Have you ever screwed up something so badly that it becomes perversely kind of impressive?
That’s me and my career, I guess.
I was doing pretty well as an administrative assistant at the local University. I was good at it. I got enough praise and prizes to satisfy my unslakable Y chromosome. I saw myself as “the right kind of bureaucrat” for a university — the kind that bestows its allegiance on Academics and students, rather than upon other bureaucrats.
There was just one catch.
My boss was the other kind of bureaucrat — and she hated my guts. And it turns out that can be, y’ know, a bit of a career setback.
I don’t know how her hatred began, only that by the time we had our first “getting to know you” meeting, I was “getting to know” how much she disliked me. With her broad smile in pillar box red lipstick she suggested I might like to get another job.
It took me a year to take her advice. I mean, it wasn’t good advice at first, but over the year she slowly changed my world around me so that it became good advice. But at first, I dug my heels in and decided I would try to outlast and outperform my own boss.
That was so dumb. I mean, if there was a scientific scale of dumbness, let me tell you, my decision would’ve been, y’ know, right up there. On that scale.
I endured a whole year’s worth of passive-aggressive power games, micromanagement, white-anting, factionalism, gaslighting, procedural pivots, bizarre performance measurements and faint praise. It was like Westworld, only set in an open plan office, and instead of dying, you just had another performance review.
It takes a whole year’s worth of stress for a nervous breakdown to happen in single day. But when that day comes, it all feels pretty spontaneous. And so it was that the day I broke down, I finished my shift at work and a voice came out of my mouth as I greeted my partner: “I don’t want to go back there anymore.”
I was like Frodo in “The Two Towers” saying exhaustedly “I can’t do this Sam,” — the difference being that I was hairier and taller than Frodo, and unfortunately I didn’t have his zhuzhy hipster wardrobe. #swag
The time had come to leave. I could either quit like a man, or like a mouse. I chose the mouse option. I did it via email, and cited ill health as the reason, which was not a lie, but it was very partial. My boss’ response was so quick I got whiplash “Dear Christopher I’m so sorry to hear that let me know if there’s anything I can do Regards …” It would be the last I ever heard from her.
In the following months, I developed what I like to think of as a slight, almost imperceptible, paralysing apocalyptic terror and all-consuming horror for anything and everything associated with her. I’m sure nobody noticed, except, perhaps, for everyone who had ever met me.
The problem I then faced was what to do next. Go to another part of the University? Try being a bureaucrat in another sector — like health, or mining, or politics? But the prospect of more bureaucracy was too spooky to countenance. The risk of being yoked to another boss like the last was just too high, and too traumatic for me to contemplate.
There was only one thought that didn’t horrify me. It was my back-up plan, the one that was supposed to go with a diagnosis of terminal illness, or of an asteroid on a collision course with Australia, or of one of my enemies putting me on a kill list:
I would write a fantasy novel.
After all, I’d only been dreaming of being a fantasist since, oh, I don’t know, FOREVER. The very first book I ever read from the “grown ups” section of the library was Piers Anthony’s “The Vale of the Vole”, and from there I launched myself on a reading program of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, David Gemmell, Raymond E Feist, Terry Brooks, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Robert E Vardeman, and Terry Pratchett. For me, reading meant reading fantasy.
But fantasy wasn’t a gateway drug to proper literature. It was ultimately my lifelong drug of choice. So when I went to the “Literary” section of the library, I didn’t have to renounce fantasy at all. Oh sure, I read some D H Lawrence and Henry Miller, but only for the dick. The rest of the time I marinated in literary fantasy: I read Tolkien, Peake, Burgess, Huxley, Angela Carter, and the redoubtable Jeanette Winterson.
You get the point. I have been a fantasy tragic for a loooong time.
I guess maybe we regress back to our teenage years when times get tough in our adult lives. Or maybe after the Return of Saturn — when Saturn ups and fucks off again — that’s when we pick up the pieces of old dreams that we never should’ve thrown away in the first place. Cynics call this a “midlife crisis.” Optimists call it “Entering your Ray of Light period.”
And so it was my dusty dream of being a Fantasist, when viewed amidst the ashes and carnage of my bureaucratic career, presented itself to me as a viable option.
Anyway, you’ve seen the title of this piece, so you know where this is all heading.
To Shitsville. Come. Let me show you the way.
White males like me have a similar problem to the ghosts in “The Sixth Sense,” only instead of “they don’t know they’re dead,” the problem is “they don’t know they’re white males.”
The privilege of privilege is not knowing itself. I’m being serious. If you have some kind of privilege, then one of the main ways it will manifest is literally in the luxury of not having to think about it. White people aren’t self-conscious about their race. Males aren’t self-conscious about their sex. Straight people aren’t self-conscious about their sexuality. Able-bodied people aren’t self-conscious about being able-bodied. And the more privileged you are, the less likely you are to think about these categories because you will tell yourself that these categories belong to the Others, and that these categories are all a distraction from the true issue, which is class mobility, to be specific, yours.
When I used to read fantasy (which was most days), I read a lot of stories about lower-class males who either discovered hidden paternity as rulers, or who earned the throne through diligence and moral excellence. These were fantasies of class-mobility, and I got to thinking of class itself as the core issue of fantasy.
I never realised that race and gender are every bit as central to the fantasy genre. In terms of race, a lot of white fantasy narratives take place in a colonial medieval setting wherein white heroes are faced with the problem of foreign “hordes.” Fantasy stories often have a central white hero who is surrounded by brown helpers, or who helps the brown people become civilised. In many of the classic works of fantasy, subhumans and nonhumans are even referred to as different “races” — orcs, trolls, goblins, elves — who each have “primitive” traditions and special racial magics of their own. Many of the “races” are also completely hideous, except of course for the elves, who are all Scandinavian.
The gender story is not much better. The sexist and heteronormative art that graced book covers from the 1970s to the 1990s often consisted of something like a white man in a loincloth with a really thick moist sword, and, slumped at his ankles, a woman with a “EE-cup” microkini chained up. Women in fantasy stories were impetuous princesses in need of rescue, slippery sorceresses who tried to lure the hero from his quest with the promise of sex, and flat out evil bitches who sat on the throne and represented a disruption to the natural order. Whenever anyone suggested that fantasy stories that used these stereotypes were somehow sexist, I, and all the other larval-stage Dungeons and Dragons fuckbois, would retort: “But that’s what life was like back then.”
“That’s what life was like back then” tells you everything you need to know about the place of fantasy as a supplemental genealogy and euphemistic gloss on white male supremacy. It keeps the effects of human history but hides the causes: extermination, subjugation, enslavement, torture. The fantasy genre was the history we wanted, replacing our own misdemeanours with magical providence.
When I started to realise the extent of my own racism and sexism as a white male reader, I got terribly defensive about it, and I even went on a sulk about the Universal Mythos and the Hero’s Quest and Male Archetypes and blah blah blah. As a New Ager, I had even immersed myself in mythopoetic Men’s Rights literature that at the time seemed innocuous (Iron John, The Grail Quest, He) but since then has morphed into the repugnant Red Pill weirdness that is modern anti-feminism.
Fortunately, I know a weak argument when I hear it from my own mouth, usually after I’ve said it on the record, and for all time, so I couldn’t really keep the truth at bay for long: The Fantasy Genre was a magical holdfast for the white male imagination. It placed white men at the centre of the narrative and at the centre of the entire fantasy project, and this reinforcement of white male centrality was part of its pleasure. It made me feel important. More than this: fantasy was a compensatory fiction meant to buttress existing inequalities (in the real world) by offering rewards (in the fantasy world).
And I really feel that this little parcel of insights could’ve helped me.
If only I had come to this truth BEFORE WRITING A WHOLE GOSH DARN FANTASY NOVEL.
Allow moi to summarise the first few drafts of my bad novel:
A middle class white man — whom EVERYONE underestimates — travels through a magical kingdom to the tribal world of the primitive people. Sure, he underestimates them, and sure, they are formidable, but he’s an innovator, learns their magic, DOES IT BETTER than them, SAVES THE WORLD FOR THEM, wins the THRONE, and then GIVES THE THRONE to a brown woman who expresses GRATITUDE for his MORAL EXCELLENCE. He retires to a simple life of universal acclaim and perennial luxury, but still nonetheless modest.
That is literally what I poured my effort into in lieu of a career.
Did you think that I was being self-deprecatingly adorable (another white male strategy!) when I said I wrote an awful novel? No, I’m telling you. I WROTE AN AWFUL FUCKING NOVEL. It’s sexist, racist, clichéd, and more than a little self-congratulatory. It reveals SO much about my own privileges, my own presumptions, my own sheltered little life in suburban Australia reading books about white male heroes. It’s insulting to anyone of intelligence, especially to people of colour and women.
And yet it exists now, like a fungus growing in a corner of my room: a manuscript that borrows plotlines and bigotries from Avatar and Lord of the Rings wholesale.
There are a lot of take-downs of High Fantasy tropes on Tumblr and on message boards. Go ahead and look for them if you like. They’re depressing as all shit. I’ve read heaps of these bingo cards of snarky tropes. Oh? You have a rustic hero from an agricultural background? Meryl-Streep-saying-Florals-For-Spring-Groundbreaking.gif
These trope-whinge-a-thons used to absorb my attention while I was writing the draft; it was for some reason terribly important to me to please strangers on Tumblr, especially because I thought of the nameless Tumblrati as “my people” — those who were excused from their privilege through virtuous sarcasm. And I have to confess that I spent most of my first draft worrying about hipsters making fun of me, rather than about whether social justice was actually represented in my work. I put so much effort into trying to avoid white ridicule that I forgot about most of the world. It didn’t even make for a better manuscript. It just gave me a lot of opinions about Game of Thrones comments. Great.
I guess that criticism is easy but art is hard. Who said that? Was it Rousseau? Or Katy Perry?
“World building” is a tricky business. We pretend that it’s restricted to the fantasy and science-fiction genres, but really, all authors are world-builders.
There are assumptions that we make in almost all stories:
that people can change;
that people do things for reasons;
that Chekhov’s gun should go off;
that everything should make sense to us, the brilliant reader; and
that we should feel a gladness at the end of the story.
Of course, there are rule breakers for each of these tenets (it’s fun to think of examples) but really, at the core of the world building enterprise is a construction of race and of gender. And let’s be really real for a minute: if you replicate existing race-relations, as I did, then your story is racist. Why?Because the world is racist. Similarly, if you simply grab gender relations wholesale and replicate them in your story, then your story is sexist. Why?Because the world is sexist.
There were other problems with my first couple of drafts that were technical in nature: a lot of the names were forgettable, a lot of the dialogue was “samey”, the motives were opaque and unconvincing, and I switched main characters two thirds of the way through. (Maybe Taylor Sheridan can pull this off in Sicario, but I can’t.) All of that is the “work” of writing; a novel is a Rube-Goldberg machine, and every part has to function smoothly or the whole performance fails. So there’s a lot of careful engineering that you have to put hours into: spelling, tense, the placement of commas, word choice, etc.
But encoding presumptions about race and gender that result in white-male supremacy and white-male heroism is not necessary for a novel to work. (Maybe it’s necessary for a novel to sell, but that’s a different story.) There is no artistic reason why the hero has to be white or a man; only political reasons which have already been exposed as unfair, self-interested, and damaging.
This isn’t really a story of me winnowing away all of my impure motives, and being left only with pure artistic motivation, so that I could then write a masterpiece.
No, this is a story about me taking the night train to Shitsville, and then renting an economy room at the Shitsville City Limits “You Suck” Motel with someone else’s money.
And I’m sitting in that motel room, and I STILL have to write another, better draft of that novel, one that’s less shit. Maybe nobody will read it, or maybe somebody will write something just like it …only better! But I’m just so past caring about that, because, y’ know, this is my backup plan for the asteroid, the kill list, the terminal diagnosis. I guess whenever you spend more than a year on any artistic project, you develop a deep intimacy with it. Sort of like Doctor Frankenstein with his lovely abomination.
That’s the artist and the artwork right there, people.
I’ll get out of your hair in a sec, I swear.
But there’s one more issue I gotta discuss, and it’s an issue that permeates this whole piece. It’s money. The sordid topic of coin.
Writing a novel is not a cheap business. I’ve annihilated my savings, and my credit, and my little jar of 5 cent pieces. I’ve borrowed, I’ve received gifts, I’ve done odd jobs — and above all, I’ve been financially supported by my partner and my family. I haven’t resorted to theft, unless you count that one time I found thirty five bucks in the gutter at 7am, and I did NOT try to find the owner. I just looked around, said ‘BONUS’ and then went and blew it on groceries before going to a cafe and reading the New South Wales Crimes Act as it applies to “Larceny by Finding.”
I assume that most artists experience dependence on their partners and families at some point. I don’t know how other people deal with the crushing shame and humiliation of asking for money. There’s definitely a process of erosion that happens over the weeks and months where you start to feel like a burden, a money parasite.
But this isn’t restricted to artists, and again, it’s definitely typical of a white male to think it’s some groundbreaking discovery that financial dependence is humiliating. Women and people of colour get acquainted with that kind of bullshit all too often.
I look back on my work as a bureaucrat wherein I got paid very nicely but spent a lot of that money trying to make myself feel better after all the emotional warfare. I remember having so much money that I could eat whatever I wanted for dinner every night and still have money at the end of the week. I remember having so much money that I could plan overseas trips, and plan household renovations, and … just plan!
I felt like I had a lot of choices outside of work, but not many inside of work.
Now it’s kind of the opposite. Because I’m literally the author, my whole working day is made up of choices. It’s just that after 5pm, I’m financially limited.
It has taken me a long time to realise that what I’m doing actually is a career. And it’s a career with on the job training where you have to learn how to be adequate before you can learn how to be good. I just took a comprehensive detour through inadequacy really. In fact I’m still there. But I’m working on it! The work can be as social or as antisocial as I like — which is a freedom I did not expect — but perhaps the hardest part so far has been embracing the identity as an author. The feeling of imposter syndrome persists, despite the voluminous wordcount I somehow disgorge daily.(Okay, that was gross. Note to self: be less racist, less sexist, say “disgorge” less.)
So perhaps I need to stop saying that I quit my career, and start saying instead that I changed my career. And, yes, my first attempts at a novel have been awful.
But the next ones will be better.
❦ This piece was originally published in Art+marketing