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Carol Emshwiller

Carol Emshwiller
Carol Emshwiller was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She grew up in both Ann Arbor and in France, moving back and forth almost annually. She attended the University of Michigan which was where she met her husband, Ed Emshwiller, the famed SF illustrator. She alternates living in New York City (winter) where she teaches at New York University Adult Education and in California in the summer.

Carol Emshwiller Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories and The Mount
SF Site Review: The Mount

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters


I. A Story and a Plea

First, stop reading until you've read Carol Emshwiller's "Boys" Don't skim or cheat. You're cheating, aren't you? You probably bring loaded dice to a game of craps. Well, if you cheat or skim, please don't argue in debates doubtless to follow.

You will form an opinion, which is good, but please turn off the bigot spigots. Focus on the debate, not the debaters (i.e. ad hominem), and you will come out enlightened, no matter how seasoned a reader or writer you may be.

Carol Emshwiller is, without doubt, one of our finest at the craft. "Boys" is no different. It's an important story -- well told and well crafted -- making bold demands of the reader as all good fiction should. But one major issue is at stake, and depending on how you view the matter, three others follow: 1. unreliable narrators, 2. subtlety, 3. gender politics, and 4. writer ethics.

If you must hate, join the legions of I-hate-Trent clubbers! We meet Tuesday nights at the Elks' club. I'm president and treasurer, the fellow you'll see meandering in the antler hat. We have T-shirts, decals, bumper stickers, and pins by the coat check in front. Just a word of warning, though: We kick the butt of anybody who looks cross-eyed at Ms. Emshwiller. A bunch of warlike, short and ugly brutes, we are!

II. A History of a Review and a Review

To make myself the most reliable narrator possible, I shall, hereafter, don third person for more reliability: The initial review was written in depression, which, no doubt, affected its tone, so the reviewer sat on it for a month and half before passing it along to several intelligent male readers quite familiar with the genre. All who read it tried to justify the story in various manners of logic, some quite inventively, but all failed. One who had not read the story but did read the review called the story satire, yet as a satire the story fell off the mark. Jonathan Swift also wrote satire on genders that many would disagree with today (albeit a criticism of both genders, not just one). While Swift's satire holds a smidgen of truth, it's that lack of veracity that keeps the gender satire from reaching the quality of the rest.

Interestingly, one of the men found this quote from Tangent Online: "If I went to a randomly picked a man and asked him to describe his perception of the world, I would be disappointed if his reply didn't read like this story. Carol Emshwiller's story has effectively captured the essence of a prototypical male." The Tangent reviewer, female, must have also read it as a gender story as the above males had, missing out on the unreliability that would have made it not a story of gender politics.

Seven months of sitting on it later, even after the reviewer discussed the story with the author and rereading carefully, he still felt the initial reading valid:

"Some might think my idea of balance in politics (and [Octavia] Butler's?) is full of crap. 'The world's screwed up. We need to tell it like it is! No pulling punches.' The only problem is preaching to the choir, as has been demonstrated in psychological experiments, increases the divide between believers and non-believers, so to speak. As fine and talented a writer as Carol Emshwiller is ("The Childhood of the Human Hero" is absolute genius and required reading for all would-be experimental genre writers), her prejudices immediately loomed up in "Boys" within a few paragraphs:
" 'We need a new batch of boys. Boys are so foolhardy, impetuous, reckless, rash. They'll lead the way into smoke and fire and battle.... You'll never win a medal for being too reasonable [emphasis mine].... We steal boys from anywhere. We don't care if they come from our side or theirs. They'll forget soon enough, which side they used to be on, if they ever knew.... Tell them this flag of ours is the best and most beautiful, and that we're the best and smartest, and they believe it. They like uniforms. They like fancy hats with feathers. They like to get medals. They like flags and drums and war cries.... You should see the look on their faces when we steal them. It's what they've always wanted.... If we'd let them go home they'd strut [emphasis mine] about in their uniforms and the stripes of their rank.... I was happy to be stolen -- happy to belong, at long last, to the men.'
"Is this the way military men really think: un-'reasonable'-y to win medals (hopefully, Emshwiller didn't mean to stereotype men in general, despite the generic title, since this reader, for one, does not think in this manner and is certain at least a handful of other males do not)? Is this how you, dear male or female reader, would think? If not, what proof of the pudding says that people not like us think this way? It could be true though this reader lacks the telepathic powers to verify. However, this reader cannot unthinkingly accept propositions offered without an attempt at understanding the Other's propositions. He must question all propositions. Much as he wants to learn from someone as thoughtful and intelligent as Emshwiller, he must be wary when the preacher turns to the choir. Opinions like these literally crack open the eye springs, knowing that nothing could change the minds of those at one end to attempt an understanding of the other end's perspective.

"But maybe balance is an illusion that a few of us foolishly cling to. There's something emblematic in a character that doesn't feel pain at having a leg shot out from under him. Although people don't all feel pain as acutely as one another, they all feel it. One wonders how Butler would have handled the allegory -- not to pit writer against writer, but to lay out the two methods for the reader to compare. Maybe it isn't a story for men at all but propaganda for women: a call to arms in the service of peace. That is something this reader can deal with since the object of propaganda is to inspire a worthy cause. Peace is certainly worthy and an understandable sentiment in today's climate."

III. The Story's Writer Responds

[Reviewer/Interviewer's note: The following is verbatim culled from various email discussions but reorganized for continuity and for what the reviewer felt was the most effective end punch. If it feels like Frankenstein, blame the reviewer.]

Yikes!!!!! Have you ever heard of the unreliable narrator? I hardly ever believe what my characters believe. I love writing first person unreliable most of all and I do it all the time. I know that's dangerous because people then think what my characters think is what I think. Yet it's the most fun to write. My colonel's beliefs are part of his characterization. That's who HE is. I don't believe anything he says.

My novel Ledoyt is from the point of view of a teenage girl who's angry and doesn't know anything. There are lots of famous unreliable narrators, as: Huckleberry Finn, Cold Sassy Tree, The Catcher in the Rye. Since that's my favorite way of writing, I do want to turn more people on to that method so they'll understand what I always write.

It's a technical term invented by professors of literature and is as undescriptive as "objective correlative"...which actors have...much more descriptively...called the "psychological gesture." (There's a really nice term.) I wish there was a better term for unreliable. I remember being confused myself when I first learned it and took if for a lying narrator. I think a skewed narrator. I like that word skewed. And of course we're all skewed. Though the English Teacher's "unreliable" is the term everybody uses. [I]t'll be hard to avoid.

I think it's always an ironic stance. When Huckleberry Finn says he should have turned [in] Jim as a runaway slave, we know Huckleberry is right not to do it, though he thinks he's wrong. Huckleberry Finn's unreliability is a way for Mark Twain to get over a lot of his ideas.

Mark Twain...and especially that part of Huckleberry F. [are] considered racist. [...T]hat part is exactly like my story. Huck thinks he's a bad person because he doesn't follow his society's way of thinking and turn Jim in. My characters also are deeply enmeshed in their society and try to live outside it. (if only by falling in love.) That's the point of my story. I guess I just don't like...and don't want to write the kind of unreliable narrator you're talking about. My kind...good people stuck in their situations and being as true to themselves as they can yet being the only kind I want to do. Because I'm always in love with my characters. The older I get the more I write out of love. I guess it doesn't seem like it to you, but I was in love with that poor colonel. Much more so than with Una.

Cold Sassy Tree is a great unreliable novel in that it's a love story between older people told from the point of view of a teenage boy who hates the whole idea of elderly people in love. The person who recommended the book to me read it as if the boy was right and told me the old people were disgusting. She completely misread it. I know writing this way is dangerous, lots of people don't catch on, but I love to do it, anyway.

I just remembered an exercise I give my students in the unreliable narrator: Describe your own apartment or house from the first person point of view of somebody who doesn't like it. It must all be true. !!!! Look around your rooms and try to find what somebody else might not like. Is it too clean from some people's point of view, or too cluttered, or clean where you can see and dirty in the dark corners? Is your rug white though you have three children? Find somebody to find fault with it and get inside their head. 80% of my students fall into the unreliable narrator automatically. I don't have to explain to them what it is.

I don't think unreliable narrators lie. I think they tell the truth as they see it but their view is skewed. Liars lie and that's a whole different thing.

I don't believe there could ever be such a story [where] everything an unreliable narrator says is untrue. [I]n first person you're in that character's mind and no where else. In a third person story the author would be describing things and you'd know exactly what that wall really is because the author would have told you. In this story you see him change his mind. The author can't tell the reader anything the character doesn't know. I find it much harder to, as [the] author, to stay out of it...I have to in first person. I have to be that character and not me. You keep trying to show the spots where my character is reliable. Of course he's reliable. There can't be a story without some reliability. But he's in a situation and off on a mission that completely mistaken.

And you're right about all of us being unreliable. The only truth is when an author says, in their story, It was a dark and story night. You can believe authors in third person when they're being the author.

[I]n The Mount, I thought to just have two matching short stories as the first two chapters would be, but when Charley says he wants to be the best mount there is, he was so mistaken that I knew there was a novel in there and started getting excited about it. I'm usually so deeply inside my first person characters that I don't know anything but what they know. People ask me, "Did Charley's father really come down in an avalanche?" But I only know what Charley thinks happened.

I do like to talk about the unreliable narrator because it seems to me so many people don't get it. I don't think I need to put in clues to the unreliability. I need for the reader to read the first person narrator as him/her self and no other. As if a character study. If the character never sees they're mistaken, then they'll never reveal it. I'm always so deeply into my characters I couldn't step outside them and have them reveal their biases if I tried. While I'm writing them I AM them.

I don't think I ever put my own ideas in my character's mouths. If I wanted to write my opinions I'd do essays. I'm more interested in characters and what they think and what goes on inside them. I do think the stories themselves are metaphors. I wanted to show people blinded by their we all are. I wanted to show people taking things for granted that seem horrible to us and yet might make us think about our own situation.

I really don't like that what my characters say is taken for what I think. I won't hobble myself with that. I write what the story needs. That's more important to me. Una's opinions are not mine. How could they be when she's in her own particular situation? My characters are only unreliable in that their educations and the rules of their society makes them so. That's the point of the story. That society can make us blind.

And even if a female character in "Boys" says, "Be more like us women," that's only true for this story and its boundaries. That's, again, what she thinks. I don't think women are any less warlike than men...well, maybe a little bit less. My stories follow their rules rather than my philosophies. I'd feel really constrained if I had to keep everything to my own ideas rather than the rules and moralities of the stories. The anti war ideas are mine.

Neither Una's nor the colonel's ideas have anything to do with me. They are both doing the best they can within the life they have. I made him as sweet a person as I could within his circumstances. I consider both of them victims of their situation. Una's opinions can't be mine considering what she has to live with. (Just as I consider Americans victims of their situations????)

Mostly it doesn't occur to me that people might take my character's POVs as mine. It's disturbing. If anybody cares to see my real feelings about what men are like, read my non-SF novel Ledoyt. (My western.) He's the kind of man I grew up with and admire and would take as my norm of what men are including my son, my father, and my brothers. It has never occurred to me that my two characters were acting in any way the could be outside the story and therefore my opinion. They're both true to their situation. They're both reliable narrators within their situation.

I guess I'd like people to judge my feelings about men (if they must) from my two more realistic western novels. In those it's the woman who are mistaken. Or from my whole batch of work. Good grief, though everybody calls me feminist, I've never ever considered myself that... except in equal pay. I've been madly in love with men since I was aware of anything. I don't understand why any particular story should stand for my beliefs instead of for the morality of the story. I'd rather stand by that.

The colonel is subversive of his culture in his way. He fell in love and isn't supposed to, and he knows which boy is his son with Una. These are outside the rules of his culture. He was kind and helpful when he didn't have to be. That was against his culture, too.

Everything my character says and thinks is reliable to HIM. As with all my characters. They tell the truth about themselves. And I like him. (And them all.) He's a moral man under his rules of morality. I seldom write about people I don't like in some ways even if they are mistaken. I think villains are too easy to write about. I always set myself a more complicated story than straight out evil.

Since I usually write first person, my characters have to be more or less unreliable. I think first person is always seen through a skew. Since I often like to write from the POV of children and addled old ladies, those have to be untrue. I think I'm trying to get at a truth through my mistaken characters. But they're not mistaken in everything. And I keep hoping the reader will read between the lines.

IV. A Reviewer's View of Unreliability and a Third Party's

In the above (actually transpiring as a dialogue with the below), Emshwiller raised many excellent points; however, her points occasionally miss the point of the reviewer's although their views of unreliability are not too dissimilar. He does have his own idea on the matter, but he should cite an authority since the reviewer's status is a speed bump alongside the mountain of Emshwiller:

"There must be some possibility of discriminating between truth and falsehood within the imagined world of the novel, as there is in the real world, for the story to engage our interest. The point of using an unreliable narrator is indeed to reveal in an interesting way the gap between appearance and reality, and to show how human beings distort or conceal the latter. This need not be a conscious, or mischievous, intention on their part."
--David Lodge in The Art of Fiction, British novelist and playwright, shortlisted for two Booker-prizes.
When Emshwiller responded with a "yikes" and "unreliable narrator" (yes, the reviewer had heard of the unreliable narrator), he trusted Emshwiller's reliability and promised to reread "Boys" to find where he might have gone wrong and, if wrong, publicly proclaim his stupidity.

But first, a usable definition is required. Who do we call unreliable? Emshwiller is correct in saying all first person narratives are skewed, but by that logic so would all third person narratives be. Human beings write narratives and chose to reveal what was revealed, skewing and limiting what the text could be about (i.e. theme). Whom do we trust and why? Do we trust anyone at all? Even third person omniscient? The author? The reader? So if, ipso facto, we call all human beings unreliable, all narratives are suspect down to their very characters and settings. Perhaps the colonel is not even a colonel, but a young neanderthal daydreaming on the animal-shaped clouds overhead. Perhaps the war between genders is really a war of troglodytes and arthropods. Perhaps we are actually all on another planet -- one where aliens have replaced everything with exact duplicates.

At some point we must rely on a person's account. We have to grant authority before we start discounting, relying on the narrative to tell us who not to trust with evidence why we should not trust them -- otherwise we are convicting people before the exit the womb. We have to say, "Okay, Mr. Character, I will trust you until you prove yourself unworthy of trust." That is to say: innocent until proven guilty.

What function does a term like "unreliable narrator" serve if it is merely a synonym for "first person?" Furthermore, if all people are unreliable, there's no reason for "unreliable," either. Readers would assume that everything Emshwiller or Walters says is dubious. Is it possible for anyone to be reliable? The reviewer has his own litmus test.

A good rule of thumb, if you want to make sure that your audience gets the point of unreliability (and surely every writer wants the conscientious readers to "get it"), is to see to it that the narrator's opinion of the world is negated -- whether by himself or by something or someone outside himself, whether purposefully (the conventional conception of a "lie") or subconsciously deceptive -- at least once, but hopefully twice so the reader may feel fairly certain. Three times, the cock crows, and it's undeniable.

Have you, dear reader, ever messed up at work? If so, would that make you unreliable? Is a reliable person someone who is perfect or someone you can count on? If the former, why do we have the term "reliable?" If you're reading a first person narrative murder mystery and the narrator were to travel down the wrong lead, would he be unreliable even if he later found the proper path? How do you define "reliable" and "unreliable?"

The narrative must show us who to mistrust. We have to place trust somewhere or remain petrified to walk out the door lest we be bombarded in a confusing array of unreliables.

A friend sent the following joke:

The owner of an intelligent dog was selling it. So an interested buyer goes to see it. The dog tells the buyer that the CIA sent it spying on other nations. The buyer says, wow, and asks the owner how much. The owner says $10. The buyer says, "Why so little? He worked for the CIA!" The owner says, "He's a liar. He never did any of that stuff."
End of story, right? But who's the liar? Dog? Owner? or a third person narrator (be it buyer or author -- I mean, come on. A talking dog)? Obviously, someone has lied because the testimonies contradict. At least the narrative told us that someone is unreliable. If the owner had said nothing, we'd have no reason to disbelieve the dog unless the dog contradicted himself or some other evidence at hand contradicted his testimony. If you don't have direct testimony saying, "He's a liar," but only one ambiguous clue, you probably could not convict the dog of lying. How many times have you told someone something true but left out an important facet so that someone thought you were lying? What we need to test for unreliability is more information.

A comparison of definitions is in order before pressing on. The important point in Lodge is that we should be able to "discriminat[e] between truth and falsehood... to reveal... the gap between appearance and reality." For Lodge, he was concerned about too much falsehood accomplishing nothing revelatory as an unreliable. For the reviewer, the same could be applied in the extreme of the other direction: too much truth not allowing the reader to discriminate the gap between appearance and reality. In Emshwiller's view, all first persons are skewed, which is true, just as all narratives are skewed. The amount of skew is what tells us whether or not the readers should rely on the narrator or not. To lie, as Lodge tells us, "need not be a conscious, or mischievous, intention." It's possible the dog, if lying, believes he did serve the CIA yet did not, or maybe he benignly wished to impress a potential owner. The end result is still a lie, to the dog himself and/or to another (this position assumes the dog lied and not the owner or narrator).

To rely or not to rely: oh, Desdemona, what a tricky business! (CLOWN to DESDEMONA: "To tell you where he lodges, is to tell you where I lie.")

V. A Reassessment

Although the reader is slow and methodical anyway, the second reading was more careful, lasting over three hours, with notetaking. The reviewer far prefers Emshwiller's form of controversy over the tepid material that refuses to take stands, to take chances. What is the purpose of literature if it doesn't make bold statements as "Boys" does?

If fiction's worth reading, it will reveal more of itself the second time -- not that a first reading shouldn't reveal, but that subsequent readings point out more subtleties from the theme grasped in the first reading. The theme is that which informs the text in what is to be revealed. The reviewer did not feel mistaken on the theme on the second read, which comes directly from Una's mouth: "Stay here. Let everybody stay here and be as women." Why is this the theme? Because nothing in the text denies it, and everything in the text supports it.

The reviewer had looked for, hoped for, and missed this nod to Aristophanes earlier: "We're not sure if the women want to stop copulation day or boy gathering day. We hope it's the latter." (Aristophanes, incidentally, is evidence to the contrary of the all-boys-are-militaristic theme of "Boys," being a boy himself.)

The play on manliness is certainly worth drawing attention to for its approaching veracity and for its angle on the theme (the reviewer didn't find this unreliable, but reliable: a truly "manly" POV from one who uses such a term, that is): "I could shoot one but it wouldn't be very manly to take advantage of my high point. Were they men I'd do it. But then they do the unmanly thing. They shoot me. My leg. My good leg."

Because the reviewer was preoccupied with theme early on, he did miss Emshwiller's sympathy for the narrator, perhaps thrown by a narrator who wants to win medals and will "never win a medal for being too reasonable" and who "commit[s] more atrocities in the name of the old ones" even though he's forgotten "how it all began."

Apart from the last paragraph (a clever subtlety I admit I missed on the first read perhaps due to the narrator's honesty), the narrator, the colonel, is highly reliable, judging from what he knows and his basic willingness to admit faults that are not contradicted in the text. The colonel tries his best to be as honest with himself as any human being. But even in the last paragraph, how do we know for certain that the narrator really is being unreliable? A common aphorism is that men's identities are often tied to their occupation. Will the narrator be satisfied with his new life as a physically crippled stud? Will he consider that a viable occupation?

As a measure of reliability, we the readers ask whether the narrator is being truthful about his reality as we see it (assuming the reader has any more capacity of seeing reality): The colonel does not claim telepathy when understanding the boys but from his own personal experience which mirrors theirs. Who would admit the things he admits? Only someone honest with themselves. The following statements seem the height of honesty and reliability and, thankfully, a certain sympathetic quality, admitting moments and aspects of weakness (if you buy the narrator is reliable, skip down to section five):

"After copulation, I did things for her, repaired a roof leak, fixed a broken table leg.... Sometimes on boys night I wonder, what if I stole Una along with boys? "

"In the beginning they're a little bit homesick (you can hear them smothering their crying the first few nights)"

"I know because I remember when I first had my uniform. I was wishing my mother and my big sister could see me. When I was taken, I fought, but just to show my courage. I was happy to be stolen—happy to belong, at long last, to the men."

(The reader has no evidence to the contrary of this:) "They know they'll have to go home to mother if they don't do it. They all do it. "

"every now and then, it's clear who the father is. I know two of my sons. I'm sure they know that I, the colonel, am their father. I think that's why they try so hard. I know them as mine because I'm a small, ugly man."

"I had bitten my lower lip. In times of stress I'm inclined to do that. I have to watch out. When you're a colonel, it's embarrassing to be found with blood on your chin."

"We were little more than children. We hardly knew what we were doing or how to do it. Afterwards she cried. I felt like crying myself but I had learned not to. Not just learned it with the squad, but I had learned it even before they took me from my mother. I wanted to be taken."

"I kept my mouth shut even when I got it. I thought if they knew I could be so easily hurt they'd send me back."

"We walk carefully around tomatoes and strawberry plants, squash and beans."

"I feel sad that the women want to keep us out so badly. I wonder, does Una want me not to come?"

"Una has always been nice to me. I often wonder why she likes me."

"The women are angrier than we thought. Perhaps they're tired of losing their boys to us and to the other side. I wouldn't put it past them not to be on any side whatsoever."

"a real shot this time. Good shot, too. One wonders how a woman could have done it. One wonders if it was a man who taught her. The boys are stunned. To think that one of their mothers or one of their sisters would shoot to kill."

"I'll most likely be demoted. To be captured by women.... I hope they have the sense to come rescue us with a large group. They'll have to make a serious effort."

"Like the women, our boys are soft hearted. They feed every creature that comes by. I don't let on that I do too."

"If I could just have Una in my arms, I might be able to sleep."

"I feel I'm about to pass out or throw up and I become aware that I've soiled myself. I don't want the boys to see."

"It must smell terrible in here. I even smell terrible to myself, and it's uncomfortable sitting in my own mess."

"I think again how … (and we all know, only too well) how love is a dangerous thing and can spoil the best of plans."

"Then I say … what we're not allowed to say or even think. It's a mother/child thing, not to be said between a man and a woman. I say, 'I love you.' "

"But I suppose all this yearning, all this wondering, is due to the leaves Una had me chew. It's not the real me. I'll not pay any attention to myself. ", yet he realizes his own feelings, his own lies: "... I shouldn't let myself be lured into staying here as a copulator for the rest of my life. I can't think of anything more dishonorable. "

Most examples of the colonel's honesty are clear. A few seem contradictory:
" 'Look how womanish the walls are. They'll crumble as we climb.' "
First, it's obviously an exaggeration. How could women have built something that would crumble? You can't nail together sawdust or rotting wood.

Second, even if this dialogue was all that ever appeared, the reviewer would not attribute it unreliable because all opponents say that their opponent is doomed. People often don a certain mental state in order to conquer the other. For instance, when the reviewer allowed depression to make him think he couldn't pass medical school, he couldn't. But when he told himself to beat depression and medical school, he did, in certain battles. In the end, he got kicked out during one of the depression stages (at which point was he unreliable? When he told himself he could pass medical school or couldn't?).

Moreover, the colonel later realizes their strength: "It's a wide wall. Not as badly built as I told the boys it was." So this statement was never unreliable.

In the end the reviewer came up with one unreliable statement -- the last paragraph -- when reading the narrative as unreliable, which could also legitimately be read as reliable since, up to that point, the narrator had been as reliable as we may expect any human being to be.

VI. Subtlety, Writer Ethics, & Gender Politics

So is the reviewer just sour grapes? sour himself because he didn't "get it" on the first read? Au contraire, mon frère. In fact, there is nothing the reviewer loves more than to be fairly tricked. But there is a good reason why he missed the author's climactic intent... which makes him wonder: Are the good authors allowing themselves to get too subtle? Are there enough clues so the careful can get it? This is not a call for authors to become pedantic or normalize their literature, but help the readers out a little more. Robert Browning's "The Last Duchess" will still require careful readers, but the readers are also given a number of clues to unlock the narrator's unreliability without having to tell us he's unreliable.

Another point not yet fully pursued is that even assuming the narrator's unreliability, the sweeping generalizations on gender cannot be negated or denied by the text's reliability.

A story is informed by something. It has a design. Something within the creator designed it, whether the conscious or subconscious. By the time we reach the end, if the story is any good, the readers will understand the conclusion. From this point, they can understand all that has happened prior to the conclusion, for the conclusion informs us of how to interpret the rest of the story.

Authors should be aware of the effects they are creating within their readers: the social climates and the minds of living and breathing people they are shaping. The reason governments have feared and tortured and killed writers through the millennia is that writers change the way we think.

The reviewer realizes this will be the hardest pill for the writers to swallow. One day he may change his mind, but it seems if a writer wishes to make readers aware -- as should all writers who want a modicum of permanence beyond the best sellers -- then they should be aware of the effects of their texts on readers.

"Does this reviewer mean writers have a legal responsibility?" Absolutely not. Responsibility lies firmly within those who use the text for good or for ill.

"Does this reviewer mean that the writer is responsible for every action a character takes or word a character speaks?" No, the reviewer never said or implied this (although apparently Lucius Shepard was held responsible for a male character slapping a woman in one of his stories and John Kessel held responsible for the feelings of males in his "Stories for Men").

What the writer should be aware of is the conclusion or theme of the story. As Emshwiller pointed out, the conclusion of Huckleberry Finn is against racism. Despite what the character says, we know how Huck really feels about Jim.

But the literary realm and especially the mechanistic gizmo realm of SF were mainly male domains of crotch scratching and antler crashing. Men of the 30s, 40s, and 50s wrote SF without major roles for women. After all, they were just writing "If This Goes On" and few seemed to think other possibilities existed (Heinlein did introduce women into key story roles and societal roles as well as unparalleled gender exploration in "All You Zombies"). But women picked up this general implication and wrote the reactionary feminism of the 60s and 70s saying, hey, you guys are sexist! And they were, albeit unintentionally and not malevolently so. Their world view subconsciously informed their works. Yet feminism rightfully let these men be aware of their subconscious injustice. Yet reactionary feminism, lest it be deemed hypocritical, should also be aware of its effects. As the obliviousness of old time SF made women feel worthless, so this reviewer and other males are made to feel worthless: worlds without men, worlds where men are destroyed, worlds where all men are jerks who daydream of raping women and would rape women if only they could. On the other hand, jokes are perfectly legitimate. Mary Shelley in Frankenstein discusses the monster's proposed bride "who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal," and you thought that dim-witted male monster was bad! Just wait until someone with brains grabs the helm! This is funny, not cruel.

Emshwiller does love men. This can be seen clearly in the extraordinary care with which she portrays the colonel. But that was never questioned. What is questioned are gender politics, perhaps all done subconsciously, in a story labeled, "Boys," all men are militaristic and want to kill. All women want peace. One man gets killed by a woman but she is never identified or brought to justice. Men are killed by men. Men beat their mothers with boots and would have used daggers if they had them, and the women just stand there and take it like stoic martyrs. Women only shoot legs, but only for that man's ultimate good. Women would rather that a tree live that the heartless men cut it down in their attempt to escape. Men are good for little but being studs. When women have no substantially negative role in this fiction, how can one not say the theme comes from Una's mouth? In effect we are told that "Men bad, women good; hence men be like women" -- a scenario John Gardner would call a lack of "intellectual honesty" [see Gardner, The Forms of Fiction]. Again, if the reviewer is unrepresentative of his gender (or consciously unaware of his complete and utter ugliness in relation to women's goodness), please ignore.

Perhaps no one's much interested in gender politics from a male perspective.

But the true blame may lie on the men. Men don't even understand men, don't know that there is something to be understood, and often don't attempt understanding. This in itself may compound the problem in ways far worse than criticism from the opposite gender. Men of an earlier generation don't question. They just say, "We were jerks, so your generation has to take our punishment." What?!? This reviewer grew up, not even knowing that men could be attractive until he met a gay man who showed that men could be seen as attractive and worthwhile. This is what men and reactionary feminists have missed out on.

Men can be cruel and indifferent jerks. But why, oh why, do we stop there? Why not ask why men are jerks? How do men tick? Explore! Isn't that what SF is all about?

Gender politics has been running for many years now. It is a crucial consideration if we continue to wish a continued existence as a species. Science fiction could be at the forefront of gender exploration if they only applied a little of their namesake: scientific inquiry.

To sum, authors should be aware of the effects they are creating, even in unreliable narratives. But let the effects be conscious and conscientious ones, so when governments burn them at the stake, writers can be confident they done good for the right reasons, not the unintended ones.

VII. The Author Concludes

[Reviewer's note: frustrated by Steinbeck's critical treatment, the reviewer firmly believes the author should not be squared in by the critic. This is her opportunity that Steinbeck never got.]

Again, I really hate that a phrase from a character can be taken as my idea. "Be more like the women." (For you to think that that's me, makes me think you can't be a writer of fiction. or you'd know better.) My daughter is one of the most ambitious people I know and always takes on more than she can handle. Without her nurturing husband she wouldn't get through the day. I like how gung ho she is and I also like how gentle and supportive her husband is. If a story called for it I'd write "Be more like a man." I just now had my first person viewpoint character the story I'm working on now..."We should be harsher on our young ones." I hope nobody thinks that's what I think.

My favorite writing book, Janet Burroway's 2000 edition of Writing Fiction, has several pages on the unreliable narrator and several degrees of it.* My other writing books have differing ideas of it, too. Sort of like opinions on POV. Every book is different. And a first person narrator can never lie. If they're deliberately lying, the reader has to know it since we're inside their heads.

Copyright © 2003 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.

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