Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Thoughts on the Q antho and avoiding QueerFAIL

Worry not: I do not wish to take everyone’s attention away from the Shared World project for even a minute (see the post below this one if you haven’t been there yet), but I need to talk about this today, and then I'll get back to the more fun thing!

Some comments that I saw on someone else’s blog recently, which were sort of indirectly related to M-Brane’s upcoming queer anthology, made me wonder if I was going to inadvertently wander into a minefield of FAIL. I reflected on other imbroglios of recent months centered around issues like racial diversity or gender in sf, and wondered if I risk touching off a mini-controversy centered around LGBTQ issues if I somehow make a mistake with the stories that I select for the book—or if by the very act of assembling such a thing, I am failing at handling the subject matter judiciously.

What things could go wrong for me as its editor? They are, as I see it, these: 1) Content or theme of the stories could be interpreted as insensitive or laden with clichés and stereotypes about sexual orientation and/or gender; or 2) Some people may question the entire premise of the project, wondering why it needs to be that something like sexual orientation or transgender status or some new sfnal kind of queerness needs to be highlighted at all. Let me ponder these one at a time:

1) I don’t think that this is the kind of mistake that I would make even if I weren’t thinking hard about trying to avoid it. I have a lot of sensitivity to the subject matter and I am able to detect tired stereotypes about it pretty easily. That being said, I don’t consider sensitivity to necessarily mean that any and all LGBTQ characters are going to be models of heroism and virtue anymore than I would expect that of str8 characters. Also, I do come to this from a male perspective and could possibly—just maybe—have some shortcomings as far as understanding, say, a lesbian or a transgender character…but again, I don’t think what limitations I have in this area are any different or more serious than any limitations I may have in understanding str8 female (or str8 male) characters. I’ve read enough books, have formally studied enough literature and history, and have lived enough real life to get these things. Basically, I don’t think I really have any serious limitations in this area, and I think I will avoid giving offense when the finished book is released. Or rather, if its content offends, it will not be because I have failed in this particular area. It will be because I am deliberately publishing some possibly discomforting fiction and mean to push some buttons.

2) It’s from two directions that doubt about the whole premise of the book comes. The first can be dispensed with easily: the objection that “gay stuff is gross/annoying/non-Christian etc.” I assume that anyone with that attitude won’t be reading it anyway, and that’s fine. I’d prefer they ignore it and not bother me about it. The other direction of objection is more nuanced. Some readers who may otherwise be sympathetic to the concept wonder why it needs to be highlighted in ways like this book. Generally, such folks would rather it just be a normal, incidental thing in fiction that there’s a gay person here and there like there is in real life, no big deal, nothing to worry about. Or even if the main character is a queer, then maybe it would be best that the trait not be made a big deal of or dwelt upon too heavily. Because wouldn’t it be best if we could all accept or even look past each other’s differences and not zero in on them like that? Well…maybe, but that’s just not how it seems to work in the real world or in the literature of the genre as it currently exists. These theoretical incidentally gay characters are precious few in the written genre (and virtually non-existent in the film/TV version of the genre, if we want to even get into that). Whole eras of sf, like the 1950s and the 1980s in particular, have virtually none at all save for in the work of a very few rebellious writers. And where queer characters do crop up, is the trait really ever incidental or normal? It’s always just incidental and everyday-business, of course, when it’s a str8 character. Think about it. Do you ever read a story (or see something on a screen) where a male and a female have some kind of marriage or romance or sex and think, “Huh. Look at that. I guess they’re heterosexuals. Well, whaddya know!” But I guarantee you it would stand it out if it were a samesex interaction in a venue where you're not expecting to see one. It’s unavoidable.

Consider also the complete contents of M-Brane’s five (soon to be six) issues thus far. The zine is about as hetero-normative as anything else being published in the genre. I have not published a single story yet with what I would call significant samesex content. The only one I can think of where non-hetero activity really comes up at all is Derek Goodman’s issue #4 story “Northern Girls With the Way They Kiss” where the predominately female group of characters evidently engage in some samesex intimacy, but even in that story, this seems to be more a result of their relatively male-free post-apocalyptic life circumstances than that they are all just casually a bunch of everyday lesbians. Another story that gets pretty queer in its sexuality, even while not having samesex content, is Brandon Bell’s “Abraham Discovers an Object Impenetrable to All Harm” in issue #5, what with all the freaky-deaky android goings-on. There’s also Mike Griffith’s Skinjumper stories which feature a dude and his girlfriend who is actually a male persona inhabiting a female body (in, I guess, a sort of transgenderism enabled by high tech). But those few stories are about it. So, I think I’d like to see some more representation of non-mainstream identities in something that I publish, and I think it’s a cool and fun thing to make it a focus of a whole anthology. Not everyone will agree that it needs to be done, but I hope I at least do a good job of presenting it.

[The image, by the way, is of an ad that (I think) I have circulating in another venue shortly; it's to encourage some last minute submissions. I adapted the art from one of those weird 1950s-era pulp porn novels that were popular in the gay underground back in those days. I think it had a lurid title like Homo Holiday or The Fairy Within or some such nonsense.]

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Anonymous said...

I can understand the fear of being labeled insensitive, especially if that was the farthest thing from your intentions. I'm glad you're not letting that fear stop you from going on.

And regarding "Northern Girls:" in my mind, at least, I've always thought that Bethany would be a lesbian even without her circumstances. But I suppose readers might not interpret it that way.

Christopher Fletcher said...

Yeah, actually it does feel right somehow that Bethany is probably truly a lesbian regardless what's going on. And I guess it's fairly incidental in the sense that this trait of hers doesn't have a lot to do with the events of the story itself, but is interesting background. But, of course, the information comes to the reader because she talks about it with another character and that little bit of dialog stands out in memory. Which, I think, kind of illustrates my point about how difficult--if not impossible--it usually is to somehow seamlessly weave samesex traits into a story so they blend in as well hetero items would. And I don't really think that needs to be a goal anyway, but it's an interesting problem to contemplate: how do you get across the fact that a character is gay and have that seem as incidental (and even trivial) as her brown hair or left-handedness or whatever. Same problem with race: it seems like it should be a good thing to get more non-white folks in sf stories. But since the default reader mode (where race is not pointed out explicitly) is "white," then the writer has to somehow weave it in naturally that a character is NOT white without constantly saying "black" or whatever over and over again. I'm dealing with that to some degree in my novel-in-progress because I decided to populate it heavily with non-white characters and a couple non-str8 characters, and it's been interesting to try to convey these things without constantly framing them in contrast to the white minority or str8 majority characters in the story. Also, I don't want to go way over to the other extreme and have it seem like I am shouting, "Hey, look at me and all my sensitivity! See all these diverse characters?"

Anonymous said...

You know, I sent that link re the 'Worlds First Gay SF Magazine' (paraphrased) and honestly when I read that I was taken aback initially. 'Wait, no you're not!' thinking of M-Brane. Then I thought about it and realized you really haven't printed anything (or much) that has GLBT characters. And maybe that reflects bad on me that I was in this mindset, but the thing is I guess I know that given a good story with such characters, you'd publish it. The fact that you don't have much of such stories speaks to the fact that you are providing a welcome place for good stories with GBLT characters or concerns, but that you aren't out to grind any axes.

I can respect people who take a strident POV and action in the thing that drives them. So, I'm not even sure that if there were some axe grinding going on that it is necessarily a bad thing. But, yes, many people tend to avoid that mode when they encounter it. I don't think merely being open to GBLT stories qualifies as anything but good sense. And I don't think the anthology is doing anything other but giving an opportunity for stories that might not otherwise get published a chance for exposure. If it helps to normalize and increase understanding, all the better. But only if in the service of some kick-ass stories, right.

Hope this is coherent... heading to bed now. :)


Christopher Fletcher said...

Yeah exactly re: M-Brane: gay editor but not a gay zine. Of course I'd take some stories with some samesex content if they fit the sf genre and were entertaining, but I just haven't seen many until I started the anthology project. So it makes me wonder if more people are writing stuff like that but don't submit it to zines that don't seem explicitly open enough to such themes. Of course there are plenty of publications that specifically rule out taking any such content and even use that phrase "no alternative lifestyles" in their guidelines. For that reason, I can see good reasons for the emergence of that Icarus zine that you mentioned the other day. Though it's not technically the first such. Collective Fallout, which I mentioned on this blog earlier this month, beat it by a few months (first issue was out in January and second one is due out shortly). Though neither one of them can probably yet be considered ongoing magazines yet since they don't have multiple issues yet. They both look promising though. Fallout is done by a college instructor/library director in New England (don't remember specifically where) and Icarus is from Lethe Press, a little book publisher that deals principally in GLBT stuff. Neither one of them seems to be a doing an electronic edition, though, which is too bad because I think going print-only nowadays seriously limits who can see it. But that's another topic.

Anonymous said...

Hi Folks

First off, thanks for mentioning my Skinjumper series and giving them a
home in M-Brane. I very much agree with much of what is being said. I personally
believe that SF and Technology in general have the ability to blur gender
distictions in new ways that could not have been imagined even twenty years ago.
Just as writers in the past have explored ideas that are not a reality.
(Hmm my cell phone looks a lot like the communicater Captian Kirk used.) I
personally think that SF writers can speculate on how future changes in
technology, might change the dynamics of love and relationships in the in the
years to come.
Love and relationships, whether hetro GBLT or whatever are often an
ignored aspect that is not always included in techno-revolutions. It may not
seem like a big deal now, but think about how many people have met through the
internet and this was something that had never happened in the history of
mankind over two decades ago. What might be able to happen two decades from now
we can only guess at, but obviously that is something we SF writers will enjoy

Thanks for listening

Mike Griffiths

Christopher Fletcher said...

Thanks for your comments, Mike. It's gratifying that so many of the writers who have had stories in the zine have continued to be supportive and take an active interest in it.


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