Gender/Nostalgia/Fiction

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Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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19 Responses

  1. > Though it may also take a Shakespearean
    > talent to pull off that particular stunt.

    But of course, every writer of fiction considers themselves to be capable of pulling off this stunt.

    Humor aside, hubris is not an uncommon fault.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

      … one published author sent a story into Analog, with the express purpose of “getting some feedback so that I can fix it, because I think it sucks…”
      Six months later, he asked Analog — “what ever happened to that story?”
      Their response: “oh, we published it. your check’s in the mail”Report

  2. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    What about an author who has a Jewish character who the other characters perceive as a “greedy Jew” but who is portrayed as most certainly not that – isn’t that a portrayal, possibly at least, of that character’s struggles against stereotypes and prejudice? Why should it be any different with misogyny or sexism?

    Saying that realism and gritty-realism in fiction is a window into “real life” is hardly disingenuous. There was terrible violence in ‘The Kite Runner’ for instance – it was hard to read. But it did offer me a window into a part of the real world I didn’t understand. Fantasy can do this also, by taking us into times and places where our own historical prejudices and political systems are refashioned and shown in a new light.Report

  3. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    I guess my other problem with this ongoing discussion is that it’s hard to read it as anything other than a discussion of the books in question, and yet many people are now joining into the debate who have not read these particular books. The assumption so far has been that Martin’s work is full of gratuitous descriptions of rape, which is simply untrue.

    Nor can we safely answer any of these questions given that the instances they come up in may vary widely depending on the book, its author, its intended audience, and so forth.

    In the end, the answer to each question is “maybe, it depends”.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to E.D. Kain says:

      I did try to supply an especially wide range of examples outside of George R. R. Martin.

      In any case, I don’t plan on posting about this topic again, because readers didn’t seem to find my take on it that interesting anyway.Report

      • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        More likely everyone is burned out since I’ve razed this topic to the ground several times already. I thought your take was interesting enough.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to E.D. Kain says:

          Jason, there are two things going on here:
          1. E.D.’s totally right. I need a break from this topic before engaging with it again. Not a long break, but a breather.
          2. You’re saying several important things here, so responding to them takes time. If you’d posted “Obama sucks rotten eggs”, I’d imagine you’d get dozens of responses within minutes. But with posts that require mulling over, the reader wants to take some time, think about them, and be able to respond with something more intelligent than, “Right on!” or “No way!”

          I really enjoyed this post and am planning to set aside some time to respond to it more thoroughly.Report

  4. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    “But why does the convention exist that women get raped?”

    For the same reason the convention exists that men have their genitals injured (kicked in the nuts, shot or stabbed in the groin.) It’s a cheap way of making violence be personal to the character.

    No, Francis, I’m not suggesting that being raped and being kicked in the nuts are equivalent in reality. I’m saying that they are equivalent to the hack writer who needs a way to make violence seem like a targeted violation rather than a random occurrence.Report

    • Side note: in most fictional accounts of prison life, men getting raped is actually a very common plot element.

      “Federal pound-me-in-the-ass Prison”, Office Space… Shawshank Redemption…

      Is this writing mechanism sign of a hack, too?

      Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to DensityDuck says:

      To make the violence personal, right? I get that. In fact, from a character-development pov, that’s sometimes crucial. But I think the dividing line in terms of whether it’s gratuitous vs. ‘artistic’ is the extent to which the writer can uniquely (or creatively) make that personalize the personalization-of-violence in his/her writing. That is, literary hackery is defined by taking the easy way out, by using existing themes and literary tricks to make a point which is difficult to creatively express within the parameters of your work. That is a dividing line. For lots of people, that’s what separates hackery from art.

      As an example, Pynchon writes about sex and acts of sexual depravity all the time, but it never strikes me as pornulation. Or even as being merely titillating. Or as resorting to character development on the cheap by invoking commonly exploited literary tricks.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to DensityDuck says:

      I disagree that it’s a cheap trick. In times of war, rape is a common act of domination and terror. That’s mainly what’s going on in A Game of Thrones at least – terror and domination in a brutal world.

      It can be used gratuitously also. It can be overused. But that doesn’t mean that it has no place at all in literature.Report

  5. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Okay, well, you asked for it, so here’s some responses.

    1. I think the really good artists who deal with the past do just this- they deal with the time period as different, maybe better in some regards and worse in others, and in a lot of areas just Other. Take the 1950s: there was some incredible music being made at that time and design seems to have been at a high point. Some of the clothes were unbelievably aesthetic and sophisticated. And, if we decided to bring back social calls, fedoras, and women wearing gloves to go shopping, probably nobody would suffer. But, there are plenty of things from that time period that we’re fine without. I think a depiction of the past that was too rosy would be kitsch and one that depicted unremitting misery would just be another sort of kitsch. I think nostalgia is related to the imaginative horizons that foreign cultures and ways of life open up for us and the past was definitely a foreign culture.

    2. I definitely think fantasy thought experiments work better. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to set a straightforward story in a fantasy world, but not allow the fantasy elements to alter the story. But, in that case, why set it in a fantasy world?

    I do think utopias provide an interesting possible scenario for the reader because they come into conflict with the actual world in which we live. The difficulty is in making that interesting fiction. You don’t want to be constantly nudging the reader. Also, like you said, a perfect world removes a lot of tension and conflict. Perhaps an interesting scenario would be a world that really has no problems or unpleasant aspects and a main character who still can’t stand to live there.

    3. Depictions of rape should not be off limits, but I particularly detest when rape is used as a cheap way of evoking horror in the audience or telegraphing a sort of existential disgust. The Oncoming Hope uses a picture from Irreversible to illustrate this and it’s very appropriate because the film centers around an extended anal rape scene as a means of conveying deeper horrors about human existence. I found it much more exploitative and frankly disingenuous than the exploitation films that depict rape in a more glib way. The film radiated disgust with humanity that extended to disgust with the audience. I’ve seldom felt as despised by a movie and it was certainly a mutual feeling. The film used rape as a way of rubbing our noses in the horrible things human beings do. Is this worse than films that use rape to arouse the audience? Well, neither of them are made by people with a particularly healthy view of their audience.

    4. In terms of depictions of female incompetence, it probably depends on the context that the artist has created. Are all of the characters, male and female, mutually incompetent? This is certainly the case in plenty of comedies and especially the darker satires. Are there plenty of competent female characters and a handful of incompetent male and female characters? That would probably be easier to justify.

    Among the men I know that I’d seriously characterize as sexist, it’s axiomatic that women-as-such are simply less competent than men and their anger with women often arises because individual women expect to be treated with the same respect they would give to a man. I would imagine those men would make art in which women were either irrelevant to the plot or not important for any particular competency. I can certainly think of a few filmmakers who would qualify, and in general it’s worth asking if the industry’s relentless focus on the young male demographic isn’t having the effect of making the big budget films increasingly sexist. My point is that a story can be sexist without depicting a lot of incompetent women simply by creating a world in which competent women don’t exist.Report

  6. Avatar J.L. Wall says:

    “I’ve often wondered what it would be like to set a straightforward story in a fantasy world, but not allow the fantasy elements to alter the story. But, in that case, why set it in a fantasy world?”

    I think you might be able to pull it off if the setting left the story alone but altered the perspective on it, somehow. I don’t know how to do it, or what, exactly it would look like, however. And while I can’t THINK of anything that does this off the top of my head, I wonder whether any of Kevin Brockmeier’s stories haven’t come close. (Actually, he’s a contemporary writer whom some of you might find interesting — while I guess he gets quarantined off with the rest of “literary fiction,” his style involves a lot of incorporating the tropes of fantasy and science fiction, in a non magic-realism kind of way, into his work.)Report

  7. Avatar dhex says:

    though it stands outside the bounds of fantasy literature (a subject i know nothing about) one book that came to mind re: question 3 is jm coetzee’s novel “disgrace”. it was difficult to read, and the central event is the main character’s reaction to a sexual assault that stands in as a metaphor for south africa’s race relations.Report

  8. Thanks for the mention, Jason.

    That’s a good point about art as selective representation of real life. I think it’s also a question of what feels true to the particular world you’re creating. If characters are systematically oppressed, then it makes sense that they aren’t as competent by default. But you have to show how you get from A-B, and I think depictions become problematic when you don’t show the journey in adequate detail.Report

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