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The Uncanny Valley of Fictional Representation

Sunday, October 15, 2017 - 19:00

(If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase “the uncanny valley” in visual representation, this Wikipedia article is a useful start, especially the section on computer animation.)

I had something of an epiphany the other day when reading Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads and following discussions online about a recent lesbian romance novel and contemplating other books in my past that have poked at me in uncomfortable ways around the issue of representation. Representation in books is something of a hot topic these days-- the idea that everyone has a right to see the many facets of their own identity represented in the fiction they read, complicated by the nearly infinite number of intersectional combinations those identities can create.

My epiphany is this: sometimes I take more joy in a book that comes nowhere near to representing my own specific identities as long as it clearly shows a world in which I could exist. That is, where the individual points of representation are distributed widely enough across the spectrum of the possible that I can find myself in the interstices. Sometimes this can be more satisfying than a book that comes much closer to representing my own specific intersections and yet erases the possibility of some essential aspect.

The world represented in The Salt Roads is one in which it is an assumed and given fact that women have connections with other women. That those connections will be of widely varying types. And that those types will include a range of romantic, sensual, and erotic connections. The Salt Roads is a book that makes me feel like I exist somewhere within that world even though I have very little in common with the protagonists on the basis of culture, ethnicity, economic status, and life story. It isn’t that the characters represent me--none of them come close to representing my own romantic and sexual experiences--but that the world has a place for me within it.

What do I contrast this with? Books where women live lives of isolation. (Or where women don’t exist as multi-dimensional human beings at all.) Where all their key relationships are to men. Or where women are unremarkably exclusively heterosexual in every emotion and action without ever straying from that path. Books where every single character is driven by motivations that I find incomprehensible, with no indication that other possible motivations exist.

You might think that, as a lesbian, I would find a great deal of inclusion and representation within the field of lesbian fiction, but here’s where the other part of my epiphany kicks in. Contemporary lesbian romance--and that’s the core prototype and dominant market presence in the lesbian fiction industry--depicts a world in which women experience a fairly narrow range of types of relationships, interactions, and expectations. There is, as a rule, an expectation that there will be certain types of attraction, that relationships will progress according to certain types of scripts, and that the eventual goal is taken from a specific set of outcomes.

I can hear people saying, “But wait! There’s an incredibly wide variety of personality types and relationship shapes and plot arcs within lesbian romance,” but that comes from looking from inside that set of expectations. You aren’t comparing it to the possibility of what could be. It’s a bit like being a white American and looking at an entire literary genre and seeing all the diversity in it but failing to notice that all the protagonists are white Americans. Or, for a more frivolous comparison, it’s like being excited about the enormous variety of offerings from See’s Candies and failing to notice that they all have chocolate in common. No they don’t! you protest. There’s that one item in the Nuts & Chews box that’s just peanuts in nougat. I’m sure there’s at least one choice that doesn’t have chocolate. My case rests. You aren't thinking about the existence of fresh peaches. Or tomatoes. Or roast beef. You're still thinking in terms of chocolate and not-quite-but-almost-chocolate.

The discussion that was the other half of the inspiration for these thoughts revolves around a recent contemporary lesbian romance novel with the “shocking revolutionary twist” that one of the protagonists is asexual. Now I think it’s a lovely idea to have asexual protagonists in books, though setting them in a formulaic romance may undermine the point a bit for the reading public. I haven’t read the specific book itself, so I’m not talking about whether the topic was handled well or badly in that specific instance. I may or may not read it--I’m not sure I’d enjoy a novel that treats asexuality as an “afterschool special” educational project, given that contemporary romance isn’t really my thing in the first place.

But what struck me was the significant number of readers within the lesbian fiction community whose response was along the lines of, “Wow, this is fascinating, I never knew that such a thing as asexuality existed! I don’t know any asexual lesbians! This introduces me to people and ideas that I’d never encountered before! Thank you for educating me on this topic! Nobody’s ever written about it before.” (Hint: Yes, people have written novels with asexual and aromantic protagonists before. Please don’t erase their existence.)

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Of course you already knew that asexual lesbians existed. You’ve met them, both online and in real life. You just called them “frigid” or “sexually hung-up” or “full of internalized homophobia” or "repressed" or “emotionally unavailable” or any of the other popular labels for people whose erotic response is radically different from yours.

And the people saying this--that they didn’t know asexual lesbians existed--are saying it in online social spaces where people like me have been participating all along. It means that they’ve never seen me. They’ve never actually listened to any of the things I’ve said in those online communities around the topic of representations of desire and sexuality in fiction. I don’t exist for them. It means that every time I’ve interacted with them, they’ve pasted a picture on top of my existence that’s something other than who I am and interacted with that, because they literally didn’t believe that I existed.

And that’s what I mean by books that create worlds that I could exist in. If an author of lesbian fiction literally doesn’t know that asexuality is a possible thing, they certainly aren’t going to write fictional worlds that represent it, or that have a space in which it could exist. That part of the map of human territory won’t be an empty space labeled “here be sea serpents and mermaids” there won’t even be an empty space on the map it could be penciled into.

The third book I’d like to bring into this discussion is Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword. I’ve previously spilled a fair amount of ink over how that book was an emotional flash-point for me, because it came so close to being the perfect book for my emotional core...and then it veered sideways and was a perfect book for someone who was not quite me. Reviewing my reaction in the context of the current topic, I think one of the places where it failed me that I hadn’t been able to articulate properly, is that the female same-sex relations that I’d seen represented in the world of Riverside were fairly narrow in scope--in part because of the relatively small number of examples. Riverside is a world where it seems like half of the men have been in some sort of romantic or sexual relationship with another man, but whatever the author’s intent, we don’t see a similar normalization of women’s relationships. For that matter, we don’t see a full range of women’s relationships at all. To quote my post-review analysis:

“There’s a point in Katherine’s sexual explorations with Marcus where a point is made about ‘having sex with your best friend’ and I think that was when it hit me that The Privilege of the Sword doesn’t seem to show women having serious, genuine friendships with other women. Men have deep and binding friendships with men. Men and women can have genuine friendships as well as relationships based on desire or familial bonds. But women’s friendships are shown as being contingent (“do our husbands get along?”) or as play-acting (Katherine and Artemisia) or as part of power jockeying (the two actresses).”

Here was an excellently-written story of a daring, resourceful, and passionate young woman, and it existed in a world where women don’t seem to have genuine friendships with each other--much less enduring passionate feelings for each other. It came so close to hitting my personal target and then denied the existence of things that are at the core of my being. (Note: the Riverside serial Tremontaine has been a bit better about representing a variety of women’s interpersonal and same-sex romantic interactions.)

So if you’ve ever wondered why my reading habits and my reviews don’t align on a simple “lesbian books good, non-lesbian books less good” axis, it’s because I’m not only a lesbian, and all the other parts of who I am are just as important to me as that one. In the aggregate, they are more important. I’m not interested in reading and praising lesbian novels that nevertheless leave me feeling like an alien from another planet whose existence the author doesn’t quite believe in.

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