Fri
Jul 16 2010 2:19pm

Queering SFF: At Readercon 21

Andrew Liptak is writing up several of the panels of this recently-passed Readercon, but I’m tackling the panel that was relevant to this post-series: “The Closet Door, Dilated.” This convention is excellent for discussion and debate, and the panels are no exception. (Not to mention the impromptu talks in the bar or elsewhere about issues of gender and axes of identity—man, I love Readercon.)

“The Closet Door, Dilated,” was moderated by Steve Berman (of Lethe Press) and featured Charles Stross, Shariann Lewitt, Beth Bernobich, and Cecilia Tan. The gist of the blurb in the programming packet was this: “There is speculative fiction with queer characters being published, but almost always by presses that specialize in gender. After groundbreaking works in the past, why now do we incorporate LGBT characters in secondary roles instead? If we’ve moved past an exploration of new sexual possibilities to realistic portrayal of real queer characters, why aren’t there more of them in the mainstream?” (Paraphrased, obviously.)

The interesting thing about the “Closet Door” panel was that none of the panelists agreed with the blurb about it. Frankly, neither did I—if anything, I see more and more mainstream queer characters from the big presses, and not just as supporting characters. (Steve Berman’s comment on the issue of calling something a “gender press” was spot-on: what is that? There’s a difference between a “women’s press” and a “queer press,” etc. Lumping them together is not a great plan.) On the note of supporting characters, I also don’t see a problem with the proliferation of queer cast members in a book. It means the author is paying attention to the world around them and trying to represent it in their work by having characters who aren’t straight, aren’t white, etc.

Once that was settled, Steve guided the panel into a discussion about what they’d like to see more of. Stross and Tan both agreed that there needs to be more fiction that has trans characters or deals with trans narrative. There are many nonfiction books, memoirs, etc., but barely any speculative fiction. I sincerely agree that I’d like to see more of this. Steve brought up the lack of androgyny and bisexuality in SFF—something I hadn’t thought of, but is often true. How difficult it can be to write bisexuality was also discussed, because the character might be in a relationship with a person of one gender or another during the story, and so showing their orientation presents a problem narratively. This led to an excellent comment from several of the panelists in agreement about how cool it would be to see alternate family/relationship units in spec-fic as well: not just queer but multiple, different, evolving.

One point that struck home with me was the way reader/audience blindness can come into your text even when you are writing queer characters, or characters with other axes of identity such as people of color: just because you wrote a character as brown or queer or (this was touched on very briefly) disabled, that doesn’t mean your reader will notice. There’s a tendency in American culture to whitewash, “straighten up” and in general see things as “normal” (in the sense of normative) in our lives. It’s deeply frustrating as an author to be told you don’t write queer characters when you do, it’s just the audience has ignored the part where you told them that Character A prefers sex with Character C of the same gender.

That led into a discussion of the “straightening up” of flap copy, which made me giggle a little, because I wrote a post about that over here earlier this year. Obviously, I think it’s true. Cover art isn’t revealing for a book’s content in the sense of sexuality because, as I believe Steve said, you can’t tell by sight what someone’s orientation is. You have to be told. And, if the flap copy carefully ignores it or omits it, you won’t know until you find it in the book. (He also commented that he always starts a read assuming the characters are queer, which is interesting, because I think I might do that too—it’s always a pleasant surprise to be right when they turn out to be queer, after all!)

In conclusion the panelists offered suggestions for reading material and also “how to do it” (something else dealt with in the Queering SFF series here).

  • Shariann Lewitt recommended reading any and all Tanith Lee; her suggestion on how to write was a sort of interpretive action of the process that showed things like hair-pulling and typing and rolling on the floor after the book is finished.
  • Beth Bernobich’s author suggestion was Octavia Butler; her advice is to always follow through the issues and problems you set up, don’t ignore them partway through.
  • Cecilia Tan recommends Anne Bishop; her advice is that an author shouldn’t try to tackle everything at once but choose certain things to deal with instead.
  • Charles Stross’s pick was John Varley or M. A. Foster; his suggestion on writing queer characters was to do plenty of research and avoid using irritating clichés.
  • Steve Berman himself suggests Geoff Ryman and Hal Duncan; his advice is just to write what you want. If you want to write queer folk, don’t avoid it out of fear of losing audience, etc.

I think all of that advice and those suggestions are spot-on, to be honest. There are more queer leads than ever, now, from the big presses and the small presses continue to publish plenty of material that’s excellent as well. This year, Catherynne Valente’s queer, poly, kinky book Palimpsest is up for the Hugo—I can’t help but think that’s a sign of the increasing availability and mainstream possibilities for these kinds of narratives.

However—as the panelists argued so well—we’re not there yet and there’s still work to be done, stories to be told. The industry needs to stop with the “straightening up” of marketing/flap-copy, etc. It’s a matter of growing and exploring as writers and readers, supporting those writers who are doing the work, and always trying to do more.


Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

8 comments
Craig Laurance Gidney
1. Craig Laurance Gidney
Thanks for this write-up. Britt. It makes me feel like I was there.
Phoenix Falls
2. PhoenixFalls
A couple other recs:

Lifelode, by Jo Walton, presents a polyamorous family beautifully, and just won the Mythopoeic Award (even though it is technically SF; it's just easy to ignore the SF elements until you read Walton's Q&A in the back). It did come from a small press, but not one I've ever heard described as being overly concerned with gender -- it was the NESFA Press.

Elizabeth Bear's novels almost always have some sort of queer element. . . and she often does portray characters as bi. Carnival puts gender and sexuality front and center, but she has elements of polyamory present in her Jenny Casey trilogy (published by Bantam Spectra) and in her steampunk vampire alternate history mystery stories (New Amsterdam, Seven for a Secret, and the forthcoming The White City, all from Subterranean Press).

I'm not coming up with anything trans-related off the top of my head though. . . will have to think about that some more.

Thanks for the post, and the ongoing series!
Craig Laurance Gidney
3. Helen Lowe
Malinda Lo's "Ash", a retelling of Cinderella with a lesbian love relationship and great use of mythological elements, is published by Little,Brown (again, mainstream) and was a finalist for this year's Mythopoeic Fantasy Award.
George Baker
4. wraeththu
Thanks so much for this post. It was great to read about the panel discussion. I echo the suggestion of reading Tanith Lee as an example of how to write queer fiction well, and I'd also suggest reading Samuel Delany, who explores various shadings of "queer" through his characters and his sf, and Storm Constantine, whose "Wraeththu" novels feature an evolved bioculture mixing "male" and "female" characteristics (and compelling storytelling).

As a reader, ambiguous jacket copy can be frustrating when I'm looking for fiction featuring queer characters, which is why I rely on reviews to locate them for me.
Craig Laurance Gidney
5. Cecilia Tan
I'll also note that Palimpsest won a Lambda Literary Award this year and was not published by a "gender press." And I can't wait to read Charles Stross's "Big Scottish Gay Police Procedural" now. (I never did find out what the actual title is ...)
Brit Mandelo
6. BritMandelo
@Cecilia Tan

I suspect it's a sequel to "Halting State" because the lead detective in it is a (Scottish) lesbian. And I know he's been working on a sequel to it. So perhaps? (I'm dying to know, too.)

@all:

Thanks for the thanks, and the recs. *g* Glad you liked the write-up, wish you all could have been there to say hi--maybe next year?
Craig Laurance Gidney
7. Cassandra Farrin
Brit, thanks for this article! I'm in the midst of submitting my fantasy novel, which has a gay protagonist, to publishers, and I am curious about if the panel had anything more to say about the issue of separating gay and female audiences. What ARE some of the key differences? As someone who is sensitive to gender issues, I don't want to stereotype either audience anymore than my characters! :)

Cheers!
Brit Mandelo
8. BritMandelo
@Cassandra Farrin

Well, no, they didn't discuss that--and I'm not sure it's the best way to look at the situation for your book. Your audience is your audience. A female audience and a gay male audience will both enjoy a book with a well-fleshed main character whose motivations are realistic and who behaves according to his own internal "rules" about his world.

I think you can easily run into trouble here by separating these audiences in your head because it leads to the idea that women want characters like something out of a yaoi comic or slash fanfiction. (Which is not to denigrate either of those genres, but they often have very little to do with real life male sexuality. Their tropes are also VERY recognizable.)

I wouldn't try to separate your female readers from your male readers in your head, regardless of sexuality. Each reader is different, but if they're picking up your book, each one saw something in it. The best way to please everybody is, like I said, authenticity. Do your research, make sure your lead character isn't a caricature of a gay man, make sure he's a believable human being above all. It won't matter whether the person reading your book is girl or boy, if you do a good job with the character, they'll understand him.

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