My longish answers to some thoughtful questions, below the fold.
1. Do you believe that consuming period or periodized literature implies a nostalgia for that time period?
A lot depends on what we mean by nostalgia.
If nostalgia means “I’d like to push a button and make the entire world just like this story,” then that’s a pretty sad, flat, even totalitarian way to read fiction. And it’s still worse as a lens by which to judge anyone else’s reading of fiction — unless they leave you no choice at all. (Do any fictions really qualify in and of themselves? Gone with the Wind, perhaps?)
What if nostalgia means something like what I feel when I read P. G. Wodehouse? It’s great fun, and I find it so very, very agreeable… even as I recognize that his is not a world I’d either like to live in or inflict on anyone else.
Still worse, I was captivated by Brokeback Mountain, but there are few worlds I’d less like to live in. If nostalgia means “there are some interesting, now-vanished dramatic possibilities in this time period,” then even Brokeback Mountain qualifies as nostalgia. I’m not sure it ought to.
If nostalgia means something in between — “I love this, and I dread that, about the England of Middlemarch, considered as it was, and not merely as drama” — then there is nostalgia in every thoughtful reader, and in almost every fiction. And for almost every time period.
2. Should fantasy stories take place in ideal worlds or worlds that are designed to provide useful thought experiments?
Two questions here.
First, on ideal worlds, no. I love Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, and the Culture is in many ways an ideal society — it’s peaceful, enlightened, post-scarcity, and almost all problems have been solved. If it’s not a perfect utopia, it’s pretty close. But Banks himself admits that the Culture is a difficult place to set a story. Stories need conflict, and as a result, most of the Culture books are set on the fringes of the Culture, where its characters can clash interestingly with civilizations that don’t share its norms.
As to thought experiments, absolutely. Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, 1984, I, Robot, even lighthearted experiments like I Will Fear No Evil. Or almost anything by Stanislaw Lem or Philip K. Dick. To me, this is a lot of the work that literature really does. Not all of it, of course; Middlemarch claims to be a thought experiment, but it is no such thing, and it’s much better for not being one.
3. What is the point at which depictions of domestic or sexual violence become gratuitous? Why do depictions of sexual or domestic violence have to meet a different standard than aestheticized action violence?
The exact point at which depictions of domestic or sexual violence become gratuitous will always be in the eye of the beholder, and there will always be discussion on this or that example.
Still, depictions of sexual violence do have to meet a different standard. That’s because nonsexual violence often serves just as well to advance the plot as the author appears to have conceived it. In these cases, we should doubt whether specifically sexual violence is appropriate, particularly if the sexual component has no discernible relationship to the plot.
Why? To give an analogy, suppose it were a literary convention that no one, in whatever era, could ever be stabbed with a knife in fiction. It always, always — always — had to be a broken-off wine bottle.
This would be an incredibly stupid convention. Why would it exist? For no reason that I can imagine. But why does the convention exist that women get raped? Sexism, a reason I can definitely imagine. Unless the author is clearly interested in exploring the theme of sexism, a rape scene is likely to be gratuitous, or just a re-inscribing of a convention every bit as dumb as, but far more distasteful than, the wine-bottle stabbing bit.
4. Is it necessarily sexist to depict female incompetence?
In real life, some women are incompetent. In real life, some black people are criminals, some Jews are unscrupulous and greedy, and some gay men really do molest children.
I’m sure that you, dear reader, already know this. What you might not know is that art isn’t about real life. Or anyway, it’s not about all of real life. Art is a process of selection. Some things inevitably go in the frame, and almost all get left out. Inevitably.
That’s why “I’m just trying to show real life” is at best a disingenuous explanation for a work of art. To which the correct reply is: “I can see real life outside my goddamn window.” We all see real life. An artist selects.
Art is about what the artist picks out of real life — or embellishes upon real life — to show what he or she thinks matters most in the spiritual or philosophical sense. Art is about the inner life of humanity, as reflected in things chosen from the outside. Outside the frame, they may be inconsequential. Put them in the frame, and we are invited to consider them again, and to rank them as something worth thinking and feeling deeply about.
An artist who holds up the figure of the greedy Jew in his work is making a moral statement about the world. He might not realize it, but he is. (It’s the responsibility of a thoughtful artist to know about such things, of course, but we live in a world of thoughtless art, and a simple blog post isn’t going to fix that.)
Now, this artist’s statement might be anti-Semitic. It might be satirical and anti-anti-Semitic. It might be ambiguous and open to a range of different readings, as with The Merchant of Venice, though it may also take a Shakespearean talent to pull off that particular stunt. And finally, the image might be offered as a sort of meta-art — a commentary on the use of artistic tropes themselves. A good example of this is the film The Watermelon Woman, which looks at stereotypical portrayals of black women in film. And the black women who helped create them.
So… it’s not necessarily sexist to show female incompetence. But if you show female incompetence, don’t be surprised when the audience asks you why. And if you don’t want to be called a sexist, then be sure you can supply an answer that amounts to more than mere sexism.