Apparently sci-fi and fantasy authors are writing all wrong. Poor little dears, they have to make sure that there’s nothing startling, nothing involved, nothing political or cultural, in their books that aren’t reflected in the graphic design of the cover. Want to write a deep, meaningful story set in a high magic realm? Want to write about dehumanization at a space colony? Chose another genre, because damn, some people (cough cough Brad Torgersen cough cough sad puppies cough cough) are really, really upset that you might destroy their preferred genre by having content in your books. Something other than “he cuts his enemies’ heads off with a sword”.
How dare you ruin books for the white and mighty?
I read this Sad Puppies 3 blog post to my husband. He laughed and said, “An author is really trying to tell you to judge a book by its cover?” We initially thought it was a joke. But no. It’s not a joke. It’s in-depth analysis of the sci-fi and fantasy genre by very serious writer and award winning speculative fiction author Brad Torgersen.
Seriously, what author promotes this idiocy? What author says that you can basically get the breadth and depth of a tale from the cover only? Why even bother to read the stupid thing, then? Fantasize for yourself lopping off someone’s head and move on. Nothing to read here.
Torgersen says, “Our once reliable packaging has too often defrauded our readership”. Oh noes! A mech suit may not mean a galactic battle?! A barbarian might not mean head cleaver?! I guess we need to start dividing book covers into squares and paint a small depiction of every theme covered within, just to make certain the reader knows what they’re getting into. Paint a character from the book, but oh no, his clothing and mannerism is just like the other characters’, so make sure a pink triangle is slung around his neck, maybe add a capital G, just so the reader knows what the book contains. Or hey, can’t dupe or defraud the reading audience by claiming your work is merely fantasy when your cover is a list of social issues you write about! There you go! No illustration required!
My first introduction to so many societal ills was through reading fantasy. The trials of being gay was one of them. I grew up in a conservative, rural area of Wyoming. I had no idea what gay really meant. No one spoke about it unless they condemned it. I knew gay was bad, though it was murky as to why. Then I read Mercedes Lackey’s The Last Herald Mage trilogy in jr. high. The main character was gay.
I read about what gay meant. And I read how Vanyel was pretty much a normal human being (well, as normal as being the most powerful magic wielder in your country will allow you to be). He had feelings. He had loves. He had enemies. He had magic. The society in which he lived did not understand his “unnatural interests”, and in many ways he was tolerated but not accepted by his fellow Heralds and his family, but through it all, he was a human being trying to deal with enemies of the land and the trials of his own personal life. In that regard, he wasn’t any different from characters in other books I had read. When I left the rural community of my childhood and went to college, I met and associated with numerous types of people, and I never thought the LGBT people to be much different from anyone else—and it was thanks to Lackey and her books. People are people. There you go.
AND—GASP! you guessed it. Nothing in the illustrations of the books pointed to the fact that Vanyel was gay. I guess he should have had a big GAY sign hanging around his neck, just so readers knew that there was more than magic and mayhem to the story. I would have still read the books, but I’m sure others would have appreciated the warning and stayed far, far away from a book that might expose them to new ideas and new ways of thinking, that might make them question their own moral assumptions and hate (yeah, that’s never going to work on the Sad Puppies. One of the authors Vox Day has promoted is John C. Wright, whose claim to fame is homophobia. Yay! Said author was nominated 3 times. That’s exactly what sci-fi/fantasy needs, is more hate, just like the real world).
*Sigh* I love writing fantasy. I love creating new worlds and new cultures. I want to share that sense of discovering something new with my readers. I want them to be dazzled, but I also want them to think. I don’t believe a fantasy book has done its job if it doesn’t highlight some social ill, some cultural problem, some political or religious stance that can be examined and commented upon. The discussions initiated are important, and can be illustrated in a context that is not as threatening as a story that takes place in the real world.
Since it’s ludicrous to believe every aspect of a story can be illustrated on the cover, what Torgersen is really asking for is staid, formulaic, boring books with predictable endings and nothing new, strange, or different, nothing that offends sensibilities or fee-fees. He wants dashing, daring, and ultimately interchangeable, heroes. He wants princesses like every other princess—meek and subservient. (Hard not to get that impression when he talks about “Heroes and princesses” as if they’re two separate people. Can’t possibly have a heroine, can we? I mean, look at his descriptions. Barbarians. Broad-chested heroes. Knights. The only traditionally non-male character he mentions is a princess—someone in constant need of saving. Yeah, we can tell who he thinks should be the main character in tales. Hint hint—it isn’t the princess.)
It’s really depressing to realize that, in 2015, we have authors begging for sci-fi and fantasy to change from its roots and just become another predictable, easily-digestible form of insufferable pop-art. Hurrah. Give readers a lollipop so they’ll ignore the steak.
In many ways, the backlash against progressive social, cultural, religious and political views in literature isn’t surprising. Many people like to be told what to do, what to think, and when to do both, without actually having to ponder the issues and make difficult choices. If you read a traditional story with a predictable ending, all’s good. All things are in the right place, all events happen at the right time. It’s comforting. There’s no reason to assume authors write any differently. They want their voices heard and heeded, and if you give people what they expect in an easily digestible form, you might just become popular enough for that to happen.
It’s a shame about the Hugo Awards, though, in all honesty, they’ve never influenced me to read an author. I could care less about awards. I want a story that inspires me. I guess some of that comes from the fact I loved the authors I read in jr. high and high school, like Wendy Pini, Mercedes Lackey, Ursula le Guin, Tamora Pierce, Anne McCaffrey, Lloyd Alexander, and whether they won awards or not was irrelevant. When I read “adult” sci-fi and fantasy books (the books shelved in the adult section of my small town library. Almost all the books targeted to my age I got from the schools’ libraries), what I had access to usually told the story of a strong male hero and, if I was lucky, a woman might be found somewhere in the text. I read the first of the Mordant’s Need books by Stephen Donaldson and just could not get passed how absolutely repulsed I was by Terisa. I kept yelling at her to do something and she never did. I read a book by someone named Green, I think, where the hero rapes the main character and she falls in love and marries him by the end of the story. Double ugh. I wanted strong women characters and that’s what I found instead. Even the books I loved, like The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks did not have what I really wanted and loved in my fantasy books—strong female lead characters.
**Aside** BTW, before you get all up in arms about why I didn’t just read books that appealed to me, I was basically stuck with what the school and public libraries had to offer—places regularly inundated with complaints about carrying demonic fantasy stories like fairy tales. My hometown did not have a bookstore until I was a junior or senior in high school, and it basically sold romances along with “health food” like sugarless candy. I either had to wait to travel 70 miles to the nearest Pamida to buy a book, or drive 2 ½ hours to the nearest place large enough to have a mall, where I got a whole $6 to buy a paperback of my choosing (I’m sure there were used book stores somewhere around, but my parents never took me to one). So I bought authors I liked because I didn’t have the money to waste on ones I didn’t know. It’s also why my serious reading started with Elfquest—the local drug store carried comics (which, considering the environment, I now wonder how they managed that). Then I got into college and reading for fun stopped. **/Aside**
Now that the Hugos have basically turned into a giant self-congratulation fest for those who think white male heroes are the only heroes who should be found in literature, I’ll ignore them even harder than I did before. I know some great authors have won them. And there are great authors who haven’t. I’ll read the writers I like, though I have a suspicion reading a speculative fiction author who can’t seem to comprehend his chosen genre isn’t static will not be one of them.