In Defense of Uncomfortable Subject Matter in Genre Fiction

Last week, The New Statesman ran an essay by Liz Lutgendorff, wherein she describes reading every book on NPR’s reader-selected list of the top 100 science fiction and fantasy books, and finding them to be “shockingly offensive” in their “continued and pervasive sexism.” In the course of proposing “a Bechdel test for books,” Lutgendorff launches broadsides at a variety of authors, some of whose work is indeed genuinely awful (step forward, Piers Anthony), and questions why these works remain so respected.

It’s an interesting essay, and makes some valid points about the weight of nostalgia on this particular corner of genre fiction. But it also falls into a pattern that’s worryingly prevalent these days in the world of criticism, particularly when it gets to the topic of rape and sexual assault in fantasy. It’s at this point that Lutgendorff’s argument falls into the trap of confusing a depiction of something in a work of fiction for an endorsement of that thing (at least, in any instance where there’s an absence of explicit, unequivocal condemnation of it).

There is certainly no such explicit condemnation in the work of Stephen Donaldson, for whom Lutgendorff reserves some of her harshest criticism. She describes Lord Foul’s Bane (the first book of Donaldson’s Unbeliever series, #58 on NPR’s list) as “one of the most miserable books on the list,” largely for its depiction of a rape committed by Thomas Covenant, the book’s protagonist. I’m singling this out, not because I necessarily want to defend Donaldson (although, for what it’s worth, I think Lutgendorff’s criticism isn’t entirely warranted), but because Lutgendorff’s problem doesn’t appear to be with the nature of his depiction of rape as much as it is with the presence of rape in the narrative at all.

Lutgendorff doesn’t say this, exactly — she argues that “there were also no real consequences of … [the] rape or sexual assault when it did happen,” and suggests that the book’s protagonist is “an absolutely horrible character that we’re supposed to like or want to continue reading about.” At best, this constitutes a questionable reading of the text. On the first point, the consequences do continue to manifest, in increasingly hideous fashion, throughout the course of the series (which, in fairness to Lutgendorff, she did not read, having apparently stopped after Lord Foul’s Bane, perhaps because she had 99 other books to tackle — although NPR’s ranking was for the series as a whole, not the first book alone).

The second point is more illustrative of a generally flawed argument, though, because liking a character and wanting to continue reading about them are not one and the same. We are supposed to want to continue reading about the character, certainly. That’s the entire point of the narrative. But if you like Thomas Covenant, you probably need therapy. If this series is notable, it’s notable for neatly inverting the tradition of fantasy protagonists as silver-armored heroes. It transplants a man who’s lost all feeling — both literally, due to his leprosy, and metaphysically, due to his resultant suppression of any emotion as a sign of weakness and vulnerability — into a world where feeling is omnipresent.

We’re asked to think about how we might react to such a situation; for all that we dream of fantasy worlds where everyone is beautiful and heroic and admirable, we rarely think about how our presence in such a world might affect it (or, indeed, what that says about our world). And we’re asked to think about how a character who is clearly sinned against — Covenant is an outcast in his own world — can nevertheless be the purveyor of even greater sins when the balance of power is shifted to him, rather than against him.

Nuance is not, admittedly, something one comes across as much in genre fiction — especially genre fiction of the vintage Lutgendorff is discussing — as one might like. But still, it’s disappointing to see the conflation of depiction with endorsement rear its head here. No one condemns, say, A Clockwork Orange for depicting rape and murder — or, perhaps more accurately, insofar as that book and its film adaptation are condemned, they’re condemned on the basis of how lurid or horrifying those scenes are to read or watch.

Lutgendorff’s argument is subtly, but importantly, different: she has a problem with Lord Foul’s Bane being not horrifying enough. “Thomas Covenant, the main character, actually rapes a young woman,” she writes, jaw audibly dropping, “and is astonishingly unrepentant for most of the book.” But so, you might argue, is A Clockwork Orange‘s Alex. I’m not arguing that these two works have equal merit, but the use of an unpleasant protagonist and/or abhorrent acts in the course of a narrative is not a priori wrong or unacceptable.

As I said, I’m not defending Donaldson here, exactly — there’s no doubt that the use of rape as a central plot point certainly raises all sorts of questions, as it will always do. Our own Judy Berman addressed this point recently in regard to Game of Thrones, a more contemporary work of fantasy in which rape is commonplace (and, for what it’s worth, generally carried out with far less consequence than in Lord Foul’s Bane):

Are there some stories that “deserve” to use [rape] and some that don’t? And do these stories have a responsibility to make rape their central subject, or is it acceptable to make sexual violence one part of a larger, and perhaps largely unrelated, statement? On one hand, any work that instrumentalizes rape — that uses it in the service of a narrative that isn’t explicitly about rape — is, to some extent, exploiting a painful experience that many real people (mostly women) have had to live through. But at the same time, any work that furthers the general public’s understanding of rape as an act of unmitigated cruelty is doing a great service.

Donaldson’s intentions with Lord Foul’s Bane are ultimately known only to him, but in any case, demanding that a work of art has a set, specific, defined meaning is reductive and pointless. Even more than that, it’s bad for art — requiring that art be didactic denies art its greatest power, which is to demand that the person viewing the art think for themselves. I know that when I first read Donaldson, as a teenage boy, the rape was perhaps the single most horrifying and shocking scene I’d ever encountered in print, both because of its, yes, unmitigated cruelty and because of the way it came from a character that fantasy convention suggested I should be sympathizing with — after all, every other fantasy book I’d read presented the protagonist as a hero. But if this protagonist was a hero, how could he do such a thing? What did it mean?

Reading Lutgendorff’s piece, I’m reminded of Rolling Stone‘s notorious review of Lou Reed’s Berlin on its release: “Lou Reed’s Berlin,” wrote one Stephen Davis “is a disaster, taking the listener into a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide.” This is true — Berlin does indeed take the listener into exactly that place. Does that mean it’s a disaster? No, of course not. It’s a goddamn masterpiece. I wouldn’t necessarily argue the same of Lord Foul’s Bane, but taking us into a dark, awful place is one of art’s greatest powers.