Saturday, October 17, 2009

LGBT in fiction

When I read Leigh Butler's latest Wheel of Time re-read yesterday, I stumbled on a little controversy. A few of the comments after the post were either in favour of or opposed to Leigh's stance on lesbian/gay/bi/trans representation in the WOT. Of course, the issue goes beyond the WOT. Mostly, it got me thinking because I don't want to do the wrong thing as a writer. I can't really hope to be as good as Robert Jordan, but I can look at the areas where he kinda-sorta-mighta slipped up. If any of you readers are RJ devotees, my last sentence might have been blasphemy, but wait before you cast that stone. Let me recap. In brief, here is what Leigh had to say:

"After six books and umpty-thousand pages and nearly as many characters, we finally meet a gay character – and it’s Galina. Seriously? A character who is evil, creepy, bitchy, hates men, and, oh yeah, evil.

"To add insult to injury, while later books made what I believe was an effort to redress this issue, by implying (and then outright stating) the commonplace presence of “pillow friends” in the Tower (a concept I have no problem with on the face of it, though I have issues with the implementation once you start to really look at it), this is undermined by the extremely conspicuous lack of parallel phenomena on the male side of the equation. And when I say “lack”, I mean nothing. In a cast of thousands, I cannot think of one single male character in WOT who has been presented as even possibly ever having engaged in a same-sex relationship. I mean, forget social politics, that’s full of Fail just from a statistics standpoint.

"So it’s actually the double whammy of bad stereotypes: lesbians are either “fake” (as in “well, only since there are no men available...”) or devious man-haters, and gay men don’t exist at all.

"However, in Jordan’s defense, even with all I’ve said above, I honestly do not attribute the dearth of (non-evil) gay characters in WOT to either maliciousness or homophobia on Jordan’s part. Rather, I think it was the same unintentional blindness that plagues so many writers coming from a background of privilege with regard to the particular minority in question. In other words, as a straight married man with a strong military background, there’s a distinct possibility that addressing the issue of homosexuality simply never occurred to Jordan – especially in the earlier novels.

"And when it did occur to him – well. The thing is, being aware of a sensitive topic and knowing how to address/incorporate it in your own works are two very different things, as anyone in sf fandom with access to the Internet in 2009 is probably in a position to know."


FYI, I pared that down from the original commentary. Now that you've had a second, here's what I think:

When I read something, I don't like having certain issues forced into the reading matter. Religion is a good example; heavy-handed pro-religious allegories don't do it for me, and the same goes for pro-atheist views. Likewise, if someone had an overtly anti- or pro-gay agenda, I would probably get distracted from the actual story and lose interest in the book. Grind your axe all you want. Someone other than me will listen to you.

What Leigh is talking about does not involve axe-grinding. I never noticed the lack of LGBT characters in the early WOT books (probably because of my background of privilege), and I wouldn't have said it was an issue, but... RJ's books are huge. Some of them are close to a thousand pages. His world-building is mind-boggling in its enormity. No detail is too small for his notice. And that, my friends, is exactly why this looks like one of the few Fails in the series. In an epic of this scope, how did it take six books to get to the first (minor and evil) homosexual character? I would never think it was intentional. I think Leigh's right, and it was just an oversight.

Again, I don't even imagine that I'll ever write as well as RJ. I can pretty much guarantee that you'll be able to spot larger holes in my story. But at least I got a heads-up on this issue before I finished writing.

That's my opinion for now. What do you think?


kayla dawson said...

Yeah it is a big hole in the story and I wonder if RJ realized he was leaving us such a big one or if it was something he wanted to deal with a latter date.

Well we will never know. R.I.P. RJ
We All Miss You!

Errant Knave said...

Well, I think he tried dealing with it in later books. New Spring practically spells out what "pillow-friends" meant all along.

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