Archives

Thoughts on reading: Club Dead

The Book People come to where I work and sometimes you can gets lots of books for little money. The last time they had eight Sookie Stackhouse novels for a tenner. Even taking off the two I’ve already bought, it was still a bargain, so here I am, reading more pulp fiction.

Club Dead by Charlaine Harris is the third in the series. Like the others there is something compelling about it but I can’t put my finger on what. The writing is ok; it’s not great but worse gets published.

Sookie’s overwhelming attraction for the supernatural men around her is tiresome. She’s so special and different (undefinably, because it’s not about her telepathy for all them) that they just have to have her. Of course she says regular men find her unattractive but there aren’t actually any in the books. In Club Dead, Sookie is angry with Bill for cheating on her, but she doesn’t know that for sure, and she goes off to rescue him anyway. Along the way, she smooches with Eric and a werewolf without managing to pick up any understanding for Bill. Reversing the double standard doesn’t make it better.

I don’t think I can even read it as sex positive, because Sookie doesn’t have agency. She is at the mercy of passion, swept along by the force of male desire, unable to help herself. And that’s why it’s not sex positive. Sookie isn’t having these encounters because she is choosing them, she’s having them because she is unable to resist. Which just reinforces negative stereotypes about women and sex.

Of course, for all its many faults, it is a great story that is an easy read. And there is no doubt I will read the rest, probably soon. I’m not sure why I like them, and I feel slightly soiled, but I do like them. Can anyone explain it to me?

Non-fiction titles I’ve been reading are The Gods of the Celts by Miranda Green and Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body by Susan Bordo. Gods of the Celts was really interesting, if a little dry. The evidence is largely archaeological and the Celts didn’t leave behind any written explanation of their own, so inferences must be carefully done. It was fascinating and represented a take on religion that is different to the current dominant paradigm. Unbearable Weight was awesome. It is a collection of Bordo’s essays on feminism and the cultural aspects of eating disorders. Highly recommended and for a serious academic work, very accessible.

Crossed Genres, Issue 5

Issue 5 of Crossed Genres is sci-fi/fantasy crossed with humour. There are five stories.

The first is Archimedes Nesselrode by Justine Graykin. The start of this put me off. I think perhaps this information could have been worked into the story as part of the narrative, rather than as an introductory scene. The setting is lovely but I think Graykin has missed a trick. Her writing is competent but her style is quite matter of fact and works against the picture she’s trying to convey. The characters didn’t really come across well and it didn’t make me laugh.

A Simple Matter by Linda Linsey did make me laugh. I loved the updated take on fairy godmother stories. More could have been made of the ending, which struck me as a little hurried, and the ‘twist’ was telegraphed early on. Although I was amused by it.

I really liked the concept of Condiment Wars by Jill Afzelius. It’s inventive and entertaining. The pacing is good and the author draws the ending out nicely. There were a few moments that made me smile and I’d be interested in reading the further adventures of ketchup and mustard. I found the writing style laboured though. It seemed a little unsophisticated and often the dialogue was stilted. As it’s a dialogue-heavy story (in principle, a good thing) this is quite important. This is a great idea that would have benefitted from a serious re-write.

Story number 4 is A Smoking Idol by Max Orkis. Well, it’s not so much a story as an anecdote. This is some good writing; I’m just not sure this piece showcases it that well.

The final piece is A Tale of Two Bureaucracies by Jeremy Zimmerman. Hee. This is genuinely amusing – or at least, genuinely appeals to my sense of humour. It’s also well written and an intelligent take on bureaucracy. Zimmerman had a story in Issue three that I really liked. And just checking back I realise I haven’t reviewed Issue 4. Ooops. Anyway, this tickled me. Definitely the best of the bunch.

Three out of five of the writers in this issue are women. I’ve no idea whether this was done consciously or not, but I would like to commend Crossed Genres for equal gender representation in this issue.

Writing and Unconscious Bias

I’ve been pondering this one for a while. A few weeks ago I stumbled across a radical feminist critique of one of my favourite shows, Firefly. My first reaction was ‘no, say it isn’t so!’ and my second was ‘maybe she’s got a point’. I don’t intend to address the arguments about Firefly, as that’s been done here and here.

What I do want to talk about, and what has been occupying my mind ever since, is what is it I do when I write. How much prejudice of any type is revealed in my writing because I am unconscious of it? I think writers want to show people as they actually are – and that sometimes means characters who are bigoted in various ways. That means characters who think they are not prejudiced but reveal by their words that they are.

Lately I’ve read novels and short stories where characters that are not white are described by their skin colour. It’s niggled at me and is possibly a sign that my consciousness has been raised a smidge. A white male character is just ‘a man’, whereas a black male character is ‘a black man’. It would be fine if all white male characters were described as ‘a white man’. Why does the black character need to be identified by his skin colour rather than some other characteristic individual to him? What it reveals is the (unconscious) assumption on the part of the author that white is the norm and that any deviation from this norm needs to be flagged to the reader.

Of course writers have to describe people and it’s nice as a reader to have some physical information to base their imaginations on. But in most cases does it matter if the reader is visualising your character as white or black, gay or straight? How often is it really relevant to the story or to character development? And when it is, it can be just about the individual rather than applying a label.

The trouble is, people use shortcuts and labels. In order to cope with all the information we process everyday, our brains code things. It’s even better if the people around us use the same codes. This is how stereotypes and tropes and mores get born. It’s why we have misunderstandings – because my word ‘woman’ might have different associations to your word ‘woman’. We need assumptions to get through even the most basic conversation.

I think as a writer, I need to have greater awareness. This is for entirely selfish reasons; I want to control what my words say as much as is possible. I don’t want to be misunderstood because I wrote something lazy, muddled and ill-considered. I think I’ve been a bit complacent about being tolerant and inclusive and that I have a bit of work to do in identifying my assumptions.