Naomi Novik AMA Controversy

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Event
Event: Naomi Novik's AMA thread in /r/fantasy
Participants:
Date(s): October 2016
Type: fanfic, profic, fans turned pro
Fandom: Temeraire
URL: on Reddit; WebCite
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On October 2016, Naomi Novik hosted an AMA on Reddit in /r/fantasy. It was titled: "Hello /r/Fantasy! I'm Naomi Novik, ask me anything."

The post had 201 comments and questions regarding Novik's books, writing, and video games.

One of the comments posted by a fan named by annicron referenced Novik's fannish activities. It expanded into a large thread and received significant attention:

Hi Naomi! Considering 84% of your 453 fanfics up on Ao3 are about gay relationships, and 79% of those gay fanfics are porn, is there any reason why you've failed to include any on-screen gay romance in your 10 published books? Your books include only two gay characters, one a secondary character and one who's little more than a name. Their relationship is never explored, yet countless straight romances get plenty of focus, and even explicit sex scenes. There seems to be a discrepancy between the content you put online, where it is relatively hidden, and the content you publish with your name on it. Even though you enjoy writing gay porn for your own enjoyment, you seem to be unwilling to do much for representation where it actually matters. Any reason for that?[1]

Novik's response:

FWIW, there is no reason why there is no gay sex or romance scene in my pro novels in the sense of my having made a deliberate decision not to write one. I do love shipping and I love slash, and I make a conscious effort in my pro work to try and give fans of different ships material to work with, not in a kind of “ha ha I’ll keep people guessing what I’m going to do!” way but in the way that I want material to imagine with myself; I want to leave the doors open. And I do also love Tharkay and the Laurence/Tharkay ship, and I’m sorry that League of Dragons disappointed you and other fans by not making that ship explicitly romantic or sexual. My own primary ship is actually the nonsexual Laurence/Temeraire, which I love for the same reason I love Laurence/Tharkay and many of my slash pairings: because I crave as a reader and am always trying to create as a writer ‘the marriage of true minds’—a relationship of equals, where both sides get to be protagonists (or antagonists) with independent needs and stories that they make a choice to dovetail either for a moment or for a longer time. But for that same reason, I also love Jane and her relationship with Laurence. We don’t get nearly equal amounts of women as true protagonists (or antagonists) in the media that tends to inspire my fanfic. In my pro work, I want to create women characters who are independent protagonists, and relationships where the woman is allowed to get laid and to love (and to have an orgasm!), and also to continue to place equal value on her own work and her own life. That’s important to me both personally and now as the mother of a daughter. Even so, though, the explicit Laurence/Jane scene in League of Dragons was also not a conscious decision that I made in advance. When I got to that point in the story, it felt right to me in that moment, the way it didn’t feel right to me at any prior point in the books where they hooked up. If I were going to analyze it in retrospect, I’d say that’s because in League, that scene represented an emotional climax for Laurence, part of the resolution of the giant treason arc, and not just a sexual climax. Those “double impact” moments are the sex/romance scenes that I’m generally interested in writing.

That kind of moment where multiple arcs land a beat at the same time is something that I am always trying to hit. But it takes a lot more work for me to reach that kind of double climax point in my pro work than in my fanfic. I think that’s because when I’m writing fanfic, I often sit down with all of canon behind me and start writing with that point in my sights, writing directly towards it. Which is also why my fanfic is so much shorter. In my pro work, I’m more often writing out the world and the plot and finding my way, and while I’m always on the alert when I feel like one of those moments is drifting into my reach, I don’t often have them planned out far in advance. And that’s why I have so many fewer explicit sex scenes in the published novels than in my fanfic—I think there’s only the two, actually.[2]

Criticisms of Novik's response

While Novik received some support for this answer, many pointed out that her response failed to properly address annicron's comment, while others pointed out her failure to acknowledge queer women when defending the heterosexual nature of her stories with "female orgasms."

This is not about Laurence/Tharkay. There is a whole nother discussion about queerbaiting regarding Laurence/Tharkay, but this is not the point I was bringing up here? It's very dismissive of you to reduce my investment in this matter to shipping, as if I'm only upset because my ship wasn't made canon? If Laurence/Tharkay had been made canon, I would still be here, complaining about the complete lack of even mentions of lesbian characters. And none of this explains why you've failed to include any significant queer romance in your books? I did not ask for gay sex scenes(in fact I was disappointed by there being a sex scene in LoD, I felt it was tonally completely out of place and inconsistent with the rest of the series. I would have felt the same if it had been a gay sex scene.), I did not ask for justification for your straight sex scenes. My point in bringing up your fanfic history, is that a straight (presumably? correct me if I'm wrong) woman writing overwhelming amounts of gay porn yet consistently failing to make significant contributions to representation in her published work smacks of fetishizing. I would love to be proven wrong in the future, but this is the impression I am left with now.

The reason why I am so upset is that knowing you to be a prolific gay fanfic writer, I felt reasonable in expecting some form of gay romance in your books. I thought, if anyone is gonna do this, surely it will be Novik? Foolish, perhaps, but I am sure you can see how you yourself have contributed to people developing such expectations, and how knowing your background can make the disappointment so much more bitter.[3]

This is actually unfortunately really common among straight feminists lately. They think that m/f relationships are sooooo important because women don't get enough screentime. Gay relationships are oppressive because they detract from the Awesome Ladies! ...because these people always forget that LGBT women exist too. When they do remember we exist, they act like we should be grateful for these m/f scraps. I personally prefer m/m to m/f; I just can't relate to m/f at all, while I can relate to same-gender relationships of any stripe. Gay and bi men are my brothers. Straight women are strangers to me.[4]

The outright homophobia in some of these responses is incredibly frustrating. And also incredibly predictable.

Another clear example of the cognitive dissonance folks develop in sf/f circles. You can build a whole world around dragons and magic and whatever impossible aspect the writer wants to dream into existence, but no gays or bi folks, no lesbian or trans folks. That’s where the world building stops. That’s where “but it’s not realistic sweaty!” comes out to play.

You make your fan career on m/m fic, and you give the weakest, pass the buck, het is revolutionary response?

Nah.[5]

“i didn’t /mean/ not to write gay characters, i just like to make characters dance around each other without ever committing to gayness so the readers have more ships to play with, and when i write my own fiction, it’s just so much harder to direct the characters and figure out the plot, i just do what comes naturally, and since i want to have female protagonists, the romances just happen to be straight, which is also why i have so many fewer sex scenes, becuz if i spin out enough paragraphs, hopefully you won’t notice that i didn’t technically address your question”

#in case other ppl dont wanna scroll all the way down like i did #i was actually interested when i saw that she responded #very underwhelming #five frickin paragraphs to say virtually nothing #and she ended by completely removing the issue of gayness #(if women's orgasms are so important why not make the characters lesbian??? #the world may never know---but i mean #we know) #ugh[6]

#the funniest fucking thing about this is her reply #like i expected it but it’s still incredible #like how do you genuinely defend yourself to accusations of homophobia with ‘well i just want women to have sex and romance’#lesbians don’t count as gay then???? good to know #everyone who pushes heterosexuality as progressive bc ~feminism~ is honestly the same

TELL ME ABOUT IT! like “I want to create women characters who are independent protagonists, and relationships where the woman is allowed to get laid with a man and to love a man (and to have an orgasm with a man!)” like hon I got some bad news for you about your super revolutionary m/f stories and their striking resemblance to literally all of media ever [7]

Oh look, more of the same “het is better than LGBT pairings because female representation” bullshit I’ve seen from many a straight slasher before. There’s an entire massive publishing genre dedicated to straight women getting to have orgasms, guys. It’s called romance and I read it regularly. Why do y'all always act like it doesn’t exist? Also, m/m and f/f relationships in fantasy have almost zero representation even when compared to the smaller-than-it-should-be amount female characters in general get, strong female characters and female representation doesn’t require boning the hero and in fact “the most significant female character is the hero’s love interest” is a persistent problem with female representation in fiction, and the fact that you ship Laurence/Temeraire and thus couldn’t let Tharkay have a happy ending with him shouldn’t have stopped you from at least giving Granby a substantial romantic subplot. NOTHING WAS STOPPING YOU ExCEPT FOR THE FACT THAT YOU APPARENTLY ONLY CARE ABOUT GAY RELATIONSHIPS WHEN IT’S ONE OF YOUR OTPS AND ANY POTENTIAL M/M RELATIONSHIP IN THIS SERIES THAT DIDN’T INVOLVE A TALKING DRAGON WASN’T ONE OF THEM. It’s funny, but prior to this I wasn’t so much resentful or angry as I was disappointed in a “ more in sorrow than in anger” kind of way, as I am with all slashers gone pro who write all gen/het or with fanfic writers gone pro who turns their backs on fandom, but now I kind of want to spit in her smug straight face, and ditto for the thread full of yes-men defending her.

Also, Laurence /Temraire is basically the exact opposite of a relationship of equals because Temeraire is so childlike and also basically raised by Laurence in a parental fashion. I know she based the idea for the characters on an Aubrey/Maturin AU, but Temeraire is more like a cross between Flavia de Luce, Lilo from Lilo and Stitch, and Toothless than he is like Stephen Maturin.[8]

Criticisms of the original question

Some did come to Novik's defense and pointed out that annicron's comment may have been too aggressive. Others also pointed out that creative content is not an obligatory space for a particular sort of content. Many also tried to argue about realism in science fiction, or the market for LGBT books being difficult to sell.

I'm a queer reader of sf/f who actively seeks out queer authors/subjects. I also loved the Tem novels and agree it would have been nice to have more queer representation. That said, while I feel like this is a discussion worth having, this question is aggressive and sets Naomi up to lose no matter how she answers it. I'm not surprised if she hasn't responded to your questions before if they're all framed like this tbh. I'd love to see a decent discussion of this without descending into "let's drag the pro author tee hee" childishness.[9]

But why open up so negatively? Sure, she'll be aware that people are unhappy... though it'd probably be more productive to have are more open and welcoming conversation. No one wants to have a conversation where it's obvious they can't give a "correct" answer. You expect her, in a way, to respect your feelings and wants out of her work, but you don't feel the need to be "gentle" (I would call it respectful) with hers? A simple "I've noticed a good majority of your personal fanfic includes gay relationships and romance, but I don't see as much in your published works. Are you considering the possibility of increasing the representation of non-hetero relationships in your future books? I enjoyed those aspects in your fanfics, and it would be great to have better representation in the books you send out to be published." I don't get the hostility towards her specifically when there are far worse authors out there, representation wise. It's better to try to have an open conversation than to instantly go on the offense in a discussion. Honestly, I support the idea of your question. And it's a question I'd like to have seen her answer. I just think you went about it wrong. Obviously your question, so it's your choice. You would have just had a better chance of getting an answer with a less critical take. Good luck![10]

Shouldn't artists be allowed to create the art they see fit and not be beholden to some outside criteria or a checklist? Just because Novik writes gay romance elsewhere doesn't mean she has to include it everywhere. There absolutely needs to be more queer romance in genre (all) fiction but I think that's an issue with the publishers not investing in those stories and not the fault of the artists who simply don't produce them. I understand wanting a favourite author to include your own personal interests/beliefs/opinions/whatever in their work but I also believe that the artist should only be responsible to themselves not the whims of fans.[11]

...So tired of conversations about art turning into a sounding board for gender / sexuality politics because some group somewhere feels triggered for not being included. People can't demand avatars for literally every single societal class in every book and if they did get that, it wouldn't be literature. It would be an extended educational pamphlet soaked in agenda, written out of fear and devoid of all humanity. Let's stop trying to sterilise art by being professional victims and just critique work purely on the strength of its artistry.[12]

I don't know Naomi's target audience (or her books) but I'd assume its more challenging to publish books with homosexual relationships than heterosexual ones. Unfortunately homosexuality isn't as commonly accepted as it should be and might negatively impact her economic success. So there is a strong chance that she would like to publish this work but hasn't been able to (due to an agent, editor, publisher, or someone else telling her not to). However as you've stated she has created a lot of content around this topic. I believe it's more important to be grateful that she has created this content for you to enjoy instead of getting upset about what she hasn't done. In the end there are a lot of peoples in this world with different backgrounds and it's not possible to appease all of them the way they'd like. Plus I'm sure you are aware that Homosexuality is a hot topic (should it be: no; will it be in a couple generations: unlikely; however today it is a hot topic.). Therefore it's unreasonable to expect an author who's livelihood is determined by people choosing her to take a public stance on a hot topic. Edit: Thought it was important to bring up just being a female author (as this subreddit has brought up many times) can present barriers to getting into the market. I'd imagine adding more barriers to getting a larger fan base could be unwise.[13]

No defending comments acknowledge the erasure of queer women in Novik's response.

Novik has not publicly addressed the issue or criticisms any further.

References

  1. Comment by annicron on Reddit (Accessed 26 September 2017)
  2. Comment by naominovik on Reddit (Accessed 26 September 2017)
  3. Reply by annicron on Reddit (Accessed 26 September 2017)
  4. Comment by galpalling_igss on Reddit (Accessed 26 September 2017)
  5. Comment on reblog by llanval on Tumblr (Accessed 26 September 2017)
  6. Comment and tags on reblog by queerical on Tumblr (Accessed 26 September 2017)
  7. Comment on reblog by poolfullofswords on Tumblr (Accessed 26 September 2017)
  8. Comment on reblog by elspethdixon on Tumblr (Accessed 26 September 2017)
  9. Comment by perscitia on Reddit (Accessed 26 September 2017)
  10. Comment by Loverien on Reddit (Accessed 26 September 2017)
  11. Comment by JimmyJames42 on Reddit (Accessed 26 September 2017)
  12. Comment by deleted account on Reddit (Accessed 26 September 2017)
  13. Comment by neillarson on Reddit (Accessed 26 September 2017)