Recommended Podcasts and Shows

The world probably doesn’t need yet another list of recommended shows and podcasts to make social distancing more bearable, but just in case, here are the shows I’d recommend bingeing to pass the time:

PODCASTS:

For comedy and cocoa: The Amelia Project

For true crime with a huge number of episodes: Redhanded

For addictive storytelling: The Left Right Game

For creepiness and enough episodes to keep you busy for a while: Magnus Archives

TV SHOWS:

For a frustrating but compelling puzzle box: Westworld

For near-perfect dialogue: Killing Eve

For a (maybe?) doomed love story: Feel Good

Red Hail Book Trailer

Check out the new book trailer for Red Hail, featured here.

Now available for preorder at the following locations:

Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/ye4kg9we

Barnes and Noble: https://tinyurl.com/yfvxvkxc

Google Play: https://tinyurl.com/yhy2krll

Apple Books: https://tinyurl.com/yha6w435

Kobo: https://tinyurl.com/yhbcg6hu

To Find Your Local Independent Bookstore: https://tinyurl.com/y7wlefqw

This trailer features the voice of Leslie Gideon. Music is “In Action” by David Szesztay, available through the Free Music Archive.

True Crime and Fairytales

Marina Warner once said, “Fairy tales are about money, marriage, and men. They are the maps and manuals that are passed down from mothers and grandmothers to help them survive.”

Couldn’t the same be said of true crime? Think about our most common true crime stories: wives killed by husbands, serial killers stalking women, murders committed for greed and money. Centuries ago, Little Red Riding Hood taught little girls the dangers of walking alone through the woods. Now, tales of Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer tell us the same thing. In the past, Bluebeard taught young women to choose their spouse with caution. Now, the backstories of Charles Manson and Joseph James DeAngelo offer red flags used to avoid violent or manipulative partners.

In a recent spate of articles calling for us to “kill off our true crime obsession”, however, you’ll find no such acknowledgment of the genre’s function in our culture. These articles frame true crime as voyeuristic or working to somehow glamorize serial killers like Ted Bundy. More bafflingly, other critiques suggest that the true crime genre somehow misrepresents the “true nature” of violence.

To be clear, I’m not disputing the idea that individual examples of the genre are lurid or exploitative. Some true crime is gross, we all know that (just look at the entire JonBenet phenomenon). And the same is true of some sci-fi, some action, some historical fiction, etc. I also think some trends in the genre are genuinely problematic, as discussed below. Yet, unlike critical takes on other aspects of popular culture, critiques of true crime tend to present the entire genre as irredeemable rather than call out specific bad examples or push for improved representation. Why? What makes true crime different?

I think this interpretation and marginalization of true crime as mere lurid trash needs to be discussed in the context of one major fact: true crime is by and for women, and it is about men as threats to women. I’m not suggesting that crime itself is always the killing of women by men; on the contrary, men are statistically more likely to be murdered. That makes it all the more significant that the genre of true crime is overwhelmingly focused on women victimized by men. It also stands out as one of the few truly female-dominated genres. Top writers and producers in the genre include Ann Rule, Sarah Koenig, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. Women make up a significant majority of true crime podcast listeners. From books to podcasts to film to documentary series, women dominate the discussion and consumption of true crime.

Returning to the quote at the beginning of this post, my position on true crime stories is that they, like fairy tales, are largely a mechanism through which women transmit and acquire information about patterns of misogynist brutality, and that conversation about true crime also provides a space in which women are able to express negative emotions and confront their own complicated feelings about men and violence.

True crime also resembles fairy tales in another significant way. Like fairy tales, women’s fiction, and other woman-dominated genres, it has been dismissed with condescension, with remarks about its luridness juxtaposed against supposedly superior forms of journalism. Given this background, no critique of true crime as a genre can possibly ring true unless it takes its gendered production and consumption patterns into account.

So what about the major criticisms lobbied against true crime? Let’s take a look.

First: True crime glamorizes men who commit violence, or somehow excuses their actions. The criticism of true crime as exclusively voyeuristic assumes identification with the killer, not with the victims or survivors. That’s a crucial mistake, and one that reveals a fundamental lack of awareness of how women talk about true crime. I’ve never once had a conversation about the hotness of a killer, but I have often discussed with other women the warning signs of a killer, the kind of men who are likely to kill their wives, the red flags victims missed. Beyond that, claims that shows like The Ted Bundy Tapes utilize terms like “charming” in order to glamorize him completely miss the context and point: in that show and virtually everything else ever written about Bundy, the takeaway is a cautionary one. The message is not that he was truly charming, but that he was able to deceive others. This information is a call for vigilance, a warning to women not to trust the apparent charms of men they do not have reason to trust, not a plea to empathize with Bundy.

Second: True crime misleads us into a fixation on unlikely forms of violence like serial killers, whereas other forms of violent crime are far more common. While it is true that serial killers are exceedingly rare, this claim ignores the significant links between serial killers and other forms of crime and violence, links that are well-known to the true crime fan. Listeners of My Favorite Murder have heard countless examples of men who initially committed a rape or domestic assault, faced few consequences, and went one to commit multiple murders, a pattern relentlessly called out by hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. This attention to the earlier crimes of serial killers is a consistent feature in true crime circles, and it functions to draw a link between common, expected forms of violence that a majority of women experience on the one hand, and the extreme escalation of that violence that is the serial killer on the other. This link serves as one of the most damning indictments of rape culture and the failures of law enforcement to take abuse and sexual violence seriously, which makes it deeply connected to the “true nature” of violence.

Third: True crime is disproportionately focused on privileged white victims and largely ignores the victimization of sex workers, women of color, and indigenous women. This one is 100% on point. There is absolutely no excuse for the fact that everyone in the US knows the name JonBenet Ramsey but few have heard of Sherrice Iverson. But, here’s the thing: the solution to this problem in the genre is exactly the same as with every genre with a representation problem. This is a problem resolved by doing true crime better, by highlighting the experiences of people of color, by actively amplifying diverse voices. It isn’t a problem that is solved by doing away with the genre altogether; suggesting that the entire category is irredeemable does nothing to call attention to violence committed against women of color.

My point here isn’t to convert people who personally dislike true crime. I think that’s an entirely valid position to take. My point is instead to suggest that, in a society just beginning to grapple with the depth of harassment and violence women face on a daily basis, we need safe, manageable ways to learn about threats and patterns of dangerous behavior. Men are more likely to be murdered overall, but it rarely happens at the hands of their partners. It isn’t because the killer hates men. Women die at the hands of their male partners, and they die at the hands of people who are motivated by a deep hatred of women. We can’t eradicate misogyny, so we need other tools. Safeguards. We need ways to warn each other of things like the risks of hitchhiking, the ways in which killers con their way into private homes, the methods women have used to survive attacks. True crime provides a way of passing this knowledge along. Just ask any woman whose mother first introduced her to true crime.

So the next time a journalist assumes women read about Ted Bundy out of a sexualized fascination with the killer, I’d like them to consider the alternative. Women might not be thinking about fucking Ted Bundy. We might be thinking about how to spot the next one. We might be reading the maps and manuals. We might be hoping to survive.

And our great sin has, apparently, been to dare to enjoy ourselves while we do it.

On “Leaving the Politics Out” of Speculative Fiction

Today’s blog post was inspired by a small but notable trend in reviews (and the occasional creepy-ass DM) about SPINES and The Wandering Land. The sentiment of these messages can best be summed up as, “Sure, it’s well-written and has a good story, but why do you have to bring in the politics? I just want to be entertained, I don’t want to hear comments about racism and capitalism!” Since receiving this kind of feedback, I’ve been on the lookout for this sentiment aimed at other people’s work and. . . wait for it. . . It’s everywhere. Scroll through the reviews of the most acclaimed audio dramas, and you’ll inevitably find one by a disgruntled listener who complains that the number of queer characters in The Bright Sessions feels “forced.” If women in novels do anything other than faint or fuck, the acronym SJW will probably pop up more than once. Characters of color? Those are fine, usually, but if they actually experience or comment on racism, it “takes the reader out of the story”. The underlying assumption for these remarks is that the dialogue, concepts, and identities on display are unrealistic posturing rather than natural conversations that happen in a wide variety of environments and communities.

According to these readers, fantasy, sci-fi, and horror shouldn’t have characters who express opinions about racism, sexism, homophobia, or organized religion. There shouldn’t be a critique of capitalism underlying the final plot developments of SPINES. Characters shouldn’t use or refer to they/them pronouns. There should be magic and scares and adventure, but no politics. And by “no politics,” they of course mean characters with no political views or identities who differ significantly from that of the listener.

Just entertain me. Leave the politics out of it.

This is impossible. I don’t mean it’s a bad writing choice (although it’s also that). I mean it’s quite literally impossible to write an apolitical story, because the decision to create the illusion of an apolitical world is in itself a decision to bolster the status quo. That isn’t neutral. It’s political.

Let’s look at some examples. When writing the ensemble of five characters for The Wandering Land, I had three options. Option 1: make them all straight, white, middle class, and entirely content with the current political and economic situation in the US. Despite ticking the boxes for “neutral” and “apolitical” in many people’s minds, this would have been a deeply political choice because it would have offered an unrealistically homogenous depiction of the artistic and academic community of Tucson, thus reinforcing and supporting heteronormativity and a lack of diversity. That’s a political position.

Option 2: Make the characters superficially diverse, but don’t have them experience any racism, sexism, homophobia, or ableism, and don’t depict them as having a viewpoint shaped by their identity in any way. Again, this isn’t politically neutral. This is once again making a political choice by deliberately erasing systemic inequality and differences in perspective, but this time it’s cloaked in a thin veneer of palatable faux-diversity. Readers arguing for this position want an interracial relationship, but don’t want to be reminded of the ways in which interactions with racist family members lead to a strained dynamic. They want an Arab-American lesbian, but they don’t want her to have a perspective on queerness and sexuality different from that of the hegemonic white gay community.

Option 3: Make the characters diverse, and do the best job I can to depict them as having a political existence and views shaped by their experiences. This is a political choice because it is a deliberate effort to include diverse voices and to acknowledge the realities of structural inequalities.

I went with option three, but the point here isn’t really about why you should or should not write diverse characters. That debate, and the even more important debate on how to write diverse characters well if you come from a position of privilege, has been articulated far better elsewhere (such as in this Writing the Other roundtable). My point is to show that these options are all equally political. In choosing the illusion of an apolitical world and collection of characters, you are in fact just making a different political choice than I did. It doesn’t make it any less political, it just makes it more comfortable for a specific subset of readers.*

Of course, politics can be poorly integrated into a story. There are far too many examples of characters serving as mouthpieces for an author’s preferred utopia. If a character has been allowed to lecture another character in Ayn Randian fashion for countless pages, the writing sucks and the story suffers. But that’s not what’s going on here. This is punishing content creators for every passing remark or piece of dialogue that reminds the reader/listener that those with politics and experiences different from their own exist in the world.

Guess what? Working to frame worldviews different from your own as extraneous politics while propping up your own perspective as the assumed normative neutral a political act, bitch.

For those already gearing up to argue that it’s not the politics, it’s that the references are “shoehorned in” in some way, I’d like to suggest actually checking the runtime and/or number of political references in the story. Example: I recently saw a comment about the great audio drama The Strange Case of Starship Iris, focusing on the “forced” nature of the diversity and the fantastical notion of people discussing preferred pronouns upon first meeting. As anyone who has ever spent time in queer spaces can attest, introductions with pronouns are entirely commonplace for a lot of people. It’s not a weird conversation to have in an LGBT bookstore or in any number of other queer-friendly spaces. Moreover, the conversation in question occurred early in the series, took place over a minute at most, and was immediately followed by various acts of space-intrigue. In other words, this irate listener would have branded the presumption of binary pronouns as apolitical, but a minute’s discussion of gender identity qualifies as forced.

Or let’s take one complaint about The Wandering Land, which is that it is critical of organized religion (uh, yeah, dude, have you met me?). This presumably stems from scenes taking place in an Irish Magdalene institution, in which a young woman is emotionally and physically abused. This is a setting and situation ripped entirely from real-world events. I didn’t make up any part of it, and since it didn’t involve rape or the murder of infants it could be argued that I softpedaled it compared to the reality. Subsequent commentary by the characters is essentially restricted to one character making an angry remark about the Catholic Church being responsible for so many of the world’s problems.

Reader, if such blasphemy shocks you, I have terrible news about what your lapsed relatives have been saying about religion when you aren’t around.

When a diverse group of people with progressive politics hang out, there will be snarky remarks about religion, capitalism, and racism. There will be numerous people who do not identify as straight. You might not like it, but it’s realistic characterization for a story taking place in our world.

But what about fictional worlds? This brings me to another odd variant of the “no politics” complaint: “Writing political stories is fine, but this is sci-fi! I just want escapism, keep the politics in the serious literature!” In this category I would place several negative reviews I have seen for N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, featuring some variant on “she’s trying to say something about slavery and racism, but I want sci-fi adventure! Not a history lesson.”

First of all, this idea of apolitical sci-fi displays a baffling lack of awareness of the genre’s history, which has made pointed political and social critiques from the beginning. Beyond that, however, it posits that it is possible to create an alternate fictional world that has no parallels or overlaps with our own. Even worse, it reinforces the view of sci-fi and fantasy as lesser genres incapable of challenging viewpoints or making statements in the same way as “serious” literature. It’s a strange kind of sci-fi fan who actively works to reinforce the genre’s position on the fringes of the literary world.

The reflexive response from conservatives at this point tends to be that only progressive politics get put on display, that there isn’t the same kind of pandering to conservative politics. But here’s the thing: every time a story features heteronormative relationships or an all-white cast of characters or assumes the readers’ familiarity with Christianity, that is political. And that happens all. The. Damn. Time. You just don’t notice it because your politics are constructed as the normative default. The cold hard truth is that if you are the type of person who takes issue with progressive politics, the vast majority of our written and visual media is still made for you. By definition, conservatism is the politics of the status quo, which means (again, by definition) that stories that don’t push political and social boundaries are politically conservative.

To sum up: there is no such thing as an apolitical story. It doesn’t matter if it takes place on the moon. It doesn’t matter if it takes place in fairyland. It doesn’t matter if there isn’t a single human character. There is no such thing as an apolitical story. There is only a choice between the politics that align with what the reader already believes, and politics that challenge them. Content creators do not owe you a story that “keeps the politics out of it”.

And, if you feel the urge to complain about a story’s politics, at least be honest about why. Be honest about the fact that you are centering yourself the default reader/listener, and you are uncomfortable with stories that do not seem to be entirely for or about you. That discomfort is ok; all of us who write and read from a position of privilege experience that. It’s when you refuse to confront that discomfort for what it is and deal with it that it becomes a problem.

*NOTE: To be absolutely clear, I’m not claiming to be an expert on writing diversity or to be the arbiter of how best to approach it. I feel like I can say I did the work to research and write diverse characters well, and I make it a priority to read work from people of color, disabled writers, and LGBTQIA people, but I leave it to readers to judge how successful I am in that attempt and I welcome any perspectives on things I could have done better. These examples are entirely for the purpose of discussing the myth of “apolitical” vs. “political” choices.

Patreon Fund

Hey all! I’ve decided to launch a Patreon page. My podcasts already have dedicated pages to support things like website and podcast hosting costs, but this fund will help me make progress toward short stories and other projects. I’m offering some pretty sweet goodies in exchange for your generous donations, so if you feel like some free flash fiction, head on over here to kick in a few bucks. Any donations are hugely appreciated. Every dollar makes a difference.

The Feminism of The Last Jedi

Warning: Spoilers for The Last Jedi abound throughout this post.

Ok, look, there are tons of reasons to love The Last Jedi. The thrilling battle sequences. Filmmaking artful and lived-in enough to make you forget the plasticky CGI nightmare they made of the prequels. Interrogation and upending of established tropes. A sense of humor. But, for me, what really sets this film apart is its unapologetic, bone-deep feminism. And I’m not just talking about badass-lady-swings-a-sword feminism; plenty of films get to that level. No, The Last Jedi digs much, much deeper than that, exposing in the process some of the unspoken assumptions and aggressively misogynist traits of the filmmaking industry as a whole.

More than anything else, I’d like to take a minute to use The Last Jedi as a way of exploring the layered nature of feminist filmmaking, starting with the easiest forms of representation and moving all the way to the truly rare and surprising feats that this film and so few others pull off. Here we go:

Level One: Get beyond tokenism.

The original Star Wars trilogy already had Leia, and she was great. From the get go, she was much more than the damsel the genre so badly wanted her to be. Blunt, handy with a blaster, committed to her politics, she was always a feminist character (gold bikini scenes notwithstanding). But. . . aside from Leia, what other women do you recall from that universe? Luke’s aunt? That one rebel officer with the pixie cut? Even setting aside aliens and androids of indeterminate gender, examining crowd scenes in the original trilogy or the prequels brings to mind a weird dystopian subplot in which a sex-specific plague wiped out nearly all women. This is, of course, not a sin specific to Star Wars or sci-fi in general; numerous studies have shown that women are ridiculously underrepresented in both speaking roles and in non-speaking crowd scenes. Still, the Star Wars movies have, up until this point, been particularly glaring their underrepresentation of women. Even The Force Awakens, with all the fanfare about how great Rey is, took a while before it came close to passing the Bechdel Test.

Now look at The Last Jedi. Apart from the many, many prominent roles accorded to women, they constantly appear in those busy battle station scenes, in the seats of cockpits, and as mechanics. All of which, of course, makes perfect goddamn sense. Aside from the Jedi with their lightsabers, almost nothing about this starfaring society requires any particular upper body strength (the last-gasp, scientifically dubious, final biological argument misogynists and MRA fuckboys everywhere still cling to). On rebel ships, women comprise roughly half the people in any given scene (by my own admittedly rough visual estimate), which is as it fucking should be. Yet how many films can honestly claim to achieve this?

Level Two: You have more than one lady, and they’re not all young, hot, and white.

Congratulations, you got a whopping two women into your movie. But seeing more than one woman in a room at a time makes the dumber men of our species have uncomfortable thoughts that said women might be plotting to poison them and steal their penises (or. . . something. I’ve never been clear on exactly what the fear is, here.), so it’s best to make sure these characters are the least threatening versions of our gender possible: slender, beautiful, white women under the age of twenty-five. Do I actually need to provide examples of how common this problem is?

Now that you’ve had a moment to think back on 95% of the movies you’ve seen in your life, let’s return our attention to The Last Jedi. Our very first major battle scene ends with a heroic sacrifice by a woman of color, performing the kind of selfless final act usually reserved for our male heroes and the end of the film. Her sister, Rose, then takes up the reins, calling Finn on his bullshit and basically propelling the second act. In addition to Rose, women of color are visibly present in small supporting roles and among the extras, creating a world in which they exist as more than isolated tokens.

Then there’s Leia, Vice Admiral Holdo, and Commander D’Acy, all of whom are over forty, have crows’ feet, and command the fuck out of the rebels. None of these characters’ ages would be notable if these were male admirals and commanding officers since, ya know, it takes a while to achieve that rank. But Hollywood’s allergy to female aging very rarely allows for even one part like this, let alone three.

Basically, while it might be painfully obvious to observe that women come in different sizes, shapes, ages, and ethnicities, would you be able to determine that from watching most films? Didn’t think so.

Level Three: Recognize that femininity is an asset, not an obstacle to be overcome.

Here’s where The Last Jedi really exposes Hollywood’s sexist bullshit. Then it douses that bullshit in gasoline and sets it ablaze. It does so in the form of the rivalry between Poe Dameron and Vice Admiral Holdo. You’ve all seen this a million times: the cocky, instinct-driven maverick vs. the stolid, by-the-book authority figure. The trigger-happy detective vs. the chief. In The Last Jedi, the setup is familiar, but the payoff is a shock: Dameron is totally, absolutely, dead fucking wrong about his maverick rogue plan, and his idiocy gets people killed. It’s Holdo, who Dameron frames as a coward and traitor, who has actually been protecting the rebels through calm, solid leadership focused on reaching a safe harbor.

The gender dynamics, however, make this more than just a surprising twist on an old formula. Holdo is feminine in every sense. She’s got a shimmery dress, a stylish wavy bob, and a soft voice that makes her sound more like a kindergarten teacher than a battle-hardened commander. But not one of these things holds her back in any way. On the contrary: every interaction between Holdo and Leia reveals a pragmatic, deeply feminine sense of prudence, responsibility, and concern for the larger community rather than just for immediate glory. When Holdo sacrifices herself to take out an enemy vessel, it isn’t one of Poe Dameron’s devil-may-care impulse moves. It’s a calm, cleareyed calculation, the right decision made at the right time.

And that is precisely where The Last Jedi earns a rare mark of distinction as a piece of feminist sci-fi. These women aren’t heroic despite their gender; they’re heroic because of it. This is a film that looks swaggering proponents of toxic “alpha” masculinity right in the eye and tells them to grow the fuck up.

It’s about time.

Substitutes for “Strong Female Character”

Like many feminist writers, I spend a lot of time thinking about the pitfalls of writing women, and a lot more of my time marveling at the ways (often, but not exclusively) male writers manage to step into the most obvious of traps. There’s good old women-in-refrigerators, in which pain and horror is inflicted on female characters for the sole purpose of motivating a man. There’s failing a simple Bechdel test. That’s not to mention flat-out useless or sidelined female characters or women who exist solely as a prize (ahem, Kingsmen).

Those pitfalls are so obvious and long-discussed that I have to think all except the most novice writers make a conscious choice to not give a shit, particularly if it makes for a more marketable story. In which case, you’ve picked your side and I have no reason to continue the discussion with you. But this still leaves one of the more frustrating female character fails, and the one that I think is most often born of good intentions: the Strong Female Character.

Writers who seek to produce a Strong Female Character often seem to be trying hard. They often get pretty damn close to something good. Butt-kicking women fighting the good fight, staring danger in the eye, and participating in badass capers? What’s not to love?

If done correctly, all of the above can be fantastic. Yet it so often results in a problematic or even overtly anti-feminist message. Why?

To answer this, I’d like to focus on an example from anime: Attack on Titan‘s Mikasa Ackerman (note: spoilers abound from this point on). Mikasa appears at first glance to be an ideal Strong Woman: she’s the best fighter in her unit. She’s calm, cool under pressure, smart, and she’s the one who most often fights to protect her friends. Yet, the more time we spend with Mikasa, the more apparent it becomes that every single aspect of her character is defined entirely in relation to her best friend/surrogate brother/unrequited love, Eren. She risks life and limb to rescue him, repeatedly fights to protect him, and defies orders to keep him safe even after it is revealed that he is secretly a big, vicious Titan. Flashbacks don’t do anything to fix the problem. Instead, we see that her identity was bound to his from the moment they met during a violent encounter as small children. Two seasons in, I can name absolutely nothing about her character that isn’t in some way bound up with her male companion. Even her trademark red scarf comes from him.

This brings me to what I view as the central issue with the Strong Female Character: Female strength is only interesting when it is in support of the interests of a male character. Female strength employed in that woman’s personal interest or in the interests of other women is rarely viewed as anything other than unhinged psychosis or as a feature of a supporting character far removed from the central plot.

Think of how many examples of this we can see in pop culture: nearly every Doctor Who companion until Bill, Harley Quinn, every tough Bond girl ever, Gamora, even Sarah Connor. All have badass qualities that exist in direct service to the goals and journey of a male character, and that’s it. This is, of course, not a new observation, and it’s bound up with the representation issues identified by the Bechdel Test and the Mako Mori test. Still, I think it’s worth considering why this problem seems so intractable even among well-intentioned writers who want to do better.

So what actually makes a good, strong (as in strongly-written) female character? Here I’d like to turn to Furiosa. I think a lot of people misunderstand what makes Furiosa a feminist character. They look at her fighting skills, her shaved head, her stoic demeanor, and think that’s what defines her as “strong.” But there’s something else, far more important: her entire character arc and every aspect of combat is in service to her own interests and the interests of other women. The unique feature of Fury Road isn’t that it features a tough woman, but that her interests are supported by a badass man rather than vice versa.

This, I think, is the key to understanding why attempts at feminist writing fail. I think, quite simply, we are using the wrong word. “Strong” is too associated with physical qualities or certain types of combat. A “Strong” woman can still fail as a feminist character, and those fails happen more often than not.

So what should we say instead? I don’t know that I necessarily have a good answer to this. There’s “independent”, except that it implies that female characters should always be lone wolves rather than existing in the context of equitable or interesting power dynamics. “Well-rounded” is too vague, as is “complex”. My preference, for now? “Self-contained Female Characters.” Not an elegant phrase, I know, but it’s the only thing I can think of that specifically addresses this compulsive need to attach female efforts and achievement to a male character’s, and it doesn’t frame female strength strictly in terms of physical prowess. It also allows for female villainy, deeply flawed personalities, and other complexities that avoid the central problem of not allowing women to exist as fully realized individuals. It also doesn’t preclude the possibility of complex relationships with other characters, it just insists that these characters must be explainable and understandable without reference to the goals of a male character.

I doubt the phrase “Strong Female Character” is going anywhere anytime soon, and maybe it should stick around. Personally, though, I’ll be avoiding it for a while. Instead of viewing characters through the lens of “strength” and “weakness”, I’m focusing on whether or not they stand on their own two feet.

Graham Joyce Retrospective, Part VII: How to Make Friends with Demons

This review is also up at Goodreads.

How to Make Friends with Demons (published in the UK as Memoirs of Master Forger) features lost love, terminal cancer, and the daily presence of malevolent demons. It’s also Graham Joyce’s lightest and breeziest book by far. Told in the first person, Demons alternates between a few days in the life of middle-aged antiquarian book forger William Heaney on the one hand, and the darker tale of how college-aged William developed his ability to see demons on the other.

The present-day storyline offers little in the way of conventional plot, but William and his acquaintances are likeable enough I barely cared. William’s days are taken up with a new book forgery project, an endeavor based more on boredom and his friendships with partners-in-crime Jaz and Stinx than on any financial desperation. The rest of his time is taken up with two very different relationships with two very different women. There is his platonic, longstanding bond with the saintly homeless-rights activist Antonia, but there is also a sudden romance with a mysterious young woman named Yasmin. Oh, and he sees demons everywhere.

The second storyline offers more familiar territory for Joyce readers. Young William enjoys a passionate romance with his college love, but that romance is threatened when he and a friend dabble in the occult and realize they have touched the supernatural realm. The dual timelines mean that the outcome of this second plot is never in doubt; we know William does not end up with his college lover, and we know he continues to see demons well into middle age. The pleasures of this storyline come not from any twists or turns, but rather in the melancholy, thoughtful treatment of young love and bad luck.

As in so many of Joyce’s books, the story is rife with potential pitfalls that he avoids through sheer strength of characterization. The fantasy of a middle-aged man being pursued by a gorgeous younger woman is an eye-roll-inducing cliché (ahem, Stieg Larsson), but by making William and Yasmin appear as well-rounded people, her desires and his desirability both make sense. His interactions with Stinx and Jaz, similarly, could easily devolve into the kind of Guy Ritchie caper we’ve all seen in roughly 10,000 British crime films, but Joyce persuasively frames the forgery project as just another part of a longstanding friendship.

Oddly enough, the titular demons barely matter to the story. William sees them, and we are as certain as one can be when dealing with a Graham Joyce story that they are real, but they never drive the present-day plot in any meaningful way. They serve instead as markers of personal suffering, grief, and depression, which William uses to better understand those around him. Even the earlier plotline is driven less by the demons than by stranger byproducts of William’s occult rituals. As in all of Joyce’s works, the characters simply experience the supernatural as part of their day-to-day lives.

I doubt anyone would rank this as Joyce’s finest or most ambitious work, but I don’t think he meant it to be. This was never intended to convey the horror of Dreamside, the poignancy of The Facts of Life, or the historical specificity of The Limits of Enchantment. This is an altogether jauntier piece of work. I can almost imagine Joyce viewing the writing of this work as a kind of vacation. Of course, since this is Graham Joyce we’re talking about, even that easygoing break has to include some demons.

Graham Joyce Retrospective, Part VI: Some Kind of Fairy Tale

This review is also up at Goodreads.

Twenty years after fifteen-year-old Tara Martin disappeared without a trace, she turns up on her parents’ doorstep. She’s unscathed and appears not to have aged a day since her disappearance. Most unsettling of all, Tara tells her bewildered family that she has only been gone six months, and that she spent that time in a magical fairy realm.

The bulk of Some Kind of Fairy Tale’s narrative centers on the reactions of the people she left behind. Her parents, Mary and Dell, believe her to be mentally ill but don’t want to risk confronting her about the story. Her brother, Peter, responds angrily to Tara’s evasiveness, attempting to catch her in a lie and expose the truth about what happened. Her ex-boyfriend, Richie, who was investigated in connection with her disappearance, sees Tara’s vanishing as the moment his life derailed and her reappearance as his second chance. Also in the mix are Peter’s wife, Genevieve, and their four children, along with a curious neighbor lady and an eccentric psychiatrist who interviews Tara about her experience. All of these characters become tangled in the book’s central dilemma: what do you do when you are confronted irrefutable evidence of something you cannot possibly believe?

Note that the dilemma is not “what really happened to Tara.” Given that this is a Graham Joyce novel, it probably won’t come as a shock to anyone that he is largely uninterested with pinning down the boundaries between fantasy and reality. As in all of his work, he prefers to examine the consequences of the fantastical through character interaction. How much really happened or where Tara went is, through that lens, largely inconsequential.

The strengths of Some Kind of Fairy Tale are those common to all of Joyce’s work. Joyce had uncommonly acute insights into all kinds of human relationships. Here, in the form of Peter and Genevieve, we get an authentically rendered depiction of one of those married couples that have settled into a contented, quietly happy partnership. In Peter and Richie we see the fumbling awkwardness of an old male friendship damaged by past scars and conflicts. In Jack, we are given a teenage boy who is neither the quipping, smart, quasi-adult kid of so much TV nor the insufferable idiot that adults often see when they observe the young. Every one of these characters is believable and sympathetic in their strengths and imperfections, to the point where I could easily imagine meeting any one of these people in real life.

The major weakness of the book is, oddly enough, the woman at its center: Tara. Even though a considerable portion of the narrative is told in the first person from her perspective, she remains something of a beautiful cipher. This is partly by design; Joyce clearly wants her to remain inscrutable to the surrounding characters. While that might have been a wise choice if the point of view remained restricted to the other characters, however, Tara’s sections suffer from her depiction as a reactive figure rather than one with agency and clear desires. Even when Tara does make a pivotal decision late in the book, it feels inevitable and manufactured by the plot.

Along with the sketchy rendering of Tara, the fairyland she recounts is surprisingly dull. For all the images we get of ritualized combat, sexual free-for-alls, and sentient lakes, little happens and the entire scene feels distant in a way that the main “real world” narrative does not. Again, part of this is by design. Tara’s memories are presented as recounted to a psychiatrist or to Peter, so the reader is supposed to wonder about their authenticity. While I understand Joyce’s approach in theory, I found myself comparing this unremarkable fairyland to the rich, fantastically alien scenes of The Limits of Enchantment or Smoking Poppy.

All in all, though, the fairyland is not the point of Some Kind of Fairy Tale. This is, like all of Joyce’s work, a book about men and women, family bonds, sex, and the ways in which choices echo throughout one’s lifetime. On that level, it is a successful and well-rendered depiction of one family faced with the impossible.

SPINES

So this is what I’ve been up to lately. I’m the head writer for SPINES, an upcoming serialized audio drama podcast. Here’s the first teaser; as always, promotion is huge for podcasts, so all the retweeting/sharing/subscribing on Itunes will be greatly appreciated: