More on the Squeecore Debate

The so-called “squeecore” debate is still raging and I’ve linked to various entries, responses and comments as ETAs in my other post.

However, I think this point deserves a separate post, for Camestros Felapton links to a discussion on Reddit about the “squeecore” debate and highlights a post by someone named Gemini Dreams, which according the Raquel Benedict of the Rite Gud podcast, who kicked off this whole debate, best sums up the point she wanted to make.

Here is what Gemini Dreams identified as elements of “squeecore”:

  • It’s overwhelmingly preoccupied with setting up “Hell yeah!” “epic” moments rather than, say, organic character growth
  • Characters (or sometimes just the author) are extremely genre aware and constantly draw attention to the tropes of the story they occupy, without ever actually breaking the fourth wall. This genre-awareness usually isn’t used in any interesting way, and is fairly surface-level observation (i.e. red shirts, final girl, etc.)
  • Characters are extremely sarcastic and have a lot of lazy banter, because it’s easier to write for the author than “real jokes” or “real humor” (though the podcast, I would criticize, fails to define what that means)
  • Related to the last point: A huge discomfort with intense emotions; major emotional moments are undercut with “Whedonesque” interruptions like “Well that happened” to give a kind of glib distance from really fully experiencing the moment
  • Over-explanation of everything happening rather than leaving room for interpretation
  • Metaphors that fall apart after any scrutiny
  • A “neoliberal” preoccupation with making sure that everything works out for all the characters, often including converting the villains into allies
  • A huge preoccupation with mainstream pop culture references, but especially to movies and TV

Now this definitely describes elements that you can find in some contemporary SFF works, though it’s a writing style rather than a genre/movement. Because you could apply those stylistic choices to almost any genre and indeed, you find a similarly glib and snarky tone in other genres. What used to be called “chick lit” often had a very similar tone, for example.

Ironically, Raquel Benedict or rather the Redditor Gemini Dreams also capture a lot of what always annoyed me about Joss Whedon’s writing. Yes, I was a Whedon skeptic, since before it was cool to hate Whedon, and I got quite a bit of flak for pointing out issues with Whedon’s work, such as that Whedon tended to undercut emotional moments, because he didn’t know when to hold back the snark, ten to fifteen years ago. I also pointed out that Whedon’s characters were not nearly as feminist and progressive as they were supposed to be, which went down just about as well as you can imagine. Though at the time I didn’t know that the terrible abuse of pregnant Cordelia, which made me stop watching Angel for good, was actually a case of terrible abuse of the pregnant Charisma Carpenter in real life, since abuse of pregnant women on screen was such a common motif at the time.

And talking of Joss Whedon, this lengthy profile/interview/apologia about the man by Lila Shapiro just came out today in Vulture. If you don’t want to read the thing (and it’s long), the short version is that everybody else but Whedon is to blame for his issues, particularly his mother. You know, the same mother who inspired his feminism.

Except for the abuse of “neoliberal” (What’s neoliberal about everything working out for the characters? Especially since everything does not work out for many people in purely neoliberal systems) the Reddit summary actually makes sense of describing what precisely it is that bugs Raquel Benedict and J.R. Bolt about contemporary SFF.

Though Benedict and Bolt are still railing against a particular writing style rather than against a whole subgenre. And yes, for better or worse, Whedon did have a lot of influence on contemporary SFF writers, because Buffy, Angel and Firefly were immensely popular in the genre community, though – and this is often forgotten – none of them were huge ratings hits and Firefly was canceled after half a season.

Besides a Whedonesque style is far from universal in contemporary SFF. Of the 2021 Hugo Best Novel finalists, only Network Effect and Harrow the Ninth (and the 2020 finalist Gideon the Ninth even more so) feel somewhat Whedonesque. And while Murderbot and ART are snarky, Martha Wells is a much better writer than Whedon ever was and the stories themselves are not all that Whedonesque. And The Locked Tomb novels are heavily about grief and trauma in spite of the snarky tone of Gideon the Ninth. Of the short fiction finalists, the only story that has a light, somewhat bantery tone is Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s “A Guide to Working Breeds” and that’s not very Whedonesque. In Best Series, you also have Murderbot again as well as John Scalzi’s Interdepency, which really does have a lot of snark and banter, but is also about a universe threatening disaster. That’s four of thirty fiction finalists (five, if you count Murderbot twice) to which these complaints vaguely apply, which is hardly an overwhelming majority.

Of Hugo finalists of recent years, Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series feels pretty Firefly influenced, but then Chambers herself has stated that she hadn’t watched Firefly when she wrote A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Besides, while Wayfarers may share certain thematic similarities with Firefly, Becky Chambers’ writing style isn’t all that Whedonesque. And yes, there are the usual complaints about John Scalzi’s Redshirts (What is it about that book that has left- and right-wingers so up in arms?), but Redshirts came out ten years ago, so I would hardly call it current.

Besides, Whedon did not invent banter, snark and “Hell yeah” moments. You can find banter and snark in 1930s screwball comedies (not SFF) and banter, snark and “Hell yeah” moments in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, only that Leiber was a much better writer than Whedon. In my article in issue 59 of Journey Planet about Fritz Leiber’s “Ill Met in Lankhmar”, I described how brilliantly Fritz Leiber oscillates between lighthearted banter and utter despair and overwhelming grief in the same story. Also note that Leiber never undercuts the desperation of the second half of the story with misplaced humour like Whedon would.

There’s also a lot of banter and pop culture references in Marvel Comics from the 1960s to the 1990s. It’s particularly notable in Spider-Man, but banter and pop culture references wer pretty much the Marvel house style for a long time to the point that I’ve always suspected that this was where Whedon got it from. This is probably also why he was such a good fit for the first Avengers movie, which is IMO the best thing Whedon ever did.

So in short, it seems that Raquel Benedict and J.R. Bolt are mainly annoyed by Joss Whedon inspired writing in SFF, which is perfectly acceptable (and as I said, I’ve never been a huge Whedon fan myself, so I sympathise to a certain degree). However, the observation that Joss Whedon’s style, combined with the Marvel house style, which probably influenced Whedon, had a notable impact on SFF writing does not mean that this Whedonesque writing is the dominant mode of SFF writing some ten years after Whedon’s career peaked. Also, having read some of Raquel Benedict’s tweets, she’s not someone who should complain about other people being too snarky. Though to be fair, I have no idea what her actual writing is like.

For some reason, the “squeecore” debate also got confused with superversive SF and noblebright fantasy, two actual SFF movements, albeit of limited impact, which have been around for a while and come from a somewhat conservative (noblebright) to far right (superversive) corner of the genre.

Noblebright was coined by fantasy author C.J. Brightley in 2016 as a counterpoint to grimdark fantasy. Superversive SF is older and was coined by Tom Simon all the way back in 2003, though it did not catch on as a term until the Sad and Rabid Puppies debarkle of 2014-2017, when the Christian conservative wing of the Puppies claimed the term for itself. Meanwhile, what Benedict and Bolt dub “squeecore” comes from a left progressive corner of the genre (and is hated by the superversives), though it’s not radical enough for Benedict and Bolt. And yes, it’s quite ironic that once again the traditionalist puppies and this year’s re-iteration of the anti-nostalgics hate the same books, though they would never agree on anything else.

Finally, the whole “squeecore” debate also got tangled up with a very valid and important argument about the very real financial, geographic and accessibility barriers that keep many people from attending workshops like Clarion and Viable Paradise as well as Worldcon and other big cons.

And no, you don’t need to attend those workshops to have success (and quite a few who attend Clarion or Viable Paradise are never heard from again), but it does help to get past the first round of slush readers. Ditto for having been on a panel or shared a drink with an editor at Worldcon. It’s not a guarantee for success and you still have to write a good story/novel that fits what the editor is looking for, but it does help and we should acknowledge this.

There are scholarships for the workshops and various initiatives to make cons more accessible to people from various marginalised backgrounds, which is a big step forward. And cons going hybrid or fully virtual because of the pandemic also helps people to attend and participate who otherwise couldn’t have gone. We could still do more to remove barriers to access to the genre and this is an important conversation to have. But unfortunately, it got tangled up with “We don’t like those books/stories and here’s why.”

ETA: Long Pale Road weighs in on the “squeecore” debate from the POV of someone who thinks that the critics of the dominant SFF genre, whatever it may be, don’t go far enough in supporting transgressive fiction.

There’s also the irritating focus on the “Helicopter Story” by Isabel Fall as an example of something that is definitely not “squeecore”, even though it shares many of the characteristics given, e.g. the protagonist is a marginalised person who develops special abilities, there are “Hell Yeah!” moments, there’s snark, there are metaphors which fall apart, if you look at them. The main difference here seem to be that the anti-squeecore people generally like that story and seem to have appointed themselves the Isabel Fall defence brigade, likely without Isabel Fall’s knowledge or consent.

Also, not everybody who disliked “Helicopter Story” did so, because it made them uncomfortable. I read “Helicopter Story”, when it first came out, approx. a week before all hell broke loose, and did not like the story. I was not made uncomfortable by it, I simply felt that the “sentient weapon muses about their actions” parts (which is something of a trend in the past few years, see e.g. “Damages” by David D Levine from 2015) did not mesh well with the gender disphoria parts and that the story as a whole did not work for me.



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9 Responses to More on the Squeecore Debate

  1. Steve Lee says:

    By my lights, the pervasive influence of Whedon—with backup from other trendy TV-writing contemporaries like Alan Sorkin and Amy Sherman-Palladino—is the backbone of the so-called ‘squeecore’ discontent. That influence need not be the result of direct consumption by authors you cite here, like Becky Chambers, who didn’t need to have seen “Firefly” for “Wayfarers” to bear the imprint of Whedon and other female-appealing bantersmiths. The ecosystem of science fiction agents, publishers, editors, and Chambers’ trusted draft readers assuredly had something to say about the ultimate look and feel of “Wayfarers”. It beggars disbelief that Chambers, or others, have curated circles of support and enablement that assiduously excised the influence of a popular, beloved staple of mass pop culture.

    • Cora says:

      Good point on mentioning other popular banter-heavy TV writers of the late 1990s/early 2000s like Aaron Sorkin and Amy Sherman-Palladino. And yes, the influence of this style of writing extends well beyond those concrete shows.

      Becky Chambers initially self-published A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, before it was snapped up by its current publisher, so there originally were no agents and publishers, though there likely were beta readers. Also, as far as I recall, she used to write for The Mary Sue, so she might well have come into contact with that style there.

  2. Szwolezer says:

    This definition is not particularly useful. While it nicely captures some broader trends in popular culture (like overuse of references or sarcastic dialogue- I still remember when it was somewhat fresh for example early Whedon or Tarantino outside SFF field, but now it is simply too much) it is at the same time too broad and too specific to fit proposed examples. I got impression that they want to combine too many thing they dislike in one category (Scalzi may be somewhat politically similar to the rest for example, and have similar commercial success and in some cases same publisher, but at the same time is very old school writer).
    They also mix some purely aesthetic or literary aspects with purely political ones (which make little to no sense if you happen to not share their assumptions).
    In general while I am less than enthusiastic about many recent popular writers (although I enjoyed “Memory called Empire” and “The Goblin Emperor” a lot), I think that this attempt at critique and/or classification is failure and probably will be mostly forgotten by the end of this or next year.

  3. I think it really helps that you have a foot in most eras of science fiction fandom. You have a larger view of what’s going on (and what’s already gone on). Thank you for this and other articles on the subject. 🙂

    • Cora says:

      You’re very welcome. I’m glad you’re enjoying the articles. Though I fear this debate will look familiar to you in 1967 with all the debate about the New Wave going on.

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