Though I saw it all around
Never thought I could be affected
Thought that we'd be the last to go
It is so strange the way things turn

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Linkee-poo on a rare Sunday

Elizabeth Bear is right about Holly Black being right about Zoe Trope being right about the "Mary-Sue" thing. I guess I don't read that much criticism that I don't believe I've stumbled over the Mary-Sue dismissal in the wild. But I agree that if it is used beyond the fan-fic world it's not being used correctly. At best you could say that a character is both an insertion of the author coupled with wish fulfillment, but that's been a standard critique for years. And it's just as wrong. Nobody complains when a male character wins the day, is staggeringly competent, and gets the good looking girl at the end.

What if male superheros posed like WonderWoman. A visual take on the rediculousness of the sexism in (some) comics. Part of the ongoing debate that started during ComicCon this year. (Grokked from Jay Lake)

Young people are reading more than you. In case you needed a reason of why YA is the hot genre. (Grokked from Tobias Buckell)

Hey, you know how in Wisconsin the conservative majority is working so hard to cut costs (and then pulls shenanigans on the recall races that add a few million to the budgets) and then also corrects for nonexistent voter fraud by enacting a voter ID law? Because of increase demand in photo IDs (including the free ones) means the DMV has to open more offices (after closing some last year). More offices and hours to the tune of $6 million this year and $4 million per year afterward. Thanks, guys. Doing a bang up job.

And speaking of increased costs, the Tea Party just cost you $322. The Slactivist throwing some water on the bonfire of the vanities. (Grokked from Jay Lake)


Eric said...

Oddly, Elizabeth Bear is basically right in spite of the fact she's trying to agree with Holly Black, who is basically wrong, which is odd because Holly Black is trying to agree with Zoe Trope who is basically right. How the hell does that happen?

Well, the answer is that the major issue is with sexism in criticism and the misuse of an expression with a fairly clear original meaning, not with the use of the term "Mary Sue" per se. The term is a nice, succinct description of a kind of character that is broadly drawn and is self-evidently a form of wish-fulfillment for the author, and there are absolutely male equivalents, frequently called "Gary Stus", though I think that phrase is lame and would rather call a male Mary Sue a Mary Sue than get cute about it.

Black is wrong because she'd confine the expression to fanfic, where it originated. The problem I have with this is that I can think of plenty of characters who fit the bill in every regard except for that one, and I don't see why I shouldn't use shorthand if everybody knows what it means.

In the comments thread at Trope's blog, I left an example of a character I think fits the bill who I've described as a Mary Sue in a review, actually: the main character of Ayn Rand's execrable novella "Anthem".

Another problem with Black's critique is that she doesn't appear in the post to grok that Mary Sues (using the term properly) are a particular type of protagonist and that protagonists aren't generally awesome because they're protagonists. A protagonist might indeed be too good to be true, and if he's too good to be true because of some obvious wish-fulfillment-fantasizing by the writer, he might be a Mary Sue. But memorable protagonists tend, even in genre fiction, to be flawed, while perfect protagonists are at least on a slippery slope with Mary Suedom at the bottom. Take, for instance, Black's take on Star Trek: yes, Kirk, Spock, Bones and Scotty are presented as being the best at various things, sometimes ludicrously so; but to the franchise's credit, the dramatic and memorable episodes/movies/scenes are ones in which these characters aren't the best, or are even the worst at something: Kirk loses his temper, Spock loses his reason, McCoy is at a loss, Scotty doesn't know what's wrong with the engines. In fact, the (arguably) worst entry in the original cast movies would seem to challenge Black's very point: Star Trek V, a movie directed by Captain Kirk himself from a screenplay co-written by Shatner off a story idea pitched by Shatner presents a laughably Mary-Sue-ized version of Captain Kirk as the most awesome guy in space ever, far more awesome than Sad Spock and Moody McCoy, more awesome, even, than "God", no kidding. (Conversely, the best original cast movies happen, oddly enough, to be the one where Kirk almost gets his ship blown up by being overconfident and has to be schooled on tactics and the one where he starts out as an anti-Klingon racist and walks into a murder frame-up meant to trigger an interstellar war after having too much to drink and acting like a dick at a state dinner; so much for being the best at stuff.)

I get and agree with the idea that sexist critics are bad, and apparently there are a lot of amateur critics using "Mary Sue" as a catchall for "girly" stuff they don't like and want to dismiss without too much effort. Bad critics, bad! No cookie for you! But I think some of the backlash is missing the problem--those lazy critics would still be a bunch of pricks if they excised "Mary Sue" from their vocabularies, wouldn't they?

Steve Buchheit said...

Hey Eric, I think you're missing that critics are using the term in a dismissive fashion, and applying it unfairly (in the views of Ms Bear, Black and Trope) to any competent female character. In a way they (the critics) are unwilling to criticize male characters (written by males) who also exhibit the same qualities.

However, I believe they (the critics) are misusing the term as it is specifically for fanfic. In literature we already have a perfectly useful term ("authorial wish fulfillment"). Mary-Sue's have a unique twist on the "uber-competent" character in that she/he is an insertion into an otherwise already built world, and the inserted character totally outshines the existing cannon. It isn't so much an addition as a complete blowing out of the water of the existing character set. To continue the theme of Star Trek, there's a reason why Kirk, Picard, and Archer were captains of the UFP flagship, they were the best Star Fleet could find. To insert a character that makes them appear as bumbling fools (different that including a plot line that shows their weaknesses) is, IMHO, a completely different animal that the uber-competent protagonist in many novels (such as Harry Creek in "The Android's Dream" - while John was accused of "inserting his ideal wish-self" into the book, I don't seem to remember "Mary-Sue/Gary-Stu" being use anywhere else than in the comment threads of his blog).

In the three authors we've pointed to (Bear, Black, and Trope), they believe they're seeing a harsher standard being applied to female characters/authors and that the term (while acceptable to where it applies) is being misapplied in an attempt to dismiss "those icky girls." And in that, they're just noticing a recent twist in the long standing literary argument regarding female protagonists and writers (the flack around Nancy Drew comes to mind).

Eric said...

Well, I tried to avoid mentioning Trek's most-glaring canonical Mary Sue: Wesley Crusher, who seems to have been a wish-fulfillment character for producer Gene Roddenberry, even over the objections of some of the show's writers. A character "insert[ed]... that makes them appear as bumbling fools," indeed.

I do agree that the same standards ought to be applied to male characters and/or authors; I hope I got that point across. And I agree that the term shouldn't morph into a shorthand for "ew, girls!"

One point is that über-competence and authorial wish-fulfillment oughtn't be the sole defining characteristics of a Mary/Gary Sue/Stu. Zoe Marriott actually proffered an excellent definition in her original post, which seems to have gotten a little buried in the (perhaps more important) sexism discussion:

"A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in literary criticism and particularly in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. It is generally accepted as a character whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits until they become one-dimensional."

Sometimes, James Bond is a Mary Sue: in his worst incarnations in the movies and books (especially in the movies), he's a one-dimensional wish-fulfillment fantasy, lacking noteworthy flaws and displaying idealized and hackneyed mannerisms. In his best incarnations, he isn't: in those books and a few of the movies, he's a two-dimensional wish-fulfillment fantasy who is arrogant, cruel and lacks any real depth beyond a nearly constant (though sometimes suppressed) carnal desire for sex, violence, booze, food, and pleasures acquired through various forms of risk-taking. Note the difference. In any incarnation, he's über-competent, and in any incarnation he's either an idealized version of what Ian Fleming thought he was or a surrogate for the reader/viewer's fantasies (or both); but in the interesting versions, Bond is a flawed superman, someone who manages to be compelling without ever really being admirable (at his best, even Fleming seems to have a kind of sardonic distance from his alter-ego: "This is the idealized version of me being a right arsehole...").

I bring up Bond because the fact he's usually a Mary Sue but sometimes isn't nicely illustrates the point that Mary Sues just aren't very interesting, for the most part. And also because there's no reason for the term to be used in a sexist fashion, and that's where I agree with Marriott's original main point insofar as would-be critics shouldn't be using it that way. I think where I'm parting ways is with the whole "if it can't be used properly, it shouldn't be used at all" angle. I'm happy to call the James Bond of the film Die Another Day a total Mary Sue and am happy to thwack anybody who tries to say Hermione Granger is one just because, what, she happens to be a girl? An imperfect and interesting girl who sometimes screws up and is frequently more interesting than the star of her franchise, not because she upstages him somehow, but because she's much more dynamic than Harry Potter whether she's saving the day or screwing it up.

Steve Buchheit said...

Eric, I think our positions aren't all that far off. The thing for me is that a Mary Sue requires an existing universe to be inserted into. And for the most part that means fanfic or tie-in novels (which are basically fanfic commissioned by the copyright holder).

I also think that Ms Bear, Black and Trope are saying that they're objecting to critiquers calling the Hermione Granger character a Mary Sue, when she clearly isn't (IIRC, it's Ronald Weasly that closely cleaves to JK).

One of the themes that is really being discussed here (but not being openly talked about) is the rise of the female in prominence in both author and character. This being driven mostly by the market (more women read than men do). However in the perceived "male dominance" of SF/F (see earlier conversations regarding gender exclusion in anthologies) the "old guard" is being threatened in their clubs which they though were "men only." If it's rightly or wrongly being applied, there is a perception that the use of "Mary Sue" (or "slash") in critiques of mainstream SF/F is a way of trying to keep women in their "ghetto" by dismissing strong women characters and authors.

BTW, just as a matter of comparison and for understanding, women writers are very much the majority of authors in the fanfic community. The use of the term which started in fanfic being applied to mainstream books is a implied denigration (again, applied rightly or wrongly) by saying, "This isn't anything more than fanfic."

Eric said...

Steve, I don't think we're that far off, either. And I think we share a core value that using any particular phrase--validly or invalidly--merely to ghettoize an author shouldn't be tolerated. And indeed it should be tolerated even less if the attempt to demean is based on status or an attempt to preserve some kind of good ol' white boys oligopoly in a genre.

That said, I think one concern I have with deleting a criticism like "Mary Sue character" instead of insisting that it be used accurately is that demographic changes in authorship shouldn't necessarily require changes in readership or criticism. One sometimes sees a disturbing trend in comment threads and occasionally blogs of valid critiques being dismissed as an "-ism", sometimes with an added dose of moral or market relativism--"This character represents [insert historically oppressed viewpoint] or is what [members of category] want to read" or somesuch.

My own preference is to treat female writers the same way I'd treat male writers, not to patronize them by softballing a critique. Does Stephanie Meyers write Mary Sue characters? I don't know, because I haven't bothered reading the Twilight series, but Isaac Asimov certainly wrote scads of them, most of them male characters because I don't think he could have written a nonlinear female character if a clean blood transfusion depended on it. (What? Still too soon?)

Anyway, I hope I'm not sounding like an insensitive old white guy, myself.

Anonymous said...

I wish to way in on two issues that have cropped up, as someone who writes and critiques fanfiction. I am also female, just to make things clear.

~ The Sexism Issue

It is a well known fact in the fanfic community that most fanfiction is not written by male writers, but in fact females. So, if ninty percent of your writing base is female, while the rest are male, then it stands to reason that ninty percent of the critism for Mary Sues and Gary Stus is going to be more towards Mary Sues.

There is another factor that comes into play. The percentage of female writers who activly take part in wish fulfillment is much higher then those who are male in the fanfiction community, which throws things off even more. The reason Mary Sues are getting the brunt is because they are prolific, not because of any sexist reason.

I actually do critique Gary Stus when I find them usually. But as I've said, finding them in the fanfiction community is rare. A lot end up dying off really fast simply because they don't get many reviews in a community relativly driven by the females. We actually like finding male writers and getting to talk to them.

That said, the Mary Sue character in fanfiction can in itself be sexist. On the one side, I've seen Mary Sues paired up with a bunch of male characters because she is weak and needs her prince charming. On the other side, we have the Mary Sue that is paired with many males because she is that domineering.

I think this kind of sexism is more important to adress when it comes to fanfiction then worry about how many more Mary Sues get critisized then Gary Stus, particularly since there aren't that many to critique in the long run.This may just be me.

~ Fanfic Only

I don't see a single reason why the term Mary Sue should be used for only fanfiction. The only reason the term was only used in the fanfiction community was simply because the term was unknown, not because people didn't find it to be useful.

Now, there have been problems cropping up because of the brodened use of the term, but they are honestly not different then before. People who don't understand the term are throwing it around as if they know what it actually means. Aka, characters that aren't Mary Sues/Gary Stus getting labeled the term.