Friday, April 4, 2014

Responding to Author Comments on our Review of Masks by Karen Chance

We have received an email from the author about our review of Masks by Karen Chance.

We don’t usually publish emails we receive but this email indicated that she tried to comment but could not, presumably due to Intense Debate (we’re not sure why the comments tool isn’t working for all our readers - if anyone else has any problems can you let us know). In addition, we will not edit our review to add the email as suggested, because we don’t agree with the points raised but also because, even if we did, amending our reviews after the fact because an author emailed us is really not something we, or (we think) any review blog should actually be doing. In both cases, however, we feel there’s a clear wish to make these views known publicly on Fangs.

We also feel that the comments made are more generally applicable to comments we have received about a number of reviews and would benefit from being addressed in general

The email in question:

Hey guys, I appreciate the review for Masks. But I had a few comments I wanted to make on it. Unfortunately, the website isn't allowing me to do so. I am therefore sending them in , in the hopes that you will amend them to the review. They're below. Thank you I appreciate you reading the book and doing the review, but I would like to briefly point out a few things.

1) The book is not "erased". There are four major players who are non-white: the consul (Egyptian), the senator (mixed race), Hassani (Iranian) and Marte (Egyptian). On the subject of Marte, Mircea describes her early on as having dark, curly hair and eyes, but doesn't mention her skin tone. But then, why would he have? They are in Venice. Olive skin is normal there. He took her for an Italian at first, because that was how she was presenting herself. There are also many other people from all over the world mentioned in the book: a gondolier is African, the consul and senator are Egyptian (or partly so, in her case), Hassani is Iranian, a hat seller is Spanish, Bezio is Sicilian, Martina is Greek, etc. It was a multifaceted, multicultural bunch that, I think, fairly represented the Venice of its day.

2) LGBT issues weren't mentioned because there was a rash of homophobic hysteria sweeping Italy at the time. I wrote about this on my blog (, specifically in the entry Inspirations VI if you want to read more. But basically, being an out person in Venice of the day was illegal and homosexual people were subject to death--by burning--if caught. I have LGBT characters (including Mircea's brother Radu) in my Dorina Basarab series, but it would not have made sense here. Any LGBT people in Venice at the time would have been keeping very, very quiet about it.

3) Class issues: Can I point out that a person being born poor doesn't make them a good person, any more than it makes them a bad one? There were characters born into poverty who ended up on the "good" side, and other who did not. Just as in life. The book was about the hand we are dealt in life being important, but not all important. We still have to play that hand, and we still make some crucial decisions for ourselves. The characters made their decisions, some good, some not so good. And their fates depended on that every bit as much, if not more, than on the class they started out in.

1) On the Racial Erasure

We have spoken before on the problem of Invisible Inclusion. Unless a character is depicted as otherwise in fiction, they will be read as the most privileged body. Even when they are described otherwise this is often a problem, as we can see from many corners of fandom being shocked when Rue was depicted as Black in the Hunger Games film and when an Asian actor was cast to play Magnus Bane in The Mortal Instruments.

Relying on the readers’ assumptions that a character would be a People Of Colour (POC) is, therefore, highly fraught. We are trying to avoid spoilers here so we will talk around one of the characters in question: the Consul is a person from history - and they do have a POC ancestor. But holding that to be sufficient to make them a POC raises a very dubious and highly prejudicial “one drop rule” argument.

And even if they were - this would require the readers to be aware of the fact to read her as a POC. And ignore that fact that she has been depicted in fiction on numerous occasions - as white. Fictional portrayals of this character - and, indeed, numerous historical POC - are repeatedly depicted as white. Fictional whitewashing was prevalent and even the norm; history is no guarantee of a POC portrayal in fiction.

It is always dubious to assume that an audience will read a character as POC when it has not been expressly stated (especially if descriptors are, at best, ambiguous - like dark, curly hair and brown eyes); time and again we have seen that to expect that from a western audience is simply unrealistic and highly disconnected from societal attitudes. If you describe a character as having brown hair and brown eyes with no further description they will be read as white.

To further stretch this and assume that readers should read a character as a POC because of (a very questionable reading of) history, despite how that character has repeatedly been depicted in fiction without any other markers is to stretch this to breaking.

In my review I used the words “largely erased” to describe Masks. This doesn’t mean that there were no POC in the novel but that they didn’t play any significant roles in the story. A minor character of colour, even when they fit into a privileged role in the story does not mean good inclusion. It simply means they have been promoted to obscurity. These characters don’t drive the plot because the book could clearly exist without them; such is the case with Hassani. To the suggests a group of Europeans constitutes diversity is to completely ignore that diversity means more that multiple Eurocentric ethnicities occupying the same geography.

Good inclusion involves fully fleshed out characters of colour with important storylines. They don’t act as sidekicks and they most certainly are not passing characters like a gondolier. Running afterwards and counting POC without considering them within the context of the story itself is problematic.

2) On LGBT Erasure

We are very aware of the state of anti-LGBT persecution in Venice at this time. Indeed, we’re very aware of the state of anti-LGBT persecution across much of the world for most of history - including today and we’re certainly aware -painfully - of how this creates the closet that LGBT people have had to live in

But, despite vicious, murderous persecution that has covered much of history and continues today, LGBT people exist and always have. LGBT people have built their own cultures, subcultures and pursued their activism and battles throughout history.

Using historical homophobia as an excuse to remove LGBT people entirely from modern creations just further increases the impact of that homophobia. It’s already been used to try and remove our history, now it’s being used to expunge us from fiction as well? It further does not make sense given that Chance has given her vampires a unique culture, separate of that from humans. Why would they hold human prejudices? Why is an author giving them human prejudices - why is that necessary? Are we really to believe that these ancient beings would hold such biases? Please keep in mind we are talking about Ancient Romans, Greeks and Africans?

Sadly, most of the books we read, including several we have given 5 Fangs to, have completely erased LGBT people from their pages. This book is one among many and a criticism we will level every time until there reaches a point when LGBT erasure (or any minority erasure) is not the norm. Because, until it isn’t the norm, each new book that is erased adds to the problem and the invisibility of LGBT people in fiction.

This is an ongoing problem - and like most inclusion problems there is always an excuse presented why LGBT should not exist here; but we have existed everywhere, in all times, in all places. We have always existed, always formed our communities and always fought - we have never disappeared - no matter what bigotry we faced.

We also fail to see the relevance of LGBT characters in another book to a review of this book.

3) On the Depiction of Class

In the actual review I praised the Chance’s depiction of class.  Not all poor people have to be good people; however, their actions need to be put into context.  

I do not object to the poor character in question being evil. I object to their actions - and them - being dismissed as evil without any real consideration of their motivations or pressure. A highly entitled, upper class character quite literally killed this poor character - murdered them. And they murdered them because their social status was so low they were considered completely valueless and disposable. The murdered character then sought their revenge against their murderer - the method chosen did involve killing an uninvolved third party - which is certainly not laudable - but nor is it considered particularly worthy of condemnation in the vampire society the author has created. Any fair judgement of this character’s actions must include the acknowledgement of the classist abuse they received at the hands of one of the most privileged members of their society when they themselves were at the very bottom of the ladder.

This disparity of position continues throughout the book - for centuries - leaving the poor character with no reasonable recourse through more “standard” avenues of justice.

The sad thing is that our review was a positive one - and, in particular praises the depiction and analysis of class in this book very highly:

the discussions of class and in particular the impossibility of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is quite compelling. The way that Chance broke down the politics in the vampire world and juxtaposed it to that of the human world was similarly compelling.  When powerful factions war, it's the poor who pay and Chance made this point beautifully.

While the review certainly criticised the depiction of Marta, it was largely positive of how class was presented.

In fact, the whole review is a 4 Fangs review - a positive review which translates to:

A great book,a good read to make time for and one that will hook me into any series. Enjoyed it immensely and did a little happy dance for it.Would definitely recommend it

Yes the review has criticisms - but so does just about every review we’ve written. Nothing is perfect and, as social justice writers on a social justice review blog, we always point out flaws we find in the books we read especially in relation to marginalised characters and issues. That doesn’t mean we hate a book - it doesn’t even mean we don’t love the book (and at 4 Fangs, that’s a loved book), it means the book is not flawless and those flaws are sadly reflected in issues that don’t just affect this book but afflict the whole genre. Issues that will not go away if we do not continue to address them.