Stop, Thief!

A couple of years ago, a male friend who wrote from a female POV got back a letter telling him this was unethical. Not just bad writing, mind – which knowing my friend it wouldn’t be – but wrong on a moral level. He couldn’t write women, because he wasn’t one.

This worried me because I’m one of those writers who writes preferentially as the opposite gender. There have always been half a dozen of them (Heinlein was about even) and in my case, when I started writing, I just didn’t feel comfortable writing as a woman. Part of this was that I was raised to be a tomboy and, having attended an all girls’ school for five years, know that I’m not only NOT a typical female, I have no clue how typical females work. But on top of that, I didn’t know how AMERICAN females worked. (Yes, they’re more different than males. Partly, I think because women are more “creatures of the group” by evolutionary design.)

However, when I looked further into this, I found out that the problem was not writing something you’re not – phew! Those of us who have written aliens ARE grateful – but this thing called “stealing victimhood.” You’re not supposed to write anyone who can be considered down the totem pole from you and “victims of society.” Yes, yes, for this they use the whole Marxist thought thing which, as you know, makes my teeth hurt (as the fangs come out.)

But let’s forget that for a moment, because if I start beating up on Marx I’ll be here all day and I have a book to finish.

Let’s just assume that they are right and that there is inherent “victimhood” in being female, “of color” (as opposed to those translucent people you see all around. Total yucko, them. Also, they get run over all the time because people can’t see them), gay or handicapped.

Okay, so there’s “victimhood”. And? What do they mean “stealing victimhood?” Is it points in a game that you collect and can convert into cash?

My dears, I know that it doesn’t make sense, but yes, in their minds – which means the minds of many recent college graduates, editors included – YES. Yes, there’s inherent value in being a victim. Yes, this will convert into mountains of cash.

Take a deep breath. What this means is that … Yes, yes, indeed… These people BUY BOOKS because of that. And I don’t mean just for their private consumption, but for selling to other people.

Now think about it, boys, girls and dragons, when IS the last time you picked up a book in the store or downloaded a sample from Amazon, for that matter and went “This book is about a deaf pacific islander lesbian! It’s a total buy!” Right. Unless for some reason I’m interested about the life of deaf pacific islander lesbians at THAT moment, then the book better have a lot more to recommend it. I suspect most people are the same.

Except possibly editors and glitterati. The books my kids are forced to read for school, which are a fair sample of what the “intellectuals” consider good are often exactly like that “oppressed minority gets oppress” IS the book.

And the fact they think that “victimhood” is something to steal just about tells you why the publishing houses are almost all scrambling on the verge of bankruptcy.

Look, kiddies, if I want to experience someone who gets victimized I can look at being a writer struggling to survive while everyone has their hand in your pocket. Only that’s not likely to be bought and would probably confuse the readers who know we’re all rich.

I write characters of all colors, including some that don’t exist in reality. I write characters of all sexual orientations, including some that don’t exist in reality (dragons turn them on. No, really. Um… I should release that story for kindle), I write characters from every possible origin and of some impossible genders (shape changing/gender changing elf.)

What I DO NOT write are victims. Oh, some of my characters are up against huge obstacles and some of them get crushed in the end, but they go down swinging. (Not usually that type of swinging, no. I get bored writing it, guys. Sorry.) If they lose, they lose with fists balled and yelling defiance to the world.

Why? Because I have no time for victims. And I PARTICULARLY, STRONGLY despise people who think being born something like woman or melanin enhanced or gay makes you a victim. It’s funny, but none of my friends in that situation feel that way. Oh, they’re sometimes annoyed at the way people behave to them – like, who isn’t? – but that’s part of being human. None of them lies down groaning and muttering “oh, the injustice.”

So, I’ll continue writing whatever and whomever I d*mn well please. If I do it badly, you can stomp me. But you CANNOT accuse me of “stealing victimhood.”

I didn’t do it, guv. Ain’t taken no victimhood. You won’t find it anywhere on me.

*crossposted at According To Hoyt*

25 comments

  1. That’s interesting in a “what the heck was that person talking about” kind of way. I actually have to remind myself and challenge myself to be as diverse as possible in the viewpoints from which I write, considering that my own is rather, uh… privileged? However, writing from a viewpoint other than one’s own can be done badly, and end up insulting whoever it is you’re attempting to represent – especially if you’re writing from the perspective of a group that has in fact been marginalized or victimized by whatever forces, and you haven’t suffered a similar experience. I’ve always wondered what the best way to approach this kind of creative work would be, but the only thing I can really say for sure is that “Avatar” was an example of major fail in this department.

    1. Ben,
      Not using stereotypes is a good beginning, but sigh. A GOOD writer can make any POV interesting, and priviledge is a loaded word. Are you priviledged, or differently challenged? The definition from outside doesn’t MATTER. Look at what Pratchett did with Lady sybil who was actually priviledged in the original sense (laws don’t apply.) A good writer penetrates through all the fog and shows the essential PAIN of being human.

    1. No… its more denying association and claiming not to be be part of the problem by doing _nothing_.
      OTOH, I’ve attempted to swear off race discussions so I’m taking my melanin enhanced self off to put in work.

  2. Melanin enhanced.

    I’m sooo stealing that.

    And yes, if i want to read about victimization, social oppression, and people who have been run over by authority figures and or the system there are plenty of history books and psychology studies.

    1. Exactly — we need stories of people fighting back and overcoming because those are actually rare for individuals in history (as is taught.) Reality is not fun, usually.

      As for melanin enhanced, I used to be but my kids — I swear — stole it. particularly the younger one. And you, my dear, are downright melanin priviledged. (You probably stole mine too. Sniffle. — okay, okay, woman who got a wicked tan in one MORNING at the beach shouldn’t complain.)

  3. Severely melanin-deficient here, and grew up in a culture where the ideal color was a dark bronze. Big effing deal.

    The rule of thumb for me and most of my characters (the ones who don’t get mountains dropped on them because they’re too whiny to live) is that you can be victimized. You can NOT be made a victim without your own active collusion.

    And yes, I do belong to several of the so-called “victim groups”. I chose not to be a victim. It makes for better stories, and for a much more fulfilling life.

    1. Yep. All of us are going to be discriminated against at some point for SOMETHING. Look at my younger son, actively marginalized for being too smart for his own good — not what Marxists — eh — consider a victim category. It’s how we respond that counts.

  4. Ok…

    I’ll stop writing about anyone who doesn’t look like me…

    That way I won’t steal their victimhood…

    Maybe I can find a way to make myself look like a victim though….

    Hmm…

    I have a wife and two daughters….I’m the only man in the house…I get stuck playing Barbies a lot…

    Can I be a victim now?

    1. As the only woman in the house, who often gets stuck in conversations at the table which either STOP when something that sounds like “breast” gets pronounced, or devolve into male chuckles over something I DON’T GET, I’ll grant you victimhood… 🙂

      Fortunately I always liked playing with trains and cars, so that was cool.

  5. Hmm. Ping, a hermaphroditic individual from the lesser PuPu Islands, suffering from a painful glandular problem (a side effect of the small gene-pool, which gets PuPu islanders a hard time, because they do not fit our average appearance or smell) needed a skilled surgeon to fix the issue. This problem has dogged PuPu islanders from time immemorial, and sadly always ends tragically. No hermaphrodite PuPu Islander has ever had the gladular problem treated. Dr Manfred Von Schtumm (who is male and not, oddly, from PuPu, but Bavaria) can possibly treat the problem well, certainly as well as any PuPu islander, although he may fail to propriate the god Yingling-of-pleasant-flatulence, not out of malice but ignorance. Should Ping suffer a slow, painful death and ostracism (although Yingling-of-pleasant-flatulence will be suitably propriated) by only being treated another hermaphrodite PuPu islander? Or should he risk the wrath of Yingling and have Dr Manfred operate, when he can have a possible cure? Or should he help Dr Manfred with the sacrifice of three lilies needed to propriate Yingling?

    Yeah. It’s no question, really, is it? But the ‘traditional healers’ (whose treatmentment never healed – or friend Ping would never have been available as a ‘victim’) infringes on their job reservation (which, for those of you who don’t know, was the core of apartheid), and so they’re all for burning Dr Manfred at the stake.

    Now translate all of that into writer terms. There is nothing to stop any ‘victim’ from writing a story from their point of view. In the case of all the ‘victim status’ claiming groups there is not one that can claim that anyone would have stopped them publishing their story for the last 40 years. Some have, some have done so very badly, and some quite well. Even if Joe Outsider writes the blockbuster megabestseller that gets it all wrong… they still can write the ‘correct’ story. So… besides dog-in-the-manger and perhaps a desire for baksheesh what was the problem?

  6. Starship Troopers.

    With the exception of two recruits (the big hick [Breckenridge, I think?] and the Japanese martial artist), the closest we come to a character-description before the final chapter is Zim being described as “his cheeks shaved blue”. Because the fact that Johnny was Filipino was utterly irrelevant to the story.

    I’ve never been an Elf, or a Gremlin. Or Death, for that matter. But I think HTBF turned out ok all the same … the characters show up in my head, and I write them. Whoever they happen to be.

    Besides, if I *did* steal someone’s victimhood, I’ just be empowering them with yet another claim to victimhood, wouldn’t I?

    1. there are reasons to believe (buried in the text) that the main character of Red Planet is black, and maybe the main character of I will Fear No Evil as well. BUT if it doesn’t matter to the story, Heinlein does not belabor it. (Then why is it in? Well… if he was like me — poor man — some characters just are what they are.)

      As for your last paragraph, Stephen, have I mentioned I really like you, recently?

      1. Jes’ tryin’a’ do my part, Ma’am …. 🙂

        Seriously, though, the first novel-length (open-ended series, actually) piece I finished (and now need to convince myself to stop re-re-re-re-editing and submit …) is a first-person story, and the narrative character is a 4’10” female genius, who is all of 17 by the end of Volume One (though it isn’t intended to be YA …). I’ve managed to find a few good beta readers, a couple of whom are female, and they say I did just fine writing her.

        The flip-side of all of this, which you didn’t touch on, is that the *absence* of [victim-group-X] from your writing is *also* verboten by the same folks who raise the sorts of arguments you’re talking about..

      2. Stephen,

        So it is, and it’s insane. Take Eden in DST, for instance. They are almost unreally blended, because small population. No one is quite black, no one is quite white (Kit, but that’s a special case.)

        I knew this culture had gone around the twist when someone read my handling of Caliban (as a troll) in the third Shakespeare book as a paen against racism and thought that made the book worthwhile (Yeah, need to counter all those paens FOR racism, right? What?) I mean, it’s not that I object to being anti-racist, but really the bit was anti trollism if anything. I wasn’t thinking of clever parallels when I wrote it. Just writing what made sense.

    2. SS: This is really about your comment below.

      It is good that you are getting input and being told you have a realistic female voice. I know this is something I do worry about in writing: How well men write women(although I tend to presume women are quite capable of writing men for some reason). The funny thing is, some of the most egregiously bad portrayals of women(imo) are by female writers.

      1. Sigh. This again goes with “writing what you know is not necessarilly the thing to do”. Again, I’m going to talk about it on my blog because it’s a complex topic. Women like me tend to baffle men (and women.) I’m one of nature’s own outliers, as far as I can determine. The trick, I found, is to write women who are outliers.

        Actually I find most men write women very well (possibly you’re more interested 🙂 .) Most women write men as women with dicks. It’s quite weird. HOWEVER in both cases, they write to fit the audience and hte audience’s stereotypes. (Most women are writing for other women, and they want the male body and some of the male quirks, without the stuff that annoys us about men.)

  7. How does your contention that traditional minorities are being given favoured status by publishers, educators and the literati stand with the oft complained about situation that predominately white men get reviewed and selected for awards etc.?

    1. First, it’s not necessarilly minorities who are accorded status, but “victims.” Middle class women writing traditional fantasy in which women aren’t victims, are less likely to get awards than males, in which women are. That’s a given. Someone out there decides whether your voice is “authentic” and that from where I sit has a lot to do with how much you whine. (Actually this is not only uncharitable, but inaccurate. It has to do with how closely I fit the perspective of the person reading about me/minority perspectives and what they want out of the experience. I’ll post on that today over at my blog.)

      Also, it could be argued that awards/reviews/etc are not the way to judge male/female parity in the field (let alone any other parity.) It has to do with the type of things people choose to write. The Urban fantasy subgenre has been a license to coin money for the last twenty years, and it’s almost exclusively a female province. However, it’s considered “low brow” and doesn’t get awards. Whether it’s considered low brow because it’s read mostly by women or because it is largely formulaic (which is not a criticism. There’s a lot to be said for hitting a selling formula) is a moot point. We can discuss it, but we’ll each retreat to our corners muttering “unconscious bigotry” or “women are more conformist by nature so their work however wornderful, is often less startlingly original.” (There are exceptions, of course, but women tend to cluster in the middle of every measurable psychological characteristic, while men colonize the extremes — very good and very bad. These are scientific facts, though you couldn’t prove it by me who am one of those exceptions and not always on the “good” extreme. Heck, not most of the time.)
      There are other factors, too, discussed on this blog, such as the fact that women, even women authors by obligation or inclination ALWAYS take on more of the housekeeping than a male (exceptions there too, like Dave Freer, but too rare to count) and worry more about the child rearing which, you bet your boots, affects your writing (affects mine.) And the fact that most women married to male writers stand behind their husband and shove/help/do secretarial, while most husbands of writers while supportive are not as… exclusive. All of that affects awards, prizes, etc.

      However, if you walk down shelves of sf/f and look at names on the spines, excluding some male provinces like tie ins, hard sf or military, you’ll find better than 80% of writers are female. So it seems specious to me to complain of discrimination, honestly.

  8. So what POV can I use seeing as I am as WASPish as they come, one of the elite rulers of this sphere?

    I know I have been in conversation a number of times and told that my privilege made my opinions either wrong or just unwanted. I can’t see and feel as they do, I don’t know what troubles minorities face.

    1. This is in the way of being bullshit. If you are one of the elit rulers of this sphere, my compliments to you, but it’s bullshit. I’m not going to argue the net effect of compensatory measures. I’d hate them like fire if they were aimed at me, but I’m odd, as we’ve agreed. I suspect they increase retaliatory prejudice, but I’m jaundiced.

      What I know is that I have male friends born and raised in the apalachia, white as they can be, to whom applying the word “privilege” is laughable. My way of dealing with this (mediterranean, hispanic under some classifications, have noticeable accent) is to pretend if I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. If I see it I deal with it. I can honestly say that most of the prejudice applying to me is reverse “Oh, you wise woman of an older race” (GAG) not that this makes it better.

      What can you do? You can ignore the twits and write whatever you want to. For an explanation on this, read Dave’s parable above. Fortunately the iron grip of establishment publishign is breaking apart.

      Think how profoundly racist their POV is. THINK. Not only is the “other” so utterly different that you can’t possibly penetrate how they think (why? Are they non-human?) but they must be protected from someone else telling their story, even if the someone else does it WELL (why? Can’t they correct the problems, etc?)

      This is a way for the “lords of true privilege” (those with their hands around cultural outlets, for instance) to keep the baksheesh flowing and/or feel important and enlightened. SCREW them. Do what you want to. (And btw, writing as a white male should not be a bad thing, either. Hell, there are a lot of males out there who I think would be relieved to see a male protagonist now and then. A lot of females, too.)

  9. LOL, Sarah. Really enjoyed your post.

    We used to have a saying for this when I was illustrating and there had to be a child of every ethnicity in the picture including one in a wheelchair.

    Land rights for gay whales.

    1. Rowena,

      This is one of the things I noticed when I first came to the US. Every commercial had proportional representation. I found it amusing and insane.

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