Doing the rounds this morning on Twitter is a rather forthright review by Christopher Priest of Jon Wallace’s debut novel Barricade. Priest has never been one for pulling punches and, although he acknowledges that “first novels are traditionally given a gentle ride by reviewers”, he does go on to wonder if “a well-deserved duffing up might have been more memorable, and in the end more useful.” That duffing up duly ensues.
Priest sets the scene for us: Barricade takes place in a reality where natural humans are called Reals and artificial humans are called Ficials, and the world is a hellscape of our own making. So far, so meh. But then this clause about one of the key protagonists, a Ficial photojournalist, leapt out at me:
…Starvie, who has been fashioned to resemble a sex-goddess…
Starvie. Sex-goddess. This doesn’t bode well.
And then this:
There’s also a distinctly dodgy passage in the middle of the book, when the unappealing Fatty and the unemotional Kenstibec plan to send a compliant Starvie out as a sexual lure for a gang of randy Reals. “Listen,” Fatty says to Starvie, after he has bound her wrists with plastic cuffs, “I know you’re upset about having to go whoring, but no more of your looks, okay?” Her response is to tilt her head, and say sweetly, “You don’t like the way I look at you?” Soon the Real sentries are predictably drooling over her, as only men can do when a shackled sex goddess is dragged past. The sequence goes on in the same lacklustre way for several inconsequential pages. The whole of this scene seems likely to start an argument I don’t want to get drawn into, but I think when your book has been read by a few more people you might well be.
Oh ho ho. There is a large punch very definitely pulled by Priest. How very out of character. Priest has never really struck me as one to avoid an argument, but maybe he felt that his review was already long enough and that going off on a tangent would distract from his main point.
Overall, the review reads as if Priest is the most disappointed English teacher you could ever have:
In case you are thinking otherwise, I was not scouring the text for these solecisms, setting out to set you up, but like all people who are preparing a review I was keeping notes throughout the reading. The protocols around a first novel by a young writer do matter. I kept noting all the bad stuff (much more than reported here), but I was looking for good bits with which to try to encourage you. I found none. It gradually dawned on me that I was wasting my time. Barricade was unyielding in its awfulness. It was a book I did not wish to write about.
You are spared the rest.
That was, by itself, enough to put me off Barricades, with a slight nagging feeling that there was a lot worse that could have been said, which Priest had backed away from, stuff about women and objectification and how attempting to portray women in an edgy way usually fails. But maybe I’m just reading too much in to a few lines by a reviewer.
And then I read this guest post by Wallace on the Civilian Reader blog, titled “Writing Real Women”.
My head. It a splode.
Wallace kicks off his post by explaining how, as a teen, he was told that he was no good at writing women.
Once I’d cooled down I read over the script again and saw what he meant: my female characters were either blanks, or saintly projections of whoever I happened to be in love with that week. Rarely were they believable. Rarely were they real.
Well, Wallace wasn’t the first and won’t be the last. Many teenaged boys (and a fair number of men) seem utterly flummoxed by women, perhaps in part because women are so often portrayed by the media as one dimensional creatures who are impossible to understand. We are wallflowers, bitches, nurses, mothers, sexual objects, although we are never more than one of those things at a time. How can we expect teen boys, already struggling to cope with all that puberty brings, to be able to understand women when they are never given the tools — the stories, the examples, the understanding — to do so.
But, Wallace assures us, he “worked hard to write believable, fleshed-out female characters”, right up until the point that he started writing Barricade and decided not to.
The lead female character, Starvie, is in many respects a construct of unrealistic male expectation and base desire. Why? Because she was designed that way.
I suspect Wallace thought he was trying to be clever and edgy, subversive and shocking. But let’s just see, from what we know of this book and characters, whether he succeeded.
- We have a female character who has been designed to “do nothing more than have a perfect appearance. Starvie’s model was a singer, a model and an actress, but most of all she was beautiful.”
- As an entirely artificial creation, we are lead to question her agency. She was “optimised”, she was “programmed to display a series of modeling ticks and gestures”. How much freewill does she have?
- Her name is Starvie. Where does this name come from? It’s very odd. Starvie was a model, and we all know that models are very thin and some suffer eating disorders in which they starve themselves… Am I reading too much in to those two syllables? Maybe, although it’s hard to read “Starvie” and not hear “starve”.
- Starvie is used as bait in a honeytrap, a passage which made Priest uncomfortable but which we cannot judge.
- She, of the two Ficial characters that we know of, is the only one with emotions. The male Ficial, Kenstibec, has none. Because we all know that women are hysterical, whereas men are cold and calculating. I’m not sure which gender comes off worse there, but I am sure that it makes Wallace look as if he has a rather lame imagination.
On the face of it, this looks just like thinly veiled misogyny. It’s doesn’t look edgy at all, but predictable and stereotypical. It might have been edgy if Kenstibec was also a woman, perhaps a Real woman traumatised by war, her emotions buried, who has allied with this Ficial in order to survive and find some kind of redemption for them both. That might have been interesting, but this book, this story with these characters as described, just sounds terrible.
There are two issues to think about here, beyond the obvious one around how women are portrayed in science fiction.
Firstly, Wallace portrays his decision to write Starvie as a surprise to him. “Something odd happened”, he says: when he went to write a proper woman, this stereotype popped out! Heavens above, how could anyone have predicted or controlled it! It just happened!
Which is, of course, bollocks. As so beautifully described in the film Wonder Boys (which, btw, if you haven’t seen you really should), all authors must make choices. Everything your characters are and do, everything that happens, it’s all your choice as an author. The tail cannot wag the dog, the book cannot actually write itself, because the tail — the book — is not sentient.
Many authors talk about being surprised by what comes out when they write, but the unexpectedness of their creative process does not relieve them of responsibility for what the final story says. Wallace wrote Starvie because he wanted to, because he chose not to stop himself, because he didn’t change her, or Kenstibec for that matter, as he edited and rewrote his work.
His juxtaposition of his efforts to write “believable, fleshed-out female characters” with the fact that he “ended up doing the complete opposite” implies that this was some sort of freak occurrence, inevitable and outside of his control. This is Wallace glossing over his conscious decision to write Starvie exactly as she reads, it’s him attempting to abdicate responsibility for how she turned out by blaming… what? The story itself? It doesn’t wash.
Secondly, I am sure some people will say that I have not read the book therefore cannot judge. This, too, is bollocks. Every book goes through a period where no one has read it except those close to the project: The author, his editor, their team, some reviewers perhaps. All that the rest of us have to go on are reviews, blog posts, blurbs, reactions, descriptions, all produced by other people.
This means that the author and their publishers need to be aware of how their story plays in summary, and how publicity material such as blog posts can be interpreted. If you write a character in what seems like a misogynistic way, then you should be very, very aware of that interpretation before you publish, and be sure to provide the would-be reader with the context they need to understand how this character fits in to the rest of the story. You need to be very, very clear when discussing your books, and the misinterpretable character, so that you don’t alienate potential readers.
You especially need to make sure that when you, as the author, write about this character who looks so very, very dodgy, that you don’t shoot yourself in the foot and make it all sound so much worse than the reviewer duffing you up does. Wallace fails spectacularly to convince that Starvie is anything other than a one dimensional object of male sexual fantasy. Indeed, he does more to put me off his book than Priest did, and that’s really saying something.