Thursday thoughts

September 9, 2010

I’ve had something on my mind lately, and it seems like I’m not the only one. It’s the notion that the creative work of women, particularly when that work is created for women, is critically undervalued. I’m also wondering if that’s an overreaction on my part, so I thought I’d throw out some relevant links and try and open the topic up for further discussion.

I’ll start with a piece that Melinda (Manga Bookshelf) Beasi wrote for The Hooded Utilitarian called “Twilight and the Plight of the Female Fan.” Here’s a key paragraph:

“I’m also bothered by the strong implication that manga for girls is antithetic to solid stories and strong characters. “However, do not allow shoujo manga to intimidate you,” she says. ‘Although it is aimed primarily at young women, there are plenty of good, solid stories that are considered shoujo that I believe most people can enjoy.’ If even women feel they need to make these kinds of excuses while recommending manga written for (and primarily by) women and girls, how can we expect any of that work or the fans who read it to be respected by the larger fandom?”

This is something that’s been on my mind as it relates to critical reaction to Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream and Other Stories (Fantagraphics). It’s not universally true, and, again, I recognize the fact that I might be overreacting or sniffing out dismissal where none is intended, but it is nagging at me. Here are a couple of examples of things that rankle, at least a little.

Chris (Robot 6) Mautner frames his generally positive review with this:

Dream, on the other hand, has both feet firmly planted in the world of shojo manga. The ten tales that make up this book all consist of overly sincere, heart-on-the-sleeve-style work. There’s very little ironic distancing and self-effacing humor here, although it does peep its head out occasionally. Mostly though, that’s been ignored in favor of heightened melodrama and earnest heart-tugging. While it avoids the sort of contrived, romantic, situation-comedy type plots that mark a lot of the shojo manga that has been translated into English over the past decade, there can be little doubt that Dream has more in common with Fruits Basket and Boys Over Flowers than Red Colored Elegy or Abandon the Old in Tokyo.”

Now, I could go the rest of my life without seeing Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket (Tokyopop) used as the poster child for middlebrow romantic fiction, but I recognize that it might just be me who feels that way. And while there’s a lot to appreciate in Seiichi Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy (Drawn & Quarterly), I’m more taken with its historical importance than its relative quality as an effective piece of fiction. I’ll appropriate a quote from Glenn (Monkey See) Weldon’s review of Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby (Vertigo):

“An Important book is one you appreciate. A Good book is one you care about.”

Since I happen to be of the opinion that Hagio’s work is both Important and Good, I may not be in the best position to evaluate the particular merits of Mautner’s argument above.

I feel like there’s a more successful set of generalizations in David (Newsarama) Pepose’s review of A Drunken Dream (it’s at the end of the post):

“With all of the spectacle of the Big Two — and believe me, I don’t knock it, it’s what helps give the industry some of its enthusiastic character — I think sometimes people overlook the sheer potential that human conflict can give. Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream, if nothing else, is a reminder of that, giving a plethora of all-too-human situations under the occasional sci-fi or fantasy trope.”

It doesn’t diminish shôjo in comparison to the critic’s usual tastes, taking a refreshingly neutral approach. I wish I could say the same of this review in Publishers Weekly:

“Unlike current shojo manga, Hagio’s sentiment is more restrained, recounting a calmer account of destructive sibling rivalry, a quieter portrayal of a romance destined for failure, a subtle unraveling of a young woman in mourning.”

Admirable sentiments about Hagio aside, the suggestion that there’s nothing restrained or elevated to be found in current shôjo (or josei or yaoi) is just lazy, and it’s unnecessary. It’s like the author feels the need to discredit shôjo to be taken seriously.

Again, I have to admit the possibility that I’m too generally fond of shôjo and of Japanese comics created by women to eliminate the possibility that I’m overreacting. I might be too steeped in the stuff to have any distance. But I do note that this kind of discussion has also extended to books without pictures. Back at Monkey See, Linda Holmes rounds up and adds to discussion on whether or not book critics at the New York Times take work by women seriously:

“And then you get into the questions Weiner has raised about why it is that genre or ‘commercial’ fiction should be ignored anyway. The New York Times doesn’t limit itself to art-house movies; why should it limit itself to literary fiction? That’s not necessarily a question of gender bias; that’s a matter of philosophy.”

This passage presents the possibility that this discussion might be less about gender than about commercial appeal, which is entirely fair. But even in largely commercial categories, there’s significant artistic achievement.

So I throw the topic out to you. What do you think? Does work by women manga-ka, especially work primarily conceived for an audience of women, get less critical respect than perhaps it should?

Update: Chris Mautner comments to clarify his intent with the piece, which I certainly appreciate:

“I was trying to talk about reader expectation. The fact that Fantagraphics is publishing this, plus Hagio’s high status, both here and in Japan, means that folks (especially those who prefer the type of manga D&Q publishes over the kind Tokyopop does) are likely going to come to the book with a series of expectations that aren’t going to be necessarily met because of the audience Hagio was writing for and the particular genre she was working in. Is that fair? Hell no. Will it happen. I’d put good money on it.”

Over at Robot 6, Brigid (MangaBlog) Alverson looks at shôjo as a whole and reaches some conclusions I just don’t agree with at all:

“If you are a fan, that changes—you read the books carefully, you know the different creators and the different worlds, you see a hierarchy in terms of literary quality. But a genre is a genre is a genre, and you simply can’t write a shoujo manga in which the girl is, for instance, a lesbian, or the hero is a boy because by definition that isn’t shoujo manga.”