Tag Archives: genre

Your Fav is Problematic—That's Okay

Your Fave is Problematic—That’s Okay

My favorite character from A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic, is Jaime Lannister, the heir to the Lannister family, Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, and an all-around terrible person. No, really. There are forum threads dedicated to his awfulness, and I don’t disagree with anything they say. He is awful; that’s not up for debate. But I don’t care; I still like him. There is something about his wit, his tenacity, his strange sense of honor, and his odd drive to do right by his family that draws me in as a reader. He’s my favorite.

In his Banquet Speech, William Faulkner observes good writing as “the human heart in conflict with itself.” I adore that line. As a character, Jamie embodies that for me. There is so much to loathe but a lot to like. It makes him complicated, and it makes him human. However, in some circles, my statement draws ire. How can I enjoy reading about someone so terrible? After all, he is someone who symbolizes the opposite of many values I hold dear. To those people, it doesn’t make sense; it feels two-faced and hypocritical.


“...the human heart in conflict with itself...”


These voices are nothing new. I remember hearing them as a kid from conservatives, and I’ve heard them as an adult from progressives. Recently they’ve become particularly pronounced on social media, shouting down and hunting those who dare explore life through the lens of problematic fiction. Over the last few years, I’ve seen several authors attacked—on social media, within articles, in reviews, and on blogs. Fans have gone after them for the problematic circumstances, events, and behavior of characters within their novels. It’s not surprising; it’s an extension of the same attitude we have seen play out in the social sphere. In addition to holding real-life humans accountable, fandom is now trying to hold fiction accountable.

In 2016, the internet was in a frenzy over one of the questioners from the second presidential debate, Ken Bone, a power plant operator from Illinois. Overnight, he became an internet sensation. He saw endorsement deals, a “Bone Zone” T-shirt line, appearances on ESPN, and was satirized during a Saturday Night Live cold open. But like all people, Ken Bone was human, and soon his heroism was tarnished. Afterwards, Katie Rogers of The New York Times wrote an excellent article exploring his rise and fall from fame titled “We May Be Leaving the Ken Bone Zone.” The article discussed the depth in which people investigated, and eventually exposed all of Ken Bone’s history-both positive and negative. Within the article, there was a line that struck me regarding the fragility of the internet. One I found myself mulling over and over. That line? “The echo chamber doesn’t do nuance.”


“The echo chamber doesn’t do nuance.”


Within some fandoms and genres[1], there is this strange narrative forming that our heroes, and largely our fiction, need to be morally and ethically pure. It leads to the belief that fiction shouldn’t have flawed characters, or focus on stories with plotlines that wrestle with difficult themes. And heaven forbid those characters don’t get their comeuppance, and those themes don’t get resolved satisfactorily. That sort of nuance doesn’t play in the fandom echo chamber.

This leads back to Rogers’ statement: She’s not wrong. The echo chamber doesn’t do nuance. The internet, in particular, abhors it. Nuance is challenging. Nuance requires you to read the whole article, not just the headline. Nuance wants you to put aside your initial emotions and reflect. It forces you to observe the entire character, rather than their action at a particular moment. It loves to do nothing more than draw lines in the sand and force others to step over and pick a side. You are this, and I am that. You’re bad; I’m good.

In early January, Fonda Lee, the author of Jade City (Go read it; it’s good.), had a great little thread on Twitter separating fiction into “the world as it is” or “the world as you wish it to be.” We can call these the mirror and the beacon. The beacon, as Lee says, shows us the world as it could be. It’s aspirational, the shining city on a hill[2]. While the mirror forces us to wrestle with the ugliness of reality and its contradictions, it also takes Faulkner’s approach to fiction—it forces the heart to go to war.

If you’ve sat in on any of my panels, you might have heard me mention that one of the reasons I love genre fiction is that it allows us a place to explore difficult—and often challenging—ideas. Books can be closed and put away. However, that doesn’t mean the themes and ideas held within the pages won’t be disturbing. It also doesn’t mean characters won’t say vile things or perform despicable acts. Often both will happen, and sometimes the results might not align with the reader’s worldview. Here be dragons, after all.

I think grappling, as both a reader and a writer, with challenging ideas, plots, and characters are necessary for a vibrant fictive landscape[3]. It’s also faithful to humanity; human history is rich in dichotomy. Nothing with people is ever black and white. People let you down as often as they impress you. That’s what makes them people. That’s what makes love, love. Love goes beyond the faults. It forgives in spite of transgressions.


“It’s about good people doing bad things for good reasons, and bad people doing good things for bad reasons.”


Lately, when someone asks me what my manuscript Coal Belly is about, I often have a simple answer: “It’s about good people doing bad things for good reasons, and bad people doing good things for bad reasons.” I want that complexity in my work. I want people to like a character, yet struggle with their decisions. I want to explore the gray. It’s why fiction like The Lord of the Rings[4] or The Chronicles of Narnia never drew me in the same way as other fantasy novels. The villains were too villainous, the heroes too heroic. The points made were too explicit and too heavy-handed.

That works for some readers. They’re both fine examples of the beacon, and some people want that in their escapism. However, to me, it comes across as patronizing and quixotic.

Mikey Numan, in his review of the Miyazaki film Princess Mononoke, described its cast of characters thusly: “No villains; only viewpoints.” This means that within the movie, “evil” or the concept of “bad” becomes a byproduct of the characters’ behavior; even the good, well-intentioned characters say and do problematic things[5]. In reality, villains don’t see themselves as villains, and heroes aren’t always heroic. I am more intrigued by stories willing to take this stance, stories that ask difficult questions and force me—the reader—to decide rather than go out of its way to hammer home a particular point.


“No villains; only viewpoints.”


Some people aren’t keen on being uncomfortable. What is an engaging plot point for one person might be disturbing for another. That’s okay. Fiction is like food; not everyone’s tastes are the same. However, that doesn’t mean that we should restrict one set of narratives in favor of the other. Nor does it mean that challenging fiction is inherently bad. The existence of characters and circumstances that are problematic aren’t excusing harmful behavior. Neither are they praising or glorifying the legitimate evils of the past. They’re merely an observation. Good fiction interweaves those challenges into its prose. Sharing points of view, circumstances, and experiences[6] through fiction gives us a place to build both empathy and sympathy. It can help to expose us to other walks of life, and it lets us explore the viewpoints of others—viewpoints that we might not have access to in our everyday lives.

For many readers and some fandoms, it seems that, unless the writer features a Jim Halpert, who slowly turns and stares at the camera as punctuation for what is absurd or offensive, we’re unable to parse it for ourselves. It was funny in The Office, but I loathe it in my fiction. I’m not into passive consumption. I don’t want or need my hand to be held as I read a book. I want the challenge. I want nuance. I want to struggle with my emotions about characters. I want to be offended and shocked. I want to be pushed and made uncomfortable. I want a place where the world’s imperfections are mirrored and explored. I want problematic fiction, with problematic circumstances, filled with problematic characters, experiencing problematic viewpoints. I want to get out of my small echo chamber and explore the vastness of humanity—warts and all. Within the mirror, reconciling those things isn’t easy and isn’t supposed to be. This is why we have fiction. This is why we tell stories. This is what fandoms and the echo chambers need. This is why Jamie Lannisters exist. So, let our hearts be in conflict.


Let our hearts be in conflict.


1 Most notably, Young adult and New adult but it’s bled into Sci-fi and Fantasy. Also, soapbox moment here… New adult features protagonists ‘between the ages of 18-30.’ Look, I’m 36 right now, so this is an old-man-shaking-his-fist-at-clouds thing, but at 30 you ain’t a new adult.

2 Thanks, Gipper.

3 Also for emotional maturity, but more on that later.

4 There are a few exceptions here, most notably: Boromir, he is an incredibly complex personality, and arguably the best character in the series. Yeah, I went there.

5 It’s a great review and a pretty solid film. I say this as a guy who is not a fan of Miyazaki movies.

6 And discussing them. Please, discuss away! Dialog is vital and important. You could argue that discussion is why complex fiction exists. It wants to be talked about.


[Note:] I originally published this article with the title “Your Fav is Problematic—That’s Okay.” While either is technically correct, I have since changed the “Fav” to “Fave” to closer align with the Problematic Fave meme.


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"The mountains are calling and I must go..."

Life in the Weird and a Short Respite

Recently, I was asked by Mihir Wanchoo if I’d be interested in writing an article for Fantasy Book Critic. Mihir encouraged me to discuss how I approach combining genres in my writing and explore some of my inspirations. I was happy to oblige and decided to take it a bit further and delve into some of the tenants I’ve kept in mind while I work. The result is Life in the Weird, On the Blending of Genre. Here’s how it starts:

I never decided to write a genre-blending novel, it just happened. As a reader, I always craved weird books that are out of the ordinary. I tend to be turned off to a series that stays within traditional genre lines. It’s this predilection that drew me to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, why I love China Miéville’s New Crobuzon stories so much, and why Neil Gaiman’s American Gods resonates with me. There’s something in those work that feels fresh, new, and free. So it’s only natural that those proclivities show up in my writing as well…

You have to read the rest of the article over on Fantasy Book Critic. Once you’ve done that make sure to follow them on Twitter and visit them over on Facebook as well. They’re a great site, with a lot of excellent content. Well worth your time.

Also, I wanted to give everyone a heads up that I’m taking the next ten days off. This spring has been hectic. I’ve had revisions on my new fantasy project, I’ve been working on Coal Belly‘s rebirth, there been some outlining on the next Bell Forging novel, and I attended both Norwescon 39 and Lilac City Comicon. So as a bookend for a busy spring, Kari-Lise and I are going on vacation. The plan is to get lost in the mountains, islands, and deserts of California, do some hiking and unplug from the internet. (That said, knowing me, I’ll still find a bit of time to post to Instagram and Twitter. So make sure you’re following me to see what I’m up to.)

Some exciting things are coming when I get back. There are quite a few longer-form blog posts in the hopper including an exciting Wild Territories post (voted on by you!) So stick around, and I’ll see y’all in June.

Friday Link Pack 11-13-2015

Friday Link Pack 11/13/2015

It’s Friday! That means it’s time for the Friday Link Pack, my weekly post covering topics such as writing, art, current events, and random weirdness. Some of these links I mentioned on Twitter, if you’re not already following me there, please do! Do you have a link I should feature in the upcoming link pack? Click here to email me and let me know! (Include a website so I can link to you as well.) Let’s get to it…

WRITING:

The New Intimacy Economy
Lately, Facebook, Uber, and many other startups try to infer a close intimacy with their users. Meanwhile, Hollywood stars also dabble in the ‘intimacy valuation market’ feigning at friendships. In this great write-up, Leigh Alexander explores the concept that in reality,  every content creator is now a community manager.

World Fantasy Award Drops H.P. Lovecraft As Prize Image
As a guy who writes cosmic horror inspired by the creations of Lovecraft, my feed lit up this week when this news broke. Some people were upset; others were ecstatic. In the end the reality is: it’s not a big deal. This decision doesn’t effect Lovecraft’s popularity, influence, or legacy anymore or any less. If anything, as author Anne M. Pillsworth pointed out on Twitter, “I think no one author can comprehensively represent a genre, any genre, so I’m good.” I’m good, too.

Can You Promote A Book Without Making Yourself Miserable?
Eventually, everyone has to promote their book, that goes for both indie and traditionally published authors. The process is time-consuming, exhausting, and it can be miserable. To that end, Jane Friedman explores the question we’ve all been wondering.

Genre Snobbery Is A ‘Bizarre Act Of Self-Mutilation.’
In this interview with Wired, author David Mitchell discusses how books transcend genre despite people intentions to pigeon hole them, the influence of Ursula K. LeGuin on his writing, the creative boon of Dungeons and Dragons for writers, and the future.

Signed Copies Of Red Litten World Are Back!
Yep! If you’ve been waiting to get a signed paperback of Red Litten World, your wait is over. Signed copies are back in my store.

ART:

The Art Of Katharine Morling
Working in ceramics Morling’s work takes simple two dimension sketches and renders them in the third dimension. Excellent pieces, I especially love the matchbook.

The Art Of Oscar Gregeborn
The detailed digital art of Gregborn looks more like some intense and complex watercolor. His work explores strange landscapes that look as vibrant and detailed as it does alien.

Marc Da Cunha Lopes’ HPL Series
Influenced by Lovecraft, this beautiful series of photographs reflect his work, but with a twist. I love the last photo; it reminds me of a cephel from my series. (It’s also the image featured at the top of this post!)

RANDOM:

The Abandoned Buildings Of The Eastern Bloc
Explorations of abandoned and crumbling buildings of the former German Democratic Republic left after the Soviet’s reign. Haunting and strangely similar to the world of Fallout 4.

Living La Vida Loca In Japan
A cartoonist documents his friends trip to Japan. Wonderfully charming.

MIT’s Weird Snake Bot Could Be The Future Of UI
A transforming robot that can mimic the touch points of any interface and become whatever its user needs on a whim. Strange but… oddly cool?

Stefano Boeri’s “Vertical Forest” Nears Completion In Milan
There has been a lot of exploration in the vertical garden, serving various needs. Stefano Boeri’s take combines the mass of trees one would find in one hundred acres and lays them out vertically. Love seeing stuff like this, I hope this works out.

WEIRD WIKIPEDIA:

Loveland Frog
“The Loveland Frog (aka the Loveland Lizard) is a legendary humanoid frog described as standing roughly 4 feet (1.2 m) tall, allegedly spotted in Loveland, Ohio. A local man reported seeing three froglike men at the side of the road in 1955, and a police officer claimed to have seen a similar creature on a bridge in the city in 1972.

H.P. LOVECRAFT STORY OF THE WEEK:

What The Moon Brings
In this very short story, (like… it’ll take you two minutes to read) the narrator takes a peculiar walk under an even peculiar moon.

GIF OF THE WEEK:

Argh!

Friday Link Pack 10/10/14

The last Friday before the launch of Old Broken Road is upon us! That means it’s time to share a few interesting links I’ve found throughout the week. Some of these are mentioned on Twitter, if you’re not already following me there, please do! Have a link I should feature in the upcoming link pack? Let me know! All right, let’s get to it:

Old Broken Road:

Old Broken Playlist
Check out the music that helped inspire my upcoming book!

Pre-Old Broken Road Launch Giveaway
Need to get caught up on The Stars Were Right before the sequel drops? Enter my latest Goodreads giveaway for a chance to win a signed copy!

Old Broken Road Swag Packs are now in the store!
Three new Old Broken Road themed bookmarks, new set of stickers, and a rad button! All you have to do is pay for shipping. (You can also send a SASE, details are on the Free Stuff page.)

Writing:

The Exact Amount Of Time You Should Work Every Day
Did you know the absence of a proper lunch break can actually lower productivity? This University of Toronto study looks into what is the right amount of time to maximize your work.

19 Unintentionally Disturbing Moments From Kids’ Books
From Mister Dog to strange commands about murdering lambs, these made me laugh. So go on, touch the cow. Do it now.

The Genre Debate: ‘Literary fiction’ Is Just Clever Marketing
Elizabeth Edmondson of The Guardian argues that Jane Austen never imagined she was writing Literature. Posterity made that decision for her. Good stuff.

Random:

The Butterfly Effect, Literally
The Nerdwriter (one of my new favorite YouTube Channels) explores the butterfly effect, on, well… butterflies.

Rise And Shine – What Kids Around The World Eat For Breakfast
A New York Times photojournalism piece on the foods kids eat around the world. Really I am just repeating what the headline says, but click through, it’s fun.

Morbid Mondays: Maps Of The End Of The World
Atlas Obscura explore the maps of Revelations created by Baptist Minister Clarence Larkin in 1919. I remember seeing copies of these in my grandmothers house. Instant nostalgia for me.

The Problem With Wearable Technology, According To “Blade Runner” Designer Syd Mead
“Fashion is a temporary affectation. Fashion that’s timeless is actually a practical response to need. ” Loved reading about Syd Mead’s thoughts on the current state of wearables. Mead is an incredible artist and designer and it’s clear he put in a lot of thought when he created his vision of the future.

Lovecraft Story of the Week:

Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family
I’m featuring this again. Mainly because this is the story where I found the Old Broken Road epigraph. Also, it’s good.

Gif of the Week:

This pleases the shiba

A Renaissance for Science Fiction

Star Ways by Poul Anderson

In 1959 Poul Anderson gave a talk at the Detroit Science Fiction Convention titled: A Renaissance for Science Fiction. During his talk he defined key differences between entertainment and amusement. It’s a fantastic insight and something every genre author should read and ponder:

“The first duty of science fiction, as for all art, is to entertain. But too many people misunderstand that word entertainment is no identical with amusement. Too much science fiction today only wants to amuse us, or kill time for us. lt does not really entertain.”

Anderson urged writers to create:

“…not merely clever variations on a theme, but stories which are about people and about science and about history and about art and about philosophy and about the way a mountain looks at twilight when the stars are just coming forth. That kind of fiction is entertaining.”

The goal for any writer—as  Poul Anderson is suggesting—should be entertainment not amusement. True entertainment resonates with the reader, it’s deep and substantial, it challenges the reader with its existence, and it can influence them. Amusement on the other hand, is fun for a time, but it is quickly forgotten.

Thanks to my friend Jonathan for pointing me at this over on twitter. I’m in the process of trying to track down a full transcript of the talk, if you have a copy or know where I can get one, please let me know.