Thanks VERY much to Rite Gud listener @gynoidgearhead for taking this on, but we now have a transcript of the “Guide to Squeecore” episode.
Rite Gud – S01E48 “A Guide To Squeecore” <https://kittysneezes.com/a-guide-to-squeecore/>
RSB: Welcome to Rite Gud, the podcast that helps you write good. I’m Raquel S. Benedict, the most dangerous woman in speculative fiction. In 1936, anthropologist Ralph Linton said “the last thing a fish would ever notice would be water”. It’s difficult to see the medium that encompasses everything around you, especially when you’ve never known anything else. If fish were contemporary sci-fi and fantasy readers, the last thing they would notice is squeecore. What is squeecore? You’re soaking in it. Squeecore is the dominant literary movement in contemporary SFF; a movement so ubiquitous, it’s nearly invisible. But in this episode, we are taking notice of how speculative fiction got watered down. Joining me in the fishbowl is J.R. of The Podhand. J.R., where did the term “squeecore” come from? I feel like I heard it from you?
JR: I have definitely said it, but I did not coin the phrase; I’m sure it’s been kicking around elsewhere, but R. Halvey [?] on the Discord came up with that as far as I know.
RSB: And I think I asked Halvey, who said “oh, I heard it from somebody else”, so it’s been kicking around for a bit. But the instant you hear the term “squeecore”, you go “God, that’s right, that’s it, that’s perfect” – you instantly recognize it and you realize “yes”. [laughs]
JR: I think so.
RSB: You just suddenly figure out “yes, that fits, that fits with [what] this fucking thing is.”
JR: Yeah, and we have used it more or less as a disparaging term, but I’m sure there are people who would gladly call themselves squeecore. Because, is not squee a good thing?
RSB: Yeah, I mean there are people who use “squee” unironically in a positive sense, so I guess “squeecore” wouldn’t bother them. So I guess it fits. [laughs] So why are we taking the time to define “squeecore”? Why are we taking the time to coin this term and talk about it? Well, most literary or artistic movements have a name – either made up by the people involved in it, or made up by people who are not involved in it, and who don’t like it very much, and kind of start it as an insult. And most eras in sci-fi/fantasy have a name: we have The Golden Age, we have New Wave, Cyberpunk, New Weird, Bizarro, so on and so forth; and from what I can tell, most cyberpunks were pretty comfortable saying “yeah, I’m writing cyberpunk”. There was a movement with a certain aesthetic, certain tendencies; and there was often a sort of political ideology that went along with it: Cyberpunk tended to be anti-capitalist, or at least looking at the decay of late capitalism; New Wave tended to be, I guess, a little left-libertarian; Golden Age was very conservative and very, like, Age of Imperialism – pro-Imperialism, I’d say –
JR: Not globally, but yes. And then New Weird, of course, is, you know, broadly leftist.
RSB: Right. So right now, I think there is a dominant style and tone in speculative fiction, and I think it deserves a name. I think leaving it without a name gives us the sense that this is everything, that this is the Alpha and the Omega, and not that this is a trend. Because once you realize, “okay, this is part of a movement, this is a trend, this is a particular style”, you start realizing it’s ubiquitous, and then you ask, “why is this everywhere? why isn’t there room for anything else?” And you start to realize this is a movement, and that means that there’s room for a new movement to come in and push it out.
JR: It’s a movement that doesn’t realize it’s a movement, or it hasn’t named itself; it’s a – it’s the “this is water” sort of thing. Like those other movements, it does have an ideology, but nobody speaks of it. Well, I wouldn’t say “nobody”; the Sad Puppies and the assorted online mutants have definitely talked about it, but only in terms of condemning “the diversity push” and the broadly liberal-identitarian stuff. But that’s not what we’re talking about.
RSB: No; we’re kind of going to focus maybe a little on the politics of it, but heavily on the aesthetic of it. And personally, I feel like refusing to admit that you’re part of a movement, refusing to name your movement and keeping it invisible, is insidious in a way, because it makes it harder to present an alternative. “Oh, I’m everything, I’m the norm, those other people–” It’s like when people say that they don’t have an ideology, or “I don’t have an accent” – yes you do. Yes you do, you just don’t know it.
JR: And it’s almost always people in the dominant ideology that do that. Because they don’t see it from other angles, because they don’t have to.
RSB: Right. “I don’t have an ideology.” Absolutely you do. Yes you do. Everyone does; and that’s okay, that’s normal; it’s just, you can’t even question your own ideas when you don’t understand that it’s an ideology and there are alternatives, I think.
RSB: Okay. So that said, let’s talk about “what is squeecore?”, what are the characteristics of squeecore, at least; well, mostly, let’s start with the aesthetics. Tonally, squeecore tends to be very uplifting and upbeat; and it’s didactic. And there’s almost a weird, like, YA-ish, young-adult fiction tone to it, even when it’s supposed to be “for adults”. Someone on our Discord, Kurt(?), pointed this out – characters feel weirdly young: they always think and act and feel like they’re in their late teens or early twenties; they’re kind of inexperienced, naive, still very full of wonder, and you get the sense they haven’t really lived a life before the story began?
JR: You could probably attribute a lot of that to, of course, to the YA thing that blew up in the last twenty years since Harry Potter; but there’s also a lot of influence from films, and a lot of influence from mainstream commercial narratives – the MCU, the She-Ras [sic], and the “save the cat”-style 3-act-structure screenplays that have really become the blueprint for a lot of storytelling.
RSB: Right, they almost feel like… maybe bad RPG protagonists; those silent protagonists that were very popular in the 90s who don’t really have personalities? Because you’re the player character, you put yourself in there. And I’ve been trying to figure out why, because for me, characters who are a little older, who have lived their life, maybe they have a haunted past and terrible secrets and regrets, and there’s something driving them toward this need to redeem themselves, but it never really tells you what it is, like – I love that shit. That shit’s – that’s the good shit.
JR [crosstalk]: Yeah, I think so –
RSB: Characters who have seen too much, and are kind of haunted, but you don’t know what it is? Like, aww, hell yeah, that’s right… [laughs]
JR: Yeah, and the older I get, the more I gravitate toward older protagonists as well; because I have nothing to learn from a teenager, right? Or a 57-year-old HR manager who writes like a teenager, and to teenagers.
RSB: Yeah, and it’s such a strange thing; I’m wondering if it’s because we have this need to eliminate or fill negative space. We need to explain everyone’s motivations; we can’t just let a character be the way they are; we have to have some kind of detailed flashback to The Traumatic Experience that made them this way. And that takes up a lot of space, so in order to evade– avoid having to do that, we just have these kind of flat, like, “JRPG from the ‘90s” protagonists that feel –
JR [crosstalk]: Yeah, like –
RSB: “Oh, they’re on the cusp of their life’s journey, and they haven’t lived.”
JR: Yeah. I mean, that’s a sacred trope in sci-fi/fantasy; it’s always a convenient shorthand to have a naive protagonist that you can explain effectively a secondary world to, because they’re just, like, sieves for information, right?
RSB [crosstalk]: Yeah.
JR [crosstalk]: You just have to go talk at them. And that’s not even always bad –
RSB: Yeah, but that’s not always been the case; I mean, so many of Ray Bradbury’s protagonists were married men.
JR: [William S.?] Burroughs had his druggies and his writers, and J.G. Ballard had his retirees in The Vermillion Sands, and – there was a much greater variety of characters, I feel, especially in the New Wave.
RSB: Oh yeah, they loved strange, broken weirdos, and it was awesome.
JR: Maybe we should talk about –
RSB: And I’m not saying that there’s anything – oh, go ahead. [laughs]
JR: I’m sorry, there’s a time delay between our speech. We’re on opposite coasts; you are in New York and I am in Vancouver, BC, so that explains it a lot.
RSB [crosstalk]: Oh yeah, that must be it.
JR [crosstalk]: We have a three-hour time zone difference.
RSB: Yeah, exactly. We’re just attaching our messages to carrier pigeons and sending them back and forth, so it’s not going very well.
JR: Yeah, I’m spinning it in wheels [??], and there’s a semaphore tower –
RSB: It’s gotta go through customs, it’s pretty strict. It’s gotta get translated to French and back.
JR: Yeah, it’s illegal for me to talk and not, uh, have French [?]. As it should be! We love our French people, French-Canadians.
RSB: That’s right. Of course. Who doesn’t love the French? [laughs] Who doesn’t?
JR: Who doesn’t? Open question!
RSB: Oh, go ahead. So, sorry, what were you saying?
JR: I was going to say, we can go back and talk about what is “squee”. If we’re going to call it squeecore, we have to say, what is the definition of “squee”, that horrible, horrible word? And I have a little –
RSB [crosstalk]: Right. Yeah. So what is the definition of squee?
JR [crosstalk]: As I defined it – yeah. “Squee” is a culture term for a sound or expression of excitement or enthusiasm. It’s the opposite of “feh” or “meh”, and very close kin to “amazeballs” and “epic sauce”. It represents a specific feeling, a type of frisson that readers value; the tingle of relatability as a beloved character does something cool, or says something “epic” and snarky.
JR: The essence of squee is wish fulfillment. Squeecore lives for the “hell yeah” moment; the “you go, girl” moment; the gushy feeling of victory by proxy. It’s aspirational; it’s escapism; it’s a dominant, and I would even say gentrified, form of SFF.
RSB: Can you articulate a little more by what you meant by “gentrified SFF”?
JR: Well, I think, as we’ve seen, there has been a professionalization of the genre. As it’s become more popular, there’s a lot of careers being made a lot quicker, and a lot of people who have seen sci-fi/fantasy as an avenue to, you know, a big career, like a Hollywood-level career. And in some cases, that has definitely panned out: you have George R. R. Martin, of course; you have Robert Jordan; you have J.K. Rowling, Rowling, however you pronounce this… You have these big aspirational figures now in sci-fi/fantasy; and there have always been superstar writers, that’s never been in question; but specifically in sci-fi/fantasy, you have literal billionaires who started as writers. And a lot of people see that as an aspirational – an inspiration to become like that. And that’s attracted a lot of sharks – a lot of professional sharks.
RSB: The idea of going into writing fiction to make money, to me, seems [laughs] a little crazy. It’s like a shark going to swim in a puddle – in one of those, like, oily rainbow puddles. Like, bro, bro, you are in – what are you doing? Go home.
JR: Yeah, and you get a big enough shark, it’ll eat all the smaller fish. And that’s definitely what we’re seeing.
RSB: Yeah. You said there’s a professionalism, because there’s this HR-ish-ness? You feel a lot like you’re talking to a human resources person, someone from the professional middle class, you… When you read these, you get the feeling the writers aren’t working-class or poor; I always get the feeling that a lot of these writers have only ever been customers and have never been the customer service representative. There’s this real strong feeling of “I want to talk to the manager” in a lot of these stories; and I believe that’s the happy ending to “Cold Calculations” [by Aimee Ogden?], it’s basically somebody goes to talk to the manager to solve the problem.
RSB: I don’t know, I guess we’re gonna go talk to the manager of physics. We’re going to go talk to Sir Isaac Newton. I don’t know.
JR: We’re gonna talk to the manager of goblins [?] and tell him to knock off all that malarkey.
RSB: Yeah. “I would like you to fix gravity, sir.”
JR: “Can you warm up these calculations?”
RSB [crosstalk]: Mm – “they’re very cold.”
JR [crosstalk]: “They’re very cold.”
RSB: “I’m uncomfortable.”
JR: “Take it back.”
RSB: “They’re too cold.” Ugh.
JR: But I think that’s broadly – it’s sort of a tendency in the writers themselves, because as less people start out with the ability to make a living income with writing, it sort of becomes a hobby; but at the same time, the people with all the free time are the sort of white-collar professionals who have the the ability and the money to network, and to have the leisure time to write, and to pay attention to the submission grinder, and do all of these things that maybe a working-class person doesn’t have time to do, especially now.
RSB: Right. Someone working multiple jobs, and working blue-collar jobs where you don’t have downtime at work. In most white-collar jobs, you can usually squeeze out an hour a day to write. You can usually, if you work really efficiently, you can squeeze out a little bit of time to write. If you’re waiting tables, you really can’t do that; you rest your feet for two seconds, and your boss barks at you: “if you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.” That’s it.
JR: Yeah, and of course, there’s a lot of wonderful working-class writers, but they’re not really being published because they’re out of the zone, they’re out of the clique.
RSB: Connections unfortunately do play a huge role in what gets published. You see pretty frequently in SFF magazines… Whenever I see a story that looks kind of mediocre, and I’m like “how did that get published?”, I look down and I always find out that, according to the writer’s bio, the writer is an alumna of one of the same workshops that the editors are an alumna of. It’s like, “oh. Okay, you’re in the same club.”
JR [crosstalk]: Yes, it’s very much social networking.
RSB: And it’s this club giving each other – publishing each other’s works, and giving each other awards. This is what it is. And the club costs five thousand dollars.
RSB: So, if you don’t have that, you can’t get in. And… maybe you can sneak in, if you’re – fucking – an amazing writer, but it’s definitely an uphill battle for you in a way that it isn’t for other people. And chances are you might have a different sensibility than other people will have. There’s very much a certain type of, I don’t know, socializing that’s acceptable, where it’s like that very WASPy, passive-aggressive condescension is okay; but being direct and straightforward in a way that a sort-of working-class person might be, that a person from a non-WASPy culture might be, gets you branded as “unsafe” and “abusive”. Like, think to the time that – I don’t know what writer it was; remember the time that one writer said that Bernie Sanders was like an abusive dad because he yells sometimes? It’s like…
JR: Yeah, that’s definitely a politically motivated attack.
RSB: He’s an old Jewish New Yorker, that’s – if you’re from New York, that is how you talk. That is – your inside voice is yelling. From a Puerto Rican family, that – yelling is the normal sound.
JR [crosstalk]: Yeah, poking your finger like you [???]…
RSB: And it’s totally normal and acceptable to tell someone, “hey, fuck you”, and that’s okay; it’s not abuse, it’s just being direct, and I find it a lot more acceptable for me than just disgusting dripping condescension.
JR: Yeah. “How dare Saint Bernard swing his finger around in that accusatory manner? How dare he?”
RSB: [laughs] Like, he’s an old New York man! That is the normal way of talking when you get excited. And that culture of communication, I think, bleeds into the work, too. I find a very strong discomfort with emotion. Emotion is either dealt with in terms of, like, “okay, emotions are something to manage in therapy”; or we get mawkish maudlin sentimentality; or we get this glibness to it, where any time anything really interesting happens, instead of really leaning into it, the feeling, we get this little Whedonesque, like, “well, that happened” kind of quip to undercut the emotional strength of it, and I find it such a disappointment. Because like, no, let me feel this! Let me feel these feelings! If you go into melodrama a little bit, that can be okay! Melodramas can be really appealing.
JR: Oh yeah. I have no problem with sentimentality; some of the best stories are made of it, and broad, melodramatic displays of emotion, and sort of a heightened operatic storytelling. I have no problem with that at all… I love it, even when it can be manipulative, which it definitely can be. But at least, if I sense that it’s honest, or if the writer tricks me into thinking that it’s honest, then, you know, you get catharsis out of that; it can be quite wonderful. But I don’t feel like that’s even the dominant thing now – because it’s too honest, it’s too vulnerable.
JR: You get it on TV sometimes with melodramas; you get it on Riverdale, even; but a lot of current books are, they’re more snarky and reserved, and their tone is much more… not vulnerable, I will say that.
RSB: Which is a shame, because art is a place to let your emotions go wild. Let it – let ‘em out, it’s alright! That’s what art is for! Yeah, some people might call it cringe or whatever, but you know what? It fucking rocks. You have to get around – It’s genre fiction. It’s going to be cringe. You’re writing about dragons. Just fucking go for it.
JR [crosstalk]: Yeah. Embrace your inner cringe!
RSB: Absol- go for it! Go for it like you’re doing a fucking… prog rock guitar solo or something, just, like, really leaning into it.
JR: Exactly. If you’re – embrace your inner, like, rhapsody, your Hammerfall, your power metal!
RSB: Yes. Yes! Absolutely. And it’s an absolute blast.
JR: And there’s an honesty there that I always love, and that’s why I love classic fantasy; and that’s, you know, what got me into the genre in the first place.
RSB: Yeah! It feels very emotionally honest, even when it’s, like, totally over the top, but…
JR: Even when it is most cringe, it’s like –
RSB: That’s what’s fun about it! You just get the feeling that whoever’s writing it is going like “YEAH!” [laughs]
JR: It feels metal.
RSB: Yeah, it really does. Metal, or one of those prog rock bands that’s all about, like, “here’s a concept album about a future, a dystopian cyber future in which music is illegal.” You’re just like, yes.
JR: “I’m not gonna play notes, I’m gonna play equilateral triangles for 20 minutes, and it’s gonna be awesome.”
RSB: Yeah. Oh, so good. So there’s that PMCS[?] fear of emotion; there’s a lyricism, but it feels very middlebrow lyricism, there are a lot of metaphors that sound cool on the surface but fall apart when you examine them.
JR: Yeah, and I think – I mean, we’re resisting the tendency – or resisting the temptation, I should say, to name specific works.
RSB: [laughs] I know! I know.
JR: Because we’ve read them, so, I mean, there’s no reason to go in on a particular author – although the temptation is there! Some of them are fuckin’ asking for it.
RSB [crosstalk]: There sure is!
JR: But we are not gonna do that!
RSB: No. At least not yet. Anyway… [laughs]
JR: We’re just talking broader trends, I think, which is, um –
JR: Trying to put a name to the feeling, really.
RSB: Right. And when you start feeling the trend, you start seeing, this shit’s everywhere. Ugh. Let’s see. The sense of humor – it’s very colloquialism, it’s very snarky as you put it –
JR: Epically snarky, even, thank you!
RSB: It’s very stuck in early 2000s “epic bacon” blogger humor. There’s a lot of focus on sarcasm and banter as a substitute for jokes. Very online prose, “cromulent douchewaffle” type zingers, that kind of thing – it’s a person who’s not very funny trying to be funny.
JR: Yes, that is a, uh, a plague. And –
RSB: It’s bad, it’s bad.
JR: You know, more than that, they really do lean on self-aware deconstructions of sci-fi/fantasy tropes. They have to show off how self-aware they are by… not just subverting, in the way that George R. R. Martin, say, subverted high fantasy tropes, but by – you know, I hate to use this term, but – lampshading. They deliver a callback to, like, narratology and the tropes themselves in the story, and make you aware that you’re reading the story, in a very glib way, in a way that feels like the ‘90s wave of deconstructions scream “Buffy”, and then later on “Shaun of the Dead”. That sort of thing.
JR [crosstalk]: And I’m not criticizing those things; if you look through… [inaudible]
RSB: It’s not enough to deconstruct something; they have to tell you “see? Look, I’m deconstructing it! See? See what I’m doing here? Do you get it? Do you get – you’re so smart. You’re so smart for enjoying this.” [laughs]
JR: But it also has to be perceived as an attack on older work. It has to be like, “oh, I’m better than the old stuff, I’m commenting on that and I’m deconstructing this because I’m better.”
RSB: Yeah. There’s a lot of generals fighting the last war; there’s a lot of fighting something from thirty years ago; there’s a sense that it’s stuck in the past. There’s a lot of treating discussions we’ve been having for decades like they’re brilliant new ideas. Like, how many stories do we have now that mention “final girls”? Like, that Men, Women, and Chain Saws book came out what, twenty, thirty years ago? “Final girl” is not a new concept; like, “final girl” is like, we know, we know what it is. Or redshirts; I mean, a book called Redshirts won the Hugos a year ago. Eddie Izzard had a routine about redshirts in the 1990s. This is a 25-year-old Eddie Izzard routine, and we’re treating it like “holy shit, this blew my mind.”
JR: I mean, yeah, Galaxy Quest came out coming up on 25 years ago now. Like, there’s nothing new to say about that stuff. And I love Galaxy Quest, don’t get me wrong. It’s one of the greatest movies.
RSB: Right! It’s been done. And they did it great. Oh, it’s hilarious! And we’re acting like, “oh, wow, you pointed out the redshirt guys on the side –” it’s a hack comedy now! It’s the equivalent of standing up there and writing a sci-fi book called “What’s The Deal With Airline Food?”
JR: I think there’s, like, a cultural rut in general, not just in sci-fi and fantasy, but everywhere, where we’re stuck in like a holding pattern of culture, where we can’t really invent anything new. And, you know, I’m as guilty as anyone of that, but there’s – It’s not that there’s nothing you can say, but under this sort of culture and this economic conditions that we have, there’s only so much that can be really said that’s new, because nothing has really changed, culturally – except to get worse.
RSB: Yeah, yeah. And there’s a lot of rehashing old arguments and struggles that aren’t true any more? Like, I still see a lot of stories that have the main character be an outcast for being too geeky. It’s not the 80s anymore. Video games are mainstream. Star Wars is mainstream. It’s not – no one’s going to beat you up for, like, watching Star Wars. Like, everyone watches Star Wars. No one’s going to make fun of you for playing video games because everyone plays video games. The frattiest of frat brothers play video games! Your mom probably plays video games; everyone does! There’s this very weird sense that a lot of these folks still think it’s the 1980s, and it is not! For better and for worse, it is not. In some ways, we’re eternally stuck in Reaganomics, but the culture’s moved on –
JR: Reaganomics is probably why we’re stuck in this holding pattern, because we’re still in Reaganomics; we are in the cyberpunk present. And so we just recycle the last 40 years of culture, and vulture around what came before. But it’s – I would say that there are shining cracks that show new things, but the dominant trend has been this recycling over and over.
RSB: Right. I mean, it’s safe, it’s familiar, it makes money. People gravitate to this thing because they’ve heard of it, even though none of these things are going to outlast the thing they’re riffing on. There have been many, many response stories to The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. None of these stories are going to be remembered as long as Ursula Le Guin’s original story; and most of these responses are terrible because they just take it as a surface-level plot, going “I’d rescue the kid!”, and not saying, no, it’s the trolley problem, it’s not a Rubik’s cube; the purpose is it’s a philosophical question to make you think about who you are, and what your values are, and who you are in society. It’s not like, “oh, I’ll just, I’ll save the kid!” And also, you wouldn’t want to save the kid. You will not save the kid. I’m sorry. You’re not going to save the kid.
RSB: So there’s the “stuck in the past”, there’s the “great influences are from TV and movies, and not from literature”, which is a shame, because a lot of really great genre writers, you can very clearly tell like “this guy read Moby-Dick”, like – John Langan; if you’re reading The Fisherman, it’s very clear that man read Moby-Dick, and that he fucking loves Moby-Dick. You can absolutely see it in there. Tolkein, he read old, I think, Icelandic sagas.
JR: Yes, he did!
RSB: Ursula Le Guin studied anthropology. There was this immense curiosity for the world and from older literature that goes in there, and there’s… It’s lacking. There’s an intense incuriosity; there’s an intense refusal to look beyond a very narrow group of canonical genre works, and the only way we’re going to look at it either is for cheap, lazy references, or to say “I defeated it! I won! I beat HP Lovecraft by writing a response story to him! I defeated a dead person! Hurray for me!”
JR: Yup. “And because he was one of the Bad Dead People, I deserve to be congratulated for it.”
RSB: Yeah. Like, if you want to defeat HP Lovecraft, create something cool and exciting in horror that makes people stop caring.
JR [crosstalk]: Make something scarier!
RSB: Make something cool so that no one cares about Cthulhu any more. That is how you fucking beat him. And you’re not going to do that by just writing more Lovecraft spinoffs where you yell at the corpse.
[27:44 – BREAK]
RSB: But let’s talk a little bit about ideology – we’ve been talking about aesthetic – and talk a bit about ideology. Because there is an ideology to every movement; and squeecore definitely has an ideology, I think, of centrist, solidly capitalist, vaguely liberalism?
JR: It’s extremely liberal – it’s neoliberal.
RSB: Now, do you want to define “neoliberal”? Just because that’s a term that gets thrown around a lot.
JR: Right. Well, neoliberalism was, um – I think it first dropped in reference to Pinochet’s regime. Neoliberalism was of the Chicago school. It was an economic policy that championed the free market and international trade as almost like a replacement for diplomacy, and it has become the dominant ideology of all of western capitalism. It’s wrapped up globally; it defines global capitalism in a…
RSB: Okay, I get it. So it’s basically, like, everything – the market is everything, and the market is the only way to understand the world, the only way to make action happen, and everything is meant to be put up to the market, whether it’s a public good or a consumer object. Whether it’s our access to clean air, or Funko Pops – let the market decide.
JR: Yeah, it is a commodification that should be the commons, but more than that, it’s – the underlying belief is that the market can lift up all ships; that international trade can raise up every nation from poverty and enter into a sort of “golden age” of capitalism, where everybody’s on an equal plane and all so-called “third world” nations are now developed because of capitalism. And, you know, the neoliberals can point to certain bar graphs of “line goes up!” that are good, of GDP, of education and literacy. But of course, there are massive consequences for this that are externalities that we’re seeing in the environment, and we’re seeing in the human death toll of exploitation, and we’re seeing in these undeclared sort of proxy wars over resources. And that’s all neoliberal policy. And it’s sort of this very sunny, sanded-off belief that mega-corporations might be evil, but they can do some good! So who’s to say what’s good or bad, right? Amazon might be exploitative, but they get me my tendies on time, and hey, it’s better than being unemployed!
RSB: Right. That is something I’ve noticed, this embrace of the corporation; I mean, a lot of these stories will have an evil corporation or an evil CEO, but they’re not really all that against corporatism at all. I know – was that Clarion West? – had a diversity panel sponsored by Amazon, and Amazon is – I mean, it notoriously mistreats its employees, and many of its employees are marginalized people. If you’re a working-class population – we’re talking about a lot of black, Latinx and immigrant workers – so if you’re treating your working class people like shit, by default you are treating diverse people like shit. And the concept that it might not be a great idea to take money from this company and help whitewash their really negative image, there’s no concept – like, maybe we shouldn’t do that. I’ve seen so many squeecore authors get mad about piracy. And to be fair, it can be frustrating, like “shit, I spent – you know, I worked on this book for like three years, you won’t even pay like five dollars for it? come on”. But nothing about how badly Amazon treats authors, and the way that Amazon runs its business, how bad it’s really squeezed writers, and how hard it’s been for writers – there’s little to no criticism for it, which I find bizarre. And I think that the most – the ultimate in it is this thing that, as of recording, is very recent – is that the Hugo Award Worldcon Ceremony being sponsored by Raytheon, astonishingly evil weapons manufacturer! And winners going up there, and talking about how their successes are a victory for marginalized people, and how it’s so cool that we had so many diverse winners. Which, you know, I think that is a good thing, of course – more diverse winners, more women winners, that’s good – but to be sponsored by Raytheon?! No! I don’t think I have to articulate to our listeners why that’s not acceptable.
JR: [crosstalk, inaudible]
JR: My first reaction was to be disgusted and outraged; but more than that, it’s funny, for one, it’s hilarious; and it also proves everything we’ve been talking about for months, if not years, about the professionalization of sci-fi/fantasy, about the sort of graspy careerism –
RSB [crosstalk]: Just the utter hollowness of it! The hollowness of it.
JR: Yeah, and the moral hollowness; the constant equivocation; and the sort of mealy-mouthed approach to these moral compromises, that they’re so strident about in fiction, but they cannot make a moral decision in real life. They have to prevaricate, and equivocate, and just flip-flop back and forth, about “oh, maybe Raytheon isn’t so bad, because they also make my microwave oven, and microwaves are good; everyone likes microwaves, right, folks?”
JR: It’s pathetic.
RSB: It’s deeply, deeply disturbing that – [laughs]
JR: You can’t say outright: Raytheon is evil; they’ve murdered thousands of people; they have a bomb that has thorns in it to kill children in Yemen. Like, they are demons. And you can’t just say that, you can’t tweet it! You can’t just like take a stand against –
RSB: You can’t even tweet a word, you can’t even say like, “while I was at the ceremony, I got kind of blindsided and got overwhelmed, but in retrospect, holy shit, that was fucked up”.
RSB: Like, you could just say that – or like, “hey, at the time I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t say anything, but now looking back at it, like, wow, that was not appropriate.”
JR: Yeah! Or, if you don’t know who Raytheon is, why the fuck do you consider yourself a sci-fi writer if you’re not tuned into like literally anything that’s happening in reality?
RSB [crosstalk]: Yeah, honestly, yeah, what, you should know –
JR [crosstalk]: Like, you should know who Raytheon is, if you call yourself a citizen of the world – not just a leftist, but produced by… [inaudible]
RSB [crosstalk]: You should have the intellectual curiosity.
JR: Anyone! You should read the news once in a while.
RSB: Yeah. [sighs]
JR: And maybe don’t have your partner work for them! I don’t know, I must be omitting… [???]
RSB: [laughs] Look, look, all she wants is to make George R. R. Martin fuck off into the sun. So she married someone –
JR [crosstalk]: Well, now we know how they’re going to get him there! –
RSB: – who will literally be able to do that.
JR: That’s right.
RSB: Oh my god. But yeah, as morally compromised as they are in real life, their stories are very black-and-white moral message stories. And I’m not gonna say there’s anything wrong with writing a story that’s political. My stories are all political; I think everyone’s stories are political in some way or another. Our politics get into what we write. But there’s a difference between your politics getting into what you write, and – versus standing on a soapbox and screaming at people and delivering a sermon. Which… it’s not bad, necessarily; sometimes they’re okay; I mean, I liked Sorry To Bother You and that was totally a sermon, it was absolutely a sermon; but I enjoyed it. But…
JR: There’s nothing wrong with sermons in fiction.
RSB: Over and over – they’re all sermons, and they’re all super blunt, with really blunt symbolism; really black-and-white morality; clear-cut villains…
JR: And they completely fail when it comes to real-life villainy.
RSB: And the stories all feel like an Aesop’s fable told to children, but I’m an adult. I’m an adult, and I don’t need these things explained to me in quite this way. It’s okay for me to see a scenario and just absorb it and not have a character deliver the message, like at the end of a fucking G.I. Joe episode. You can just please, please spare me [?].
JR: Yeah. Or shout [?] the slogan, perhaps while in labor, to make up a totally fake scenario that never happened in a story that was… won a lot of awards. I’m not going to say nothing more about that.
RSB [crosstalk]: [laughs] I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know what you’re talking about. [laughs]
JR [crosstalk]: I don’t know, no one would ever do that, no one would ever…
RSB: There’s also an emphasis on diversity, but kind of token diversity is jammed into riffs on old works. I’m thinking of the all-woman Ghostbusters remake. And these token characters have to be exemplary and good; they can’t be complicated, because then you’re “negatively stereotyping”, because… but, in my opinion, that’s just sticking to model minority stereotypes, which are an extremely harmful standards to apply to people. “Oh, you have to be perfect, because you’re not white!” Like, oh, shit, that’s too hard, I – don’t ask me to do that. And it’s not enough for them to put –
JR: Well, about Lady Ghostbusters – it is the second best Ghostbusters movie.
RSB: Ooh, spicy.
JR: That’s not spicy. That’s just fact.
RSB: I have not seen it, so I can’t really weigh in, but –
JR: It’s not bad! It’s not near as bad as people say. But it’s not good, either. It’s thoroughly mid.
RSB: That would – fair enough. But, I mean, that is what one should expect from a Ghostbusters reboot for it to be okay. Um –
JR: But it’s a great example of what you’re saying. It is sort of the Hollywood diversity of just sort of slotting in a different identity into the same story. Which can, like – to its benefit, it can recontextualize an older work, if it’s got a mind to comment on it; but if it doesn’t, then it’s just window dressing.
JR: And I think diversity is good to… [inaudible]
RSB: And it’s not telling a new story, either. [laughs]
JR: I mean, obviously is a good unto itself. If you have a story that’s all white people for no reason, and a story that’s all people of color for no reason, the one with people of color reflects our daily reality and the experiences of more people, so that’s the better story – I mean, that’s the equality of it, right? But just slotting in these characters – because it’s not always the writers of color creating them, there’s often just like white writers behind all of these things.
RSB: Oh, of course.
JR: Especially on film and TV. In prose, maybe it’s a little better; but Hollywood is still extremely stratified and white, and you’ll have this sort of, uh –
RSB: I mean, it depends on the stories you’re telling. Something I’ve found overwhelmingly by talking to other Latinx writers is that if you stick a Latinx character into a standard SFF narrative, that’ll sell, but if you try to tell a story that’s much more Latinx – let’s say, it’s much more influenced by magical realism, or it goes in detail about Puerto Rican culture, or it’s about colonization, or it’s about being Latinx, or it deals with being Latinx in a complex way – you’re going to have a much harder time selling it. Or if you do sell it, it’s not going to get as much positive buzz, it’s not going to get as many positive reviews. And I’ve seen that overwhelmingly; I’ve seen white, non-Latinx writers jam a Latinx token into their stories, into their generic stories, and do really, really well. And then meanwhile, like, I know Karlo Yeager Rodriguez has had so much fucking trouble selling “How Juan Bobo Got to los Nueba Yores”; and it’s a really fucking good story, but it’s about a Puerto Rican folk hero, and it’s about how assimilation to the United States might not really be a good thing completely. And he had a really hard time selling that, because that is a really Puerto Rican story. So it’s a very shallow kind of diversity. It’s like eating at a Chipotle instead of going to an actual, Mexican-owned restaurant; that’s the kind of diversity they fucking want.
JR: Yeah, and even authors of color and, you know, people of different cultures are pressed to fit into a Western narrative style. For instance, I read this book recently last year – it’s called Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, and she’s a Mexican author; and her story, it’s about a 200 page novel, it’s short-ish – but it’s written in a very dense stream-of-consciousness style, and it’s extremely dark. It’s about a small town, and a woman who is reputed to be the town witch, and all the horrible things that happen to her, and the dramatic politics she gets wrapped up in with the town. It’s very disturbing stuff.
RSB [crosstalk]: Ooh. Sounds awesome.
JR: It’s not fantasy or sci-fi, although it sort of borders on almost a magical realism, because it was sort of inspired by Gabriel García Márquez, if I’m pronouncing that right –
RSB: Right, yeah.
JR: And this sort of stream-of-consciousness, this very dense, poetic prose style. And it was well-reviewed – I loved the book; it was wonderful writing. But that is not the dominant style of sci-fi/fantasy, or of even lit fic, if you want to use that term. And I think that limited its audience, because it was not playing into the easy, easy Western assimilation, or the easily consumable product that you would see in most sci-fi/fantasy, especially.
RSB: Yeah. It – these are stories that are congratulating you for reading them, without really challenging you. They’re telling you, you’re so special and good for reading this. And a major feature of squeecore is treating the act of making or consuming squeecore fiction as a heroic political act in and of itself. A writer I shall not name was promoting the work of a friend writer of his that I also shall not name, posting her stories, saying “this is justice”.
RSB: No, it’s a story, dude. It’s not justice, it doesn’t do anything, it is a story. You read it and then you go on with your life. It accomplishes nothing. And you could say, like, “this is a great story, I loved it, this is really cathartic” – yeah, sure, that’s real. But saying “this fictional story about a space man – that’s justice!” – no the fuck it is not! Go outside, do some mutual aid work, touch some fucking grass, go to a demonstration, I don’t know. But writing or reading a fictional story is not activism, it’s not justice, it doesn’t fucking do anything, it’s incredibly self-important to tell yourself that you’re literally changing the world. And there is that incredible belief in squeecore about the power of language to change the world. And I’m not going to say that, like, fiction is totally worthless – yeah, you can inspire people, or change people’s minds. But they really treat it as a magical incantation that can shift the material reality for good or for ill. And if you write a story that’s uplifting, you’re doing this fucking spell that’s gonna fix things. And if you write a story that’s upsetting, you are committing harm against people – like if you repurpose a transphobic joke/meme in the title of your story, you have committed harm. It’s like, you’ve said, you’ve spoken the “Arva Kedavra” curse and someone’s going to literally die.
RSB: Nah. It’s just words. It’s just words! [laughs]
JR: It seems to be – I don’t know with this, I’m just talking out my ass, but – it seems to be an American phenomenon, this thought-over-matter sort of cargo-cult belief, almost, where you can sort of manifest into reality through words.
RSB [crosstalk]: That sounds about right.
JR [crosstalk]: And there are –
RSB: Yeah, that does sound really in keeping in terms of the bullshit American self-help movements of the past hundred years.
JR: Yeah, and there are certain ways in which fiction can affect the world directly. Upton Sinclair, right, with The Jungle – he published that book as a novel. It was a novel; it wasn’t a screed; but it contained screeds in it, and it just showed the working class and the meat packers who lived on this – in this horrible neighborhood. And it was so popular, and it was originally much more of a class story – like, if you read it, there’s a class narrative there – but people really latched onto the work conditions in the slaughterhouses and the meat-packing. And that’s what eventually became – it got into Parliament, it got into… not Parliament, what’s the American Parliament… We have a Parliament!
JR: Congress? Yeah.
RSB: Yeah, we’ve got a Congress. Yeah, it’s part of why the FDA and shit; why we have, like, food purity laws – because of people reading that book and going “Jesus Christ!”
JR [crosstalk]: Yeah, and then more recently we had –
RSB: “There’s, like, human hands in my sausages, what the fuck?!”
JR: Yeah. And more recently you have protesters adopting all kinds of pop culture stuff. They’ve used stuff from Rambo, the 2004 Rambo, that was a big deal in the anti-government rebels in, I think it was Laos, or Burma, rather? And then you have the Handmaid’s Tale protesters and the Squid Game protesters now. And you have, uh –
JR: There are ways in which fiction can impact reality. Which is great; I mean, there’s no arguing that! But there’s almost a cultic belief that writing and reading, unto itself, is activism, and it is changing the world – which it is not. It’s not doing that. It’s not even changing anyone’s mind, really, because it always –
JR: The squeecore precept, really, is that you already agree with everything they’re saying, because you’re also in the same clique; you’re in the same economic bracket. You already agree with what they’re saying; you’re not going to be convinced; you don’t need to be convinced! You just need to squee.
RSB: Right. Right! So there’s that, there’s the self-importance –
JR: “Do you hate diversity, Raquel?! Why do you hate diversity?!”
RSB: “Why do you hate diversity?” “Ugh, gosh; it’s the worst, diversity; cannot stand it.” But… So, we have this self-importance; we have this incredible precision bluntness when it comes to giving us the moral of the story. There’s a rejection of ambiguity: motivations must be spelled out; plot developments must happen on the page without inferences or gaps in the narrative or in the lore; there is no room for negative space; endings tend toward the tidy and neat, even the pat. But while the moral and stuff has to be really, really precise, there’s also a weird vagueness. Like, I’ve noticed a lot of the time squeecore writers will write three synonyms instead of picking the right word. They’ll use two different metaphors instead of picking which one is the best. And I notice a weird vagueness when it comes to details: like, I remember reading one where the main character was this girl who likes reading fantasy books, and at the beginning she’s reading a fantasy book, but it doesn’t tell us what the book is. And that’s a missed opportunity, because if you just gave us the title of a book, that could tell us so much about her taste, about her personality, about what she fantasizes about. There’s a really, really good opportunity to introduce some kind of theme here, like… I know it’s cliché, but what if she’s reading Alice in Wonderland? Then that kind of sets us up for what the story might be. Well, what if she’s reading Tolkein? What if she’s reading Outlaw of Gor? You know…
RSB: All of these things tell us something about who she is. And it’s just a missed opportunity. And you see that a lot, like, when somebody – when a squeecore character eats, they just eat food, they eat dinner or lunch, we don’t know what they eat. And again, there’s another example of where we – just with one little word, telling us the food they’re eating – that tells us something about them! Like, oh, yeah, she had a salad! Like, well, okay, she’s very health-conscious, maybe she’s watching her weight. Oh, she had some pizza; like, okay, that tells us maybe she’s not super obsessed with her weight. She had a Lean Cuisine; okay, well we know that – we know a lot about someone if she ate a Lean Cuisine, because no one who has ever eaten a Lean Cuisine has been happy with the way their life is going; that tells us a whole lot. You know?
JR: [laughs] I can vouch for this.
RSB: If a character is eating a Lean Cuisine for lunch, we know that their life is not the adventure that they want it to be. And it’s such a missed opportunity to just name these little details. And I see it over and over and over again!
JR: That’s interesting. There must be – there seems to be a fear, there, of being too – over-precise, and over-descriptive; and above all, they don’t want to be purple. They don’t want to be accused of being purple; they don’t want to be old-fashioned in the way that, you know, a Lovecraft would be. Unless they’re parodying him or someone of that era. Because being purple is also a kind of being vulnerable. You want to implant an image in someone’s head, or many images, and you want to communicate an emotion vividly, which is what purple prose usually does. And you don’t want to do that in squeecore for certain –
RSB: Emotions are things to be handled in therapy; they’re not things to be shared publicly. They’re an embarrassment. They’re for lower classes; they’re not for us. [laughs]
RSB [crosstalk]: So – they’re uncouth. So we’ve been talking – [laughs]
JR [crosstalk]: We cannot be uncouth. Unless we’re saying – We can swear, but we can only say “douchewaffle, fucknozzle, cromulent fuck-crustables!”
JR: You can’t just say “fuck yourself”.
RSB: Okay, so we’ve been talking about the characteristics of squeecore –
JR: “Fuck off into the sun!”
RSB: Let’s talk about, why is squeecore? Why is this such a dominant force? We did talk about the economic factors that led to this, but also some of the cultural factors of why squeecore is so popular right now, and I think a lot of it is yearning for safety in a world that feels unsafe and unstable. I mean, we’re in year two of a global pandemic; the environment is… bad; democracy doesn’t look like it’s doing super good. It is very understandable to want to cling to stuff that makes you feel good about yourself and makes you feel safe!
JR: Yeah, and that’s the excuse they’ll use. And I think that’s valid; obviously I’m not gonna take away – like, if you want comfort fiction, it’s there, it’s good; if it gets you through the day, that’s awesome – but I especially think now that people are being raised almost entirely on a diet of that, and that there is almost an inability to see fiction any other way, except as reassurance. It’s like they believe, in their hearts, that fiction has one rightful purpose, and that’s reassurance and safety and relatability; and things that are outside of that are suspicious and maybe contemptuous.
RSB: Right. Right. I think there is also a little bit of a factor, too – if you are writing, you are competing with a lot more things for an audience. In the old days, your options for entertainment were like: read a book; play that game where you chase a hoop with a stick; or, like, see a vaudeville show. And today, you’re competing with so many other things. So we’re trying to appeal more and more to a narrower group of readers; and I feel like we might have gone – leaned into that too hard. There’s this core group of fandom, extremely online readers; and we’re just trying to write or edit magazines specifically for them, in a way similar to what gun companies do. They – not as many people own guns anymore, so instead of trying to sell a gun to lots of different people, they’re trying to sell lots of guns to a small handful of really weird, paranoid gun people. And it kind of feels like the industry is doing that, especially when it comes to magazines. I mean, who reads short-fiction sci-fi magazines? Mainly just people who write short sci-fi, and want –
JR [crosstalk]: Yeah, the audience has shrunk.
RSB: – And either are published or want to get published. It’s a tiny audience. So I understand wanting to appeal to your core audience, but I do think that we might be missing out on an opportunity to appeal to a broader audience that isn’t reading it yet, but if the right story gets in front of them, they might go like “oh wow, that’s interesting!” I have seen that happen! I noticed when Isabel Fall’s “Helicopter Story” came out, it got a really big response from non-sci-fi/fantasy people – people who don’t usually read sci-fi/fantasy read it, and they said, “This is really cool! This is the most interesting sci-fi story I’ve read in years!”
JR: Yeah, and it’s hard to argue with that. I mean, even if you do read them all the time, I mean, it’s a brilliant story.
RSB: Yeah. It sure – at least, it sure stands out compared to what’s usually – what’s usually getting published.
JR: But that’s not just sci-fi/fantasy. The online sort of controversy – it generally benefits, like, short fiction. In recent memory, you have, uh, “Cat Person”, that New Yorker story – I think it was New Yorker, anyway – felt like it.
RSB: Yeah. I think it was the New Yorker, yeah.
JR: And then you have, uh, Tony Tulathimutte’s “The Feminist”, that really good incel one. And these are –
RSB [crosstalk]: Oh my god, yeah, that one. That extremely dark one!
JR: Yeah, I love that story. And those are sort of examples of short fiction that have pushed outside of the bounds of people who read short fiction. It reached people who just read blogs and news articles; and I thought that was really healthy and really wonderful, just to have short fiction discussed in the mainstream –
RSB: Right, by normal people!
JR: In a controversially – people arguing over it, people trying to find meaning and symbolism and breaking it down, bringing their own critical faculties to it… You do not see that. That is just not something that happens. But it did happen, and that’s wonderful to see.
RSB: Oh, it’s so cool!
JR: So I guess the question of these people, the squeecore people, is how do you get outside of this cult, of this… this diminishing audience? Because they’re playing the hits, right? They’re reassuring their own readers. They’re not really growing their readership.
RSB: Right. It is very much a circlejerk, I think. [laughs] And one that narrows and narrows and narrows.
JR [crosstalk]: Yup. A work circlejerk!
RSB: I think eventually you’d get sick of it!
JR: One of those work meetings! We’ve all had ‘em.
RSB: Yeah. It… [trails off]
JR: I did have a little thing that I… I blurted out.
RSB: Yeah, go ahead.
JR: Apologies if it seems like a thought fart… Because it is! It is: who is writing squeecore? Finley Dunn said in 1902 that the duty of newspapers was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The latter-day Mexican writer César A. Cruz revived the phrase as “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” It’s a quote I’ve seen countless times, and it’s one of those epigrams that we can all basically agree on while arguing about the particulars. So, who in this scenario are the comfortable and who are the disturbed? Contemporary sci-fi/fantasy seems largely a case of the comfortable writing to comfort the other comfortable. Those who aren’t professional authors largely have professional jobs – stability! There are a disproportionate number of white-collar, government, nonprofit, corporate, academic, bureaucrats writing these stories – people in law, and in academia – and they’re mostly read by peers in similar fields. The sci-fi short story market in particular is vanishingly small and rarefied this way; and you absolutely see this professionalization reflected in the awards, the conventions, the workshops, and the work itself. It’s an economic clique, and a clique of bourgeois matters.
RSB: It absolutely does feel good. [laughs]
JR: That was hard to read!
RSB: It – no, it was good! It was good. I think it’s a very good soliloquy. But yeah, I agree; I don’t have much to add. But yeah, I guess I’d say “this!” and post an animated GIF of a guy named Chris pointing upward; I forget which Chris it is…
JR: [laughs] Or downward! There’s two options you have for Chris-es…
RSB: Up or downward… he’s going to point in some direction. And I can understand on one hand why, economically, you might do that, because there is an incentive to go over this tight – this shrinking market, but… I feel like we’re missing an opportunity, and a lot of potential to reach people who aren’t in it. And for me, I’ve given up on appealing to the popular clique in sci-fi. They are not gonna like what I have to say. But, but –
JR: Yeah, I mean, I have been a dick online for so long and so stridently that they all have me blocked anyway. Which is fine!
RSB: Yeah…! [laughs]
JR: I mean, I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t read my bullshit either.
RSB: But when you see something of yours reach an audience outside of that, it’s so refreshing and so exciting and so cool! And you see the squeecore writers ignoring that potential, like, well…
JR: Yeah, or they’re mad at it. Which of course we’ve seen.
RSB: They’re mad at it, they pretend it doesn’t exist, they get angry, or they – as Tor.com’s blog did – write a really watered-down version of it –
JR [cross-talk]: Oh, yeah!
RSB: – Without attributing it to me several months later. Okay, guys, um…
JR [cross-talk]: [laughs] They can imitate, but they can never duplicate.
RSB [cross-talk]: But instead of seizing on an opportunity – instead of seizing on an opportunity, they ignore it, which I find very disturbing. Like, I know I’m going to sound like an egomaniac, but when “Everyone Is Beautiful and No One Is Horny” got really big, I was – it got such a massive response, and I was blown away and really happy – but I’ve also been blown away by how much sci-fi/fantasy has stridently avoided talking about it, which is… it seems very weird. It’s a huge thing in discourse, and it’s very geeky! It’s about superheroes. And it’s about sex, which is – I mean, these people write so much slash fiction – they’re obsessed with Batman’s penis, and here’s an article all about it! You won’t… There’s a refusal to talk about it. And it’s like, if I were an editor of, say, like, a Tor blog, or an SFF magazine that ran editorials, and somebody wrote an article that got translated into like five different languages, and was referred to in newspapers all over the fucking world –
RSB: – about something in geek culture, I’d be like, “I want to talk to that writer! I want that writer! This writer is able to appeal to a lot of fucking people! This writer has something interesting to say!” And, to be fair, one of the editors of Fangoria did reach out to me, because horror is the superior genre – no one from SFF did.
JR: It’s true, folks!
RSB [crosstalk]: Horror is best. Horror is the GOAT.
JR [crosstalk]: No argument. Horror is the best, by far.
RSB: And it’s like, because I was – because I am not in this clique –
JR: That’s it.
RSB: – they are willing to pass up an opportunity to reach a broader audience and say something that really excites people. They’ll just… they’ll just pass that up! Because I didn’t go to Clarion and I am not in the same fandoms, and that’s it. And it’s like… What a waste!
JR: Yup. It’s a clique, that’s all it is. And there’s an in-group and an out-group.
RSB: And I’m not in it!
JR: And they will defend themselves by saying, oh, you have to pay your dues as, you know, to get into the club, you have to scrape and simper and be a courtier like Wuck Chendig, I’m going to say. A guy we do not talk about.
RSB: No, never.
JR: But you get on Twitter, or social media, you get the blue check; you flatter and you simper and you simp for years, and you just sort of ingratiate yourself to all these people –
RSB: You look the other way while your friends at conventions sexually harass and assault women.
JR: That’s right!
RSB: You act really surprised when they get caught… You know, you pay your dues! That’s what you do.
JR: Pay your dues! Be a bro. Or sis, or whatever you are.
RSB: Yeah. And that’s how you become a successful male feminist: by ignoring it when your friends harass women. Okay. But we’re getting off topic. Um, gosh, we were talking about cliques and why is squeecore –
JR [crosstalk]: Gonna be a big ol memeinist [?], and a male feminist! [inaudible]
RSB: And we talked about why squeecore – now let’s talk about what’s wrong with squeecore; why are we being so mean to squeecore? You have – you wrote down a really cool bit that says, maybe someone’s asking, “so what, is aspirational bad now?”
JR: Okay, yeah, I could read that out. Because –
RSB: Yeah, do it.
JR: It was a brief note that became a paragraph, and I apologize in advance.
RSB: It’s good. Read it, read it.
JR: So maybe you’re asking, “so what, is aspirational bad now?” And that’s the kind of reductive, defensive question you’d naturally ask if you believed that aspirational was the only purpose of fiction. The instinct to get defensive about the question means you probably attach a lot of value to that aspirational feeling, that frisson, that nebulous sense of hope. This allows for a lot of great storytelling, yes; but what it disallows is just as interesting. It disallows tragedy and disappointment. It disallows losers, fuck-ups, failures, fools, clowns, edgelords, liars, and perverts, and freaks, and criminals, and, yes, depraved monsters that you’ve never want to be within a hundred miles of. Squeecore disallows the unhappy ending; the disappointment; the rawness; the hopelessness; the truth that sometimes you never get what you want, and the discomfiting possibility that maybe you don’t deserve it. It disallows waste and relapse and pointlessness. In short, it disallows a huge spectrum of the human experience.
JR: Thank you!
RSB: I do think that’s an amazing point. And honestly, if you’re concerned about diversity – if you’re concerned about marginalized voices – you can’t fucking gentrify, okay? If you push out the people who are kind of strange and different, and people who make you uncomfortable, you’re going to be pushing out a hell of a lot of marginalized people. Just think about what happens to a neighborhood when you gentrify it: you end up making the neighborhood incredibly fucking white, don’t you, every single time.
RSB: So if you’re actually interested in the true spectrum of experience of marginalized people’s lives, yeah, it’s gonna – there’s gonna be parts of it that make you very uncomfortable, and there’s going to be parts of it that have sad endings or are weird or too raw… or too horny. And if you chase that away, you don’t have real diversity in your art.
RSB: Not really. You have tokenism, you don’t have diversity.
JR: Yeah. And I don’t use the word “gentrification” lightly. It’s not just cultural; it is an economic thing specifically, because as, you know, as sci-fi/fantasy gets more professionalized, it attracts a certain type of professional, a cynical marketing shark who can write to order for the market. You will see a lot more of these people, and they’re out there – I’m not going to name them, but you know who they are if you’re listening to this.
RSB: Yeah, you can see a story and go, that’s Hugo bait.
JR: It’s Hugo bait!
RSB: It hits the checklist, this is Hugo bait.
JR: This is a Professional (trademark) Author (trademark); this is what their voice sounds like; this is how they operate. And it’s very cynical.
RSB: Yup, absolutely. And it’s gross and it works so well. That’s what bugs me –
JR: It works! Yeah.
RSB: – is seeing it, like, “man, how is anyone being fooled by this bullshit?” Oh, God. Anyway. So we’re mean to squeecore because it pushes out people, it pushes out the full spectrum of human experience, it pushes everything out that’s not squeecore. It’s not enough for squeecore to say, like, “we don’t like gross things”; squeecore has to say “these other things are immoral and harmful.” And we did a full episode on this; but in my opinion, calling art “harmful” is not all that different from calling art “degenerate”, which is a really, really evil concept, the idea that art is “degenerate” and we must be protected from it. I find that deeply disturbing, and always ends up hurting queer artists more than anybody else.
JR: Oh, absolutely.
RSB: They’re always the ones who get labeled “degenerate” fastest.
JR [crosstalk]: It was art by the marginalized in that museum –
RSB [crosstalk]: And you could blame economics partially, maybe –
JR: Jewish artists, you know, black artists; jazz; Weimar cabaret –
RSB: Oh, yeah.
JR: – which was heavily, heavily queer – all that stuff was just labeled “degenerate” because it did not toe the line of “Aryan German morality”. And while we don’t have “Aryan German morality”, we definitely have bourgeois morality. Isn’t that comic? [?]
RSB: We definitely have American Protestant morality.
RSB: There is very much a WASPiness to it, I think –
RSB: – to squeecore, almost a Calvinism in that some people are good and some people are bad and that’s that. And it doesn’t even leave for the idea of redemption and forgiveness, even. It’s not even Catholic! It’s Protestant. Protestant art fuckin’ sucks.
RSB: As fucked up as the Catholic Church is, it’s a good aesthetic. Catholic art rocks, I have to admit.
JR [crosstalk]: [inaudible] …can say they built a cathedral. They didn’t get the giant organ… [inaudible]
RSB [crosstalk]: Terrible church, really cool art. Really just… yeah, people got mad at Anne Rice for converting to Catholicism for the aesthetic? No, I totally understand. She’s the vampire queen and Catholicism is a very good vampire aesthetic.
JR: [laughs] That’s the best reason to do it!
RSB: Yeah, so it’s not enough for it to exist, but it has to push everything else out and and morally condemn it, and you can’t just blame the market for it. I know there are people who want this, and people who like it, but people like other stuff too! There’s a hunger for darker or edgier or more interesting stories, like… In fantasy, A Song Of Ice And Fire, a really fucking grim, brutal series, is immensely popular. Or Squid Game! I mean, that was the top TV show. Everybody loves Squid Game! It was this massive international hit! But within the –
JR: And that was out of nowhere, as well! Just burst out of nowhere.
RSB: Out of nowhere! Nobody expected fucking Squid Game to get big, but it did! So –
JR: Yeah, because it spoke to something –
RSB: But in short SFF, in short sci-fi/fantasy, those who write it get frozen out by the influencer clique, or you straight-up get harassed out of the industry, like Isabel Fall did. And it’s bleak. It’s not just bleak for writers, but it’s shitty for readers too, because there is a hunger for these kinds of stories, and chasing everybody away is a rotten thing to do. Now, I was thinking, maybe we should skip the examples of squeecore, because people are gonna be mad at me. And, well, I dunno –
JR: They’re already probably pretty mad.
RSB: Let’s give a couple examples! Let’s give a couple examples of squeecore.
JR: Go ahead! I have nothing to lose!
RSB: I kind of think The Goblin Emperor – The Goblin Emperor, I think, qualifies. Our friend Karlo Yeager Rodriguez wrote a very, very good review of it in Blood Knife. Um, Chuck Wendig; just fuckin’ Chuck Wendig, everything he’s written, he is a massive squeecore writer. Joss Whedon and his many imitators. Pretty much, I’m going to say everybody on this past year’s Hugo Awards short fiction slate – except the “Helicopter Story” – kind of falls into squeecore to me. It’s extremely squeecore.
JR: Of the ones I’ve read, yes, but I can’t speak for all of them.
RSB: So let’s talk about some contemporary exceptions to squeecore. We’ve been kind of negative this episode, so let’s shine a – let’s light a candle in the darkness and talk about some contemporary short SFF writers who we think are fuckin’ awesome! I will start with Abbey Mei Otis; we did a book club episode on her collection Alien Virus Love Disaster Stories. She’s really good; she’s really, like, gritty and dark and funny and melancholy; her stories rock. Ted Chiang – I mean, if you’re listening to this, you know who Ted Chiang is, but read some fucking Ted Chiang. Ted Chiang rocks; he’s amazing, he’s exhaustively well-researched. He writes, like, one short story a year, but it’s always this perfect jewel; just an amazing, flawless story that blows your fucking mind. Carmen Maria Machado, of course, she’s brilliant and… she’s no longer on Book Twitter, because she got sick of everybody’s bullshit; good for her; you are free; you are free, Carmen Maria Machado! [laughs] I am so proud of you. How about you? Some recommendations from you.
JR: Well, I read a lot of grimdark fantasy, which I’m not going to get super into because that’s sort of its own thing; but I’m going to say: Gretchen Felker-Martin, of course; I love her work; I’ve been following her for ages; continual inspiration, glad to see her meteoric success as of late. Peter Watts –
RSB: Yeah, she’s been doing great right now.
JR: Yup. More stuff in the Isabel Fall sort of vein, the dark sci-fi. But I do love grimdark fantasy, and that sort of, like, recent reads. The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang – if I’m pronouncing that right; don’t yell at me like George R. R. Martin, please; I don’t know how to pronounce everything. Um –
RSB: You’re canceled!
JR: [laughs] Put that sound effect! [makes buzzer noise] [The Price Is Right losing sound plays]
RSB: J.R., fuck off into the sun!
JR: [laughs] I have fucked off into the sun, deep apologies.
RSB: You’re a Canadian, though, so you should be really good at apologies.
JR: I have been apologizing all my life, and I will never stop, and I will always respect my enemies.
RSB: Let’s see, other short story writers… uh, Porpentine! She’s amazing, she does super weird trans body horror. It rocks; she’s really, really cool, someone to check out. And our wonderful friends, who have been appearing on Rite Gud as guests. We’ve got Karlo Yeager Rodriguez. We’ve got the lovely and terribly under-appreciated June Martin – I do not understand why her stories don’t sell better than they do, because they’re fucking amazing; she is The World’s Greatest Writer. I don’t get it.
JR: If you’re an agent, you’d better buy “Accelerate”. You’d better –
RSB: Yeah, someone buy “Accelerate”. It’s really good! Probably. I haven’t read it. But I assume it’s good because June wrote it and June writes good.
JR: She sent it to me and it whips, it’s good.
RSB: Nice! Oh, gosh. Let’s see, who else…
JR: And yeah, all of the Rite Gud crew and the Blood Knife crew; I’ve never been so inspired to write again as in the last year, meeting all of you folks.
RSB: Oh, yeah. Yeah, the – I’m not going to lie; if I hadn’t been able to put together this Discord, with Blood Knife and Rite Gud people, I probably would have dropped out of writing, just because the community – the mainstream of the community is so fucking shitty.
RSB: And it’s like, no, I found a group of gross weirdos to hang out with. This is perfect! We keep each other going.
JR: That’s the water! They – like, maybe they see the water and they don’t want to say it’s water, because they want to be the default. They want to be the no-alternative.
JR: But there is an alternative –
RSB: And I’m hoping – one thing I’ve been hoping to do, and trying to do, is to create something of an alternative and say, there’s other ponds you can swim in. [laughs]
RSB: And they’re bigger and better.
JR: There’s better water.
RSB: There’s better water. There’s less –
JR: With less sharks.
RSB: Anyway! [laughs] Yeah. Alright, so, we have been talking for an hour and twenty minutes according to my watch, so why don’t we wind it down? Because this is a long, long episode. Where can our guests find your work and support you?
JR: Well, as of now, I run – not run – I’m the co-host of The Podhand, which is a podcast about… mainly Berserk by Kentaro Miura, but other grimdark and horror topics that are hopefully of interest to Berserk readers and people of – anyone who’s interested in dark media fiction.
JR: And also, look for my fantasy novel in the future. That’s all I can say about that.
RSB: Some day! Well, that’s all for this episode! Thanks for listening. Unlike some speculative fiction communities, Rite Gud is not sponsored by Raytheon. We rely only on our gorgeous listeners. So if you like what you heard, consider supporting us on https://patreon.com/ritegud. Supporters get bonus content and access to the Discord, our writing community that is gloriously… squee… free. Until next time, keep writing good!
MK: This has been Rite Gud with Raquel S. Benedict, hosted by Raquel S. Benedict and produced by Matt Keeley for K.S. Media LLC! Theme song by Surgery Head. This has been a KittySneezes production. For comments and concerns, please write to us at RiteGud at KittySneezes dot com. That is R-I-T-E G-U-D at kitty sneezes dot com. If you’d like to support us, please visit our Patreon at https://patreon.com/ritegud.