Sunday, June 30, 2013

Why Do We Hate it When the Dog (or Cat or Horse) Dies?

Why is it that so many readers are particularly upset when an animal dies in a story? And I'm not talking about partially anthropomorphized animals in stories where the animals are actual pov or focal characters, though these deaths can be upsetting too. I'm talking about the death of realistically portrayed pet, working or companion animals.

Probably one of the most famous examples is Fred Gipson's Old Yeller, which was adapted into a Disney movie. I hope this is not a spoiler for anyone, but at the climax of the story, the protagonist Travis must put his beloved dog down because Yeller saved the family from a rabid wolf, thus exposing himself to the fatal and highly dangerous disease. This sacrifice is what transforms the boy into a man, but even though it was a necessary loss to make the coming of age arc complete for Travis, I always found it terribly upsetting, as if there was a complete lack of narrative justice. There are plenty of other stories that follow this same basic premise. There are also a number of lighter-hearted tales where an animal passes away after living a long and full life. This is less unsettling, perhaps, but I still have a hell of a time not crying  when I reach the end of a book such as John Grogan's Marley and Me, which was also made into a successful movie.

On a different note, there are also a lot of stories where the bond with, and ultimate loss of an animal is not the point of the story, but animal carnage still ensues. To a certain extent, this is realistic. When a man is fighting in a war, the last thing you can logically expect him to worry about is whether or not he has to shoot some horses out from under the charging enemy. Yet I still find myself being annoyed when this happens, especially if the character who does this doesn't experience any stress or conflict. We live in a world where most of us still use animals for food (and medical research, which even the strictest vegans benefit from) and where we kill millions of dogs, cats and horses every year because there are no homes for them. So it does seem strange, even hypocritical, for me to be annoyed with the protagonist in a book like Brandon Sanderson's excellent Mistborn trilogy when she [spoiler alert here--am changing font color to white so anyone who does not want to read this can skip it and anyone who does can highlight the text to read]

purchases and kills a dog so that her shape shifter servant can steal its body instead of occupying a human corpse. Honestly, as gruesome as animating an already-dead human corpse, I found the prospect of killing a dog worse.

But logical or not, my own emotional response seems to be fairly common. I even know a number of people who swear they'll put a book down or refuse to read it at all if they know this is going to occur.

In fact, that there's a web site for movie fans called "Does the Dog Die," which lists hundreds of movies where an animal or animals feature prominently in the plot. It's a three tiered rating system: a crying doggie symbol for movies where a pet dies; a worried doggie for movies where a pet is injured or appears to be dead, but ultimately lives; and a happy doggie for movies where the pet/pets all live.

I'm not a psychologist, so I'm not absolutely sure why the death of animals in books and movies is so upsetting to so many people. I'm guessing that several factors may be at work here.

1. The phenomenon of triggering. In its usual sense, this is used to when a real life or fictitious event triggers traumatic flashbacks in vulnerable people (such as people who suffer from PTSD). Though I doubt most people experience anything akin to traumatic flashbacks when they read about a pet dying, most animal lovers have experienced the grief of losing an animal companion at least a few times in their life. For many of us, the loss of an animal friend was the first significant loss we experienced as a child or young adult, and it's one we know we will experience again. I can only know about myself for sure, but for some reason, I empathize more with a character who loses an animal, or even with the animal itself, than I do with one who loses a spouse, sibling, parent or friend. I'm not sure why, because the loss of my own father was devastating. But for whatever reason, the way fathers usually die in books and movies does not "remind" me of my own loss in the same way.

2. Animals are often child surrogates. We're supposed to care for them and protect them. This doesn't mean that most of us think animals are more important than children. If I had to choose between saving my dog or cat from a burning building and some strange child I didn't know at all, I'd save the child. But I'd still mourn the dog or cat deeply and probably feel a great deal of guilt. Why? Because my animal friends rely on me and trust me to care for them and protect them. Allowing an animal to die, particularly one I'm invested in emotionally, feels like a violation of that trust. I've lost several animals in my life, and some have passed prematurely. But only one died in a manner that could be termed accidental (one of my childhood cats, Lyle, was poisoned). Decades later, it is this loss that still haunts me the most.

3. Animals are innocent. Like children again, they are uncomprehending victims of the choices humans/grown ups make. Their death often lacks any sense of narrative justice.

4. For the above reasons, their deaths often feel milked or set up, as if the author or director was  intentionally creating conflict, tension or pathos by killing or threatening an animal. Even when you see it coming as a reader, or perhaps, especially if you see it coming, you may resent it, or just find it really anxiety provoking.. I remember that when I watched the movie Alien, some of the tension I felt was worry over whether or not Jones the cat would survive.

There are probably other reasons why the death of animals (particularly ones we think of as companions or pets) is so upsetting in fiction. If anyone else has any ideas about this, I'd love to hear your comments. Are there any books or movies where the death of an animal was especially emotionally moving or evocative for you (in either a good or bad way).

                       Simon: our own Old Yeller look alike, though he lived a much longer life.
                                            Astra: even after 17 years, her loss was a blow.
                                                        Oscar: a superb cat, taken too soon.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Link to Article About Medieval Pet Names

This was a cool article about names people gave animals in the middle ages. I've been thinking lately about the changes in the way animals have been regarded throughout history, and about their appearance in literature that is not animal focused lately. I always have a tough time feeling sympathetic towards a character who is cruel to animals in a story, or who mindlessly accepts things like dog fighting etc., even if it is plausible for him or her to do so in the context of his or her culture. I know it's a bit hypocritical, perhaps, like a vegan reader who hates characters because they eat meat, cheese or eggs or wear wool or leather in a pre-industrial culture. But it can be hard to set one's sensibilities completely aside when reading.

This is an amusing reminder that the human-animal bond is nothing new in history.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Link to Article About Male Gaze and PoV violations in Fantasy

I just ran across this issue on male gaze and pov (written by Kate Elliot) from a SFF fanzine.
Anyone who's read very many of my entries by now knows that I'm interested in gender issues as they pertain to writing. I'm also interested in point of view in fiction and in the ways authors use (and sometimes abuse) it. Kate Elliot refers to the problem of "omniscient breasts," which is what happens when the male gaze creeps into a point of view that is supposed to be female. Thought it was interesting, as it sums up something that I probably don't notice quite as often as I should, but that still jars me out of a story's narrative sometimes: a female character, written in limited third pov who seems just a little too consciously aware of certain parts of her own body.

I strongly suspect that writers of both sexes are often unaware of the fact that they're doing this. The most interesting part of the article was one male's interpretation of her writing when it was truly written from a female pov.

I remember reading a passage in GoT where one of the female characters seemed to be oddly aware of the size and shape of her own breasts, and of the way they jiggled beneath her vest. It made me roll my eyes a bit, because if a woman wrote a male pov along those lines (he felt his firm, tight you know whats jiggling inside his breeks as he walked across the room), I think many male readers would throw the book down in panic.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Gender Essentialism and Writing in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Those of us who are fans of speculative fiction and don't live under an internet rock are probably aware of the storm that's been raging over at the SFWA this week. I am not a member of SFWA, (though qualifying for membership is a long-term goal of mine) and a lot has been said about the issue. I don't think I can really add much more to the exchange, but if anyone wants to know what I'm talking about or needs access to some links about this controversy, AW has a thread, and this blog also contains some good links. This link also.

But this whole thing got me thinking about sex, gender and writing and how my favorite genres (SF and F) have long been regarded as male bastions. Yet there is an increasing number of women writing in these genres, and there are an awful lot of female fans. It is oh so seductive to think that this means that sexism is behind us, but sadly, it's not true.

I participate in some online writing forums, and now and again someone will comment that they just don't like fantasy or SF books by women writers as a rule. When pressed for an explanation, they state that women "write differently" than men, and will usually couch their arguments in terms of the "men and women are just different" position.

Well, we all have our own tastes, and if you have read the majority of female authors in the genre and the majority of males, then I suppose you may have a basis for making such a judgement. It is certainly possible that there are overall difference in the themes the two sexes prefer to write and in their approach to characterization, conflict, description or narrative or whatever. But it seems to me that there is still going to be a lot of variation within each group and overlap between them. But inevitably, it seems, these threads drift into a discussion about sex and gender differences, and at some point, the specter of gender essentialism will be trotted out.

For the uninitiated, gender essentialism is the notion that most or all of the differences between the sexes are driven by biology and that the biological differences between the sexes are absolute and immutable with no (or only a very small)  area of overlap between the two sexes. It is, in essence, an attempt to refute the concept of gender being a social construct.

In short, gender essentialist seem to purport that most traits that vary by gender look like this:

If you challenge them on this notion, they will usually start talking about sex hormones and brain structures and yin and yang and sociobiology etc., as if there was anything approaching a scientific consensus about these issues and about the relative importance of experience and biological variables in shaping a person's personality, talents and interests.

But to some extent, these arguments can be used as a red herring. Why? Because even traits that do have a very strong biological component almost never fit the pattern depicted in the graph above.

For example: on average, men are physically taller than women.  As a person with biology training, I know that sex hormones play an important role in these differences, and that there is probably a reason that humans (and many, but by no means all, mammal species) evolved with size dimorphism.

But, this does not mean that all men are taller than all women. Nor does it mean that shorter men or taller women are abnormal, unnatural or biologically unfit in most situations.

Height varies around a median. In fact, there is a large area of overlap between the male and female "bell curves" with regards to height.

Like height, very few qualities that we possess as human beings are all or nothing. Traits (assuming they can be reliably and repeatedly quantified at all) nearly always vary around a mean.

So even if one's approach to writing is strongly influenced by biology, making a comment like, "Women just write differently than men" makes about as much sense as saying "Woman are just shorter than men." Even if it's true in a statistical sense, the exceptions are almost as numerous as the rule.

Or to look at it another way: men differ almost as much from one another in height as men and women do. So why wouldn't something like writing style have a similarly large area of overlap? Most writers will fall somewhere in that purple zone in the middle, with only a relatively small number (maybe just a handful) falling in the "tails" of the distribution. You may, in fact, prefer writers who lie in one or another of these tails. But if this is the case, you can't really say you "like male writers" or "like female writers." Rather, you like a fairly extreme and atypical approach to storytelling that is not the norm for either gender.

And if you do, this is fine. I'm not judging your taste. In fact, our personal tastes in fiction are all driven by factors that probably vary around different means, and we probably all like some things that are outliers in some way. I'm just saying that equating the style you prefer with a given gender is simplistic.

So who cares?

Even when it's well intentioned, I think gender essentialism has the potential for serious abuse. One problem is that we often end up pathologizing people who fall away from the mean for their sex/gender in some regard. An example of this is the issue of unusually short men or unusually tall women being perceived as unattractive or poor examples of their sex. Think of all the ways people who deviate "too far" from the perceived median or average for their sex can be ridiculed or marginalized. Especially when the trait in question is regarded as an important determinant of femininity or masculinity in our culture.

In fact, there are very few of us who do not deviate from the mean for our biological sex or social gender with regards to at least some traits. When was the last time you met someone who was right on the median in every possible way?

I think this is something people should keep in mind when they're discussing whether or not they "like" writers of a given gender. If you use the gender the author as a primary criteria for determining who you are going to read, you may be missing some stuff you will like.

In another vein that is beyond the scope of this already too-long entry, I also think it's something to keep in mind when creating characters in fiction.


Iris Vander Pluym,

Friday, June 7, 2013

Short Story Submission Advice: Cross Post

This is a nice post about the how-tos short story submissions over on one of my critiquing buddies (Erik Larson's) blog site. It's written by Nyki Blatchley, another critiquing boddy, and has some good advice about a process that is often baffling to new authors.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Female Warriors in Fantasy

Linking this interesting article on the social conditions that might lead to a fantasy society that has a greater proportion of female warriors than our own history has produced. With my own worldbuilding I went with the relatively ubiquitous (if limited) magic approach and took the tack that healing talent led to lower infant and maternal mortality rates, so women in general were not as tied to the role of childbearing for their entire adult lives.

The author of this article discusses this, along with some other approaches, that could also work for setting up a more egalitarian society.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Whither the Stand-Alone Fantasy Novel?

Fantasy is a genre that lends itself to sweeping sagas that extend beyond the confines of a single book. A lot of work goes into creating the mainstays of fantasy: a separate world or universe, an internally-consistent magic system, a pantheon of gods and a history. Most of the fantasy writers I've met personally enjoy this aspect of their work, and it's not uncommon for aspiring writers to get so caught up in world building that they "forget" to actually write their stories.

The trilogy is a staple in second world fantasy, and there are many reasons for this besides the success of Lord of the Rings. At the most basic level, stories often have clearly demarcated beginnings, middles and endings, and so breaking a long story into three makes sense.

Series are also increasingly popular. It's not unusual for a writer to keep writing stories about his or her characters. Some of the early classics of fantasy, such as the Conan books, come to mind.

Overall, this is just fine with me. When I fall in love with a world, universe or character, I want to keep revisiting them, and of course seeing them continue to evolve and change is a lot of fun. One small peeve I and some others sometimes have is the fact that second world fantasy settings are often stuck indefinitely in a sort of nebulous medieval era, but the concept of worlds evolving and changing is something I've seen other writers address recently.

But what if a story is complete in of itself and doesn't need to be revisited? What if the author doesn't want to disrupt a protagonist's happily ever after? What if the writer prefers to move on to a new world, setting or magic system? Does the current market actually force authors to keep writing about the same worlds and characters, even if they become old or stale?

There does seem to be a general shortage of fantasy, particularly in recent years, that is both completely stand alone as a tale and the only novel about a particular world or characters. Often, singletons represent early novels by authors, or novels by authors whose careers never took off. This is a shame, because sometimes it's fun to explore a world or setting without necessarily committing to them, even as a reader.

Here are a list of some stand alone fantasy books I've enjoyed.

The Hob's Bargain by Patricia Briggs. Better known for her contemporary fantasy (Mercy Thompson and Alpha and Omega novels), this author has also published some second world fantasy novels.

The Wizard's Shadow by Susan Dexter. This tale of posthumous revenge combines elements of romance and humor. It's not clear if this book is set in the same world as her Warhorse of Esdragon books or one that is similar, but there is no overlap between the stories and characters.

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. This was his debut novel, and it took place in a different world than his later works. Sanderson is very good at coming up with interesting and unusual magic systems, so he is an example of an author who might be hampered if he set all his novels in the same "universe."

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is possibly the master of modern stand-alone fantasy novels. This particular title is on my short list of all time favorites.

Watership Down. Many don't think of this when they think of fantasy, since Richard Adams's work is marketed to the "mainstream" fiction market. But this tale about heroic rabbits is a classic, and aside from the intelligent animals aspect, it contained elements of true prophecy and the supernatural.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. This retelling of the Arthur legend was unusual for its time, as it focused on the points of view and perspectives of the female characters, most notably Morgan La Fey. I believe she did eventually write another novel about Avalon that was set in the same "universe," but this book stood alone for many years and did not need a sequel or prequel.

Animist by Eve Forward. This book could have led to sequels, but it appears to be the last novel this writer has published. It's a shame, because the magic system and world she introduced in this story were intriguing, and her writing was a pleasure to read. Her only other novel was called Villains by Necessity.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman. This book dates back to an era where the "sequelitis" craze had not taken off yet. Just as well, because why spoil Buttercup and Wesley's happily ever after by continuing to toss villains at them?

The Last Unicorn by Peter S Beagle. Likewise for this book. One wonders if, were it written in the modern market, whether there would be an extended array of unicorn adventures, or whether Schmendrick's heroic transformation would continue in future volumes.

Stranger at the Wedding by Barbara Hambley. This is set in the same world as her Silicon Mage series, but it involves characters that don't appear elsewhere, and the story is completely separate. It is often cited as an example of a fantasy style called mannerpunk/fantasy of manners.

Anyone else have any candidates?