives are quite wonderfully researched and brought to life.  The characters who lived in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Carcassonne in the former, and nineteenth-century Paris in the latter, are quite three-dimensional and alive and believable.  The characters who appear in the contemporary timelines in both, however, are less-so.  The novels feature a female protagonist each in the historical and contemporary narratives.  The protagonists from the twenty-first century in each novel are practically interchangeable, and the villain characters and the love interests don’t go much further.  

Labyrinth’s Alice and Sepulchre’s Meredith, even though one is English and the other from the United States, are twenty-something single intellectuals, strong-willed and a little afraid of the world, each looking to uncover some aspect of the past.  Though each has a slightly different motivation, each answers the pull with nearly the same lead-footed hypnosis.  They have to perform these tasks, of course, because otherwise the novel wouldn’t continue—the reader wouldn’t get the historical narrative because there would be no intrinsic reason for it.  I was amazed, at first, when I realized how stark the difference was between the development of characters across the two timelines in each novel, but in a way it makes sense.  

Historical novel-writing, as mentioned above, takes a large amount of effort and research just to get the place right, not to mention the characters.  Authors pore over every detail, making minute cuts here and there, until they practically come to inhabit the lives and worlds of their historical characters.  In her 2006 article “A Theory of Narrative Empathy,” Suzanne Keen describes authors almost as extreme empathizers.  She reports on a study in which fiction writers experience a feeling of their characters having independent agency, and a sense of “eavesdropping…, bargaining with them, and feeling for them” (221).  As Keen puts it, “Though clearly novelists still do exercise their authority by choosing the words that end up on the page, they may experience the creative process as akin to involuntarily empathizing with a person out there, separate from themselves” (221) and further reports that fiction writers as a group scored higher than the general population empathy. 

Putting these two facts together—that historical fiction writers pour themselves into their research and craft, and that fiction writers generally score extremely high on the empathy scale—it’s not surprising that a historical narrative would take precedence, even unwittingly, in a dual narrative novel.  Here McMorris also agrees, stating that it is important “to make sure the stakes are as equal as possible in both story lines.  Otherwise you risk tempting the reader to skim the chapters that in comparison have a lower level of tension.”  A dual narrative novel first inspired by a past event or person is the initial focus of tension and conflict—the author has to work to create the same level of interest and conflict in the contemporary narrative.  For an author already drawn to historical writing and research, it would be understandably difficult to muster the same level of empathy and interest for another, less inspiring time period.  

This is not to say that authors shouldn’t attempt such narrative devices, only that they should be aware of the pitfalls.  Indeed historical fiction is coming to have a broader role in understanding history itself than previously given credit for, and a historical narrative that can converse with the contemporary can be a great addition to a greater narrative about history and what we know about ourselves.  Indeed Margaret Atwood was quoted by Forrest G. Robinson in his 2004 article “We Should Talk: Western History and Wester Literature in Dialogue,” saying, “How do we know we know what we think we know?  And if we find that, after all, we don’t know what it is that we once though we knew, how do we know we are who we think we are, or thought we were yesterday, or thought we were—for instance—a hundred years ago?,” an argument for literature’s place in our historical understanding of ourselves, rather than relying on only an absolutist, modernist version of history.  Alice’s compulsion to uncover the history of twelfth-century Carcassonne, in Labyrinth, stems ultimately from it being her own personal family history, and she comes to an understanding of it through the stories she dreams and hears from other characters.  The Grail itself is meant to provide long life for a person to go forth, to bear witness and tell a truth.  A novel may only reveal one small part of a greater story of a place and time, but after all that is only what history books can do, and they can only tell it from one point of view.  For what is history, if not the story of us, and if histories forget the smaller narratives, what truths do they tell?  

And so we read on.

On Reading “Bad” Books

Sometimes you just have to read bad books.  No, I’m not talking about all those supposedly “trashy” romance novels you’ve devoured and will never admit to, or those novels based on D&D that are basically fanfic but got published because they have guy names on the covers, or even the books from the “beach reads” display at the public library.  No, I’m actually talking about poorly written, hard to-to-get-through actually bad stories that are pretty much painful to read, the books that, if anyone you know ever complained as loudly as you are right now, you’d ask them why they don’t just stop.  It is just a book, after all.  As a reformed book-devourer, my most recent read has had me, for the past 350-ish pages, wanting to give up and find something a bit more readable.  But for some reason, this time, I’ve decided to stick with it.  It’s the first in a series though, so don’t expect me to move on to the next one when this one is done.

The further I get into this book—should I mention the title?  Well, it’s been in print over five years, so there’s a chance no one will know what it is anyway—the further I get into this book, the more I’ve decided that there is a reason, occasionally, to read bad books even when you’ve run out of all hope of it ever turning in to an interesting story.  So here they are, a few of my reasons for persevering with a bad book:

  1. It makes you appreciate the good books more.  No, I suppose we don’t really need to read a bad book to be able to identify good writing when it’s there in front of us.  You read good fiction, plotting, characterization, world-building, and of course you can recognize it when it’s right in front of you.  Having a foil for good writing does not actually make it better, but it does remind you how much you enjoyed it, and make you want to get back to good writing.
  2. It makes you a better reader.Part of being a good reader is being able to articulate what you like and don’t like about certain books or authors.  While being a good reader is not required for being a reader, or even enjoying reading, many people enjoy reading because it makes them part of a community of readers.  From book groups, to friends who share what they’re reading, to librarians making recommendations to patrons, communities read and talk about their books.  Being able to read and articulate what you don’t enjoy about a particular book provides an opportunity to identify where you’ve seen its better example in other books, and then makes you better able to engage with your reading community about these differences.
  3. It mass you a better writer.Of course, not everyone wants to be a writer.  That’s fine.  But even if you don’t care to write fiction, being aware that there are good and bad methods to writing, any writing, can help you in your everyday communications, from work emails, to meetings, to company presentations.  
  4. It encourages you to support the writers you love.  This one is my personal favorite.  Reading this bad book I’m stuck on has really made me remember all the writers I love, and why I love them.  And made me want to go out and buy more of their books, recommend them, and just generally tell the world about great writers and why they’re—really—great.

Anyway, I haven’t actually told you about the bad book that got me started on this blog post.  Years ago, when I was young and naive and hadn’t spent $50,000 to get a Master’s degree in English Literature, I would never have said a bad word about a book.  I wouldn’t say I was a completely undiscerning reader, but I was the kind of person who read to read, and though more about the story and getting through it, than what was actually being said.  These days, I have less and less time for that.  So here goes.  Back in 2009 was published a fantasy tome called The Summoner, which was to be the first in a series called The Chronicles of the Necromancer.  Now, I have no first-hand knowledge as to whether the rest of this series was ever actually published.  I certainly haven’t gone looking for it, and I don’t intend to after I finish this one bad book.  I’d burn it, when I’m done, except books really don’t burn that well.  I still don’t understand why this book was published, why it was pushed so much by its imprint Solaris, except that the author’s last name is Martin, and her first name starts with G, so maybe they thought to fool readers into mistakenly buying and then reading it.  But let’s be honest, the writing is not even as good as G.R.R.’S (spoiler: I think his books are pretty crappy for a lot of reasons).

Hell, her name might as well be Gary, or Gerald, for all the patriarchal fantasy tropes she pushes, and just in the first book of a series.  Within the first chapter, the main character (who is beautiful and a little bit clueless, just the way we like our medieval-based fantasy nobility) watches his mother and sister get murdered by his brother, which is the impetus for his entire story to come to be, as it releases his latent necromancer abilities.  Yeah, author fridged the first two (live) women the reader meets to advance the story arc of the boring main character.  I should have stopped reading.  Nearly all the references to women in this book (if they’re not nobility) talk about them as whores, wenches, and other variations on terminology for women who are at the service of men.  Though the “religion” of this book relies on incarnations of the “Goddess,” all those incarnations just fill roles created by and for men, to advance the rights and privileges of men over women.  Yay.

There are two women who are somewhat pivotal characters in the story.  One is a healer—women’s work—and the other is a princess who goes on a quest to save her father, was raised as a fighter but basically sucks at it until the author needs her to do otherwise, and you can tell pretty much exists so that she can show up in the male main character’s storyline later and finish what his murdered sister and mother started by dying at the beginning.  Oh yeah, and there’s another fridging we find out about, about halfway through the book.  The “guide” character, who helps the main character learn the ways of the force, and deal with his sads, is also in this story because his wife died long ago and now he wants revenge on the one who did it.  The main character has two male friends who are also motivated by thoughts of women—fucking as many of them as possible, because after all, that’s what women are good for.  They even bandy amongst themselves who is going to get the female healer to crack and finally fuck one of them.  Because she is at the service to all the men in the story, in one way or another, even to the point of being threatened with rape by slavers—yes, slavers make an appearance—in order to make the main character cooperate.

Well, I won’t “spoil” the story by telling you how it ends.  But I do want to show my appreciation for good writers by pointing out, occasionally, the not so good.  Now, here’s a brief, non-exhaustive list of really awesome writers who you should definitely check out:

And here, if you need more, Book Smugglers has a list.

There are plenty more good lists out there, if you use the ‘ol interwebs too.

Happy reading, and don’t be afraid to call out the bad books.