Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Tag: kelly sue deconnick

The Problem of Authors

Dilbert cartoon "It says the opposite of that. I know because I wrote it this morning."As someone who writes, I am well aware of the need for an author to have a public persona. What I put out on this blog, on social media, at local readings and events–this defines me as a writer as much as what I publish.

As a reader, I am aware that I care about who the people are behind the words and stories. I won’t buy new Orson Scott Card books, and find myself much more critical of his work, because of his rampant homophobia and ties to the National Organization for Marriage, i.e. a hate group dedicated to making same-sex marriage illegal. (AIthough apparently he resigned from the board after getting professional fallout.) I am disturbed by news that Marion Zimmer Bradley was a child molester, and that makes me read the sexual excess of The Mists of Avalon in a different light. It’s awful. When news like this comes to light, I feel betrayed: how could someone whose work I admire be so horrible? (Perhaps I wonder what that says about me, that I liked a thing made by an awful person.)

Not every case is so dramatic. I still like Ryan Boundinot’s novel Blueprints of the Afterlife, even though Boudinot recently wrote a mean-spirited article that perpetuates some of the more inane myths about writing. It’s been commented on a lot, and I don’t feel the need to go on and on about it. I know I’ll think twice before buying a new Ryan Boudinot book, but I probably still will because I like his fiction. Nontheless, the ripples within the Seattle writing community are affecting him already: his board resigned for the project he started, which was getting Seattle recognized as a UNESCO City of Literature. Now that project is on hold.

On the flip side of the coin, I love it when authors (and other creators) do awesome stuff. Comics authors like Gail Simone and Kelly Sue Deconnick are vocal champions of women working in comics and diverse representation in comics. Jordie Bellaire (a colorist) spearheaded the Comics Are For Everybody campaign, which is about diverse fandom in comics. The late, great Terry Pratchett publicly championed his favorite causes, including preservation of orangutangs and research into curing Alzheimer’s. I have become interested in the works of authors like Saladin Ahmed because of their Twitter presences. I like authors who are interested in issues that I also care about.

But let me complicate the issue: many revered authors of the centuries were terrible people. Heck, my perennial favorite Dante Alighieri was a political panderer (putting his patrons in Paradiso and his enemies in Inferno) and a creeper towards Beatrice in his actual life. But it’s illogical and unfair of me to put modern morals on older writing or writers. I can’t expect Shakespeare to have the nuanced feminism of a modern writer. I can’t expect medieval writers to have any kind of a concept of homosexuality as an identity rather than a behavior. The context of history matters, and analyzing an author’s life is significant, but only one part of what to look at when it comes to their work.

Coming from a literary theory perspective, there are two things at play here: biography, and authorial intent. Looking at the biographical information of an author is one way to look at their work, but it’s limiting if that’s all you do. When an author writes something, that work exists outside of them, released into the world. How it fit into their life and what they intended to do with it are worth considering, but not the be-all and end-all of literary criticism. Because words are slippery creatures, there are layers of meaning in any “text” (words, images, film) that the authors may or may not have intended. And the thing is, it doesn’t really matter what the author meant, not on the reader end of things. One could argue that a measure of craft skill is how closely the author has transmitted their thoughts and feelings to the reader. But many, many schools of critical thought have moved past authorial intent as a particularly significant aspect of a work.

Venn diagram between "what the author meant" and "what your english teacher thinks the author meant."

Is one of these more valid than the other?

So what of it? What authors meant to do in a work, what they do with their lives: these both affect and don’t affect my reading of the text. My relationship as a reader to the author is not the same as my relationship as a reader to the text. I think it’s easier to separate the author from the work with time. In the now, real political forces are really affecting my personal writing career as well as the lives of writers and people around me. The political is often intertwined with the personal. I want to help writing communities I’m a part of become more just and equitable. I also don’t want to cause more harm than I fix, becoming quick to cry j’accuse and exclude anyone I don’t perceive to fit with my values, perpetuating Call-Out Culture. At the same time, some things that happen in the author communities I’m at least peripherally involved with are truly awful, and I won’t suffer that silently. So how an I affect positive change as an author? How can I deal with the barriers that are put in front of me? How can I reconcile authors and their texts?

I don’t write all this to give you The Answer to anything. I write this to ask questions, and to delve into the stickiness that comes up in my head when I think about this stuff. What do you think? Let’s chat.

Avoiding Othering: They’re Doing It Right

Last week I talked about Othering, as in setting a demographic not your own as a Weird/Exotic “THEM” in contrast to your (and your assumed reader’s) “us.”

Thankfully, there are so many great examples of works that avoid Othering! Here are just a few:

Fiction: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Cover of Gaiman's Anansi BoysWhat is it?

Gaiman’s 2005 novel follows Fat Charlie, one of two sons of a mysterious man who it turns out is literally the West African trickster god Anansi. Anansi/Mr. Nancy showed up briefly in Gaiman’s previous novel, American Gods. In Anansi Boys, Fat Charlie and his brother Spider have to sort out quite a lot of trouble following their father’s death. The action of the story bounces between London and Florida.

How does it avoid Othering?

Put it this way: a friend of mine, when reading this book, commented that about halfway through she realized to her delight that all the characters were black. There are actually two white characters, a side character and a villain. So on the one hand, Gaiman’s flipping the script on the usual racial demographic in your standard Tokeninzing, Othering text. On the other hand, Gaiman mostly doesn’t make a big, obvious deal about the race of the characters. There are enough context clues to figure out what all of the characters look like, but more so than that, the cultural context of the characters is really important to the plot.

Film: The Legend of Korra, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Koniestzko

Pictured:  Korra displays earth, water and firebending in THE LEGEND OF KORRA on Nickelodeon.  Photo: Nickelodeon.  ©2012 Viacom, International, Inc.  All Rights Reserved

She is the chosen one who can bend all the elements.

What is it?

This is an animated TV show set in the same world as Avatar: The Last Airbender. It was intended as a sequel, following the chosen-one-style heroine Korra on her adventures across the four elemental nations of the world.

How does it avoid Othering?

Both Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are set in a fantasy world that is loosely based on myths and legends of East Asia. They have a four-part magical martial arts system that is based in an exciting variety of real-world martial arts (mostly Chinese), with each element (fire, water, earth, air) having its own style and magical powers. The characters are a variety of shades, but look mostly asian…unlike the film, which got a lot of flak for being whitewashed. Korra has medium-brown skin and dark brown hair.

The Legend of Korra also recently received media attention because of its ending, a suggested coupling of Korra and her female friend, Asami. Those who liked this move liked it because it validated “in canon” a suspected relationship and a fan favorite couple. Those who did not criticized it because there were not enough moments or  passionate intimacy or sexual tension between the two women in the rest of the show, and then ending felt tacked-on. (I mean, I’m sure some criticized it because they couldn’t conceive of a same-sex relationship and/or reality, but we’re ignoring them.)

 

Comics: Bitch Planet, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick

Cover of Bitch Planet #1

Every time I read an issue I get the urge to tattoo “NON-COMPLIANT” on my forehead.

What is it?

This comic is one part feminist fable, one part deconstruction of the women-in-prison genre of film, and one part bad-ass dystopian action tale. It’s set in a world where women can be imprisoned for any behavior deemed “non-compliant,” from murder to disobedience to obesity. They are then shipped off to a prison planet (known colloquially as “Bitch Planet”) to deal with an ever-shifting Pepito-bismol pink holographic warden and other lurking dangers. You can read me freaking out about how great it is at some length over at Girlslikecomics.com.

How does it avoid Othering?

Not only are there a lot of women of color in this prison story, but both in the comic and in each issue’s back-matter, DeConnick and team directly deal with race relations and how unfair the prison system is in this world as well as the world of Bitch Planet.

Also, I can’t say too much without spoilers, but let me just say that the protagonist of Bitch Planet is refreshing and revealed over the course of the first issue.

DeConnick also works with an awesome, diverse creative team, both in terms of the art (stunning work by Valentine DeLandro) & design and in terms of the series of rad feminists who write essays in the back of every issue.

Bonus Fiction: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Cover for A Wizard of Earthsea featuring an island castle and a dragon

It’s hard to find pictures of the cover that features Ged as he’s described in the book. Perhaps marketers decided dragons were easier to deal with than people of color.

What is it?

LeGuin’s classic 1968 fantasy novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards. It’s set in a fantasy world that is comprised of a bunch of different nations on different islands of an archipelago. With a unique magic system and a excitingly non-“interminable Celtic bullshit” mythology, Earthsea arguably did the first interesting new thing with the fantasy genre since Tolkien.

How does it avoid Othering?

The main character, Ged, is described as having red-brown skin; in fact, nearly every character is described as non-white. Of course, this didn’t prevent the characters from being horribly white-washed on book covers and film. Ursula LeGuin has some harsh words for the producers of the 2004 Earthsea mini-series:

I realized the producers had no understanding of what the books are about and no interest in finding out. All they intended was to use the name Earthsea, and some of the scenes from the books, in a generic McMagic movie with a meaningless plot based on sex and violence.

She also speaks about her process in building the world of Earthsea:

My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now—why wouldn’t they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future?

The fantasy tradition I was writing in came from Northern Europe, which is why it was about white people. I’m white, but not European. My people could be any color I liked, and I like red and brown and black. I was a little wily about my color scheme. I figured some white kids (the books were published for “young adults”) might not identify straight off with a brown kid, so I kind of eased the information about skin color in by degrees—hoping that the reader would get “into Ged’s skin” and only then discover it wasn’t a white one.

 

Other examples? Thoughts? Tell us in the comments, eh?

 

Five Spooky Halloween Reads

1. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury somethingwickedthiswaycomes

This novel, published in 1962, is the classic creepy carnival story. A train full of weird, creepy carnies pulls up to a little town and while almost everyone is pretending like the carnival is all normal and stuff, our two young protagonists can see the true horrors: soul-stealing mirror mazes, time-altering carousels, etc. It’s an interesting meditation on the nature of childhood and growing up as well as a damn fine creepy tale.

Good companion piece: “The Shining” by Stephen King–talk about the power of setting to warp characters’ minds!

2. The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

11187While I’m on the subject of classics, let’s chat about this book. I’d seen the original, chilling 1975 movie starring Katherine Ross, and the 2004 remake with that ridiculous remote control boobs scene, but I hadn’t read the book until this fall. The book’s plot is not much different than the movie, aside from being a bit more overtly political. Joanna Eberhart is truly lonely in a new town, and so she tries to make friends with the town’s oddly perfect women. She and her one buddy, Bobbie, try to get women to band together, join a NOW chapter, and they all just politely wave her off because they are TERRIBLE WIFE-BOTS OMG. Spoilers. Um. But the thing is, I didn’t care that I knew the ending: Hearing the story through Joanna’s earnest point of view was terrifying, in part because much of America, suburbia in particular, has not really moved too far past Stepford. We are culturally haunted by Stepford: a secret conspiracy of average suburban men who somehow end up making “perfected” simaculra of their wives and then offing the originals.

 

A good companion piece to this would be the short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Birthmark.”

3. Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick

Pretty-DeadlyThis is a brand-spankin’-new series put out by Image comics—as in you have to walk into a comic shop and pick up Issue #1 if they still have it in stock. This book is dynamite. It’s a supernatural western starring a mysterious Death-like character, narrated by a dead rabbit, and with a varied and interesting cast of bad-ass people doing dirty deeds. It’s got a stellar creative team: Emma Rios’ art is perfect for the feel of the story, I heart the crap out of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s writing, and I’m really excited about Jordie Bellaire’s colors. I mean, I rarely know the name of a colorist, much less get really excited about them. Anyway. Pick this one up, kids. It’s worth your time.

 

Great companion read: The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn (ongoing series)

 

4. The Last Halloween by Abby Howard

tlh-photo-mainHow’s about a comic for the low, low, price of free? Well, aside from your compulsive need to throw money at Abby Howard, its creator, because of it’s genius and sexy exciting merch. Also you may end up giving away bits of your soul, but…yeah. Pay no mind. Free comic! Hooray!

Abby Howard, of Strip Search fame, has launched her deliciously wicked comic, The Last Halloween. It’s an adventurous tale of horror and skullduggery with a cast of supernatural beasties and gorgeous black and white art to boot. It’s also got a wicked sense of humor: This comic in particular reads very Jhonen Vasquez-y, and I like it. Take a look: You won’t want to miss this one.

www.last-halloween.com

Good companion read: Johnny the Homicidal Maniac by Jhonen Vasquez.

 

5. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

GraveyardBook_01-1024X768

Okay, here’s a latter-day classic that you can read with young-ish-uns without traumatizing them too badly. The Graveyard Book tells the tale of Bod, short for Nobody, who has grown up in a graveyard, raised by ghosts. The tale of how he got there and who he really is unfolds a mysterious man named Jack keeps making attempts of his life…

Good companion read: “The Juniper Tree” by the Brothers Grimm. For fifth grade and up, it’s a great, gross, terrifying tale.

 

 

Genre Fiction Gets Personal

tamora pierce with quote

Tamora Pierce

I once asked YA fantasy author Tamora Pierce how she dealt with writing genre work in a literary scene that often devalues any work not considered “literary,” read non-speculative. She just waved a hand dismissively. “I try not to pay too much attention to the navel-gazers,” she told me.

Seattle is a good town for me because the voices of the navel-gazers have been turned down to a dull roar. Sure, sometimes I see stuff that fills me with righteous rage, like Small Press Distribution’s impressive lumping together of all the genres:

Our emphasis is on contemporary poetry, non-mainstream fiction, literary translations and literary or arts-oriented criticism and literary nonfiction. (We don’t carry genre publishers—thrillers, sci-fi, romance; self-help or “inspirational” books; technical or academic specialty publications; children’s books; or monthly or weekly ad-driven glossy magazines.)

…and then I want to scream about the “literary” and “non-mainstream” fiction that is technically science fiction, fantasy, or has overly supernatural elements that they probably consider canon: George Orwell’s 1984. Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I could go on. There’s a whole soapbox in the corner of my office dedicated to my rant about why “comics” should be preferred nomenclature over “graphic novel,” particularly as someone who writes short comics…”graphic short stories”…what. the hell. academia. Aaand I’m back. Moving on.

My point here is not O Damn The Mainstream, It Ignores Us Sometimes. I want to talk about things that genre fiction can do, sneakily or overtly, that are really neat. There’s been plenty of discussion about how hero’s journey stories help us conceptualize our own journeys or provide catharsis… There’s been talk of how, by looking and things that are not human, we can have a better concept of what it means to be human… But today, I want to talk about the ability of genre fiction to tell a deeply personal story, sort of the counterpoint to the “escapism” that science fiction and fantasy are often accused of being.

My Goddard advisor Susan Kim first got me looking at how genre stories can be personal in a workshop about the movie High Noon.

 

Gary Cooper in High Noon

Gary Cooper in High Noon

High Noon, for those of you who haven’t seen it, is the tale of a sheriff of a small town who knows the outlaws are comin’ in on the noon train and is desperately searching for allies to help him fight them. A lot about High Noon tips genre conventions on their collective ears: the women are active, smart participants in the story; the sheriff can’t find anyone to help him; and the end is not a O.K. Corral-style gunfight, but rather a guerrilla warfare situation with a lot of running and hiding.

Here’s the kicker: Carl Foreman, the writer of High Noon, was blacklisted for Communism while he was writing the film. He knew would never make another movie in Hollywood, or really anywhere in 1950s America. So he wrote an intensely personal story. Foreman, like his protagonist, was on a desperate search for allies, and found none. In the film, the sheriff lives against all odds; perhaps Foreman was doing his best to give himself a hopeful ending as well.  Foreman moved to England and kept writing, producing ten films. In 1956, with another blacklisted writer, he wrote Bridge Over the River Kwai, a film that would win the 1957 Best Picture Oscar with nary a mention of either of the screenwriters’ names. Foreman’s influence in the British film community continued for many years; even if he “had to leave town,” as the sheriff does in High Noon, he did okay elsewhere.

 

valis

Sometimes the personal in genre fiction is pretty blatant, like Phillip K. Dick wrestling with his mystic (or religious…or hallucinogenic…or psychotic…depends who you ask) experiences on the page. Themes from his personal life show up in many of his novels, but particularly VALIS. Check out this comic by R. Crumb for more details.

What I find interesting about Dick’s work is that not only does he have some directly autobiographical novels like VALIS, but the themes that he obsessed with in his personal life echo through all of his work. Sure, you say, most people write about what obsesses them. But Dick couldn’t have expressed what was happening to him without delving into alternate realities, dystopian drugs, and psychic entities. In my estimation, there is a lot of human experience that needs extraordinary circumstances to be told. Dick didn’t just need to write a drug novel, for example. (Although he did write a lot about drugs…however, his so-called “classic LSD novel,” The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, was written before he’d ever taken LSD. So make of that what you will.) Dick needed to write from his personal experience of reality, or lack thereof.

 

Also, you can cosplay her and have as much skin covered as most male superheroes. Bonus.

Also, you can cosplay her and have as much skin covered as most male superheroes. Bonus.

And in more recent literature, I just read the first trade paperback of Kelly Sue Deconnick’s run on Captain Marvel. It’s the story of Carol Danvers, former head of S.H.I.E.L.D., who has become super-powered through an accident involving the former Captain Marvel. She spends the story arc figuring out how and if she wants to take on the mantle (and specifically the name) of Captain Marvel. Danvers ends up getting connected with her heritage (in the form of a mentor and a team of WWII female pilots) and coming to the place where she’s ready to go forth and Captain.

What does this have to do with Kelly Sue, though? Somehow, the tale of a woman figuring out how she fits in and can hold power in a traditionally male-dominated industry seems relevant. Deconnick has had to deal with more than her fair share of shit for being a woman writing comics, particularly for the Big Two, particularly since she is married to a man who also writes for Marvel. Of course she’d been writing for years before her marriage, but still people consider her career to be some sort of remora-fish of her husband’s. It’s truly appalling. Here, I’ll let her rant about it for me.

 

 

In conclusion, I submit that genre writing is no less personal than prose without speculative elements. It’s yet another way to do what poet Nikky Finney calls “coming in through the window,” and in come in through the window of your (life, obsessions, emotions) in order to get them on the page rather than busting down the door.

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