Monday, March 26, 2012

Congratulations! You have now been friendzoned!



Ah, the friend zone! Is there a worse place for a guy (or girl) to be?

So let me explain what’s happening. A few weeks ago the phrase “friend-zoned” had its five minutes of glory on the interwebs, which caused quite a few people to weigh in on it. Incidentally, I had recently finished reading a book which had a male character rather brutally taking his friendship with a girl to the next level… by marrying her without her knowledge or consent. I ranted quite a bit in that review, but it got me thinking about the whole idea of male-female friendship and how it is portrayed in YA.

A clarification: friend-zoning someone is when a person (usually female) notices that a friend of theirs (usually male) has the hots for them, but isn’t interested in a romantic relationship. The first person proceeds to ask the second person if it is possible to remain friends – hence the name.

You’ll actually find that, on closer examination, there is quite a lot of friend-zoning going on in YA novels. Almost always, one side of the popular love triangle is friendzoned, Jacob from Twilight being the obvious example. Jacob and Bella are a pretty good example of the stereotyping that’s going on: We have a guy who is sweet, supportive and respectful, who is led around by a girl who is obviously in love with someone else, but who for some reason still gets chummy with them. You can say pretty much the same for any Twilight knock-off out there.

And, you can’t pick up a Cassandra Clare book without expecting a love triangle (sometimes, even two, if you’re lucky). In The Infernal Devices, that trope is handled well, but then again, she is writing about Victorian times – girls just didn’t have that much space to operate in for them to have a friendzone. Simon from The Mortal Instruments, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish.

Poor Simon actually got pretty far in his advances to Clary, even got to be her boyfriend at a point, but in the end, he has to dump her because she’s in love with her brother. In a way, Simon has a lot of guts to actually walk away, but he still supports Clary in the vein hope that she would realize her feelings for him. Which is kind of painful to read, not because of the obvious train wreck that is to come, but because it is played straight.

See, the problem with the connotations of the words “friend zone” is the implication that girls doing it are cockteases. In fact, a GR friend of mine offered me this very insightful quote: “Calling a girl a “slut” is shaming her for saying yes. Calling her a “friend-zoner” is shaming her for saying no.”

Girls can’t win. It’s a fact.

If you want more proof, look no further than the king of the friend-zoned, John Green, whose books seem to feature a wide cast of quirky, loner boys and girls who are totally in love with their best friends or their manic pixie dream girls, but are always unappreciated. While Green is not discriminating about what gender the friend-zoned person belongs to, he does seem kinder to his male characters than his female ones. His Margots and Alaskas are exciting and sparkly and deeply disturbed, but they are, at their core, selfish bitches. And the discovery of their motivation doesn’t really make them more sympathetic. The same problems pop up in “The Fault in Our Stars”, a novel I find deeply problematic in its portrayals, but if I got started on that one, we’d be here the whole night.

What really bothers me is that the books I read rarely portray the person who is doing the friend-zoning in a positive light. No, correction. It doesn’t portray girls doing the friend-zoning in a positive light. The argument runs somewhere along the lines of: “If women complain there are no more nice guys, it’s because they friend-zone them.”

But here’s the thing: if someone is friends with a girl just because he (or she) wants to get into her pants, then they’re not being a nice person. They’re not even a good friend. Because sometimes people don’t want romantic relationships. And disrespecting their wishes, or not taking them seriously enough, is kind of insulting.

I mean, look at the Hunger Games. There is so much in those books that people can talk about: the satire of a consumer society and reality TV, the political commentary, the portrayal of war, the blurring of the lines between good and evil. What’s the main talking point though? Are you Team Peeta or Team Gale? (Cassandra Clare, incidentally, made a pretty hilarious statement on that bit.)

People tend to be kinder to Katniss, since there is so much shit happening in her life, but there is still discussion about her playing two boys against one another. Personally, I don’t even think love was important to the Hunger Games trilogy – yes, Katniss has feelings for Peeta and Gale, but they’re not strictly romantic. There’s a lot of stuff mixed in there – doubt, mistrust, old memories and new, life experience, grudges, ideologies… The Hunger Games, to me, is a lot more about the loss of childhood innocence and the painful act of healing, than it is about who Katniss ends up with.

Which is why I think that the portrayal of her relationship with Gale is probably the best “friendzone” I have read in books. There are good reasons for them to be friends, and good reasons why Katniss keeps him away. The books don’t try to prettify that aspect of their relationship – you do see how difficult it is for her to deal with the changes in it, how she tries to hold onto it and fails, and ultimately, her realization that there is a point of no return.

So that’s my two cents, but I’d love for the discussion to continue in comments. What examples can you think of in books, where one character is friendzoned? What did you think of it? Do you think it was a realistic portrayal or not?

Or, incidentally, would you like me to do a post on The Fault in Our Stars, or shall I let this one lie?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Curious Case of 50 Shades of Grey

Things are getting weird in publishing. With the printed page repeatedly being declared dead and e-books dominating the market in an unprecedented manner, publishers have had to work especially hard to stay alive, often harnessing the online market or crossing over with the self-publishing scene. The first sign of this major change came when Amanda Hocking, the first person to sell one million e-books, received a seven figure deal for one of her YA series, which immediately landed on the NYT best-seller list. Now, something even stranger has happened. All three books in the Fifty Shades trilogy, an erotic romance series written by E.L. James (real name, former TV producer Erika Leonard), are currently in the NYT best-seller list. The series, described rather ironically by the media as the kinky adult version of Twilight and reported to have sold over 250,000 copies, was quickly catapulted into mainstream culture after mentions on the Today Show as well as several major media publications. A few days ago it was announced that Vintage publishers had picked up the series for a seven figure deal. This caused some interesting reactions, especially amongst the online blogging community, where it is common knowledge that the books started out as a Twilight fan-fiction posted on FF.net, entitled Master of the Universe, before being pulled to publish by The Writer’s Coffee Shop publishing house, an indie publisher founded by Amanda Hayward. Throughout this media storm, it has been Hayward and not James taking care of the interviews and questions over the legality of the text. I questioned TWCS on twitter and received the following replies. I am not a copyright lawyer, and I suggest everyone check out Dear Author’s fantastic series of posts on fan-fiction in regards to this series, as well as the TurnItIn results revealing the series to have 89% of the content from the original fan-fiction. Vintage and TWCS maintain that what they have in their possession and will undoubtedly make a lot of money from is original, does not break any copyright laws and is not plagiarism, since James is the writer of both. As I said, I’m not a lawyer, but this does bring into question many issues that we seriously have to resolve.

I won’t bother too much with the content of the book (I'll cover this in my review when I get round to writing it) as many more qualified reviewers of romance and erotica have dissected the problematic misrepresentation of dominant-submissive relationships better than I could. Nor can I authoritatively tackle the legal issues surrounding this case. What I am is a fan, one who has participated in several various fandoms over the years. I strongly support the concept of fandom and all that it offers, having received so much from them in my lifetime, from passions to lifelong friends. Fandom tends to get a raw deal from the media, who are more likely to deliberately misrepresent, exaggerate or concentrate on the craziest element for a few cheap jokes rather than give it a full hearing. Granted, fandoms have their difficulties, but the very essence of what they are – a group of people sharing their passion and creativity through a number of varied means and discussions – forms the undeniable backbone of the entertainment industry. Fandoms are the key demographics, the profit margins publishers and studios are dying to get their hands on. During such times of economic uncertainty, you can’t really blame them for wanting to latch onto the fandom fever. Just check out the advertising for The Hunger Games movie to see what I mean. The industry will always try to cater to or exploit fandom, it’s what they do, and sometimes that can work out really well.

But my issue here is with fans exploiting fandom for personal gain. E.L. James exploited the Twilight fandom. She pretty much admits this.

Fan-fiction is one of the backbones of fandom. I am a huge supporter of fan-fiction, I’ve written it myself and I think it’s a great way for fans to share their love of characters and worlds while developing their own creative skills. Fan-fiction is for the fans, it’s there to be distributed and enjoyed freely, not for profit. However, for places like Omnific and The Writer’s Coffee Shop publishing house, fan-fiction is a business model. Here is a list of some of the many Twilight fan-fictions that have been published as original fiction. Some are self-published but a large portion of them were published through the aforementioned publishers, which sprung from the Twilight fandom. Many have argued that since these fan-fictions were so blatantly alternate universe set with very little in common with the original source material, they bypass copyright infringement and essentially existed as original works in the fandom, but that doesn’t change the fact that these authors began their work as fan-fiction, posted it as fan-fiction, received attention from it as fan-fiction and undoubtedly had it published based on its popularity as fan-fiction. I feel it is important to stress this because a remarkably large number of people seem to have no problem with this business model. I believe this has a lot to do with the mainstream media’s ignorance of fandom and its practices. Fan-fiction is not always warmly received by authors. Anne Rice, George R.R. Martin, Raymond Feist and Laurell K. Hamilton are several writers who hold explicitly anti-fan-fiction views, going so far as to blacklist their work from fanfiction.net. They hold onto their copyright fiercely, and after seeing what James is doing, I can’t blame them. Stephenie Meyer has said she supports fan-fiction, but what if she didn’t? What if she, her publishers or even Summit Entertainment pulled a lawsuit out for this? TWCS say they are covered by copyright law, having checked this with their lawyers, although I’d love to question these lawyers myself. They’ve skirted around the issue but it’s publicly known that these works started out as fan-fiction. One can read 50 Shades of Grey and easily compare the basic plot structure and characters to that of Twilight. The book went through practically no editing from fan-fiction to novel beyond name changing, so how original is it?

Think of the precedent this sets. If E.L. James and her publishers technically bypass copyright laws then would a fan-fiction of 50 Shades of Grey with the names changed pass the same test for publication? TWCS said it would stand up to the same copyright laws as 50 Shades, yet never replied to my query as to whether or not they’d consider publishing rejigged 50 Shades fan-fiction. Funny, yes? If one author is allowed to use characters from a copyrighted work, are others? Where does the line stop? The reason I am so annoyed at James and TWCS, not to forget Omnific, is because I believe this can only hurt fandom. 50 Shades is in the spotlight, it’s the biggest thing in publishing right now. If other authors catch wind of this, if they see work being published that originally started out as fan-fiction of their own work, the cease and desist letters will be sent out to fandoms, make no mistake about it. In the end, this is about money for these publishers as well as creative control. Authors don’t want to allow their content to be creatively diluted time and time again for someone else to profit from it. And fans don’t want to be exploited, like how James exploited the Twilight fandom. Say what you want about Twilight, and I have way too many times, but fans should have a place to come together and share their passion without worrying about being used as literary guinea pigs. James used fandom as a jumping point, she gathered a huge and extremely dedicated fan-base originating from Meyer’s creative output and used it for profit. Let’s not forget Amanda Hayward and TWCS’s role in all this. They knew exactly what they were doing, latching onto the fandom’s creative output to form the foundations of their own business. It may not technically be illegal but I still consider it ethically unsound.

The sad thing about this all is that James and Hayward won. They’re wealthy and well known from this, although James has been uncharacteristically shy since the Vintage deal announcement, and once again fandom is screwed over by the wider powers that be. James has a seven figure book deal and a possible movie in the works. I know many people don’t have an issue with what James has done but I can’t support these actions, not at the expense of fandom and the ability to freely creatively express one’s love for another’s work. Call it as original as you want but when it walks like fan-fiction and talks like fan-fiction under the banner of fan-fiction, you don’t get to call it an original work when the dollar signs start flashing in your eyes.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

What’s in a Heroine…?

So last month, I read “The Fault In Our Stars”.

*audience gasps, squeals, or groans respectively*

Yeah. While my experience with it wasn’t entirely like that of others, it was a well-written book and it raised some interesting discussions, and most notably (for me), the question on what is heroism and what constitutes as a heroic action. Which got me thinking about ladies in YA – specifically, it made me wonder what makes a lady heroic. So I asked around GR, twitter and tumblr and got some very thought-provoking answers.

Please note – this is not a post about my feelings on TFIOS or Hazel because in order to do that, I would have to spoil the book for you (as, unfortunately, it’s one of those reads where the major spoilers are also the major centers of conversation).

There always seems to be a debate about female characters (in all media, but YA fiction especially) and what is the best way to portray them. One might say that it’s a subjective thing, as one person’s garbage is another’s gold mine, but there isn’t that much drama when discussing male characters (unless those characters were written by ladies). It seems like men get to have all the variation they want, while women must balance on the precarious point between extremes in order to be considered a realistic character.

We like to make fun of the perfect and perfectly clumsy girls that always get the hero (and several other boys), and we certainly don’t consider them very heroic since they never need to change, evolve, or take initiative throughout the novels, in spite of the fact that they’re technically at the centre of the action (we need no examples of that).

On the other hand, however, there are books like Graceling and Wildefire, with strong MC’s who kick a lot of butt and assert their independence from men… but they also look down on more passive female characters, who are more relaxed about their views on love. And while I liked both Katsa and Ashline, women are not all the same and being independent is not the same as acting masculine.

A really good example I got, when doing my research, was Deryn Sharp from Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan trilogy, a young girl who dresses up as a boy to sign up in the Royal Navy, in an Alternate Universe World War I Britain. True, cross-dressing narratives aren’t exactly new, but I loved Deryn from the get-go, because I could easily identify with her frustration at having unconventional interests at a time when gender roles were really strict, and her strong desire to pursue them. Moreover, nothing comes free to her – she works for everything, and her victories are well deserved.

Another really awesome lady is Penryn from Susan Ee’s Angelfall, a story about a girl trying to survive in a post-Apocalyptic world and her journey to save her sister from the angels that kidnapped her. Penryn is very similar to Katsa, in that she fights a lot and has survival skills above those of a regular Jane. She’s also very calculating, measuring the consequences of her actions and thinking ahead, rather than rushing blindly in battle (for the most part). But the thing about Penryn (and Deryn too) is that while she puts on a tough girl act, she’s also very insecure and very scared, and that makes her rare moments of vulnerability all the more genuine and sincere. In fact, those are the times that are most memorable to me.

I also asked the Interwebs why they thought their MC of choice was heroic, and the most common answer was that she carried her own story. That she existed apart from the hero, and that rings very true in both Deryn and Penryn’s cases. While both of them have their respective love interests, their romance is a subplot, one that doesn’t outshine the actual events of the novel. If you want more proof, I will only say that Sophie from “Howl’s Moving Castle” by Dianna Wynne Jones was a popular choice, and she spends the majority of the novel as an old woman.

I feel, in the end, that what really makes a heroine is not about the expectations of gender and how she meets them/defies them, but how she stands as her own character and if her arc is a satisfactory one. It’s not about acting like a man or saving the day in spite of being feminine – it’s about facing the challenges thrown in front of you and learning from them, and staying true to yourself. That, to me, is the marker of a true heroine.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Beautiful Disasters, Facebook Blocks and Why Abuse is NOT Romance.

At the beginning of the year, I read the self published novel "Beautiful Disaster" by Jamie McGuire. My opinion was less than enthusiastic. In fact, it overtook "Hush Hush" as the most abhorrent book I have ever read it terms of problematic content masquerading as romance or "bad boy sexy". You can read my review here. The reason I never posted my review onto the Sparkle Project, my oft-neglected blog where I post all my reviews, is that I didn't consider it to be YA, even though I had seen it marketed as such. It definitely reads like it was written for a younger audience and the characters are within YA age but the classification of young adult literature is more complex than its characters ages.

The author herself recently posted a Facebook post, which I cannot read any more, where she asserted that the book was not YA and was not about an abusive relationship, something I vehemently disagree on. The author's denial on the YA issue was interesting considering her own post asking fans to vote for the book in the Best YA category of the GoodReads awards. I posted a reply stating this and screencaps from my brief interlude with McGuire can be found here. I was in the middle of typing my 3rd reply when I was blocked from the conversation.

I want to make this clear. This is not some attack blog post, or a jealous hater rant or whatever it will undoubtedly be classified is. My issue here is that I was not allowed to state my case in full before being blocked entirely from the conversation only to be referred to as "need[ing] some medication before she hurt somebody in her basement" by one of McGuire's fans, while she let this ableist insult go by. So I shall do so here. Nobody will be blocked from this conversation, no comments will be deleted, unless personally insulting to me or other commenters, and I shall reply to as many replies as possible.

I hated "Beautiful Disaster". This is a book where the romantic hero repeatedly beats up people with pretty much no cause to do so, emotionally blackmails the heroine into staying with him, frequently leaves her and their friends scared by his behaviour and controls her actions, such as choosing outfits for her to wear. That's not romantic or sexy or any other connotations that are positive, and just because there's a self aware element of how disturbing this all is, that doesn't make it any better. Just because the author says it's not abusive that doesn't mean it isn't. It carries all the hallmarks of an abusive relationship and for her to even suggest it as a YA novel, be it passively or otherwise, is terrifying. Then again, this book disgusts me no matter how it's classified. There's no authorial control over the abusive content, and no consideration for what the realistic consequences of how a relationship like this would end, despite the author saying she wanted to keep it as realistic as possible. That's my issue with this book. The YA classification element is just another part of the problem that needs to be addressed. If McGuire was so adamant that the novel was not to be considered YA under any circumstances then why did she not correct anybody when it came to the GoodReads awards issue? Was it okay for her to cash in on this for publicity when the occasion called for it? Why is it not okay now? Is it because people have a completely justifiable issue with the content? And if the book is indeed adult contemporary romance, why does that justify the content?

"Neither the rating, nor the book conveys the message that abuse is okay. As the author, I can attest to that. The main female character is not abused. The characters are adults."

The issue of authorial control is a complicated one. Once a book is out in the open for all to see, read and analyse, the author's reading of it is no longer the authoritative interpretation of the text. If one is able to read something different from the author, it will be read and discussed. As an English lit student, I've seen some weird and wonderful interpretations of apparently simple texts. If I squint hard enough, I can see a modicum of what could be considered sexy and alluring about "Beautiful Disaster" but I'm far too aware of how disturbing it is to rose-tint a violent, emotionally unstable and manipulative man into something akin to a "bad boy". I've seen it more often in young adult fiction than I'd ever wish to read. I'm extremely passionate about addressing these issues in fiction aimed at a young and impressionable audience, and since "Beautiful Disaster" has in some shape, way or form been marketed or viewed as YA fiction, I need to talk about this. Even if it was never classified as YA, I would still have a major issue with it. The author's statements on the book do not match up with the material she has written, published and profited from. The characters may be adults but that does not make their actions and (lack of) consequences any more justifiable than if they had been written as sparkly vampires. See the previous post I wrote on Chris Brown for proof of that.

Frankly, I feel a little stupid for even addressing such a molehill of an issue and this free publicity is most likely what the author wants, given the recent attention being paid to another questionable & problematic vanity published romance novel. But I don't like being ungraciously kicked out of a discussion before I can give a proper reply, only to have people say I need medication for ever daring to bring up evidence contrary to the author's post. I also don't take kindly to being referred to as "the lynch mob that's been following me [McGuire] around for months" when that is a flat out lie as well as a ridiculously offensive piece of imagery. I will defend my name and I will defend up review of this book. Given the not infrequent spats with authors and bloggers as well as a burgeoning self publishing market, this is something we need to sort out. We need to talk about this content in fiction, be it teen or adult marketed, and we need to be able to do so without being called "haters" or "bitches". It needs to happen without getting personal, without getting incendiary and it needs to be done with a modicum of civility, otherwise we go round and round in circles and nothing will ever get fixed. We'll still be having these arguments in a year's time and we'll be writing the same Facebook and blog posts. Who wants that?

EDIT. McGuire herself refers to her book as young adult here and here. Isn't Google amazing? My thanks to my friend Has for that find.