When I was 19 or 20 I showed my sister (the second born of the family, whom I shared a place with) the beginning of a speculative fiction story I’d started.
“You could write romance novels,” she said, brightly and cheerfully, after looking it over.
I was devastated. My sister had just damned me with the faintest of faint praise, as far as I was concerned. She, of course, meant it as a compliment. She thought the banter and interaction between my two leads was cute and entertaining. At that time in my life, though, my idol as a writer was J.R.R. Tolkien and to be told that my writing sounded like a romance novel may as well have equaled being told my writing sounded like shit.
Some years later, I had the realization that I would never be another Tolkien – that it would be an extraordinary accomplishment for anyone to be another Tolkien, because he’d poured a lifetime of study into The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. He was a natural linguist and a professor and studied and absorbed mythology. He put years and years into developing his world building and story.
I was never going to match that kind of immersion. More importantly, I would never want to match that kind of immersion. I am stuffed full of ideas and would never want just one of those ideas to consume me and become my life’s work. Besides – there were so many other authors whose works I’d greatly enjoyed. They might not be on Tolkien’s level (few are), but they still wrote entertaining, interesting works and made a living that way. I gave myself permission to be less ambitious in the scope of my work.
Over the years, as my conservative beliefs fell away, I embraced a more progressive, humanist, and feminist view of the world. I stopped disdaining emotions as a human weakness and came to perceive them as a human strength – a necessary, if often misunderstood and misused, tool of communication for a cooperative species that had only reached our present degree of civilization by finding ways to work together and coexist in large numbers.
I stopped prioritizing the traits that are associated with masculinity – competitiveness, aggression, stoicism and dominance – and stopped disdaining the feminine. I came to value female friendship and to see what a shame it is that we’ve taught people to perceive the feminine as a weak, lesser state of being – one deserving of being controlled and dominated, with entire religious worldviews dedicated to advancing the notion of gender-based hierarchy.
In late 2018, when I surfaced from a 2 year bout of severe depression, I found myself wanting to write again, but had come to realize that with my state of mind as fragile as it was, that I couldn’t spend time writing stories set in worlds that would actively depress me by reminding me of my experiences in the real world. I didn’t want to immerse myself in stories that were centered on violence, war, or oppression. Not even if the ultimate point of the story was to put an end to the violence or oppression.
For me, the real world is dystopian and grim-dark enough. I don’t need to spend time crafting worlds that draw on and highlight that darkness. I decided, instead, that I would write ‘fluff.’ With so many stories in the speculative fiction genre sporting themes focused on violence and hierarchy, I would actively avoid centering those themes. When they appeared, they’d be on the periphery.
I thought of my sister’s comment, nearly two decades ago, and her opinion that I could write romance novels. I still had no wish to write the specific formula of romance novels, where the overall arc is focused on establishing and cementing a romantic relationship. But I came to see that the reason I’d disdained romance novels in the first place was because of their association with the feminine, and their unashamed catering to feminine fantasies, with feminine characters. The sting of my sister’s comment so many years before finally faded away.
I decided that if I have a talent for character interaction, that I might as well hone that. One of my favorite novels of all time is, after all, technically a romance novel. Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice originally captured me not with the love story – which I confess I did thoroughly enjoy – but with her sharp, cutting, witty banter. Austin was a master of snark and I would laugh out loud reading through the social interactions that took place in her books.
My ambition, now, is to write stories with characters the reader enjoys spending time with. I hope my dialogue will occasionally cause laughter or at least a smile, and that it will draw in readers that have personalities or families like mine, where loving snark is a second language and flows freely. I can place these characters in speculative fiction settings and still thoroughly enjoy the process of world-building for myself, even if not everything I’ve fleshed out is mentioned or focused on in the stories themselves.
I used the term ‘fluff’ earlier, but after I’d used it while determining what direction I wanted to go with my writing, I came to realize that I had used that word because we prioritize stories of masculinity and violence, and deem them serious works of literature, while stories of femininity, healing, relationships and growth are often sneered at, not because they deserve it but because they aren’t centered on masculinity and its associated traits. But if I imagine a world without violence, it sounds utopian – when I imagine a world without healing, it sounds dystopian.
I’ve had enough of dystopian realities. I grew up in a dystopian, oppressive reality. Escapist fiction helped me survive that reality. There’s nothing to disdain about fiction that makes people happy. Some of the fiction that has made me happiest to read in my lifetime has been distinctly feminine with a decided lack of violence: Madeline L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time), Robin McKinley (Beauty), L.M. Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables, etc.), and Patricia C. Wrede (Dealing with Dragons), among others. (I notice that each work listed there is considered Young Adult, because feminine speculative fiction is allowed to exist at that level.)
I’m not sure how ‘feminine’ my speculative fiction will be, as I myself am genderqueer, but I imagine it won’t feel strongly masculine, by any means. That means it may not be particularly marketable, if it’s neither romance novel nor ‘serious’ work of literature, and written for adult readers rather than young adult readers. I’m not too worried about that, when it comes down to it. Were I to focus on what’s marketable, there’s still no guarantee my work would be picked up. And even if my work were picked up, statistically speaking, it’s unlikely they’d grow into popular works whose influence would outlast me.
After a lifetime concerning myself with making other people and a fictional god happy, I may as well make myself happy. So I may as well write what I want to write, and write what I want to read.