On stereotypes

On stereotypes

It’s a word you’ll hear a lot of in the writing trade.
I believe it has something to do with Bang and Olufsen, or Bose, or dogs and birds (tweeters and woofers as they are colloquially known among the hoi polloi, like moi).

It must, like, be the opposite of monotype, because, like, a stereo’s got, like, two speakers and mono means one. And a monotype isn’t just hitting one key… it is the only one of its kind, absolutely unique, just like all of us.

Which of course is why modern litteratchewer sneers at it. It’s important to sneer in unison with modern Litteratchewer, or you will never be a unique voice in modern litteratchewer, you know. If you’re going to be ‘daring and innovative’ there are very strict rules! Do not dream of stepping outside of these boundaries or you will instantly be transformed into an evil reactionary, and no one in modern litteratchewer will have sex with you, or put you never-read novel on their coffee-table, before it begins its long sad journey to the thrift shop.

Of course… outside the dreams of the modern litterati, things are a little more complicated, and yet more comprehensible. Stereotypes – a word I believe derived from the Greek ‘stereos’ (and no, it’s not multiple recordings of slightly out of phase EU members complaining about austerity. That’s the Greek tragedy.) meaning ‘firm or solid’ and type – are both a blessing and curse in writing.

Stereotypes exist. “He was a stereotypical Greek”, “she was a stereotypical modern literary writer.” You know precisely what that is in your head (although it may not be the same in mine). Some fantasy authors have made a great success out of using the stereotype, as a kind of foundation onto which they build the character. David Eddings springs to mind. You may or may not like his books, but they worked for hundreds of thousands of people.

The word has (in some uses, usually when complaining about someone’s writing) come to mean formulaic, predictable. So for example you could predict in the last ten years out of Trad publishing, that the hero would be a kick-ass strong independent woman. The gay character – her sidekick and confidante — would be good, kind, supportive. The [insert POC flavor of the month] would be noble, strong, mentally acute friend of the hero/s. If the any of the above had to be American, they’d be hyphenated-American. The villain would of course be American (de-hyphenated for his sins) male, middle-aged, conservative, Christian, white and a mouth-breather. Naturally – because they all are in purely in the imagination of modern literati, where working men drink gin — misogynists, rapists, probably pedophiles and insane. Oh and they like guns, weapons, fighting, which oddly enough, they are defeated in the use of by the vegan heroes who abhor violence.

Now, I think it is pretty obvious that these stereotypes exist as ‘real’ or ‘firm’ only in the head of the writer and those of similar beliefs. It’s got almost zero probability of being accurate. It’s predicable, formulaic, but not accurate. It’s a world of difference from the stereotype ‘all Latins have darker skins, and typically black hair and brown eyes, get very voluble and use a lot of hand gestures, and eat garlic.’ That’s not universally true either, but has at least a reasonable probability of being right at least on several points, and is not necessarily derogatory (I love garlic).

However, even wildly inaccurate to downright stupid formulaic predictable (since when have these last two indicated writing failure?) types of stereotypes work for writers too. At least, they work well with the UK and it seems NY acquiring editors, and their ‘client’ literati inner circle. They work for the simple reason that they’re saying precisely what those readers WANT to hear. They confirm their own biases and bigotry. Although in practice they don’t actually KNOW any of the kind of people they want to believe this about… and it is logically impossible to support their beliefs, they believe it emphatically. As Prof Jonathan Haidt demonstrated so well, the Left wing – which is almost all of Traditional publishing, are much more ignorant of the Right (or anyone outside their circle) than vice versa.

The problem starts when the book goes beyond this circle. If you’re only trying to sell to that circle: go for it. It’ll be beloved, and the same as much to a book stereotyping any group, Right, Left, off somewhere in third dimension… they will enjoy relaxing into their familiar dislikes and likes. Unfortunately, for sf/fantasy/horror to be a major success, the book HAS to sell outside ANY major division, and indeed to people who don’t buy a lot of any of those genres. Probably, to people who don’t buy a lot of books.

When your stereotypes are likely to offend those outside your ‘circle of fellow believers’ … it had better be a great, great story. That happens, but not often.

I don’t flatter myself as that great a writer, that I venture into this territory. Besides, while stereotypes – at least if they’re accurate and not just your biases, exist, at most they should be a foundation to help a writer to build more on. If I say a character has Latin looks and temperament, I don’t have to explain that and certain actions flow logically from that. I’m inclined to write about and build real people from people I have met and details I’ve picked up… and while someone may have all the stereotypical characteristics, Mr or Mrs or Ms Average is actually a rare bird, and quite boring.

What brought this up BTW was yet another stereotypical Guardian UK Puppy kicking. I’m not going to bother to provide the link because it was just the usual: Make shit up, because fact checking is too hard, and straw puppies are much easier to demolish than trying the real thing. Make snide implications about Puppies being Nazis (we are storm troopers) and cheat. You’ve read it all before, it’s been fisked to death. What caught my attention was something about the writer’s voice or style. It seemed oddly familiar, and not quite the same as the usual contributor (cats make contributions to cat-boxes too). So I bothered to look at the name: Sarah Lotz. It took a while for the penny to drop – sorry, slow-brained monkey. A month or so ago I got given her breakout novel, by a friend with one of those carefully neutral expressions on his ugly mug.

He said “Here. This is by another South African.”

I said, as I always do… “I’m Australian, mate.”

He laughed a lot, but granted I was trying a damn sight harder than most people born here.

It’s true enough. I understand Algis Budrys’s comment from a different age (1950’s), in his ‘Rouge Moon’ about “the fierce patriotism of the new American” of an escapee from the Soviet Union – Budrys, himself from Lithuania understood this too well (except I am a new Australian, but I understand that gratitude and feeling I owe my new country a debt of it I can never entirely repay).

I read… well read a bit and then skim-waded to see if it ever reached a worthwhile resolution (not IMO). It was not to my taste, an appeared to be taking a ghoul-like advantage of the sadness and sorrow, and car-wreck fascination with passenger plane crashes. It was sort of somewhere on the line of Sclazi’s Lock in – more a psychological thriller than horror or sf, and in a style cloned from some successful Zombie book, using bits of made up media. (snark on/ I guess that made her shoo-in for writing in the Guardian. Snark off/). But what I remember most about the book – she got vast support from her UK publisher including sending her to the US on a book tour, and media support and promotion in all the usual suspects of the client circle – EW (I think it was the same author who did the hit piece on the pups – incestuous bunch), I09, Tor.com, the Guardian… was that I found she ticked all the stereotype boxes so perfectly. Her grasp of – and antipathy towards — Americans is so very typically upper-middle class South African white, particularly in the Arts and left of SA politics. Like the PC of the story it was bad enough to make my teeth hurt… because I actually know an American or two, from across the spectrum, and know how complex the country and people are. Well, that was me. It’s obviously very appealing to a probably very similar class in London. Maybe even in the US.

Curiously, the very Australian friend who gave it to me, did not like it. Neither did I. Different people like different things, I suppose.

Despite the hype, the push (and her poorly concealed fury that her chance at a crony-in-crowd Hugo is hurt by the puppies)… I’d never heard of her or the book that they all reckoned was going to be the next big thing. It was on the coat-tails of two air disasters, about air disasters. It had tons of expensive push, loads of media support.

So why didn’t it fly? (Well, besides being afraid to?)

It could be that the style is just too confusing or that there are too many POVs.

Or it could be the stereotyping that many readers found offensive. Stereotyping’s a tool, like a rifle. It can be used well, and in the right place. Or not.

Something to keep in mind when write your next book.

54 Comments

Filed under DAVE FREER, POLIT(ICK!)S, SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY, WRITING: CRAFT

54 responses to “On stereotypes

  1. Christopher M. Chupik

    Ms. Lotz inadvertently stumbles over the truth in the title of her column:

    “The Hugo Awards Will Be The Loser If Politics Takes The Prize”.

    They are, and already did. Many times.

    • Yep. But they’re blind to that. “It’s only ‘politics’ if it’s not _my_ beliefs, my friends, my side.”

    • dgarsys

      Oh god yes – and watching her state something and contradict her assertion by the end of the same sentence in the opening paragraphs was precious.

      What’s that phrase of Vox’s that Instapundit has picked up? Something about SJW’s and the truth?

      As an aside – I get Budry’s comment, as for the life of me cannot understand why so many Lithuanians I’ve known who’s parents escaped oppression and invasion under two socialist regimes are often so reliably liberal

      As to liberal stereotypes, let’s compare two action movies I recently watched: John Wick and The Equalizer

      The “main” bad guys in both were russian mobsters.

      Leaving aside stylistic choices (the action in Wick was faster, more visceral, far more physical, and far less badly timed slo-mo edits and long looks at the protagonists face…), several things jump out.

      In both movies, the protagonist was formerly, honorably or not, part of a “black” community. In both, they are dragged back in by circumstance, with some debate as to whether or not they really belong there and are coming home. Both are about finding purpose.

      In Wick, one of the nastier villains of the piece is a woman. While most of the characters are one stripe of “white” or another, most of the “ethnic” or minority characters are neutral, as the movie focuses on Wick, and the Russian mob.

      I’ll also note that in this movie you get the sense that the third-party characters have their own lives outside of the main story.

      In the Equalizer, the title role is played by the (awesome) Denzel Washington. The victims that inspire him to take action? A russian hooker who is beaten and abused. His “home depot” look-alike fat hispanic friend who he’s helping train to be a security guard’s mom who runs a restaurant that’s being shaken down.

      ALL the victims in this movie put together make an excellent diversity poster with nary a straight white male among them. Even the intelligence operatives who help the equalizer, there are one or two minor roles played by guys, but the primary operatives and sources he relies on are both women.

      EVERY bad guy is a straight, white, euro male (russian, irish, etc..)

      • If it’s got a good performance by Denzel, I won’t even notice the rest of the stuff.

        • 🙂 That, in a way, was my point, Pat. “When your stereotypes are likely to offend those outside your ‘circle of fellow believers’ … it had better be a great, great story. That happens, but not often.”

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        SJWs ‘always lie’.

        Which often makes me think ‘If Azula always lies, does that make her a SJW?’

        • No, but she’s probably pulling their strings and enjoying every minute of the resultant chaos.

          • Assuming there’s not some “Azula” in play other than the one from Nickelodeon, also with an occasional lightning bolt or burst of flame when they’re insufficiently enthusiastic about dancing for her amusement.

      • Second – and third generation issues are… interesting. It’s anything but just Lithuanians. I can point to the same from UK Pakistanis – where the first generation kept their heads down, and worked hard, and were grateful for a better lifestyle and more opportunity to succeed… I’ve heard similar comments from Vietnamese friends. Yet it seems not as much an issue where integration and cultural assimilation has been effective, and the kids are just part of the local crew (for example children of ‘new Australians’ who came over just after WW2 – I know a bunch of them, children of soldier-settlers, some Italian, some German, etc. and they’re generally as Australian as Australian can be.) I don’t fully understand it, myself, and as I expect to have grand-kids who are, I would like to.

        • Don’t children HAVE to rebel against their parents, especially about politics?
          But that would mean children would match their grandparents, and that’s a no-go.
          Maybe it’s all regression toward the mean.

      • Ravenshrike

        Well, given that the antagonists in TE were russian and irish mobsters, the idea that any of them would be female or obviously gay would be rather jarring. As for the female antagonist in Wick, she like the protagonist and in many ways every major character not played by Willem Dafoe, permanently has the idiot ball glued to their hands.

        • dgarsys

          Oh – I get why the russian mobsters didn’t have women/etc. in their ranks in either movie. TE wasn’t awful either – Denzel is always entertaining – despite the overuse of slow-mo and some crappy editing/pacing. It’s just in TE if you look at a poster of the good guys vs the bad guys it’s “diversity vs straight white men”

          For Wick – not THAT many cases of idiot ball – though TV tropes lists his not killing Iosef in the bathhouse as “plot armor” which could be argued as idiot ball. I actually enjoyed the fact that for once, a stupid rule that usually only ever foils the protagonist (no “business” in the safe enclave) actually gets enforced even-handedly.

          Actually – looking through the tropes page for the movie, a lot of tropes are pointed out, but very few of them are called out for bad writing or lazy execution.

          Also notable – the owner of the continental arguably was the most powerful underworld figure in NY as a) few would even CONSIDER breaking the rules, and b) those who did were… dealt with. No matter how high and mighty.

  2. I read her column and it was more of the same, only tamer. No nazi cracks, only right wing. Now I understand that Vox Day and I are at other ends of the political spectrum, and so I am not likely to appreciate his writing. I will however defend his right to be considered for a fan based award. I wouldn’t vote for him, but if fans put his books into nomination, I would certainly not behave as his opponents have in this contretemps over the Hugos. They’ve been cramming the ballot for years, limiting voting to those with the time and money to go to their convention. Talk about stereotypes!

    • David Weber has great, well-done, lively characters (both protagonists and antagonists) — and then some of his lesser villains seem like stock characters from central casting. (Baron High Ridge couldn’t have been more cartoonish if he’d been named Cad Inbredtwytt. ;-))

      • Oops, misplaced answer — sorry.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        When we first met Baron High Ridge, one of the other characters thought that High Ridge was straight from Central Casting as stereotypical “evil noble”. [Smile]

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          Quote From Field Of Dishonor, Chapter One.

          If central casting had sent him to an HD producer for the role of an over-bred, cretinous aristocrat, the producer would have sent him back with a blistering memo about stereotypes and typecasting.

          End Quote

          [Very Big Evil Grin]

        • Christopher M. Chupik

          The Greysons seem to be “stereotypical misogynist religious fanatics” when we first meet them. But he had to go and make them real people instead. 😉

          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

            Well, it helped that the Graysons’ “cousins” really were that. [Smile]

            Oh, I still remember this scene (Quote from Honor Of the Queen)

            I understand, Captain.” Garret plucked at his lip, then nodded. “I understand,” he repeated, and she was relieved at the absence of acrimony in his tone. “If I’d realized you had this capability, I would have approached the entire problem differ—” He stopped himself and smiled crookedly. “Of course, if I’d bothered to ask you, I might have known about it sooner, mightn’t I?”

            Honor saw amazement on more than one Grayson face, as if they couldn’t quite believe what they’d just heard him say, and she wondered how to respond, but then he shrugged and smiled more naturally.

            “Well, Captain, they say there’s no fool like an old fool. Do Manticorans use that expression?”

            “Not to senior officers, Sir,” Honor said demurely, and Garret startled her by bursting into laughter. His guffaws reminded her of a neighing horse, but no one could have doubted their genuineness. He couldn’t get a word out through them, though he pointed a finger at her and tried hard, and she felt herself grinning lopsidedly back at him.

            End Quote

            Very Very Big Grin

      • Reality Observer

        First phase of reaching maturity: Realizing that stereotypes are imaginary.

        Second phase of reaching maturity: Realizing that some people match up to the worst of imagined stereotypes.

        Third phase of reaching maturity: Realizing that a very few people far exceed anything that is imaginable.

        I have met several “Baron High Ridge” types – and this personality is not particularly a function of their political ideology, by the way.

    • Luke

      Despite his outrageous online persona, you might actually still like some of his stuff.
      He keeps modern politics out of his fantasy. About the most extreme thing he does is frame the theological compilations of having various sentient species running about. (In which his protagonist decides that elves must, in fact, have souls.)

      He’s actually not a bad storyteller. The major knocks I can see are that his main characters are hypercompetant (if not to the extremes Heinlien took it), and he can be irritatingly fuzzy about when things happen in relation to each other.

      He periodically offers some of his stuff for free. Try it out then, and see if you like the taste.

    • bhaslop, in this I agree with you completely. The behavior hasn’t been so much ‘left’ vs ‘right’ as ‘in’ clique (who at the moment happen to wear left wing clothes. I am a nasty man. I think for many of them, their convictions are what happens to be ‘in’ at the moment, rather than a matter of principle.)

      The one thing I would oppose is merely swapping one clique for another. If that happens watch how suddenly the camp-followers and clients of the current clique will ALWAYS have been at war with Eastasia, and hastily denouncing the old clique.

      Besides that, I have been saying for years, if you have won/are dominant that if you fail to treat your opponents according to the standard you would want to be treated, were the boot on the other foot, you’re setting the stage for them to do the same, or worse in the fullness of time. They may, anyway.

  3. wanderingmuses

    Am I the only one who actually likes David Eddings? Yeah, I know. That really has nothing to do with the essay (which has me in giggle fits. Dave always gives me the giggle fits.).

    • B. Durbin

      Nope. I like his giggle-fests too.

      Oddly enough, one of my husband’s coworkers—with the actual name Mark Anthony—wrote a series of books that “feels” like David Eddings in the light-hearted banter style. The books themselves are cross-world fantasy, with modern Denver and surrounds being one end, and there’s some pretty dark stuff, but I swear that Mark must have been an Eddings fan because the style rubbed off a bit.

      He’s only got the one fantasy series out, because he apparently took to writing romance under a pen name afterwards.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        Mark Anthony? Check out his books under the name “Galen Beckett”. They are fantasy with a touch of Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë. [Smile]

      • Luke

        I must check that out.

      • I wondered what he was up to. I met him and liked him.

        • B. Durbin

          Back when Apple stores were a new thing and release parties were lines-around-the-block, they’d have him as the greeter/fire code manager (keeping the maximum capacity in check.) He’s really good with people.

          Sheesh, has it really been more than a decade since Denver? Haven’t seen him since then…

    • I hope I do cause giggle fits in some readers. I do try to be dryly amusing and poke fun at things. I never know if I only amuse me, though. Actually I like Eddings. he does repartee well, and he uses his stereotypes well, and in fact, kindly.

  4. Griz

    I enjoyed “Kingsmen” a lot. To have a megalomaniacal man-made global warming believer as the villain was hilarious. But, the stereotypical southern evangelical hating Christians almost threw me out of the picture. All of my devout friends are nice people. They may disapprove of some activities but accept that people have the right to live their own lives.

    • One of the biggest problem with lazy stereotypes in writing, is that they tend to be so one-dimensional that they just don’t feel real – especially if you actually know some of the supposed stereotype.

    • Reality Observer

      If someone writes a lot of work with Southern Evangelical Christian characters – I have a problem if at least one of them, at some time or another, isn’t a “hater.” But it needs to be in reasonable relation to the actual proportion of such (rare, that is).

      Just as if someone writes a lot of work with politician characters, without at some time or another having an honest, sincere servant of his or her constituents. But, again, it needs to be in reasonable relation to the actual proportion of such (rare, that is).

      • What about a mainstream media journalist that actually is trying to report the news as it is? Now if there are two groups where my real-life encounters stretch the boundaries of satire, it would be MSM journalists and college administrators 😉

        • No one would believe college administrators. And if you do it indie, you’d probably get sued by two dozen administrators all claiming defamation and that [cue whining voice] you don’t understand. It is possible to skewer professors, though. 😉

    • They were specifically supposed to be a sendup of the Westboro Baptist Church, to which not enough bad things can happen. Between that scene and a certain bit in the fireworks display at the end I’m happy with the movie.

  5. I’ve had my fill of the stereotypical Southern judgmental, secretly evil Christian. I know too many who are decent, salt-of-the-earth types. I avoid books that mindlessly flog that tired horse.

  6. I thought her name sounded familiar. Picked up a copy of the novel in question at the library, and when I say “picked up,” I mean in the literal sense: I picked it up, read the dust jacket, and put it back down. Looked to be pretty hokey, and with a not-particularly-subtle indication that stereotypical uberwealthy right-wing Christian extremists would be the villains. Glad I didn’t waste my time on it.

  7. “Stereotyping’s a tool, like a rifle. It can be used well, and in the right place. Or not.”

    Not only are stereotypes tools; they’re indispensable for society to function.

    If I hear sirens and see red and blue lights flashing in my rearview mirror, and I’ve been speeding, I don’t need to be personally familiar with the other car’s occupant to know that I should pull over. Similarly, one look at his uniform and badge is enough to tell me what his societal role is and how mine stands in relation.

    Now, as Dave points out above, stereotypes, while useful. aren’t infallible. The aforementioned crop of legacy genre novels seem to use them like crooks wearing cop disguises.

    • “Not only are stereotypes tools; they’re indispensable for society to function.”
      🙂 So are rifles, IMO.

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        Hey! One can still have a marginally effective aristocratic oligarchy without firearms. With the right military need for cohesive groups, one can even have a reasonably function democracy or republic, so long as the franchise is limited to men wealthy enough to afford arms and armor.

        • If the franchise is that limited, then I don’t see it as a reasonably functioning democracy or republic.
          “Sir, I see your budget has allocated millions for the police force, but nothing for the relief of the poor.
          “Yes; and when the revolution comes, we shall be prepared!”

          • BobtheRegisterredFool

            I meant to write functional.

            That was exactly the condition of the Roman Republic (Latin: thing of the people, the public business) and the Greek Democracies (rule by the people).

            The male Spartans were famously all warriors, supported by their brutal caste enslavement of the Helots. Okay, bad example, I’m not sure they ever voted for leaders.

            The Athenian Democracy was, I gather, based on the Trireme and the Phalanx. My understanding is that the guys who were expected to crew or serve in those were the ones who got to vote.

            Voting in the Roman Republic was, IIRC, more or less broken down the same way the military levies were. They may have been originally identical, then diverged over time.

            Late colonial era rifles and muskets may well have been cheaper for colonials than a set of Hoplite gear would’ve been for a Greek. I suspect that the property requirement would’ve easily included the price of a rifle. I suspect also that the extension of the franchise to women might’ve correlated with a decrease in the cost of a rifle.

            Rifles are cheap enough these days that anyone can get one if they want it enough.

  8. Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    Dave Freer explains stereotypes and that rather nasty piece in the Guardian a while back. It must be great to know that the fix was in and the Hugo nom was a shoe in until those nasty puppies came in their SF machine and ruined it all.

  9. Reblogged this on The Worlds of Tarien Cole and commented:
    Not that the self-presumed literati *will* keep such in mind. They’re content to go carping loudly over the lemming cliff into obscurity, wondering why Puppies continue to exist when they’re condemned to the ash heap of history.

  10. Pingback: Dealing in Stereotypes | According To Hoyt