Thursday, July 6, 2017

Review - The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

Essays Included
Persistence and the Long Con of Being a Successful Writer
I'll Make the Pancakes: On Opting In - and Out - of the Writing Game
What Marketing and Advertising Taught Me About the Value of Failure
Taking Responsibility for Writing Problematic Stories
Unpacking the "Real Writers Have Talent" Myth
Some Men Are More Monstrous than Others: On True Detective's Men and Monsters
Die Hard, Hetaerae, and Problematic Pin-Ups: A Rant
Wives, Warlords, and Refugees: The People Economy of Mad Max
Tea, Bodies, and Business: Remaking the Hero Archetype
A Complexity of Desires: Expectations of Sex and Sexuality in Science Fiction
What's So Scary About Strong Female Protagonists, Anyway?
In Defense of Unlikable Women
Women and Gentlemen: On Unmasking the Sobering Reality of Hyper-Masculine Characters
Gender, Family, Nookie: The Speculative Frontier
The Increasingly Poor Economics of Penning Problematic Stories
Making People Care: Storytelling in Fiction vs. Marketing
Our Dystopia: Imagining More Hopeful Futures
Where Have All the Women Gone? Reclaiming the Future of Fiction
Finding Hope in Tragedy: Why I Read Dark Fiction
Public Speaking While Fat
They'll Come for You . . . Whether You Speak Up or Not
The Horror Novel You'll Never Have to Live: Surviving Without Health Insurance
Becoming What You Hate
Let It Go: One Responding (or Not) to Online Criticism
When the Rebel Becomes Queen: Changing Broken Systems from the Inside
Terrorist or Revolutionary? Deciding Who Gets to Write History
Giving Up the Sky
What We Didn't See: Power, Protest, Story
What Living in South Africa Taught Me About Being White in America
It's About Ethics in Dating
Hijacking the Hugo Awards
Dear SFWA Writers: Let's Chat About Censorship and Bullying
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: On Empathy and the Power of Privilege
Rage Doesn't Exist in a Vacuum
Why I'm Not Afraid of the Internet
We Have Always Fought: Challenging the "Women, Cattle, and Slaves" Narrative
Full review: The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of thirty-six essays by Kameron Hurley that mostly focus on what it means to be a woman in "geek" spaces plus an introduction and an epilogue. Many of these essays have previously been published on various online outlets, but they have been compiled here in one place, which has both beneficial and detrimental effects - putting them all together serves to reinforce many of the themes that Hurley hits upon, but it also means that the fact that she reuses some anecdotes and arguments is easy to notice. A few of the essays were written especially for this collection, and those are, in large part, some of the strongest in the volume. Through all of these essays, Hurley delves into a wide array of topics related to writing, life with the internet, feminism, and modern geekishness, with a commentary that is biting, incisive, witty, and insightful.

The essays in the book are grouped into four broad categories titled "Level Up", "Geek", "Let's Get Personal", and "Revolution". Each section deals with a broad topic like "professional writing" or "being a woman and a nerd" or "how to navigate the internet as a woman", although these are not hard and fast demarcations. Not all of the essays neatly fit into one or another grouping, in part because many of the essays have overlapping topics, but also in part because some of the other essays wander down paths that are entirely unique. One minor weakness of the book is that this is a compilation of essays, many of which appeared independently of one another, so there is no real coherent unifying theme, and they don't really build on one another. Rather, each essay mostly stands on its own - and builds its arguments pretty much entirely within the confines of the essay (which leads in some cases to arguments being repeated), The end result is a moderately disjointed final product, but the somewhat scattershot nature of the contents means that the book that does manage to explore a broad spectrum of the topics that Hurley is passionate about.

The first section - "Level Up" - is the shortest, with only five essays, all about becoming a professional writer. Persistence and the Long Con of Being a Successful Writer, is fairly standard essay about what it takes to become, and remain, a successful published author, and seems almost generic in its advice. On the other hand I'll Make the Pancakes: On Opting In - and Out - of the Writing Game, details the unique, and exhausting travails faced by women working in the publishing industry, a theme that recurs in multiple essays in the volume. The most interesting essay in this section, and the one that probably draws most deeply upon Hurley's unique perspective is What Marketing and Advertising Taught Me About the Value of Failure, in which she uses her experiences working in the advertising industry to offer an interesting perspective upon how to achieve success. Both Taking Responsibility for Writing Problematic Stories and Unpacking the "Real Writers Have Talent" Myth are fairly straightforward essays on topics that have been written about by numerous other authors, but like all of the pieces in this book, these display Hurley's personal perspective and are presented with a modest amount of snark, a lot of harsh truth, and a dash of brutal honesty.

The next section is titled "Geek", but most of the essays really zoom in on what it is like to be a woman who is also a geek. This is also the longest section, with the largest number of pieces in it. Essays such as Some Men Are More Monstrous than Others: On True Detective's Men and Monsters, Die Hard, Hetaerae, and Problematic Pin-Ups: A Rant, and Wives, Warlords, and Refugees: The People Economy of Mad Max detail how fiction so often glorifies and celebrates what amounts to monstrous behavior, oftentimes smacking female fans in the face in the process. Hurley's tone through these essays is often not so much "anger" as it is "exasperation", as she notes the few times that a creator has understood the toxic messages that pervade so much fiction and run against that trend, and how these voices are so often simply ignored in favor of the lazy ans sexist version of storytelling that has become so comfortably familiar.

From there, Hurley launches into a series of essays concerning gender in fiction, and how both women and men are presented in problematic ways, starting with Tea, Bodies, and Business: Remaking the Hero Archetype and running through Gender, Family, Nookie: The Speculative Frontier. In this set of essays, Hurley recounts how she fell in love with genre fiction, but how it systemically excludes women and systemically presents men in ways that excuse or even glorify monstrous behavior. The tone in these essays generally runs from "resigned" through "enraged", and in most cases justifiably so. Hurley lays out the problematic aspects of fiction in general, and genre fiction specifically, and then proceeds to flense away all of the tired excuses and half-assed justifications that are used to prop up these problematic tropes and lays bare the sexism at their core.

The key to Hurley's criticism, however, is that she loves genre fiction, and not only wishes it were a more welcoming space for women, but actively advocates for the kind of awareness that would make genre fiction more informed and, one would hope, better. The remaining essays in this section, starting with The Increasingly Poor Economics of Penning Problematic Stories through Where Have All the Women Gone? Reclaiming the Future of Fiction mostly deal with the problems in fictional representations, and why changing these tropes would both improve the fiction itself and open them up to a broader, hitherto ignored audience. The best essay in this group is Making People Care: Storytelling in Fiction vs. Marketing, which is about exactly what the title says: How does an author (or advertiser) get people to care about something. Once again, Hurley draws upon her experience working in the advertising industry and explains how this informs her fiction writing for the better.

For the most part, the essays in this collection are better the more closely they draw upon Hurley's direct experience, and as a result, when taken as a group the essays in the section titled "Let's Get Personal" are probably the best in the volume. In an unsurprising twist, these essays all intensely personal, detailing why she likes the fiction she likes in Finding Hope in Tragedy: Why I Read Dark Fiction or describing the experience of being a larger woman on a public platform in Public Speaking While Fat, or simply reflecting upon what she gave up to achieve the success that she has achieved in Giving Up the Sky. The best essay in the entire volume is The Horror Novel You'll Never Have to Live: Surviving Without Health Insurance in which she details her own health issues and how the healthcare system in the United States failed her as it failed so many others, drove her to make decisions that she would not have otherwise made, and essentially dictated the course of her life for some years. Hurley also maintains that the ACA essentially saved her life and ensured that no one else will have to face these same sorts of issues in the future, an assertion that seems a bit premature given recent political events.

This section also contains the most problematic essay in the volume, titled Becoming What You Hate in which Hurley tackles the subject of the pseudonymous blogger Requires Hate, who also used the moniker Winterfox, but whose real name was revealed to be Benjanun Sriduangkaew. At the time Sriduankaew's alternate identity was revealed, she was an up and coming writer, and what made the revelations notable was that as Requires Hate she had become known for vitriolic reviews of fiction, and also issuing a number of rape and death threats at those she considered to be insufficiently attentive to various issues dear to her heart. In her essay on the subject, Hurley compares Sriduankaew's anonymous online persona to an alternate persona that Hurley herself had created when she was a young woman in which she posed as a male writer. By using this sort of comparison, Hurley isn't really excusing Sriduankaew's campaigns of online harassment, but she is definitely soft pedaling them, and that is something of an issue. One can see why Hurley wants to downplay Srinduankaew's vile behavior as Requires Hate, as she had discovered (and loved) Benjanun's fiction before the revelation of her dual identity was made public. One can also see Hurley's point that several prominent male authors have gotten away with similarly bad behavior. The element that is somewhat disappointing about this essay is that else where in the book - both before and after this essay - Hurley has taken a strong stance against harassment and abuse, but here she tries to elide past it when it comes to Sriduankaew using many of the same rhetorical tactics that she had stridently rejected elsewhere.

The contrast between the essay and the other pieces in the volume is highlighted in stark relief by just the other essays on similar topics within this section such as They'll Come for You . . . Whether You Speak Up or Not and Let It Go: One Responding (or Not) to Online Criticism in which Hurley speaks eloquently about the volumes of hatred and harassment that are dished out to anyone of note online, and especially the extra helping of gendered abuse served up to anyone who dares to be a vocal woman on the internet. The difference in tenor between the essay about Requires Hate and these is almost extreme enough to give a reader whiplash. To a certain extent this is not entirely unexpected - people are more complex than we often like to believe, but it is noticeable. The remaining two essays in this volume When the Rebel Becomes Queen: Changing Broken Systems from the Inside and Terrorist or Revolutionary? Deciding Who Gets to Write History speak to this point, with Terrorist or Revolutionary using Nelson Mandela to illustrate that how someone is characterized is largely determined by who is doing the characterization and when they are doing it, but also that seemingly contradictory labels can be applied to the same person and both be true.

The final set of pieces in the book is titled "Revolution", and while Hurley's feminism pervades the entire volume, it is pushed to the forefront in this section, resulting in a powerful array of essays that not only point out the events that perpetuate the inequities in genre spaces, but also come down hard on their architects. Hurley takes on some of the most notable scraps within the genre community in recent years with It's About Ethics in Dating about GamerGate, Hijacking the Hugo Awards about the Sad and Rabid Puppy "movements", and Dear SFWA Writers: Let's Chat About Censorship and Bullying about the flap over sexism in the SFWA Bulletin. In each of these cases, Hurley uses the events as concrete examples of the push back against women in geek spaces, and casts them quite effectively as an indictment of certain forces within current geek culture. Most of the remaining essays in this section move away from these sorts of geekdom-specific events to deal with similar issues in a broader context, although they are all still sprinkled with nerdy tidbits. As I noted before, the pieces that draw upon Hurley's personal experiences are the strongest, especially What Living in South Africa Taught Me About Being White in America, her account of how living in South Africa affected her view of both race relations and sexism.

The final essay in the volume is the Hugo-winning work We Have Always Fought: Challenging the "Women, Cattle, and Slaves" Narrative, and as one would expect of an award-winning work, it is a powerful piece of writing. Drawn from Hurley's experiences drafting her master's thesis while a student in Durban, the essay takes note of the fact that women made up a fifth of the forces fighting for the African National Congress against the minority-white pro-Apartheid South African government, and then proceeds to explain that this is entirely unremarkable for revolutionary movements. Hurley makes the point, in part, using a metaphor about llamas - specifically scaled cannibalistic llamas - arguing that the stories we have been told about the history of women (and for that matter, men) are not accurate. She details how women have been erased from our histories, both intentionally and through neglect, and how this has served to shape our perceptions of both the past and the present. Although not intentionally written as a summation of the major themes that she hits upon throughout the book, it does an excellent job as fulfilling that purpose and provides the perfect capstone to the collection.

People looking for easy answers, cheerful helpful hints, or friendly banter are likely to find The Geek Feminist Revolution disappointing. People looking to get an uncompromising take on the state of the geek world as seen through the lens of a woman who loves genre fiction, but is unwilling to quietly accept its glaring flaws. Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once said "well-behaved women seldom make history". Hurley is anything but a "well-behaved woman", and this collection of often brutal, frequently illuminating, and always sharply perceptive essays demonstrates that she is unruly in the very best possible way.

Note: The entire volume won the 2017 Locus Award for Best Nonfiction, Related, or Reference Work and was a Hugo finalist for Best Related Work. In addition, the essay We Have Always Fought: Challenging the "Women, Cattle, and Slaves" Narrative won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Related Work.

2013 Hugo Award Winner for Best Related Work: Writing Excuses Season Seven by Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, and Jordan Sanderson
2017 Hugo Award Winner for Best Related Work: TBD

2016 Locus Award Winner for Best Nonfiction, Related, or Reference Work: Letters to Tiptree edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce
2018 Locus Award Winner for Best Nonfiction, Related, or Reference Work: TBD

List of Hugo Award Winners for Best Related Work
List of Locus Award Winners for Best Nonfiction, Related, or Reference Work

2014 Hugo Award Finalists
2017 Hugo Award Finalists
2017 Locus Award Nominees

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