When a Feminist Reads Sexist Books

Sexism sucks. I think we can all agree on that one. As a feminist, I acknowledge it still exists today and want to see it eradicated. That being said, I like a lot of literature that’s also sexist. I’m not going to deny it or try to make excuses for it—I may have fun reading it, but there’s definitely some inequality going on.

I don’t like misogynist works in general, but I’ve enjoyed quite a few. My favorite book category is the Swords and Sorcery subgenre of Fantasy and it has been dominated by male authors for a long time. As a result, it has been historically a bit male-oriented. Sometimes you get some pretty sexist crap—but there are still some otherwise pretty good books.

shrug marilyn monroe oh well some like it hot whatevs

A perfect example is the original Conan the Barbarian stories written by Robert E. Howard in the 30’s. I’ve been reading through them and yes, there is some heavy objectification going on. (Misogyny in Conan? Who’d have thought, right?) As for the Bechdel test, you can just forget about it right now.

So how can I stand—much less enjoy—this sort of thing? There are other elements to the story I genuinely appreciate. The descriptions, for one. Howard had a broad and varied repertoire when it came to setting a scene. The level of emotion and sensation he puts into his imagery is astounding. Sexist or no, he had talent. As a writer, I admit I’m envious.

Then there’s the action. Conan is considered the first in my beloved Swords and Sorcery subgenre and—just as you’d expect—there’s plenty of swords and gobs of sorcery. With unique takes on magic and detailed battles, no one can accuse the series of being passive.

conan the barbarian purpose meaning of life crush your enemies what's best in life?

This is just one example, but Dracula would be another. Bram Stoker’s original is chock-full of gender roles, damsels in distress, and men keeping facts from women because they “can’t handle the truth.” That last one did get annoying—just tell the woman why she can’t move the garlic, damn it!—but I still enjoyed it.

There was a delicious darkness and creepiness to Dracula. It was intense and scary. It made me keep the lights on and wish I hadn’t read it alone during a thunderstorm. I really do understand why it’s remained a part of pop culture for so long.

sesame street counting the count one bat ah thats one one bat

There are a number of other more recent works I’ve read (and liked) that are also casually sexist. It’s not necessarily women kept as concubines by the main (male) character. I see it as more subtle things like women’s lives being dictated by the orders and/or actions of men around them.

So why not just read modern feminist Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Thriller books instead? I feel that most the time, when feminist authors tackle certain genres, they get distracted. They focus on fixing the sexist history of the genre and sideline all the things that make the genre awesome to begin with. The monsters and sorcerers and assorted murderous marauders take a backseat—at least in the ones I’ve read.

I love feminism and as a woman, I need it. But as a fan, I also need my Swords and Sorcery fix.

Lots of times, it really feels like a no-win. Either I read something that’s feminist, but I don’t feel delivers the same “wow” factor, or I go for the misogynist book that’s otherwise pretty great. It’s more of a struggle than one would think.

Sometimes I wonder if, as a feminist, I should be reading these things at all. Maybe I should go reread some Charlotte Perkins Gilman instead (whose work is totally badass, even if it’s not my favorite genre). As much as I might love certain series, I see how they’re problematic, often in more ways than one. I’ll be the first to admit it, but I’ll also be the first to point out their qualities.

In the end, I want to read stuff I enjoy. Life is short and reading is meant to be fun. Just like how me liking a character doesn’t equate agreeing with everything the character does, me liking a book doesn’t equate agreeing with everything the author does.

Truthfully, I don’t think we’re ever going to achieve universal feminism, at least not to the point where everyone agrees. Too many people have different ideas of what equality looks like for women. Other people think Fifty Shades is about a woman’s sexual liberation, I think it romanticizes abuse.

There will always be books that fall outside the boundaries of feminism, at least each individual person’s definition of it. So do I ban books for myself? Do I forbid myself reading what I enjoy because there are some issues in it?

I don’t want to regulate myself to a little corner of “approved” books. Yes, there might be some issues with a story, but who knows? Maybe it will offer some perspective on something else. For example, one sexist book I read had some pretty awesome antiwar subplots and also tackled racism. That was totally unexpected and seemed kind of out of place, but it happened. Another one I read had one of the coolest magic systems I’ve seen yet. I’m really glad I read them both.

good

I do enjoy certain books despite them being sexist. It might sound odd and some people might disagree that I should even keep those books in my home, but I say people should read what they want. So long as they are aware of what is going on and can acknowledge it’s wrong, why not? At the same time, if you’re uncomfortable with it, that’s fine, too.

Either way, if you’re not perpetuating sexism in reality by reading what you want, I see nothing wrong with it. As for what equals “perpetuating,” that’s up to every person to decide. Maybe you just don’t want to support an author who writes that way. It’s your right in the free market (yay capitalism!).

Regardless, I won’t let anything—even sexism—stop me reading what I really love. So long as I keep working to see people treated with respect and I’m not hurting anyone, I’ll go for the books I enjoy. I think everyone should do the same.

In short, read what you want and be a decent human being.

Top Ten Tropes in Fantasy Books That Make Me Happy

Just so we’re clear: fantasy books in general make me happy. However, there are just a few tropes and standards that I love a little more than all the others. Things that keep me coming back for more!

1. The “Prince Hector” archetype

I’m sure it has another name, but I associate this with characters like Wilek Hadar, Chaol Westfall, and Torian Ahlen. “Prince Hector” is the dutiful son, usually of nobility, with a strong sense of loyalty and morality. He values his people, his family, and his honor above life and how can you not love everything about that?

2. Redemption Arcs

There is something beautiful in watching characters redeem themselves after being evil. It reassures me that no one is ever too far gone and there is always hope.

3. Magical Beasts

I don’t think I need to explain this one.

4. Outlandish Cultures

While I have been known to rant over logistically/anthropologically implausible societies, I do like meeting new and exciting communities between the pages. It gives us a taste of possibility, of what the world could be like with magic, a certain technology, a curse, etc.

5. Earth Magic

I mention earth magic apart from regular magic because to me, it has its own unique charm. The very idea of tangible unity between oneself and one’s environment has a kind of enchantment. It serves as a reminder of how dependent we are upon the world we live in.

6. Dark Sorcery

Converse to earth magic, dark sorcery in books represents the fearsome side of people, the side we would rather keep hidden. Our destructive and self-serving tendencies. The description itself is pretty darn dark, but I appreciate how it explores such a deep-seated aspect of our humanity.

7. Monogamy

More specifically, lifelong marriages. I mean, the way things are going, this is becoming more fantastical than anything I’ve mentioned so far. The idea that people can fall in love and stay in love forever is just too good to pass up.

8. Chivalry

*swoons*

9. Battles

I love military history in general, so combining that with all the above? Yes, please!

10. Mercy

Tied to redemption is the idea that it’s possible for people who have been wronged to forgive even when the other person isn’t sorry. It is truly a massive part of healing and moving on.

What are some of your favorite things in fantasy books? Or just your favorite genre? Books in general? Let me know in the comments!

Feudalism and Modern Romantic Ideals Don’t Mix

I read an article on Tor.com a while back arguing for more modern relationship dynamics in fantasy. Specifically, the author was asking for more divorce since the honeymoon phase wears off for everyone at some point.

My first thought was along the lines of “oh, goody because I totally didn’t turn to fantasy books for escapism when my dad checked out.” My second thought was more of an anthropological “that probably won’t work.” Marital unions are too important to the traditional fantasy world structure.

marriage the princess bride mel brooks

Should every fantasy world have female oppression or forced marriage or mandatory chastity? Quite the contrary. However, dumping modern practices into a historical setting with a pinch of magic is not a recipe for an “innovative” or “realistic” fantasy book. Social structures and rules develop in order to solve problems and most fantasy worlds have the same problems as ours did in those periods.

Normalized divorce and sexual liberation in a feudal society where marriage also represents trade agreements and war allegiance is just not possible. Sexual liberation in a world without contraceptives or protection from venereal disease is also really not a good idea. (And don’t you DARE slap a little magic on it and walk away. That’s just cheating.)

Though, to be fair, love matches for royals has never worked at any time in history (arguably even now). But those are still fairly common in fantasy literature. Historically, the middle and lower classes were more liberal, but even they tended to marry for material gain.

disney marriage husband daisy duck

All the same, in a world where you are constantly at or potentially at war, you’re going to depend on your family most of all to watch your back. In feudal societies, this has been universally true. That is why a woman’s marital fidelity was so important—to them, knowing who was related was quite literally a matter of life and death. It’s also why even homosexual individuals were expected to have children with heterosexual partners (check out Edward II and basically half the Roman elite).

The only way to reduce the importance of marriage and fidelity would be to have another way of determining one’s allegiance. Maybe all the people who talk to horses belong to one tribe and the ones who talk to falcons belong to another. There are many options.

Gotham fox fox tv mad city impossible

The point is, cultural taboos (right or wrong) are the results of a culture’s problems. When you solve the taboos, but not the problems, you just end up with a wacky world that is more Wonderland than Westeros. Fantasy authors are meant to have the best literary imaginations, so why can’t they imagine new solutions? Maybe writers should just take more anthropology classes, I don’t know.

Writing Update: February 2017

Did you know this week is midterms? This week is midterms. It turns out taking 18 credit hours (including an internship and an 8-week class) is a lot harder than I expected. But I am still squeezing in the writing between study breaks, social gatherings, and Pathfinder—just barely. Geez, I’m already ready for the weekend. Anyway!

On the Argetallam Saga front, The Chalice of Malvron is now in paperback and I’m going through edits for the fourth book. Yay! The Temple of Tarkoth is set for release in May and I will be keeping you lovelies posted.

As for the Fanged series, I have written a Haddie and Fletcher prequel novella which is also set for release this summer. I am almost done with the fourth series novella which will be coming in October

Covers for all three of these 2017 releases are done and just waiting to be unveiled! Speaking of covers, I can’t get over the cover for Six of Crows.

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Isn’t it pretty? Best Valentine’s Day EVER!

As for Daindreth’s Assassin, it’s out for queries this spring and I’ve already gotten some encouraging responses. We’ll see how it goes!

I’m also putting together articles for publication on political sites. I may regret this. But it’s been fun so far and I’m excited nonetheless. Really hope this doesn’t veer south.

As for the immediate future, my goals for this month are to finish preliminary edits on The Temple of Tarkoth so I can nag beta readers and get some of those articles submitted. Fun stuff!

What are you all up to? Do you have any “must read” or “must write” projects right now?

Interview: H.O. Charles, author of The Fireblade Array @HOCharles

Today it is my pleasure to host one of the hidden gems of self-publishing, H.O. Charles! Charles’s epic fantasy romance series (and by epic, I mean it spans multiple centuries and lifetimes) is one of my favorites and I’m delighted to be hosting the insanely talented creator!

How did you get the idea for The Fireblade Array?

I’m not sure, really. It was years ago, and I used to make up stories in my head to amuse myself on dull train journeys. I like the idea of another universe that has some similarities to this one, but then I want to add in what’s missing in this world. Why is X so unfair, why do we have to suffer Y, and why must we be limited by Z? But as you know, we can’t have everything good all the time – the human psyche just isn’t wired that way. Angst and trials are entertaining to us – to me! So as soon as you start conjuring amazing powers and piecing together beautiful places in your head, you know there has to be some sort of balance – a price, if you will.

So for example, people in The Fireblade Array are very nearly immortal, but can you imagine how overpopulated our world would become if that were true? There has to be a correcting mechanism or mechanisms in there because of the way The Darkworld was formed (you discover some of the history behind this in Book 6), and the balancing mechanisms you see in my books pretty much wrote themselves. Interestingly, and while looking into mortality, I discovered that if we were no longer susceptible to disease or age in this world, we would still *only* have an average life expectancy of 1,200 years. This is because we are so accident-prone and (to a lesser extent) given to murdering one another. (Ref: Finch, C. 1990, Longevity, Senescence, and the Genome) Isn’t that fascinating?

If you broke the ideas in the series into their constituent parts, you’d probably find that they’re a Frankenstein’s monster of bits and pieces from Western literature, film, TV and even video games. I get a great deal of enjoyment reading nineteenth century novels as well as modern, but it would be wrong to discount the huge influence gaming and film have. Games, in particular, are another fantastic modern-day mode of storytelling. The Bioshock series blew me away. Books and games each offer something the other does not have, and they both activate that creative bit of the brain. I think everything an author sees and reads and consumes ends up being churned up and spat out in their writing one way or another (sorry, that’s not very nice imagery, is it?! I’m in Mirel mode. Radiated might have been better there). I radiate all that I consume. Haha. Hmm. Okay, onto the next one before I start to sound like an hubristic narcissist!

Fantasy backed by scientific articles! I love it. The Fireblade Array has a very unique format in that it’s more of an epic chronicle than a stereotypical narrative. What inspired you to write that way?

I wanted the story to be told from different points of view. I cannot claim credit for it, as it’s fairly standard practice in the fantasy genre (Robert Jordan, GRRM both do it, as do others I cannot remember offhand). It made the most sense to me, and I knew the story would be a long one. I can do single-point narrative, but I find I become bored easily. I also REALLY enjoy cliffhangers. << laughs wickedly >>

I know you love cliffhangers, you wretched goblin. *glares* What made you decide to become an indie author?

Haha. You mean, why didn’t I get a big-name publisher?! I tried a couple, but I started young and for whatever reason (I’m not bitter. Nope) I wasn’t picked out of the pile. I took it personally (I shouldn’t have), but I don’t feel I’ve missed out. The world is different now. The big publishers still have their finger in the publicity pie, and enough budget to hire powerful literary PR agencies, but the book world is a much more heterogeneous place compared to that of ten years ago. Yes, there’s some dross out there (there was before, let’s be honest), but it’s better for readers now. Back in 2010, I stumbled upon a very amateurish book on Smashwords, and thought (as we often do) “I can do better than that!” and decided to have a go. I always hoped my books would do well, but I never expected to leave my job/PhD and make a living out of it. Really, I just wrote and published because I loved creating the stories. Still do!!

Yeah…publishers can be like that. But good for you! How did you pick your penname? Do you feel it has allowed you more creative freedom?

YES. I picked the penname because I thought it sounded like the typical, middle-aged, bearded dude that writes fantasy (I think it’s some sort of uniform that you have to adopt once you get signed to a major contract). Is that who I am?! I’ll leave that up to your imagination, but YES, YES and YES, it has given me huge creative freedom. I am seriously self-conscious about anything I do, and I was scared of having my friends cut and paste romantic scenes from the books onto my Facebook page for laughs (they would do this, srsly), so I made my own little secret world where I could write anything I bloody well liked. “Write like everyone you know is dead,” they say (I cannot find the source for that quotation) – well, instead I killed me and invented a person too new to know anyone.

I still haven’t ‘come out’ to most of them about my penname. I’m working up to it…

You have to do what you’re comfortable with. Your three favorite characters to write and why?

Silar – for teh swearz

Morghiad – if I said here, I would spoil the next book…

Mirel – because she’s just so wicked!

Personally, Morghiad is my favorite. <3 (And not just because he’s dreamy, I swear.) What’s a story idea that’s come to you recently?

What? Give away all my hugely lucrative ideas on your blog?! Okay then! I started writing both a prequel and a spin-off to the series a while back. I hope to finish those within a reasonable time frame.

I have some other ideas that are still in development stage. One will be an historical fiction-type-adventure thing. With a ton of romance. Mustn’t forget that. I also want to do a near-future dystopia one (think Charlie Brooker/Black Mirror), but I don’t have time just yet!

YES for the romaction! How would you describe yourself in three fictional characters?

My own characters are basically me if I were significantly better-looking and braver and cooler. Take Silar, Artemi and Morghiad, and stir them all in a pot. Something like me will come out of it. Probably. Maybe a bit more evil Ambrose from Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. And possibly some Emma Woodhouse from Austin. Sorry, that’s more than three, isn’t it? See? That’s why I added evil/scheming characters, because they don’t like doing things the proper way.

Pieces of yourself to each? Hmm…that’s either great or concerning. Your favorite online haunts and links?

Ooh. I’m going to be really boring and say I don’t go anywhere exciting online at the moment. Aside from the news, Wikipedia, checking my own reviews (I know, I need to STOP doing that) and the usual social media pages… there’s not a whole lot online these days that I have time to wander around. If you know of any good places, do tell me though.

Thank you so much for stopping by! Here’s to the best of luck and looking forward to Fall of Blaze! 🙂

H.O. Charles was born in Northern England, but now resides in a beige house in Suffolk.

Charles has spent many years at various academic institutions, and really ought to get on with writing a PhD, but frequently becomes distracted by writing fantasy fiction instead.

Hobbies include being in the sea, being by the sea and eating things that come out of the sea.

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Why I Almost Never Take Book Recommendations

After reading a mind-blowing book, what’s the next step? Some of us preorder/buy the sequel, others make fanart or fanfic, some of us hunt down the author’s backlist, but all of us—at some point or another—will recommend that book to someone else.

It’s only natural. After all, we just found this piece of printed perfection. Why wouldn’t we nod approvingly at strangers in bookstores, send fervent messages to friends, or even shout from the rooftops? The world must know of the awesomeness we have found!

The problem is, everyone is different. Not everyone is going to love the same books you love. Not everyone is going to love the books even a vast majority do.

And that’s OKAY.

I have been blessed with many bookish friends. With this has come many book recommendations. A lot of them have similar tastes to mine, but not one of us has the exact same tastes—we wouldn’t be individuals if we did.

Every so often, my friends recommend me one and I love it. Most of the time, though, I look into the book I’ve been recommended and decide, for whatever reason, it just doesn’t tickle my fancy. It can get harder, though, when four, five, six, or more friends start recommending the same book I just don’t want to read.

The thing is, time is short. Between writing, blogging, school, and life, I can only read a few dozen of the hundreds of books I’d like to read every year. I want to spend that time on books I genuinely want to read, not something I felt forced into.

And you know the one thing worse than not reading a book all your friends love? Hating a book all your friends love.

Believe me, it sucks. I’d much rather stick to books I think I’ll enjoy than caving to peer pressure and ending up the black sheep. Besides, if reading isn’t enjoyable, why bother with it?

“But how will you know unless you try it?” some might ask. In all fairness, I won’t. It doesn’t matter. I, like everyone else, has the right to read what I want whether that’s the biography of a 16th century banker or a paranormal romance novella (both were great, in case you wondered). People shouldn’t have to justify their tastes in what is supposed to be a harmless recreational activity.

However, even if I don’t particularly want to read a certain book, that doesn’t mean I’m not genuinely happy someone else enjoyed it. I am.

Nonetheless, I know myself better than anyone else, after all. If my search happens to lead me to the same books, awesome. If not, oh well.

Last year I gave myself permission to read what I wanted and it’s working out pretty well so far!

All the same, don’t let me discourage anyone from shouting out their favorite books. If you like it, flaunt it. Maybe you’ve found exactly what someone is looking for. Just remember that everyone is different and not to take it personally if you recommendations never make it to the top of your friends’ reading lists.

And try not to pressure people who haven’t read what you have! We don’t deserve the guilt!

Read and let read, that’s what I say.

Lesser-Known Writers I Love

As a regular reader of indie books, it’s not uncommon for me to fangirl over writers no one I know has ever heard of. Nonetheless, this week I’d like to brag about a few whom I especially adore. So read on for my fangirling and click on the names for their Goodreads bibliographies or websites (depending on what they have).

Enheduanna

It may be odd to start with an author I have never read. This lady was the daughter of the Akkadian king, Sargon I, and the first credited author in recorded history. Living several thousand years ago, I think of her every time I’m watching Downton Abbey and there’s a debate about whether women should be writers.

(Spoiler: They should. Men, too. Seriously, everyone.)

John Marco

I have written one fan letter in my life and it was to this guy. He is amazing. He is underrated. Specializing in military epic fantasy, I enjoy the way he explores both the human and strategic aspects of warfare against the backdrop of wildly imaginative worlds. DID I MENTION HE IS AMAZING?!?!?!

His Tyrants and Kings series dropped into my life right when I was going through some rough stuff later in my parents’ divorce. That trilogy really helped me. I mean, my life was miserable, but at least I didn’t have a semi-immortal druggie with uncomfortably likable assassins out to kill me and my family, right?

Lloyd Alexander

Who says Fantasy books have to be long to be epic? The Prydain Chronicles, based on Welsh mythology, are an imaginative, thrilling quintet and none of the books exceed 250 pages. Disney actually adapted the first book into an animated film, but it didn’t do so great. Nonetheless, the books are great, nay—AWESOME.

Kaitlyn Deann

I have had the honor to know this young lady personally through the magic of the interweb. Her debut novel was far better than my original effort, though we are about the same age. I am continually blown away by the depth and breadth of her stories and I am honored to know her.

Intisar Khanani

The very first eBook I read in entirety was Thorn by this resplendent, brilliant wordsmith. It was she who proved to me that diversity could be written well. Her stories are action-packed, whimsically inventive, but at the same time advocate a value for life that makes me want to hug her to bits.

If someone ever tries to say self-published books aren’t good, I shall pelt them with her entire bibliography.

Tad Williams

This guy’s Shadowmarch quadrilogy holds a special place for me. It was with me through those first few months after my dad filed for divorce. Mr. Williams is high on my list of “must meet someday” and I’m looking forward to reading his backlist.

(When I saw he also left a sparkly review for one of John Marco’s books, I went into Fangirl Overdrive.)

Gerald Morris

This gentleman wrote a series of twelve middle-grade novels, each tackling a different Arthurian myth. Have you ever heard of the dung-cart knight? The damsel and the dwarf? Sir Owain and the lioness? Neither had I, but The Squire’s Tales educated me in the most sarcastic, humorous, enjoyable way possible.

I read all twelve books out loud to my brothers and it was a wonderful family bonding experience. (Also with a special place in my heart.)

Who are some of your favorite less-known writers? Ones that no one—not even your bookish friends—has heard of? What’s your favorite thing about them? Tell me in the comments!