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11 October 2016 @ 01:00 am
"To write more you need to read more," but what do I read?  
Or rather, a better question is what do I want to read.

My relationship with mainstream publishing is strained, to say the least. I have about a million problems with the line people want to forcibly draw between "fan" and "original" fiction on the basis of little more than copyright law, and purchasing traditionally published books always feels subtly like buying into it. Also, there is a certain style in a lot of these published works that comes across as a little...pretentious? Uniform? Now, I'm not summarily calling a diverse bunch of writers bad. I'm saying that there's a certain style and a certain topic range that has a higher chance of being traditionally published, and most of the time that doesn't do it for me (anymore). I'm looking to be proven wrong.

Now in fandom, reading has always felt more genuine. I don't think I need to justify in an LJ post of all places why I think the traditional(ist) view of fandom sells it short, so I'll just focus on what the issues are, right now, for me. You see it used to be much easier to find things I at least moderately enjoyed, and on occasion enjoyed a whole lot, in fandom. It's gotten much harder recently. And again, I'm not making a statement to the effect that there's suddenly a lot of bad writers - there's not. In fact, the reason is me.

Ever since I had the amazing epiphany that in most canons, the characters didn't have to be cis any more than they had to be straight, I've changed how I approach reading and interacting with fandom media. (I also think everyone should have this epiphany to question their own assumption of cis being the default, but I digress.) There's some small acknowledgment of trans (I include nonbinary under that label) interpretation in fandom now, but it's all wrapped in condescending, double-standard rhetoric - particularly the term "headcanon", as if a legitimate reading of a character as trans or any other marginalized group were somehow more "in your head" than the mindless assumption that they all have to be cis, all the time. So that's already something that alienates me, because even when I do find an author or artist who portrays character XYZ as trans, 99% of the time they will preface it with something to the effect of "behold my headcanon. Sorry not sorry."

Maybe you should be sorry for treating trans readings as lesser or somehow intrinsically outlandish. But people prefer to apologize for doing it at all.

That's not even getting into the second, more obvious problem: trans fanworks are rare. Shockingly, disturbingly rare, and the few we get tend to come wrapped in a thick sheet of self-deprecation (often) and deprecation from the outside (almost always).

So nowadays, if I even want to go out looking for fics of my favourite characters, I have to resign myself to the fact that most of them will fail to align with my interpretation of them at the first hurdle. And sure, you "shouldn't" care so much about whether someone is trans or cis. And indeed if the numbers were even, I wouldn't. I'd just read anything indiscriminately, the way I used to back in the old ignorant days of not even realizing existing characters could be trans. But as it stands, with the numbers so overwhelmingly in favour of cis readings - so much that they're not even considered readings, they're considered fact - I can't.

But I'd like to read indiscriminately. I'd love to have that epistemic privilege.

In my primary fandom, if I find any trans fics, they're written by me, my lovely partner, and/or a few mutual friends of ours (as in, think single digits). For art, the number is even lower because unlike the rest of the aforementioned people, I can't draw. But even if I could, the point is that you shouldn't necessarily have to make it to have it. The thing should just be available.

Like most everyone, I get attached to my preferred readings. And when people just sweep through that first layer of interpretation, when they get to that "of course" moment when their interpretation of a character as invariably cis becomes the material of their fic or pic, after a while that kind of hurts. Stupidly, because it's not like they owe me anything. Or even produce their fanworks with a specific intent of distressing someone out there they don't even know. Obviously. Sadly that doesn't change my reading experience.

If I knew someone thought trans interpretation of a character was valid and just chose to write that character as cis on that particular occasion, that would be different. With strangers, though, it's much more realistic to assume that they've either never even considered it or would outright reject it. ("Assume" is probably the wrong word. We've been in enough fights to know people do reject it.)

There's also the fact that you won't have much of an audience if you go against the grain in this regard. I wrote my share of cis-assumed fics. In my main fandom, I eventually left a note at the end of those saying thanks for reading, I'm still happy with the characterization but could you check out my newer work with my current take on their genders? Can you guess which fics are still getting kudos after years and which sit there with a count that doesn't seem to budge?

And yet, and yet. It's not about the numbers or popularity. I don't think it's even particularly about me, in the wider context anyway. But it has resulted in this bizarre practice where I'm actually more likely to read fic for characters I don't care as much about as my primary faves, simply because it won't bother me as much when people immediately jump to the cis assumptions with them. Or I read in fandoms where I wasn't expecting it anyway, or was happier with the cis assumptions there (I generally have no problem reading about cis women because there's already so little representation for them as well, especially in fandom. Although that doesn't mean trans women shouldn't be represented). A nice way to broaden one's horizons perhaps, but no one should feel that alienated from their main fandom interests. No one should feel the need to actively avoid them outside of a specific circle of trustworthy people. And yet, here we are.

The final problem is one of content, and I freely admit I used to be like this myself. Too many trans fics are "about" being trans. Of course that gets boring fast. That's the same format over and over, and usually padded with the worst stereotypes too (alongside a heaping dose of misery). Of course many people wouldn't be interested in writing that. The thing is, neither am I - I want characters who are casually trans. Who do all the same things we've seen them do, only without the assumption that a cis person, usually a cis dude, did it. Who are known to be trans and aren't questioned. Who take a positive stance on it. Oh, and I want porn. I want the full range of moods and genres and plots and situations that have always been available to cis characters.

That's what I'd like to write (more of), and that's what I'd like more people to write. While it's infinitely more valuable to have such a fic written by someone as a labour of love, it would also be nice to live in a world where trans stories can come completely out of left field. And I just don't see the latter happening.

I want to write more. What do I read?
 
 
 
Melmo: cloak and tiemustntgetmy on October 11th, 2016 03:26 pm (UTC)
Okay, so this is a difficult question to answer, as you no doubt know. I agree that it's ridiculous and way past due that every single gender and sexual identity isn't given space in fiction (or, you know, in RL) to live beyond their label, or at least beyond a cis/heteronormative person's introduction to what ~being trans is all about. I actually think about this a lot with my own writing and I try hard to write across the spectrum, but I know I fall short. The sad truth is something I think you already know: YOU are going to have to write those stories that you want to read. You are going to have to be the trailblazer. Which sucks because this should have already been done for you. It's 20fucking16. Now in terms of writing for a mainstream audience? I don't know how that's going to work. I'm just about as jaded as you there. However, I also believe the whole "the moral arc of the universe is long and bends towards truth" bit, so I think that - worst case scenario - if you were to only ever get your writing published by a smaller press, that is still going to affect people. All you need is one person to get attached to your writing, to make it realize that they want to write and you have a snowball effect. You will have enacted change.
Tl;dr: the mainstream publishing industry has failed you, so you might need to go outside the mainstream.
As for what to read…well, you’re going to have to suffer through some more cis stuff to be able to nail the genres you want to write, there’s no doubt about that, unfortunately. I think pound for pound the best written porn anywhere is found in fanfic, so you’re good there, but if you were honestly asking for recs rather than making this a rhetorical question let me know what genres you’re interested in writing and I’ll pull out the best of what I’ve read for you.
Melmo: cloak and tiemustntgetmy on October 11th, 2016 03:37 pm (UTC)
Okay, so this is a difficult question to answer, as you no doubt know. I agree that it's ridiculous and way past due that every single gender and sexual identity isn't given space in fiction (or, you know, in RL) to live beyond their label, or at least beyond a cis/heteronormative person's introduction to what ~being trans is all about. I actually think about this a lot with my own writing and I try hard to write across the spectrum, but I know I fall short. The sad truth is something I think you already know: YOU are going to have to write those stories that you want to read. You are going to have to be the trailblazer. Which sucks because this should have already been done for you. It's 20fucking16. Now in terms of writing for a mainstream audience? I don't know how that's going to work. I'm just about as jaded as you there. However, I also believe the whole "the moral arc of the universe is long and bends towards truth" bit, so I think that - worst case scenario - if you were to only ever get your writing published by a smaller press, that is still going to affect people. All you need is one person to get attached to your writing, to make it realize that they want to write and you have a snowball effect. You will have enacted change.
Tl;dr: the mainstream publishing industry has failed you, so you might need to go outside the mainstream.
As for what to read…well, you’re going to have to suffer through some more cis stuff to be able to nail the genres you want to write, there’s no doubt about that, unfortunately. I think pound for pound the best written porn anywhere is found in fanfic, so you’re good there, but if you were honestly asking for recs rather than making this a rhetorical question let me know what genres you’re interested in writing and I’ll pull out the best of what I’ve read for you.
See you later, instigator: Kyo - singingoudeteron on October 11th, 2016 11:10 pm (UTC)
Seriously, you're thinking about it, so you're doing better than 90% of people already. In a lot of ways I wish people were thinking about it less - it's like everyone wants to justify why they're writing a character as trans and it's like, honestly, who gives a shit. No one's ever felt the need to justify all the cis assumptions. I suppose this is one way the whole diversity awareness mindset (while useful in a lot of ways, obviously) might sometimes hold even the well-meaning people back because they think they haven't done enough due diligence. And then, to show that they did expose themselves to something, they plop in the stupid "born in the wrong body" trope and it's worse rather than better.

Anyway, I'd totally trust you to write a trans character and there's really not that much to it. Just give them individuality which is the #1 rule of writing anything, right?

The problem with the trailblazing concept, to me, is that it doesn't seem to really work. If the effects I've seen in fandom are anything to go by in larger society, it's more like the people who are already interested will read it - the ones who aren't, won't. I can't magically make a cis-centric, sexist society be interested in something other than cis men. So it all feels a little, not pointless exactly, but like it's an inner circle type of endeavour and no social change will be happening no matter what I write or don't.

It was rhetorical, but you just had to go and turn it useful! XD The thing is I don't really have a genre in mind. The closest I've come to pinning it down is "speculative fiction". I think that's what appeals to me about fandom too - the loose ends, the behind the scenes, the what ifs.
Melmomustntgetmy on October 19th, 2016 01:24 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I really hope we get to the point where no one has to stop and consider whether or not to make a character trans or not. That said, for me, I do feel like I have to be more conscious and write characters outside my limited realm of experience because if I don’t I’ll be lazy and I’ll end up just writing all white/white-passing cis heteronormative people.

Aw, thanks, I really appreciate that! The particular character I’m thinking of is from my trilogy and he’s like an ace lieutenant in the military, which has always been one of my favorite tropes. One of these days I hope you’ll read it and tell me what you think.

I totally get your feeling that way, but, if I may, a counterpoint: nothing ventured, nothing gained. You’re probably right in that it won’t affect societal change, but why not try anyway? Especially if you want to write no matter what. Worst case scenario, you’ve proven yourself right.

It's occurred to me that I actually do have a few books that I've loved that address - if not trans issues/characters outright - gender fluidness. My first rec is The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin. This is the first book in a trilogy (though each book is separated by about fifty years) and there is an amazing character who is both male and female because he (this is the pronoun the character typically gets) is a god. So that's awesome. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and the sequels are all pretty much led by WOC, so that's great too. Jemisin has another book, The Fifth Season, that does have a secondary trans character but I fucking hated that book and can't recommend it.

Also, you might be interested in Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. Leckie decided to address the male as default bias by switching the default pronoun over to "she/her" so every character is given a female pronoun and it's basically an exercise in gender assumption (or was for me anyway) while also being a great sci-fi book. (Protag is a sentient space ship, btw.)

Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson - though a completely different genre - is kind of similar in that you never find out what that protag's gender is. All you get is some fine ass prose.

Considering that medieval fantasy is such a big deal, and is ripe with tropes, I think it's worth reading something adjacent to that genre and for that I recommend Hild by Nicola Griffith. Based on the real life of a British saint. Bisexual protag, and all around badass women. Advanced warning for incest tho.

Historical fiction: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. Lesbian subculture in late 1800's London.

For speculative fiction, you need some Jo Walton in your life. Both My Real Children and Among Others are both amazing, but the first one touches a bit more on sexual fluidity - in a really, really interesting way.

Magical realism: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell. No LGBTQ, I'm afraid. Just strange and lovely short stories.

Also, in terms of sheer writing amazingness, which you should read purely because it'll help you improve your writing, I'm going to recommend one book of poetry: House of Light by Mary Oliver. I'd also recommend reading up on Mary Oliver herself, because she's pretty damn amazing.

I feel like you also need a ~literary type book for this list to be complete and for that I recommend Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Exclusively cis women protags (no central male characters) but my God the prose.

Finally, and most obviously, and probably one you've already read: Orlando by Virginia Woolf.
See you later, instigator: Gigaville - coffeeoudeteron on December 15th, 2016 01:41 am (UTC)
Very late reply, but I just want to say I really appreciate how much time you took to answer this in such detail! I kept not having time to answer "properly" but in the end it's worse not to answer at all, so here I am answering at least a little. Thanks for all these recs, and serious kudos to you for being able to recall them just like that on being prompted.

Of these I've only read Tipping the Velvet, Orlando, and actually two other books by Jeanette Winterson but I could always do with more of those. The rest are new to me, so thanks again!

In terms of writing out of your comfort zone, yeah, I'll be the first to agree that if you're writing a marginalized group without being part of it, you need to approach it with some serious...seriousness. At the same time, as regards LGBTQ+ characters specifically, I feel there's less room for screwing it up as badly as e.g. white people screw up on racism. There's no cultural or "objective" prerequisite for someone realizing they have an identity that falls under the LGBTQ+ spectrum, and since it's a spectrum there is no necessary "wrong" way to identify under it (despite what the gatekeepers insist). Offensive stereotypes and dehumanization are the biggest risks, but if you're worried about them, you're already unlikely to be the type of writer who would be prone to these things or unwilling to change them if challenged.

So TL;DR write as much of that as you like! And oh, I always sort of assumed you didn't want to share the work you plan to have published until it is, but if you are I'd be happy to read it. Regardless of the topic.
Melmo: water earth fire airmustntgetmy on January 11th, 2017 02:15 am (UTC)
You're welcome! I am literally always up for making book lists, haha.

Ooh, which other books did you read by Winterson? I've got Oranges Aren't the Only Fruit on my TBR but what else by her is good?

I've always tried to be serious when writing anyone outside my experience so hopefully that's come across. And I def agree with your point on LGBTQA+ vs. race because even country to country race perceptions and racism is so, so different.

I keep not wanting to share it until it's entirely done (that is to say that all three books are done). So right now the first and third are done but the fucking second book remains a perpetual pain in my ass. That's probably the one that I'd need your opinion the most on, ironically. When lightning strikes and I figure out how to solve my problem I'll inundate you with my series, haha. Probably, you may get the horror book first.