Thoughts About Writing Inspired by Jo Walton

My Real ChildrenJo Walton received her Tiptree Award for My Real Children at a celebration at Borderlands Books last Sunday. It was a festive event, attended by a large number of Bay Area readers and writers, and included wonderful cake from BVC’s own Madeleine Robins (who bakes as well as she writes).

Tiptree Awards come with lots of swag, including money, chocolate, the opportunity to wear a tiara, and a work of art. This year’s art piece was done by Mark Ferrari, also from BVC. Which is to say, Book View Café was well-represented at the proceedings.

Walton said a couple of things in her interview by Ellen Klages and her acceptance speech that got me to thinking.

The first was her declaration that she doesn’t stick to one type of book. As I understood her reasoning, this was in part because writing the same type of book over and over would be boring and in part because she gets very tired of some of her subject matter.

For example, she says she will never write another book in the Small Change series (Farthing, Ha’penny, Half a Crown) because she can’t stand the idea of writing more about fascism, a stance I find quite rational.

I’ve read two of Walton’s books – Lifelode and Among Others – and My Real Children is in my TBR pile. I can attest that these books are very different, which is one of the reasons I liked them.

Most of my favorite writers write very different books every time. Karen Joy Fowler is my favorite example. I have read all her novels and all her collected short stories and will buy anything she writes without even knowing the title or subject matter. It doesn’t matter what the book is about, because I’m sure Fowler will do something brilliant with it.

That is, as a reader I want writers to do very different things. I want to do that as a writer as well, but right now I’m thinking as a reader. I want the books I read to wake me up and challenge me in new directions, ones I haven’t thought about at all.

Sherwood Smith had a post a couple of weeks ago on the “writer-reader contract.”  It was, as Sherwood’s posts always are, a thoughtful discussion, in this case one on what makes readers trust that they want a writer’s latest book before they even know what it’s about.

I have to admit, though, that the idea of a “contract with the reader” always sets my teeth on edge. The only thing writers owe readers is an honest effort to tell the story they want to tell as well as they possibly can. They are not required to meet reader expectations.

Readers, of course, are not required to buy or read or like the books, and they are free to criticize the author as much as they want, but they don’t have the right to feel betrayed because they got a different story from the one they were expecting. The author gets to decide what the story should be.

Apparently some people – including some publishers – don’t like it when authors jump around among genres or don’t write the same type of book every time or even just change the rules of a genre. But I don’t want the same book every time. I always get bored with series that use the same format every time. I want the writer to shake things up.

As an example: I quit reading Bernard Cornwall’s Sharpe series midway through one of the later books, because I knew exactly how the plot would play out and couldn’t face it. On the other hand, I read all of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series because while the characters are the same, the plots of each of the books are quite different and the characters develop over time.

The other thing Walton said – and this is a bad paraphrase, because I wasn’t taking notes – was that too many people who are incorporating women into their fiction these days are simply inserting them into male roles. Her Tiptree winner is an effort to write a book that is both science fiction and “women’s fiction” – that is, a book that deals with the realities of women’s lives. She thinks all too many writers don’t incorporate such things as family and children and the various parts of human culture that have been defined as female for millennia into their work.

She makes a good point. Many of the classic adventure stories don’t make room for the larger story of human lives, particularly those parts of life that are considered female. Gwyneth Jones has addressed this point as well, saying (again, a bad paraphrase because I don’t have her essay handy) that making “our people” the superheroes and adventurers that everyone likes is not what change is all about.

I find a lot of stories with adventurous women protagonists annoy me for similar reasons. But there is a reason we write these stories, and a reason that readers want them: Women are still being told they aren’t allowed to do these things, still being told that they should prefer being home with the kids and taking care of grandma, still being told to limit their lives.

While I’d like to see a better telling of some of these stories, they get written to remind us all that we can be the explorer, the warrior, the hero, the president, the ruler.

This is an old feminist argument, and both sides are right. People – of all genders – need to recognize the importance of the part of life that has been defined as female. But they also need to be aware that women are not restricted to those roles.

Good fiction reminds us of both.

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Thoughts About Writing Inspired by Jo Walton — 8 Comments

  1. I was really struck by Jo’s comments about “women’s fiction”–that is, fiction focused on the concerns of women and how it can mesh–or more often not mesh–with SF or fantasy.

    • I was struck by that and wanted to argue with it at the same time, partly because every time I hear “women’s lives” in that context I think it implies marriage and family and raising kids, all of which are valid things, but are not the things of my life. We need stories that incorporate those things while remember they aren’t the only things that define women.

      And, of course, Jo’s fiction incorporates those things while being much more complex. Which is the idea, imho.

  2. I’ve been told that what’s “wrong” with my Nola O’Grady books is their emphasis on her family relationships. “Can’t you just leave that stuff out?” is a question I have actually heard — from a woman.

    • But of course, that’s the sort of thing that makes a story real — even a story with fantastical elements. People have lives. So many adventure stories set up the hero as someone without family attachments to avoid that, but I think that’s the essence of what makes them ultimately flat.

  3. Jo is such an encouragement to me. I too hate to do anything twice. Once, yes, once for a lark, but I could never write twenty books exactly the same. The intelligent reader will find connecting themes and even the background character, sneaked in Easter Egg style, but once I’m through, I’m through.

  4. I would have loved to be there for that talk, though I got the chance to speak a great deal with Jo, Ada, and Lauren about writing the weekend previous when she was GOH at Mythcon. It was a delightfully headlong series of subjects and book recommendations.

    • It would have been nice to see you there, too, but I’m glad you got to talk with her at the con. And that explains why she was in the area so they could do the presentation. I was wondering.