Women in Speculative Fiction, News on the Grimdark Debate and the Unsung Heroes of German Literature

Strange Horizons is once again fighting the good fight and has broken down book reviews in major SFF venues by gender of the author and reviewer. The results are still largely discouraging. At Salon, Alex Heimbach also reports on the Strange Horizons gender breakdown study.

At Radish Reviews, Natalie points out that both Strange Horizons and VIDA, who regularly does a similar gender breakdown for general review outlets, omitted RT Book Reviews (because RT used to focus mainly on romance readers and romance has girl cooties even in the eyes of many otherwise enlightened people in the SFF community) and undertakes to do the gender breakdown for RT’s SF and general fantasy section herself. The result looks far more balanced than the gender balance at the publications surveyed by Strange Horizons. By the way, Strange Horizons have announced that they will include RT Book Reviews in future gender breakdowns.

At The World in the Satin Bag, Shaun Duke also goes into the recent discussions of the still skewed gender balance in SFF reviews, the all-male Clarke Award shortlist and the regularly recurring discussions of sexism in SFF. The culprit that Shaun Duke fingers for the fact that we seem to be having the same discussion about women in SFF year after year is that outdated gender role stereotypes classify subjects such as science, technology, exploration and war, i.e. the core subjects of much of SF, as stereotypically male.

The Fantasy Book Café continues its “Women in SF&F” month with a great post by Vera Nazarian about writing warrior women.

German journalist Antje Schrupp wonders about the current resurgence of stories and imagery glorifying patriarchical structures in the media. One of the examples Ms. Schrupp gives for the patriarchical resurgence (alongside problematic ads and sexist reality shows) is George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones which she recently read. During a latest reiteration of the debate about grimdark fantasy, a lot of women explicitly gave the amount of sexual violence and the sheer misogyny of many works of “grimdark” epic fantasy as reasons for disliking the whole grimdark subgenre. George R.R. Martin isn’t even the worst culprit – yes, there is rampant rape in Westeros, but he also has plenty of female POV characters and Danaerys Tagaryen, Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarrth are all pretty damn awesome. Come on, who did not cheer in the most recent episode of the TV show, when Danaerys turned the table on the slavers? IMO, works like Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns or the output of R. Scott Bakker or the founding text of the genre, Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, are far worse in that and any other regard. Besides, there is plenty of epic fantasy with varied and interesting women characters and far more egalitarian gender relations, as evidenced by the works of Kate Elliott, Tamora Pierce, Sherwood Smith, N.K. Jemisin, Kameron Hurley, Elizabeth Bear, Lois McMaster Bujold’s fantasy (and of course the Vorkosigan series for a case study in how smart women and new reproductive technologies can turn a society upside down).

What also struck me about Antje Schrupp’s post was that she wondered why people were still writing fantasy with medieval settings and heavily patriarchical social structures in the 21st century, when speculative fiction offers its authors the freedom to write about how the world could be different. Now I’m as bothered by the pervasive sexism featured in many SFF worlds as the next girl, especially when that pervasive sexism is never even questioned. It’s not just pseudo-medieval epic fantasy that’s to blame here, many of the Hunger Games inspired YA dystopias are even worse. However, peaceful and egalitarian utopias still make bad SFF settings, because fiction requires conflict and egalitarian utopias don’t really provide a whole lot of that, unless there is something seriously rotten at the heart of the egalitarian utopia (which is the plot of half the dystopian novels out there). As for why so much epic fantasy has medieval settings, blame the twin forces of Tolkien setting the precedent and Americans, who make up the majority of epic fantasy readers and writers, thinking that castles and medieval settings are really cool and romantic.

In spite of those caveats, I actually agree with Antje Schrupp that the renewed popularity of works with patriarchical gender structures is hugely problematic. However, I find the rampant worldwide popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey and its ilk (which – unlike most grimdark fantasy – are actually written and consumed by women) and the trend towards retro sexist and nostalgia laden TV shows such as Mad Men a lot more troubling in that regard than Game of Thrones.

A. Lee Martinez offers a belated entry in this year’s grimdark debate and argues that worlds where everything inevitably ends badly are no more realistic than worlds where there are only happy endings. I think this is a very important post, because a lot of the proponents of “realistic” grimdark fiction live comparatively comfortable that are anything but bad. Though I disagree that people tend to crave more darkness as they grow older. In my experience, the taste for grimdarkness truly is something of a goth phase and usually starts sometimes during one’s teens. By the time they hit thirty, most people grow out of it, though some never do. So the taste for grimdark fare is not a symptom of age but of some perpetual adolescence.

C.P.D. Harris also takes on the grimdark debate again and links the rise of grimdark fantasy to the popularity of tabloidesque 24-hour news channels in the US. He certainly makes an interesting point there and coincidentally also explains why grimdark fantasy is mainly a US/UK phenomenon so far, for our own TV news aren’t quite so bad yet (and though Germany has so-called news channels, they mainly broadcast documentaries), although the media frenzy about the Ulli Hoeneß case is a new lowpoint. And I say this as a lifelong Werder Bremen fan who can’t stand Hoeneß.

At All About Romance, Dabney wonders why abortion is never even mentioned is an option, when romance heroines find themselves faced with an unplanned pregnancy, and why romance heroines always decide to have the baby, even if the characters have been previously portrayed as the sort of people who would at least consider other options. Now I suspect that a contemporary romance where the heroine has an abortion on page (i.e. not something that happened ten years ago, when she was sixteen and in highschool) would never be published by a traditional publisher, particularly if the baby is the hero’s. However, it is a bit strange that no romance heroine considers other options, even if she decides to have the baby in the end. But then the romance genre still is rather conservative, as attitudes towards non-virgin heroines, beta heroes and condom use during sex scenes show.

Not exactly new, but still interesting: Die Welt has profiled the bestselling German historical fiction writer Iny Lorentz, which is a pen name for the husband and wife team Elmar and Iny Lorentz. Before finding success with historical adventure fiction, the Lorentzes wrote fantasy and SF under a different pen name. They’re also longtime gamers, got their start writing fanfiction and their wedding ring is a replica of Tolkien’s One Ring. All of which is pretty cool and gave me more appreciation for a writer (or two) whose works aren’t really my thing. Of course, the overall tone of the article is still terribly condescending – Die Welt being one of those papers which consider themselves quality publications. And just in case you’re interested in what the Lorentzes are writing, here is their most famous work, the historical adventure novel Die Wanderhure (The wandering whore) and here is the TV adaption starring Alexandra Neldel. Warning: There’s lots of violence towards women, rape and general nastiness in both movie and novel.

Meanwhile, regular commenter Daniela pointed me to this article from the Tagespiegel about another unsung hero of German literature, Helmut Rellergerd who has been writing the John Sinclair series of horror pulp novelettes for the past forty years and whose alter ego Jason Dark is one of Germany’s most prolific authors with one of the highest total print runs (over one billion). I wrote an article about Rellergerd’s creation John Sinclair a couple of years ago, which will probably be reprinted in a collection of my pulp fiction criticism some day. As with the Welt article about Iny Lorentz, this one is dripping with condescension as well. Would any journalist have made those comments about the author’s age (Rellergerd is 68) and how difficult it is for him to mount the stairs to his office every morning in an article about Martin Walser or Günther Grass, both of whom are over eighty and still writing? Of course not. But condescension towards writers of popular fiction is still rampant in Germany, if those writers are noticed at all.

Finally, here is a writer to whom no one will condescend any time soon: The New York Times has a surprisingly enjoyable interview with Jonathan Franzen, wherein he gives a shout-out to German writer Thomas Brussig among other things. I’ve also found that I share a (probably unfounded) prejudice against The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera because of its god-awful title.

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18 Responses to Women in Speculative Fiction, News on the Grimdark Debate and the Unsung Heroes of German Literature

  1. SMD says:

    Thanks for the link! Hopefully being a culprit in this instance isn’t a bad thing 😛

    • Cora says:

      Not at all, Shaun. I liked your post very much and think you’re on to something there.

      In fact, the whole “culprit” thing is just a badly formulated sentence, which is hopefully clearer now.

  2. Sherwood Smith says:

    Excellent roundup. (I have to admit that this debate I find more interesting than all the navel-gazing about awards.)

    Speaking of unsung German writers, any who do funny or romantic sf/f? I am always hoping to read more, but I am not a horror reader, and ditto rapetastic historicals.

    • Cora says:

      Glad you like the post.

      Unfortunately, most German SFF is rather serious. As for romantic SF, there are a couple of people writing gothics, mostly published in Romanheft form. Das magische Amulett and Jessica Bannister are two series that come to mind, as well as the anthology series Gaslicht and Irrlicht. Alas, I have no idea whether those series are available in the US.

      Of late, there are also some German writers of paranormal romance, many of them self-published. A writer who has gotten a lot of buzz and won the Autoren@Leipzig award for German indie writers is Marah Woolf. I haven’t read her MondLicht saga, but going by blurbs and excerpts it strikes me as very Twilight inspired. The first book, MondSilberLicht, is here (on Amazon.com). Plus, Marah Woolf’s work as well as the Romanheft gothics I mentioned above both suffer from a phenomenon Helmut Rellergerd a.k.a. Jason Dark mentioned in the interview I linked to, namely that German authors tend to write fantasy and horror in British or American settings, because German settings just don’t sell for that genre.

      As for funny fantasy, try David Safier, who also has the distinction of being from Bremen (though he lives in Berlin these days). Mieses Karma is the story of a TV journalist who dies on the night of her greatest triumph (due to being hit by remnants of the Russian space station Mir that have survived reentry) and is reborn as an ant due to bad karma. Happy Family is basically a German version of The Munsters/The Adamns Family. Plötzlich Shakespeare is the story of a frustrated elementary school teacher who realises that she is the reincarnation of William Shakespeare (Safier plays a bit fast and lose with historical fact here, but the book is fun). Jesus liebt mich is the story of a woman who always falls for the wrong man, including a kind-hearted carpenter who claims to be Jesus reborn. The title is meant literally BTW. The latest, Muh!, is the story of a group of cows who escape from the farm when they hear that they are about to be slaughtered and decide to emigrate to India, where cows are sacred. My Mom just finished Muh! and enjoyed it quite a bit.

      • Sherwood Smith says:

        Thanks, Cora!

        • Cora says:

          I totally forgot about Kerstin Gier, a German writer of YA time travel tales. Her trilogy Rubinrot, Smaragdgrün and Saphirblau suffers from some of the same issues as many other German fantasists (e.g. yet another British heroine), but she’s very popular.

          • Sherwood Smith says:

            That’s interesting about the British heroines. Why do you think that is?

            • Cora says:

              SF and (urban) fantasy by German authors tends to feature British and American settings and characters, because most of us grew up with SF and fantasy/horror with British or American settings and characters, so the US/UK became the default setting for speculative fiction (and for genre fiction in general, because well into the 1980s most of our thrillers and crime fiction featured British and American settings as well, while nowadays, faux Swedish or Italian settings are all the rage). For many of us, there is also a divide in our heads between German literature, film and TV (worthy and dull stuff about cancer, prejudice, ex-Nazis and all that – the stuff our parents watched/read and our teachers wanted us to watch/read) and Anglo-American literature film and TV (thrills, chills, explosions and genre, i.e. all the good stuff). Blanket denunciations of genre works as foreign or American trash didn’t help either, because generations of writers and readers absorbed that genre stories could only be told elsewhere, i.e. in the US or UK.

              And because speculative fiction was so strongly associated with US/UK settings, stories with German settings and characters were almost impossible to sell to the point that German authors adopted English/American sounding pen names. Perry Rhodan is American and his creator Werner Ernsting wrote as Clark Dalton. John Sinclair is British and his creator Helmut Rellergerd writes as Jason Dark (and in the interview I linked to, Rellergerd says that he wanted to set the Sinclair series in Germany, but wasn’t allowed to, because dark fantasy required a British setting). The international crew of the Orion 7 of Raumpatrouille Orion fame consists of a Scottish commander, a Russian security officer, a Swedish chief engineer, an Italian weapons officer, a Japanese navigator and a Swiss communications officer, all played by German actors. The German characters you see on the show are elderly generals who are obviously untrustworthy, while the one good general is a Dutch woman.

              Even with indie publishing, the prevalence of British and American settings and characters for speculative fiction continues because generations of writers have internalized that some stories can only be told with British and American settings and characters. I don’t even exclude myself there. I hardly ever write about Germany either, because it’s dull and boring to me.

          • Kate Elliott says:

            That’s really fascinating about the German writers using US/UK settings and hero/ines. But alas predictable too.

            • Cora says:

              It really is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re hardly ever exposed to SFF (or genre fiction in general) featuring local settings and characters (not to mention that Germans only get to see people like themselves portrayed as either as villains or not at all in US/UK works), it’s no surprise that German SFF writers write almost exclusively US/UK settings and characters.

              The crime writers have managed to break this circle and we now have a lot of crime fiction with German settings available (though faux Italian or Scandinavian settings as well as the ever popular US/UK settings are still rampant) and romance has always had its share of German settings and characters and even peculiarly German subgenres such as the Alpine romance. SFF still lags behind, probably also because there was a huge bias against SF and fantasy, particularly in YA, in the 1960s through 1980s. I just remarked to a friend today how many works of classic YA fantasy (Earthsea, Narnia, the Prydain Chronicles, The Last Unicorn, A Wrinkle in Time, etc…) I never got to read at the age when one should read them, because the books simply weren’t available on the library shelves or in the YA section of bookstores, so I never even knew they existed. And reading homegrown SFF such as the Perry Rhodan and John Sinclair pulp novelettes often had to be done in secret, because parents and teachers would berate you for it or take the books away. I personally witnessed in the early 1980s how a teacher took away a John Sinclair novelette from a classmate and threw it in the trash, which is a truly horrible thing to do and not just because that one novelette may well have cost the boy’s entire weekly pocketmoney.

  3. Frank Dellen says:

    The real names behind Iny Lorentz are Iny Klocke and Elmar Wohlrath.

  4. Pingback: Over the Borderline: More on Genre, Gender, and Reviews — Radish Reviews

  5. J says:

    Have you actually read the books you cite?

    The amount of sexual violence in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is one page in 9 books. In Prince of Thorns it’s one small paragraph.

    • Cora says:

      I read the first book of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant long ago. Didn’t care for it, so I never read the others. I agree that the actual amount of on-the-page sexual violence is fairly mild by contemporary standards, though Donaldson started this whole trend towards “rapey” gritty fantasy for better or for worse, so that’s why I mentioned him.

      As for Prince of Thorns, no, I haven’t read it, since it was very clear from excerpts and reviews that it wouldn’t be my thing. However, I’m pretty sure I saw more than a paragraph of sexual violence in the excerpt of Prince of Thorns that I read and the reviews made it out to be a big deal, too. Of course, it is possible that excerpts and reviewers misrepresented the book.

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