May 30, 2011

Bustlepunk: the softer cousin of steampunk

Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest at the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition
Photo by Lois Buhalis, used by permission

A few weeks back, Tor.com published an article called "The Bustlepunk Apocalypse Continues," in which writer Alyx Dellamonica defined the term Bustlepunk as "the softer cousin of steampunk." Bustlepunk was coined by writer M.K. Hobson back in '09, and while I'd heard the term before, I hadn't given it much thought. However, Dellamonica's article went on to conflate the writing of Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest with this soft cousin of steampunk, which bothered me (It should be noted that Alyx Dellamonica has retracted her use of Priest in relation to Bustlepunk - she readily admits she was simply quoting Hobson's Bustlepunk Manifesto).

Hobson's original coinage of the "Bustlepunk" was a clever marketing strategy. Bustlepunk has a nice ring to it, and for an author looking to carve out a niche in the larger pool of SFF, serves the purpose of creating a buzz. Nevertheless, words take on a life of their own, beyond authorial intent. My concern with Dellamonica's article is that it lumped Carriger and Priest into a 'soft' category, a space reserved for women in Science Fiction and Fantasy for decades, most famously with Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. This isn't "real" science fiction, it's "soft" science fiction. My concern is shared by Deborah of  The Bookish Dame, who wrote in December of last year, "By singling ourselves out, we destroy the ideal that authors are all equal in their intelligence and capabilities to confir[sp] and express their imaginations and knowledge.  It's a battle women have fought for ages." Despite this critique, Deborah walks a gracious middle-path with Bustlepunk, excited by "a story written by a woman, about a woman, for a woman," but equally concerned at the ramifications of the potential for signifiers like Bustlepunk to mark women as "second best to the male author."

The outright pairing of Priest and Carriger as representative of anything other than the use of the steampunk aesthetic ignores the diversity demonstrated in their writing. None of Priest's steampunk to date features any romance. This omission of romance has angered some readers, some going so far as to perceive Priest's heroines as lesbians, simply because they don't find every man they meet (while escaping near death adventure)attractive. Priest writes hard-edged alternate history adventures with drug-crazed revenants who will chew your face off. In Clementine, one scene prominently features the removal of a bustle to accommodate firing a Gatling gun in an airship cockpit. Priest's heroines are best understood by Maria Isabella Boyd's request in that same scene: "Put me where I can make the most trouble." When Priest writes "soft," as in the moving opening chapters of Dreadnought, it's in stark contrast to the hard edges she utilizes later. It is a dynamic technique, not a uniform style. 

Gail Carriger is often perceived as "soft:" in addition to being called Bustlepunk, her work has also been categorized as Mannerpunk, excluding her from unreservedly being considered steampunk. Again, this is why I've suggested the understanding of steampunk as aesthetic, not genre: it's a more inclusive approach. We don't get into arguments over whether a book is steampunk, but rather how much and what aspects of the aesthetic it utilizes. But I digress: Soulless and its sequels contain all the elements I've identified in numerous steampunk works. I don't think I need to argue the Neo-Victorian aspects of Carriger's work, but some may find the retrofuturism and technofantasy lacking. Carriger's retrofuturism is more often of the subtle, socio-political variety. Carriger has taken the New Woman mentioned in Stoker's Dracula, and realized it in Alexia Tarabotti in a way Mina Harker never achieves. Alexia is effectively a 21st century woman with a 19th century voice. Carriger's society of humans and supernaturals is predicated on a hierarchy of soul, and when you get into the particulars of those with an excess of soul, Carriger is seen to be making further social commentary on current issues surrounding marginalized groups. One need only read the conversation between Alexia and American scientist McDougall regarding his brother, who was hunted down by his Puritan family after becoming a vampire, to glean resonances with current discourse in North America concerning homosexuals: "I loved my older brother,you see? I saw him once after he'd changed. He was still the same person: stronger, paler, night born, yes, but essentially the same. He probably still would have voted conservative, if they'd let him vote" (141). Anyone who argues the absence of technofantasy in Carriger is either working with a narrow concept of steampunk technology, or hasn't read the books: from the clockwork golem VIXI to Lyall's glassicals, to parasol gadgetry, to airship highjinks: if Carriger isn't working with steampunk tech, then not even K.W. Jeter is. Further, her understanding of steampunk technology goes beyond industrial tech: her hierarchy of souls repeatedly references other sciences in bloom in the nineteenth century: spiritualism and medicine. In short, Carriger uses the steampunk aesthetic in spades, and doesn't need a sub-category to describe what she's doing. As for soft, where Priest has zombies chewing on necks, Carriger has a werewolf-transformation sequence explicitly describing a very gory neck-chewing at the end of Changeless that gives Stephen King a run for his money. Carriger can write the gross-out, the knock-down, and the thrilling chase as well as she writes the make-out, the knocked-up, and the romantic chase.

My concern is simply this: I don't want to see two of the premiere writers of the new wave of steampunk sidelined as anything other than masters of the aesthetic. While there are many who wouldn't see Bustlepunk or Mannerpunk as pejorative, there are many readers who will dismiss Carriger and Priest outright because they are women, and moreso if connections are drawn to a term like Bustlepunk. I have no issue with the term as something fun to further clarify a distinction within the larger classification of steampunk. But I do have issue with the blanket assumption that Priest and Carriger are involved in creating the "softer cousin of steampunk" just because they're women. Not all soft steampunk is written by women. For proof, try Matthew Flaming's The Kingdom of Ohio, a lovely story of love, loss, and nostalgia. Or as SF author J.M. Frey contests in this final word on the subject (at least so far as this post is concerned), ""Bustlepunk" has the potential to become pejorative, and without rigorous definitions of what makes Steampunk Steampunk, and makes Bustlepunk Bustlepunk (both of which are impossible as they are sliding definitions of an aesthetic that is still organically evolving), then there is the danger of separating the professional writing men from the little girls playing dress up."

27 comments:

  1. Thank you for this! The term "bustlepunk" bothers me, because it seems to me to imply that stories about women need their own category away from the "serious" steampunk...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Katie - you're welcome. Your position is pretty much where I'm coming from.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree, the term "bustlepunk" also bugs me to no end for the same reason Katie stated above. I don't think that female author's need a separate category. But I guess there are some out there who still have those 19th century ideals about authors, and that a book written by a female is not as good...lol

    ReplyDelete
  4. I don't think the creation of the term Bustlepunk was so much about 19th century ideals or a denigration of female writers. M.K. Hobson is very interested in edifying her writerly sisters. That certainly wasn't Alyx Dellamonica's intention either. It's where it could potentially lead that worries me, based on the precedent of soft vs. hard SF. I've seen these arguments before, and I could see it happening again: "Oh, that's not steampunk, that's bustlepunk. I only read steampunk."

    Further, while there's no intention to only associate women with the term, that's what's happened unilaterally. J.M. Frey commented in our correspondence that Westerfeld's "Leviathan" could be seen as Bustlepunk by some of the criteria stated. I've mentioned Matthew Flaming - I'm sure there are others we could list - but the fact remains that Bustlepunk has been conflated with women's writers, without rigourous attention to the content of those writers' work.

    ReplyDelete
  5. As a point of clarification, I do not seek to edify my "writerly sisters." The writers who have been most commonly associated with this discussion, Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest, certainly need no edification from me, and to suggest that they do is utterly ridiculous. Rather, I seek to edify people like *you*, who seem to believe that the very act of identifying fiction as focusing on the female experience equals dismissing it as trivial. You persistently (and rather disingenously, it seems) resist edification as to the actual point that I am trying to make. I am trying to say that, instead of demonizing the terminology applied to fiction that focuses on the female experience, we should instead use that energy to challenge the oppressive social structures that result in the minimization of those fiction products in the first place. Insisting on categorizing a fiction product with the specific intent of minimizing its focus on the female experience implies that the focus on the female experience is not something to be celebrated, but rather something to be "hidden" and "snuck in" under the larger rubric of something more acceptable to the male reader (e.g., "steampunk.") Would you similarly suggest that Carriger's work not be called "romance" or "historical romance?" Would you find those classifications minimalizing or trivializing?

    ReplyDelete
  6. I wrote something to contribute to this conversation as well. http://gailcarriger.livejournal.com/172262.html

    ReplyDelete
  7. I was using the term Edify in its moral sense - to "uplift." I take it you understood me to be saying you were trying to teach, instruct, etc. Apologies for the confusion.

    I'm not seeking to demonize Bustlepunk, or I wouldn't have bothered to include The Bookish Dame's excitement about "a story written by a woman, about a woman, for a woman." Her and your points on the positive side of focusing on the female experience are well taken, and enlarge this discussion. There are those who will see Bustlepunk and other female-focused categories as empowering. There are others who do not, and see such categories, as I do: potential spaces to sideline women writers. My issue is with the conflation of Bustlepunk with writers for what appeared to be nothing more than their gender, as there wasn't anything else they shared in terms of narrative content aside from the steampunk aesthetic.

    I'm not sure how anything I've done in this post or in my statements online have been disingenuous. I have openly stated that my dislike of the term is the unilateral conflation of women with it. There is nothing Machiavellian about posting a contrary opinion on one's own blog.

    No, I do not find romance a trivialization, as evidenced by the works I looked at for the Steampunk Romance and Erotica month here at Steampunk Scholar this past February. But neither is romance the sole purview of women.

    You shouldn't construe my post as animosity to you or your writing. Your name is here simply because you coined the term: as an academic, I have to cite my sources. Further, Bustlepunk (as I said above) is a clever marketing strategy, and given your intent to focus on the female experience, laudatory. However, despite the best of intentions, words take on a life of their own. I was more interested in raising a red flag than casting aspersions.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The disingenousness of which I speak comes from your persistent misdefinition of the term as "steampunk fiction written by women." I have NEVER defined it as such and do not believe it should be. In fact, I have specifically stated that the term could very well be applied to male writers who cover the same social/political territory. But as you and I are clearly operating under extremely different definitions of the term (you defining it in a way that best serves your ideological needs, and -- to be fair -- me doing the same) I guess there's very little common ground here.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Nor have I stated that you defined your term in that way. Hence my point that words take on a life of their own. This is the case in the Tor article, where there was a latent association between bustlepunk and steampunk written by women. I have not so much defined bustlepunk as observed how it is being used in a particular context, and then voiced concern about it.

    ReplyDelete
  10. There is also an ovewhelming "latent association" between romance fiction and fiction written and consumed by women, despite your argument that "men write romance too." So I ask again, why do you not feel similarly indisposed against calling Carriger's books "romance" or "romantic fantasy"? Why does that not marginalize them? I really am asking only from a standpoint of logical consistency; at this moment, I feel as though I could live the rest of my life quite happily never hearing the word "bustlepunk" again.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Arguably, because it's not the focus of my study. My focus is on steampunk, so my discussions center on it. That said, I don't focus on Carriger's work as simply romance. That is certainly how it has been marketed. But I'd argue that it contains as much adventure as it does romance, as is the case with Kenneth Oppel's Airborn series, or Arthur Slade's Hunchback Assignments. In Canada, the marketing for Slade's work is definitely more adventure, but in the States seems to play up the romance crowd more.

    But to your question, I think that's what I'm effectively doing in this post - don't think Carriger is just romance is what I'm trying to say. A few of your comments have made me consider possible posts addressing these very concerns, so thanks for raising them. I've already considered how to "focus on the female experience," perhaps in a month or two featuring female authors. I'm also thinking about your question of romance, etc., as it regards posting on the Parasol Protectorate books this fall.

    Keep your pride in the term, M.K. You have supportive readers who appreciate it and see it as empowering. Take the criticism of the pedantic prof with a grain of salt and keep doing what you do.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I appreciate your respectful engagement and apologize for any offense I may have given here or elsewhere. Good luck with your studies.

    ReplyDelete
  13. And on that note, just a reminder to readers that M.K. Hobson's The Native Star is up for a Nebula Award. So even though I haven't read it, clearly those who have consider it worthy of your attention.

    ReplyDelete
  14. The difference between bustlepunk and tags like romance, alternate history, secondary world fantasy, etc, is they're not a replacement for steampunk. Steampunk may have romance or not. It may be an alternate history or set in a secondary world. It can be all of those things at once.

    But label a book as bustlepunk and people are saying "It's not really steampunk. It's bustlepunk!", rather than saying "It's steampunk and bustlepunk". There isn't the same hesitance about calling a book steampunk romance or secondary world steampunk.

    The bustlepunk label might have been intended to highlight the work of women in steampunk in a positive way, but I can't say it looks like it's achieving that. The current usage seems more about removing books from steampunk to make them bustlepunk, rather than highlighting a group of books within the steampunk genre. Given that one of the equality battles in the genre is getting people to accept light romantic works as steampunk, giving people more ammunition to declare it as not really steampunk isn't helping things or challenging the boundaries of the genre.

    ReplyDelete
  15. This was a good article to read and will prove to be a good one to reference in the future. I am wading in the shallows of writing my own steampunk items, and have till now been extremely meek about plunging in because I have felt that some of my ideas "aren't steampunk enough."

    I have always thought that the nice thing about this community is its inclusiveness and imagination.

    I'm glad to know that even thought it's not all clear cut black and white guidelines, there are people who are encouraging all forms of steampunk, regardless of labels like mannerpunk and bustlepunk and their subsequent subjective connotations. I take heart in seeing people's interest in all forms of this genre.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Well put and well thought out.

    Just a clarification? I think you lump F & SF together incorrectly. I believe that in the science fiction,, soft vs. hard had nothing to do with gender or romance, but with the relative fidelity to the currently understood science.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Jack - you're right - it's just a way of me saying "spec fic" in general, as that's how I think of steampunk. I would rather erroneously lump them together than promulgate the idea that steampunk is SF, not F.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Aly - don't worry about genre distinctions. You shouldn't try to write steampunk - you should write what you write, and let your publisher figure out which shelf to place it on. My shelf of "steampunk" contains books from the romance, horror, science fiction, fantasy, and straight-up fiction sections of the bookstore.

    ReplyDelete
  19. As a very casual fan of SP, the first time, and indeed the subsequent times I've ever heard of Bustlepunk is in articles denouncing the very existence of the term....

    BTW what horror novels are on your SP shelf, other than the obvious...?

    ReplyDelete
  20. Not sure what the obvious would be, Midnightxpress, but Kim Newman's Anno Dracula, Alan Campbell's Scar Night, and Mark Frost's The List of 7 have all shown up in horror sections at various times in their publishing history. There are certainly horror elements in a number of steampunk works, but I distinctly remember seeing Scar Night in the horror section, which I personally thought was odd.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Thank you for this post. I have long been irritated with the "soft" and the "hard" distinctions in SFF. As if the sociological, psychological, or other "soft" sciences are any less important to our understanding of the world than the "hard" sciences. And "Jack Horner"'s comment above is the same kind of quibbling over categorization. And anyway, he's wrong about the perceived distinction re: soft and hard in SF; it had to do with using "soft" sciences--anthropology, sociology, psychology (cf The Left Hand of Darkness or The Female Man or Houston, Houston Do You Read?) vs. scientific or technical accuracy using accepted concepts in physics, metallurgy, astronomy, etc. in the writing. Or at least that's my understanding of it, having done the research into Le Guin, Russ, and Tiptree and the criticism lobbed at "feminist" sf back in the day. Just my .02

    ReplyDelete
  22. I'm not in favour of this sort of distinction. "Hard" vs. "Soft" debates about SF seem to break down along gender lines, and they do carry an implicit value judgement. Likewise, I don't think terms like "bustlepunk" or "mannerpunk" really help anybody.

    A lot of reviews of my book, "The Innocent's Progress", ask, "Is this really steampunk?" I affirm that the hard tech is largely a background element in my stories, and issues like class and gender are in the foreground. Somebody could try to label them bustlepunk or mannerpunk, but I'd rather they didn't.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I accidentally downloaded a self-published, tech-heavy piece of steampunk, thinking it had been written by a more prominent author. The constant references to the technology dragged down the story. I take umbrage with anyone who thinks that just because the tech is background, it isn't steampunk. That's ridiculous. Characters are always the most important thing in a story. All steampunk tech needs to be a device for moving a story forward. It drives me crazy when people restrict steampunk to some Neo-Vic version of a Tom Clancy novel.

    ReplyDelete
  24. This is an excellent article. I wasn't aware of the term bustlepunk. I am not a feminist by any means, but as a female writer the term rubbed me the wrong way. I think that bustlepunk would be a great term for more romantic or erotic steampunk, but Cherie Priest is steampunk, period. The genre can be so elitist. I think you nailed it perfectly though; if the fundamental elements of steampunk are present there is no need to keep chopping the genre into smaller bits. The genre is too young to be divided already.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Thanks Meriel. For my money, I'm not interested in marginalizing the romance writers either - I prefer steampunk romance, or steampunk fantasy, or steampunk horror to any of the ways of creating entirely new terms to divide the idea up. This is partially due to my own bias, that steampunk has no distinct genre conventions insofar as narrative, so it's better thought of as an aesthetic or style anyhow.

    ReplyDelete
  26. "The genre is too young to be divided already." - Meriel

    Exactly. And thank you, Gotthammer. I'll write on. :)

    ReplyDelete

There was an error in this gadget

My Blog List