Saturday, October 20, 2007

He's Gay, and He's Native American: Rowling and Scalzi Claim Marginal Identities for Charcters After the Fact

Well, this is interesting. (Hat tip Lawrence Schimel)

On October 20, J. K. Rowling read from book 7 at Carnegie Hall in New York.

After reading briefly from the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, she took questions from audience members.

She was asked by one young fan whether Dumbledore finds "true love".

"Dumbledore is gay," the author responded to gasps and applause.

She then explained that Dumbledore was smitten with rival Gellert Grindelwald, whom he defeated long ago in a battle between good and bad wizards. "Falling in love can blind us to an extent," Rowling said of Dumbledore's feelings, adding that Dumbledore was "horribly, terribly let down".

Three basic reactions:

1) Huh.

2) That fairly cool.

3) Well, damn it, why the hell couldn't you have told us that during the series?

Recently, there was a kerfuffle (has anything other than blog wars ever popularized that term?) on the popular blog of military science fiction writer John Scalzi. Scalzi, responding to discussions of how and when race is deployed in science fiction, revealed how he wrestles with the issue.

My way of dealing with spec fic's racial lopsidedness (on the writing side, at least) is somewhat passive-aggressive: I avoid making any sort of overt racial identifiers at all with my characters unless it's required by the plot, which for my books it generally isn't. This is not the same as actively specifying minority characters in my books, which is a point no doubt many will be happy to make, and they're right. But it's not excluding them, either, which is not trivial.

Scalzi went on to indicate that he had imagined a main character in one of his series to be non-white, although he had never left any racial markers on the page.

This is the moment when I say "I heart Scalzi" before launching into intense criticism. Kameron Hurley of Brutal Women summed it up well:

As a writer, you may write colorblind. You may pull out all the color and race and cultural tags for every single one of your characters, and thereby prove that they could be of any race!

Sure. Let's go with that. Nobody in your book has a skin color, or any sort of physical description at all.

You really believe your reader's not givng your characters a physical description? You think that one of the first markers they make, after size and gender, won't be color? Pigment?

The problem with writing in "race-neutral" (what is that? Gray? Beige?) terms is you get the same problem you run into when you write in gender-neutral terms. As people raised in a racist, sexist, society, we're going to norm a lot of stories, a lot of people, as white males. There are certainly ways you can code this differently, and every reader brings their own unique set of indicators to the reading experience, but I think the vast majority of people are going to sit down and code your world in whitewash unless they get some indication that it's otherwise or they bring something non-majority to the table.

We have a default setting we've been programmed with, and it's the default setting we've been pumped full of since birth: stories about bands of white brothers, fathers and sons, heroic male conquerors, Columbus, rich white presidents, men of Science, great white male writers; the men who run the world are white. The important people are white. We're reading about important people, right? Unless we're reading some kind of hippie women's story set in some jungle where people don't speak plain English.

As Kameron Hurley acknowledges, Scalzi has provided himself a little bit of an out here: he works in a far-future world which may no longer share our politics of race. (But really, do they have nothing to replace it? Nothing?)

Scalzi himself argues that he's not writing colorblind (because he knows what colors his characters are), but that readers are reading colorblind. He goes on to say that this doesn't of necessity reinforce a white default. As a first step, he says that while he envisions characters is novels as being "people like me," whiteness is not part of that profile. Honestly, I have a big problem accepting that -- but, let's accept it anyway. Scalzi's politically aware and not, IMO, given to lying to trump himself up. Perhaps, through deliberation or coincidence (I trend toward postulating the former, even if not on a conscious level), Scalzi has trained himself not to view race as a default.

The mistake he makes is in assuming that it's responsible for writers to assume that readers will be able, or willing, to do this. Scalzi:

Now, you may ask why I didn't just note all this [stuff about race] in the book; the answer is because I didn't want to, because it never came up as part of the story, and because I'd rather have people imagine Harry Creek to be who they were comfortable with him being. If they see him as white, that's their karma, although I will say I'm sorry that their default is white.

Kate Nepveu, who also wrote a separate post on the subject, responds in comments:

This entry is built around a big misunderstanding, to wit:

"The people like me" != "the cultural default."

The default in our culture is whiteness -- and, to get back to Rowling, heterosexuality. When sexuality and race are not mentioned, most authors mean to indicate whiteness and heterosexuality. Scalzi is not subverting this paradigm by refusing to mention race; he only plays into it. The world in which he's writing has certain politics, which certainly he needs to write to, but in other ways he acknowledges that he's working for his audience. As an author who belongs to the joking group the "New Comprehensible," Scalzi puts an emphasis on writing fiction that is accessible to the mass of our population. Our population has certain tools for analyzing texts. These include a white default as much as they include certain assumptions about nanotechnology -- the latter of which Scalzi overtly navigates. When he introduces the basic rules of his world in the first chapter of his novel, he exposits them. He exposits them because readers need to know. Why does he assume we don't need to know about race?

Perhaps because he says that readers should already know enough to know to vary their default. But then again, maybe they "should" know stuff about physics which he has to explain. We don't. He's stuck with the reading population he's got, and we don't live in a futuristic utopia.

Niall Harrison said something I thought was smart on the topic of writing about marginalized or non-default characters:

If “straight white male” is the default, then anything else indicates that a choice has been made — or at least, it implies that a more conscious choice has been made than the one made by Stanley’s author. Even if the motive behind that choice is, perfectly validly, “why not?”, the choice is there.

And when it's not textually present -- that choice is, in a real way, not there.

This scenario is even clearer with Rowling, who does not have a utopic science fictional world to pose as a hypothetical. It's neat that Rowling has a homosexual character, but could we have seen this in your series, please? Could we have seen Dumbledore with a real, living lover? Or, failing that -- if he spent his life pining -- why couldn't we have learned about that? We got to learn about the long flaming heterosexual torches, including much more twee whining about Snape and Lily than I was interested in.

Yes, I know Rowling has to deal with the reality of her audience, just as I said Scalzi does. And of course, writing for children means accepting certain boundaries. I can understand that she didn't want to ask for more textual trouble from Christian conservatives than she's already got. As the interview relates: "Not everyone likes her work, Rowling said, likely referring to Christian groups that have alleged the books promote witchcraft. Her news about Dumbledore, she said, will give them one more reason."

Of course, that leads me to say: they hate you anyway. So, why pander to them?

Most texts only appear as themselves. Books are a finished form. We, as writers, are often told we have to send them into the world without our excuses, without our explanations. When we go to workshops where other people critique our manuscripts, writers are entreated to stay silent. Because our justifications don't matter -- the text becomes what the reader makes of it, a combination of their experiences and the tools you give them.

Neither Rowling nor Scalzi gave their readers the tools that they needed in order to pry this information from the text. It's an afterthought, left to discussion by only the most devoted fans, only the people who happen to read the blog. Why should it have to be the non-white characters and the homosexual characters whose marginal lives are illuminated not even in the marginalia of the text, but in the essays and justifications afterward? Once again, they get the short shrift.

For Rowling, there's one redemptive silver lining: the fact that her books have, outside her hands, a vital textual life of their own. As the article reports her saying, "Oh, my God," Rowling concluded with a laugh, "the fan fiction."


UPDATE: Several people of my acquaintance have mentioned that their central annoyance with Rowling’s reveal is not that she didn’t mention the gay character’s identity in the series, but that she is playing off of an old and poisonous stereotype that gay people are doomed to heartbreak.

This seems, to me, to be a valid concern. However, in the context of the novels, it seems to me like Rowling is often eager to split up romantic and family relationships. I guess I’d read Dumbledore/lost-love as parallel to Snape/rejection. That doesn’t excuse the stereotype, though, since there are no positive examples of gay romance in the novels.

Still, my primary concern is erasure. From Kat Allen’s blog, I learn another thing Rowling’s said: “Rowling remarked that if she had known that (applause) would be the response, she would’ve revealed her thoughts on Dumbledore earlier.”

That kind of gives me the shivers. Gay people are only worth writing about if the reaction is applause.

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