Friday, 23 January 2015

No post

Sorry no post today - I haven't been very well, though I am now getting better! Not a great start to term.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Monday Musings: Do fantasy novels need more female characters?

The second book in the Locke Lamora
series, this is full of historically-inaccurate
female piracy. I'm pleased to say that
Lynch has done proper research on
magical poisons and sorcerous explosives
to make up for it.
There's recently been quite a bit of discussion over whether authors should feel obliged to include female characters in their novels, a debate which has largely focused on fantasy/YA, and which is well-summarised at Feminist Fiction. It's especially interesting, and in my view, apt, that fantasy authors have been challenged to defend writing heavily male-dominated novels. Unlike historical fiction, fantasy fiction is bound by fewer established facts, and can largely set up its own world building rules (I am happy to admit that this freedom is not totally complete). This makes presenting a fantasy novel full of men particularly tricky to defend, for a number of reasons:

- Despite their often faux-medieval settings, fantasy novels are, by definition, not historically accurate, and so cannot simply say 'women didn't do X/Y/Z in the fourteenth century' to explain why they have no women drinking in taverns or taking to a bit of piracy on the high seas. I particularly enjoyed the reiteration of this point in the comments section on this article, 'Tangled, Brave and Frozen All Made The Same Critical Mistake', which argues that although all these films do well in presenting two female leads, they are still flawed because the supporting casts are almost entirely male. One commentator tried to argue that there were no women in the background in Tangled because 'These movies all have historical timeframes to consider, and rough-and-tumble women in bars and female soldiers is just not historically accurate.' One brilliant response to this post was: '[I]t is a very strange argument to make that an animated fairy tale can have a horse act like a military commander with dog-like mannerisms, but having a female thug is too unrealistic?'

- Another commonly-used argument is that writers need to have artistic freedom, and so should not be compelled to keep to an arbitrary 'quota' of women in their novels, shoehorning female characters into scenes where they just don't belong. Keeping the first point in mind, it is clear that it is often more artificial to keep female characters out than to put them in. Scott Lynch realised this when writing The Lies of Locke Lamora, and to his credit, not only amped up the number of women in the supporting cast massively but made sure that he had more female central characters in his second novel, Red Seas Under Red Skies. Furthermore, I would argue, it's easy and lazy to slot in default characters to your secondary cast, which for many writers can mean choosing somebody of the same race, gender, sexuality and nationality as themselves (obviously the tendency to do this may decrease as you yourself get further away from the 'norm'). Far from violating artistic freedom, thinking outside the box can challenge you to write better. The same goes for the argument that novels should not simply create characters that the reader can 'identify' with, and so complaints from women and ethnic minorities that they cannot identify with usual heroes should be ignored. While I completely agree that fiction is there to help us walk in other people's shoes, how can white men learn to do this if they never have to?

Bad for so many reasons, but also suffers
from an almost total lack of competent,
interesting women.
These issues have already been widely discussed, but in the rest of this post, I wanted to discuss an aspect of this debate that I haven't seen addressed yet, via a case study of Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, which I read recently. The Name of the Wind is a truly dreadful novel, but the reasons why have been expertly dissected here, so I won't go through them again. Neither am I going to focus on the few major female characters in the book - I think their portrayal is shallow and sexist, but again, this isn't a post about 'writing female characters in fantasy badly'. Instead, I'll ask again: why are there so few females in the supporting cast of The Name of the Wind? A large portion of this novel deals with our hero, Kvothe, attending wizard school to learn how to be a wizard (terminology borrowed from here again). We are explicitly told that only 1 in 10 of the students at wizard school are women. Why does this have to be the case?

As I was reading The Name Of The Wind, it struck me with greater force than ever before that the inclusion of a working system of magic in your fantasy universe, as long as women and men are equally gifted with magical powers, virtually compels a writer to rethink his or her views on gender roles. At least among the elite, and as long as magic has always existed, does this not mean that women would always have held greater power in society, because the ability to do things has never depended on physical strength? In The Name of the Wind, it could be argued that because being able to use magic effectively requires intensive education, women have been excluded from this tuition in the same way as they have been excluded from traditional educational systems, despite them having nothing to do with physical attributes. But this argument is undermined somewhat because wizard school is such an odd enclave, and because poorer, lower-born students are admitted alongside the rich (the tuition system explicitly allows for this). It's emphasised that wizard school is not a reflection of the society that surrounds it - hence Kvothe's success there, even though he comes to the school as a homeless beggar. So why are we stuck with one in ten female students (only one of whom we meet in the course of the first novel, and she seems to exist solely so she can look attractive while Kvothe rescues her from burning to death)?

There are some fantasy settings where I can believe the exclusion of women from positions of power, if not the exclusion of women from the text. I love A Song of Ice and Fire because GRRM is so clear that although women are formally excluded from ruling in much of Westeros, this does not prevent them from wielding power in all sorts of informal ways (Catelyn, Cersei, Sansa). Of course, he also makes sure that these women are important narrators, rather than sidelining them. Furthermore, magic is derided as weak and superstitious, and it is indicated that the disappearance of dragons from this world has robbed it of much of its supernatural power. GRRM can be forgiven for making Westeros look very much like a patriarchal medieval society because that is what it is. Interestingly, as magic returns to this universe, it's often women who seem to be benefiting from its exploitation (Dany, Melisandre). So this is certainly not to say that you cannot write a fantasy world where men outnumber women in power, education and wealth. It's only to say that one's traditional assumptions should not be taken as default. If anything, they need to be strongly justified, especially in fantasy.

Friday, 16 January 2015

A revisit too far?

I adored Marilynne Robinson's two previous novels set in the small town of Gilead, Gilead and Home, but it's very difficult for me to pin down precisely why I liked them so much. Rather than impressing me with the usual literary triumvirate of plot, character and style - although both novels have all three in spades, even the plot, subtle as it is - they seemed to go beyond normal tick-boxes. Gilead remains my firm favourite. Whenever I turn back to the musings of the dying John Ames, I feel as if my life is slowing down to a more contemplative speed in which, perhaps, I might become, if not a better person, than a more truthful one. Home lacks this intense and immersive focus, but makes up for it as it widens the cast of central characters to consider the question of forgiveness more deeply as it revisits the return of prodigal son John Ames Boughton, already detailed in Gilead. Told from the point of view of John Boughton's younger sister, Glory, Home covered much of the same ground as Gilead but splendidly reinvented it. For me, it was not quite the reading experience that Gilead was, but then, so few books are. Having loved these two novels so much, you can imagine how excited I was when I heard that Robinson was writing another novel set in Gilead; this time, centring on John Ames's young wife, Lila.

So why did Lila feel to me like a revisit too far? It has been universally acclaimed by critics, and there's certainly no slackening in the quality of Robinson's meditative prose. The difficulty in assessing why Lila didn't quite work for me, whereas Gilead and Home (and Housekeeping, Robinson's debut), did, so well, is because I don't know why those novels have become so important to me. This is a bit of a difficult admission when writing a blog that is meant to assess precisely how books work, but for me, part of the magic of Gilead was that I didn't know why it appealed; and it didn't tempt me to look beneath the bonnet and try to understand its inner mechanisms. There are a few things I can say about why Lila was different. I know that I haven't given it the time and space that it probably needed. I've been so busy with work that I read it in snatched glances, and Robinson's writing deserves more. However, I do feel there were two factors that contributed to its failing to hold me. Firstly, the voice felt too familiar. This seems an odd thing to say when we are used to making the (correct) assumption that fiction tends to include privileged white men and excludes poor women, but one of the things I loved most about Gilead and Home was that I felt that these were voices I had not heard before. Ames may be white, and male, and relatively well-off, but the seriousness with which Robinson explores his connection with his faith was new to me. In contrast, I have read so many novels about women like Lila. This is not to say that Lila is a stereotype - she is very much a character in her own right - but there it is. I found that Lila came to life for me when Ames appeared and dwindled when he was absent, especially in the parts of the novel where Lila recalls her previous life, which felt most familar to me. 

Secondly, perhaps a third retreading of the 'same' ground is a little too much. To be honest, I felt a little resentful - and again, I don't know why - that Lila will be in my head when I next re-read Gilead, and that this is not a perspective that enriches the previous novel. While Gilead and Home overlaid and deepened each other, Lila feels like a distraction, rather than an addition, to the story that Robinson was telling before. And of course, that is precisely what she is; a disruptive force in the sleepy life of this small town, with a story that does not fit with their assumptions and a determination to live her life all the same. (I loved that she asks Ames to marry her, so out of the blue). Normally, I find counter-narratives like this welcome. This time, I wasn't sure. My feeling is that I would have to work out why Gilead meant so much to me to work out why Lila did not.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Telling your own story

Sam Marsdyke is a folk devil. Skulking around the north Yorkshire moors, he's been excluded from school for trying to rape a fellow student and now spends his time mildly harassing groups that disgust him, like cheery ramblers and wealthy newcomers. However, far from being a caricature of teenage delinquency, Sam has a subjectivity of his own that is very personal, often very funny, and most interestingly, very imaginative. This novel has been praised for its use of 'voice', and although I'm never sure what reviewers mean when they say that, I can see where they're coming from. However, for me, Sam's Yorkshire dialect was the least part of what made him a unique narrator. While dialect is used consistently in this novel, I didn't find it particularly heavy - in comparison to something like Alic Walker's The Color Purple, for example. Indeed, I think Ross Raisin strikes just the right balance. Trying to adhere too faithfully to a certain way of speaking can, I feel, be as alienating as it is illuminating, and it was interesting to read in an interview that much of Sam's most convincing dialect is made up. God's Own Country is not an insight into the psyche of rural, semi-criminal farm labourers but an insight into the way a single mind works, and it's all the stronger for that. What's most idiosyncratic about Sam's thought processes is not his occasional use of dialect but the bizarre connections that he makes. This makes this novel a difficult, but a rewarding read. There are a number of paragraphs I had to read twice because of the jumps Sam makes between subjects - in one particularly disturbing passage, when he moves from a description of a sheep giving birth to a description of the girl he currently has his eye on, without seemingly altering the 'her' he is considering - but I found this no bad thing. Such passages are so illuminating that they tell us more about Sam's character than lots of pages of easy prose. God's Own Country is strongest when Sam's empty days are its sole focus and becomes a little weaker, and more familiar, in the final third of the novel when Sam goes on the run with a local girl. I found myself wanting a different ending for the book - although the ending that Raisin has written works well. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this twisted and funny debut a lot more than I expected to.

Raisin's second novel, Waterline, is superficially more straightforward. Mick, an ageing widower who was laid off from the Clydeside dockyards and now works shifts as a driver, has touches of a Glaswegian dialect, but these are slight and occasional. Waterline is told in third rather than first person, and this allows Raisin to get further away from the character's thought processes; indeed, there are a number of interludes from the point of view of various passers-by. Mick's story also unfolds more accessibly than Sam's, as he sinks into the depths of despair after the death of his wife from mesothelioma, and finds himself running away to London to try to escape his grief. Unlike God's Own Country, which relies more on the careful construction of a single character's inner world, Waterline works because Mick's gradual decline is so believable, not because, line-by-line, the prose is exceptional. Despite the grim subject-matter, the novel is oddly compelling, and the final interlude - in which we don't know if Mick is the narrator, the homeless man sprawled on the beach, or somewhere else entirely - is a triumph. With this conclusion, the novel narrates a strong message about how we judge those who we believe to be unworthy or irresponsible - in this case, homeless men. Because the central storyline is so sparse, the impression the novel leaves is very simple, but not simplistic. Like God's Own Country, Waterline made a much deeper impression upon me than I anticipated from the blurb and subject-matter. It demonstrates that there is nothing wrong with telling an old story well.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

I Want to Read in 2015...

Already Published

Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel
I like the look of this post-apocalyptic novel about art and a modern plague.

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid - Shani Boianjiu
This featured on an Orange Prize longlist a couple of years back, I think. It focuses on female Israeli teenagers who are drafted into the army, and I liked the opening when I read it in the bookshop.

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery - Henry Marsh
Feeding my ongoing obsession with medicine.

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande
See above.

H is for Hawk - Helen MacDonald
An obvious selection, but one that I am very keen to read, especially as I love the more modern take on nature/landscape writing.

Common People - Alison Light
OK, as a C20th British historian, I have to read this anyway, but I'm genuinely looking forward to Light's history of her own unexceptional family.

We Should All Be Feminists - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I loved Adichie's take on feminism, race and intersectionality in Americanah, and I can't wait to read this short book, based on one of her TED talks, as so much popular writing on feminism is so rubbish, and I feel confident this won't be.

The Peripheral - William Gibson
I felt up for a bit of confusing SF, and everyone seems to agree that this book is confusing.

I Refuse - Per Petterson
Set in the far north and exploring how we experience time... this sounds like it might tick a lot of boxes for me, and I've been wanting to try Petterson's work for ages.


The Buried Giant - Kazuo Ishiguro

It's Ishiguro's first novel since Never Let Me Go!

10:04 - Ben Lerner
I thought that Leaving the Atocha Station was a breath of fresh air, so am looking forward to this follow-up.

The Wolf Border - Sarah Hall
A new Sarah Hall novel about wolves and ecology? A definite.

I Saw A Man - Owen Sheers
Owen Sheers does not write enough prose. I was glad to see he's decided to write more of it.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Just for fun, books of the year

I did this in 2011 and 2012 as well.

Using only books you have read this year (2014), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.

Describe yourself: A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing (Eimear McBride)

How do you feel: Artful (Ali Smith)

Describe where you currently live: Back Home (Michelle Magorian)

Your best friend is: Her (Harriet Lane)
If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Into The Trees (Robert Williams)

Your favourite form of transportation: Wild Swans (Jung Chang)
You and your friends are: The Interestings (Meg Wolitzer)
What’s the weather like: A Week In December (Sebastian Faulks)
You fear: The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Carrie Ryan)
What is the best advice you have to give: This Book Will Save Your Life (AM Homes)
Thought for the day: Howards End Is On The Landing (Susan Hill)
How I would like to die: Next to Love (Ellen Feldman)
My soul’s present condition: Quiet (Susan Cain)

Friday, 2 January 2015

January schedule

I'm hoping to return to more regular posts this year, but I'm often too busy to read as many serious novels of my own choosing as I have done in previous years. So things may be shaken up a bit here. We might be seeing some reviews of 'less serious' novels; more re-reads; or even some reviews of history-related things (!!). For the moment, though:

Friday January 9th: God's Own Country and Waterline by Ross Raisin

Friday January 16th: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Friday January 23rd: Laura Rereading: The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin

Friday January 30th: Mr B's Reading Year, Six: John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk