Thursday, 20 February 2014

Shadows and Dreams, or why feminism sucks sometimes

(This post will include spoilers for C. Robert Cargill's Dreams and Shadows, a dark place to be...)

Years ago, although not really that many years ago, back when I was serious about being a writer but had absolutely no idea what that entailed, I was the best reader any novelist could hope to find.

I didn't read, I devoured. I stayed up 'til half past four every night. I would spend whole weekends where I didn't get out of bed, where I promised myself I'd get washed, get dressed, drink that cup of tea... when I'd finished this chapter. Then, I'd start the next without realising I was doing it.

All of that, I still do if life permits it, if I can find a book that captures me. But back then, every book captured me. It wasn't that I didn't see the flaws, that I didn't distinguish between a good book and a bad; rather, I looked with the eyes of love. I wasn't reading the words in front of me, I was reading the words, the concept, the perfect story that the author held in their head, in that place ideas start. Where they are pure. Seeking only pleasure, I would find only happiness. I was your ideal reader, I was the ideal reader.

Seriously, I rocked.

Now? I don't know if it's editing or academia that has done it to me - though it's probably some combination of the two - but now, I know how stories are put together. Now, like an amateur seamstress, I can still see where you got your hems wonky, even if I couldn't make the dress myself.

 For the last few years I've been on a quest. I want, I need to find books, to find authors, who can make me forget all this. I have been reading all over, in genre and out of it, modern and pre-19th century, books that have won prizes, books that friends have sent me, books picked up in the library that should really never have left the slush pile at a publishing house. I have been on a journey, a earnest pilgrimage through every literary terrain to find that glorious novel, that blast of literary wonder that will grab me by the vitals and make me feel fourteen again.


I was introduced to Shadows and Dreams by a lovely young woman working at the Waterstones in Norwich. She told me it was great: compelling, and scary, and that the faeries in it weren't... well, you know.... but they were really dark and stuff. Then, she name-checked a few of my favourite authors and I had Christmas money and ... ah, hell, it's a book. How much persuasion do I ever need?

So, okay, the plaudits on the cover said it would appeal to fans of Neil Gaiman's adult novels, which is polite way of saying that, in some lights, it's a knock-off of American Gods, but I stopped that attititudr at the door. I spoke to myself sternly, reminding myself that, in some lights, the opening chapters of American Gods look a bit like a knock-off Eight Days of Luke. Then, I sighed for the lost innocence of the because time when I thought novels had to be original, when I did not know that all fiction was inspired by other fiction. I kept in my.mind the fact that this kind of intertextuality is only a worry if it's handled badly. Yes, American Gods begins with some of the implications and nomenclature of Eight Days of Luke, but soon it plunges off into utterly different concerns and arises triumphant. Gods Behaving Badly, on the other hand, starts with some of the rules American Gods established, veers into an unconvincing romance, and emerges as an utter bloody travesty. (Apologies if you like that novel. Me, I'll just go back to banging my head against this wall.)

As I say, I bought the book. It had everything going for it. I was keen, I was excited, I sat down in the bath and wow. That opening. Ouch, ouch, ouch. I love it when a writer goes straight for the heart-strings, love it when a writer isn't afraid to fuck you up. Yes, I was thinking, is this it? Have I found it?

On I plunged, blissful. Here was sharp, effective, clever prose. Here was Colby, here was Ewan, here was the twisted little mind of Nixie Knocks... Here was....

Wait, wait, wait. Hold on a sec.  Aren't there any women in this book?

Brain, you aren't welcome here. Shut up.

I'm just saying...

Look! A plot! It's building. It's dark, it's mysterious, we know this is all going to end horribly...

But they're just mothers. That's the only dimension these women are given, it's the only role that defines them. They aren't the actors in this narrative. They're at the sidelines, cheering on their team. All the main players here, all the actual characters are men.

Brain, I told you. Stop it. Look! Mallaidh. She's a woman. And she looks like she's going to be pretty central. See, she's here for the big adventure and she's - oh, okay, Colby did that. But she's smart, and she's interesting and... not in this chapter and .... wait, what, they're just leaving her there?

No, dammit, you can't just leave Mall...

So I admitted defeat, I said, Congratulations, brain. Well spotted. There aren't any women here. They're entirely used as peripheral characters, people to be loved, saved, damned or avoided. It's a fantasy novel. It happens. I'm used to it. Now will you shut up so I can just...

Then I said: DAMN YOU BRAIN!

Because, you see, you put that little, critical crack into a book and all of a sudden, you start seeing things. Like the way that changelings are made, the way they operate. Sure, it's dark and its ugly and its scary, and that's all well and good, but does all that pain and ugliness have to be focused, solely, horribly, on the mothers?

And it's not enough that these mothers lose their babies in the vilest way imaginable, no. They must suffer for that loss over and over again. Tiffany and Jared respond in much the same way to the changeling Knocks. What do they get for it? Well, Jared gets a couple of decades in a jar. Tiffany... No.There was no narrative justification for that. It is horror, laid on for horror's sake. It is a narrative blaming a woman for the misfortune heaped upon her.

And Caitlin. She cried for three fucking days over that baby. But what are we told? "Her child was poisoned by its mother's vanity". I don't care if that isn't the author's voice, if the speaker is supposed to be ruthless and stern and amoral. The narrative never contradicts that statement, not for a moment. We never get the sense of Caitlin as anything other than a cruel, shallow bitch who, more-or-less, brought this on herself. A cruel, shallow bitch who spent three days weeping over her baby's corpse.

Gods, what a cruel, what a hateful thing to write.

And it isn't just the mothers who get treated this way. At the beginning of the novel, we get a neat, gorgeously written little fable about a Djinn, and the events that cursed him, 'The Ten Thousand Bottles of the Fishmonger's Daughter'. With all the effect and economy of The Thousand and One Nights, we hear that "the riders returned by morning, bearing the freshly cut heads of the newly weds". It has everything it needs for horror, for shock. But, clearly, death and heartbreak isn't enough. No. We must learn, later, that the young woman was tortured and gang-raped.

Isn't that just a little layering of nastiness? Isn't that a woman getting used as the narrative's whipping boy again?

But you know what upset me the most? When we hear about this, the suffering that we focus on is not the woman being violated and murdered for simply being who and what she is. No, we focus on her husband's calls for revenge, her husband's anguish and heartbreak. Oh, the Fishmonger's Daughter of the fable may have been been granted a voice by her lover's wish, but Cargill never sees fit to let us hear it. She exists only as the object of male desire, the means by which they can be cursed, destroyed, damned.

I've already said that I love it when novels get dark. I love it when novels get bleak and bloody. Hell, I love books in genres that historically are not known for their high number of female characters. None of these things, on their own, trouble me.

But when a writer focuses a heavier proportion of the narrative's pain, loss, and incidental violence against one group - be it a race, a gender, a sexuality, whatever - and refuses to bring even one representative of that group out of the borders of that narrative? That is a problem. That will spoil a book for me.

Which brings us to Mallaidh.

If you do not want heavy spoilers, do not read the next couple of paragraphs.

Mallaidh is the only female character in the Dreams and Shadows who has anything approaching a story. At untold danger, risk and time, she flees the faerie court, seeking her lost love. And what do we hear of it? About four lines and a couple of clich├ęs.

Come to think of it, what does she even do? She falls in love with the guy who rescues her near the beginning, gives up everything to get him back and changes her physical appearance to be acceptable to him. She is then killed, tragically, accidentally, trying to save his life. We are told near the beginning that she will be his undoing, but she is not. She is simply the means through which his undoers act.

A good litmus test for whether your token  female character has agency despite being a tragic self sacrificing love interest is to compare her toThe Little Mermaid. If the comparison goes against you, you may wish to do some rethinking.

In The Little Mermaid, for example, it is the women who the rescuing at the start. In The Little Mermaid, the FMC has some agency in her own demise. But Mallaidh does not have even this agency. Her actions are reactions, amd are controlled by her love for her saviour, Ewan. Ultimately, her sacrifices are not sacrifices because they are not willed. She is not an subject, she is a victim.

</Heavy Spoilers>

Yeah, I got angry at this book. I got so damned angry and getting that angry made me unhappy. Because once I'd seen all this I stopped being able to enjoy it. I didn't want the storytelling to be good, any more, didn't want the prose to be clever and clean. I wanted it turned the seamy side without. Gods, I wanted to pull on those seams.

I stopped. Not reading, I rarely stop reading, but I stopped enjoying. Beneath the story, the one I liked, the one read, there was another narrative I could no longer ignore. One about women being victims, one about women not being welcome. Once again, my innocence was lost.

Of course it is possible to enjoy things you find problematic. There are a whole wealth of posts out there about how you sinful, inconsiderate lot are permitted - uh, I mean, how consumers should - enjoy problematic media. My personal method is to think 'yeah, there are issues, but I'm not going to let it bother me'. It works quite well.

So, where does that leave us?

Well, I, for one, am not accusing Cargill of any malice in this. I heap no opprobrium on his head. All he has done is internalise a narrative culture where action, where agency, where stories belong to men and any women present are their quest objects, their betrayers, their weakness. Yes, perhaps he is guilty of failing to examine that internalised prejudice, that privilege of being, unquestionably, the hero of his own story, but I can't know that. Novels take a long time to write. Maybe he's already noticed what I've seen. Maybe he's already asking himself those questions, maybe he is trying to undermine his assumptions, explore the stories that, in this novel, he refused to tell. I can't know what's happening inside his head.

What I do know, though, is that if he spent the next ten years writing, desperately try to understand a world where your narrative is not the dominant paradigm, of being faced at every turn with how life treats you differently when you look different, the resulting product will still be read by someone, somewhere, whose brain will say, "Hang on. Why are all the..."
Because to talk about 'problematic media' suggests it is a distinct category from 'non-problematic media'. Our society is one that is manipulated, controlled, by power relations of which we are, for the most part, unconscious. None of us, ever, in our lives, have encountered media that isn't problematic. Sure, our overwhelming privilege stops us from spotting it most of the time, but it is there. Even the most careful, inclusive, utopian story will offend, will marginalise, will exploit, at least one group. Somewhere, somebody less powerful than ourselves, will be hurt by the assumptions we are making. 

I won't even entertain the argument that this means we shouldn't try, that we shouldn't pick apart our cultural narratives to find a way of telling stories that doesn't privilege a dominant model over a less powerful one, that doesn't take the assumptions upon which we base our own lives as some universal mode. Sure, it's hard, bloody work. It's long and its baffling and it means noticing some pretty nasty  assumptions you make in your life, some really vile trends in your thought processes. But whatever some people would like you to believe - on both sides of the fence - it isn't "all or nothing", it isn't "damned if you do, damned if you don't."

It's a co-operative thing, a gradual one. We owe it to our readers to do our best. The works we produce along the way will be problematic, they will be as hurtful as hell, but they will not be without artistic merit. And a reader, popping up their head and asking, "hang on, why is this always like this?" should not be shouted down, should not be accused of over-thinking. Writers should take them seriously, should bloody well consider what is being said. They may not always agree with the criticism, or even be able to fix it, but they should try to understand why their work is being viewed that way. After all, that's what writers do: they imagine things they cannot possibly have experienced.Why should this be any different?

There are too many stories that are not being told, too many groups being dropped into boxes they did not chose for themselves. Our fiction reflects the world as we know it, whether we will it to or not. We should do this, we must do this - even if it makes the taste of a good story seem sour in our mouths. It is, and I say this with conviction, the right thing to do.

I just... sometimes I wish I could just read a book.

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