Saturday, March 28, 2015

Quick Thoughts - Masculinity and Reading

Today my thoughts are ranging far and wide. You see, I've recently signed up for a new penpal group and it has a database of people that you can browse to find similar interests so that, I'm guessing, you're not sending blind to someone you share zero common things with. Which I hope means more meaningful connections. I hope it means people who are motivated to send and receive some mail. I've been struggling to find some penpals I can use all my geeky stationery, stickers, and washi tape for. But I digress. While browsing, I noticed something that solidified some feelings and such I've had for a while on such things.

First, I'm a guy. I'm bisexual. I read, almost literally, all the things. There are a few things I tend to stay away from, but it's typically because it's...because I've chosen to. Normally, though, that's informed by my own reading experience. For instance. I like romances and cozy mysteries. This weirds some people out. Men and women. For men, I think it affronts their idea that romances are just for women. It makes romances into something other than the books that they're allowed to avoid because they aren't meant for men. But it bothers some women, too. In part I'm sure it's because I'm intruding into what is normally a fairly safe space for women and I get that it's not cool when someone intrudes into a space that's supposed to be free of judgement. And I'm not reading romance to judge. I'm looking for good books. But then, I also feel like romances in general are only okay for some people (regardless of gender) if they're viewed as fluff, as less than other kinds of books. They're guilty pleasures, or indulgence reads. I wonder if this, too, is a sort of defense mechanism to keep (or to try to keep) readers of romances (mostly women) safe.

It reminds me of much of the book landscape in general, but especially what's been going on in increasingly mainstream spaces with regards to women and other marginalized groups. Basically, the most powerful group (white, straight, cis-men) are generally "okay" with things as long as they are given permission to ignore them. Women? PoC? Queer people? Sure, okay, whatever, as long as I can read my WSCM authors. But more than that. Sure, okay, whatever, as long as there is not the expectation that I read any non-WSCM authors. And that is something completely different. Because that means that non-WSCM authors are only okay if they are kept somehow separate from science fiction or fantasy. If they're science fiction or fantasy with romance (which I love), they must be cast out to the separate romance section of the bookstore. To the romance section of the conversation. To the romance section of the awards. This happens all over the place based on who is supposed to like a thing. In the major bookstore near me, Gregory Maguire is in fiction, not SFF. Octavia Butler (all of one book, but still) is in fiction. They only started putting urban fantasy in with SFF instead of romance somewhat recently. It's...disturbing.

Because it pushes everyone into camps, with WSCM (mostly) readers deciding the lines. And I can see perhaps the financial reasons why bookstores and publishers do it. They want to sell books, they think this is how it's done. But this only strengthens that whole "books with feelings don't belong in SFF." This prompts people to complain, endlessly, that there is a problem with short fiction and awards because those works being highlighted there are...not white and masculine enough. Like, okay, if a woman or PoC or queer person wants to write SFF, yay, but only if they write it like a WSCM writer. Because that's the "style" that I like and you can't tell me that's wrong! And right, no one's telling you that you're wrong for liking or not liking a book (exactly). People are just out there, liking the books they like, trying to be as passionate about them as fans of SFF have always been passionate about their books. Only these ones don't as much resemble the works of Asimov or Tolkien or any of the other people most people get told are the architects of the genres. If it's not like them, it must be different. Please put it on a different shelf. One not labeled science fiction or fantasy. Call it soft. Call it fluffy. Call it feminine.

I have, perhaps it's obvious, a weird relationship with masculinity. On the one hand, it's been hammered into me my entire life. Value these things. Don't this. Always this. Masculinity is rigid; femininity is flexible, supple, and probably fuckable. And while I knew that wasn't right, that I tended a bit more toward the feminine, toward wanting to express, to feel, to enjoying things "I wasn't supposed to," I still tried to appear to conform. I played sports (swimming and water polo...probably did not, in the end, help my masculinity) and read masculine books (when I wasn't smuggling in other, less "acceptable" books) and talked about them loudly. Nothing really worked, of course, because while I was doing this I wanted more, wanted something different. Any validation I received wasn't for me but for my toeing the line. When I finally worked myself out more and figured out more of what I wanted, when I finally started reading all the books I wanted openly, that's when I found myself enjoying myself much more, but also much more out of place.

Or maybe equally out of place but without anyone to even talk books about. As long as I was talking up Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin I was at least tolerated. People would talk to me. But I was having to restrain myself from really talking about them. Talk about how great they are, how cool the plot is, how awesome it was when x, y, or z happened? Okay, yeah, all goes smoothly. Talk about sex and gender and how they make me feel and how I might not like aspects of them? Well, let's just say that I've lost most of the people I used to talk with about books because I don't do it right. I forgot that to be a man reading you have to read masculinely. You have to do everything masculinely. Heaven forbid you get one drop of feminine on you or you'll be gay. And wouldn't that be the worst thing ever HAHA!

Okay, settling down. These thoughts have quickly spiraled out of control. What I mean to say is that I think people are conditioned to be silent about their book preferences when it comes to books that don't fall into the masculine "norm." Well, not just their book preferences, but I'm talking about books so will limit to that. Like romance. I think people want to be quiet about it. They don't want to talk about it in mixed company. It gets them in trouble. It gets people to walk away from them, avoid them, belittle them, maybe even attack them. It makes them afraid to express a positive opinion. It also isolates them, and it isolates the form. Do I like all romances? No (shifter stuff is normally pretty iffy for me, and almost anything regency...also cowboys). But how to discus what I like and what I don't, how to move anything forward to reach new and different readers, when there's this culture of silence about it? No doubt it will be the next signal of the bookpocalypse about to ruin everyone's childhood, but I want to see some shelves merge. I want to see paranormal romance next to urban fantasy next to fantasy and science fiction. I want it to blend. I want readers to know, hey, if you like this you might like this. Because you might!

And only through the breaking down of some of these very rigidly held divides are people going to see and experience that the differences are not too great. And maybe that then they won't be scorned for what kind of science fiction or fantasy they like. And maybe then they won't have to feel like they have to hide it. And maybe then the quality of everything effected will increase. Because more people will be participating. Because more people will feel safe for it. So please, talk to me about romances. Talk to me about books. I think one of the worst things that can happen is to have someone stop talking about what they love. For me, I guess I'll keep talking even if it's only with the few people who can still stand me. And I'll keep looking for that place where I fit in.

All the best,

Charles Payseur


  1. Wow, so much here… if it makes you feel any better, my dad loved cozies and romance novels, and read them between trips to the woods to cut down big trees. He was the one who introduced me to Nora Roberts, Elizabeth Goudge, Miss Read, and Angela Thirkell. But he also had the complete Robert Howard and E.E. Smith. The fact was he was a stiff-necked, hard-nosed individual who read and liked whatever he wanted to, and was proud of not conforming.

    I sometimes wonder where that concept of pride in being 'one's own person' has gone. Why are we so focused on how well we fit in and on how much other people welcome us, as if they were in the power seat? Let us stand up proudly, do our thing well, and let other people worry about whether they can meet *our* expectations.

    Mainly, though, your post makes me think about how completely different individuals' experiences of fandom are. When I complain about fannish constraints and blinders I'm thinking of circles in which folks read SFF as if analyzing it for a Womens' Studies class, and here you are experiencing the opposite! Maybe we need to exchange blogrolls.

    1. First, your dad sounds awesome. I think a lot does have to do with how people are brought into fandom and SFF. My dad didn't read at all, and viewed reading as decidedly not masculine. And my mom, while liking books, does not read romance or cozies or SFF. So I'm...weird when it comes to my family.

      And I'm all for having pride in being "one's own person." I mean, I am trying to stand and do my own thing. But then, I think that telling people to be proud of their own preferences while they are being told--by the way SFF is marketed, by the way the genre tends to view and discuss itself, by the way that certain opinions and experiences are ignored--that they are not valued in the SFF space is...not the way forward. SFF needs people willing to take a stand, yes, but the pressure should not always be on the marginalized to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

      I think that it's worth it to try and change the institutions behind marginalization. I think it's necessary if SFF wants to be true to the ideals it claims to champion. I think there is space for everyone. And I think that SFF needs to adapt, perhaps not to remain a solvent market, but to be a force for good. To not be propping up dominant values, gender roles, and oppression.