Applause from the wrong side
I was listening to the recent episode of the Cabbages and Kings podcast, Seeing Yourself In The Narrative and found myself nodding emphatically in agreement when the guest, Cecily Kane, observed that “when dudes write fanfic, it isn’t called fanfic.” In the podcast she was referring to a certain Hugo-winning novel from a couple of years ago. I’ve previously linked to an article Laurie Penny wrote, Whose wankfest is this anyway? The BBC’s Sherlock doesn’t just engage with fan fiction – it is fan fiction that makes a similar point.
Everyone claims that they evaluate a book, or movie, or other work of art based on the quality of the work, and not the identity of who made it. But that isn’t true. A woman writes a Star Trek-inspired story in which characters who were not involved romantically on screen are, or the characters cross-over with the characters of another fictional series, and it’s relegated to fanfic archives and looked down upon by serious people. A guy who has had several science fiction novels published writes a Star Trek-inspired story in which the fictional characters cross-over into the real world and discover a strange relationship between the real and fictional world, and it’s awarded a Hugo.
Knowing who did it changes our perception of the quality and importance of the work. Even though we don’t like to admit it.
For example, I have justified my enthusiasm for a movie or television series that everyone else I know thinks is terrible—and that I agree is badly written and/or poorly directed—simply because a particular actor or actress was in it. Similarly, there is an author (who I have written about before) whose activities promoting anti-gay laws and fundraising for anti-gay organizations caused me to pledge long ago that I will never again buy anything that he has written; and when asked my opinion of his stuff, I mention the reasons why I boycott him.
That’s a bit different than the blanket sort of de-valuation that either Kane or Penny were discussing in the above linked items.
And it isn’t just who produces it that matters in the way the powers that be evaluate a work of fiction. Even more important then who is writing it is who we (which is to say, the collective consciousness) believe is the intended audience. Red Shirts wasn’t dismissed out of hand as fan fiction not merely because it was written by a guy, but even more because it was perceived as being aimed at the dude-bros of geekdom. Many things in the story were crafted to appeal specifically to the guys who love space battles and love arguing about whether Han Solo or Captain Kirk would come out triumphant in various arenas of competition.
I want to pause for a moment and point out that I liked Red Shirts, just as I like BBC’s Sherlock. I’m a guy who grew up watching the original Trek series (during it’s original primetime run 1966-69) as well as reading Sherlock Holmes stories. Because I’m also a queer guy, I don’t entirely match the target audience, but I’m close enough for it to resonate. My point isn’t that those sorts of work are inherently bad. It’s that other work which is at least as good (if not better) gets relegated to various ghettos of the arts not because those works are inherently less worthy, but because they are perceived as being intended for the “wrong” audience.
If you have a girl or a woman as your lead character, your story won’t be marketed as serious science fiction or fantasy or mainstream fiction. Instead it will be channeled into Young Adult, or Romance, or some other “specialized” category. Heaven forfend that you have a queer protagonist! That is going to be perceived as a niche work at best.
How do we fix this? The first step is, if you really love science fiction or fantasy, make an effort to find works that don’t fall into that so-called mainstream audience. When you find something that you think is good, buy it, recommend it, look for other things by the same author and buy those as well. If you’re active on Goodreads, post positive reviews of these discoveries. If you bought the book from an online source that lets you rate and review works, write a review. All of those places have algorithms for recommending works to other people, and most of the algorithms are more likely to recommend a work if it has a lot of reviews.
If the work is published in a magazine, whether it be a paper publication or online, write in to say how much you liked the particular story. Let the people who published it and the person who wrote it know that you liked it! If they know there is an audience for that sort of story and that sort of protagonist, you’ll see more of that kind of thing.
If you find yourself wishing there was more work that has a particular kind of protagonist or is set in a particular kind of world, consider writing it yourself. Sometimes the only way to get more good art that includes us is to do it ourselves. And that’s okay. Because no matter how unusual you may think it is, I guarantee you that someone else out there is looking for it, too.