Brace yourselves — I’m about to make a weird connection. And first I’m going to ask, “Are the literary dragons dead?”
Many of us who write, grew up with the legend of great editors and publishers. Giants who sought out and cultivated promising writers. Whose literary eyes were keen and whose judgments were indisputable. We hoped that we, one day, would be lucky enough to catch such an editor’s eye and grow to greatness with their careful art.
Such “literary dragons” (see, that’s my weird connection) may have existed around the middle of the Twentieth Century, but I fear they have since been hunted into oblivion. The publishing world has changed so much. Corporations now control the editorial process. They concentrate on stockholder profits rather than literary art. To this end, it seems, they regard books as a product to be rolled off the assembly line, following a formula and subject to re-writes based on what the marketing people think.
For a more in-depth take on this problem, see this excellent blog from World Fantasy Award winner Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
I happen to agree with Rusch on this. I see so many books on the shelf that sound exactly like three other things I just read. It’s frustrating. In a genre like speculative fiction, which is supposed to be about limitless imagination, we really can’t think of anything original to write? After reading Rusch’s comments, I wonder how much the corporate mentality plays into this problem. Editors won’t (or aren’t allowed to) buy anything that hasn’t already been done before and sold a ton of books, because corporations, by their very nature, are all about the status quo.
In this context, I was reading a book by a new author. I’m not going to name names, because I’m not into shaming people, but… I wasn’t able to finish the book because of how the female lead was handled. She supposedly had an amazing power, yet she kept getting captured and rescued by the male lead. She was pawed over by a lascivious villain. All those annoying sexist things that clueless authors do to female characters? This author followed that formula to a T.
I drew the line when the female lead was possessed by a fire demon who burned off all her clothes (yet she suffered no actual burns). Then when she defeated the demon, she was taken prisoner and handcuffed with a black trash bag over her head.
Just take a moment to think about that image, would you?
So then the supposed good guys had a long conversation and not one of them bothered to offer her a shirt, coat, or any other way to cover herself. She stood there, naked except for the trash bag, while they discussed her fate.
And here’s another weird connection: Abu Ghraib Prison. Remember that? Naked prisoners on dog leashes, surrounded by grinning guards? Reading the scene in this book gave me the same sense of crawling horror that the Abu Ghraib photos did.
From the author’s picture, he’s just a young guy. He probably had no clue that anyone might find this scene disturbing or sexist or even just plain tacky. I’m left wondering, not only why he would put in such material without thinking it through, but where his editor was while this book was in production. Did nobody at the publisher read the manuscript carefully enough to recognize the author had written Abu Ghraib Prison into his story? Or did they think their “winning formula” would excuse the awful content?
This is how I know the literary dragons are dead. Because no editor who cared about writing would have let that scene go through.