I’m an observer. By that I mean I try to pay attention to what’s happening around me. What people say, how they say it, what they do. How what they say often conflicts with what they do. That’s a natural state for me. People seldom become fiction writers if they don’t, at least to some degree, find their fellow human beings fascinating creatures. I don’t pretend to have any great insights, mind, but sometimes a story or book is just me thinking out loud about the subject of people, and why they do the things they do. Of course, it also means that I tend to keep my mouth shut in most social situations, which makes me very dull company. Yet even I know that sometimes you gotta face down the dog in his own junkyard.
So is this a blog post about my abundant shortcomings? In a way, yes. Or at least the perception of one. See, the reader response to Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter is, except for the volume of it, pretty much what I expected. A great many readers like it a lot or a little. Some think it’s a waste of paper. One or two think I’m a waste of perfectly good carbon. The usual. One thing I did not expect—though to be fair, I should have seen it coming—was the criticism of the women in Yamada’s world, or rather my portrayal of them. As one reader/reviewer pointed out, they tend to be demons like Lady Kuzunoha and Lady Abe or conniving schemers like Princess Teiko. And I thought about that for a little while and came to the conclusion that the reviewer was absolutely right. Yes, Lady Kuzunoha is a fox-demon. Yes, Princess Teiko is a schemer, and she did ruthlessly use Lord Yamada and her own brother to achieve her goal. But even as I conceded those obvious facts, my overall reaction remained something like, “And your point is?”
A writer always has a balancing act to perform whenever she/he sets a book in a time and place that is not their own. Specifically a time and place with social customs and attitudes that the writer does not personally share. One way to go is to ignore all that except for the bare surface, and you have modern, enlightened(?) characters pretending to be ancient Greeks or Regency English. Or do you attempt to create characters in sync with and products of their time? Neither extreme works that well. You either wind up with a costume party or a book full of characters that no modern reader can relate to. Hence the balance, and how do you keep the characters recognizable as someone a reader would like to spend time with yet without turning them into something they are not, and more, shouldn’t be?
I’m not of the “people then are no different than people now” school, since it’s demonstrably untrue. However, I am of the “people then were still people” tradition, and do believe that as human beings we have more in common than not. We can understand the attitudes prevalent at a certain time and place, even when we don’t share them. That said, while Yamada is very much a man of his time, he’s definitely not a typical one. For one thing, he’s known dangers and hardships that most of his social peers cannot even imagine. For another, he gets more “real world” experience in a week than a typical nobleman living in the Capital would get in his entire life. The reason that the Heian Period is considered a “Golden Age” is that the nobility attached to the Capital had almost nothing to do except perform ceremonial functions, play “I’m more refined and sensitive than YOU” games, and compose poetry and music. Culturally it was a high water mark, but inherently unstable. It was a sheltered and very narrow-focus society, and for no one more than for the women.
While Heian women of the noble class had some legal rights—for instance they could own property in their own right—for the most part their lives were far more circumscribed than that of the men. They could not choose who they would marry, since all marriages were political and were decided by the clan leader, almost always the eldest male. They could not travel on their own. They could not speak to a man not their husband or immediate family except through a screen. Yes, women sometimes took lovers who were not their husbands and the strict letter of custom was not always observed. But everyone knew what the strict customs were, and the possible consequences of being caught. (You see a bit of that in “Moon Viewing at Shijo Bridge”).
In this society a fox-demon like, say, Lady Kuzunoha, has far greater freedom of direct action than a human noblewoman for obvious reasons. The fact that she is a demon doesn’t prevent Lord Yamada from having both respect and a great degree of admiration for her. And the freedom of action that a human noblewoman has, specifically a Lady of the Court such as Princess Teiko, is strictly in the realm of court intrigue and behind the scenes maneuvers and actions through proxies. Is Princess Teiko a schemer? Absolutely, and so what? In a society that allows a woman only one weapon to achieve her heart’s desire, you can damn well bet that she’s going to use it. Yamada may have hated what she did, but there never was a time when he didn’t understand why.
Here’s the thing–there were no Tomoe Gozens in Yamada’s world. The warrior culture that could create one has yet to reach the ascendant as it does in the later Kamakura period (though I do promise that we’ll see glimmerings of its birth in the new book). To write one as a character of the time rings false to me. Yet the women Lord Yamada interacts with are neither creatures of evil nor malign connivers. They are simply people of their time, dealing with their world as they find it and doing the best they can, just as he does. To write them any other way does them a disservice.