Octavia Butler and the Heterosexual Romance Conundrum

Over at Interfictions, Kaguro Macharia examines Octavia E. Butler in relation to the romance genre. It’s a somewhat unlikely lens, but on closer look it’s also one that’s eminently sensible.

It also goes some way to unpack the aspects of Butler that I’ve found deeply creepy, and which I rarely see discussed critically or at all.

Caveat, first, that it’s been ages since I read any Butler – she’s not part of my personal canon (few Americans are) and I don’t share the communal veneration of her work that’s so intrinsic to a certain kind of SFF ‘feminism’. What I remember of Butler is that in the Lilith’s Brood books there were issues of consent and gender essentialism, that in Fledgling there’s a child vampire (she looks about ten, is in actuality over fifty – yeah, it’s that trope) who keeps a pedophile as part of her ‘harem’ and has intimate relations with adults, and that in Wild Seed there are two immortals. One male (dominant, conquering, a rapist) and one female (nurturing, communal-minded, and raped). Throughout the book, the male immortal Doro instigates an eugenics breeding program to cultivate what amounts to a master race of psychic superhumans; the female immortal, Anyanwu, is forced into this program and consistently raped so she can give birth to psychically powerful offspring.

At the end, she tries to commit suicide to escape Doro, who realizes that he can’t exist without her and begs her to stop the dying process. She does and they reconcile.

I also discovered that – well, according to people who knew her personally anyway – Butler wasn’t queer, not that it’s relevant but for some reason that was a thing people speculated about. SFF, eh. But if she had relationships exclusively with men, it’s somewhat understandable that – as a feminist whose writing posits men as violent agents of oppression – it left her work conflicted. Some of the men in her work that I have read are brutal, domineering, absolutely dangerous; at the same time those men crave the affection of the very women they abuse, and in the end they are offered some level of rehabilitation through women’s love: Rufus Weylin, Doro, the pedophile who’s mentally enslaved by the child vampire Shori. These men are rendered, to some extent, safe by their emotional dependency on the women.

It’s a very common trajectory, of course, in genre romance.

Later I would come to see the romance as a symptom of the ongoing instability of the heterosexual solution to the oedipal dilemma, that is, as a ritual effort to convince its readers that heterosexuality is both inevitable and natural and that it is necessarily satisfying as well. (Reading the Romance 14).

But what Butler does shies away from that: while some of her women are in good relationships with decently safe men (Lilith in Xenogenesis, Dana in Kindred), the romance isn’t exactly comfortable. Heterosexuality is inevitable as a survival tool, with love and affection as side-benefits rather than the center. In Butler, heterosexual marriage is a compromise – whether it’s between just humans, or whether it’s in accepting aliens as sex/breeding partners as in Lilith’s Brood.

Macharia asserts, five times, that Butler’s work is unsentimental.

Unsurprisingly, Wilder does not mention Alanna’s race and background: that she is biracial and orphaned, understood as an interloper in the Missionary community. Instead, Wilder wants a more flattering depiction of the race-segregated, fundamentalist Missionaries. Butler, to repeat again, is unsentimental. She rarely, if ever, offers flattering depictions of unhumanizing situations. (Keguro.)

Genre romance meantime prizes sentiment above all – not survival, not emancipation, but sentiment. Love is the all, the goal for which the partners must sacrifice to obtain, an ending as inevitable as it is satisfying: it is a pleasure to marry. Survivor in contrast, or at least as discussed by Macharia, posits the heterosexual relationship as the lesser of two evils – the alien man may abduct and rape Alanna, but he treats her as more human than the Missionaries (who views her mixed race as a sign of the subhuman) and gives her escape from the fundamentalist, white supremacist society. Escape from white supremacist oppression is the fantasy: heterosexual relationship is a means to that end.

The mainstream romance novel remains race-segregated. While a few new imprints focus on minority women and, increasingly, African companies such as Storymoja and Cassava Republic are publishing non-Western romances, mainstream romances, those cheaply available in supermarket aisles, remain white and heteronormative. Alanna Verrick remains an impossible figure within contemporary, mainstream romance.

Contemporary, mainstream romance continues to animate many women’s fantasies not only of a good life, but of the only possible life worth having. Increasingly anxiety-ridden, contemporary romance features “epilogues” set years into the future after the inevitable marriage, reassuring its readers that romance overcomes divorce statistics. The range of desirable partnerships has expanded—more romances feature “ordinary” women, not simply conventionally attractive women, even though those continue to dominate. The message: romance is available to you and you and you and you. And, perhaps in what might be the most democratizing gesture yet, contemporary romance allows for middle class fantasies, extending beyond plots focused on millionaires and billionaires. Romance no longer requires extraordinary wealth. Romance has become ordinary, within one’s grasp. It can happen in ordinary worlds. Even as it remains bound by fantasy. Here, I must leave incomplete the story told by sales numbers of romance and borrowing patterns at libraries—though I gesture to it. (Keguro.)

Yesterday, I asked readers and writers whether they consider unhumanizing situations to be necessary to the pursuit of the unsentimental fiction.

I prefer unsentimental fiction, unapologetically. I’m not even anywhere close to the ideal romance reader precisely because of that – but I’m also not the ideal reader for much of SFF, a genre that very often prioritizes sentimentality, whether it is in the white savior fantasy or the ‘nerd triumph’ of Ernest Cline’s Armada:

In one revealing moment, Zack calls his mom in midst of the alien invasion and says the words that burn in the heart of every gamer who has ever felt demeaned for the hours they lavish on their favorite hobby: “All those years I spent playing videogames weren’t wasted after all, eh?” (Laura Hudson.)

I find it cloying, even slightly repulsive, when something sets out to pander: whether by playing on the sensibilities of the misunderstood bullied-in-school nerd or offering up any other wish fulfillment. Star Wars is sentimental. Harry Potter is sentimental. All the various media that insist on the maintenance of the status quo, of institutional power, of restoring things to the nostalgic ideal (say, by restoring the rightful king to the throne). Romance or science fiction or fantasy, it’s all about sentiment. Even grimdark media (I don’t consider Butler to be grimdark, by which I mean a sort of facile edginess) is sentimental in its pandering, in who it panders to, and in its very unremarkable – even predictable – reinforcement of normative culture. It’s not about survival, not about humanity, not about anything real save an adolescent need for attention, an adolescent need to seem adult by throwing in a lot of violence and rape and all that.

Taken altogether then, I can understand why the creepy aspects of Butler’s writing are not so much criticized. Even I don’t think they are necessarily her endorsement of – you know – rape or pedophilia or forgiving a rapist because he cries. Rather, they are uncomfortable portrayals of uncomfortable acts and situations.

Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming is a brutal, unsentimental book. It shows dehumanizing situations, but it doesn’t lean on them to deliver shock value as such – the alt-history life of Hitler the private detective is dirty, grimy, violent. But it’s also a Jewish writer’s break, his escape into the fantasy of a world where Hitler has no power and is instead the recipient of relentless, even gleeful brutality. It’s, well, a kind of savage humor that revels in the table being turned, the genocidal dictator being made to assume the identity he most despises. And not incidentally being brutalized by Jewish people a lot. That’s the entire point, the political layering and framing, that makes the graphic depictions of Hitler’s indignities a statement rather than merely grimdark.

(Shomer probably dies in Auschwitz, in any case.)

There are violently murdered women in A Man Lies Dreaming, and there’s sexual threat – indeed, an entire cellar of women abducted and trafficked as sex slaves. Hitler himself also gets subjected to thorough sexual brutalization, for a change making a man the subject of that rather than just women. It’s uncomfortable. It’s meant to discomfit.

She had the face of an intelligent Jewess.

She came into my office and stood in the doorway though there was nothing hesitant about the way she stood. She gave you the impression she had never hesitated a moment in her life. She had long black hair and long pale legs and she wore a summer dress despite the cold and a fur coat over the dress. She carried a purse. It was hand-threaded with beads that formed into the image of a mockingbird. It was French, and expensive. Her gaze passed over the office, taking in the small dirty window that no one ever cleaned, the old pine hatstand
on which the varnish was badly chipping, the watercolour on the wall and the single bookshelf and the desk with the
typewriter on it. There wasn’t much else to look at. Then her gaze settled on me.

Her eyes were grey. She said, ‘You are Herr Wolf, the detective?’ (Tidhar, A Man Lies Dreaming.)

In a romance novel, the alt-history Hitler – defanged and impoverished, but ruggedly manly – would have been redeemed by a Jewish woman’s love. This encounter would have gone differently. The ‘intelligent Jewess’ wouldn’t have thrown money at Wolf/Hitler and called him a whore.

Sentimental fiction hinges on the goodness of the individual triumphing (the right king on the throne, say, or the kind man who marries the romance heroine); unsentimental fiction acknowledges that the problem is in the system – that even the nicest man in the world remains an enforcer of patriarchy, the nicest white person an enforcer of racist imperialism. Systems can’t be redeemed.

Which, to circle back to the start, is maybe the heart of Butler’s fiction – the problematic warts and all. And, also, why I don’t much care ultimately for romance.