I tend not to read many non-fiction books. Without an overarching narrative to sustain me (or a consistent reading time, like with my lunch-break short stories), I’ll read a chapter, find it interesting, and then set down the book to be forgotten for weeks. Essays are no problem—I’ll see those linked somewhere online, read them immediately, and move on—but books can be a struggle. But, nonfiction struggles aside, I am an avid Bingoer, so when SFF-Related Nonfiction appeared on this year’s board, to nonfiction I went. And since I’d always enjoyed Krista D. Ball’s Reddit essays that fell at the intersection of books and feminism, I figured her collection, Appropriately Aggressive: Essays about Books, Corgis, and Feminism, would make an excellent choice.
Because this is an essay collection, there’s no overarching narrative to summarize. But the collection is split into three sections, so I’ll take the three in turn. First is the section that inspired my purchase: a group of reworked Reddit essays mostly touching that fantasy/feminism intersection. These are pretty much all available for free online, but because Reddit’s search function is subpar, it’s nice to have them collected in one place. The downside is that they lose a bit of their locatedness in time and community—a lot of these essays are directed at a specific community at a specific time, and that community has not stayed the same. There are a whole lot of takeaways that remain worthwhile and insights that remain interesting, but the snapshot of a particular genre-discussing community in a 2015 essay isn’t going to perfectly map on to the same community in 2022, let alone a different one altogether. The other downside is that, by being published in 2019, it misses her outstanding Stabby Award-winning essay, I Want My Girlfriend to Read Fantasy, which discusses the nasty tendency to recommend books based on one’s own tastes without considering the tastes of the recommendee.
As should come as no surprise, these essays tend to cluster around the struggles faced by women writing fantasy and poor representation of women in speculative fiction. As these essays are between three and eight years old, some things have changed—r/Fantasy, for instance, may still have a male-dominated Top Novels poll, but the recommendations threads seem to be getting more diverse by the year, thanks to plenty of hard work and dedication from a lot of people seeking to make it an inclusive space—but there are plenty of problems that haven’t gone away, and there are takeaways that remain applicable even if the problem has gotten less severe. And she works hard to make the takeaways practical. If people are reading mostly men, there’s plenty of blame that can be placed on the publishers, but there’s only so much a SFF enthusiast can do about the publishers. And there’s also not much to be done about the person who only reads a couple books a year and sticks with familiar, known-quantities. But those who read 25 or 50 or 100 books a year (not coincidentally, a group that probably makes up a significant portion of the readership of these essays)? We have real opportunities to diversify our personal reading, and subsequent opportunities to be the recommending voices that help others do the same.
While it’s always helpful to see statistics and hear anecdotes that indicate the extent of the difficulty that female authors face in getting their work recognized, that wasn’t the only focus of this section of essays, and I actually found the piece on representation to be one of my favorites. At the time I’m writing this, the “strong female character” trope has been around long enough for some significant interrogation, but Ball’s piece served as an excellent addition to that interrogation, praising diversity in characterization while critiquing both the “not like other girls” trope and the tendency to interpret possession of stereotypically male traits as a sign of strength.
In the second section, Ball moves into discussions about writing. While I am not personally in the field, I found her frank discussion of the economics of self-publishing to be interesting, and the essays on health and family obligations as obstacles to writing may prove eye-opening to those who have not had to fight those particular battles. But, as a non-writer, my personal favorite was the essay that could’ve easily fit into the first section: “Realism.” In it, she rails against a demand for alleged realism in fantasy that (1) is based on misconceptions about actual history, and (2) is insensitive to the effects that fantasy elements would have on medieval history. The absurd incidence of rape in medieval-inspired fantasy provides an easy but important target in the first category (though Ball has written an entire book on historical food and drink and could’ve easily spent the essay on that if she’d wished), but it’s the second category that really hammers home the failures of creativity in worldbuilding. In particular, Ball notes that, given the outsized role of religion in culture, importing a fantasy religion should inform every other piece of worldbuilding. But so often, we see a fantasy gloss over an otherwise stereotypical medieval mishmash. This is such a valuable piece of creating a world that feels lived-in, and I honestly would’ve read an entire essay just on fantasy religion.
The final section is the shortest, with a couple personal anecdotes and a final piece in which she’s asked readers to share books that have deeply affected them. Suffice to say that as a book-lover, it was hard not to be moved by the final piece.
Of course, it’s a collection, not every piece was a wild hit, and there was a bit of overlap between essays. But there were enough thought-provoking pieces to make this an easy recommendation for those interested in writing or in the intersection between feminism and fantasy.
Recommended if you like: nonfiction about writing, fantasy, and feminism.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for SFF-Related Nonfiction.
Overall rating: 17 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.