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it complicates the complication

Just for the record, blackholly is right again, as usual.

The "I'm too lazy to click a link" version: it's frankly misogynistic to identify a competent female protagonist as a "Mary Sue" because she's at the center of her story. She's at the center of her story because she's the goddamn protagonist.

Why is The Lord of the Rings about Frodo? Because he's the hobbit with the ring. If a different hobbit had had the ring, the book/trilogy would have been about a different hobbit.

When I pick up a book called The Great Gatsby or Anna Karenina or The World According to Garp, I'm pretty sure that Gatsby/Anna/Garp are going to be central to the narrative. This works for books with titles like The Wind-up Girl and Who Fears Death (a name, if you have not read it) and The Lies of Locke Lamora too. Hey, there's a name or an epithet in the title. Maybe this book is about this person!

So... if you find yourself uncomfortable with a lot of books by female authors, with female protagonists, and identifying a high percentage of those female as "Mary Sues," well... it is possible that the fault lies not in the protagonists, but in the reader*.

Sometimes a book is about a female character because there are female people in the world.

Crazy talk, I know, but there you go.



*This also applies if you find yourself often dismissing books with queer central characters as "slash."** Sometimes books are about gay people because gay people exist.

**If you are a slash fan, and trying to sell a book to your friends, letting them know it has the manlove is different. I'm talking about the "Straight boys need not read this because it has The Ghey in it" reviews. They say more about the reviewer than the book, is all I'm saying.

Comments

See, that's one of the biggest problems I have with the Harry Potter books, at least the last two, especially the last one. They turn into The Adventures Of The Weasley Family With Special Guest Star Harry Potter.

I can think of a number of books misleadingly titled after the heroine where a guy, or a bunch of guys, are the actual protagonists. I'm sure you can as well.
Yeah. And that annoys me too....
Though I've always considered Frodo a Mary Sue. Basically, I never saw a reason why the author seemed to think he was so awesome except that I kept being told how awesome he was (unlike, say, Sam, who was obviously acting awesomely because he, say, cooked dinner ;-))

The reason Mary Sue is a gendered term was because it was invented in a predominantly female environment. That is, it was women reading writings by women about female characters, so it referred to female characters. Wesley Crusher and the reaction to him I think demonstrates that the concept isn't inherently gendered, even in that fandom. Fundamentally, people don't like characters that the author likes more than we do.

It is absolutely misogynistic to apply different standards to male protagonists than female protagonists, but that doesn't mean we have to like glorified protagonists of any gender, especially when accompanied by tell over show writing. I tend to think we overrate books about male protagonists on general principle (this being The Great American Novel problem). It's part of why I'm a big fan of authors that write about ensembles of variable characters instead.
As far as I'm concerned, the whole point of Frodo is that he's ordinary.
+1million.
I've always thought this, as well.
Yes. It's ordinary people (Sam and Merry and Pippin, too) rising to do what has to be done, even though it's completely beyond their pay grades. (Very English, you know.)
Yes. And it's really damned important that the book revolves around those four, and Gollum, rather than the kings and princes and elves and dwarves and so forth.

Which is a point that most of the damned planet seems to miss.
/agree
Frodo was so ordinary he bored the crap out of me. It is annoying to me, too, that we are supposed to find this somehow a good and glorious virtuous thing, but this does not make him a Stu.
it's frankly misogynistic to identify a competent female protagonist as a "Mary Sue" because she's at the center of her story.

Yes, so much yes.

Competent, intelligent, skilled, passionate, well-liked women exist in the real world. Many things determine whether they are well-written when they appear in fiction, but those qualities are not the problem.
I think it's true that the term is being used generally as a catch-all insult these days. The most recent occasion I read it was casually directed at Charlie Stross' Bob Howard, who is about as far away from the original definition that the term loses all referents, and I have no idea what it was supposed to mean.
Apparently these days it means "protagonist in a book by an author who for personal reasons I wish to insult, but I'm not actually a good enough critic to say anything substantive."
(irrelevant iconloff of your pretty pretty book cover)
I can't stop petting it!
Apparently one of the main (male) characters in Living With Ghosts is both a Mary Sue and My Ideal Man, (per one reviewer). That was a headdesk moment for me, I have to say, as it told me so much about how that reviewer thought ('Women writers are Stupid! They only like Sparkly Things. They can't think of anything they're not in love with!'). And, y'know, he was so off base. (I might have a pet character. Maybe. But it isn't that one. Then again, a male reviewer once accused me of being secretly in love with the main subject of my PhD thesis... No woman can possibly be objective about a man: her hormones won't allow it, you know. Why, next they'll start thinking the have brains or something. (I may just be guilty of considering that latter reviewer as an a-hole, an opinion in which I am not alone.)
We don't get to win, alas. Those damn cooties are just so scary.
Nobody ever guesses my author-insertion characters without being told. *g*

But the two who are most like me are Elspeth Dunsany (come on, she's such an intentional Mary Sue! She's even named Elizabeth--and she had sparkly eyes! and everybody falls in love with her! And she's the world's smartest Canadian!) and Matthew Szczegielniak.

*g*

Matthew is really just me with a penis, a better build, and more magic powers. And different angst.

I love him so.
Matthew's a fine character. (My pet character is Thiercelin. But he's more based on the marquis than a self insertion: if any of them are like me, it's Iareth, probably. Who I don't like.)
Ain't it funny how awesome female characters are Mary Sues, but(insert Bruce Willis character here) is an action hero?


...I sort of want meander into a defense of fluffy heroes and escapism at this point, but I don't think that comment is fully cooked yet. Anyway, thanks for posting this.
Or worse, Shia La Beouf. I get the girl and the robots and save the world for no reason at all.

Crazy talk? Not.

What it will be seen as in many of the quarters that need the teaching the most?

Unforgivable for being a Truth.

Tiredness brings out this kind of cranky in me sometimes.

Mary Sue: just FYI

Just FYI:

The term, "Mary Sue" was originally coined by Paula Smith and in a recent interview for TWC she discusses the origin of there term, what it means, etc.

Including the link in case anyone is interested...


Edited at 2011-08-08 02:30 am (UTC)

Re: Mary Sue: just FYI

Yup. And it has perfectly proper uses in fanfiction. But we're not talking about fanfiction, as Holly's post makes plain.

Re: Mary Sue: just FYI

Just wanted to state it for the record, because I notice facts and details often get lost in discussions.

My own take is that I agree that the Mary Sue label gets used way too much and inappropriately for all fic [I hate labels anyway and I hate making distinctions among pieces of writing; there's good writing and bad writing and that's it].

But I think at the core of the term, as the discussion with Paula Smith makes clear, is the idea of psychic space or lack of it. A Mary Sue character is so completely identified with the writer, that there's no psychic space left inside for the reader to climb in to and play along. The result is that readers tend to feel alienated ---it's like the writer created the character solely for his/her enjoyment and satisfaction and left the reader out with his or her nose pressed against the glass.

And I should add that, as someone who's taught writing for almost 30 years, I find that Mary Sue is more an early stage of development that, like Piaget's stages of development for children, all writers must go through.





Edited at 2011-08-08 12:55 pm (UTC)

*

See, this is the thing about all the people insisting that Bella Swan is a Sue. It's not that there's no psychic space left inside her for the reader to climb in and play along; it's that there's too damn much. She actually has a personality, but you have to look for it, because the writer would rather talk about **~*~*~*~*Edward*~*~*~*~**

Re: *

I'd prefer it if this comment thread did not decay into "So and so is a SUE!" / "NO SHE ISN'T!"

As that is directly contrary to the spirit in which I wrote it, and the spirit of Holly's post.

My point is this: it's misogynistic to run around broadly tarring female protagonists written by female writers in general with dismissive labels. If we want to criticize female writers and female protagonists, it's appropriate to be specific and detailed in our criticism, not airily dismissive.

And it's also appropriate to do it else-internets rather than here and now.

Re: *

I agree with you completely. I am not fond of the term Sue to begin with, which probably hasn't come across. In original fiction I find it silly. In fanfiction it generally comes across as "how dare you make an original character the star of the story?" because if you do do that, of course the relationships and power dynamics will change as there is another person involved.

Re: *

Yeah, I'm totally at home with using it in fanfic, as God intended.

Re: Mary Sue: just FYI

It's useful to have the authoritative reference link. It does appear to mean about what I think of it as meaning, but now I have a better source for the (original) meaning, and can refer people to it if necessary.

Re: Mary Sue: just FYI

Personally- as long as the characters are not utterly perfect in every way- I'd rather read about defined, crisp characters who don't really leave me room to self-insert than the vague, generic ones designed for emotional self-insertion. The latter are boring.
We have a winner.
Toaster ovens are for converting straight girls to lesbianism.

I think you may get airline miles...
Toaster ovens are for converting straight girls to lesbianism.

I had no idea! Do you think this has anything to do with Will's occasional suggestion that we get one? *g*
Get a lesbian or a toaster oven?

I think it's from The Coming Out Stories, but elisem would probably know for sure.

You used to occasionally see t-shirts that read "I got a free toaster oven! Ask me how!"
It dates back to the 80s, at least. Ellen was playing on an old joke. *g*