“There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is ‘idiot’.” -Larry Niven
Oh yeah Larry Niven? Well there is also a term for authors who refuse to believe that the choices they make in novels can lead to accurate conclusions about their opinions. Those terms can be found on Chuck Wendig’s blog terribleminds (optimized for all your curse-word-related needs!), and I encourage you to choose a few favorites to repeat long and loud. On Book Punks, at least for this one paragraph, we’ll keep it PG and call it “asleep at the wheel.”
I am sick and fucking tired of hearing the Niven argument when I talk about a sexist or racist book. SICK AND FUCKING TIRED. On-my-fucking-death-bed sick. May-never-move-again tired. While I agree you cannot assume that a sexist book was written by a sexist author (ah but here we come back to the question of “how much sexism does it take to make a sexist?” that I discuss tangentially here) or that a racist book was written by a racist author, an author’s choices can and do tell us something about an author’s point of view. At the same time, a book can contain racism without being racist, or sexism without being sexist. Absolutely.
Sometimes, an author will write a sexist book because they are trying something out. They want to try a new voice on for size or play with a set of ideas they find interesting. They want to play devil’s advocate and argue the other side. Awesome. The world is your playground, so do a fucking backflip off of the jungle gym and try to stick the landing. A sexist book may be an attempt to portray real-world sexism, or a sexist world, or a sexist character. But if you, Well-Meaning Author, would like to ensure that your sexist world doesn’t make you look like a sexist person, then listen closely because for the very low price of 999.99.99 (now accepting all major credit cards!) I am here to tell you about a few foolproof steps you can take to make sure nobody confuses your characters’ thoughts with your thoughts ever again.
“But I was just showing a sexist world, or a sexist character,” the author argument often goes after a reviewer has called sexism, “I am not sexist myself. I am writing fiction.” Ah yes. Fiction. Fictions that come from your head, based on your experience of the world. Every word in a novel is a choice you made. Every character. Every line of dialogue. Every action and reaction. While I love the image of the character come to life to tell the author how to finish writing the book, it obscures this fact. When you say your characters took over and told you what to write, what you are really saying is: hey man, I was on total fucking autopilot writing that book. I didn’t even have to think. While that might sound good to those struggling with writing—look, books can write themselves!—it is both a lie and a handy excuse for bad representational choices. Nothing about a novel is inevitable, and every choice made therein leads us back to the author. Even when the choices are unconscious or unintentional. Authorial intentions often have very little to do with the final product. Especially if you’re writing on autopilot.
Some authors take calls of sexism to mean that they aren’t allowed to write sexist characters or sexist worlds, that the evil feminists want them to put their stories through the washing machine on high until all that remains are sterile shreds. No, Well-Meaning Author, no! You can and should write sexist characters! You can and should write sexist worlds! You can and should write whateverthefuck you want! But if you don’t want your novel to look like a mirror that will have reviewers slinging the negative “isms” in your direction, then you need to ask yourself a few questions about your manuscript.
Look at your Sexist Man Character.* Does he win all the battles, get all the women,** get all the high fives, and hear nary a negative comment about his behavior? Then you have probably written a sexist book. If you are trying to portray not just a sexist character, but a sexist world—Hey! Just like the real world! Fiction indeed!— then you have another set of questions to consider. How do the other characters—specifically the female characters—respond to the sexism of this world? Do they all think it’s great? Do they all swoon over Sexist Man Character and think not being allowed to vote is fucking awesome? Then you have probably written a sexist book, and somebody is probably going to call you sexist for doing so.
HOWEVER—*pro tip!*—if your Sexist Man Character is occasionally the object of criticism or a good, long eye roll behind his back, then congratulations, you have written a sexist character without writing a sexist book. If your sexist world includes women (and men) who think it’s awesome and women (and men) who think it is kind of annoying but *shrugs* and angry warrior women (and men) ready to take to the streets with an axe the size of your house, then congratulations, you have written a sexist world without writing a sexist book.
You have written about sexism without being sexist.
It is a fine line, but a huge difference. A sexist book shows sexism without nuance and without consequence. A sexist book depicts sexism as the unquestioned, universally embraced status quo. In a book about sexism—or to put it another way, in a book with sexism in it—sexist characters exist alongside characters with varying opinions on the subject. Just like in the real world.
Now, Well-Meaning Author, maybe you are starting to get worried about the amount of work this is going to entail. Maybe you’re on deadline and you’re thinking But I don’t have time for this shit! Maybe your book is already nearing Rothfussian word counts, and you can’t imagine how you’re going to make room for another layer. Well, you’ll be happy to hear that, often, it only takes a sentence. That’s right: the fast-and-easy solution I am offering here is both cost-effective and easy.
Let’s look at an example from a book I recently read and loved: Life on the Preservation by Jack Skillingstead. Without getting into too much detail or spoiling the end, I can tell you that there is a female character (Kylie) traveling with a 30-something male (Billy) through an apocalyptic landscape. Billy is sick and weak. There are dangers about, so Billy gives Kylie a gun.
“Billy had the big revolver, but he had told her to keep the small gun for protection. It had belonged to his mother. He said it was a good gun for a girl. Kylie let that pass.”
Did you catch that? It’s easy to miss. A male character has said something sexist (that small guns are “girl” guns), and the text has indicated that the female character has noticed this, found it dumb, and decided not to say anything. In four words. “Kylie let that pass.” In four words Skillingstead took a sexist situation and instead of portraying it as the unquestioned, embraced-by-all status quo, made it something that some people do without thinking and other people notice and react to, to varying degrees. Four words!
Let’s look at another example, one in which the sexism is a little more pervasive: William R. Forstchen’s 2009 post-apocalyptic novel One Second After. John Matherson, the novel’s leading man, is the kind of mildly sexist guy who might make a joke about women not being able to drive, but who treats the women in his life well: the typical bumbling, well-meaning, nice-guy sexist. I didn’t like John Matherson, and because I was forced to follow him around for the entire novel, I didn’t much like the book. But it was this book that originally gave me the idea for this essay because while John Forstchen has written a sexist character, he has not written a sexist book, and he has done so by showing varied reactions to John’s sexism (though the variation sticks to “women finding it sexist and stupid, but liking John anyway”).
In the following passage the world has ended, and John is talking to his daughters about defending their home (for reference, Mary is his dead wife):
“‘I taught you and your mom to shoot. And remember what I said about what was most dangerous.’
‘A woman with a gun who doesn’t have the guts to use it,’ she recited. Mary had always said it was such a sexist line.”
Barf, right? But still, successful because it does not allow the portrayal of sexism as status quo to remain the only opinion on the subject. John is sexist, and he has passed this sexist one-liner on to his daughters—a moment that doubles as an observation about how sexism spreads from generation to generation—but we also learn that his wife, an absent but sympathetic character, thought this was sexist and said so. In that one sentence the passage goes from being sexist to being about sexism in all its nuance. Just one sentence catapulted the book from “sexist” to “includes sexism.”
Sometimes an author will write a sexist book because they have internalized the status quo sexism all around them, and so it comes out in their writing, unconsidered, possibly unnoticed. If you have never thought about the implications of sexism before, then you may be sexist, and, no, that isn’t necessarily your fault. But the good news is that as soon as you start to think about this, you don’t have to be sexist anymore. Sexism isn’t a label you have to carry around for the rest of your life.
Apologize where you can, and set out to write books that, if not feminist, at least attempt to carry the nuance of life. Your Sexist Man Character can still win all the awards and take home all the pretty ladies—as long as we see varying reactions to this in the world around him—because, hey, we know that guy. He exists. He can exist in your novel. But he cannot exist in a vaccum.
You may have complex feelings about where sexism comes from and how it works. Think about them. Think about them some more. Writing on autopilot and then falling asleep at the wheel have real and painful consequences off the page. It is your responsibility to stay the fuck awake.
*Could also, of course, be a woman.
**In which case, you may want to check your manuscript for heteronormativity as well.