Even the Best Books Aren’t Perfect

Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold is one of about half a dozen “comfort reads” that I return to repeatedly. It’s a sort of prequel to her space opera series, The Vorkosigan Saga. Really two books combined, it details how Miles Vorkosigan’s parents met, married, and the events surrounding his conception and birth which heavily influenced who he was in the series. But much as I love Miles, I don’t read it for him. I read it for Cordelia, Miles’ mother. She’s an amazing woman, one of those characters who help me define who I want to be in life. She falls in love with an “enemy”, leaves her planet and family to be with him on his (to her) backward and barbaric planet, and is dropped into the highest levels of politics, civil war, intrigue and assassination. Through it all she maintains an outward calm, and dispenses wisdom, kindness, and common sense to all those around her. All while being completely bad-ass, and without being even a little bit Mary Sueish.

But as much as I love, adore, and continually re-read this book (and many other Bujold books too), there are a couple of problems with it. There are two big ones. The first is a lack of racial diversity, but that’s not really what I want to talk about today (it’s an important point, and worth noting, but not one I usually feel qualified to write about. I’m sure others have written about it somewhere on the web however).

The other problem is also an issue of representation, but it’s an issue of sexuality not race. There’s a scene where a political enemy of Cordelia’s husband Aral is trying to blow up their (very happy) marriage by telling her “scandalous” things about his sexual history. The enemy misjudges his target pretty thoroughly, as what he (and much of the Barrayaran society) considers scandalous, Cordelia considers entirely normal and perfectly logical. Particularly in the realm of sexuality and gender roles. The whole scene is a couple of pages, and it’s generally clever and wonderful and satisfying in that “ha! take THAT you unmitigated ass” sort of way. But right in the middle is this:

He paused, watching Aral, watching her watch Aral. One corner of his mouth crooked up, then the quirk vanished in a thoughtful pursing of his lips. “He’s bisexual, you know.” He took a delicate sip of his wine.
“Was bisexual,” she corrected absently, looking fondly across the room. “Now he’s monogamous.”

And there’s the problem. Here, written bluntly out in black and white is an incredibly bi-phobic statement, one which is often used by narrow-minded people of all sexualities to justify to themselves why they won’t date/marry/love bisexuals, no matter how delightful the person might be otherwise. They want a monogamous commitment. Bi people aren’t capable of commitment, or we’re greedy, or we’re born cheaters, or whatever.

This is all complete tripe of course. Bisexuals are monogamous, non-monogamous, equally attracted to both sexes, or attracted to a whole range along the gender spectrum, or mostly attracted to one gender with the occasional crush on the other, or sometimes even asexual (though then they’re usually referred to as bi-romantic I believe). We can be bisexual without ever experiencing a relationship or a sexual encounter with one whole gender. There is no one way to be bisexual. But the important point here is, bisexuality and monogamy are not mutually exclusive. Lemme repeat: Bisexuality and monogamy are not mutually exclusive. 

Nor is bisexuality something you “used to be.” Bisexuality is not a “phase” we grow out of. This myth stems from the tendency for lesbians and gays to identify as bisexuals on their way to their true sexual identity in an effort to soften the “blow” to those around them. But they’re no more bisexuals than closeted LGBT people are straight. And their misappropriation of the label doesn’t negate the truth of it as an identity for actual bisexuals, and I sure wish people would quit trying to use them as examples to prove it’s all a phase and we’ll grow out of it, one way or another. Thank you, but no I won’t.

One of the things that makes me saddest about this little bit of ignorance (for, given her writing on other topics relating to sexuality I do believe this bi-phobia grows from ignorance on the author’s part, not malice) is what a missed opportunity it is. Here Bujold has set up a major supporting character from a very popular SF series, and he’s bisexual. But also happily married, successful, and his life is not ABOUT bisexuality. It informs his past, which has repercussions on his life during the course of this book. But with this one line, she completely negates all the good that was possible. She blatantly states that his bisexuality was a “phase” and he no longer “counts” as bisexual because he’s monogamously married to a woman. It’s such a tiny mistake to have made, and yet so very damaging to a certain portion of her readers.

This is one of the things that terrifies me so much about writing. If one of my favorite authors — a woman whose writing I admire and wish to emulate and a multi-award winning novelist — can make such an egregious mistake in representation, then what’s to keep me from making one just as bad? I want to write good representation in the characters I create, but I often feel paralyzed by doubt. I read and read and read stories and theory and advice by those whose lived realities I would like to reflect in some way in my fiction. And yet it is still possible, nay even probable, that I’ll make a misstep as grievous as this one, or perhaps even worse.

Writing is a scary business, especially when writing from a perspective not your own.

My Literary Heroes: Bujold

I have many favorite authors, both those who are giants in their genres such as Tolkien, Lewis, or Pratchett, and less universally well-known authors like Lackey, or Feist or Pierce. However, among my favorite authors there is only one who’s ‘voice’ and style impresses me to such an extent that she has become my Literary Hero, and that one is Lois McMaster Bujold.

This topic occurred to me recently as I lay re-reading Ms. Bujold’s Cordelia’s Honor for the umpteenth time. Like any author, her style changes over time, and even from novel to novel. But despite this, I find her unique depth and insight is present throughout most of her works. This quality about her writing is extraordinarily difficult to define, but it affects me like no other author’s style ever has. The effect it has on me is quite profound, drawing me in, and often leaving me thoughtful and pensive for hours, or even days afterwards. Of course, different books produce this effect to different degrees. Paladin of Souls, for instance, transports, enthralls, and leaves me thoughtful for days, regardless of how recently I’ve read it. Conversely, some of the earlier Miles Vorkosigan books, such as Warrior’s Apprentice or Cetaganda, while thoroughly entertaining do not have quite this effect on me. This is not of course a problem, but rather its opposite, as I thoroughly enjoy reading Ms. Bujold’s books because I know she’ll always surprise me.

As I mentioned, that certain defining quality which Ms. Bujold’s writing has is somewhat difficult to isolate. Part of it must of course be her characters, which are extraordinary in their depth, seeming almost to be real people. Part of it may be the conflicts she devises, which are always imaginative, though not necessarily unique except in their twists. But beyond this, there’s a certain something about her stories, which causes you to stop and think about the underlying issue, which is often applicable to modern life. Some of this is certainly her language skills. She writes some of the most quotable books I have ever read, full of pithy one or two line sentences which capture vast ideas in a few words.

So, my secret writerly dream, is to have this same depth and meaning in my own writing, no matter how fantastical the subject. I don’t think I’m there yet, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be, but having a role-model to look up to can only help. And of course, give me a good excuse to keep re-reading all of my favorite Bujold novels. After-all, it’s all research, right?!

Thought for the Week: “Yet loyalty must run both ways, else it becomes betrayal in the egg.” Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

Currently Reading: Polgara the Sorceress by David and Leigh Eddings