Why Don’t You Bastards Cut That Out?

Or why the Big Idea pitch for Betsy Dornbusch’s Exile did the opposite of convince me to want to read the book.

I started with the Twitter pitch. A half-breed, ex-slave bastard falsely accused of murdering his wife is exiled to the arse-end of the world. And I came up with lots of ideas, but I kept getting distracted by the fun parts of the book. There’s prejudice. (Epic fantasy!) A crisis of faith. (Swords!) Slavery. Crushing grief. (A quest!) Guilt. Suicidal tendencies. (Magic!) Revenge

Look, people. Words mean things. Having either half-breed or bastard in your elevator pitch? That’s a great way to alienate people who a) fall between cultures or b) don’t actually know their paternal gene-donor.

Aliette de Bodard’s already taken on mixed-race people in SFF. (In short: it’s a piece of short-hand characterisation frequently really badly, lazily, used.)

I’m here to add a minor little caveat to the use of the word “bastard.”

I’m the child of an unwed mother, born when that was much, much less socially acceptable than it is today. Ireland took much longer than our imperial neighbour to repeal the medieval Merton Statutes (13th century): not until 1965, with the Succession Act, was special bastardy formally repealed, along with dower and tenancy by the curtesy, escheat to the State and escheat to a mesne lord for want of heirs. For me, born in the eighties, bastard was a word without legal meaning, but its moral force remained as a shadow over my early years: it wasn’t until after I reached college that I could own the word – admit to not having a father – without feelings of shame.

Yeah, I’m a bastard. Screw you.

Bastard is a very specific word. In ancient Athens, children of citizens with non-citizen women were known as νόθοι, a word that means variously baseborn, crossbred (of animals), or counterfeit. The Latin equivalent is, I believe, spurius or nothus, as opposed to legitimus, lawful, according to the law. Bastard denotes a specific legal standing: to be precise, one who has no standing in the eyes of the state. Before the 1960s, in Britain and Ireland, a bastard possessed no automatic rights of inheritance; in the 17th and 18th centuries, bastard children had little recourse to what little assistance for indigency existed, in the form of the Poor Laws and parish assistance. To speak of bastardy is to speak of an ingrained set of social assumptions, all nested within each other: it speaks to the role of marriage (the primacy of such a role), the place of property and inheritance, the legitimacy and social legibility of certain relationships, roles, bodies. (It also points up that the society wherein “bastardy” is a thing is not kind to the sexual freedom of its women.)

So, yes, bastardy is a historical concept and can be usefully explored, in terms of social power dynamics, in SFF. But your “half-breed bastard”? That’s an insult used against real people. And using it as a fun hook makes me doubt in your ability to treat issues of power and oppression with seriousness or sensitivity.

The fact that there’s no legal disability attached to that anymore doesn’t mean that it’s a word that can’t be used to shame. Because let’s not make any mistake here: certain kinds of relationships, certain configurations of families, are still more socially legible, more legitimate, than others.

Half-breed. Half-caste. Bastard. Whoreson. Whore. Faggot. Dyke. Lazy feckless jobless. Single mother. I reserve the right to be bloody fucking sensitive about how these words are deployed. A half-breed, ex-slave bastard falsely accused of murdering his wife is exiled to the arse-end of the world. That elevator pitch doesn’t hook me, it repels me.

And I haven’t even mentioned the fridging implied by falsely accused of murdering his wife.

Perhaps I wrong the book. And I mean no offence to Dornbusch, who is most likely less insensitive than her elevator pitch makes her sound. I’m using her pitch as an example of a trend, because it’s the latest to cross my path.

But words mean things. And half-breed (aside from its racist overtones) is not shorthand for alienated with angst about place in the world, anymore than bastard is shorthand for unloved and rejected – but so very often they seem to be used that way.

And that has an effect in the real world. It affects real people.

So why don’t you bastards cut that out, huh? Think more deeply about what your words imply.

22 thoughts on “Why Don’t You Bastards Cut That Out?

  1. I was wondering if I’d see something like this post about this book. I have a copy – I really like what Night Shade has been doing over the last 2-3 years, so I pretty much get a copy of most anything that I think could be interesting. But the description leaves a bad taste in my mouth and I don’t even have any direct reason to be offened (read that as I’m a priviledged white dude). It’s made me hesitant to read the book.

  2. * gives standing ovation *

    “arse-end of the world” is hella insulting as well. One assumes other people live there and that this is their home. *smashes colonialsm *

  3. Yeah, I’m a privileged white girl. I have an e-copy, which I was considering reading. I may still read it, but the pitch description just… irks me. Seriously, deeply, irks me.

  4. Brava! Thank you for this post.

    Reading that blurb again just makes me see red. I don’t feel I can trust a writer who sees subjects like prejudice, slavery, grief, suicidal tendencies and revenge as FUN. You would hope a writer would at least understand what these words mean. They do not in any way or form say fun to me.

  5. Yeah. To me, it implies someone who’s never (or very, very mildly) been at the sticky end of any of these things. (I have very little direct personal experience of national/sectarian/racial prejudice, me, but understanding the historical legal disabilities of the Catholic Irish helps me personalise and contextualise other forms of institutional prejudice. Which is not to say I don’t fail understanding, sometimes, because similar is not always comparable, particular in terms of degree… But I digress.)

    I mean. They’re important topics for literature. And I’m not saying they can never be entertaining. But they’re fun the same way gallows humour is fun – which is not very, and you damn well better have good grounding in the point of view of the about-to-be-hanged.

    As for suicidal tendencies… That’s not something you can really play around with. Not really.

  6. Beyond all the problems already mentioned, my initial reaction to that pitch is that seems incredibly formulaic. “The Social Outcast is Sent Away Unjustly, and there’s a whole bunch of other familiar stuff in here as well.” I’m pretty sure I’ve already read that story at some point. Anyway, I’m assuming it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Unfortunately, yeah, it comes across more like foot-in-mouth. As someone that knows exactly what foot tastes like, I have a little sympathy. OTOH, I don’t think I’ll be reading this book either.

  7. Bravo.
    I’ve read the blurb on amazon, and wow. it’s not really making me want to read the book… (as someone else pointed out, the book seems to start with gratuitous fridging and a severe dose of colonialism…)

  8. So the crux of your argument is: “I don’t know if the words used here were badly chosen or not but I will pick on this writer because I have seen the terminology(which I have deep personal issues about) used badly previously.”

  9. Nope, those words were definitely badly chosen. (C’mon, half-breed? Really?)

    I’m not picking on the writer, I’m picking on her words. Distinct difference.

    Oh, and by the way? “Deep personal issues” is putting it a bit strongly. I don’t like to see problematic shit repeated as “all-in-good-fun.” A lot of people have a similar “deep personal issue.” (Hah.) You might call it a political stance, rather than a personal one.

  10. It really does seem to hit a whole lot of “there really could be serious problematic stuff in the execution” points.

  11. I’ve put my foot in my mouth often enough to feel a little bad about deconstructing the pitch like this. But not quite bad enough to refrain.

  12. Besides, it’s not like anyone gets all upset when people’s “deep personal issues” means they love a book (as is often the case). It’s only a phrase that’s used when people want to silence criticism. And it’s a pretty shitty way of trying to do so at that.

  13. Your reply (I hesitate to call it an argument as you don’t even address the points in the post) is so nonsensical in general, but especially when it is applied to books and writing. …Is it not supposed to matter which words are chosen and how words are strung together? Funny, I thought that was the fucking point of WRITING.

  14. It is supposed to matter which words are chosen and how they’re strung together. But in future let’s not call comments nonsensical unless they actually are, all right? Brendan put his sentence together in ways that make sense, even if it *is* dismissive sense.

  15. Confession time: I read an advance copy of Exile, liked it, blurbed it, and in clueless majority fashion never once realized that the use of half-breed, bastard, etc within the specific context of the story might be offensive. (The prejudices of Exile’s various secondary-world societies against mixed-race people were portrayed as just that: ugly, foolish, virulent prejudices that cause serious harm; and the protagonist’s status as a bastard was in the monarchic legal sense (he’s the illegitimate child of a royal family member, and as such, held a high military rank before getting framed and banished.) So thank you for bringing this up – without frank discussions like this, people like me might well remain clueless as to the hurtful effect such words can have upon readers.

  16. It does, and the author doesn’t really do a good job of convincing me she can deal with those problems (reading her Big Idea post, I was more stuck at “not convinced she even saw the problems…)

  17. I can’t speak to within the context of the story – I’m perfectly willing to grant that within it, there may be thoughtful interrogations of power and status and so on. But the elevator pitch has to stand on its own outside the specific context of the story. And the problematic implications of half-breed bastard are preeeeetty strongly involved with racist/classist/gendered harm in the real world.

    So there has to be a better way to pitch this that doesn’t involve playing into that harm, I think?

    ETA: My take is not that the concepts are in and of themselves harmful in fiction. Just that, without deeper context, this phrasing plays into harmful narratives. I express myself poorly, perhaps.

  18. I understand and agree with what you’re saying about the pitch needing to stand on its own in a real-world context (and not offend/repel/hurt people). The actual back of the book has a tagline that reads “He lost his wife, his homeland, and his name, only to find a destiny that would shake the gods.” Which is a bit generic, but less problematic.

  19. When you can spout so much detail about bastardry, presumably off the cuff, I assume you know this because of research due to your personal circumstance, or for work. If your knowledge was for work you are suggesting that the author hasn’t done her own homework, which is basically condescending, something I am sure you would never imply.

    So that leaves personal which is emphasised by bringing your personal story into the discussion, the “screw you” bit and your swearing further down the page.

    If you were simply being political that is in a way worse since that denies anyone’s use of those words no matter how correctly since they ‘can’ be misused. When you state that “It affects real people” you are denying the possibility that Dornbusch knows this and chose her word in spite of this since they were the ones that best encapsulates the character

    Next time if you don’t want to people to presume you are picking on an individual try to talk about the terms in general without mentioning names. As a professional writer yourself, I am sure you can do it without losing any impact to your argument.

  20. Brendan, moderate your tone, and dial down your assumptions. Otherwise you won’t be commenting here again.

    Five minutes’ research on Wikipedia gives one plenty of detail about the Merton Statutes and the laws of bastardy in England, Wales and Ireland, btw. You just need to know where to look. But yeah, I know this stuff because it was relevant to me – in the same way I can scrape by in conversational Irish because school thought it was relevant to me.

    The personal is political. The political is personal. Extend some thought about how “half-breed bastard” sounds as an elevator pitch vs. what Courtney Schafer tells us is the phrasing the publisher used on the back copy.

    Next time if you don’t want to people to presume you are picking on an individual try to talk about the terms in general without mentioning names. As a professional writer yourself, I am sure you can do it without losing any impact to your argument.

    What’s your dog in this discussion, anyway? (And “picking on” is such a schoolyard phrase.) I’m calling Dornbusch out in specific, yes, as an example of how to phrase the pitch for your novel to be maximumly problematic. To that extent, I am “picking on” her choice of phrasing.

    Not the individual. Dornbusch’s words are separate from her person. Make this distinction – it’s an important one – or draw a line under this conversation and walk away.

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