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Women Writers Are Not Pets [Jun. 26th, 2010|01:39 pm]
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Nnedi Okorafor has gotten a lot of flak for her book Who Fears Death, including being interrupted and verbally attacked at the launch signing for the book.   She's been told she isn't African enough to write about Africa, that her use of some African traditions that whites have used to denigrate African culture in general means she is denigrating African culture in general, and that she's possessed by evil.   But she's also been attacked by others who feel she isn't negative enough about her imagined future African society.  Many of the accusers she's mentioned have been men.  She put up a brilliant blogpost answer to her accusers: The Witch Strikes Back.    Read it.  Writers can, do, and should write about whatever they want, for whatever audience they choose, in whatever manner seems best to them. 

In the same week, ginmar put up a fairly complicated post that deals with several issues--and at least one of them overlaps with Okorafor's, in that women who express resentment of or anger about the treatment of women are commonly told that they shouldn't, that they're being unfair, that men have problems too, that all women aren't saints, etc.  
She cites a male blogger who imagines that a certain insult could be delivered, then starts comparing that imaginary insult to the real insults women have had thrown at them.  

Any woman who challenges the status quo anywhere in the world is likely to run into similar attitudes (sometimes enforced with violence, sometimes with social sanctions.)   Those benefiting from the status quo see no reason for it to change, and don't want to know about the suffering it causes...and especially do not want women pointing it out.  
(And here comes the ritual disclaimer: yes, boys, I know that some men challenging the status quo run into similar attitudes...but they're usually considered heroes after the revolution, and not "just another nagging woman.")  

Women writers still get the patronizing questions about their work if they mention that they're writers: "Oh, do you write children's books?"  "Oh, do you write romances?"  and "Have you ever been published?"   One of the most annoying was the guy on an airplane who sneered "Could I read everything you've written in an hour?"  Women still get chewed out for not writing what someone else thinks they should write and writing instead what someone else thinks they shouldn't.   About twenty years ago,  I was stopped by a man at church who demanded to know why I wrote about women: "Men need books too, you know!"   (As if a man could not read a book that did not have a male protagonist, and as if there weren't already hundreds of thousands of books with male protagonists.  He thought it was my duty to supply fiction for men  in the form they wanted.)   Then there was the guy who was shocked, shocked! that a woman would include violence in her book--weren't we supposed to be peace-loving? 

Women writers also get flak from women, of course.  Include lesbian characters and get the raised hands and horror...but from every color of that rainbow.   It was wrong to have them...you didn't do it right...you didn't include at least two of every other possibility and show them as perfectly wonderful...you didn't show them all as depraved and doomed.  
Not including lesbians (or whatever) brings out the immediate guess that you're anti-gay.   If you're white, and you don't include characters of color, you're bigoted, but if you do include them, you did it wrong.   (Leaping ahead hundreds of years to a possibly less racist future, and nobody will notice that many of your characters are persons of color...)   Violence and sex are always up for attack...women shouldn't write about it...women should especially not write with any emotional intensity about women being harmed by men or about women whose sexual choices are unfairly limited/curtailed/damaged/eliminated by men.  Never mind that the courts constantly see domestic violence, sexual assault, etc. cases....let's not write about such awful things, because it might disturb all these wonderful men who would never ever do that.  It might damage the prestige of  Family (or culture, or nation.)    Women are routinely accused of "disloyalty" and "unfairness" for not supporting the exact flavor of status quo that the complainer favors.

Women writers are not pets.   They do not exist to play with your yarn ball, chase your stick and fetch it back,  exist on the ration you choose for them,  warble the little song or repeat the phrases you taught them, and stay in the enclosed space you provide (it's a metaphor...figure it out.)   They exist to do what every creative artist does:  seek truth and express the truth they find.  
For some this will be in fantasy or science fiction or mystery or thriller...for others it will be in naturalism or nonfiction or poetry.  But whatever the form or the genre...they are not pets.   So put away the choke-chain, the little jeweled harness, the gilded cage...that's not going to work. 

(And another ritual disclaimer...yes, there are people who don't give me flak--and thanks to every one of you for that--writers do need readers.   But you're the ones who've already figured out that we aren't pets.)


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From: pyre006
2010-06-26 07:09 pm (UTC)
oh my god AMEN! I can't believe people actually said those things to you.
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From: mouseferatu
2010-06-26 07:30 pm (UTC)
Been seeing this sort of thing discussed a lot lately, on various different forums--what women "should" write, what people of different ethnicities "should" write--and I've found it remarkably eye-opening. I'd known there was some of that, but I hadn't realized until recently how much.

I assume that much of it is tied up in the same attitudes that prevent large portions of the market from reading books with protagonists of different genders/races. (Not that nobody does so, of course, but I'm told that, at least in sci-fi and traditional fantasy, non-white and/or female protagonists still sell less. Which I think is a ludicrous state of affairs, but there it is.)

For what it's worth, based in part on your mention of it, I've just put Who Fears Death on my Amazon shopping list for when I actually have some of that fabled "disposable income.
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[User Picture]From: blueeowyn
2010-06-28 01:49 pm (UTC)
It isn't just Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I think my BIL would have had a small herd of cattle if my DH and I had gifted his children with Little Women or Secret Garden or pretty much anything considered a "girl's book" before a daughter was born. We buy hardback books for the children when they are born so by the time they are old enough to read them they have a sizable library. Now that there is a girl a large portion of the books are "girl" books (though if she had been born first like she was supposed to have been, we wouldn't have any problems giving her Tom Sawyer but giving the first born son Black Beauty would cause problems *sigh*).
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[User Picture]From: caitlin
2010-06-26 07:34 pm (UTC)
If you're white, and you don't include characters of color, you're bigoted, but if you do include them, you did it wrong

Unless I miss my guess, I think this was the "basis" behind the whole race!fail thing.

And IMO, the people who judge authors based on their lack of "diversity" in their characters completely miss the point.

Especially if the races of the folks involved are never even mentioned.

ASS-U-ME anyone?

Personally, I worry about being judged in regards to diversity and other things, but then I also try to keep in mind the adage of "if you try to please all of the people all of the time, you end up pleasing no one"...

But maybe that's just me.
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[User Picture]From: marrael
2010-06-26 09:23 pm (UTC)
And IMO, the people who judge authors based on their lack of "diversity" in their characters completely miss the point.

To my recollection, that was not the main, or only, criticism that came up in RaceFail. But if, in real-life history, you've got races that imperialists (often white) tried to eradicate, it can seem rather insensitive to some when a white author conveniently wipes them out altogether in an alternate history. As in, they never existed! At least, that was the part of RaceFail I saw as the worst offense.

Especially if the races of the folks involved are never even mentioned.

Funny thing is, and this is one of the things that came up in RaceFail, a lot of people have have learned to read/see/understand white as the default race of most book characters. (Hell, I even see young sff readers in Singapore doing this--and they're not white.) And, your comment would seem to confirm this default, that writers don't need to mention race--readers can imagine whatever they want, right? Not really. A character who isn't white can't just be dropped into place and have everything the same as the white character, save the colour of his skin. His/her skin, his/her name, his/her background, class, colouring, etc., will be different and affect his/her experiences that the white character never has to worry about. Most (of not all) readers of colour know this, and know when they are reading characters not like themselves in appearance.

But, and again, this was covered in RaceFail, a white author, or anyone, doesn't need to write characters of colour or anything they're uncomfortable or unfamiliar with. Don't do it as a favour--but in some sf settings or whatever worlds you're writing about, one could do worse than thinking maybe not everyone will/should be white (and, that said, one doesn't have to trot out the old cliche of making the bad guys dark-skinned--which has happened, and does happen in fantasy fiction. Explicitly). And if you've got the courage to write the Other, maybe just accepting you may get some things wrong, and you may get some readers picking up on the mistakes, and the worst thing to do in that situation is to condescend that you understand them than they do their own.

Sorry for this long comment. But I did think the original post (and its links) was great, and even punched the air a couple of times.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-06-28 02:52 pm (UTC)
There sure are. BTW, I'm now halfway through the book.
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[User Picture]From: la_marquise_de_
2010-06-26 08:48 pm (UTC)
Loud applause.
You get this kind of thing writing non-fiction, too. Your book can't be as good as the man's book on the same subjec (even if you're the expert and he's the interested amateur). Your books have to be more 'accessible' to the lay reader, because women shouldn't try and sound clever -- and if they are very serious and heavy, you're told you're humourless and showing off.. Your arguments will be criticised for appearing girly/emotional etc, even if they are dry and dust. (Seriously, one male critic -- who had issues with me over other stuff too -- took the line that my [very dull, very academic] analysis of the central 11th century was evidence of my hero-worshipping one of the kings of that period. I've never seen him do that to another man's book.)
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[User Picture]From: msstacy13
2010-06-27 10:50 am (UTC)
It's true.
There's even researching demonstrating this.
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[User Picture]From: keristor
2010-06-27 02:23 am (UTC)
I used to have a problem, as a teenager, with books which had a female protagonist and were written in the first person. The person calling themself 'I' was very obviously not 'me', and so it jolted me out of the book. At some point (certainly by the time I left university, possibly a bit earlier) I realised that the 'I' was the person telling the story, not supposed to be myself (I don't happen to be a barbarian warrior, or a spaceship pilot, or most of the other things the protagonists in books are either) and treated female protagonists exactly the same as male ones. In short, I grew out of it.

In my case I think it was Zenna Henderson who broke my problem. I really liked (still like) her books, so in order to read them (several are first person) I had to do something about it. Apparently there are some men who never do grow out of it.

Incidentally, do women or girls have the same problem with male protagonists? I'm wondering whether it is actually a generic problem with "the other", but that there is so much male-based fiction that girls have to learn to handle it earlier whereas boys can get away with only reading stories with male protagonists (or just not reading, my impression is that (in the UK at least) women read for pleasure a lot more than men do).
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From: mmegaera
2010-06-26 09:40 pm (UTC)
Something I've wanted to bring up for a long time, and this looks like a good forum to do it in. If it isn't, I apologize and will understand if you remove this comment.

I am of the very strong opinion that there are some things that can't be written about in a positive light, like murder or sexual assault. One of them is domestic violence. There is a romance novel, which shall remain nameless, by a well-known and respected writer, where the "hero" of the book is the heroine's ex-husband. She left this man before the book opens because he physically abused her. Yet they ended up with the expected romance ending. I found this deeply offensive.

Is this just me and my visions of some person who has been desperately trying to convince hirself of the reality that the spouse s/he just left will never change running up against this book and feeling slapped in the face? (Yes, I realize that s/he would know this is fiction, but that's not the point) Or do others feel that this sort of treatment of something like this is wrong, too?
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-06-26 10:58 pm (UTC)
Yes, I think it fits here, though it kind of angles off a little. It's an important topic, anyway. And it's one that thoughtful writers can disagree on, but still need to think about. How can we show reality and not become an ad campaign for the bad stuff? Or being that slap in the face to victims? (I would call that romance a "cheap grace" book.)

Women have been criticized as if even mentioning rape, incest, domestic violence, sex trafficking is lending support to it, but you don't see that kind of criticism of books by male authors. I remember reading (and trashing) a book in which the "hero" was protective of, and--within his definitions--respectful of, American girls but savagely beat up foreign prostitutes because he "needed" the outlet. (Another writer I will never enter an elevator with...) I found it disgusting. I'm sure teenage boys found it exciting. Because I do write about violent stuff--soldiers, war, etc.--I've had my share of this.

What none of us knows yet is exactly how to write honestly about some of this stuff without risking some readers taking it as permission. If you leave all the details out, you lose the emotional impact that you WANT readers to feel. If you start putting details in, the scumbags that feed on the bad--who want to do the bad even if they aren't doing it now--can read it just for that. And in the end we can't control how readers read our stuff. We don't know our readers' hot buttons, not for sure. We have to just write as honestly as we can, out of whatever is in our story-cauldron, and hope that someone connects.

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[User Picture]From: foxfyre
2010-06-27 03:00 am (UTC)
This was actually my first thought on reading this entry, because I remember how completely nonplussed you were by that experience. I've had similar reactions from the local mommy group I hang out with, though so far thankfully no slap-inducing comparisons. ;p
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[User Picture]From: torainfor
2010-06-27 12:09 am (UTC)
Why do topics like this always seem to hit my life in clusters? I'm nowhere near successful enough yet for anyone to question what I write (they'd have to actually read it first) but I did get told just Tuesday by an insurance adjuster that I should let my husband replace the couple of worn shingles because "[he's] not sexist or anything but [I] could get seriously hurt up there."

I honestly thought we were past that. Guess my world's been a little too small lately.
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[User Picture]From: msstacy13
2010-06-27 09:52 am (UTC)
Apparently your husband is considered expendable.
The company must not have a policy on him.
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[User Picture]From: elialshadowpine
2010-06-27 03:28 am (UTC)
I remember not that long ago with the whole incident surrounding Justine Larbalestier's Liar came up -- if you're not familiar, she wrote a YA novel about a female black character, and the original cover was whitewashed. I read the comment thread on her blog about it, and I was gobsmacked when there were people in the thread who said they were black, demanding to know why she, a white woman, dared to write about black characters. After all, how could she know what black people go through?

Yet, there's frequent criticism of white writers for not including characters of other ethnicities. Can't freaking win.

I understand there are a lot of concerns about "getting it right" in regards to any minority group, but something I think people fail to grasp is that within any group of people, there will be some amount of divergence. My experiences as a pagan are not the same as those of someone who came into Wicca in the 1970s and dealt with far more discrimination. My experiences as someone disabled with an invisible illness are not the same as someone who has been disabled from birth. There's a LOT of variance, and I think more people need to realize that minorities do not come trussed up happy little identical boxes. Sure, there's absolutely getting it Wrong, but I've seen criticisms of portrayals of minorities that are entirely valid (speaking as a member of said minorities), because they didn't fit that person's ideal.
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[User Picture]From: msstacy13
2010-06-27 10:26 am (UTC)
There's a particular difficulty for white folks
writing black characters
because of that whole "minstrel show" mentality--
a feeling (not always erroneous) that the black character is used
to demonstrate that white folks know what's best...
or the "magic negro" story...
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[User Picture]From: ysabetwordsmith
2010-06-27 05:17 am (UTC)


If you're a writer, people will tell you not to do it or you're doing it wrong, blah blah blah.

If you're a woman, people will never be satisfied with anything you do.

Fuck 'em. It's their problem. If you're already a female writer, you've already figured out the "never let them stop you" part of the job description.

But oh, I'd love to see someone try the "Can I read everything you've written in an hour?" with me. Because sure, you could try that, if you wanted to rupture your mind and give yourself a compound fracture of the reality.
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[User Picture]From: anghara
2010-06-27 05:40 am (UTC)
I tend to respond in precisely the opposite way than what is intended as soon as someone presumes to tell me what I "should", "must", or any negative of those two, write about. I believe that as a writer - not as "woman writer" but as a WRITER - I stand on the threshhold of human truth, that some of it is uncomfortable, that some of it I must learn more about before I wade into it but that should not stop me from trying. I am two things, first and foremost - human, and writer. I am a third thing - unwilling to be pushed around by those who claim to know better than me what I ought to be doing with those first two things, given that I am a FEMALE human.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-06-28 03:44 pm (UTC)
I agree that writers must be free to write what their own talent tells them they must.

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[User Picture]From: gifted
2010-06-27 06:43 am (UTC)
I felt a bit of shock reading this and being reminded how horribly immature the world is.

And then, I have to admit, I felt elated. I had the opportunity to grow in a culturally diverse area under the tutelage of two insightful and understanding parents, and intrinsically learn to see people as people; I'm very grateful for this, and that there are others out there, such as yourself, who can write these wonderfully sensible entries in response to such vehement ignorance. It gives me hope.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-06-28 03:53 pm (UTC)
I had the culturally diverse area, and one insightful parent...one is enough, if that one is good enough.

Story from before I was old enough to remember: the Episcopal church I grew up in hosted a Greek Orthodox wedding with a Roman Catholic flower girl and a Jewish ringbearer. From later: my mother's friends included people from various parts of Europe and Asia, some of whom had come in through Mexico at some point. So Greek, Lebanese, Japanese, Russian, Czech, German, Polish, Irish, Italian, three social classes of Mexican-origin (some recent, some since before the area was US) all mixed up in small town small businesses, plus "ordinary" US citizens. The blend was pulling apart with rapid immigration from both directions by the time I finished high school, and I had only nine years in the real mixing bowl of Main Street, but it stuck with me.
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[User Picture]From: valarltd
2010-06-27 02:25 pm (UTC)
Yes, I write romances. Yes, I write children's books.

But I write the type of romances that include scenes which, during a reading, made three hardened spatterpunk writers cringe and cross their legs.

For those who complain, unfuck'em. May they never have another climax.

I write as the muses move me. The only men who get to tell me that I'm Doing It WRONG are the characters themselves, and an occasional beta reader who has been specifically asked to help.

"Can I read everything you've written in an hour?" How fast do you read, sugar? If you read ten thousand words per minute, sure. But I'm not responsible for your sanity after evil carnivals, gender-bent Sherwood Forest, gay Christmas werewolves vs. Cthulhu and steampunk lesbians fighting zombies.

I've come to the conclusion the backbone of male privilege is the right to tell women "Ur Doin ir RONG" in any and every situation, regardless of what they are doing.
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[User Picture]From: ginmar
2010-06-28 01:13 am (UTC)
Are you sure you're not on the rag? :/

I remember the gold old 'civility' wars over at Alas, a blog, where male trolls could say, "Congratulations on the baby. I'm glad you decided not to kill it," with nary a peep from the male blogger, but let a woman get angry at the constant stream of polite misogyny and she's a bitch who must be silenced. And I can't tell you the numbers of times I've had some dude start out from the get go treating my anger like it has no cause, like it's just hysteria, like whatever happened is not enough reason for me to be angry. "Now simmer down there, little lady....." From the very beginning, they try and silence you, no questions asked. And that's just from the guys who want you to know how sensitive they are, how liberal they are, whatever.

Getting angry is a sign that you have enough self worth to know when somebody's fucking with you. That's a given with men. With women, it's threatening, castrating, dangerous, and ugly.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-06-28 03:57 pm (UTC)
I'm into the "old curmudgeon" stage of life...which means I can be difficult 24/7/365. No need to depend on cyclic biochemistry.

Anger saved me from being beaten up more than once...so yeah, I agree. OTOH, I've also misused it, and hope not to do so again.
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