“Lit Bait” and preferences/discrimination in genre literature.

Reading this piece by Jon Del Arroz about alleged anti-male bias in SF&F made me think about two events of my life which bear on this issue. Jon’s point –and the numbers he presents seem to support his claim– is that there is an anti-male bias in some parts of the short story market (and probably also in others.) I think that’s plausible, and there are some obvious examples like Tor.com or Uncanny. However, the problem goes deeper than that, and the alleged anti-maleness may be just an unfortunate consequence of an even more indelible bias than merely avoiding stories by testosterone-poisoned individuals. Let me tell you about two things that happened when I was young, so you get an idea of what I’m talking about.

When I was young, my school had an annual art contest for the kids – literature, poetry, plastic arts, etc., the whole thing. I regularly participated until I realized it was a waste of time because the system was stacked against me. It’s true that the winners were usually girls, and I’m sure there was an unconscious pro-girl bias there, but I believe that was not the most important factor. Although both are clearly related, the problem was not my gender but my mind – it was the sort of stories I wrote and enjoyed.

Soon my friends and I discovered the problem, and so it started what for us became an annual running joke – to predict what the winning story would be about. The same way there are Oscar Baits, we had our own version of our School Contest Bait. And we rarely failed because the winning subject was always the same.

It became an inside joke that the winner would (almost) always be a girl and the story would be about something like the plight of civilians in a military conflict or (always a winning horse) battered wives. On the other hand, my stories about blowing up Nazi bunkers with dynamite sticks during the D-Day or a humorous parody of a fantasy story with talking skeletons? Well, that’s not the sort of stuff you can read in front of children. Besides, people go to a children’s contest expecting a certain level of wokeness and professionalism!

That happened years ago so I may be mixing up years, but I remember one year when the prose winner was a story about the suffering of a battered and, finally, murdered woman, and the poetry winner was a poem about a bombarded city. That one was uniquely amusing because the poem literally included the words “BOOM!” Yes, it was a bit like these:

In short, if you desired an award, you had to write about certain subjects and in a certain way, with sophisticated themes that signaled your literary and deep empathy and that the judges could award without feeling dirty and plebeian. Now, you can claim that this is just my bitterness talking, that my stories weren’t good enough. True, they weren’t, and they may not have deserved an award, but neither did many of the winners. Some were awful.

Besides, I know that my teacher liked one of my stories because he made me read it in front of the class. In retrospect, the problem was obvious – it was a good story, and it was funny, but… it wasn’t worthy of a prize because it wasn’t deep, gloomy, with literary aspirations, or infused with ennui. It was merely funny.

A similar event happened when I was 10 or 11 years old, when I accidentally gamed the system and got a 10/10 in a school project. Without realizing it, I had created the perfect Award Bait. It happened like this:

For a school project, we had to build a diorama. Being the good student that I was, I forgot about it until the day before the deadline. I was indifferent about grades, so I decided to craft something passable enough so at least I wouldn’t receive an F. I grabbed all the trash I had lying around the room, and with the leftovers from Warhammer plastic miniatures, and a bit of sand and paint, I managed to cobble together a diorama of sorts. Allegedly, it represented our city, destroyed after a pirate raid in the future year of 2012. Yes, there was even a pirate flag, and the title was exactly what I just mentioned.

I had already forgotten about the ugly thing when, a week later, the art teacher announced our grades. She called me personally so, assuming she wanted to ask me why I had crafted such a horrible thing, I started thinking excuses to tell her. To my surprise, she said she loved it (as did all the other professors) and that my score was a perfect 10. Then, she started babbling about how similar my work was to the art of some contemporary artists I had never heard about.

 

outsider art
That’s essentially what happened. And that was my face too.

 

Nodding occasionally, I maintained my well-trained poker face during the whole experience. But there’s more because then she told me the only weakness of my work was the pirate flag. She said it was “a bit infantile” (remember, she was talking to an 11-year-old boy.) Showing a complete lack of artistic integrity, I immediately pulled out the little flag, even though that was the point of the whole diorama (someone had had to destroy the city, right?)

At that moment I didn’t understand the significance of that event, but in hindsight, I realize that was (like the BOOM! poetry) a formative moment of my life. This is what had really happened: without being aware, but probably thanks to the destructive themes of the work,  I had unknowingly struck an artsy chord in my teachers, who then saw what they wanted to see – a modern piece of deep meaning instead of just a bunch of crap cobbled together. I had baited them to understand my work as Art™. Naturally, the pirate flag was an uncomfortable reminder that perhaps they weren’t seeing the work of a precocious postmodern genius but just the work of a lazy kid with many Warhammer spare parts in his room and a strange sense of humor.

Now, what does this have to do with Jon’s post? Because the artistic preferences of SF&F editors go way beyond a possible gender bias (which I’m sure exists in some places.) You could be a woman of color with an African-Asian name and a card-carrying member of the Communist Party that if you write a certain type of story, it will be ignored. If it gives off just a whiff of testosterone or sounds like an action-packed adventure yarn with a preference for honest and unironic drama and fun, without any pretense of being “mature,” it won’t be accepted. After all, they have an artistic image to maintain. They can’t just publish any pulpy trash!

And here’s where the feminine aspect comes into play. Obviously, women write all sort of stories, but there is a specific female subset that seems to be especially apt at writing the sort of sentimental Literary Bait, dripping with status anxiety and cheap progressive performances, that routinely gets awarded. It happens at all levels, from school contests to international literary awards. Call it “discrimination” or simply “preferences,” but it’s there.

That means, and here’s the conclusion of my argument, that even if the suspect magazines started employing a double blind system and ignored the writer’s name, gender, and so on, your un-literary style, themes, or aesthetics would still increase the odds that your story won’t get published or prized (in those markets, at least.) And this style is also a typically male one.

 

 

 

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13 thoughts on ““Lit Bait” and preferences/discrimination in genre literature.

    1. People do tend to mistake what they like for what is good and for what other people will like. Which is a good argument for striving for a publishing house workforce that is representative of the reading public. They have done a bad job of this.

      And the real problem with literature isn’t that literary works are bad, but that the literati continually mistake what is fashionable for what is good. And traditional publishing is deep in the clutches of literary pretension these days.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “People do tend to mistake what they like for what is good and for what other people will like.” This is far more true than people want to ever adimit. A game recently that I loved playing but really did die (Lawbreakers) really was just meh in presentation even though the music and gameplay was stellar. I can admite that I was too engrossed in the love the mechanics to realize it did not have true charm to most of the market. Lesson Learned.

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    1. emperorponders

      Ah, you mean because of the figurines? No, mine didn’t have any (it was just pieces of plastic from the plastic frame, where the miniatures are before you assemble them.) My work wasn’t that sophisticated! It wasn’t even painted and It didn’t have a single visually interesting element. It was literally trash.

      One name I remember she mentioned is Tàpies. Lucklily, I didn’t know who he was back then, because I would have felt insulted.

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  1. Paul

    Ah, by trash you meant literal trash, not broken figures.

    I’ve just taken a look at Tapies’ work and I see what you mean. At least the Chapman brothers had to put a lot of physical effort into their work, regardless of its aesthetic merits. I don’t mind some of that wacky sort of stuff, like Basquiat, because it required the artist to develop his skills, to have an innovative viewpoint, and genuine talent, but Tapies! There’s nothing there. There’s the search for the alternative aesthetic, and then there’s just plain ugliness – or outright craziness. He was working during the period when post-modernism got going, and it shows. They were all nutty.

    On one of your other pages you have a great quote: History is not the history of class struggle, but the history of the struggle between different classes of mental illness. You’ve summarised what I’ve been saying to a lot of people recently – Western society is now being run by genuine lunatics and has been for a long time, and that includes the education system, as your story shows. PKD got it right with Clans of the Alphane Moon.

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  2. I read and review all the original short fiction in the top 11 SFF magazines for Rocket Stack Rank, and there are actually plenty of action/adventure stories being published. Analog has a lot of them, of course, but you can find them in most of the other magazines as well. They aren’t the majority of published stories, but they’re not uncommon either.

    Occasionally a weak story does get published whose sole value seems to be a strong political message, but that’s rather uncommon. Much more common is the weak story that gets by because it has a really cool setting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. emperorponders

      Perhaps reading some of the latest Hugo finalists left me a bit jaded and I failed to notice a trove of adventure stories (although I’m pretty sure the style I enjoy has gone out of fashion.) Still, that was also my point I guess. Awards seem to cater to very unique… tastes and styles. And there does appear to be certain plot elements, styles, or tropes to “bait” such nominations and accolades.

      Amazing work at the RSR, by the way. A lot of useful information there.

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      1. Thanks. We’ll be two years old on Friday, by the way.

        I think a lot depends on what you think of as adventure. If I look at the Hugo finalist lists, I could make an argument that the following stories were adventure stories of one kind or another:

        Best Novel: The Obelisk Gate; Ninefox Gambit; Death’s End
        Best Novella: Every Heart a Doorway; Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe; Penric and the Shaman
        Best Novelette: The Tomato Thief; Touring with the Alien
        Best Short Story: NONE

        Where I’m using “adventure” to mean “someone goes somewhere new and faces danger.” You get the fun of learning about new places and the suspense of wondering if they’ll survive. (One can argue how well the above stories succeed at this, of course.)

        Can you quantify the particular type of story you liked that you think has gone out of style? (I realize it’s often much hard erto say what you like than to describe what you don’t like.) Or give some examples?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. emperorponders

          “Best Short Story: NONE”

          That’s exactly the category I read, which I guess explains my reaction.

          About the type of stories, it’s not so much a genre (although some parts of Sword & Sorcery meet the requirements) as a way of writing stories, I guess. I doubt anyone writes like Fritz Leiber (especially his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser) or Jack Vance anymore. A lot of modern fantasy seems dull to me or is part of the “Epic” genre, which I don’t like much. I’d like someone who isn’t afraid of saying “yes, I write ADVENTURE stuff. And this is what it is,” without any pretensions.

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      2. If you follow RSR, you might look for stories that seem to match what you’re seeking. Beneath Ceaseless Skies and the fantasy half of Lightspeed are both free, so you can pick what you choose from there. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has the best quality writing as far as fantasy goes (and, of course, you have to pay for it) but it definitely has the sort of stories you’re looking for. You’d probably like anything by Matt Hughes, for example. I often remind people that just because you paid for a magazine doesn’t mean you need to read all or even most of it.

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