Welcome to Smugglivus 2012! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2012, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2013.

Who: Justin Landon, the one man show behind speculative fiction review blog Staffer’s Book Review (and Occasional Musings). We’ve been fans of Justin’s incisive reviews, essays and features ever since we first discovered his blog.

Give it up, folks, for Justin!

Emery seized the opening. “Well, you don’t have to,” she lilted with what breath she could muster, lowering her eyelids seductively. “I’ve known some horny men, but you take the beefcake. Why don’t we have our own little rodeo, see how long I can ride you?”

Has a sentence ever screamed more clearly that it’s written for a teenage boy? It comes from Christopher Bennett’s Only Superhuman, a comic book inspired science fiction novel released this year from Tor. I feel safe in saying that the comic industry is male dominated, from its creation to its readership. The grossly over sexualized women, and the male driven story lines, portrayed in the vast majority of comics have earned them that distinction. I hoped that the recent trend to novelize comic book style stories might move away from this predisposition. Only Superhuman and the similar Prepare to Die! by Paul Tobin (Night Shade Books), seem to indicate otherwise.

But Emery has grown up with cats — sure she could use a few of their tricks herself. Hell, she was wearing tiger-print panties.

I could quote Prepare to Die! too, as I have Only Superhuman, but why go into it when the Book Smugglers’ own, Ana, summarized it so well:

For example, take the two main female supervillains. One of them fights naked, the other has, literally, the power of sex. There is also a promiscuous lesbian character that—randomly—walks into scenes, topless.

Naturally, Ana reviewed the novel with extreme prejudice. It was not, however, a universal opinion, with Mad Hatter’s Bookshelf & Book Review taking a positive stance while noting that Prepare to Die! is,

Definitely a boy book as the female characters have no depth or agency of their own.

It bothers me that novels continue to perpetuate negative portrayals of women, but if that’s all it took to set me off I’d never get anything done, rather it’s a much more deeply seeded notion that troubles me — that there’s such a thing as books (or films, or well… anything) for boys and books for girls. As though the gender gap is so large that certain narrative styles can only appeal to someone with a rogue chromosone. I can only wonder how it might be received if we called Toni Morrison’s Beloved a black book or Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards a Jew film. I do know it wouldn’t be pleasant.

And yet, doesn’t it seem like readers, particularly genre readers (including romance), are perfectly willing to accept these categories? I have news — we do. And it’s completely, utterly, bafflingly, stupid.

I write about this now, at a time when Ana and Thea want us to reflect on the year behind us and the year ahead, because 2012 has been a big year for superhero fiction. I’ve already mentioned two, but add in Adam Christopher’s Empire State and Seven Wonders, Tom King’s A Once Crowded Sky, Samit Basu’s Turbulence, et. al. I’ve read several, but not all, and I can attest that most don’t suffer from the same flaws I’ve described in Only Superhuman and Prepare to Die!. However, it does seem to be an interesting jumping off point into the larger discussion I’ve outlined above.

I recently read Pamela Sargent’s Earthseed, a young adult novel written in the 1980′s that features a female protagonist, one who is not sexualized or given any of the annoying ‘female’ character flaws that have become archetypical. Sargent has been dubbed a feminist writer on occasion, but there’s nothing about Earthseed that makes it more palatable to one sex or the other, beyond the natural affinity a reader might have toward a main character they can identify with (I fully recognize that a male reader is more likely to connect with a male protagonist, vice versa). Its themes are universal. Its characters experience a range of experiences that appeal across biological and sociological strata. It is, in my mind, a fantastic story and a successful piece of fiction. It is both of those things because of its universal appeal.

On a lark, I read Lynda Hilburn’s The Vampire Shrink, published by Jo Fletcher Books in the UK. It is what most would call paranormal romance. Some might insist it’s urban fantasy, and someone like me would probably be perfectly happy just calling it romance, but suffice to say its the female equivalent of Only Superhuman.

Even though I’d seen him without his shirt before, the effect in the candlelight was almost overwhelming. The muscles of his shoulders, arms, and abdomen were perfectly chiseled, a magnificent work of art in flesh and bone. I started to wonder what the odds were of a human being so exquisitely built, then remembered he wasn’t human. Not even close.

As a man, let me be the first to proclaim passages like this don’t really appeal to me. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure how well they engage a lot of female readers either, but they certainly engage a certain kind of female reader, just as Only Superhuman and its ilk attract a certain kind of male reader, again not me. Putting aside that both gender biased works tend to objectify its opposite, these kinds of works also tend to reinforce negative stereotypes among their intended genders. While Bennett and Tobin objectify women, they also degrade men, writing them as sex hungry womanizers who cannot deal with women in a mature fashion. The same is true of Hilburn who writes a female protagonist who needs super-human vampire man to solve her problems.

All that goes to say, I’m not a big fan of the social agenda that spews forth from writing books geared toward a narrow audience. Yet, I don’t really care about a novel’s social agenda either. The scope of fiction is broad, and should absolutely include a vast array of points of view, including characters who exemplify all the worst, and best, of the human condition. However, writing entire novels that fail to appeal to readers because they’re too masculine is an abject failure.

It’s not that fiction shouldn’t engage readers on themes that are gender specific. God knows I want my daughter to be able to read about being a young woman, but if that book fails to engage my son at all, isn’t that a fundamental failure of the fiction? Even worse, when novels are written, not to address gender issues, more with an eye toward raw entertainment, and fail to appeal across gender lines, isn’t that a catastrophic failure?’

I say it is.

Story, at its most basic level, should appeal to everyone. It’s why today, thousands of years after first appearing, many myths and fairy tales are still engaging, even when told poorly, or dressed up to look like something else. There is power in a good story, and I can’t imagine any story having power when it turns half of humanity off.

Thanks for the thoughts, Justin! Now, anyone want to sound off?

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20 Responses to Smugglivus 2012 Guest Blogger: Justin of Staffer’s Book Review

  1. Andrea says:

    I can’t imagine any story having power when it turns half of humanity off.

    I’ve read a lot of comics. [My fave was Legion of Super-heroes.] I seriously collected them for a long time, and really enjoyed them.

    But this.

    So I’d say I disagree with your premise that a piece of literature that is clearly aimed at one gender’s ‘eye’ will fail to appeal to the other gender, or to have power as a story.

    Heck, it doesn’t even have to be as obvious as the passages quoted above. I’m looking forward to seeing The Hobbit. But take a look at the posters and the reaction which springs to mind is “Sausage Fest + Galadriel”. And that’s because Galadriel’s role is being bumped up by Jackson.

    Is The Hobbit told poorly because it fails to consider half of humanity its audience?

    I’m not saying that I think it’s a good situation – I just disagree with the premise that a “gendered story” cannot appeal to more than people of that gender. Women are used to reading stories which only feature men doing stuff. Women are used to consuming images of fetishised women. Women are used to reading descriptions of sexualised women. And yet enjoying the stories anyway. I expect it’s entirely possible for stories which fetishise men to suceed as art. Men just have a lot less practice at appreciating art not gendered in their direction.

  2. Sam Sykes says:

    Agh, I love this post.

    Everything about this post.

    I’ve long been of the opinion that by creating a distinct “boy book/girl book” atmosphere, we begin to embrace the word “not.” That is, when we point to a girl book, we say “not for boys.” And when we point to a boy book and say “not for girls,” we’re creating a divide where we dehumanize the other gender.

    Well, maybe not dehumanize, but we certainly buy into the myths that all girls do THIS and all boys do THIS. The Smugglers put together a blog post ages ago that I still cite routinely that suggested many books out there taught boys to “fear femininity.” I can’t help but think that by creating a vast gap, we feed into that fear, albeit subconsciously.

    I can see why it’s done, of course. With publishing being as shaky as it is, a lot of people want to point to stuff that has a built-in audience and hope for the best. But I don’t think it’s good for us in the long run.

  3. [...] Read the rest at The Book Smugglers. [...]

  4. Jared says:

    The cover to Only Superhuman. Wow.

  5. Linda W says:

    I actually loved this post, but like Andrea see the point about the power of story and its appeal across genders. But the key word is GOOD. A good story like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings can appeal to anyone. I grew up reading comic books produced by DC and Marvel. While I enjoyed those stories, I longed to read comic books with female characters who had a more key role than playing someone’s girlfriend or, if she was a superhero, had powers and a costume that made sense. (A swimsuit? Come on!)

  6. Sarah says:

    Great, thoughtful post, thank you! In my mind, The quote you pulled, about something being “Definitely a boy book as the female characters have no depth or agency of their own.” is such an important point. That drives me insane, this idea that a book that diminishes its female characters is not flawed because of it, it’s simply for boys, who have no need for richly developed, interesting women. ARGH. And I think this speaks to Ana’s point, which I think is a good one, that books about all genders can and should appeal to all genders – you’re right, of course, but men & women deserve books that treat characters that look like them with respect.

  7. Its themes are universal. Its characters experience a range of experiences that appeal across biological and sociological strata. It is, in my mind, a fantastic story and a successful piece of fiction. It is both of those things because of its universal appeal.

    This. Thisthisthisthisthisthisthis.

    A good story will appeal to anyone, that is what makes it enduring, but in order for a story to be timeless, the focus has to shift from the superficial (big pecs, huge breasts) to the emotional, which is where we find the common ground. Those are the best stories.

  8. Shannon H says:

    I think its also important to consider that if a book is ‘for girls’ then generally is it ‘not for boys’, as Sam Sykes pointed out. But a book that is ‘for boys’ is often a book that is for everyone, since there is very little stigma attached to girls reading ‘boy books,’ but a much more significant one preventing boys from reading ‘girl books.’ Kind of how its ok for girls to dress in boys clothes but not the other way around

  9. neth says:

    Hmmm…this is a very good and thought provoking post. I agree with most of it. However, I do have a few issues.

    The biggest is that this post really smells a lot like the ‘color blind’ posts that you see around racial discussions. Without going into detail, a color blind attitude is not really a good one to have as it comes from a position of privelege and misses the point. The point is to acknowledge, embrace and respect differences at the same time as you acknowledge, embrace and respect similarities.

    The same goes for gender discussions. The facts are that male and female are different (in terms of a gender discussion). There are many ways in which they are different. Of course there are also many, many similarities. And it’s also helpful to realize that it’s not truly a binary system – modern scientific studies are finally catching up to the idea that gender is more of a continuous spectrum, a spectrum that some cultures in the world acknowledge, while most of modern American culture does not.

    So the issue goes back to the phrase I used above for both differences and similarities – acknowledge, embrace, and respect. The examples you site above fail to do this – they certainly acknowledge differences, they even embrace them from a certain point of view, but they fail to respect. And it seems they highlight differences while failing to acknowledge, embrace and respect the similarities. So, basically, I think the examples that you site fail because they are bad, not because they are ‘boy’ books or girl ‘books’.

    I think that books aimed at certain audiences can have tremendous value – both to the audience they are aimed at and to someone from outside of that audience seeking something different. The key is for those books to acknowledge, embrace and respect the differences and similarities. This is value.

    A book doesn’t need to have a universal appeal to great. It can have a very narrow, focused appeal (whether that appeal is gender-based, racial-based, culture-based, subject-based, etc). And it can be a big success. But I believe it’s the acknowledge, embrace, respect formula is the key to that success.

  10. Justin says:

    @Shannon

    Humm. I don’t know if I totally buy that books written for boys are more palatable to girls, but the social stigma point is a very good one. It *is* more acceptable for a woman to read say, ONLY SUPERHUMAN, than it is for a man to read, The Vampire Shrink.

    HOWEVER, there are also a lot more books written with an intended audience for women (assumedly because more women read than men). Most romance authors are writing books for women. I would bet that Christopher Bennett would not admit to writing ONLY SUPERHUMAN for men.

    @Ken

    That’s a great comment, and you’re right. I had hoped that my comment about wanting my daughter to be able to read books targeted at young women, but also that my son will be able to enjoy that same book, albeit at a different level.

    If as a man, I pick up a book written for girls, and it has zero appeal to me, that’s a failure of the fiction. Doesn’t it have to be?

  11. neth says:

    “If as a man, I pick up a book written for girls, and it has zero appeal to me, that’s a failure of the fiction. Doesn’t it have to be?”

    In my opinion, no it doesn’t have to be a failure. To make an extreme example – a historical fiction intending to highlight the dietary habits of French nobility in the 1620s would probably have no appeal to me whatsoever. That does not mean that it’s a failure of the book. Now, I will acknowledge that a well-written book that does acknowledge, embrace an respect differences and similarities should have at least some appeal to all audiences, I will also acknowledge that it doesn’t necessarily have to.

  12. Shannon H says:

    Im writing this for the 3rd time so I will make it quick, but I was thinking about it and I dont really get the objection to the romance sex scene quoted, which seems fairly standard to me for a sex scene. Whats the neutral way of describing a man’s chest?

  13. Shannon H says:

    Im writing this for the 3rd time so I will make it quick, but I was thinking about it and I dont really get the objection to the romance scene quoted, which seems fairly standard to me. Whats the neutral way of describing a man’s chest?

  14. Josiah Cadicamo says:

    I think that a historical fiction designed to highlight the dietary habits of French nobility is a little different than a book aimed to fulfill the male gaze. Fiction should be able appeal more to one gender or another, but, i would stipulate, not at the expense of that or the opposite genders’ three dimensionality.

    Men and women differ obviously, and aiming fiction at one or another makes as much sense as aiming at both. It’s the authors obvious imperative. However, that doesn’t make excuse for someone who deliberately promotes objectification of either gender.

  15. Anne Lyle says:

    @Shannon: the description may not be as degrading as the female equivalents, but it’s a cliché – to me it feels more like a description of the cover model than a real woman’s drool over a guy (but then I’m not really into the heavily muscled look) :)

    I agree with the consensus, that there’s nothing wrong with a book that targets a particular audience – it’s the sexism, pure and simple, that’s offensive. Would you want books marketed at white kids that contained unchallenged racist stereotypes? Because that’s the equivalent here, not whether guys dislike category romance or girls don’t read techno-thrillers.

  16. “But if that book fails to engage my son at all, isn’t that a fundamental failure of the fiction?”

    I would argue that it’s a failure of the culture your son, and every boy, is raised in. Girls are taught to relate to male protagonists because their experiences are universal; boys are taught that female protagonists (and pretty much everything about being a girl or woman) immediately make a story narrow, specific, impossible to relate to – in short, not for them. As long as we think of anything coded male as the universal default and of anything coded female as “special interest” we’re going to have a problem. You told Shannon above that you “don’t totally buy” that this is the case, to which I can only say that we have experienced the world very, very differently.

  17. Stories don’t need to appeal to everyone. Stories can be written for an audience of one and not be diminished as a result. To me the problem with the issue raised is the lack of diversity. Diversity both with publishers offerings and diversity within the novel. Right now I think the market is too binary with girl/guy books and the stories themselves too homogenized.

    But, none of this will fix itself unless people buy books that push these boundaries.

  18. Bryce says:

    Great, thought-provoking post and I do agree with many aspects. I want my son and daughters to be able to read the same things and I don’t want the things my son finds entertaining to cause him to think less of women and vice versa.

    I really think it’s a failure of our society, though. We say, embrace differences, treat others similarly, etc. and yet look at magazine covers with their touched-up pictures and then there’s pornography. If you want to stop guys objectifying women, that’s where you start. Books like these are just furthering this same problem found everywhere.

  19. hapax says:

    As long as we think of anything coded male as the universal default and of anything coded female as “special interest” we’re going to have a problem.

    This. Thisthisthis.

    I’m sorry, Justin, but this is a post simply dripping with unacknowledged privilege.

    There is nothing wrong with writing a book (or filming a movie, or composing an advertisement either, for that matter) from the male gaze OR from the female gaze.

    You might find the latter unappealing and thus deem it “for a limited audience” and thus a “failure”, but the fact of the matter is that female audiences have for millennia been accustomed to consuming media and art that assumes the male gaze, and is considered the default HUMAN gaze — indeed, is considered NEUTRAL.

    The romance genre has indeed upended this convention, by assuming the female gaze. That is one of the reasons it is so popular with mostly female readers; but there are plenty of men who also enjoy well written romance, and other fiction which adopts a perspective of the female gaze.

    Well-written romance and “women’s fiction” (and other genres, such as much urban fantasy and cozy suspense) may assume the female gaze, but does not necessarily thereby degrade the male characters, who can still have complexity and agency*.

    ONLY SUPERHUMAN did not “fail” because it adopted the male gaze. It failed because the characters that gaze was looking at were shallow bundles of stereotypes and fantasy wish-fulfillment, rather than realistically described human beings.

    I haven’t read THE VAMPIRE SHRINK (and the excerpt you posted doesn’t make me want to), but whether it succeeds or fails as literature (rather than in entertaining YOU) depends not on the gender of the point of view, but whether or not the characters are well-rounded, the plot is engaging, the background intelligently built, the prose elegant and well-crafted — the same criteria I would place on any piece of writing.

    *Many critics have pointed out that one of the reasons behind the wide popularity of the superhero THOR movie was that it adopted the female gaze. Did it fail to connect with male audiences as a result? Was it a “failure”?

  20. Vins says:

    Ok. I just have to say something. Not because I don’t agree with your claims or that I feel the need to defend some of the fiction mentioned (although I didn’t find Prepare to Die! that awful an example of superhero fiction in my opinion the story as a story had way worse problems than gender treatment).
    First thing I see here, especially in the discussion that started, is a lot of mixing of different issues. Sexism in portrayal of women (or men) is one thing and gender fiction is another. Then there’s talk of gender roles in society, the nature of fiction and its intended audiences, marketing strategy for different genres…a plethora of connected and not so connected issues that we can discuss for ages and not get anywhere.
    That said I’m still going to comment on a couple of things mentioned in the article and posts above.
    Yes, there’s fiction for boys and for girls, there’s fiction for men and women, there’s fiction for the young, the middle -aged and the old, and yes there’s fiction that could be divided by race, creed or geography. Human lives are shaped by experience and some of that is shared and some is not. Whether it is by chance of birth or simply the time spent on this wonderful Earth we all have different experiences and there are some thing we can simply not relate to. Fiction doesn’t fail because it cannot engage everybody. We’re talking about genre fiction here for crying out loud, there are throngs of people out there that cannot relate to anything that requires even a shred of suspension of disbelief, does that means that this fiction is a failure in somebody’s eyes? Do they consider it to have only entertainment value and they are not entertained? I’m sorry to say the answer is a big YES!
    I’m not trying to say that everything should be relative and that some things should be shrugged off (like sexism) but there should be a place for some gender specific fantasies for those that want to enjoy them. Adventures for boys or for girls or shared ones for those who want those, and not trying to stuff everybody in the same category in the name of diversity.

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