I am trying to get down some preliminary thoughts about something that occurred to me while I was rereading, and loving all over again, Katherine Addison’s recent release, The Goblin Emperor .
I was about three quarters of the way through, and during a complicated conversation between several key characters it occurred to me that one of the things I was loving about this book (and there is so very much to love) was that, though all the characters in the scene were male, who was noticing what, and how they responded, dialed in my perception over to female gaze.
I know how shifty the sand is here. The instant someone seems to be possibly maybe hinting at an idea that “all men write like this” or “all female authors write like that” howls of protest rise. As they should. And yet, while I am no proponent of that “all,” the longer I read, the more patterns I perceive.
Even that can be dangerous ground. Patterns are not math: we don’t all see the same ones, because our experiences are not the same.
But right after I read The Goblin Emperor, I saw a copy of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. Hmm, I thought, kings again! I opened it. The first fifty pages, in three nested sets of openings, was solid blood, guts, and fighting. No women. I put it down at that point, so I have no idea how the rest of it goes. Obviously it was extremely popular, sold millions of copies. But that opening, which happens to have been written by a man, represented what to me reads as standard-for-genre male gaze. This is still the default for many.
The Goblin Emperor also opens with male characters, but the violence is off-screen. Maia, the unwanted half-goblin son of the emperor of the elves, abruptly finds out that his father, uncles, and cousin all died in an air crash, and he is now emperor. And the story carries on with what he does about the news.
A woman appears briefly on page 28, otherwise the characters are mostly male. After I finished, I could not help wondering what the opening would have read like as male gaze. Would it have begun with a graphic description of the crash of the emperor’s airship, right to the last bit of congealed blood and ash drifting down into the empty eye sockets of the emperor & family’s skulls?
Coming at the idea of female gaze from another angle, as I read this book, it occurred to me now and then that what Maia sees is how I often look at individuals. Again, the foundation for gender remarks is such shifting sand, but I think a lot about patterns I see in my reading, after more than half a century at it.
What is female gaze, precisely? I heard someone say once that it’s all about how characters are perceived. Charles Dickens, it was pointed out, writes brilliant male characters, yet his women all seem confined to types, except for the caricatures. Conversely, George Eliot was praised for her brilliant insight, but it’s her female characters who linger in memory: as Henry James said about Middlemarch, arguably one of the best novels of the nineteenth century, Will Ladislaw, the heroine’s hero, is weak stuff, a collection of admired traits and not nearly as well drawn as her other characters.
I think that’s too easy, too general. I’ve never heard anything useful come out of maintaining that men can’t write about women nor can women write about men. First thing people do is point to exceptions, and I’m no different. One of the best female characters of my reading is C.S. Lewis’s first person protagonist in Till We Have Faces. And I’ve seen plenty of male readers say that Lois McMaster Bujold gets the male gaze right in her Miles Vorkosigan space operas.
I think this is more of a question about what the writer, any writer, sees as important to notice, and maybe it’s also a bit about certain kinds of interactions, plus the language that the scenes are cast in. When I was in college I was taught to look at fiction in a way that made it clear men wrote about important things, about power. Men’s language, reinforced by authority, made things happen. Male power depended on role as well as action; women could only react. Women couldn’t successfully carry off heroic action because role reinforces action in order to be meaningful, and women’s roles were not those of power. So women wrote about trivial things, even if those things encompassed all the vital parts of life, from birth to death, and all the range of relationships in-between. Important literature was about men, written by men for the males who dominated the literary and academic scenes.
Of course now we see those once accepted assumptions being challenged by male and female writers, and changing in dynamic ways. For all the old patterns that persist, there are new patterns that embrace role, power, and meaning, yet inform a distinctively female gaze. And one that I thoroughly enjoy in certain hands.
A third vector: I tried a couple of female-written male/male romantic fantasies a few months ago, noting the storytelling, plot, and emotional patterns. One was by Ginn Hale, and the other by C. S. Pacat. Women seem to be the main audience for female-written male/male romances. Why aren’t these women reading romances written by gay men? Some of them are, but I think what they like in the female written ones is that the men in the stories are seen through the female gaze. Roles, power, meaning, are played with in ways that don’t map over the old rules, pleasing a female audience.
Contrast that to Game of Thrones, which is most definitely written from the male gaze. It, like the Sanderson, is selling millions of copies. That suggests to me that women like the male gaze, too, because it’s not just men enjoying the books and film adaptation. Or in certain ways is the male gaze still the default?
As I said above, The Goblin Emperor is mostly about men, but the power dynamic is turned inside out in fascinating ways, and I believe that the female gaze is what makes this book work so brilliantly.
The main character’s emotional spectrum is that of a victim of abuse. He sees himself as powerless, and has to (painfully) adjust to the mindset of one who discovers himself to be the most powerful person in the entire land. The subtleties of the female gaze imbue the the emotional verisimilitude of the main character with verisimilitude, informing his perceptions of interactions, his attempts to evaluate the total overthrow of what he’d accepted as paradigm, as power dynamics, and in his profound moral struggles.
As you can see, I haven’t come to any firm conclusions. The book is so new, and I, being cis-gendered female, see the world, and literature, through my own perceptive lens, with all its distortions. But I thought, why not throw a few ideas out there and see what others think, and incidentally I hope get more people to read a terrific book.
Then put the book on my reread shelf for another go.