Why couldn’t Kubo have been a girl? And other Summer 2016 disappointments.

Last weekend my husband and I saw my favorite movie of the summer, and one I would recommend with all my heart to any and all fantasy lovers: Laika Animation Studios’ Kubo and the Two Strings. This movie stands out like an oasis of color and light against the shadowy gray landscape that is 2016 summer cinema. Some of the reasons are obvious even to those who haven’t seen it. It’s not a remake or reboot of anything. It’s not a sequel to anything. It’s not a showcase for already-known characters. It offers what no other mainstream summer release seems to have bothered with at all: the thrill of discovery, an exciting journey into an unfamiliar world. Then, when we actually see the film, we find a joyous (though not always happy) affirmation of the power of the Creative Force — music, stories — and the transformative strength of love. I can’t think of any other movie this summer that so successfully hits both those notes. If you’re reading this blog, chances are very good you will like this movie. If you haven’t seen it already, please go. It deserves to be a hit.

Yet as much as I loved this movie — and my love grew upon reflection, in the hours and days after I saw it — I couldn’t dismiss a tiny wrinkle of regret that the hero was, like at least eighty percent of the heroes in all family films made since the 1970s, a boy. Laika’s first big movie, Coraline, did present proof that an American animated movie about a girl who wasn’t a Disney princess could succeed at the box office, but since then, in ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, they’ve followed in lock-step the male lead pattern of animated films in general, with female characters cast as vengeful villainesses, shallow bimbette sisters, and unpleasantly shrewish sidekicks, all foils for the good-hearted, brave, and unorthodox boy heroes. Kubo does improve upon its immediate predecessors in that Charlize Theron’s Monkey character is given more dimension than sidekicks usually get (though I can’t say too much about her for fear of Spoilers), and it helps that she’s a total badass in battle. But still, she’s not the day-saver, the difference-maker. That responsibility is left, as per usual, to the boy.

“Why couldn’t Kubo have been a girl instead?” is not entirely rhetorical, since nothing in plot or even personality demands the character be male. Masculinity isn’t a prevailing theme. There’s no love interest. The character embodies no traits traditionally perceived as male, like physical strength and aggression (interestingly, Monkey gets those). The most I can figure is that the writers decided that in feudal Japan, a little girl couldn’t have earned money as a storyteller — but then, in feudal Japan, malevolent forces didn’t sail down from the heavens to cause mayhem, either. It’s a fantasy. It could have worked. And if the writers had just taken that tiny step and made the character female, she would have joined my pantheon of favorite fantasy heroines of all time, for she would have embodied the very characteristics I love most to see in female guise: creativity, courage, and love. I probably would have seen the movie three times by now.

Now for the tough question: why does it matter? Why couldn’t I enjoy Kubo just as much as a boy? Truthfully, it shouldn’t matter at all — and perhaps it wouldn’t, if three or four more animated or at least family-film female leads were out there at the same time, in movies just as good if not better than Kubo. Yet as long as female leads are so vastly outnumbered by male leads in animated films, and as long as those female leads are so specifically gendered in ways that Kubo is not (that is, assigned plots and traits that dictate the lead could only have been female), I will regret the lack and ponder what could have been.

Nonetheless, Kubo and the Two Strings remains a bright spot in a summer full of film and TV disappointments (for me). What’s wrong out there?

No real feminist triumphs — particularly compared with last summer, in which we saw Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, Trainwreck, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Testament of Youth. What have we this year? Well, Ghostbusters. My husband and I both enjoyed this reboot, and a lot of our friends did too, but on the whole, response to Paul Feig’s movie has been tepid, and we probably won’t see a sequel. The success of a Fury Road or an Inside Out or a Trainwreck, which might have made Hollywood big shots sit up and take notice, is conspicuous by its absence this year.

Too many dead female TV characters. Two separate shows I watched to the bitter (and I do mean bitter) end — shows I won’t name, to avoid Spoilers — featured powerful female characters sacrificing their lives for the sake of a group of mostly male characters. While I did like both the characters in question, I can’t be happy with the equation of female heroism with death/annihilation, particularly when my interest in the female survivors is mild at best.

Third time not the charm for the Captain America series. I did like Captain America: Civil War, particularly any moment involving Black Panther, who has presence to burn and whose solo outing I eagerly anticipate. Yet the first two Captain America movies stood out for me as offering the most satisfying depictions of women I’d seen in any superhero movie other than The Incredibles — Peggy Carter in the first film, Black Widow in the second. So I couldn’t help feeling let down that in the third film, while Black Panther and Spiderman got a chance to shine, Black Widow and Scarlet Witch had little more than walk-on parts. Scarlett Johannson made the most of her few moments, but the writers haven’t figured out what to do with Elizabeth Olsen. In the end, the ladies proved irrelevant, never getting to make the difference that even Ant-Man did in five minutes of screen time. In this movie summer, if you want a heroine, and Ghostbusters isn’t your thing, your best bet is Pixar’s Finding Dory.

The scarcity of heart. One of the more unusual films of the year has been Love and Friendship, a witty and skillfully made adaptation of a novella from early in Jane Austen’s career. It’s an amusing film, and I would recommend it, but despite the title, there’s precious little love or friendship in evidence. The female lead is an amoral schemer, and the closest thing we get to a “good” female character is a passive, whimpering drip with whom it’s hard to sympathize. On the surface it couldn’t be more different from squalid, dark-hued action-fests like Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, yet they have one crucial similarity at their core: an overall tone of heartlessness. These movies ask us to watch with fascination the antics of their characters, but we’re never called upon to make an emotional investment. We watch, we laugh, we snicker, we gasp, but we don’t care. Has caring really gone so far out of fashion? I don’t think I want to know.

Maybe things will get better at the movies as the year goes on. In the meantime, I have many lovely books to read.

 

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Why I Love Goodreads

To my regret I can’t remember exactly where and how I first learned about Goodreads.com, but over the past few years it has become my biggest Internet time-suck, by far. I may love Facebook, since I have plenty of fun, smart Facebook friends who fill my Feed with intriguing nuggets, but I swear I spend twice the time on Goodreads that I do on FB. It’s like the world’s largest library, a playground full of all the books in the world. I can’t say it’s done wonders for my productivity, but I’ve learned a great deal from it, not only about what books are out there but about how readers respond to them.

So, what do I love about Goodreads?

Lists point me toward the kinds of books I most enjoy.

Since my greatest literary affection is for second-world (epic, historical… really, anything but contemporary) fantasy in which heroines play active and significant roles — “cool heroines doing cool stuff,” I like to say in my vernacular — I browse through lists like “Best ‘Strong Female’ Fantasy Novels,” “Best Heroine in a Fantasy Book,” and “Kick-Butt Heroines” on a regular basis, to see if any new titles have turned up or whether certain titles may have moved up or down the lists. Before I click that wonderful “Want to Read” button, I take the time to read at least two pages of reviews with care, since after all, readers’ definitions of “strong female” or “best heroine” may differ; for example, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, known for its bland, featureless, incompetent female lead (I won’t use the word “heroine” in reference to her), turns up consistently on lists like this even when the lists’ originators specifically request that it not be added. All the same, the lists, imperfect as they might be, give me a place to start looking, and the reviews give me an idea of whether the stories and their characters will earn my rooting interests.

I learn about the existence of books I would never find on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.

I credit Goodreads for my purchase of a Kindle three years ago. In one of my browses I came across a title that peaked my interest, Scriber by Ben S. Dobson. I read the description — an introverted scholar is swept along on an adventure by a troop of diverse warrior women — together with the reviews, and I concluded that the book would very much be “my thing.” But it was only available as an e-book. In order to read it, I would need a device.

I’m happy to declare the price of my Kindle was money well spent. Scriber turned out to be as good as I thought it would be, and since then I’ve read and enjoyed quite a few books I would never have found were it not for Goodreads: Andrea K. Host’s Stained Glass Monsters, …And All the Stars, and The Pyramids of London; Vera Nazarian’s Cobweb Bride and Lords of Rainbow; Insitar Khanani’s Sunbolt; T.O. Munro’s Lady of the Helm; Patrick Weekes’ The Palace Job; and Karin Rita Gastreich’s Eolyn and High Maga, just to name a few. Right now I’m engrossed in Steven Poore’s The Heir to the North, in which the heroine distinguishes herself in a way I always love to see, as a storyteller. For this one, too, I owe Goodreads my thanks.

I learn what not to read.

“Life’s too short to read bad books,” the saying goes, but of course how do we know they’re bad if we don’t read them first? A better saying, though a bit more cumbersome, is, “Life’s too short to read books you know in advance won’t give you what you’re looking for,” since after all, we all go to fiction in search of different things. The “Not Interested” button can be as useful as the “Want to Read” button, and Goodreads reviews help me make informed decisions.

Some signs I consider dealbreakers (won’t read it, no way, no how) include: 1) when multiple reviews complain about the depiction of women in the book (e.g. “this book was great, except for the female characters”); 2) when even reviewers who loved the book can’t manage to say a single positive word about the main female character, usually the male protagonist’s love interest; 3) when multiple reviewers note the almost total absence of women from the book; 4) when the book has no female reviewers; 5) and, of course, when complaints pile up about sloppy editing, inconsistencies in characterization and world-building, and ham-fisted style.

Some signs that make me question seriously whether a book is for me, and lead me to prioritize scores of other books ahead of them, include: 1) when I notice a gender-based polarity in response to the book — as in, when all four- or five-star reviews are posted by men while women are posting one- and two-star reviews, or vice versa (the books I like best tend to appeal to a broad readership); 2) when after looking through two pages, I’ve come across not one review that mentions a female character by name. This last one, I admit, is tricky, because in fantasy, female names aren’t always so easy to recognize. Only a couple of days ago I exiled a book to my Not-Interested pile before discovering that “Scoop,” one of the main protagonists, was not the boy I’d assumed, but was instead a girl with an odd nickname.

I learn that as a writer, I need not let bad reviews crush my spirit.

We all know that some books are quite simply and inescapably bad, and any book with almost across-the-board negative reviews is best avoided, unless you’re fond of hate-reading (which I’m not). But we also know that two or more people can read the same book and come away with wildly different, even opposite impressions. I’ve seen many a merciless, scathing one-star review of a book on which I’ve bestowed a four- or even five-star blessing. These reviews can help me thicken my skin — I don’t want to be the writer who posts indignant responses to bad reviews — and help me see that as long as my work is not universally loathed, it doesn’t matter if it’s not universally loved.

The benefits I derive from Goodreads keep it a part of my life and routine, but I know I need to budget the time I spend there. I can stop reading reviews any time I want. Really.

(Um, well…)

 

Why I Still Like Heroes

To the observer of current fiction in its various forms, one thing seems apparent: the hero is out, and the anti-hero is in. Movies and novels in particular are more keen than ever to delve into the darkest sides of human nature without coming up for air, and it’s done in the name of honesty, of a “realism” that allows no room for such rose-colored naivete as belief in a hero. We’re all scum at heart, these stories say, so why not face it and give up trying to be more? I wrote in an earlier post that acceptance of “collateral damage” — the idea that innocent lives can and should be sacrificed to achieve some goal supposedly greater than the well-being of a few (thousand) individuals — is a distinguishing characteristic of a villain. When even Superman himself is okay with bulldozing over bystanders who get in the way of his battle with an enemy, we know we’re living in an age when heroism in fiction is hardly welcome, let alone valued.

Stories of anti-heroes and villain protagonists are obviously very popular with a lot of people; why else would the poorly-reviewed Suicide Squad, in which villains are the protagonists and no one at all is an actual hero, do well in its opening weekend? Yet this is a train I can’t bring myself to board. I’m still afflicted with rose-colored naivete. I still like heroes, protagonists who aren’t just as screwed up as I am (and thereby remind me of how screwed up I am) but instead are better than I am (and thereby offer the hope that I too might be better). I hold to the belief that what I term “aspirational fiction” still has a place, and that place should not be confined to children’s and young-adult literature and film.

The all darkness, all the time focus is sold as “realism,” but how realistic is it? We all know human beings are capable of great evil as well as petty cruelty, and for evidence we never have to look further than the evening news. It’s also true that darkness, what Stephen King calls the “potential lyncher,” exists in some measure in almost everyone. We can all recall plenty of times when we’ve been at our worst, when we’ve given in to selfishness, anger, intolerance, suspicion, jealousy. But for all that, human beings are also capable of great good — kindness, love, friendship, loyalty, courage, generosity, empathy. Focusing only on the darkest aspects of human nature is as unrealistic as denying that darkness would be. If the potential lyncher exists in all of us, so does the potential hero, and we do ourselves no favors when we deny that hero’s existence.

(True, Joss Whedon’s Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog does lampoon this idea when he has the arrogant “hero” Captain Hammer sing, “Everyone’s a Hero in Their Own Way,” but bear in mind that Whedon’s work as a whole shows the value of heroes, giving us flawed men and women who manage to tap into their better natures and do great good.)

It’s to this potential hero that the best aspirational fiction speaks, while at the same time not ignoring the darkness. I can recall a friend of mine, when I spoke of my desire to see more female heroes on the big screen, ask me, “Aren’t you a little old to be looking for role models?” Sadly I never managed a satisfactory answer to this question. “This isn’t about role models,” I tried to tell her, but I was wrong. The real answer to her question is No. I’m not too old for role models. Nobody is. We may “come of age,” as it were, only once, but after that we don’t stop changing. Our natures are in constant flux throughout our lives, as we continue to face fresh challenges and discover new facets of ourselves and the world. Why shouldn’t we look to fiction for a little inspiration, even if we’re fortysomething or older? Role models aren’t there to be emulated to the point of imitation. Rather, they offer possibilities of what we as human beings might be and do. Do we really outgrow that?

So, what constitutes a hero? Different definitions exist, but here are a few attributes that, for me, mark a character as heroic.

Heroes are not concerned solely with their own survival. They help and rescue others as well.

Heroes have a keen awareness of right, wrong, and justice. As one of my favorite heroes, Roald Dahl’s Matilda, sings in the musical that bears her name, “When it’s not right, you’ve got to put it right.”

Heroes form relationships. They have friends and loved ones whom they would fight and even die to protect. Even if they’re cynical and broken inside, like Marvel’s Jessica Jones, they can show empathy and kindness.

Heroes accept responsibility, and when they fail, they don’t blame others.

Heroes understand what Spencer Tracy describes in Judgment at Nuremberg as “the value of a single human being.”

On a recent episode of NPR’s podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, in which Suicide Squad was under discussion, Glen Weldon, who “writes about books and comic books for the NPR website,” noted the generally accepted theory that we love anti-heroes because they are “realistic,” and refuted it thus: “We embrace the anti-hero because we lack the courage to embrace the hero.” My applause at these words could have been heard in the next six counties (and deafened my husband while he was driving us- sorry, honey). He summed up in that simple sentence why I never had any interest in that particular DC movie even before the reviews started coming in, and why I’ve been slow to try out fantasy novels termed “grimdark.” He said what I just then realized I’d always been thinking. Embracing the hero is risky, partly because the hero isn’t always (or even often) “cool,” but mostly because heroes, and the aspirational fiction of which they are a part, demand something of us. They reach for our better selves, and at their best they shake us out of the passive apathy we may find so safe. We don’t have to be content with Things As They Are. We can do better. We can be better.

The Problem of “Relating,” Part 5

Step 5: Let female characters be funny.

In my third post in this series, I posited that nobody’s favorite Toy Story character is Bo Peep. I pointed to her passivity (a boring quality by its very nature) as a reason why audiences aren’t likely to get very attached to this character and why she wasn’t missed when she was dropped from the third film. Yet passivity is only part of her problem. Despite voice actress Annie Potts’ best efforts to imbue her with some spark of personality, she’s the only one of the gang of Andy’s toys who has no quotable lines of dialogue — the only one who isn’t funny.

The female character who has to play it straight while the male characters around her have the freedom to cut loose shows up in more than one otherwise great story. In another of my favorite films, The Princess Bride, every character is funny (even those with no more than five lines or so! “Oh, you mean this gate key”) with one conspicuous exception: the heroine, Buttercup. She may get to deliver a few noble romantic speeches, but she never makes us laugh. She’s written, and Robin Wright plays her, as a type rather than a personality. Some girls who saw the movie when it was first released might have wanted to be Buttercup because she wears pretty dresses, but as for me, I wanted to be Inigo Montoya. As much as I adore the movie, I wish its approach to the heroine had followed William Goldman’s source novel, in which Buttercup, while still a passive damsel, is written with some humor and given a few noteworthy personality quirks.

Can any writer populate his or her story with a multitude of funny characters and expect the sole un-funny one to engage our imaginations? And why does that one character comparatively lacking in humor end up being, far too often, a girl or woman?

Part of the problem might actually lie in the rise of the “strong female character” type. It began with the best of intentions. To create heroines capable of overcoming a wide range of obstacles is a worthy goal for any writer. Unfortunately, too many of us end up equating “strong” with “humorless,” so that the characters come across as less engaging despite their manifold butt-kicking abilities. Writers wishing to create “strong female characters” may be squeamish when it comes to giving those characters flaws, and without flaws, a character can’t be funny.

Yet we can, if we know where to look, find examples of fictional girls and women in which “strength” (competence, courage) and humor happily coexist, and these are the girls and women who may be quickest to win an audience’s appreciation. When I look at “favorite characters” lists that do include female names, I notice a lot of those names seem to come from the work of one particular author — Terry Pratchett, the superb British comic fantasist whom I’ve praised here in the past. The dour witch Granny Weatherwax (who, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Captain Holt, has no sense of humor but is screamingly funny precisely because of this lack) and her coven get a good share of love from the list-makers, as do apprentice witch Tiffany Aching and Death’s no-nonsense granddaughter Susan. These women defeat formidable foes and save the day, yet we laugh when we’re in their company. Who among us wouldn’t love a character we can laugh with?

Matters are improving, even in what strikes me as the most conservative of pop culture arenas, the big screen. In comedies we see the token un-funny woman less and less. In Pixar Animation Studios, the bland Smurfette Bo Peep of Toy Story has given way to Joy, Sadness, and Disgust of Inside Out, each of whom is very funny in her own way. The good work Mel Brooks began when he gave Teri Garr and Madeline Kahn their chance to shine in Young Frankenstein has been taken up by Paul Feig, whose Ghostbusters reboot, the source of so much Internet rancor, has been winning hearts of male and female viewers. Then we have TV shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt making the most of their female cast members’ comedic gifts; Kimmy, in particular, is a character almost anyone would love, blessed with a kind heart, prone to mistakes, but unwilling to give up, ever. In graphic novels I’ve found my new favorite superheroine, Doreen Green, the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, who embraces her heroic responsibilities with gusto and enthusiasm and has a boundless capacity for humor. I got to know her thanks to my husband, who erupted into laughter every five minutes as he was reading the first volume and passed it on to me saying, “Honey, you’ve got to read this.” All in all, it’s not a half bad time for fictional women in comedy.

But what about those books, movies, and shows that aren’t comedies? In largely serious works, say, the majority of epic fantasies, protagonists grapple with potentially deadly threats and deal with weighty issues and aren’t called upon to be funny (at least not very often). Yet the stories still need leavening with the occasional smile or laugh, and the responsibility for providing those moments of humor falls to supporting characters. These “comic relief” characters are usually fan favorites whose appearance on the page is greeted with enthusiasm — and they’re still overwhelmingly male, even when gender has no effect on their positions within the stories. The “male is the default” curse strikes again. As writers, we could be a little more aware of it, and try to make a change.

*

Since the thrust of this series has been the need for more female characters that all audiences would identify with and many would name as favorites, I figured a little field research would not go amiss. I asked my guy friends on Facebook to give me the names of female characters they think are cool and a brief explanation of why they’re cool. Here are some of the responses:

Isabelle Dalhausie who solves problems by being as philosophically perfect as she can.

“Harriet Vane. Education and fierce independence.

“Veronica Mars. Calm under pressure and quick w/her mouth.”

“Jessica Pearson, the character played by Gina Torres on the TV show “Suits.” Competent, decisive, loyal and more.”

“Peggy Olson from Mad Men. She figures out how to be a successful career woman on her own terms at a time when it wasn’t fashionable to do so.

“Per my husband… Katniss Everdeen- followed her own instincts, Black Widow – honorable, follows her instincts.

“Nancy Drew. Because she ignores the rules and solves murders.

 

 

The Problem of “Relating,” Part 4

Step 4: Broaden female characters’ sphere of activity.

Two years ago, a discussion thread on Reddit Fantasy raised the question of whether the men in the group would read works by women, and if so, did they notice any difference in style, tone, and/or subject matter from male authored-works. Plenty of posters expressed no problem with female authors or female protagonists, but as I read the responses from those who openly preferred male authors or actively avoided female authors and protagonists, I noticed the same complaint coming up again and again: fantasy by and about women is “too focused on romance.”

More than one issue is at work here. Some posters have suggested that the hostility toward romance is a matter of faulty perception, and point out that romantic plots and subplots appear just as often in books by men as they do in books by women. This may be true, but I wonder where the root of that faulty perception might lie. Some readers who profess hatred for romance can read books by Jim Butcher, Scott Lynch, or Joe Abercrombie and not be bothered by the romantic subplots therein. Do such readers simply expect the worst from a book by a female author? After all, if we don’t think we’ll enjoy a book, we probably won’t.

In previous blog posts I’ve addressed the prejudice against romance and pondered what might be done to rehabilitate its reputation. I’m still convinced that love plots aren’t really the problem; bad love plots are. I acquired a taste for romance early on, partly from growing up watching classic films like It Happened One Night, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, That Hamilton Woman, Random Harvest, and Now Voyager, all of which feature romances in which the characters discover strengths in themselves as a result of their relationships. Even if their endings prove tragic, the lovers in my favorite romantic classic films bring out the best in each other, and I can see clearly why they need each other. This is the kind of romance I love, and the kind I try to write.

Yet I’ve also seen the many ways in which a romantic plot can be botched into eye-rolling unendurability. Too often, particularly in recent fiction and film, such plots seem to have been written on the principle that “love makes you stupid.” Characters become weaker, not stronger, as they fall in love. One, the other, or both lovers involved are such colorless individuals that it’s impossible to fathom what they see in each other. If I’d grown up seeing or reading too many love plots like this, I don’t doubt I would have developed a strong prejudice against romance in general.

We need to look for better and fresher ways to write romance. We need consciously to subvert, or abandon altogether, the genre’s most tired cliches. (The “ordinary girl/ extraordinary guy” trope, particularly when it involves an average high school girl and some type of male supernatural creature, can take a permanent vacation as far as I’m concerned, along with the male hero who is more a paragon of wish-fulfillment perfection than a believable person.) We need to cover the ground with more thoughtful, more credible, and more surprising romantic plots and subplots so that, over time, the hostility toward romance will wear away and both male and female readers will enjoy such stories.

But writing better love plots is only part, and not even the biggest part, of the solution. It won’t alter perceptions if falling in love remains the main thing, or the only thing, that around 80% of female protagonists in fantasy fiction get to do. What’s needed, more than anything else, is a radical expansion of our ideas of what a female protagonist can be and do, and what kinds of stories may be told about her. The possibilities for male leads still range far, far wider than the possibilities for female leads, and writers must work to change this.

Female characters in fantasy fiction tend to fall too often into one of two sharply divided categories. The first is the Damsel whose hopes, plans, and entire being are bound up in her connection with a male character. The second is the Action Girl, the warrior with beaucoup survival and combat skills, whose hopes, plans, and entire being can still end up tied to her connection with a male character or a choice between two suitors. (Suzanne Collins, author of the popular Hunger Games series, apparently had no plans to incorporate a love triangle into her plot, but she was strong-armed into manufacturing one for purposes of sales. That makes me seethe when I think about it, and I wish I could read the series Collins wanted to write.) So, if you’re a woman in fantasy, you can be either the traditional maiden/mother or the non-traditional warrior woman. If your writer is keen to show that female characters’ strength doesn’t have to equate to combat skills, you may get to be a healer (e.g. Sorcha in Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, Snake in Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake), or maybe even a sympathetic mage.

Yet this still leaves a multitude of callings we see all too rarely. Where are the female artisans — blacksmiths, carpenters, weavers, etc.? Where are the female players and circus performers, tricksters and good-hearted rogues? Where are the female teachers, scholars, and librarians? Where are the female engineers and inventors? (We have seen a few more of these lately, thanks to the rise of steampunk, but still more would be welcome.) Where are the female artists, bards, and storytellers? Surely if we broadened the scope of female characters’ activities, we’d find ways to broaden the range of storylines in which they might be central.

One or two or even thirty exceptional stories aren’t going to turn the tide of perception that “female author + female protagonist = all romance, all the time.” We need both quality and quantity — to do better, and more.