Saturday, June 10, 2017
When it comes to writing fiction, sex is a deeply meta topic—inescapably hazardous, like a golf course with its endless waterways and sand traps and hedges. No matter how careful you are as a writer, readers' interpretations jump to sex more readily than to virtually anything else, and people's attitudes on the subject are diverse and volatile. Even a modest error and you'll have blown whatever it is you were trying to do.
As a writer it's frustrating that sex is such a treacherous subject. Even though compared to many others I pay relatively little attention to reader expectations versus my own artistic drives, I do still ultimately care about being understood at least moderately well, and subjects where readers have strong preexisting views and inclinations—like sex—are veritable golf-course minefields.
Because there's no avoiding that, over the years I've had to alter my writing to compensate. Here are some of the categories in which this occurs, along with a few examples out of many.
First off are the unintended associations. The worst one is just how many readers for whom anything vaguely rodlike is immediately deemed phallic—leading to endless dick jokes and perceived dick references. There's a similar, only somewhat-less-annoying version of the same thing when it comes to seeing breasts everywhere. And besides imagined genital imagery, there's also imagined sexual attraction—the most bothersome of which is the fact that virtually every unusually strong bond between any two characters (who are not mates) is going to be assumed to conceal an unspoken or forbidden sexual yearning.
There's an enclosed city in The Curious Tale, an arcology named Junction City that is "shaped like a mushroom." That's always how I've envisioned it. I got the idea from the iconic Earth Spacedock in Star Trek when I was a kid; there was nothing sexual about it to me—and there still isn't, except that I've been permanently made to associate Junction City with my expectation of reader perception of the city as a phallic image. I've since redesigned the city's appearance to focus mostly on the now-irregularly-shaped "cap" region, leaving the "stem" region relatively minimal in the descriptions, just in an effort to make the damn thing look less like a penis to Joe Schmoe.
These sorts of artistic concessions to pragmatism always annoy me. Sometimes I wish I could just give people a Stern Look and say "Seriously?! Can't we just have nice things for once?"
Next is the inescapability of bodily sexualization. Human bodies—and brains—are intrinsically sexual (at least for most adults, that is), so there's no getting out of it: When it comes to character descriptions, readers infer sex everywhere, even where none is intended.
I wish readers' minds wouldn't go to sex so readily, not because sex is bad—though it sure must be annoying to wade through that stuff for many aces and grays—but because, once again, there's other shit to talk about. In fact sexual short-circuits in character depictions are so rampant that there's a whole sublanguage of terms and techniques for writers to indicate either sexuality or the absence thereof in a given character, so as to focus or avoid focusing the reader's sexual awareness.
With female bodies it is particularly egregious. This is why it took us decades to get fully-clothed female characters in games and movies once censorship laws subsided. To this very day it remains a Significant Artistic Achievement to have an Interesting Female Character who isn't a Sex Object. That tells you something about our nature as a species. Female roles are vastly more limited in storytelling, and there is no such thing as a female of reproductive age who isn't going to be sexually arousing or at least attractive to many readers. Obviously male readers are the most obnoxious and vocal engines of this, but female readers have the same problem when it comes to sexualizing female bodies in particular, and of course male bodies are sexualized too.
In The Curious Tale there's no possible way for me to avoid this. It'd be like telling people not to get hungry. Shit dun' work like that. Because this is one of the areas where there's no point trying to compensate, what I do instead is accept that most of my characters, and especially the female ones, are going to be sexualized no matter what, and try to put it out of my mind. All I can do is avoid needlessly adding fuel to the fire in my descriptions. Thus, I am extremely deliberate about all intentional sexualization of my own.
That's not to say I try and minimize it. On the contrary, I think embracing our sexuality is healthy, and there's a fair bit of sexual expression in the Tale. Rather, I simply came to learn what the censors of past generations understood: The only way to keep storytelling from being all porn all the time is to be mindful that a little sexualization goes a long way. In parts of the story where I especially want to minimize readers' sexualizations of my characters, I'll take extra steps to keep readers' minds from going there, such as by reducing character descriptions.
Unintended Sexual Judgments
Next comes the layer of ethical and temperamental connotations based on sexuality and sexual(ized) behaviors. Just as people do everywhere else in life, readers readily and extensively make assumptions about fictional characters' personality and integrity based on the characters' sexual behaviors or lack thereof. (Again female characters are held to a much more constraining standard.) We do this "ethical judgment shortcutting" outside of sexuality too—we make all kinds of inferences based on matters as trivial as a wide pair of eyes or an unexpected cough—but a huge amount of this kind of stuff goes to sex, and not often in a good way.
For this reason, for many years I have adjusted and readjusted the sexual personality and behavior of the central character Silence, in a long-running mental balancing act between reader perceptions and my knowledge thereof. Is she chaste? Is she temperate? Is she libidinous? Does she take sexuality as something sacred and somber? Something casual and fun? Something adventurous? Is she restrained in her sexual self-expression, pragmatic, abstinent, or is she venereal in it? Does she like to talk about sex? What are her drives? What turns her on? What would she do for sex?
All of these different character settings create channels for readers to draw incorrect inferences; it seems like there's no way, short of breaking the fourth wall and comically scolding the reader, to avoid inaccurate sexual perceptions. Because Silence's ethical profile is one of the most important parameters in the entire story, and because she is (after all these years) both as sexual and sexually mature as I wish we could all be, it's important for me to be aware and deliberate any time her sexual aspect steps into the spotlight as well as any time I sexualize her narratorially.
And of course there is the political dimension. Readers—some readers, anyway—think about sex, sexuality, and sexism in a story as it relates to the real world. They stop thinking about the characters in the story and start judging the character of the author. A writer needs to not only fulfill their own creative intentions but anticipate how their work will be regarded politically. It's not easy, especially when the spectrum of criticism means there's no way to avoid offending at least some people. And it gets a lot harder when you're trying to achieve a specific social impact.
I've been dissuaded on multiple occasions from writing sexual characteristics or dynamics in fear that they would be misinterpreted. For example, I have to be careful with how and when I mention that sexual intercourse or abuse occurs or has occurred or could occur; with relationships where a female character is submissive or subordinate to a male one, or where a female is depicted as being weaker; and with creating sexual relationships in the first place—all lest I be lumped in with self-absorbed male authors who don't give any thought to this stuff.
It's not a bad thing at all that fiction has become so highly politicized. It has certainly helped me become a better author with, for instance, the sensitive and problematic issue of using sexual assault (or the threat thereof) as a story device. There's a class of people who consider this to be generally unacceptable in fiction, especially from male writers, or at the very least lazy. I emphatically don't agree with that, but I do agree with their purpose. Poor writing on such a matter can inadvertently lend cover to sexist behaviors and rape culture, and it can cause needless pain to survivors or friends of survivors of sexual trauma.
In Mate of Song, Afiach's principal concern as a lone female traveler is being raped, not murdered (though that is a concern as well). And when Thanatos captures her, she expects him to rape her before killing her. Sexual assault is commonplace on Relance, and it's only the tip of a much larger iceberg of sexist discrimination, disenfranchisement, and exploitation. I have definitely refined my writing over the years to become more effective than I otherwise would have been in addressing these matters in a way that serves my intended impact.
Of course, this isn't to say that it isn't frustrating sometimes to have to be so cautious about how fictional situations will be interpreted in real-world terms. Among its many other uses, fiction serves as an escape from life's problems, and one of the things that I think sets me apart from the more fanatical voices is that I have different lenses that I can and do look at the world through. For instance, the character Celithemis in After The Hero is, through the lens of feminist critique, a victim of patriarchy: Her purpose in life is to be fattened up and married off. Her family has no other ambitions or use for her. This systematized injustice is a part of the ATH storyline; it's dealt with explicitly in the book. But her character and background are more than just that, and her circumstances aren't intended strictly to infuriate the reader. Indeed, she ends up becoming a fat, submissive wife anyway, in the context that this is a happy outcome for her.
I also have to be careful with my male characters. A great deal of context, tone, and observer prejudice go into classifying certain male behavior as sexually harassing or not. (I am not talking about conduct that actually is sexual harassment, but, rather, conduct that, depending on the circumstances, could be.) For a character like Galavar, who is effusive and tends to fill up a room with his presence, and who certainly always goes straight for what he wants, I am aware that, particularly when it comes to written text without contexts or tones available, people who aren't familiar with him may misread his conduct. His ethical profile is also important to the story, so I have to be careful with how I relate his conduct toward and around female characters.
Real-world political conceptual frameworks and boundaries are far narrower than politics as a branch of philosophy, and never reveal the whole story of anything. Yet they supply the criteria by which fiction is politicized and interpreted, and therein lies my frequent frustration at having to compensate for it.
Tune in Next Week!
But enough of backhandedly criticizing readers! My own sexuality also influences my writing, and, in the service of guiding reader perceptions and interpretations, next week I will talk about my Curious Tale "sex quota."
Until then, may your cigar just be a cigar.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!