Sometimes, it just hits a bit too close to home

The phone system is working again – at least for now. There was no exterior intervention, it just suddenly worked again. However, I’m still having online trouble such as getting assigned weird IP addresses. Plus, I cannot access certain sites since the phone trouble started and by coincidence they are all sites offering services that use a lot of bandwidth. Hmm, I wonder whether it’s just residue from the phone system trouble, even though the internet was working through it all, or whether my ISP is sneakily trying to disable high bandwidth uses. Oddly enough, I seem to be the only human being on the planet with this problem and if it really was due to the ISP, other people should be having similar issues.

My Women writers, international writers, marginalized writers post from yesterday really seems to have struck a chord and was linked by Sherwood Smith, Aliette de Bodard, Kate Elliott and was also picked up by Charles Tan for one of his link round-ups and then by SF Signal. There have also been plenty of tweets and facebook links. There has also been a viewer influx, though not nearly as many as during the Strunk and White affair. Obviously, a lot more people read XKCD than are interested in discussions about women and international writers in SFF.

The women in speculative fiction discussion is still going on as well with these contributions from Chris Moriarty and Linda Nagata.

Good posts all, but what particularly struck me was Linda Nagata writing that you can never be sure whether it was your gender, nationality, ethnic and racial background that was the reason your book/story didn’t sell or whether the story/novel was simply not good enough. In fact, I hesitated before posting yesterday’s post for much the same reason. Because while there were situations where I had strong suspicions that my gender and/or nationality might have played a role in having a story rejected, I could never be entirely sure. Maybe the story in question really was crap (and in fact many of the early ones probably were). Maybe the magazine that never even bothered to reply even though I included international reply coupons really did lose the submission. Maybe I was just looking for excuses, when the truth is that I was simply not good enough. Editors rarely come out and say point blank “books/stories about X, Y and Z and by writers who belong to groups A,B and C don’t sell, so we don’t buy them”. They simply sent you a form rejection and trying to divine any meaning from form rejections is futile and an easy way to drive yourself insane.

In many ways, the situation was similar how I felt when I was looking for a job after getting my MA in an economy that was supposedly strong and yet only got one rejection after another. Not even an interview or assessment center to blow, just rejections. You have your sneaking suspicions that the fact that you’re a woman of childbearing age has a lot to do with the constant rejections, especially since other women you knew at university have similar experiences (and all of them had great grades). But maybe it’s just that you are too old, not professional enough, do not have sufficient work experience, that you studied the wrong subject at the wrong university, that it’s all your fault. Because you can never know.

On a somewhat related note, Sherwood Smith points out this great post by Kari Sperring sparked by an unfortunate remark by Connie Willis that wrote Blackout/All Clear, because WWII England was such an exciting place and time.

I very much agree with this, down to that fact that I have a huge problem with Blackout/All Clear and the entire trope of the time traveler who just happens to get stranded in WWII at the height of the bombings. In the past five years, we have seen at least three stories of that type (two in the dramatic presentation category, one in the novel category*) get nominated for the Hugos and/or Nebulas. And always, the hapless time travelers end up in Britain, usually in London. And I always think, “You know what would be really daring? To tell that same story, time travelers landing in WWII, trying to avoid the bombings and interacting with people who might or will die, and set it in Dresden or Hamburg rather than London. Or maybe in Stalingrad, for that matter? Or Rotterdam? Or Warsaw? Or Hiroshima?”

I am German rather than British, yet my reaction to reading that Connie Willis quote was very similar to Kari Sperring’s. No, WWII was not exciting or romantic. It was an absolutely horrible time of concentration camps, lots of dead civilians on all sides, with cities getting bombed to rubble, children losing their parents, women getting raped and there was nothing whatsoever romantic about it. Nonetheless, I have heard similar remarks, whether in praise of Blackout/All Clear (I’m pretty sure one mentioned this particular book) or other works of WWII set fiction, extolling the romance and excitement and bravery of the period. And mostly such comments come from Americans, probably because Americans did not grow up with grandparents and parents talking about nights spent in bomb shelters, about fighter planes taking pot shots at playing children or about fleeing the advancing Red Army on foot with two small children. WWII holds a very different place in American memory, because the US never experienced widespread bombings of civilian targets like most of Europe did.

Towards the end of her post, Kari Sperring discusses her problems with the term “eurocentric fantasy”. And again I felt myself nodding in agreement, because my reaction is similar to a lot of what gets labeled eurocentric fantasy. This is a piece of badly researched cod medieval fantasy that has fuck all to do with Europe during the Middle Ages or any other time. It’s about as eurocentric as the fake Neuschwanstein in Disney World. It was a shock to realize that the watered down Disney adaptions of Grimm’s fairy tales – which for me were only one interpretation and not a particularly interesting one – were the definitive version for many Americans. I also got very irritated when some American person claimed that Celtic mythology was the shared heritage of all Europeans. Because I have zero Celtic heritage in the approx. 350 years I can trace my family history. In fact, Celtic mythology has always felt notably alien to me compared to the Norse and Greco-Roman traditions that are much more familiar to me.

What’s the way out of this dilemma? Just write what you know? Never use anybody else’s history or culture for fear of offending? That would make for much more boring literature and we don’t need that. The key is to do your research and take particular care with living cultures and with historical periods that are still within living memory. Nonetheless, we’ll all probably mess up somewhere.

As a reader, a good strategy is to avoid subjects, settings, etc… that you know have the potential to upset or trigger you. I once met a Welsh historian of Roman Britain who never read anything set in Wales or dealing with Romans, in Britain or elsewhere. She knew she’d only find fault and get angry, because she knew too much about the period. I generally avoid anything set during WWII, anything set in Germany and not written by a German and anything involving ships (steam and upwards, sailing ships are okay), because I know I will find fault and probably get angry. I avoided Blackout/All Clear for this reason and I avoided Shipbreaker, because even the summary tripped all my alarms. Now a lot of people like Blackout/All Clear and Shipbreaker was almost universally acclaimed. Nonetheless, they aren’t for me.

*Namely the Doctor Who episodes The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, which I didn’t like at all, the Torchwood episode Captain Jack Harkness, which I quite liked, probably because it focused mainly on the doomed gay love story, and Blackout/All Clear which I haven’t read and won’t.

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9 Responses to Sometimes, it just hits a bit too close to home

  1. Kate Elliott says:

    I agree with this post. But just a note: some of us Americans have parents who are immigrants and so we may have grown up with stories of what it was like in Europe during the war.

    • Cora says:

      I didn’t mean to imply that all Americans have grown up unaware of the conditions during WWII. A lot of European immigrants arrived after WWII (including some distant aunts and uncles of mine) and of course these immigrants had stories of the war which they passed on to their children and grandchildren. And of course, American soldiers who had served in WWII had stories of their own. But the experiences of soldiers are different from those of civilians in a war zone. And the WWII bombings (when I think of WWII, my first association are bombed out cities) are not as rooted in popular consciousness as in Britain or Germany.

  2. Estara says:

    I’ve made similar comments on the Kari Sperring post, so I’d only like to add another recommendation for Elizabeth E. Wein’s upcoming Code Name Verity, which I was the German checker for.

    It may be World War II and have British heroes, but the main plot is in occupied France. Even though the Gestapo are clearly the villains, even in their ranks there is a subtle shading of people going along, people just trying not to be trampled themselves, people being real Nazis, etc. While there is the French resistance, she also has Nazi collaborators in the book – but mainly the book is about two girls who meet because of the war, who love flying (one of them is an auxiliary pilot – Elizabeth Wein is a pilot herself) and who want to defend their country and be accepted as the powerful women they are at the same time.

    As with all Elizabeth Wein books you will need tissues, if you get moved to tears by truly tragic and justified events – which I do.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the plug. I don’t have a problem with Gestapo and Nazi villains, they were villains after all. I just don’t care for cartoon Nazis (if the actual Nazis had been as stupid as cartoon villain Nazis, WWII would have been a lot shorter) or for undifferentiated portrayals of all Germans as evil. That was actually what ticked me off about that Doctor Who episode, that the Doctor – who is an alien time traveler after all – broke out into a rant about the brave British beating the evil Germans in the middle of walking through a war zone.

      Besides, if Code Name Verity didn’t bother you, it’s unlikely to bother me. And if you checked the German for her, there won’t be any unintentional howlers like “Scheissen Kameraden!”

  3. Great post: you say what I was thinking with much greater clarity and insight, I think. Thank you.
    I may have been that Welsh historian. At least, that sounds *exactly* like things I have said. It remains true: I still avoid historical novels and fantasies set against that kind of background because I know I won’t give them the fair reading they deserve.

    • Cora says:

      Thank you for writing such a thoughtprovoking post that had me nodding “Yes, this” all the way through.

      I’m pretty sure that you weren’t that Welsh historian, actually. I met her ages ago on a long defunct Delphi Forum and I recall that she didn’t like fantasy. But most historians probably avoid reading fiction about their specialty. Historical inaccuracies can be annoying enough for a regular reader with some knowledge of history, so how much worse must it be for a professional historian?

  4. Being European-born, myself, the saccharine Disneyfied versions of fairy tales – well – let me just say that I kind of saw “The Little Mermaid” by accident after avoiding it rather consciously because I KNEW what Disney would make of it and that I was not disappointed in my assumptions. I cut my teeth on the original Hans Christian Andersen. Singing crustaceans were absolutely nowhere at all.

    And yes, on many counts, on the history angle. Yes, I write historically based novels on occasion and I beat myself senseless with research before I write a single word of that kind. I believe that as a writer and a teller of tales the world’s history is open to me to set stories in and with – but that emphatically does NOT mean cherry-picking a particular little bit of it and white-washing that bit until it actually confroms to MY STORY rather than vice versa. Wars are NOT bloodless, or fun. Seriously, people. THey are SO not. Particularly when they involve civillians who had nothing at all to do with the game of war that the politicians began but who somehow always find themselves paying the full price for that game while politicians escape on credit as usual.

    • Cora says:

      I had the original Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales read to me at bedtime long before I saw my first Disney film, so the Disney version was always just one interpretation of many for me. Besides, I always preferred the Czech film adaptions of classic fairy tales to anything Disney ever put out.

      I totally agree on the fact that wars are not fun and games and adventure.

      I loved The Secrets of Jin-Shei BTW. So did my Mum whom I gave the German edition for Christmas.

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