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19 April 2014 @ 06:23 am
The Goblin Emperor . . .  
. . . and the female gaze. Why does this book work so well for me? Here is one possible idea.

If you've got a few minutes, please come and discuss--I really want to see how others perceive both this book and the female gaze!
whswhs: pic#67542548whswhs on April 19th, 2014 02:08 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure why you're calling it "gaze." I'm used to seeing that word, especially in a feminist context, used to mean something different: The process by which a male (assumed) audience defines a woman as an object of male contemplation and possession, as exemplified especially in the nude. That made me expect to read a piece about how women treat men as objects of contemplation and possession—I could see a range of different possible takes on that, from a straightforwardly pornographic one to traditional fantasies of matrimonial ambition. But it's clear you're talking about something else, and I'm not sure that "gaze" is exactly the right word for it; perhaps "voice" would be better.

The actual topic you're writing about makes me think of the campaigns I run. I always run at least two in parallel, and often three. And characteristically, one of them ends up as being strongly action-focused, and one ends up being focused on characterization, relationships, and dialogue, often with very little in the way of fighting or "adventure." Equally characteristically, the players in the first are mostly men, and the players in the second are mostly women. Though not all: my action campaigns normally have at least one woman player (one of my long-established women players will hardly play anything else) and my relationship campaigns normally have at least one man player. (Currently, for example, I'm running an alternate history swashbuckler with three of four players male and a medieval scholastic fantasy with three of five players female.)

So what's going on with the campaigns that are "drama" rather than "action"? It's not that there's a lack of agency. It's more that the agency is expressed toward relationships—both relationships among the protagonists, and relationships of the protagonists with supporting characters. And one of the main tools of agency is language and dialogue. Another is often the manipulation of social relationships. I do include scenes of physical action in such campaigns, but they have the feel of being a break in what's really going on.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 19th, 2014 02:21 pm (UTC)
This is a good point--I seem to be appropriating the "gaze" word and translating it in a broader way. I can see the danger, and yet I really like this expression, not limiting it to objectification.

Hmmm. Have to think about it. Thanks.

That's interesting about the campaigns. I wonder how your numbers map over reading tastes.
Eglantine Brandybuck: Bagginscarbonelle on April 19th, 2014 06:11 pm (UTC)
Heh. I'm with whswhs as to the use of the terminology, though I suspect we're coming at it from a different perspective. "Gaze" strikes me as one of those feminist-academic weasel words used to intercept (and eventually obviate) rational discussions about socially unacceptable and/or wrong male behavior. Start talking about a "female gaze" or a "male gaze" in a (new) novel and I'll run for the hills. The last thing I want to waste my time on (unless I have to for work) is the lastest darling of the academic chattering set.

But then I remembered: this is Sartorias, and she actually has excellent taste in books. I love books where the author plays merry hob with social cues using a clever understanding of what kind of dialogue (both internal and external), descriptions and plot points are likely to generate certain expectations by the reader. Connie Willis' Uncharted Territory, the Flora Fyrdraaca books, James H. Scmitz' Nile Etland stories, are all lovely examples--and awesomely fun reads. Suzette Hadin Elgin's nonfiction about male vs. female patterns of speech, especially offensive (as in going on the offensive/attacking) plays out in fun ways in her Twelve Fair Kingdom books and her science fiction.

One of the things to consider, however, is that men (in general) seem to care more about goals and women about process. I don't want to get into evolutionary just-so stories, but it seems to me that if things considered typically male (weapons, violence, bloodshed in books) somehow transmogrify into things considered typically female (mystery & true crime reads), there's likely a clue in how female and male brains work.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 19th, 2014 07:14 pm (UTC)
Heh! Yes, on many of those examples--Willis, Schmitz--indeed.

Yeah, these ideas are formulating, and I am really stumbling around for vocabulary here.
whswhs: pic#67542548whswhs on April 20th, 2014 04:31 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure what perspective you assume I have, so I can't really comment on that aspect. I'm not sure whether I accept the "male gaze" concept as valid or not. But I've heard it used to refer to certain phenomena in the arts, and inferred a certain core meaning for it from them; and it seems to me that sartorias is applying "gaze" to phenomena that don't have that core meaning, which is likely to lead to misunderstanding if not contention. That's the sort of thing that I'm likely to be concerned about whether I accept a concept as valid or not.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 20th, 2014 04:52 pm (UTC)
Yeah--I am groping my way toward finding vocabulary that fits my (inchoate) ideas. Not helped by the fact that 'gaze' so neatly (in my head) works for the generality of patterns that I perceive.
Eglantine Brandybuckcarbonelle on April 21st, 2014 08:16 am (UTC)
I assumed you have the perspective you just explained in more detail here: "gaze" as a term of art, used by Sartorias incorrectly as such.

Mine is as a warning flag: eye-rollingly painful tedium ahead!

But we both agreed that its use viz the Goblin Emperor was probletic :-)
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 21st, 2014 01:16 pm (UTC)
whswhs: pic#67542548whswhs on April 20th, 2014 04:38 pm (UTC)
It seems to me that in terms of viewing tastes, a film that is all about relationships and misunderstandings and emotions will be called a "chick flick," and a film that is all about fights and chases and physical dangers will attract a largely male audience. (Of course, there are cases such as The Hunger Games, but that film is about relationships as much as about physical action. The same could be said about Divergent.)
Rosalee LuAnn: I want to be Eddis when I grow up!rosaleeluann on April 19th, 2014 06:09 pm (UTC)
That was interesting to read, and now I really want to pick up that book. My roommate and my boyfriend both love Brandon Sanderson's series and have been encouraging me to read it, but I haven't absolutely loved the other Sanderson books I've read. They were alright, but not quite up my alley. I'll probably be picking it up soon, though, just to see.

I'm remembering a discussion we had on the Sounis livejournal community (literally) years ago. As I remember it, when we were discussing favorite authors and books one of the members pointed out that most of her top favorite books were written by women. Until then, I hadn't realized that I was the same. Though I never checked the gender of the author or used that as a factor in choosing books to read, I realized that all of my very favorite books have female authors. I've enjoyed books written by men, but none of them are at the top of my list. I'm wondering if this is due in part to what you're calling the female gaze.

That same discussion moved in to people making observasions about what books by men and women tend to be about--obviously broad generalizations, but it was interesting to look at. We observed that books by women usually focus more on character and relationship development--the who and why. Books by men seem to more often focus on plot and world building--the what and how. Obviously a well written book will involve all of those things, its the focus that is different.

Anyway, just some thoughts.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 19th, 2014 07:16 pm (UTC)
I came to the same conclusion not long ago. Not, like you said, that I don't enjoy books by men. I am rereading, and loving, the Patrick O'Brian Aubrey/Maturin roman fleuve right now. But many of the newer books I am liking and sticking with, yep, written by women.
serialbabbler on April 19th, 2014 11:37 pm (UTC)
I've been keeping a list of the books I've read since 2005 so I decided to start counting how many male authors versus female authors I read just for the fun of it. (Eh. I find strange things fun.)

Of the 831 unique authors I read between January 30th, 2005 and April 3rd, 2014 50.67% were men and 49.3% were women. (To the best of my ability to determine these things by way of biographical data and keeping in mind that some of them may have been gender fluid or whatever.) There were 23 women I read at least five books by (some of them may have been the same book multiple times) and 14 men I read at least five books by which suggests that I'm more likely to decide to read everything I can find by a female author if I like her writing or possibly that I tend to like series written by women better. I have no idea whether the gaze makes a difference to me. I'll have to think about that. :) I know I don't particularly like relentless violent action, though. It gets almost as boring as sex scenes.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 19th, 2014 11:50 pm (UTC)
All things considered that is a pretty even balance!
Miriam3rdragon on April 21st, 2014 09:09 pm (UTC)
Now that's a fascinating question.

I've only been keeping track since mid-2011, but here are my stats:
Of 141 unique authors, 37.74% were men and 62.25 were women (modulo same).
If I count instead the 237 books, 31.12% were written by men and 68.87% were written by women. Apparently I read more books by women.
There were 5 women I read at least five books by and 3 men (62.5 and 37.5 percent, respectively).

Since three years isn't that long a span, I also added some more qualifiers:
In rereads, 68.18% were by women, 31.81 percent by men.
And if I count books where I had read a book by the author before, 67.58% were by women and 32.41% were by men. (For the curious, by unique authors, that list represents 39 women and 28 men.)

237 books is not a terribly large sample set, but I find it fascinating how consistent the numbers are.

Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 21st, 2014 09:19 pm (UTC)
Interesting--especially the rereads!
Rosalee LuAnn: I knew I'd be in this story somewhererosaleeluann on April 23rd, 2014 03:51 pm (UTC)
Interesting follow-up to this... when talking to my boyfriend about something to do last night, after running through a few ideas he said, "I have this new book I got from Amazon called The Goblin Emperor, we could read that together!" Having just read your post, I liked the idea very much. So far, we both really like it. We're having a really hard time pronouncing the names, though. We'll see how our opinions and views of it may differ as we get further.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 23rd, 2014 05:43 pm (UTC)
I couldn't see how to pronounce the names, either, so I figured anything I "heard" was fair game.
Wandering Hedgehog: Subversive maleoursin on April 19th, 2014 07:34 pm (UTC)
Writing via tablet which discourages posting at length, but what I thought about the initial setup was Elizabeth I's accession - and see that the author in a recent interview mentions as influence a novel about the pre-throne Elizabeth (though not the Margaret Irwin trilogy that was my canonical intro to the story).

And it is v much about the need to find supporters and allies in a precarious situation, which is perhaps not the trad male narrative about coming to power - Arthur has Merlin + Excalibur, e.g.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 19th, 2014 07:36 pm (UTC)
Oh, that doesn't surprise me, that she did some judicious reading in Tudor history.
Jules (writing when she gets work): soul foodseajules on April 20th, 2014 11:00 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen "gaze" used quite this way before, and I feel like it's not a term that acknowledges the outside influences that make certain foci read as "women's interest" and others as "men's interest." I feel like it needs a term like "things women are encouraged to notice/be interested in" and "things men are encouraged to notice/be interested in," both of which inherently acknowledge the concept that these are not necessarily things any particular gender or biological sex is hardwired toward, nor are they going to be hardline things that all women/men notice and/or care about. Because I think I see what you're getting at in the article, and certainly I am all for more female perspectives represented in genre work, but I get the feeling I wouldn't agree with all the details you read as "this is how women see things/what they want to see." For one thing, I'd be far more intrigued by the book if it was about a Goblin Empress.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 20th, 2014 11:05 pm (UTC)
Oh, it would have been perfect if it had been about a goblin empress.

Yes, I am really struggling with trying to get images into a vocabulary I want, and to perceive if patterns I notice are ones others notice, or just my own. That's why I like to throw these ideas out there, and see how people respond, even if it's a general "You don't make any sense, Smith."
Jules (writing when she gets work): soul foodseajules on April 20th, 2014 11:11 pm (UTC)
I suspect you are making sense, but then, I haven't read the book in question. I understood what you were getting at in your article, I just wanted to point out the problems with "female gaze" as a label for what you were describing.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 20th, 2014 11:13 pm (UTC)
Yes. I am actively looking for another term, or metaphor, or something to fit what I want to say. Something that does not subsume what I perceive to the male version in any way. Something that, in fact, might even imply that I find what I perceive to be a strength in literature--one that lends itself to books that are read for generations, something I find in Austen, Eliot, etc. and I do not find it in the works of male writers, even ones I admire.
Jules (writing when she gets work): soul foodseajules on April 20th, 2014 11:27 pm (UTC)
I know what you mean, I think, and the overall concept is something I very much love and support in writing. It's not a particular set of interests or gender essentialist notions like women are naturally more intuitive/compassionate/nurturing/interested in relationships versus actions (stuff which gets up my nose something fierce). Rather, it's an earned/learned awareness that one's own perspective is not the only one, and that one's own triumphs and trials do not exist in a narcissistic vacuum. It's the literary manifestation of the way marginalized/Othered folks have to be alert to the ways we don't fit the dominant paradigm as a flat necessity of daily survival, and so we're often also more alert to who is doing what in support of us and/or shared goals.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 21st, 2014 12:28 am (UTC)
Yes, yes. That is it exactly. Thank you.
Jules (writing when she gets work): aim true sagittariusseajules on April 21st, 2014 01:05 am (UTC)
Thank you for starting the conversation. Perhaps "marginalized awareness" would do the trick?
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 21st, 2014 01:13 am (UTC)
I keep prowling around various terms. Marginalized awareness seems to lead toward the pitfalls of appropriation and the like, at least in my head, which can also shipwreck discussion so easily.

Maybe someone with more smarts than I possess will write an elegant essay to which I can point and exclaim Ahah, that is it. Until then, I need to keep poking at these ideas.
Jules (writing when she gets work): art writingseajules on April 21st, 2014 01:29 am (UTC)
Hmm. It might be one of those concepts that really can't be boiled down to a shorthand phrase, which means more verbiage when discussing it, but maybe that's for the best? I mean, that way what the concept entails is always laid out for anyone new to the discussion.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 21st, 2014 01:30 am (UTC)
Yes--and so a shorthand might arise out of what is understood, so the preliminary caveats and explanations needn't be laid down every time.
Jules (writing when she gets work): art writingseajules on April 21st, 2014 01:33 am (UTC)
Yep. It's probably something that will come with more discussions about the concept.
anna_wing on April 21st, 2014 09:39 am (UTC)
By 'gaze', do you mean 'point of view'? I have no academic training in literary criticism so I am not entirely certain of what you mean, sorry.

A random and probably irrelevant thought: All my working experience has been that if you choose people for how well they fit your organisational style and ethos, there will be absolutely no functional difference between how men and women oeprate. Any generic difference there might be in the mass disappears when you select for individual personality type ( in my case, pragmatic and goal-focused problem-solvers).
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 21st, 2014 01:15 pm (UTC)
Not point of view, no. I don't have any formal literary training either (what I do have is outmoded by two generations, now) so I am trying to reach my way toward an idea, here.

See what Seajules says below--she gets closest. (Another of the many disadvantages of being a primarily visual thinker)
Nonny Blackthornenonnycat on April 23rd, 2014 10:04 pm (UTC)
I haven't read the book yet; it's on my TBR, but I might bump it up since everyone's talking about it. XD

I admit to having passed it by based on the description since I don't like male-centric stories, but I've heard so much about the book being very feminist with awesome women characters that I'll probably give it a go anyway. I've definitely heard that Maia is not a typical male character, which intrigues me.

Something I did want to note was your comment about the male gaze in the Vorkosigan books; actually, my reading of them was that they were surprisingly not male-gazey. I mean, yes, Miles does notice women, but it's not something he dwells a lot on, and the blood and guts isn't dwelled on much either; the books, especially the ones about Cordelia and then the post-Memory books, are very political in nature. A Civil Campaign is actually completely sociopolitical and in many ways a SF political romantic comedy. If you read only the early books, I suppose you could get that impression, but there is so much more to them than blood 'n guts and hot women. Miles is probably one of the few feminist male heroes I have read; not that he's perfect but he's very informed by his extremely progressive mother, and he looks at things very differently than most men of his culture, and he is actively working within the political system to change his culture's views and restrictions on women.

Another major thing in the Vorkosigan books is the adoption of uterine replicators into the MC's culture and how this affects women, gives them freedom (because this is really a feudal culture and reproduction is extremely important), and how it affects the society as a whole. I don't see that as something that would be discussed at all in what I'd consider "male gaze" fiction, tbh.

Unless you mean something completely different by male gaze and I'm misunderstanding. Which is possible. I'm coming at it from the general feminist understanding of male gaze. :)

(I don't feel I can comment regarding Goblin Emperor without reading it, but that struck me and I just had to mention it.)
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 23rd, 2014 10:16 pm (UTC)
I totally agree about the feminist feel to the Vorkosigan books. The problem with the word "gaze" (and at the website there is some intense discussion about it) is as you say, easily misunderstood. I think LMB does a good job with het males in a military/ aristocratic setting, without being the least obnoxious about it. One of the things I love about the books.
Nonny Blackthornenonnycat on April 23rd, 2014 10:26 pm (UTC)
I just read the article, haven't read the comments yet... next on my list :) I'm used to seeing the term "gaze" as how women are written about and focused upon, in a manner that is unrealistic or objectifying women, and that's not something I got from the books at all.

I think LMB is the only author I have read who writes about a guy that I actually identify with, because he's so NOT traditionally male, and also, the disability issues are something I deal with, and the portrayal of bipolar is ... well, I actually told my partner to read the books because "this is how my brain works." I haven't been able to stomach most military SF; this is one of those rare exceptions.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 23rd, 2014 11:08 pm (UTC)
Yeah, understood.
Melycoffeeandink on April 27th, 2014 04:08 pm (UTC)
I know this is really late, but I wanted to say: What I found most (socialized) female about the book's focus is how uncomfortable Maia is with using power. It resonated with the experiences I've had and that I think a lot of women have had, in their twenties, when they realize they do have power and don't know how to use it, because all of their socialization argues that women having power is a bad thing.

My one quibble about the book, actually, is that I would have liked to see more of Maia and his newly promoted cohorts misusing power -- not even out of malice necessarily, but because they are unaccustomed to thinking of themselves as the ones with power. And because it takes training to use properly. We got a little of this with Maia's interactions with his stepmother's page boy, but I would have liked to see more of this, and more of it in the explicitly political maneuvering.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 27th, 2014 05:15 pm (UTC)
Your thoughts echo others' on this, and I think you are right.

I, too, would have liked to see more of what you say--and more of why the messenger stays with him. He's just always there for Maia from the get go. why? But I think those things might have required a series. She seems to have worked hard to keep it all to one book, and that meant scanting threads I might have liked seeing fully woven.