Monday, January 14, 2019

Hopepunk? Do we really need a label like that?

While I was traveling recently I happened to read the Vox think piece about "Hopepunk." The (genre-ish) label was coined by Alexandra Rowland, so I followed up later reading on Twitter some of her thoughts on it, her elaborations and explanations.

Hmm, what to make of it?

I both like and dislike the idea, but definitely like the discussions that the label leads to.

So first, what don't I like? Well...the main thing is that I wonder if it's necessary. Must we label and define every sub-category of literary approaches? It reminds me of the old discussion forums that Nightshade Books hosted long ago. I came along a few years too late for all the animated New Weird discussions, but the effects of those discussions still haunted portions of the site. Is this really something new and noteworthy? Can we just allow writers to write what intrigues them without trying to label and define it?

Now...I happened to like New Weird, and really I found that the discussions helped lead me to discover new works and new writers I enjoyed. But I sympathize with the idea that the act of labeling can put restrictions on the writers. If New Weird had devolved into Bugs 'n Drugs, as some dismissively called it, then it would have been a pointless distinction. (Instead it just...fffaded away, and now it's rare to find anyone willing to claim the label. Which is maybe better than a restricting label. But still...)

So I guess my dislike is the fear that "hopepunk" turns into some label for people to wrangle over, some sub-genre that turns its fans inward instead of outward. This work isn't hopepunk enough. That work isn't hopepunk at all, so I won't bother reading it. Mindless insularity and border policing, the very things I've resisted in the broader fields of fantasy, SF, literature in general.

But...that's simply a potential pitfall for now.

So what do I like about it?

I recognize what I've been trying to do in my writing for years, for one.

I never felt a strong draw toward grimdark. Some works that get labeled that have been good, but as a label, it doesn't excite me, and I never saw myself trying to make my name within its confines. It wasn't so much a dislike of the idea as simply a lack of any real connection to the themes.

Then noblebright came along, and...meh. Again, it wasn't so much that I was adamantly against anything that might be labeled that, but rather that I didn't feel any connection with the underlying push. Can a good story have a character inspired by ideals who isn't narratively punished for that? Sure. In fact, much that I've written would probably fit that very minimalist definition, but I've never felt like it was really noblebright.

What piqued my interest in hopepunk was the idea of resisting, of recognizing the awful things in the world and not letting that lead to despair. Of fighting against a darkness that will probably win in the end, but maybe not. No matter how the story ends up (in a Tolkien-style eucatastrophe--a surprising victory when failure seemed assured; a true failure; a bittersweet victory; a well earned triumph), it's in those moments of not knowing but continuing on that make a story compelling. Often my favorite stories to read are favorites for that very reason, for the beleaguered travelers who keep going, the doomed rebel soldiers who fight on, the underground resisters who know they're likely to end up arrested by the Nazis but who help hide the Jewish refugees even so.

Way back when Musa was publishing my Spire City serials, I wrote a guest blog about keeping the punk part of steampunk, about keeping the focus of the story on those who are being ground down by society. (That post later ended up, slightly modified, as the author intro to the collected Season Two: Pursued.) I think that fits well with the conversations around hopepunk and together they form a part of what I always try to touch on in my writing. In Spire City, it's a group of homeless people, poor and infected by a mad scientists' deadly serum. In The Silk Betrayal, the character who gives the novel its main arc isn't at first interested in that--Pavresh is mid-caste and comfortable and only wants to learn the performance magic Chaitan has discovered/invented. But in many ways it's the story of Pavresh becoming concerned with those things, becoming a part of the dreamers who want (and fight for) a better society. It's no coincidence that many of them come from a much lower position in society, and some do lose hope in the face of failure and betrayal. But that's a part of the arc of the story, and some fight on, no matter the cost.

I hope that hopepunk continues to be one lens to look at stories through. But not a genre label. I hope there are no anthologies of hopepunk, no raging battles over what is and isn't a member of the club. Not a definition to constrain how writers write their stories, but a way to look and see those stories after they're written. With everything going on in the world, stories of hope and even hopepunk have an important role so we don't give in to mindless fascism, greed, and despair.

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