What is a Man?

So, fellow fantasy author Paul S. Kemp, published this piece entitled “Why I Write Masculine Stories.”

For those of you who can’t be bothered to read it (but you really should), the gist of it is that Paul writes stories extolling what he considers to be traditional virtues of manhood.  He is fairly unapologetic about writing what he enjoys and a lot of what he enjoys are attributes that he believes positively embodies aspects of masculinity such as adventure, fighting, putting women and children first, what have you.

I’ve spent the better part of the day trying to figure out how I felt about this article.  I think I’ve arrived at a pretty good idea.

I’ll preface this by saying I am, by and large, very fond of Paul.  I read his first book, Hammer and Blade, and enjoyed it.  Paul writes the adventure, action and larger-than-life characters that I came to love from fantasy and he seems to be one of those increasingly rare authors that isn’t obsessed with bastards or worldbuilding and I’m pretty damn pleased he’s unapologetic about that…

…but I can’t get on board with the idea that bravery, a lust for adventure and a desire to protect people are traditionally masculine virtues.

I said I spent a lot of time considering my response to this article and a lot of that time was spent looking inward, reflecting on my own books.

Is The Aeons’ Gate trilogy a masculine series?

You could make the argument that it is.  It features a lot of over-the-top violence, a lot of witty banter, a lot of people in impractical or skimpy clothing (many of them women), a lot of charismatic heroes, a lot of dark pasts, a lot of the things you might come to associate with the kind of adventure stories that embody these traits of manhood.

…and yet.

The characters of The Aeons’ Gate aren’t really…traditionally masculine.  The male characters are frequently depressed, lethargic, paralyzed with self-doubt or consumed by petty, boyish ego (and they, too, often wear impractical or skimpy clothing) and they frequently spend a lot of time crying.  The characters who frequently suck things up and resolve to get things done, pushing past pain, paralysis and doubt are the female characters.  But even they are consumed by introspection, doubt and concern over their relationships.

So is The Aeons’ Gate trilogy a feminine series?

You could make the argument that it is.

And, in fact, many have.

And I guess that, for as much as that’s unintentional, that’s also inevitable.

I suppose we all have fairly clear ideas of what gender is.  Paul has a pretty solid idea of what he thinks a man is, many readers probably agree or disagree based on their own assumptions.  My clear idea of gender is that I clearly think that gender is a pretty unclear subject.

I feel that Paul (and I’m speculating here, I don’t presume to speak for him) probably shares the opinion of a lot of readers out there that masculinity is to femininity what fire is to water: something opposite, diametrically opposed, clashing where they collide.  Man is hard where woman is soft, man is brash where woman is thoughtful, man is stubborn where woman is yielding.

Frankly, I’m not so sure that’s the case.  At least, not from where I stand.

Instead of viewing masculinity and femininity as two lines heading toward each other, I view them as heading roughly in the same direction, with the key distinction lying in how close they touch each other.  On certain subjects, they are miles, nay, leagues apart.  On others, they are so close you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference.  They cross each other frequently, bounce off each other often, blend seamlessly sometimes.  It’s a long, convoluted mess that stretches out into infinity.

And that’s where I write from.

Like I said, I applaud Paul for embracing these virtues and writing very entertaining stories from them.  But I don’t think these are solely male traits.  Bravery, selflessness, a lust for adventure and a thrill of struggle have always been traits of a hero.  It’s just that we used to be in a world where the only heroes in stories were men.

This is no longer the case.

Frankly, it strikes me as weird when there’s no prominent women characters in a fantasy book these days.  I’m not outraged.  I’m not incensed.  I’m just kind of…bored.  I’ve read books that my friends have raved about and picked them up and been struck by the absence of women.  Like I said, it’s not necessarily an offensive omission (to me, that is; plenty of wiser minds than I have far bigger things to say about it), but it’s just not authentic.

Writing reflects reality, or what we see of it.  My reality includes a lot of women doing a lot of stuff.

I’m not presuming to sit in judgment of Paul or the people who agree with him.  I’m not going to lecture them on what I think they’re doing wrong (I think that’s a pretty bad way to teach people).  I’m not going to demand they change one thing or another.  I’m probably not going to stop reading Paul’s books (unless he just goes totally apeshit, which I doubt he will).  I’m content to let this be one of those things in which we are miles apart from each other on.


This is something, I think, that’s good to consider.  Because I think, as geeks continue to change the world and “nerd” becomes less of a dirty word, as fantasy books are read more and more widely, that the realities of many people will start to include many other people.

Nothing, after all, is more impermanent, liquid or false than what we know is certain.

6 Responses to “What is a Man?”

  1. NobleEnd

    I think you accurately describe the sense of disagreement I had with the article when I read it. I understand the ideas he laid out in piece (and I’ve never read his books), but I think the split he describes or, at least, implies between women and men is something of a false one. When He describes masculinity as certain things, he sets up a situation in which femininity is not those things. That means that men and women who don’t fit into those roles are considered to be lesser or not “real” men or women.

    This means that those who don’t fit in are left to struggle with their identity in relation to the values and ideas prioritized according to their assigned roles. The situation described here happens all the time in real life and I’m sure many of us have been subject to it at one time or another.

    Life, in general, is much more complicated than one or the other.

    If this is rambling, I apologize. It’s rather late and I have a knack for saying things with an utter lack of elegance and clarity.

  2. Kameron Hurley

    I wrote my Nyx books because I wanted to write about a female Conan. I loved the Conan books, but hated the sexism and racism. So I wrote a Conan who grew up identifying as a woman who presents what our culture considers an unnatural degree of masculine traits – for a woman. I’ll note that if she was a dude, her monstrous masculinity prob’ly would be less off-putting to some folks.

    I agree that everyone has masculine and feminine traits, to different degrees. A lot of damage is done when people try and align gendered traits rigidly with the physical sex people present as at birth. All sorts of problems. If it was really that “natural” then we wouldn’t work so hard to get people to conform to them. We wouldn’t have such violent reactions against LGBQT folks presenting as LGBQT folks.

    I’m fine with people writing what they want; it’s just weird to think that only male-identified people (or people born with male parts, from the sound of Kemp’s essay – would he ever write about a male-identified character who was called female at birth?) are somehow the only people who can have these kinds of stories. And the only people who populate books. I’m often left to wonder, when I read books where 90% of the cast is male “How do these people reproduce?” But hey – to each their own. He’ll write his and I’ll keep writing my women Conan stories.

    I think my only eye-rolling moment in Kemp’s essay was the “I’m not sexist!” paragraph where he lists he liberal traits. I’m pretty liberal too – it doesn’t mean I don’t have sexist and racist knee-jerk views that I constantly have to be aware of while I’m writing. And I do think the “masculine valor is the only valor” view is a little troubling, for all the reasons sketched above, and more I have yet to flog. Anyway, Kemp seems like a well-intentioned dude. Post was just maybe a bit short-sighted. Would be interested to see him take some time to really research and think about this.

    Anyway. I suspect I’m going to have to do a post in response to that one as well (in my spare time!).

  3. Vic

    It’s not about traditional gender roles. In the largest sense, it’s just about Jedi.

  4. Lisa Maxwell

    This is about the best description of the border between/within gender that I’ve ever read.

  5. IvoryDoom

    I think I pretty much have the same views. It’s not so much about who has what genitalia as the merit of the persons ability.
    That’s not to say their isn’t sexism, just that I don’t see the sense in applying a gender standard personally.
    People are just people. They do things, they like things, they react to things, the more this comes out in the open the more convoluted the idea that something applies better to one side than the other becomes increasingly grey.
    Do I think women and men are less likely to commit certain actions, sure, am I horribly surprised when one side or the other doesn’t fit that mold…well, not really. If anything is true, I find every person has a fairly singular life and they just do what they have too to keep living it.

  6. Jon R.

    Kemp Doesn’t make any implications in his article about femininine virtues, nor does he imply that masculine and feminine virtues have no overlap. In that sense the major objections both in this post and the comments thus far are objections against a straw man logical fallacy.

    The other point I thought might have been presumptive is to say Kemp’s idea is that men traditionally display virtus, but my take was Kemp was saying it is good for men to attempt to display virtus. It speaks less to inborn behavior than to a moral code, something to harness behavior.

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