New Statesmen on the “Shockingly Offensive” 100 Best Fantasy and SF Novels

New Statesmen on the “Shockingly Offensive” 100 Best Fantasy and SF Novels

A Spell for Chameleon-smallLiz Lutgendorff at New Statesmen read all 100 books on NPR’s list of the best science fiction and fantasy novels — a list that includes virtually every major title the genre has yet produced. And her response mirrors a complaint I hear over and over from young fantasy readers, and especially women — the classics of our genre have very little to offer readers seeking interesting and strong women characters.

There were also books that were outright misogynistic, like a A Spell for Chameleon where characters openly talk about not trusting women… The main plot of A Spell for Chameleon is that the main character, stupidly named Bink, has no magical talent…. Along the way, he meets Chameleon, who has the unenviable magic of being smart but ugly in one phase of the moon and beautiful but stupid in another. This inevitably leads to Bink liking her… Apparently for Bink, having someone compliant was more valuable than intelligence or independence, making Bink an utter creep…

Frankly, from my vantage in 2015, it was just plain weird to read books where there were hardly any women, no people of colour, no LGBT people. It seemed wholly unbelievable. I know what you could say: it’s science fiction and fantasy, believability isn’t one of the main criteria for such books. But it is relatively absurd that in the future people could discover faster-than-light travel, build massive empires and create artificial intelligences but somehow not crack gender equality or the space-faring glass ceiling.

The consequence of the lack of women and the obvious sexism is that the books became very much like one another. My book reviews contained more profanity and I became a much more harsh critic of the genres I most enjoyed reading. They were all the same story of white guys, going on an adventure.

I’m sure Ms. Lutgendorff’s comments will be hotly debated, but I think it’s foolish to ignore her gut reaction. Like it or not, the classics of an older generation are giving way to new novels, as they should. That’s what happens in a living genre. Read the complete article here.

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Thomas Parker

Well, the interesting thing is, the NPR list (which I thought was pretty lousy) wasn’t compiled by some ossified establishment elite…it was put together by the audience of NPR – which is not exactly the same group of people who patronize FOX news. I’m not sure what this says, but I do think it’s significant. (I do think it’s unrealistic to read books that were largely produced in a very different time and cultural atmosphere and then be “shocked, shocked” to discover that the standards of that different time are not the standards of your own. This is at least a failure of imagination, which seems to me to be a serious fault in a critic.)

CMR

Jirel of Joiry and Imaro stories are some of my favorites, but I cringe at the thought that a book has to represent every social demographic under the sun before it’s considered readable. That being said, “A Spell For Chameleon” is just another terrible Peirs Anthony novel, IMO. I didn’t understand his popularity back then, and I still don’t today.

Thomas Parker

What does “appeal” mean? How much do The Red Badge of Courage or Moby Dick or Coriolanus or The Wild Bunch or Lawrence of Arabia appeal to women? I think they do, or should, despite the almost total lack of the kinds of elements that Ms Lutgendorff is probably looking for. I think all real literature is about an imaginative investment in something alien to yourself. Some works call for a bigger investment than others, but if someone can’t make that investment, it may tell you more about the reader or viewer than it does about the work in question.

Thomas Parker

But I too could never read Piers Anthony.

GreenGestalt

To CMR –

My “in a nutshell” –

Political Correctness is like being on an ocean liner and going below deck you find out they are welding shut the valve on the boiler because someone complained they couldn’t stand the noise, not to mention the ship’s running on the backup engine with it’s two real engines dead ‘cos the investors would panic if even one fiscal quarter they showed a slight dip in profits…

—-

I’d be the last person to ban Imaro or Jirel of Jiory also – I’m firmly against “Political Correctness” because it’s a nightmare of toxic chutney and an insult to the real hard fought progressive ideals it claims to champion.

IMO if something isn’t offensive to someone somewhere it’s blander than the gel of non-flavored Chia seeds. And that’s where I like my daily blandness to STAY. As a nice non chemical filler so I don’t have that late night pizza and wake up to the scales a bit lighter, that’s good. Any literature like that is the only thing I’d want to ban.

This article – I’m torn between a cliché “Gaaaa—-!” and “My Eyes, they BLEED!” and “The STUPID… IT BURRRNNNSSSS!!!!” – judging decades of literature based on her narrow chutney P.C. expectations.

Heh, I wonder if she picked up “Century Of The Manikin“ by E.C. Tubb…. “Beware the Cyrogenic lady from women’s lib” – exploring the forced P.C. ultra non-violent world they are trying to create. It’s pretty brilliant, and quite offensive to everyone.
I oughtta drag it out, re-read it, and type a review for here? Anyone else read it?

GreenGestalt

On that note, E.C. Tubb had lots of strong female characters in his stories. I’ve mainly read his “Dumarest of Terra” novels. But lots of female characters in his stories, and sub-characters, etc.

I think what happened, and this is what she zoomed in on, was the wreckage that people like her caused. Writers were too afraid of being harassed as sexist or know nothings. Even the “Knuckle Dragging 50s male” stereotype tried to act as a “Knight of the Round Table” and so actually avoided saying hurtful things to women, or openly saying offensive things to minorities. That’s why, btw, “Women’s Lib” and “Equal Rights” happened at all for the record. For every mean loudmouth there were ten white males who would turn the other cheek and give most or all what was asked of them. Thus most writers tended to just start putting women OUT of stories to avoid the Sex/Relationship/Criticism – or using very carefully used tropes – the wife, the socially understood deviant, etc. Towards the “New Wave” they then turned to more of the latter – more “Put fashionable stereotype here so publisher don’t blacklist me like they did to prof Norman”…which then became modern “P.C.”

Heh, had a funny thought as in “Horrorshow” funny… Imagine these lame P.C. weaklings whining for “Re-Writes” of old school scifi…?

Like in “Arena” by Fredric Brown – that brilliant short story – BUT they have to re-write it to thick novel length and put page after page after page of women, black, gay, transgender characters – and like the horrible alien also is too crowded to fight by “Non mainstream” of it’s bizzare alien race… And I guess they all bicker but the “Evil White Male” is spat on and kicked into the ground for trying to save humanity and the Alien deviants do the same to their race’s “Champion” – but then like I guess coz it’s all “P.C.” now they link hands and tentacles and by the power of Looooovvveeee and forced Political Correctness they destroy that “Nazi proto Q Hyper Being” that set up that dark test…?

CMR

@ John: Ignore the social in “social demographic”. It was late and I have no idea what that is even supposed to mean. LOL.

What I was trying to say was that I was against including token characters for their own sake. Would “The 13th Warrior” have been a better book if one of the vikings were black and two of them were gay? I doubt it.

With a lot of these progressive movements we seem to go backwards as much as we move forwards. And I’m fine with “classics” that don’t appeal to me as a man or a reader. I’ve put books back before for this very reason. There are plenty of other things I can read just as there are plenty of great fantasy novels with strong female characters. No one has to read a Xanth novel. You can read Ann McAffery or Tanith Lee instead.

: I’m against PC as well. It’s not an excuse to be rude or degrading to someone, but I can’t help but laugh when someone gets their feelings so hurt over a story they read, a movie they watched, or a game they played.

Wild Ape

John, I hope you aren’t plotting an ambush out there by baiting us into a male versus female spat. Here is my thinking of Ms. Lutgendorf’s androgynist hit piece and her liberal on liberal social violence to get everyone in line with the narrative:

For starters, she goes down a list of scores of books before she finds “A Spell for Chameleon” and then takes the comedy to grind out her anti man points and completely mischaracterizes the story. First off, comedy that Piers Anthony writes, like a lot of comedy, relies on stereotypes, hyperbole, puns, and the like in order to illustrate the humor and the points behind it. If anything Bink makes a satire out of young teenage boys and not a hit piece on woman. Once the reader digests the subtle points that Piers Anthony is saying and internalizes the theme you get a different view. In one scene Bink is “sewing his wild oats” by peeing in them and conjuring a nymph (a nympho maniac) and although he has good fun he is left hollow. The lesson, there is a lot more to women than the two or three minutes of fun that Bink shares with her. He quickly becomes bored of her because there is no substance to the relationship, hell, there IS NO relationship. When you think about the phases of the moon, it shows the different aspects of women at times. It is easy to fall for and appreciate the beauty but the brains are what build the bond and the enduring friendship. In Lutdendorf’s example of that moon she never appreciates the phases of a woman’s life, nor does she fathom the mystery of women who seen to change and phase and grow on a man.

She is also stunned that people like books that have no color, LGBT, or leading women characters. She even has a 3 item list of how to tell if a story is any good based on women characters in the book. The women must be central to the story, they have to be significant characters with skills and such that are equal to any of the men.

Well then she comes to her article where she blasts Dragonflight, that completely contradicted her stupid feminist book theory that she wrote earlier. She confuses sexual tension with hatred of the main characters, she rails that the genre of fantasy a “black mirror distortions of the medieval period”. Duh. Medieval Europe is the cornerstone of western culture so no doubt that our perspectives are shaped and have echoes of our history and heritage. When Chinese fantasy writers create a setting for stories does it take place in a fantasy China like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or does it look like a setting from Africa? Then she goes on to blast the historical accuracy portrayed in the books by saying, “Dragonflight was a caricature of the medieval period with unrealistic levels of oppression and lords being able to sexually exploit whatever lower class women they wanted.” Now, again, with this kind of thinking and historical perspective it is no wonder that she has no grip on reality in the present day. Her world view is that things were better for women back then.

Then she gripes at the picks of the NPR audience and says that most of the books were written in the 70s or 80s. Again, DUH. Who listens to NPR? What is the audience demographic? Conservatives are listening to Rush Limbaugh. Kids are listening to their own Ipod to their R&B and couldn’t give a wit about the news on NPR. Radio is for old folks. Her chief complaint is that they are all about a bunch of white men going on adventures. Well, you just got a good sample of what an audience of liberal and moderate baby boom generation and older like in books. Surprise surprise surprise they pretty much sum up the popular books read in the 70s and 80s. Her problem isn’t with the books, it is with the people and their lack of response to the narrative.

She begins the article about the Forever War and how the LGBT are poorly treated. I don’t think she got to the end where “the Old Queer” was the hetrosexual couple because they weren’t hip to the new rainbow LGBT norm. Nor does she grasp that this was a time when the armed forces were highly politicized and sex was a problem that created great divisions within the military (no pun intended). Keep in mind that the military’s number one function is not to be a social petrie dish for the liberal establishment. What creates good order and discipline in which to meet the enemy with violence and what population in the military is best to do so is something that is still hotly contested. No, Lizzy Lutgendorf demands that fiction fit her way with her narrative and without question or complaint we are to like it and abide by it.

She and the radical feminists are one of the leading causes of puppy sadness. They have no sense of humor, no grasp of history, and they have a long list of people that they hate. Don’t blame us, this is a list from the audience of NPR—-the demographic is liberal and moderate, mostly white, and mostly upper middle class.

https://cache.trustedpartner.com/docs/library/000316/NPR%20Jazz%20Demographics.pdf

There is nothing positive or uplifting in her article. Nothing that brings unity. Nothing that shows she has a sense of humor. She sounds like a very bitter woman. I’m sorry but this list is not outrageous nor offensive to warrant the vitriol that she spews.

Wild Ape

I loved the Piers Anthony books. I thought the Chameleon series were a riot. I remember my girl friend, who would later become my wife reading and laughing about them. He is a clever writer and I remember re-reading them with her for all the puns that I had missed on the first pass. I share CMR’s belief that a book has to have every demographic in order to be good. Studies have shown that people will relate to characters that are not of their demographic. I too loved the Imaro books and I like the asian fantasy movies as well with all the samurai and such. To say that the 13 Ronin need a white or black character is pure BS.

The stupidity of SJW narrative rests on their myopic worldview where only they hold the pure virtues. I found her whole article to be offensive and backwards in thinking. Green Gestalt is spot on when he scorns the calling for the re-write of the classics. Whenever history does not suit the SJW they seek to erase it or re-write it to fit their narrative. The Sad Puppies aren’t calling for anyone to fit a narrative or to edit their thinking to the cause of the day. Read what you want, enjoy what you enjoy, and then promote the work. She calls for an open mind by being closed minded. I can’t think of a better illustration of how bankrupt her thinking is in reason.

If you look at the NPR demographic I provided you will find that this is a good representation of average liberals and not the cross section of the country. It is telling of how their mindset is not engaged to the beliefs they set forth and how they project their faults onto their enemy. Very telling. Liz sounds like the shut ins that she scorns.

NOLAbert

I’ve only recently returned to Fantasy (and some SCI-FI) having largely abandoned it in favor of “literature” during and after college. Then I got bored with the “formula” of literary writing (the criticism that is usually levied at so-called genre writing).

Since my return to fantasy, my favorite books have been Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire Trilogy. I know Lawrence’s books have been heavily criticized on similar grounds as expressed in the cited article by Lutgendorff. And I could care not a whit.

Given the popularity of such grimdark fantasy, I agree with ONeill’s statement that the classics of a previous generation are giving way to new books. Just maybe not in the same way he intended.

Thomas Parker

Using an open-assembly “100 Best” list isn’t the best way to make this kind of case anyway. If BG readers voted on such a list, the results would be very different from the NPR one, as was the big Locus poll of a few years ago. Lutgendorff is right in thinking that the NPR list represents a narrow, homogenous selection (that she wants to replace with her own brand of uniformity), but the thing is – I have room on my shelves for a hell of a lot more than 100 books. It’s shouldn’t be Larry Niven OR Joanna Russ, Piers Anthony OR Ursula LeGuinn. I’m all for including rather than expelling.

sftheory1

Wild Ape,
Where did you get your comment from in Lutgendorf’s essay?
I won’t deny that Lutgendorf’s essay is a bad piece of criticism on numerous levels. But it doesn’t possess the vitriol you and the other puppies are reading into it.
Lutgendorf’s misreadings, as well as your own, reveal, I think, the crux of this little culture war. Neither side really understands what the other side is trying to say. Or crediting it as legitimate without sinister readings.

joatsimeon

Let’s leave aside the question of how a Piers Anthony book got on a “100 Best” list… 8-).

joatsimeon

That dealt with, the reviewer reveals an almost grotesque degree of insularity and narcissism. You can tell this person doesn’t get outside their bubble very often.

Hint: going to literature to see yourself “reflected” or “represented” is to the experience of art as masturbation is to sex.

If you want to see yourself “reflected”, do what I do: go into the bathroom, face the mirror, reach out, and then real sudden-like… turn on the lights.

Voila, a reflection!

Now, ask yourself, why do you think there’s anything especially important or interesting about the image before you? Hint(2): there probably isn’t anything there that going on 7,000,000,000 others don’t have too.

I read fiction, and especially SF/F, for things/places/people who are -different- from myself. I can get more than I want of myself 24/7 without sacrificing any of my beer money.

Not to mention that the writer of the essay is fairly wallowing in the teleological fallacy — the idea that the past is a process of development in a predetermined direction, “progress” in the sense of the Victorian myth of that name, culminating in We Our Glorious (Culminating) Selves.

With a “shocking” degree of unselfconsciousness. Haven’t we learned anything since Thomas Macaulay? Well, probably not, but even so…

(To be fair, you still see a surprising amount of this in, for example, architectural historians, with everything in the past judged on whether or not it’s a step on the road to de-ornamented Modernist shoeboxes.)

Oh, and finally, new books don’t “supplant” older books, they add to them.

Short form: get over yourself.

NOLAbert

joatsimeon,
I agree with your comment, especially the point about the teleogical fallacy. The teleogical fallacy that irritates me the most is the concept of being on the right or wrong side of history.

History don’t care.

Ken Lizzi

“The consequence of the lack of women and the obvious sexism is that the books became very much like one another.”
Seriously? To me, this says more about the reviewer than the books in question. Whatever. My enjoyment of something cannot be diminished by someone else’s failure to appreciate it. I accept that there is a certain viewpoint currently in vogue that sees things I like through a particular (and to me, barely comprehensible) focus. So be it. Unless we start approaching Fahrenheit 451, I’m not going to get worked up about it.

Tyr

These articles used to annoy me but when I realized that future generations will look upon these years as filled with perversion and will laugh at what passes for literary criticism. The classics will survive while the debased culture promoted by the reviewer will not.

And John, very few men find anything to like in Jane Austen but we still recognize her work as meritorious. Apparently, radical feminists do not. It just speaks to their insecurity and knowledge that they have no future.

Wild Ape

@sftheory1—vitroil? I thought I was being just straight forward.

My chief gripe with her article is her premise on what is and what is not sexism. I got many of her quotes from the original article that was on the link and not John’s blurb on the post. She is saying that 70s and 80s science fiction and fantasy is sexist and offensive because it lacks the current enlightenment of neofeminism and LGBT culture. I reject her historical viewpoint and her cherry picked list that she rejected outright.

Anne MacCaffery was far and away a feminist before her time. Her central characters are strong willed, skillful and central to her stories. Lutgendorf said that to be acceptable unsexist a novel must have 1. At least two female characters. 2. One must be a main character. And 3. They must have professional/ levels of the male characters. Well, Anne MacCaffery had all three and yet she is rejected as an example. Ursula LeGuin was ignored and she certainly set the stage for later gender neutral stories. Further, Joe Haldeman’s characters in the Forever War who were hetrosexual were considered obsolete and “queer” by the standards of the new generation which had turned nearly 100% LGBT by end of his career.

I want to be clear that I do not speak for all Sad Puppies. I speak for myself and maybe relay what some of my Sad Puppy sympathizing friends are saying. It is one thing for Ms. Lutgendorf to dislike old fiction and embrace the neofeminist and LGBT narrative but it is quite another to skew history and facts out of place when doing so. She is not accurate. People who were alive back then know different because they lived through it. Seriously, Anne MacCaffery a sexist who looked down on women? The Sad Puppies that I know do not care a wit what gender the author is or what or who they sleep with nor what political philosophy they fall into. However, Ms. Lutgendorf does care and that is the difference, she puts her narrative before her common sense.

My disagreement with her isn’t saying that she is a bad person or that she needs a good beating in order to be acceptable. I just respectfully disagree is all.

joatsimeon

Specifically “history” doesn’t have sides. It’s not a box, or a set of D&D dice, or a rectangle, or a line, or a personality.

Beware the literalization of the metaphor!

This particular one is a standard of political propagandists (ie., professional liars). Fascists and Stalinists were both very fond of it: “Tomorrow belongs to us” and “the historical dialectic”, respectively. And look how -that- turned out.

Supposing that history has “sides” is not just the teleological fallacy, but the pathetic one — assigning human characteristics to inanimate objects (“the sky was angry”) or even worse, to -concepts (like “history”).

It also assumes you can predict the future, which is dumb beyond words.

If there’s anything that studying SF should show you, it’s that SF authors are if anything -even worse- than professional futurists at predicting what’s to come. If we could really predict the future, we’d be immensely wealthy and powerful, instead of working for peanuts.

Events are contingent and history is chaotic in the strict sense.

When people try to predict the future, they’re not only attempting to do something that’s inherently impossible for the most part, they’re trying to think while their emotions, hopes and fears are strongly engaged.

Cf., “motivated cognition” and “identity-protective reasoning”. Short form on that, the smarter and better-informed you are, the -worse- you are at reasoning objectively when emotion or identity are involved.

Your wits and knowledge just provide you with more elaborate rationalizations for believing what you want to believe anyway.

Wild Ape

@joatsimeon—-I think there is a reason why so many invest time to control the narrative of history, or at least their version of history. If it were a waste of time they wouldn’t be hell bent on it. The less informed they are the easier it is to control them.

sftheory1

Wild Ape,
You were reading vitriol into Lutgendorf’s essay that simply wasn’t there (at least to my reading). She is not being a misandrist. Nor is she forcing anyone to tow her critical line. What she is doing is expressing her frustration at having to read a lot of books that she finds objectionable.
Is the essay littered with massive problems? Yes. You and Joatsimeon have done admirable jobs in pointing out them out. Do I agree with your criticisms? Yes, shockingly.
Lutgendorf may have a valid point, somewhere, but she does a terrible job proving her point.

sftheory1

TW,
I wouldn’t be so sure of that.

Sarah Avery

It sounds like there’s some confusion about what kind of essay the Lutgendorff piece is. This is not, nor is it intended to be, literary criticism. It is a personal-response piece. The author of a personal-response piece can be wrong about the books s/he discusses (and I disagree with Lutgendorff on a few points), but by definition, s/he can’t be wrong about his/her own response. That’s the case no matter what perspective the author holds. For instance, I think some of the posts on this comment thread that object to the essay involve significant misreadings of the text, but where you guys talk about how you yourself responded to the essay, I have to assume you’re right about your own minds.

It’s worth looking at how Lutgendorff signposts the way she’s narrowing the scope of her examination. She’s writing about the experience of reading a list of a hundred books. Even from someone you agreed with, you’d probably hope an author would find some way to tighten the focus — would you really stick with, say, Larry Correia through a description of his personal responses to every one of a hundred books? Yes, the essay would have been different if Lutgendorff had said more about Le Guin. For Pete’s sake, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is on that list, and she mentions Atwood not at all. Arguing that her views of the books she disliked are invalid because she didn’t give a fair representation of the list is kind of beside the point. This essay is about one reader being shocked at things she hadn’t really paid attention to before that only stood out to her when she binge-read sf/f and only sf/f, most of it older. If you were to try a similar reading project, you too would notice patterns, have thoughts and feelings about them, and possibly tell the internet about them. You might, like Lutgendorff, not feel obligated to aim for, let alone meet, the standards of literary criticism in the high academic style.

Upon finding a book that had multiple female characters, some of them with interesting jobs, one of whom is a major character, she found she could not enjoy it because the viewpoint character, contemplating her ongoing relationship thinks “he might as well call it rape.” This is a direct quote from McCaffrey, narrating from the female character’s point of view. To say on the basis of this section of the essay that Lutgendorff can’t tell the difference between rape and sexual tension is…highly problematic. It’s tempting to characterize this interpretation as disingenuous, or sloppy reading, but for all I know the comment above that made this remark might have been the result of distraction or sleep deprivation or some other forgivable slip.

If a person reads a direct quote from a novel in which a character considers her relationship to be rape by another name, and then that person dismisses the dynamic in the novel as sexual tension, what would you call that description? That’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know.

James Enge

The NPR list is a dumb list. Everyone knows it. Everyone has their own reasons for not liking it. (A series is not a book! A series IS NOT a book!) It seems weird that people would get so hysterical about Liz Lutgendorff giving hers.

It’s a fair claim that old-school sf/f tended to be androcentric. (Obviously, there were many important exceptions, but they didn’t make this list, because it’s a dumb list.)

But the androcentricity of sf/f has already declined, and that’s not changing back. Anyone who’s read Bujold’s Vorkosigan books (on the list, but treated as a single work, because this is a dumb list) knows that this is not a problem: good sf/f is still being written, and will continue to be written.

I don’t see why people are so intent on making this into a problem.

TW

Reading that gave me a sense of dejavu.

I swear I remember reading something exactly like this right after the NPR list came out. With the Forever War bashing, the Piers Anthony bashing, and even the MacCaffery bit…

@Sarah This is not, nor is it intended to be, literary criticism. It is a personal-response piece.

My problem with the piece it that it is almost like she didnt read the books she is bashing, that she simply googled the titles plus “problematic” then regurgitated what she found on various websites.

@sftheory TW, I wouldn’t be so sure of that.

huh?

NeilH

Of course, the answer to this question of books not being politically correct is to rewrite them. So Thomas Bowdler edits Shakespeare and takes out anything which might seem morally offensive – bowdlerizing it. George Cruikshank, illustrator for Charles Dickens, signs the pledge and rewrites a number of fairy tales with an anti drink stance. A few years ago, the BBC launched a series based on the Robin Hood legends. Now I live in Nottinghamshire and was born just in the next county, Derbyshire. I reckon I know a thing or two about the area, so get a little miffed when scriptwriters get it wrong. Like Rufford Abbey, which, in medieval times, was a monastery. The series decided it was a nunnery. Little things like that can irritate. In the third series, Friar Tuck joins the band – ably acted by David Harewood. Nowhere in any of the legends is Tuck portrayed as black. Greedy, morally ambiguous and fat but always white. Harewood brought to the role gravitas. The rewriting of the legend to accommodate racial politics is absurd. Then the series elevated one of the female characters to become the Sheriff of York. The series was set in the traditional time of King Richard 1. Some fifty years previous, a civil war had been fought between Stephen and Matilda for the throne of England. Matilda’s claim was strongest but she was opposed on the grounds of her gender. The likelihood of a woman taking an administrative/feudal office like that of a sheriff is akin to snowball’s chance in hell.

I consider my self very left wing but I also try to keep my mind open, when it comes to art. It does not bother me when I read books from the past which do not reflect current values. The list is clearly flawed but so are all such lists. There are books on there that I like, some that I don’t and some I’ve no opinion on because I’ve not read. What I do know is that to condemn Wells or Mary Shelley for their lack of black or female characters is nonsense. So when someone comes along and condemns a book for not pushing all the right political buttons, my response is grow up. You can’t read a book with a closed mind. The New Statesman was irresponsible in publishing the article and I say that as a subscriber. Neil

sftheory1

Sarah,
Great point about Lutgendorf intending the essay to be more personal than literary.

sftheory1

Where, exactly, in Lutgendorf’s essay is she calling for rewriting the classics?

Wild Ape

and Sarah—-perhaps I do sound off as strongly as you say. Let me put it this way. If a man were walking in the middle of the forest and said something and no one was there to hear him; was what he said:
a. something sexist
b. something stupid
c. something criminal
d. all the above (a,b,c)
e. something important
f. there is no way of telling

Now, I’m saying, depending on how you answer reveals a lot about what you think about men. Also, when Lutgendorf uses words to describe men’s thinking it is filled with things like:
“shockingly offensive”, “Why are so many feted science fiction and fantasy books so misogynistic?”, “barely disguised sexism” and such all within the first paragraph I’d say that her tone is such that she doesn’t have a high opinion of men.

Okay, maybe I missed the tone and this is just a humorous piece where men are being criticized or as you say Sarah, a reaction to what she reads. This is possible. I remember reading Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and loving it as a kid and being outraged that the book had been banned at the local school and library. I was wondering if they had lost their minds but then I found out that I had read the abridged version that took out all the N words when I was a kid. So, it is possible that she was expressing genuine shock. I don’t know. I don’t know her but I can only guess by this single article and maybe what I can come up with on Google. For me, she sounds like a neofeminist.

“If a person reads a direct quote from a novel in which a character considers her relationship to be rape by another name, and then that person dismisses the dynamic in the novel as sexual tension, what would you call that description? That’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know.”

I’d call it a misinterpretation interpretation where the stakes are lower and/or a matter of opinion. There are colleges that are teaching that all sex is rape when men are involved. ALL SEX. This is neofeminist teaching that is accepted in some places. I find it dangerous. First off, it trivializes a terrible crime and second, it degrades men, and last, if believed it can cause great harm to society. I view rape as an attack nearly on the order of murder so if a woman in a story is raped and it is passed off as something trivial that would be something offensive to me. Now, it might just be part of the story and all but that act would be shocking and infuriating to read but…..

If this is indeed just her opinion of the books then it is odd that it takes place in a paper when there is so much more out there to talk about. Why give it such importance? I think it speaks a lot to what the New Statesman is about and what it thinks of its target demographic. It is part of the culture war.

NeilH

SFtheory1

You’re right, she is not calling for classics to be rewritten. But her argument is that certain books are poor because they do not address particular issues and hold offensive attitudes to women, LGBT etc etc. Instead of reading the books for what they are as products of their time and culture, they are being reinterpreted in the light of current concerns within this, Western, 21st century culture. The logic, therefore, is to rewrite these books to accommodate that culture or to burn them. Neil

Thomas Parker

“Personal” or not (and what writing isn’t in some way personal), it’s clear that the piece wasn’t written to persuade – it was written to score outrage points with an audience that already agreed with her. This is what makes it useless and uninteresting.

sftheory1

Wild Ape,
Lutgendorf is simply expressing her frustration at discovering that many of the books she loved as a child are now offensive to her. She isn’t attacking men. She is attacking sexism. There is a difference.
NeilH,
I don’t see how that logic follows.
Thomas Parker,
A personal essay isn’t intended to prove a point or argument. Rather, it is meant to explore the individual.

NOLAbert

James Enge,
The problem isn’t just in reinterpreting older books (I’m not willing to call something published as recently as 30-40 years ago as something classic). The problem is that these claims of androcentrism and sexism are levied at new books. As I mentioned, Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns was criticized on the same grounds by some people.

sftheory1,
Lutgendorff probably sees herself fighting sexism. My disagreement with her is in the interpretation of sexism in the first place. Like the criticism of Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, I feel these claims are baseless.

DTruesdale

Wild Ape wrote: “Here is my thinking of Ms. Lutgendorf’s androgynist hit piece…”

I solved the issue of androgyny in SF this past Tuesday, once and for all, by showing how its core premise would work in non-fiction as well as fiction. I wrote the introductory editorial, one of my reviewers wrote the (serious) reviews, and a well-known SF author penned the Essay. You can find this simple solution here:

http://www.tangentonline.com/e-market-monthly-reviewsmenu-265/lightspeed/2872-tangent-online-special-androgyny-destroys-sf-review-of-lightspeed

Of course, you can’t please everybody, even with such a perfectly simple solution as I’ve put forth, but over 7,000 hits later it would appear many people are thinking about it. 😉

R.K. Robinson

Her reaction, pared to the core, is if they didn’t then think like I think now, they were and are wrong and bad. Which in my opinion is idiotic in it’s stunning inability to consider historical context. *sigh*

James Enge

“(I’m not willing to call something published as recently as 30-40 years ago as something classic)”

Therein we differ. Classics usually establish themselves during the lifetime of the creator or shortly thereafter. There are exceptions, obviously, but vanishingly few in popular culture, which tends to have a short memory.

“The problem is that these claims of androcentrism and sexism are levied at new books. As I mentioned, Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns was criticized on the same grounds by some people.”

So what? That’s got nothing to do with this piece, where Lawrence’s work is not even mentioned and which is (necessarily) mostly about older work. Also: some new books will be androcentric and sexist (not quite the same thing, but there’s obviously some overlap). I haven’t read ML’s work, so I don’t have any thoughts about that, but there’s no reason to grant a general exception from criticism for works published recently any more than for works published a hundred years ago.

Thomas Parker

Pulling my copy of The Art of the Personal Essay (edited by Phillip Lopate) off of my shelf, I see plenty of reasoned argument and persuasive discourse, and even when the pieces are light on those formal elements, the writers all have an awareness that they are engaged in something that goes beyond a mere “exploration of the individual” – else why publish the piece at all? I vent spleen all the time – in the privacy of my home, behind closed doors. I certainly don’t expect that venting to be interesting or useful to anyone else. My personal criteria for a worthwhile piece of literature is that it must contain an Irishman and three dogs, and if you don’t agree with me, I’m shocked at your obstinate, wicked, willful blindness. Look out, New Statesman…

NOLAbert

James Enge,

The reason I bring up Mark Lawrence’s book is because the same claims have been made about it that Lutgendorff is making about these older books. My point is that I find these criticisms of androcentrism and sexism to be baseless.

Mostly, I find Lugendorff’s essay to be shockingly vapid.

Thomas Parker

My issue with the article (and I think this is true for most of us who are reacting so strongly against it) isn’t the fact that Lugendorff has her own standards, and that she judges “classic” SF/fantasy works very harshly by those standards. That’s her right, and it’s the same right we all claim for ourselves. What rankles is her not very thinly veiled implication that anyone who doesn’t share her particular standards is suffering from a deficiency – not one of literary judgment, but of morals, of character, a deficiency so incredible that it sends her head spinning with shock and disbelief that such knuckle-dragging Neanderthals still roam the earth. Disagreement with her view is automatically proof, not that we find honest value in some things she does not, but of bigotry, bad faith, and willful wickedness. Given that, why the hell should I stick around while she “explores herself”? She has nothing to say to me that isn’t insulting and condemnatory – to say nothing of completely predictable. (Is there anyone here who couldn’t make a confident guess as to her position on virtually every issue under the sun?)

ChristianLindke

My main problem with Lutgendorff’s essay was that it wasn’t clear by the piece that she actually read the books. Yes, she claims to have read the 100 books…which are more than 100 books because it includes series as books, but there is very little evidence in the essay in the form of specific and individual criticisms which hint that the books have in fact been read. For some of the books? Yes. For all of the books? Not even close. It isn’t until you read her actual reviews that you get a sense that she attempted to read the books, but then the reviews are often bizarre.

On Elric of Melnibone she states:

“So, plot: in some mystical land, where everyone is an arrogant, self-entitled, slave-owning bastard – you’re supposed to like this one particular arrogant, self-entitled, slave-owning bastard because he’s got ‘weak blood’ and talks about ‘morality’. Whatever. He’s an asshole, just like the rest of them.”

Um…I’m not sure she read the book if she thinks you are supposed to “like” Elric. He is an asshole. He’s also a deconstruction of extant characters. Elric is an argument as much as a person. Her reviews lack any kind of insight in this direction. Also, her review of the book doesn’t make it clear she read it at all. As someone who reads a good number of Undergraduate papers a quarter, her reviews echo the “I need a brief selected quote from deep in the text” cheat and lack any actual substance.

This seems like click bait extraordinaire.

Other than that, I’m mostly in agreement with Sarah Avery and James Enge. Lutgendorff’s reactions and opinions can’t be wrong qua reaction and opinions. They can be wrong about content of books, but not on how Lutgendorff felt about the experience. Then again, she wrote “reviews” and the types of arguments she is making are rooted in Critical Studies and thus imply some kind of academic interest.

There is some very good critical theory written about SF/F and this piece does other authors and critics a disservice.

And…as Enge pointed out, the NPR list is stupid. Lists, in general, are stupid. Their only purpose is to create dialog about the content of the list and to spark discussion of a topic. In those ways it isn’t stupid, and in that way neither is the article.

On the plus side, this list is a very typical piece of “fandom” writing. It is argued from the position of “fiction is meant for me!” that so much entitled fan reactions are based on.

There is little examination of structure, influence, history, or craft. There is only entitled sentiment. That’s not worth reading.

I’d much rather read Enge’s deconstruction of Merlin or a Susan Palwick tale of trauma and sentiment.

I’m also a very big Connie Willis fan and was happy to see that Lutgendorff was willing to at least admit that Willis was at minimum “A diamond in the rough.”

Wild Ape

and Sarah—-What is her controlling idea? What is the purpose of her article? To inform? To persuade? Or is it to critique? Nevermind that it could be her personal response, her controlling idea and the examples that she uses are a critique of conventional 70s and 80s fiction and her premise is that they are “misogynistic” her words not mine. Yet her examples are very conventional for the time so she is saying conventional viewpoints back then were misogynistic. That is a step above sexist in my view. I’d say that her examples show more sexism than they do a contempt for women.

So why do I heavily criticize her article? Well, if something conventional or mundane is considered over the top misogyny then I think she has a skewed opinion of men. I think her purpose is to reject NPR’s list which is pretty tame and I’d hardly call it controversial or drenched in misogyny. I think NOLAbert said it better than I did. She seems to be on a jihad against sexism and her interpretation of what is and what is not sexism is inaccurate. She is looking at the entire list through the lens of sexism.

@DTruesdale—that is an interesting premise. Honestly, I like to identify with the writer and I read the magazines to see what sort of new books are out there to read. It might dampen the internecine gender warfare but I think it will be difficult for a writer to expand their platform. How about Lightspeed create a Sad Puppies destroy science fiction? or Deranged Conservatives destroy science fiction. Anyway, it is an interesting thought about not giving the writer a by line.

DTruesdale

It was a total lampoon, Wild Ape. That you and others seem to take it at face value reminds me of Poe’s Law, that if a satire/parody is too close to the mark then people can’t tell the difference.

All I did was to take the position of those espousing androgyny when it comes to genderless characters (or nameless protags in fiction) and extend it out to include what is presented in the editorial, the review of that issue, and the essay. Those going for an androgynous world don’t think things all the way through, I’m afraid. What looks good on paper, or in theory, doesn’t always translate on a practical level in the real world.

You made my day. 🙂

Wild Ape

@DTruesdale—You did a total flyby on me. I have no idea what tickles you. I read the magazines to find good authors so I can expand my reading pleasure. That’s all. If I read a book and it is good, then I promote it and find more from the writer. If it sucks I typically don’t say a thing and move on. When it comes to smarts I’m probably a bit better than average but I’m by no means a genius or the top of the class. So what. The Onion spoofs all kinds of people brighter than me with their news satire They’ve taken down giants in industry, politics, and such. That I fell for something doesn’t mean that everything I think is flawed. Maybe you’d like to create that impression. Anyone can be suckered once. Keep in mind I have zero knowledge in running a magazine, zero knowledge in publishing, and zero in neofeminist gender studies. Suckering me on that is really low hanging fruit.

What I like in fiction doesn’t mean that it is top shelf stuff to everyone. It doesn’t mean that because I, a stupid ape, likes a story automatically makes the story worthless. It is easy to lampoon, no offense, what is hard is advancing a new idea or to take the steam off of a bad but popular idea. When you marginalize a gender or people I see no value or gain whatsoever for society.

DTruesdale

I wasn’t trying to sucker or demean you, Wild Ape. *Lots* of people who don’t follow such things were either unsure whether it was for real or a satire, and then there were those who bought it hook, line, and sinker. And of course there were those who “got” it and then either thought it was hilarious–or hated it.

When I said you made my day it was more a confirmation of the way I wrote the editorial (and asked the Essayist to frame the essay) than an insult to those not hip-deep in the issue and were likely to take it seriously.

I think androgyny is a dumb idea and was tired of seeing nameless characters in stories just so the author could make some social point about bias. Screw that and tell me a good story. But I had to make it convincing while at the same time going a little over the top here and there.

The essay actually went further and was more absurdist than the editorial (fans wearing complete burkhas at conventions so no one would know the gender of the fan…please). 🙂

Anyway, I didn’t mean my one liner at the end the way you took it, so apologies if offense was taken. I usually pretty much agree with most things you post here and am glad you’re contributing with interesting, thoughtful posts.

Wild Ape

@DTruesdale—-forgetaboutit. It’s been a long Monday, ya know?

Sarah Avery

Lutgendorff’s modified Bechdel test does make a poor method for measuring literary merit, I’ll agree. I would speculate that the people posting here who are most sympathetic to Lutgendorff overall are probably not keen on that part of the essay. But on the way to devising that test, Lutgendorff makes a point that I find far more interesting:

A sf/f story, especially one set in the future of our own world, in which there are no women, or people of color, or LGBT people, or at least none in positions of significance to the story or its world, lacks verisimilitude. Our world includes a wide demographic array, so if some other world doesn’t, the lack is jarring. Lutgendorff goes so far as to say a non-diverse cast breaks the worldbuilding for her.

If it were my observation, it would sound more like this: if a large-cast story is demographically narrow, I expect there to be a logical reason within the story for that narrowness. A Canticle for Leibowitz has a monastic setting, and therefore few female characters. Okay, that makes organic sense. If I read a story set in a convent, I wouldn’t expect to see a lot of male characters. There have been sf books and films in which most men or most women have been wiped out by illnesses that harmed one sex more than the other — in such stories, the absence of the missing people is a central feature of the worldbuilding. It’s a premise that can be handled more or less skillfully, but I don’t object to the what-if itself. The hour is late, so the only examples springing to mind have to do with gender — maybe someone else can think of examples having to do with race and/or orientation.

My point is, worldbuilding that erases whole populations that exist in our time and place, with no reason organic to the story for that erasure, lacks verisimilitude for readers whose normal daily lives involve lots of interactions with a wide variety of people.

Those absences may be deliberate on an author’s part for a variety of reasons. Here are the ones that came to mind for me:

* S/he was trying to set the absence up as a what-if to be explored, but the exploration didn’t come across on the page — in short, the author’s worldbuilding fell short of the writer’s own goals.

* S/he regarded diversity as a low priority and kept the story’s cast homogeneous so s/he and the reader could concentrate on something else.

* S/he disliked the absent demographic, and decided to build a world to write about that would be, in his/her view, better than ours for the group’s absence.

Other possibilities come to mind, but it’s one in the morning, so I’m going to work with these for now.

I think that for many readers of my generation and younger, regardless of whether an author regards diversity favorably, unfavorably, or with indifference — regardless of how the story gets this way — a story with a mostly homogeneous cast feels unrealistic.

If you present me with a novel-length work with one protagonist, three to five major secondary characters, five to ten tertiary characters, and a passel of walk-ons some of whom get names, and there are no women, non-white people, or non-heterosexual people in any of the notable character slots, it will feel as weird to me as if all of the scenes were set between midnight and sunrise without explanation. Those are fine hours for a scene, and many engaging things can happen during those hours that wouldn’t happen at noon, but it would still be weird, distracting at best.

As an editor, I would call the author’s attention to it and say, Either come up with a reason for the book’s scenes to be exclusively at night, or change it. As an author, I hope a critique partner or editor would point out a glitch like that in my work before it went to press. When there’s something weird and unrealistic in one of my stories, I want it to be something I put there on purpose.

Wild Ape

@Sarah—I think it depends on the world that the writer is building. One of my favorite settings is on the Legend of the Five Rings where it is in a constructed oriental world. There are no other people outside of the collage of oriental peoples. It isn’t out of place or explained. It is just a fantasy Japan/China.

I would agree that if you have world that is like our own and there are no other people besides white people that would be pretty damned odd and it would shake up my thinking to make it hard to suspend disbelief. I’d wonder where everybody went too. Homogenous is realistic and I think expected in present day conventional thought. I can’t think of any book besides ones set in fantasy Africa or fantasy Asia or fantasy Northern Europe that are out there. I could not stand a story that was set in a fantasy Europe when suddenly, out of no where and for no reason an African parachutes out of the sky—unless that too was explained. Now if the setting was in modern times I would expect to see that.

At the same time characters in a story are important. Force fitting diversity is an art and not every writer is good at it and some avoid it altogether. I remember in a Harry Turtledove novel in the Lost Legion series there was a gay centurian. Turtledove dealt with the character sympathetically and yet realistically in how the character interactions played out. There were problems that the character brought out that fit well with the story. He didn’t just make a gay character for the sake of making a gay character.

Keep in mind, the attitudes of the 30s, 40s, and 50s were different that the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I remember my grandfather talking about learning about homosexuality when he was in the Army during the Korean War. He was a country boy and had no clue what homosexuality was, only that the Army banned it. His country boy world was shocked that such a thing existed.

The problem with her article was that it was not targeting an audience outside her own worldview. This was not one meant for my eyes. I happened to come across this only because it was posted here. So when I come across the first bit of why-white-men-are-misogynist-and-suck tidbits I’m kinda at war at that point. And why do I suck this time? What makes me a misogynist this time around? Heinlein? MacCaffery? Really? My head can only tilt to the left so far.

Then when she says, “The consequence of the lack of women and the obvious sexism is that the books became very much like one another.” I’m thinking, yeah, this book review sounds a lot alike too. Is it all just one angry neofeminist because they all are sounding alike to me.

“My book reviews contained more profanity and I became a much more harsh critic of the genres I most enjoyed reading. They were all the same story of white guys, going on an adventure”

Does she hate herself? Why read stuff you don’t like? When you get down to her details her facts are so off that I wonder if she read the book. I have doubts. Because her audience was intended to be a moderate or liberal audience it probably sounds fine but when you mix it into the general population you find just how thin it is. Diversity for diversity’s sake doesn’t work. They do this in comics all the time. They parachute some LGBT character for no other reason than to be LGBT—they never advance the story–it is just lousy writing. I follow you Sarah when you say that audiences would wonder but at the same time if forced the audiences would wonder too.

Sarah Avery

Ape, I agree that there are stories for which a homogeneous, or nearly so, cast makes sense. A story set in Japan during its years of seclusion could be brilliant, and organically include no non-Japanese characters. Set it in a Buddhist convent or monastery, and you could reasonably have a single-gender cast. For that matter, you could pull a Watership Down and have a cast that consisted entirely of rabbits. Other readers may feel other ways, but for me, what’s important is that the casting feels as if it belongs to the story, not as if it’s imposed by the writer or the result of sloppy writing.

Excellent writers are capable of moments of sloppiness or of chronic blind spots. I regard Heinlein, for instance, as an excellent writer with good intentions and some chronic blind spots that marred his ability to write women characters. Some female characters work better than others, and different books are affected to different degrees. Stranger in a Strange Land is a book that I think will remain a classic of the genre no matter what. It’s a book that’s personally important to me. I also believe it has flaws that are hard to overlook. Those things are in tension with one another, but they’re not mutually contradictory.

(I think Milton’s Paradise Lost is a brilliant masterwork. I’m prepared to argue on a detailed textual basis that it’s intellectually dishonest in a way that fatally undercuts his stated goal for the epic. In addition, I find it personally distasteful to read. Also, I assigned it to my students, because it will always be important, and there are thing it does brilliantly that no other book even tries to do. If I went back into classroom teaching, I’d assign it again. Milton’s an extreme example, but my point is, this kind of unresolvable tension is normal.)

This post is getting long, but there’s one thing I definitely want to say before it escapes me. At least in my view, Heinlein’s unrealistic characterization of women does not color my view of all men, or of all men who love his books. I love several of his books, myself, and I’m pretty sure my view of women is more realistic than his. If it’s possible for me, why not for everyone? Specifically, it doesn’t color my view of you.

In response to one of Lutgendorff’s points, you said, above, “And why do I suck this time?” I’ve been trying to figure out how to put my response. Please be patient if it doesn’t come out right the first time.

I have ancestors who were literal Puritans. Some of the things they did required impressive courage and resourcefulness, but they also blithely committed acts that I think could fairly be described as ethnic cleansing, if not actual genocide. Oh, and they whipped Quakers in the streets. Among the many objections I have to that on religious freedom and human rights grounds, it’s just plain bad sportsmanship to whip pacifists. The later New England heritage in me cringes at those historical incidents because they’re tacky. I can look back at those ancestors and say, yes, they did things that sucked, big time, without believing that their major suckage is a judgment on me. So when other people observe that those actions sucked, I don’t feel attacked. Those ancestors accidentally laid some of the groundwork that makes it possible for me to be a tattooed Wiccan freak under the protection of the First Amendment. I’m grateful. And they’d be appalled.

What if you looked at criticisms of the writers you admire and totally separated the question of whether the criticisms of the writers are fair from whether they’re criticisms of you?

(There are also criticisms of the Sad Puppies, and you’ve been part of that movement, so that’s a separate question. You’ve got some legitimate complaints there.)

I think it’s possible for me to note that John Milton (1608-1674) was a bad husband and problematic father even by the standards of his day and his community of actual, literal Puritans, without you feeling that I doubt your respect and devotion for your wife. I hope it’s possible for me to talk about the less-than-ideal aspects of books and writers closer to home, people who wrote within living memory in the genres you and I both love, without you feeling that you’re getting swept up in stereotypes.

Thomas Covenant sucks.

You are awesome. Irascible, but awesome.

No contradiction.

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