This past year I entered my debut urban fantasy/self-indulgent EMS novel into the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off. It’s done better than I had expected, making it to the final round against some pretty good books. The contest is still running, but the finals are an even tougher group, so I’m not expecting to win, but getting the book in more hands, particularly those of book bloggers is a prize in and of itself.
SPFBO has been good in terms of increasing my sales, of making new connections, expanding my friends list, and a number of new reviews.
That last had seemed a mixed blessing at first. But not now that I’ve had time to think about it.
The book is pretty niche. It’s urban fantasy without vampires or werewolves, or even much overt magic at all. It had dribs and drabs of historical flashbacks, as the protagonist is immortal, but it’s not really historical fiction. Technically, maybe sorta there’s a paranormal romance, if you count a subplot relationship between a normal human and an immortal who appears pretty much as a normal human. And there’s a huge emergency medical services component, which people outside the field might find less accessible.
Prior to entering the contest, people who picked it up were those who had a connection to the rather unique take, and EMS people who liked fantasy loved it. Reviews were great. But that’s being a big fish in a very very small pond. I’m sure when he wrote Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain expected it to do well with cooks. It was success outside of that circle that surprised him.
So, right or wrong, I had gotten used to four and five star reviews. I’d gotten cocky. And I made the finals, which did little to dispel my cockiness. Until I started getting some reviews from people who had picked it up because of the contest. People who may read a lot of fantasy, but don’t run in my regular circles.
Now, I didn’t get terrible reviews, but I got a bunch mediocre ones, and one thing in particular kept coming up. It has been seen as a having a bit of a sexist, male gaze, testosterone, swinging dick vibe.
I was surprised by this. Not just because it hadn’t come up before, but because I’d tried pretty hard to make the female characters competent and independent and as fully drawn as the male ones. So my fragile male ego was stung by this criticism.
My first instinct was defensive. I wanted to fight back, deny any such claims and prove my accusers wrong. Which is about as testosterone fueled, swinging dick as a response can be. I found myself falling back on the defensive on two points.
First, these readers were often fans of Grimdark fantasy. Readers accustomed to protagonists who were at least tacitly accepting of, if not directly involved in things like rape, torture, cannibalism, infanticide and razing villages full of innocent civilians. And they’re going to clutch their pearls when two paramedics make small talk in the ambulance about which of the new ER nurses they want to bang? It was like hearing Genghis Khan walk up covered in blood and ashes and say “Not cool, man. She’s somebody’s sister.”
Nothing like a little unjustified righteous indignation to start the day.
I came around to realize that while a fantasy villain, or even an antihero, and it can be tough to tell them apart on some days, may be terrible, but it’s terrible at a nice safe distance. It’s unlikely the Dark Lord’s horde is going to sack your village and carry you off to slavery, but the low key objectification might strike too close to home, be too much a part of the miasma of shittiness that makes your life crap every day.
The second defense was authenticity. I solemnly swear that the tone and content of the work conversations is one hundred percent faithful to what I hear very day. Everything is couched in terms of sex. We’re always getting fucked. Usually in the ass. By management, by dispatch, by the Trickster Gods of EMS who can wait for hours while you do nothing them make the city explode the moment you try to eat a hot meal. Almost anything management is announcing or enacting is discussed in terms of non consensual sodomy. I’ve heard it said on more than one occasion that we’ve been fucked so often we hardly notice until we hear the grunting behind us. The occasional good thing is described equally vulgarly, as “hey, the company is giving out gift cards and hand jobs today.”
Before I became and EMT and then a Paramedic, I went into the Marine Corps right out of high school, and after graduating college in the middle of a recession I worked installing water services, fixing broken water mains in the dead of winter, plowing snow, unloading trucks, and other blue collar, male dominated, physical jobs. Where we were always “getting fucked.”
So, a high testosterone, swinging dick atmosphere is what I’ve grown accustomed to. But I always thought that I was above it. More enlightened. A bleeding heart liberal. Pro LGBT rights, feminist (really), and borderline socialist.
Mostly because I though that women and the poor and people of color and non-straight people were getting fucked worse than I was. So even when declaring my more enlightened positions, it always comes back to this. If there’s a version of Godwin’s Law involving comparing things to sodomy rather than Hitler, then it applies to every workplace conversation I’ve had in the past thirty years.
But after some reflection, I’m coming around to the idea that maybe authenticity isn’t a defense, exactly. Maybe there are ways to be faithful to the spirit of EMS and to show our little world with a bit less casual sexist vulgarity. Maybe if that is the authentic reality of our industry, we should maybe work on that and not revel in it.
So maybe those reviews weren’t fucking me.
Maybe they were showing me some things I may not have wanted to see, but probably should.
So, if nothing else, I will be a better writer, and maybe a bit more aware at the end of the day.
Not that I’d mind a win. Just sayin’