• Shop Indie Bookstores
  • Recent Posts

  • Archives

  • Categories

Reading Challenge Review: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon (or, “Problematic Fandom Revisited”)

A book based on or turned into a TV show (#49 on my 2015 Reading Challenge List): Outlanderby Diana Gabaldon

The new Outlander cover, featuring the stars of the TV series that debuted on Starz in 2014.

The new Outlander cover, featuring the stars of the TV series that debuted on Starz in 2014.

I bought this book on a whim about 3 weeks ago, knowing very little about the plot beyond the one-line summary  of “historical romance in Scotland.” I had a vague notion time travel might be involved. I had seen video of Gabaldon talking about her writing process at a 2014 Comic-Con panel (and smiling as she said that she cheated in her worldbuilding because she could draw on history openly instead of having to hide the fact that she’d done so); I also knew she was one of the subset of authors who officially requests that no fanfic be written in her world. But I didn’t know anything about her novels.

The copy I bought was over 800 pages, and I read it in three or four days. When I found myself in my local bookstore last weekend, I scooped up the rest of the series (7 more 800+ page books) and staggered to the checkout counter. Saying I found Outlander compulsively readable is an understatement. The characters are well-drawn; the details of the historical setting (actually two different historical settings, but we’ll get to that in a moment) feel painstakingly researched; the prose is smooth and witty. The book is full of scenes to love, both big ones like the ritual Clan Gathering when all the associates of the MacKenzie family come together to reaffirm their oaths to the clan head, and small ones like the moment when the main character overhears her new husband counseling his small nephew on the birds and the bees (and answering the question ‘Is it hard to keep from laughing?’)

And yet.

When I went to Goodreads to get a sense of the general reception for Outlander, I found it seemed to be one of those books people loved or hated. The ones who loved it praised the same things that I liked. The ones who didn’t love it talked about borderline-consensual sex and domestic violence. And I’ll concede that this book has those things, as well as deeply troublesome depictions of gay characters.

In brief, the story of Outlander is the story of Claire Beauchamp Randall, an Englishwoman who’s just been reunited with her historian husband, Frank, after World War II. On a trip to Scotland with him, she stumbles through a ring of standing stones and finds herself transported from 1946 to 1743. There, she quickly runs afoul of a sadistic English captain who also happens to be her husband’s ancestor (and looks so much like him that in the TV show they’re played by the same actor). To stay safe, she’s persuaded to marry Jamie Fraser, a strapping young nephew of the local clan head (thereby making her nationality Scottish rather than English and removing herself from Captain Randall’s jurisdiction). In fairly short order, Claire decides that she loves Jamie more than Frank and that she’s going to stay in the 18th century. Over the next few hundred pages, there’s a whole lot of, er, urgent sex; there’s a scene where Jamie beats Claire with a belt as punishment for disobeying him and inadvertently risking the lives of their traveling companions; and there’s an extended sequence exploring the psychological consequences of male-on-male sexual abuse. The perpetrator is one of only two identifiably queer characters in the book (the other’s played entirely for laughs). Both of them are unable to resist Jamie’s charms.

This development on its own wasn’t enough to make me turn away from the book. I’m willing to make some allowance for changing norms (Outlander was first published in 1991, when there was less widespread cultural awareness about avoiding tropes like these), and hold out hope that there will be less problematic queer characters waiting in the wings in future books. But the fact that the only gay character with substantial screen time in the first one is a monster is still troubling, and I’m not going to try to pretend otherwise.

The concern I see in other reviews around domestic violence and consent is there for me, too, at least upon reflection. While I didn’t find the scenes in question personally troubling as I read, I also acknowledge that my first reaction (which went along the lines of “this scene’s set in a different time and relations between men and women were different; it’s just Gabaldon being historically accurate!”) is a version of the same argument that explains away the whiteness of a lot of European-inspired fantasy stories by saying there were no people of color in medieval Europe. (Which, PS, is also far from true.) I’m aware of the argument that many women fantasize about “the sexy man who won’t take no for an answer,” and that for that reason encounters where consent is questionable-at-best are supposedly pretty common in romance novels (I don’t know the genre well enough to offer evidence one way or the other); I also completely support an individual author’s right to tell any kind of story they want to tell. That doesn’t make the themes this author chose for her book less problematic to a contemporary eye.

I’ve discussed topics like this before on the blog, and linked to the fabulous essay from Social Justice League on “how to be a fan of problematic things.” That author, Rachael, has three suggestions on how to do this in a self-aware way, and I’ll reproduce them here:

  1. Firstly, acknowledge that the thing you like is problematic and do not attempt to make excuses for it.
  2. Secondly, do not gloss over the issues or derail conversations about the problematic elements.
  3. Thirdly, you must acknowledge other, even less favorable, interpretations of the media you like.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to negotiate these issues as a fan. I like Firefly and Angel, despite being uneasy with some of their choices around race. I like A Song of Ice and Fire even though it has its own (“historically accurate”) issues around consent and around gender more broadly. Right now, Husband and I are watching The West Wing, which has some serious problems with both gender and race that don’t seem to get nearly as much press as its witty dialogue. I try to be aware whenever I consume media, and Gabaldon’s series is just the latest instance where this awareness has found something to trip over without having to look very hard.

I liked this book a lot. I’m curious to see where the story goes, and I bought the rest of the series without a moment’s hesitation. I’ve recommended Outlander to friends, and I’ll recommend it here, too — but when I do, I note the problematic things that I mentioned up above, because I know many people might not want to read a book that includes those elements.

As I’ve become more active in fan culture, one of the themes I’ve seen over and over in discussions of competing fandoms is that part of good nerd citizenship is acknowledging others’ rights to like things that you don’t, whether that’s Twilight or Harry Potter or the Transformers movies. I think the less-often-stated duty is to also acknowledge others’ rights not to share your love for something. Discussions about the problematic aspects of things I love make me a more conscientious fan and a more conscientious storyteller, and I’m glad that the tent of genre stories is getting bigger so that more voices can be heard. Because just as having one stereotypical character is less problematic if they’re part of a larger, less stereotyped population (also known as Don’t Make the Only Black Guy the Muscle) this book is less troublesome if it’s on a shelf with other books that have well-adjusted gay protagonists and sex that’s unequivocally consensual regardless of the era. So I’ll keep reading Gabaldon, and I’ll also keep looking for other new authors to add to my library. Go thou and do likewise.

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. In-Jokes and Crossovers In Fiction: Love ‘em or Leave ‘em? | Sociologist Novelist

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: