I’ve just started watching HBO’s Westworld and one episode in, I’m already unnerved by the casual violence against the non-humanoid, female characters in the titular, interactive park where men (and women) can enact their fantasies.
That’s the point, of course. The show intends to provoke, and has deployed the usual defenses in the wake of criticism: violence is a part of human nature, and we’re exploring how humans would behave in a situation where they could act out their worst premises on a sub-caste of robots, made to be as human as possible. It’s a great and interesting premise, but as with many shows with interesting premises, I keep questioning the intent of the creators – are they really trying to make viewers self-reflect on the normalization of gendered violence? Or are the sexualized beatings and rapes there to pander to the worst impulses of viewers? To shock and even titillate? (The likely answer, I think, is a little bit of both.)
I wrestled with this question on my own first novel. In the middle of the story, a group of young women experience a horrific, terrifying act of violence at the hands of a futuristic religious cult. It makes sense in the context of the world I created. It gave important insight into a character’s behavior and motivations. But I agonized over the scene, and how I wrote it, many times over, asking if it had to be there.
I kept it, but in the process of finishing my novel (and reading countless rape and torture scenes in other works of fiction), I’ve come up with a list of questions I ask myself when violence of any kind creeps into my stories.
(Note: I’m focusing on sexualized violence against women in particular, but my comments can be applied to any kind of violence in fiction.)
(Second note: If you watch Game of Thrones, House of Cards spoilers are coming!)
1. Does the rape/act of violence tell us something we don’t already know?
This was my main problem with Sansa’s rape in Game of Thrones (yes, we’re already on Game of Thrones) , and why I suspect it upset so many other viewers. We know that Westeros is a violent, cruel place where women are chattel, to be used and abused by men as property. We know that Ramsay Bolton, Sansa’s rapist, is a violent psychopath. We know that Sansa has suffered and accumulated plenty of motivation for revenge when her opportunity strikes. Her rape, as a result, tells us nothing we don’t already know about this world or the people in it. It feels gratuitous, an ending scene designed to shock and trigger the “can-you-believe-what-happened” conversations at the water cooler the next day.
The only thing it potentially changes is giving another character, Theon Greyjoy, a reason to take a stand against Ramsay. But that in itself left a bad taste in my mouth. The camera pans away from Sansa as her new husband is raping her to a close-up of Theon’s horrified, tearful face: a woman’s suffering triggers a man’s redemption arc. Something that could have been done a hundred other ways.
Compare that approach to Mad Max: Fury Road, a movie that was rightfully credited as being a great feminist action movie. The plot has a runaway general helping a group of sex slaves escape from bondage. It would have been INCREDIBLY easy for George Miller to throw in a rape scene in a flashback. Play to our emotions and make us see what the women went through.
But he didn’t. We see evidence of their escape. We see their elderly female caregiver killed when Immortan Joe discovers the loss of his ‘property’ (illustrating how patriarchy classifies women as ‘rapeable’ and ‘disposable’). We see the women discard their chains, that one of them is pregnant. We get the idea. The movie establishes the stakes, then moves on into the business of the plot. George Miller may have done this for pacing reasons rather than feminist ones – at the end of the day, he’s an action director trying to move the action forward – but the result is a better movie. If the Game of Thrones creators had directed it, we probably would have been treated to a protracted, graphic mass rape, like the equally unnecessary scene in Craster’s Keep.
2. Is the act of violence being used to give a character motivation or depth? Does it have to?
In many cases, I believe that sexual assaults and torture scenes get thrown into narratives due to lazy or inexperienced writing. Violence is an easy way to give a character a troubled past and a motive.
There’s the “women in refrigerator” trope, where a male character is galvanized into action when a woman he cares about is raped or killed. This has been a staple in superhero stories and television for years (see: Lost, the Marvel universe). Alternately, there’s the “empowered” woman character who first must be taken down a notch by a horrific event before regaining control. A good example of the latter is House of Cards, when the powerful, unflappable Claire Underwood comes face to face with a man who raped her in college. The reveal seems to have two purposes: to show a vulnerable side to Claire and also to create a decision-point for her husband, President Frank Underwood, to determine whether to prioritize his relationship or his politicking.
I’m not saying it’s always a bad idea or sexist to have an assault happen in a story. Depending on the type of story it is, it may be necessary and powerful to show the impact of sexual violence on a character. But consider why it is there. Is there another, more creative way to give a character motivation or a compelling backstory? Is it there because it’s shocking, dramatic and convenient?
3. Are there any downstream ramifications, or is it a one-off event that never gets brought up again?
Another sign that there are better ways to develop a character: the rape/assault happens but has no long-term ramifications for the character arc or narrative. Game of Thrones is an obvious, repeat offender here – Cersei is raped by her own brother and the incident is not only never brought up again, it seems to have no bearing on their future interactions.
In contrast, British shows such as Happy Valley and Broadchurch have centered storylines around a single rape, but in a thoughtful, nuanced way. The actual assaults are not shown in a way that could be sexualized - they are off-camera and unambiguously horrifying. The ramifications are felt throughout the show and the long-term effects on the victims, their relationships and lives, are shown.
The common defense I hear from people I discuss this with in real life, and see often in the comments section of any article that touches the issue, is that these shows are just trying to be “realistic.” That’s how things were back then, I hear in defense of Game of Thrones (and the originating A Song of Ice and Fire series), a fantasy world with dragons and ice zombies, albeit one with a clear European medieval influence. We’re being uptight or living in a fantasy, the implication goes, if we have a problem with ubiquitous violence against women in our books, on our screens and in the theater.
But if you’re going to justify rape for realism’s sake, the other side of the coin better be present – a realistic depiction of the after-effects, and how it drives characters and subsequent events in the story. And it had better serve the story in a meaningful way, not as a crutch to elicit easy emotions from a reader or shock them into engagement.
Two weeks ago, I accepted an offer of representation from Naomi Davis at Bookends Literary Agency. It's taken me a while to post this here, mainly because I've been consumed by a combination of work and a new focus: revising my novel based on Naomi's wonderful, expert feedback!
I could not be more thrilled. I spent several days after the offer in a fog, finally in a place I had dreamed of being in for over a year. Like many aspiring writers, I had endured my share of form rejections throughout the querying process, as well as a few full manuscript requests that didn't turn into offers. I just wrote on this blog about continuing to believe in yourself and endure through rejection but the truth this, there does reach a point where you wonder... am I just not quite good enough? Am I just going to come up short? After all, fantastic writers like John Kennedy Toole never saw their work published.. and I'm never going to write anything on the level of Confederacy of Dunces.
But it's with good reason that others in the writing community say to persist and not give up. A literary agent invests a tremendous amount of time upfront on clients, as I am now seeing firsthand. They won't take on a project unless they truly love it and believe in it. The trick is finding the right agent at the right time. It's hard. It takes research, energy and a thick skin. But with persistence and luck, it can happen.
What the Martian writer gets right and wrong with his latest protagonist
As an Arab-American science fiction reader, I felt a mixture of excitement and apprehension upon hearing that Artemis, Andy Weir’s novel set on the Moon, would have a Saudi Arabian female heroine. Apprehension at the many ways to get such a character wrong, but excitement at the wealth of potential that could come from the idea of Arab women, too often constrained in fiction by present-day realities, living a different life in a near-future lunar colony.
Though it tries, Artemis does not realize that potential.
Before I focus on what went wrong, I want to give credit where credit is due. It would have been easy for Andy Weir to stay in his comfort zone and write another white, male character like Mark Watney, the jokey botanist MacGyver hero of the Martian. And in the end, Weir basically wrote that same character, who seems more and more like a stand-in for Weir’s dad-humor, but with a different place of birth and gender.
However, I would rather live in a world where writers like Weir attempt to tackle characters with different backgrounds from their own, even if they fail. When writers get it right, it means stories with richer worlds and voices. When they get it wrong, readers can analyze where they missed the mark.
Artemis’ heroine, Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, moved to the moon at a young age with her Saudi Arabian father. An intelligent but underachieving smuggler, she drinks, swears, and has sex outside of marriage. Having grown up in Saudi Arabia with a mixed Arab and American heritage, I did appreciate seeing a more rebellious Arab woman who rejects some, but not all, elements of her upbringing. And it made sense in Artemis – on the diverse, pioneer setting of the Moon, the rules that would have constrained Jazz in Riyadh would not apply to the same degree.
In the age of choice validation and France’s head scarf ban, I get frustrated by the shyness of Western feminism in critiquing the purity-focused restrictions on women in the Middle East. Since some women “choose” the hijab, that apparently makes it empowering, ignoring the social pressures and belief systems that often drive that choice. But not all Arab women choose the traditions pushed upon them, and some actively resist it. For that reason, I always welcome female Arab characters that don’t fit the cookie-cutter image of the content, veiled woman, nor the one-dimensional victim of male dominance.
Despite these positives, however, it’s clear that Andy Weir, like many male writers before him, doesn’t know how to write women. I read an article before the book’s release in which Weir admitted that he found the idea of writing from a woman’s perspective intimidating, more so, apparently, than tackling story structure, pacing and the hard but accessible science that made The Martian a success story. He allegedly asked the women in his life for their feedback on writing from a feminine perspective. I don’t know if these female critique partners told him what they thought he wanted to hear or if he just didn’t process their input, but somehow, he ended up with Jazz Bashara.
As I alluded to before, Jazz has the same voice and adolescent sense of humor as Mark Watney. She describes the domed shapes of the lunar city as resembling “a set of boobs.” When a character asks about a package she’s carrying, she replies, “Porn. About your mom.” Her descriptions of herself are highly sexualized. “I undressed faster than a drunk prom date,” she narrates at one point. What woman describes herself that way, more less a woman raised in Saudi culture?
But Nadia! you may counter, I thought you wanted characters that don’t conform to the usual tropes and stereotypes. Why couldn’t a 26-year-old Saudi woman have the personality and sense of humor of a 14-year-old boy?
She could, but it doesn’t feel authentic or plausible the way this character was written. There are stereotypes, and there are realities in how we are socialized and how our experiences drive the way we interact with the world. Jazz treats the mostly male supporting characters the way a man would – she trades barbs and insults, with none of the usual caution or filtering that marks female socialization. She didn’t have to be a demure doormat. She could be tough and self-deprecating. But any type of female character is still shaped by the reality of the world we live in – the socialization women experience, the real risks of violence and being overpowered by men – and as a result, Jazz’s reactions and behavior are never entirely believable.
Issues with characterization aside, there are many elements of Artemis that still make it worth reading. The lunar city, with its diverse inhabitants and social structure, is a fascinating, fully realized setting. The details of an imagined life on the moon kept me engaged throughout a conventional heist-gone-wrong plot. But for his next novel, if Weir wants to uphold the good intentions of writing diverse characters, he needs a combination of thorough homework, better understanding of characterization, and learning how to write in a perspective other than his own. If he puts as much effort into understanding women of all backgrounds as he does with thinking through the mechanics of the scientific obstacles that his characters must solve, he’ll do fine.
Anyone who has waded into the turbulent waters of a writing career – that first finished novel, a short story that’s been workshopped to satisfaction – has experienced the frustration that comes with submitting your work. The thrill of hitting “send,” the unbearable wait, the warm thrill of a response in your inbox. And then, rejection. Lots of it. Sometimes, mechanical, impersonal form responses, saying that your work was “not quite what we’re looking for at this time” or “not a perfect fit for our agency.” Some are more encouraging, praising the writing or elements of the story that consumed over a year of your life, but ultimately passing on that elusive representation or decision to publish. In either case, you remain unpublished, left to go down your query list and try again. You hit send, filled with a mixture of hope and tempered caution, bracing for another round of punishment.
As I sit here on my couch, recovering from ACL surgery (the end result of a ski accident over Thanksgiving weekend), the agony of the wait is only amplified. While I actively query my first science fiction novel, The Sentient, to literary agents, I’m also working to get several short stories published in journals or short story contests. I research, I use Query Tracker and Submittable to track my submissions, and I obsessively check my email (junk mailbox included) for replies several times a day. All in the hope of that first break.
The past year hasn’t made it easy. In addition to the ACL tear, I spend months nursing my elderly dog, before bringing a veterinarian to the house to help her pass peacefully. My day job consumed my evenings and weekends, I traveled once a month and dealt with an unexpected family death. Writing became a burden and refuge, something done in small bursts – an hour grabbed between errands, an idea scribbled on a plane to DC. Finding time to write is another topic, but querying in chaos has equipped me with new skills for dealing with the other side of the process – handling those rejections as you try to get your work out into the world.
1. Research, Organize and Strategize: For both novels and short stories, plan your submissions and pick a top tier to submit your work to. You will avoid wasting your time and your target’s time if you do your homework and only submit to places seeking your genre. If the agent’s submission guidelines don’t include fantasy, don’t query for your fantasy epic. Don’t assume that your story will be the one exception. Spend your time and energy on people who are seeking out your type of writing. Create a list of potential agents or magazines, and work down the list.
2. Embrace the Small Victories: There are rejections, and there are rejections. Although every declination will sting, look for positivity in those rejections that let you know you’re on the right track. I waited on pins and needles for weeks on a short story submission. When the editors responded to tell me that they liked the story and were putting in their final list of consideration for the next issue, my heart fluttered. I still knew the chances of rejection were high and sure enough, I received the notice a month later than my story failed to make it in the next issue. But it eased my doubts about my writing, that nagging voice that told me I wasn’t good enough. I had something in that story, and it was only a matter of finding the right publication at the right time. A million different potential reasons lie behind every rejection – something similar was published the week before, an agent has a similar story in their portfolio, the editor just wasn’t passionate about the characters – but “not good enough for publication” wasn’t one of them.
3. Seek Learning Opportunities in Rejection: What happens if the only rejections you receive are form rejections, without any encouragement? It could be a matter of not submitting to enough places, but after a certain timeframe, the problem may be with the work itself. I learned this lesson during the first round of submissions for my novel. After a ratio of twenty rejections to one full request (not horrible, I was told, but a red flag), I decided to take my opening to a writer’s workshop. While the group liked the prose, the all agreed on some fundamental issues with my opening pages – those crucial pages that need to hold an agent’s attention. I also used writer’s conferences and editing services to get further feedback on my manuscript. While editing services can be expensive, there are many ways to get constructive feedback that don’t dig into the wallet. Look for free online critique groups or local writer’s association events for chances to get feedback on your work, by people who share your love of writing.
a. The results: During my second wave of querying, I have received two full manuscript requests, although both agents ultimately passed. My short story submissions have shown similar kernels of progress. Form rejections have been replaced by personalized responses, notices of making the final cut and encouragements to send other pieces of writing. I’m still querying and waiting.
4. Move Forward: Pick your top list of agents (or journals), send your work to a reasonable number (five to twenty as a start) and then walk away. Work on something else. This is easier said than done, but working on that next short story or plot mapping a new novel will make the weeks (and months) until a response more bearable. In addition to keeping your mind occupied, continuing to write will create new opportunities for publication, the chance to try again if the current story fails to publish. Non-writing time is equally important – go on a hike, meet friends for a drink, take a weekend trip. Live life, with the people that matter. To quote a favorite Rilo Kiley song, “keep the wind at your back and the sun on your face.” Any chance encounter or adventure could lead to a new story, the one that sticks.
Each rejection, I tell myself, is another step towards acceptance, on a tough road that often seems to take more than it gives back. But it does give back, in countless lessons of craft, resilience and self-belief, in embracing the joy of writing and being read, with or without a publishing byline. Of course, when that acceptance comes, whether an offer of representation or a credit, a new road opens, with its own bumps and forks. All the more reason to learn the art of enjoying the ride.