SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.
Today, we continue our ongoing new series “SFF in Conversation” with a guest post from 2014 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer nominee Max Gladstone.
Tangled Up in Heroes
One day my wife caught me singing Tangled Up in Blue in the shower and said, huh, I didn’t know you liked the Indigo Girls.
“What do you mean?” said I. “That’s a Dylan song.” One of my favorites, in fact—there’s a Dylan for everyone (and everyone in their Dylan? Sorry, that got weird fast…), even if yours is buried somewhere in the Basement Tapes or happens to be played by Cate Blanchett, but my Dylan is Storytelling Dylan, weird evocative symbolist Dylan who takes you through more fantasy novel in the three minutes of Isis than most writers manage in 400 pages, whose Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts is the best caper movie never made, whose Black Diamond Bay is the secret lovechild of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene run through Heston Blumenthal’s centrifuge. Tangled Up in Blue‘s core romance is easy to follow as Storytelling Dylan goes, but the weird hard turns and temporal misdirections—some verses cover years or decades, while one vignette in a topless club lasts two verses at least—and the flights of mad reference and lyrical exuberance (hidden surprise Dante!) make this twisted love affair into the crux of an age. And it rolls.
So she played for me the Tangled Up in Blue cover off 1200 Curfews, which, let’s see, I’m sure I left it somewhere on the internet, oh yeah, here we go.
Shortcut in case you can’t listen: it’s great. Wildly, propulsively great. Slow build, tight harmony, wide range, rocket fuel fiddle and drums. The Indigo Girls version’s now my favorite cover of the song; it may be my favorite version full stop, though it’s neck and neck with the Rolling Thunder Review live cut depending on the day.
Now, this isn’t much of a surprise. One of Dylan’s true strengths, to me, is how well his songs adapt to other singers and voices. The Masked & Anonymous soundtrack shines for Shirley Caesar’s Gotta Serve Somebody, and for Magokoro Brothers’ Japanese cover of My Back Pages. (And for Como Una Pietra Scalciata…) But one of the things that makes the Indigo Girls cover of Tangled Up in Blue so great is that it’s a story about love and loss and being fucked up, and it works perfectly sung by a woman.
I don’t mean that the song gains some mysterious quintessence of femininity in Ray and Sallers’ mouths. I mean it just works. The voice, the I, is a learned rambler and no-account, a working-class lover, last free spirit of a rebellious age who’s seen friends fall from rebellion into complacency if not explicit evil. (“He started in to dealing with slaves / and something inside of him died…”) And nothing about this character requires them to have a male gender. Those traits all show up in people. And I don’t want to talk tendencies here—stories aren’t about statistics. They’re about people, who can be as particular as we want. The only thing fixed about our main character, really, is that they’re tangled up in Blue—who is a woman, probably. Though as for that, masculine and feminine pronouns scan the same, and it’s entirely possible for men to work “in a topless place” (though ‘the spotlight so clear’ might not allow enough room for that interpretation) so while the singer in the Indigo Girls version seems to be a lesbian, another cover could just as easily rework the tale to be about two men, or a woman and a man, with minimal changes to the lyric. And the Indigo Girls cover in specific works so well that it never occurred to my wife (a brilliant woman who runs circles around me culturally but was raised in a Dylan-bereft household) that it might be a cover.
In many ways, refiguring the main character as a woman even makes the story better, fresher. We’ve seen worldweary rambler dudes in Kerouac and Hemmingway and, well, all over the place. There’s no shame seeing another here, but the female version of the same character is less established. (In fact—seems to me there’s an aspect of gender-swapped fanfic in this kind of cover, which is a whole other essay. Anyone else want to write it?)
Look, there are lots of ways to work for better fiction. Folk can and should read, promote, and listen to writers from non-het/cis/white/male/rich/USican backgrounds. We should think deeply about the kinds of stories we tell and read, and what those stories mean. I try to do all that—and, in writing my own fiction, I consider the lesson of that Tangled Up in Blue cover.
Which is, as I read it: there’s a lot more to characters than what they look like naked. There are plenty of stories to be told in which men and women interrogate essential notions of masculinity, femininity and gender identity, sure, or of racial or sexual identity, and those stories can be really intense and strange and cool and important, but there are plenty of other stories to be told, too: about trust, or betrayal, or blowing things up, about rashness or ambition, tenderness or sentimentality, frustration, freedom, about weakness and rambling, about faith and fury and humor and practical jokes and terror and despondency and rapture. About people of all backgrounds and genders and races and orientations being starship captains. And warriors. Artists. Engineers. Spies. Bankers. Bakers. Wizards. Those stories are good, too, and necessary.
To be clear, because this is dangerous territory and easy to misinterpret: I don’t claim external differences don’t matter, nor do I claim perfect knowledge of what’s going on inside any other person’s skin. But I know there’s a lot going on in there, and though identity channels and shapes content, it doesn’t dictate content. And, speaking for myself, it’s dangerous to forget this. If I forget the fundamental complexity and variety of real human people (which I observe every damn day among my friends and family), I’m at high risk for falling victim to judgments like “women tend to x,” or “y people are so z.” Those judgments make for bad living and bad fiction.
We don’t have time for either.
But seriously. Scroll up to that link and listen to the Indigo Girls version of Tangled Up in Blue. It’s really, really good.
About the author: Max Gladstone has sung in Carnegie Hall, been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and nominated for the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award. Tor Books published his most recent novel, FULL FATHOM FIVE, in July 2014. The first two books in the Craft sequence are THREE PARTS DEAD and TWO SERPENTS RISE.