Well, it’s been A Time. A time in which TERFs argued with Terry Pratchett’s daughter about whether he’d have been in favor of trans rights, and with Neil Gaiman about whether…Neil Gaiman was in favor of trans rights, because a talking detached face speaking for the Moon once told a trans woman she wasn’t a woman. (Which, that particular arc is–as Gaiman admits–very Of Its Time, but maybe detached faces are not generally great moral authorities?) A time in which the RWA gave an award to an “inspirational” romance in which the “hero” was a war criminal.
No, another one.
Seriously, I was explaining this to a friend and mentioned that they’d done it before with ex-Nazis, and went to look it up, and was reminded that no, not ex-Nazis, *current* heads of concentration camps and the prisoners thereof.
Bethany House: Wholesome Family Values!
Plus there was some other, fanfic-adjacent Discourse that I missed about to what extent character flaws reflect the writer. Cue the usual jokes about Stephen King actually being an extradimensional clown.
So of course I need to give my opinion.
And my opinion comes down to:
1) It’s not the faults themselves, but how the author treats them.
2) This applies to metatext, too.
To explain the first, I’m going to start with the time I was reading the first book in a fairly popular romance series. There’s a bit of setup in which the hero is brooding because of something military that happened, and then he sees the heroine at a bar. He tries to chat her up. She’s clearly not interested. He thinks it’d be funny if he kept trying, so he does…
…and that’s when I decided that even if I lived a thousand years, life would be too short to keep reading that book.
Because unless the blurb is a fakeout and the next scene is the heroine stabbing the guy because the story is about her life as a much-needed vigilante warrior, that is a) a horrible “hero” and b) clearly an author who thinks public harassment is, if a flaw, a funny/endearing flaw, like Darcy refusing to dance.
And, dear reader: fuck that entire noise.
See, the character flaws that indicate authorial stances are never the big stuff. Despite their fanboys, Durden and Caufield and Bickles and the Joker are intended to be fucked-up assholes, not fonts of modern wisdom, and anyone who doesn’t read the text through incel-colored glasses can see that pretty clearly. Various Emo Skywalker Boys may get more chances for redemption and narrative focus than any white cis dude with parental issues has ever deserved, but the shit they do is portrayed as being pretty damn horrendous. Lucas has his flaws, but I am under no impression that he thinks killing kids or blowing up planets is okay.
The tells are always little. They’re the “funny” flaws, or the “endearing” faults, or the quirks that the characters never face consequences for–or if they do, those consequences are a difficult conversation, at most. The transphobia in Ready Player One. Fucking everything everyone does in Twilight and 50 Shades. Xander. Riley. The sitcoms where guys wig out about almost kissing other guys. Those are the indications.
How does War Crime Inspie fit in? Well, I mentioned redemption above, and I’ve ranted about it a fair bit here and on Twitter, but: Blue Force Ghosts aside, redemption for the Skywalkers meant death. Redemption for other ex-villains has meant walking the land, trying to make things right, giving up titles. Usually, they aren’t the main characters. Almost always, redemption means more than “finding Jesus and Caucasian tits.”
Also? Said ex-villains have notably not committed atrocities against actual groups of people who still face oppression today, which is another big difference.
A lot of discussion in romance lately is about who gets a happy ending–that the recent expansion of the genre gives HEAs (Happily Ever Afters, and I have Some Thoughts on those, but they’re not pertinent here) to people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQA+ people, etc. Great! There is an associated discussion about who doesn’t get them: your serial killers, your rapists, etc, sure, but there’s been considerable controversy over whether, say, people who cheat should get HEAs.
I think it would be difficult to publish a romance novel through Bethany House featuring someone who’d been unfaithful, even if blah blah Jesus blah blah redemption. I very much doubt it would win the inspirational category.
The tell here is that Bethany House, Karen Witemeyer, and a proportion of RWA judges think that war crimes against Native American people are…y’know, on par with cheating at cards and drinking, maybe some backstory premarital sex, definitely better than getting a little strange now and again.
And that says something.
Okay, so: on to metatext!
Back in The Day, The Day being 2018, someone extremely gross wrote basically a romanticized version of the Larry Nassar story (gross) and published it under “taboo romance” on Amazon. People, accordingly, were all “…the fuck? NO,” to which the author very maturely threw a shitfit about censorship and Puritanism and how we were denying the multifaceted nature of love, and also had all of her fans attack people on Goodreads.
All of this is gross.
And yet, at the same time–because Twitter is not just people being awful but thirty-seven distinct yet oddly related people being awful–there are apparently a bunch of people saying that if you write romantic fanfic about bad characters or fanfic about types of relationship that would be horrible in real life, you are a Bad Person and a Corruptive Influence and blah blah blah, and this…is also gross, and bullshit.
Because…sometimes people enjoy characters who they wouldn’t like at all in real life, or relationships that would be horrible push people’s buttons. The reasons don’t matter–you don’t need an excuse for liking what you like. All of us, I’m guessing, have a trope–sexual or not–that we love in fiction but would be fucking awful in reality. I have read both Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain multiple times, and the only way you would get me to spend a single night without indoor plumbing is to threaten my loved ones. Even then I’d have to think about how much I really loved them.
Characters do not necessarily reflect the author. Plots do not necessarily reflect the author.
The distinction, the thing that makes fanfic fine while Jesus Redeems War Criminals and Coach/Underage Gymnast Twu Wuv are vile, is self-awareness.
Your average fanfic writer* knows that just because they like imagining a better version of a villain, or a still-bad-but-sexy one, doesn’t make that canon. Just because a particular type of relationship gets their motor running doesn’t mean that relationship is in the same time zone as healthy or, sometimes, consensual. Thus we get labels like “darkfic” or “underage” or “noncon,” labels that signal the author’s self-awareness as well as informing potential readers.**
(Fanfic also has the thing where you’re working with established pairings and characters. If you want to read about Rupert Giles having het sex, your choices are limited re: women his age–Jenny dies, Olivia’s in two episodes, and Joyce sucks out loud, SORRY NOT SORRY. If you see a dynamic between two characters, eh, that’s a thing. It’s different than sitting down to create a whole new work and deciding that you’ll make one of the main characters fifteen and one thirty.)
A lot of the discussion around Creepy Gymnast Romance was, basically, label your kink, lady. Yes, leaving it unlabeled–or vaguely labeled, q.v. “taboo romance”–means you can post it on Amazon and sell more, but…cutting vodka with antifreeze means you sell more vodka. It’s still a bad move.
Would that have helped with Bethany House’s…masterpieces? Ugh, I don’t think so. “Anyone can be redeemed if they just love Jesus,” may indeed be the fundie version of Omegaverse knotting physics, but it’s a lot harder to sell when you’re talking about atrocities carried out against actual people. Maybe, *maybe* if a Native American or a Jewish author had written the books in question…but they didn’t, and there’s a reason for that.
I dunno. In summary: Your Kink Is Okay, Except, If Your Kink is Nazis, That’s Deeply Unfortunate and I Don’t Know What You Should Do, Except NOT PUBLISH IT AS INSPIRATIONAL ROMANCE.
* Like, not the fans convinced that Villain Dude was actually for serious a woobie and it was a Total Betrayal when he didn’t get to settle down and have Space Babies with the main character, and definitely not the ones who harass people about this. Don’t get me wrong: some fans are shitheels.
**Given certain tendencies among cis het men of a certain age, I am coming to think that we need a “douchebag narrator” label, but that’s beside the point.