June 2014

Authors, books and choices

by Suw on June 21, 2014

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. 

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Loving an alien, part 1

by Suw on June 19, 2014

There were many things that occupied my mind when I was 16, but thinking about the kind of man I might marry was not one of them. Revision for my O Levels was a pretty big thing in my life about then, as was thinking about what I’d do at university, and which of my Dad’s science fiction books I’d read next. I gave no thought to who I might marry, or even whether I might marry.

By my late 20s, I had started learning Welsh and had ‘decided’ that I would probably wind up marrying a Welshman, if only to be able to move to somewhere picturesque and spend my time speaking the the Language of Heaven. I failed quite spectacularly on that front, only eventually meeting Kevin once I’d given up not just on the whole Wales thing, but the whole marriage thing as well. I was convinced that my natural state was single, and that I was going to be ok with that.

When I met Kevin, I was smitten the very moment he walked through the door to the foyer at BBC Television Centre out in White City, despite not knowing who he was, or that he was the person about to interview me for the radio. And even though it was very obvious that he Wasn’t From Around These Parts, I never for one moment considered the implications of falling in love with an alien.

I mean, you don’t, do you? You can’t. You have no way of knowing what’s in store for you, because no one ever talks about the practicalities of immigration. But as soon as you fall in love with a foreigner, immigration policy becomes a major force in your life, one that might destroy your relationship, destroy your future, if you make even just one, tiny slip.

Lots of people talk as if they know all about immigration. They have opinions, and they spout them unchallenged by reality, because no one really wants to discus the nitty gritty of immigration, they just want to throw a few soundbites around so they can ingratiate themselves with an audience who know even less.

Try falling in love with one of those dirty, rotten foreigners, one of those selfish people who come over to our country, stealing our jobs, shagging our women (or men) and spreading love and happiness in their wake… oh.

Loving an alien means putting your life in the hands of politicians. It means wading through pages and pages of barely comprehensible legalese. It means hoping that the rules don’t change whilst you’re in the process of legitimising your love’s presence in this country not of their birth. It means being given advice by people who only two years ago had a totally different experience because everything has changed in the intervening time. It’s knowing that if you hadn’t gotten lucky and applied when you did, the new rules would see your love thrown out on their ear because of an arbitrary decision made by someone with no grip on reality. It means wondering, especially in the early days of your relationships, whether your love might be tested to destruction by bureaucracy.

The worst part is the feeling of powerlessness that often comes upon an immigrant and their partner. The fact that there you are, standing in front of an immigration official in Liverpool, and they are complaining that the utility bills you have given them to prove that you’re in a legitimate relationship aren’t evenly spread out, one every three months, over the previous two years, despite the fact that nowhere in their directions do they explain that ‘requirement’ (which you suspect they’ve made up on the spot). As you wait for this anonymous stranger to make their decision as to whether your love can stay, you hear a couple at the counter next to you being told that no, his wife cannot stay because he does not earn enough money, even though this financial requirement is so new the media still think it’s just a suggestion.

I was sitting in a taxi the other day talking to the Bengali driver and explaining my current immigration situation. Whilst we were chatting, I explained how long it had taken Kevin to get his citizenship here, how torturous it was, how touch-and-go at times. He was shocked.

But, you’re married! he said.

Doesn’t count for anything here, I replied. The bureaucrats are so divorced from reality that they seriously believe that my husband and I might get married, move in together, get some bills in both our names, then move out again, then move in again a year later for another batch of bills, then move out again, faking it all the time just for him to get a visa. Seriously, anyone who believes people behave like that is capable of believing anything, and they will choose to believe the worst.

!!! he said.

Seriously, I said.

But you said he’s American, he said. I thought people like that just, well, walked in?

I laughed, a sad, frustrated laugh.

My Bengali taxi driver had internalised the media’s and politician’s lies about who immigrants are, and how easy it is for different types of immigrant to arrive and stay in the UK. His assumption was that, because we were white, we could just do what we wanted to. For him, it was an eye opener to discover that we did not, in fact, have it easy, we did not get special treatment.

Indeed, the UK government has so much shit to give that they like to spread it around as much as they possibly can. No favouritism here (except for the EU, but that’s only under protest – don’t believe they wouldn’t throw out all European immigrants if they could). My Bengali taxi driver was sympathetic, if surprised, and I felt a momentary bond with someone whose life has been and will be very, very different to mine.

But what about the times when Kevin has talked to people in America about how long it has taken to get my US visa, only to have them say something like, Why don’t you just smuggle her in illegally, ha ha ha. Or, my favourite: Those Mexicans come here illegally, so why can’t she?

Because nothing says ‘love’ so much as selling your wife’s safety to human traffickers and risking not only her physical and emotional wellbeing, but also any future you might have had together in America. But oh, it’s so funny to think of a Western, white woman being an illegal immigrant when we all know those people are nasty, brutish and brown.

These people suggesting that illegal immigration is a sensible replacement for the formal immigration process are just idiots who’ve never given a moment’s thought to how they would like to be treated if they had married a foreigner. They make the assumption that illegal immigration is easy, but they also seem to think that it’s in some way fun, that it’s a choice people make as simply and easily as you might choose to have a cup of coffee or an ice cream. They have no comprehension of the risks and danger involved, so they make weak jokes as a way to avoid having to think about immigration in human terms.

The problem is that there is no credible civil discourse on immigration, no way for people to learn about the realities of immigration: the limitations, the tedium, the risks inherent even in the official process, the fear of getting it wrong, the expense. The nonsense that the media dredges up comes from the sewers of their imagination bears no resemblance to reality.

People who haven’t been through an immigration process tend not to know the least thing about how it works. They have no idea even of what the rules are, particularly with regard to whether immigrants can claim benefits (hint: EU citizens, refugees and asylum seekers can, everyone else can’t). This means that they cannot spot the hyperbole, the lies, and the misrepresentation because they simply don’t have a reliable understanding of reality with which to compare the rubbish published by so-called news outlets.

This ignorance of the mechanisms of immigration allows prejudice and misinformation to flourish. Prejudice and misinformation causes public outrage, which then shapes the political agenda. Politicians and civil servants then use the outrage to shape public policy to meet their ideological desires, or to try to win votes from an increasingly reactionary and ill-informed electorate.

And caught up in the middle of all this are couples whose only crime has been to fall in love, and families who just want to be together.

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