This past spring a humble museum in a small Dutch city mounted the largest Hieronymus Bosch exhibition in history. Along with nearly half a million other acolytes, I made the pilgrimage to ‘s-Hertogenbosch, birthplace of the father of monsters. My way was snared with perils (I neglected to book tickets far enough in advance) but Providence cleared my path (the museum extended their hours, so I flew back to the Netherlands), and in the end I was given the keys to a garden of earthly delights (just not a key to the original Garden of Earthly Delights; the Prado won’t loan out Bosch’s most famous triptych, not even for an event of this magnitude). It was quite literally the event of a lifetime.
As humans living in the twenty-first century, I’d like to think we’ve come a long way towards achieving equality between the sexes and rejecting established notions of gender. But is it far enough? After all, we’re still having these debates, highlighting prejudice, challenging ourselves to ‘think outside the box’. If gender equality truly existed, there’d be no need to stage this conversation.
In fiction, men write women and women write men on a regular basis, some more or less successfully. Both genders ought to be able to relate to each other at the very least on an intuitive level without resorting to dangerous and unhealthy stereotypes. But, as Emma Newman recently discussed, there are still male readers who are hesitant to pick up a book authored by a woman, or featuring a female protagonist.
Why is that? Personally, I’ve never had a problem reading a book written from a male perspective; in fact the majority of epic fantasy I read growing up featured male protagonists. Why then are some readers unable or unwilling to relate to women?
Perhaps it suits the English temperament to look around at spring-time - the rebirth and fresh growth of the lush green land, with rough winds shaking the darling buds - and come up with a list of possible unfortunate happenings that might ruin everything. Or perhaps there's good advice lurking somewhere beneath the surface; I leave it you to decide. So here are five superstitions about May, four of which are warnings, and the final one is more in the way of skincare advice:
1. Don't wash blankets.
The belief that you shouldn't wash blankets in May seems to belong to Southern England in particular, and to be fairly new, from the turn of the twentieth century. Why shouldn't you wash blankets? It's all a bit vague really, attracting a range of warnings from the possibility of blanket shrinkage to imminent death. A proverb from the 1920s states:
Wash blankets in May
You'll soon be under clay.
Removing warm layers from the bed before the weather is reliable leads to feeling chilly, which leads to getting a cold, which leads to death. The same thought lies behind the next superstition on the list.
When Breaking the Glass Slipper was asked to identify some of the issues facing female writers in genre, the very first thing that each of us replied was ‘discoverability’.
Why is it that, with the exception of long-established authors, books by women do not seem to be as widely publicised as those authored by men? Our first episode considers ‘best of’ lists, which certainly play a part in discoverability. They also remain the clearest example of inequality. Why, we wondered, do these lists not feature more than the token woman? What material are the makers of such lists drawing from? Where exactly is the problem?
Well, admitting that there is a problem for starters.
Ignorance is as bad as outright sexism when it comes to the struggle facing female writers. Discoverability is a huge issue. Our sales and therefore careers depend on our ability to reach as many readers as possible. When a great swathe of the population is closed off to us, it isn’t only our finances that suffer; it’s genre fiction too. Female voices are desperately needed if SFF is both to flourish and to retain its longstanding distinction as the genre that challenges the status quo.
For the past few days the internet has revelled in the precipitous downfall of Microsoft’s chatbot, Tay. This software-generated teen was hyped by its creators for the intelligent algorithms that would make it progressively smarter, the more it chatted to human beings. Well, Tay certainly became more something – but it wasn’t smart. Within a few days, prompted by persistent needling from Twitter users, the bot began to produce anti-semitic and sexist rants. Then, for good measure, it started extolling the virtues of one Donald J Trump. Familiar stuff from human users of social media, but it was rather striking to see these views expressed by a robot.
A few days later, Tay returned, repatched and instructed to play nicely this time; but in a matter of hours, it had to be taken down yet again, having descended this time into a drug-fuelled meltdown.
Can a superhero ever really stop being a superhero? Can they quit, or retire, or even escape the heavy burden of expectation and difference for a while? That question is maybe the most important one in the entire Extrahuman Union series.
The question of whether a superhero can quit is a complicated one. The reason is that there’s a piece of being a superhero that’s all about what you do, and another piece that’s about what you are.
Those two pieces seem very different at first, but maybe they’re more similar than we think.
When we first meet the character of Broken in the book that bears her name, she’s alone on the street. She’s no longer in the Extrahuman Union, which is less a voluntary organization of superheroes like the Avengers or the Justice League, and more a convenient prison to stash superpowered humans in so they won’t cause any trouble. And she didn’t just leave: she escaped.
In attempting to reach the genuine psychological reason for the popularity of detective stories, it is necessary to rid ourselves of many mere phrases. It is not true, for example, that the populace prefer bad literature to good, and accept detective stories because they are bad literature. The mere absence of artistic subtlety does not make a book popular.
It’s my project to see every film he ever made - and without splurging box-set style, but instead to eke them out across the decades. I go for a new one every few years, as I'm in no rush to deny myself future pleasure. So it should come as no surprise that, a couple of years ago, I was filling in time by reading Todd McCarthy’s excellent biography of the man, Hollywood’s Grey Fox. From it, I learnt that Hawks had been part of Douglas Fairbanks' circle of energetic young men.
So then I searched out a Fairbanks biography, which was pretty remarkable, and then that led me to my first encounter with Frances Marion, named as one of his screenwriters and a close confidant of Mary Pickford.
Naturally, I then happened upon another book in a remainders shop, Joseph P Kennedy’s Hollywood Years, about JFK’s father - a banker, film producer, US ambassador and Nazi sympathiser. It contained an incredible story about Frances Marion and her husband’s ill-treatment at Kennedy’s hands. So I then picked up that author's other biography, this one about Frances Marion. Without Lying Down is so called because Marion spent her whole life looking for a man she “could look up to without lying down”.
I was completely sold on her.
Understand, I did not want anything that followed from that. Like everyone else, I wanted only to be left alone, to get on with things. I was not someone who would push themselves forward. I was happy to stay in the background, to live a simple life, but I couldn't ignore facts.
The editor of this magazine [Ray Bradbury], under the impression that I am still one of that queer tribe known as science-fiction fans, has asked me to write an article. I am no longer a science-fiction fan. I'm through! However, I have decided to do the article and explain with my chin leading just why I am through.