Why I write masculine stories

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Many of you are here from external links, which probably means you haven’t heard of me before (woe!), which, in turn, makes my heart ache with a heretofore unknown degree of sadness (more woe!).  So, while you’re here getting your outrage on, or wondering what the fuss is about, have a look around at my other blog posts, too.  At minimum, please read my response to the silliness elicited by this post, and perhaps also read this piece in the WSJ:  Camille Paglia:  A Feminist Defense of Masculine Virtues.   If you do, I’ll give you a big manly man man-hug.

So, I write masculine stories. And what I mean by that is that they feature characters whose behaviors and characteristics are what I consider traditionally masculine. They’re almost hyper-masculine, really.  Further, those masculine behaviors and characteristics are shown (implicitly or explicitly) as virtuous.  Essentially what I’m often trying to show are characters who embody the Roman concept of virtus.

Now, that’s not true of all my characters, of course, but it’s true of many of them.  As a rule they’re men. They drink a lot. They sometimes womanize. They answer violence with violence.  They’re courageous in the face of danger. They’re stoic in the face of challenges/pain.  They have their emotions mostly in check. And they act in accordance with a code of honor of some kind.  Thematic elements in a lot of my work that square with this involve the obligations of fatherhood, the depths of friendship between men who’ve faced death together, the bonds of brotherhood (figuratively).  Hell, there are even damsels in distress sometimes (though I like to play with that notion and things aren’t always what they seem; see, e.g., The Hammer and the Blade).  The price of faith and the difficulties of redemption appear in a lot of my work, too, but that’s neither here nor there for purposes of this blog post.

Now, why do I write stories that focus on those elements and not others?  Is it because I’m a throwback Neanderthal pig?  It is not!  ;-)

The answer is pretty basic.  Like many of you, when I was young I read a lot.  Often what I read featured the kind of characters and storytelling I describe above — masculine stories, stories with characters who demonstrate virtus (I’m looking at you Le Morte d’Arthur, and you, Conan).  And what I read shaped how I viewed myself, how I viewed the world and my place in it, and indirectly (and along with a lot of other obvious things) helped shape and refine my moral code — Honor, courtesy, respect for self and others, even (a kind of modified) chivalry.  It’s served me well in life.  So I try in my own small way to carry that torch forward and provide the kind of exemplars of virtus that I found and find so compelling.  I don’t think there can ever be too many.  And that’s it.  Well, that’s almost it.

Let me share an anecdote (right, right, an anecdote; I know).

When the Costa Concordia sank, there were stories of panicked men who rushed into the lifeboats ahead of women and children.  I mentioned this on Twitter and said how I found it entirely inconsistent with the idea of honorable manhood, which (in my view) requires that women and children go first.  A follower took issue with this, essentially arguing that there was nothing inherently unmanly about it and that equality of the sexes required that some other method be instituted for selecting the order in which people would be evacuated.

Now, this person was well-intentioned, but I couldn’t disagree more strongly. The comment illustrated for me a cultural trend that runs counter to the virtues I try to highlight in my work (and live in my life).  So I write, and I tell stories about men who would never run ahead of women and children on a sinking ship, and I hope that some readers internalize that notion and live it out if they’re ever called on to do so.

Obviously, the kind of stories I write aren’t for everyone, but I’m okay with that.  Lots of folks seem to like them just fine, and if they’re not for you, there are plenty of other choices out there.  But if they are, well, then nice to meet you.  :-)

Now, the internet being what it is, I’m sure someone somewhere will read this and conclude something about me personally.  E.g., I am a throwback, Neanderthal pig, or I must be religious, or conservative in my politics, or uneducated in women’s studies, or maybe I’m unaware of my straight, white, affluent-guy privilege,  have never heard of the male gaze, have homosexual tendencies (cuz all the “man stuff,” natch), support the Patriarchy, or whatever.  Love you, Internet!  Never stop being you!

But just to head off some of that: The reality is that I’m a partisan Democrat (as anyone who follows my Twitter feed knows quite well), am pro-women’s rights, am pro-LGBT rights, am (at best) agnostic, and am quite aware of my privilege (though the term is profoundly overused, IMO),  I’m also a graduate of one of the finest (and most progressive) colleges in the world, so I’ve had plenty of exposure to the kind of academic scholarship you — yes, you there in the sweater – are going to be tempted to trot out to explain how I Just.  Don’t. Get. It.

But I do.  I simply reject the idea that this is zero sum, or that showing traditionally masculine virtues is anti-woman or anti-anything. It isn’t.  By providing exemplars of certain behaviors and characteristics that I consider virtuous, I am not thereby asserting that other behaviors and characteristics are necessarily non-virtuous.  E.g., I think it’s great for a man to be empathetic and show his feelings or otherwise demonstrate sensitivity.  Nor does it mean that I particularly value traditional feminine virtues in women.  In fact I appreciate strong women with strong opinions (as opposed to demure, quiet women).  Sidenote:  Aaannnd someone somewhere just read that and said/thought:  “Ha!  How very nice that he appreciates strong women. We don’t need his permission or appreciation.”

I agree!  It’s just an observation, nothing more.

Anyway, there you have it and done is done.  :-)

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19 Comments

  1. Hi! Stopping in via the Fantasy Book Critic Twitter account. :-)

    I appreciated this post, but–just to play devil’s advocate–I’m curious as to why you think “virtue” or “honorable manhood” requires that (in the case of the Costa Concordia, for instance) men should have stepped aside and allowed women to go first. Is it simply because “women and children first!” is part of our traditional conception of chivalry (and therefore to be textbook-definition “chivalrous” you must hold this view)? Is it because women are physically weaker, and true nobility requires protecting the weak? Is it because you think women shouldn’t or can’t make the decision to sacrifice themselves as men should? Or are you simply emphasizing the selfless aspect of chivalry, regardless of gender? (I.e., a chivalrous man is one who sacrifices himself for all others, not necessarily just women and children.) If that’s the case, why can’t women display this sort of virtue also? Why must it be part of the definition of “manhood”?

    • Amanda to pick apart a few of your points.

      “Is it simply because “women and children first!” is part of our traditional conception of chivalry (and therefore to be textbook-definition “chivalrous” you must hold this view)? ”

      Maybe what Paul holds as honorable masculine behavior is allowing those less capable of surviving the first boat off. Does this automatically include all women? Not necessarily, but a mature “man” should be able to recognize those in a greater need than his own. I would hope that in that situation i would react rationally and help to ensure those less able to survive (the children, the handicapped, the aged etc) would be able to evacuate first.

      2.) “Is it because women are physically weaker, and true nobility requires protecting the weak? Is it because you think women shouldn’t or can’t make the decision to sacrifice themselves as men should?” Biologically speaking women on average are physically weaker than men. we can talk about this athlete or that female hero but on a whole, evolutionary we progressed on a track that gave the male of the species greater muscle density, higher lung capacity, and greater bone density. what Paul is talking about is a responsibility. a responsibility to help those less able than yourself. It does not really matter if you are male or female. The terms of chivalry apply to you regardless. Men encounter this more readily than a woman.

      3.) “Why must it be part of the definition of “manhood”?” Manhood must be defined. It must be something for all Men to strive for. I fear that in speculative fiction we are not giving enough positive male examples. I am not talking about Conan, or any other pop trash male hero. I am talking about Egil and Nix. Men who are complicated and teach young men that they can be strong and have emotions. You can be strong and help people. that the people you help are worthy of respect.

      Though i tend to disagree with you i also respect your opinion and hope that the Male and Female identities we both strive to improve can reach perfection

  2. It’s simple biology. You need women to carry on the species. You need far fewer men.

    It’s also just the right thing to do.

  3. There’s a bit of all of that in my thinking, to be honest, but what’s paramount is: (a) the physically stronger should defend/protect/sacrifice themselves for the weaker, and, while plainly some women are stronger than some men, for purposes of a desirable social norm it’s better to rely on the average case; and (b) it’s important and useful to steer/temper inherent male aggression to socially useful purposes via social norms (absent those kinds of norms, things can devolve rather quickly into a “the physically stronger take what they will, and the physically weaker suffer what they must,” see, e.g., much of human history, both ancient and recent).

    Incidentally, women can and do display this kind of virtue. It’s “traditionally masculine,” not exclusively masculine.

    • I agree completely, but I think that there is a component beyond the stronger should defend/protect/sacrifice in some situations like the boat sinking. I think that component is “expendable,” which gets to the heart of my biology comment (also gets me angry when a hunter says he hunts to control deer population, but only goes after bucks…wtf?). The problem with “expendable” is the subjectivity that can creep in. Personally, if it were me in the situation I can foresee many things flying through my mind…desire to save, be a hero, protect women and children, but underneath would be the realization that in the grand scheme of things I’m just not as important as the women and little ones.

  4. Incidentally, I also agree it’s the right thing to do; I just wanted to be sure I was understanding your thoughts on why it’s the right thing to do.

    Thanks again for the post!

  5. Thanks, Paul.

    Thinking about the Egil and Nix books, I can especially see this in Egil. While Nix looks like he needs to persuade himself a bit sometimes, Egil never hesitates. He puts himself on the line. Even if the damsels aren’t what they seem (c.f Hammer and the Blade) or they really do need help (c.f. Discourse in Steel).

    It reminds me in a way of an author whose point of view and male characters are somewhat similar to yours (although his politics are NOT). John C. Wright.

    I like the idea of a writer having characters express virtus this way. (my Ancient Roman interest, after all). And, there are far worse models of personal virtue (as you said, see the Costa Concordia.)

  6. Good post. I’m going to go buy one of your books now. :)

  7. I’ve loved all of your Forgotten Realms books and love, love, love Erevis, Riven, and Magadon…,but I always wondered why you’ve never written a strong woman support character in your novels.

    • The Jedi protagonist in DECEIVED is a woman. I think Shamur and Varra and Elle are strong women, too, though they aren’t center stage, I concede.

  8. Interesting article. I like to mull things over before writing a comment, but I have to run so will post later (if I have anything to contribute), but since there’s talk of lifeboats, I wanted to provide an interesting fact (because showoff).

    Historically, women and children first wasn’t a thing. To my knowledge, that only happened on Titanic. This was for a fairly logical reason: men were stronger, and strong people were needed to row the boats. To put women and children on boats first was to risk everyone’s lives; if the men went down with the ship, there would be no one to row the boat. More death.

    Though of course nowadays this isn’t much of a problem.

  9. Am I right in making the assumption from this that you consider meeting violence with violence and holding emotions in check are manly?

  10. And, with a little more ire, since when have courage in the face of danger and stoicism in the face of challanges and pain been masculine virtues? As opposed to just, you know, (non-gender specific)virtues?

    • Simon,

      I called them “traditionally masculine” and they are indisputably so, in that traditionally a man was expected to demonstrate those characteristics (if he was to be considered virtuous). Most assuredly women can and do demonstrate those characteristics (and that’s obviously virtuous). But I’m not sure a woman is *expected* to demonstrate them. Meaning, if a woman didn’t demonstrate them, I don’t think she’d be considered lacking in virtue or any less a woman. The contrary is not true for a man (traditionally speaking). And yes, that does reflect and/or reinforce some aspects of traditional gender roles. So it goes.

      Something along these lines came up on the Reddit discussion, when a commenter wrote that she objected to my gendering of these virtues, but went on to say that she would consider a man a “pile of shite” if he didn’t let women and children enter the lifeboats first in the case of a sinking ship. The disconnect there is obvious. If she would require a man to demonstrate a particular behavior in order to be considered virtuous, but would not hold a woman to the same standard, then characterizing the demonstration of the virtue as a masculine one hardly seems out of bounds (or offensive). And yet, here we are.

      Consider another example: A mugger with a knife threatens a husband, wife, and their child. Now imagine two different responses: In one, the husband runs away with the child while the wife remains and fights the attacker. The wife’s behavior is plainly brave and virtuous. The man’s? Cowardly and despicable, not so? Now imagine the husband stays behind to fight while the wife runs away with the child. In this case the husband’s behavior is plainly brave and virtuous. But I think few people indeed would claim that the wife’s behavior was cowardly or despicable. And that’s because the expectations are different. But that’s okay, and that’s the point. And folks who think that’s quaint or silly or what have you — rock on. Go your way. You and I don’t speak the same language.

      To be clear (again): I don’t in any way assert that the virtues I mentioned are possessed only by men. I’m simply asserting that, by my standards, a virtuous man must demonstrate them. Further, I’m asserting that this has been the case as a historical matter. Accordingly, I characterize them (and my writing) as “traditionally masculine.” That some people dislike that characterization is of small concern to me.

      Also to be clear (and finally): These are the kind of stories I write, these are the kind of characters I write about, and those are the reasons why. And that’s that.

      Meanwhile, lest this become a time sink for me, I’m turning off comments, though I hope I answered your question.

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