Unexpected Trips Though The Rabbit Hole

Posted November 7, 2012 by Meoskop in Uncategorized / 4 Comments

“I’m actually quite the bigot, you know.” – said by no one, ever.

While I’m a huge fan of the well examined life, it’s even more critical for an author to consider the role of bias in their work. An author may add a passage meaning to illuminate a certain point, then discard the context that the passage was illuminating. An author may have a personal ax to grind and be unable to separate it from her fiction. A few sentences tossed into a book can permanently color the reader’s view of an author’s entire brand.

It’s important to speak out for your beliefs, but free speech is not speech free from consequence. Years passed before I picked Brenda Joyce back up after the The Prize. I’ve never really been able to take Linda Howard seriously since she used Burn to discuss her Randian beliefs about wealth. (I’ve also switched Howard from a purchase to an infrequent library read. I’d hate to increase her wealth and force her to pay all those burdensome taxes.) One of the things that drove me to read m/m romance in the 80’s was an inability to tolerate yet another homosexual character used as an easy villain stereotype. In Eloisa James latest novella Seduced By A Pirate, she has a few throwaway lines that damaged her brand for me.

“Griffin had come to loathe the very mention of the first Viscount Moncrieff, a repellant beast who had slavered at the feet of James the First. In Griffin’s opinion, he received the title of viscount as a direct payment for personal favors of an intimate nature. His father had never liked that suggestion, though there was a bawdy letter upstairs from the king that confirmed Griffin’s impression.” – Eloisa James, Seduced By A Pirate

There is no point to this mention of the first Viscount other than to establish that Griffin hated hearing about his ancestry. Nothing about the Viscount factors into the tale and he is never mentioned again. Why then, must the first Viscount be repellant, and a beast? Why did he slaver at the feet of James the First? If the point is to illustrate how Griffin felt about his heritage or about men who gather riches through words (he gathers his own through theft) why does the first Viscount have to be bisexual? Why does young Griffin assume this man he dislikes was involved in an intimate relationship with the king? If the letter confirms Griffin’s beliefs, then the belief existed before the letter. If the belief is not predicated on the letter, how did Griffin form it? Does repellant slavering beast  automatically mean homosexual activity to young Griffin? How did he integrate that belief into his career as a pirate, given the relationships between some career sailors? We don’t know. The only introduction of homosexuality in Seduced By A Pirate is the passage above. If it drives nothing about the character, what is the point of it’s inclusion?

And thus an author’s brand is damaged.  I don’t think Eloisa James is a blatant bigot. I do think she has assumptions and norms derived from her culture that she hasn’t critically evaluated in the context of reader response. This is totally cool. You can’t write everything with an eye to who you may offend. What you can do is evaluate if what you’re writing is necessary. Do these words add to what you’re building or detract from them? Is this passage moving things along, illuminating what you want it to illuminate, or is it removing your reader from the reading experience? For this reader, it was hard to separate the author from her authorial choice.

4 responses to “Unexpected Trips Though The Rabbit Hole

  1. Follow the link for my 2004 rant. It was the racism couched as racial progress that killed me. Tillie existed only to show the heroine as noble and socially forward. She was the most magical of magic minority characters.

  2. I remember reading somewhere that some of Eloisa James’s academic peers pulled her up years ago on the fact that she had no gay characters in her books, so she started to write secondary gay characters. But redressing an imbalance in your work and having your bias come through your writing are two different things, of course.

    I feel like it’s an almost invisible bias. I can quite easily just read it as distaste for someone who would sleep their way to the top, regardless of gender. But then, as you say, why have him be bisexual? And there seems to be some distaste embedded there towards a man who would take the woman’s path to power. Tricky!

    I think authors really do have to examine their own bias (I read a review recently that highlights how most authors lean left, but we’re so used to this in narrative we only notice when the bias is right).

    I’m developing a historical series, and the third book is a gay romance (m/m). I’ve been told it will most likely have to be published separately, in a different line to the rest of the series. It’s a bit of an ethical conundrum. On the one hand, of course I want to make a living at what I do, and I have to observe the market I write for. On the other hand, it feels like homophobic gatekeeping to insist that book be separate, and I’m not comfortable with that.

    And this turned into a massive rant! Great topic 🙂

  3. I love rants, have at it.

    I missed the woman’s path to power aspect. That is absolutely worth thinking about, especially as I strongly disagree that most authors lean left. Taking just the romance genre for the sake of scope, the most successful romance is deeply conservative. There are underlying assumptions about power and sexuality in the genre that toe a very conservative line. A sexually free heroine of any time period must either repent or experience damage from her promiscuity. A sexually free side character is either the unstable bitch ex or quickly killed off. The hero is generally based on a narrow model of benign patriarchy, with little room for non gender conventional character aspects. If a hero is cerebral. He must also be highly (unexpectedly) athletic. If he is concerned with his clothing and appearance, he must be traditionally masculine in another manner. The power dynamic of romance may be subversive in the individual book but in the genre as a whole it’s a reinforcement of conventional values. The big city will eat up the small town girl who must (if she found success) be humbled back into an appreciation of what she repudiated.

    Granted, there is a push toward less conventional fiction but it’s not flying up the charts in the same manner as traditional genre books are. While I love the genre I think ignoring its unspoken assumptions to fit a narrative of left vs right is tricky. Link me the review if you still have it, interested in what they used for the argument.

    As far as the series – this is a great dilemma. It is homophobic gate keeping on the one hand, on the other it is a recognition of brand management. Avon (for example) is not going to drop a m/m or f/f or f/f/m book into a series on their imprint because of that implied contract with readers. A romance is between a man and a woman of conventional western moral ideals, with economic weight behind at least info them and a largely white racial identity. This is what a reader wants when they pick up book. Is that wrong? Of course not. Is it frustrating for readers and authors who want to stretch the market! Of course. But I stopped reading m/m and (generally) stopped reading books marketed outside those narrow race constraints. So I am part of the problem.