More thoughts on "Angry Chicks in Leather" by Lilith Saintcrow

Lilith and I sort of knew that people would likely be talking about her column once it was posted. But I don't think either of us would have believed that it would kick up this kind of online storm. People are talking all right!:p

In response to a lot of what's been said about this recent ad lib column, Lilith posted something that should generate even more discussion. You can find her piece here.

Here's a preview:

So, the Angry Chicks In Leather post got a few comments. The anonymous/troll comments fell into two categories: one, that I was a Bad Feminist (in several senses at once, from “shrill harpy” to “traitor to femininity”) and that smaller, more delicate women couldn’t kick ass; and two, that authors like Charles de Lint and Emma Bull and Jim Butcher were true Urban Fantasy and the stuff I was talking about was just lowbrow schlock.

Thanks for making my point for me on both counts, trolls.

I actually consider Charles de Lint and Emma Bull magical realists, not urban fantasists. (And China Mieville I consider steampunk fantasy, but that’s just me.) They also published a lot earlier than the current spike of titles I consider urban fantasy, and in any case I defined my terms pretty thoroughly–urban fantasy as the chicks-in-leather flood we’re having right now. There are exceptions like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden (which to me seems more straight fantasy than urban fantasy, cityscape notwithstanding, for a variety of reasons).

The borders between urban fantasy, steampunk fantasy, straight fantasy with urban elements, some brands of magical realism, and paranormal romance are FLUID. They are not SOLID. Genre is more an ad hoc designation by bookstores than anything else, because you have to be able to find a book to sell it to the person who wants it. Genre is also something for fans to argue about, because let’s face it, fandom isn’t fun without feuds[1]. Genre is also a set of conventions that give a writer some shape to aim for, somewhere to aim the arrow.

What genre isn’t is this: a straitjacket. Or a way to denigrate someone else’s experience.
I made it pretty clear I was talking about the current wave of books designated urban fantasy. I gave my definitions and some of the reasons why I think this type of book is so “hot” right now. I also passionately defended it, because I think this genre is important and I do think there’s a lot of social conversation going on under the surface in these books–conversations about sex, violence, justice, gender, expectations, identity, a whole kit and caboodle of issues. These issues are not the story.

Part of telling a good story (to answer the concern trolls who bleated “what happened to just telling a good stoooory?”) is telling a relevant story. These are issues we’re thinking about now, as a society. Just like Star Trek and hard sci-fi took on issues relevant to their day (and hard sci-fi still does) and high fantasy took (and takes) on issues relevant to their day through the lens and filter of genre, so too does urban fantasy. Only we’re not supposed to analyze or talk about it, either because these are scary taboo subjects…or because we’re getting Too Big For Our Britches, because we only write schlock, dontcha know.

Yeah. Sure.

Click on the link to read the rest. . .

By the way, if you are an author/editor/agent/publicist/yada yada yada and you'd be interested in writing a piece for my ad lib column, simply get in touch with me (use the giveaway email address if you don't already have my contact details).

18 commentaires:

Unknown said...

Haha, well, other than getting the definition of trolls wrong, I thought this post was better written than the last.
Trolls are posting specifically to incite contention. I think people were just voicing their concerns and counterpoints.

Jeff C said...

I dunno..I didn't really care for her follow-up post, and had to make a post of my own on my blog. I could probably accept her argument a little better if she dropped the name-calling, and superior attitude.

Anonymous said...

This author seems very bitter at society in general, and fans in particular. Is she mad because she's not taken as seriously as writers like Rushdie or Saramago? I'd say she needs to stop blaming the public perception of the genre she writes in, and take into consideration that she simply may not be as good a writer as she thinks she is. If she wants her books to be viewed as literary or socially important then she should take a good look at her writing and figure out how she could make it so, instead of blaming sexism for all her woes. There is no shame in writing fun adventure/detective/romance/fantasy/western/horror novels. But don't pretend that they are socially important high literature. Oh, and Tom Clancy isn't accepted as a "serious" author.

SciFiGuy said...

Who defines what is socially important high literature? I suspect book critics and academics. Do real people actually read that stuff or just buy it to place on their coffee tables?

Anonymous said...

No, it's terrible. I mean guys like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Hugo have been in print for over a hundred years because they suck. Nobody actually likes them, we all just pretend to like them so we can impress other people. Really, there is a reason some books are considered "literature"; they're good! Have you ever tried reading anything that's considered literature? Or have you just decided it's all pretentious crap and doesn't deserve your time? And who exactly are these "real people" you speak of? Because I like Jose Saramago and Gunter Grass does that mean I am somehow less real?

Anonymous said...

But seriously though, what does determine whether a piece of writing is literature? Is it quality of the writing itself? It doesn't seem to be that alone, because there are certainly a lot of well-written fantasy novels that aren't recognized as literature. On the other hand, if you say that it's themes that matter, how does something like Far from the Madding Crowd, which had great writing, but no themes of any real value that I could tell, become literature?

pauljessup said...

Pat- I would love to write an article here, but I have no clue what your email address is, and I can't seem to find it anywhere on these pages. Help?

Larry said...


Here ya go: reviews@(no-spam) - minus that one bit, of course.

Anonymous said...

I should steer clear of that portion of the discussion that would be labeled feminism on the one side and sexism on the other, and I will.

But just speaking about genre distinctions, I have to say that this lamentation that F & SF or any particular subgenre just doesn't get the respect that mainstream fiction does is rubbish.

Sheesh, this is a conversation that exhausted its subject matter 30 years ago.

Seriously, even the ivory tower academic types are by now aware that mainstream literary fiction is just another genre (or, if you're feeling cynical, another ghetto) among many.

The only charge any writer has these days is to write the best book they can, in whatever territory it is that they feel.

And if they do, and do it well, their fiction can and will be regarded with as much critical adoration as it might deserve.

There is no genre such that it is a priori schlock anymore--everyone knows this. No genre is so weak that it is defined by the weakest authors within it.

And everyone knows that there is a whole bunch of trite and cliched literary fiction produced every year.

Beyond a little bit of American Gods, my only experience with urban fantasy is the True Blood series on HBO. So I don't have any experience with the books being talked about.

But this is the 21st century people: I guarantee it is a false demarcation, this Maginot line between schlock and literature that Ms. Saintcrow and some of the commenters here seem to be drawing.

But while it is no discredit to fans or readers to forget the very real barriers to respectability that were placed before talented authors in the bad old days, it borders on ungraciousness for an author who takes as a matter of course her shiny hardback editions to suggest that in some way she is being discriminated against

The kind of discrimination being suggested simply does not exist any longer.

Unknown said...

Maybe the following post (of mine) is not as acceptable as I think it is, but it's yet to be approved on her site so I'll stick it here (the 4 comments approved (2 made after mine) there all agree with her. worth noting!?):

You’re throwing out the word ‘troll’ to anyone who says anything you consider too simplistic or petty. That’s not trolling, that’s just being a bit shallow (although [2] is absurd and i can only hope it was trolling)

On the issue of ‘man fiction’; women being placed in traditionally male roles is progress, as to create a ambiguity and definitely as to oppose some concept that they can’t fulfill those roles. But you do run the risk of presenting something that could be interpreted as women acting as men is a good thing, that women should aspire to ‘masculinity’. That may be a reason that someone felt that you were some kind of traitor to feminism. I do have to say that most bland criticisms of feminisms do seem to come from ignorant sexists who trumpet ‘egalitarianism’ and decry the term feminism.

“Telling a good story doesn’t mean your work has to be free of thought or themes.” - Telling a good story is reliant upon these being present, I can’t understand why anyone would think otherwise?

For myself, I can’t say UF will be anything worth remembering. Your justification of it comes down to the culture in which it exists, a culture that is rapidly changing and in which the ambiguities, apparent to you, will all be lost in shallow plot lines, monster hunting, violence, and sex. And face it, none of these things are particularly interesting; aside from perhaps the matter of violence, has been covered elsewhere by other authors working to place those issues in a central position, not as a further intrigue to the concept of someone kicking monster ass. UF will never create a new Rye, which still resonates amongst both sexes, or a female Werther; while it may be what you say it is, it is ultimately an insubstantial example of that which you triumph it to be.

Anonymous said...

rastronomicals: "The kind of discrimination being suggested simply does not exist any longer."

Considering the NY Times contains the following passage in their article explaining the difference between a Trade Paperback and a Mass Market Paperback:

NY Times, Paperback Row

A trade paperback, in short, is the book you’d want to be reading if you were sitting at Les Deux Magots and Simone de Beauvoir was looking straight at you.

To think there is no looking down upon Genre Fiction and looking down to an even greater degree upon certain sub-categories of Genre Fiction is being kind to those who practice this discrimination for a living.

There have been many examples over the past year where pot shots are taken at genre fiction - from people pretending books like Cormac McCarthy's The Road isn't Genre fiction at all essentially for no other reason than non-genre critics liked it, to various snide little comments in many a review, where words like: in spite of... a book being a genre book it's actually acceptable for anyone to read - show that such a divide is indeed still quite present.

And while the brand of UF Lilith is defending isn't the only UF out there, it is certainly a noticeable subset of the UF genre these days.

Anyway, I enjoyed Lilith's original article and her follow up.

At the very least it gets people thinking and paying attention to genre fiction.

Anonymous said...

It's like the suburbanite census fodder's greatest hits up in here. Let's see:
Sexism doesn't exist
Women don't have access to such emotions as aggression and anger and lust, therefore any exploration of said emotions is mannish and unnatural.
Any woman that takes a hard stance on such issues is obviously a deviant and b-word, you know.
Other internet greatest hits:
Anyone involved in pop culture can't be that bright, therefore can't have read literature and/or question the place of "genre" fiction in the literary landscape, because they write fantasy.
Come on people, this is like internet cut and past, if you are going to be close-minded, be originally close-minded, you are like Ron Burgundy's unfunny cousin man.

Unknown said...

I still fail to see why the old definition of Urban fantasy as a subset of contemporary fantasy, consisting of magical novels and stories set in contemporary, real-world, or modern-feeling alternative world urban settings, needs to be rejected.

Or why the authors who were considered the most representative examples of this sub-genre a couple of years back (De Lint, Carroll, Crowley, Bull, Windling, Sean Stewart, Gaiman, etc.) suddenly need to be ejected into magical realism.

Mieville's "King Rat" is pure urban fantasy (in the old sense), BTW, strongly reminiscent of Gaiman's "Neverwhere" and so are many of his short stories.

All definitions are a straitjacket, but surely "chicks in leather, who kick ass" is far more constraining than the original description of urban fantasy and just doesn't fit all the books that feature magic in contemporary settings, or similar.

OTOH, I have to admit that I didn't notice how large the recent influx of such books was, because they tend to be shelved with horror or romance rather than fantasy hereabouts.

However, just because recent epic fantasy has been very different from Tolkien, doesn't mean that Tolkien suddenly ceases to be epic fantasy.

Re: violent heroines who don't have to feel guilty for it, ambiguity, female POV, relevance, etc. yes, has been done elsewhere before. Not that having more thereof isn't a good thing, but this new trend in urban fantasy didn't actually introduce any of it.

Sexual co-option does very much happen in these new urban fantasy books, including Mrs Saintrcrow's own.
It is true that male authors tend to furnish their female characters with even lamer relationships (vis: Honor Harrington), of course.

Objections to kick-ass heroines on the basis of female physical inferiority are utter tripe of course. I mean, regardless of what may or may not be the case in RL, magic is the great equalizer.

Not to mention that physical handicaps should also apply to male underdogs, yet somehow never do and nobody seems bothered by _that_.

OTOH, violence isn't always the answer even for the male heroes (and even when it is, it is often not very convincing), so I don't see why it should be for the heroines. Personally I generally prefer intelligent, creative and witty characters to über-violent ones, but maybe that's me.

Re: what is or isn't literature, what is or isn't lowbrow, only the future will tell.

I do think that it is exceptionally difficult to write a good romance and that therefore concentrating on romance at the expense of other aspects of the plot can harm a fantasy book.

MatsVS said...

"Objections to kick-ass heroines on the basis of female physical inferiority are utter tripe of course. I mean, regardless of what may or may not be the case in RL, magic is the great equalizer."

One must wonder, though, if not certain authors utilize magic in such a cheap fashion to perhaps compensate for some real-life longings.

Anonymous said...

Hm, stable-boys and other male underdogs saving/ruling the world through magic is not cheap, but women being bad-asses through the use of magic is cheap, now? That's some picture-book prejudice right there, IMHO.

Mind, I do think that women can be bad-asses in RL too, even if they'd have to be more clever about it than their male counter-parts. It's a huge uphill battle against socialization, deeply ingrained prejudices and red-tape, though, so they are understandably few.

OTOH, in my opinion one really needs to decide whether one is writing a plausible bad-ass heroine, who stands on her own two feet, or somebody who constantly needs validation, reassurance and protection of the male love interest.
And yea, making the heroine gorgeous and irresistibly sexy doesn't help with objectification at all.

MatsVS said...

"Hm, stable-boys and other male underdogs saving/ruling the world through magic is not cheap, but women being bad-asses through the use of magic is cheap, now? That's some picture-book prejudice right there, IMHO."

And this is some picture-book assumption, I reckon. Any such generic use of magic as a plot-devise is inherently "cheap", whether the character in question is male of female.

If anything, writers of speculative fiction across the board has gotten too complacent in this regard, as it's all too easy to use magic as fallback devise. I mean, why bother being clever or original, when a fireball or Gloves of Ogre Strength +1 can solve all problems?

Jeff C said...

Anonymous: who says the farm boy stories aren't cheap? Pretty much every blog and forum discussion will say they are very cliched. Some of us (me) still like those cliched stories when done well. In fact, folks can enjoy just about anything as long it's well written.

Patrick said...

Paul: You can indeed hit me at the address Larry provided...