Centering the Narrative at Smugglivus

I’ve written a post about centering the narrative over at Book Smugglers.

I really love epic stories. Whether film, tv, or fiction, I am deeply drawn to epic action-adventure with a fantastic or science-fictional element and really good emotional story arcs. In filmic terms, these are the stories whose trailers use stirring music and big, bold, vivid cinematography. In such trailers there is usually a woman somewhere, maybe in the background, maybe as a villainess, maybe as a love interest. When the stirring music really pumps up, the visual centers a man or men in an exciting altercation or a powerful confrontation.

Where are the women in these scenes of powerful confrontation?

4 thoughts on “Centering the Narrative at Smugglivus

  1. Great post! This sort of thing makes me glad that I’m a book person and not a movie person. Movies are so expensive and require such a large audience to succeed that they seem to fall automatically into cultural defaults. By comparison, books are cheap to produce and depend mostly on one person’s creative vision. For 80% of the books I read in 2013 (and 95% of the fantasy), that person was a woman.

    I am curious about the publishing side of things (to the extent you can speak to this)–you mentioned at Book Smugglers that the numbers of women in epic fantasy were increasing at one point, but now, not so much. I’ve been surprised lately to discover some awesome feminist fantasy from decades ago: my latest great find is The Ladies of Mandrigyn by Barbara Hambly, which turns the typical setup on its head by having one hero surrounded by an otherwise almost entirely female cast. I can’t think of any recent fantasy that does that, let alone fills all the half-dozen or so most important roles with female characters. Though there are plenty of examples outside of fantasy. Do authors who want to write about women’s relationships tend toward realistic fiction, or do fantasy editors insist on adding men, or is it something about epics that seem to demand male involvement? If an author submitted a fantasy manuscript in which male characters played only minor supporting roles, would anyone buy it?

  2. Emma, excellent questions.

    I think the sub-genre of epic/high fantasy has become a bit more male-oriented in recent years, especially compared to the late 80s and 90s. The Ladies of Mandrigyn is a great example of the kind of novel it seems we don’t see as much of today. I can’t speak to whether editors are asking writers to add men, or tone down the presence of women in their epic fantasies; I’ve never been directed to do so although an editor did once query whether I would be interested in writing a more male-centered epic. I said ‘no.’ (It’s not like I don’t have lots of male characters in my books….) I would be very interested to an answer to your question about epic fantasy with men in only minor roles, and it would not surprise me if a novel like that was a difficult sale today.

    I have a theory that the rise of YA and UF/PNR has given women other genres to write in, ones in which the existence of female characters is considered a selling point rather than a drawback.

    The shorter answer is: I don’t know.

  3. To me the fact that an editor thought it might be a good idea for you to write more male-centered books is very telling. And depressing! You already have very gender-balanced casts, so it isn’t as if there aren’t guys there for male readers to relate to. And your fanbase seems pretty gender-balanced as well.

    I suspect it’s true that female readers as well as authors are being siphoned off into YA, UF and PNR (though in those genres too, it seems the stories most often feature an Exceptional Girl in the midst of a bunch of guys). I can think of fantasy authors outside those categories who do well with overwhelmingly female fanbases–Juliet Marillier, for instance–but perhaps that only works because her books tend to be romance-heavy? At any rate, it makes me sad because my interests in fantasy tend more toward the epic, historical and literary varieties, where the books by or about women tend to be more obscure.

  4. I have written a YA fantasy to test those waters, but my heart will always be with the bold adventurous epic.

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