All the way back in 2009, nigh on an eternity ago, I posted a little something called The Bustlepunk Manifesto. Hardly a proper manifesto at all, it was really more of an excuse to post a picture of a really stunning Worth gown along with a bit of topical silliness, which sprung from some conversation that was going on over at my friend Serge’s LJ. Over the past couple of years, that silly little post — and more specifically, the term I used in it, “bustlepunk” — has taken on a life of its own. I get asked about it in interviews with plodding regularity. I hear of other authors being asked about it in interviews. A recent review of my book on Tor.com stirred the pot, calling bustlepunk “the softer side of steampunk.” (Oh noes! Softer? GIRLIER? We know what those mean! They’re really just code words for “weaker” and “crappier”! Aaaigh! More on that later.) Anyway. All of this came to a head over the past couple of days, on the Twitter feed of a fellow named @steamscholar. Yes, gentle readers, even though I’ve forsworn street fighting for more gentle, womanly pursuits, I’ve waded into a bit of a dustup. Some representative tweets follow:
Well, after that it was on like Donkey Kong. Of course, I considered the argument lost on Mr. Perschon’s side when he took this classic tack:
Anyway, I offered to provide a more thorough and well-thought-out support of bustlepunk than my hastily-slapped-together-half-as-a-joke two year old manifesto. This post is my attempt to honor that promise and address the points raised:
1) Do we really need another “-punk”? No. Of course we do not. I submit we didn’t even need *one.* But whatever. It’s out there, it lives, good luck making it go away no matter how much you hate it. Words come into general and popular usage for a reason. Whether this one has “stuck” because it sounds catchy, or because it puts a name to something that needs naming, I can’t say and don’t particularly care.
2) How dare you call [X] writer a bustlepunk, as though all [she] writes about is tea carts? How dare I? Well, because I can call anything anything I fucking want to, that’s why. I can call Moby Dick bustlepunk if I want to, and there’s not a goddamn thing anyone can do about it. However, because I do treasure logical consistency and accuracy, allow me to state for the record that I would not call Moby Dick bustlepunk. Nor would I now categorize Cherie Priest’s works as bustlepunk, though I did do so in my original post, and I can’t quite remember why. What would I categorize as bustlepunk? Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Shades of Milk and Honey” and Gail Carriger’s books, definitely. This is not because I’m trying to corral either one of those worthy authors into some bogus marketing category I made up all by myself, nor because their work is all about bustles (there’s nary a one to be found in Kowal’s book, as it is set in the Regency.) Rather, it is because I feel that both of those authors are exploring narratives from a different side than does most speculative fiction that is categorized as steampunk. OK?
3) No, not OK. I still don’t get why you don’t just call them steampunk like everyone else. Why do you persist on this foolishness of calling them something all different-y like “bustlepunk”? Well, perhaps it is because I think that the two things ARE very different, specifically in terms of content and focus. The works I define as bustlepunk focus primarily on examining aspects of 19th century life through the lens of the feminine experience. This may include tea tables and fascinators and bustles and crinolines. It may also include sexual freedom (or lack thereof), romantic relationships in which the power dynamic between the man and the woman is hardly short of abusive (due to the political and social realities of the time), the challenge of claiming and using power within a deeply patriarchal society, and so on. I would not consider a book “bustlepunk” if it did not touch on subversive topics such as these. Without them, it’s all bustle and no punk.
4) Oh well, screw all that. It’s marginalizing to women to apply a gendered term to fiction they … uh, you … produce. You’re creating a literary “ghetto” within steampunk and shoving all the girls into it. AND IT MUST STOP! Now we come to the argument that really gets under my girdle. Because it suggests that the marginalization of women writers comes not from the society we live in, or the historical forces we labor under, but rather as a result of the *words* we use. Are you kidding me with that shit? The deep social issues that result in a female writer being dismissed or trivialized because she “just” writes romance do not disappear, and cannot be made to disappear, by simply calling her a “fiction” writer (or a “steampunk” writer for that matter.) It is a comfortable, abhorrent fiction that simply pretending a marginalized group is a happy part of one harmonious whole will make them not be marginalized. Equality does not emerge magically as the result of calling everyone the same thing. Quite the opposite, in my opinion. By focusing attention on the writers who are producing works that focus on this aspect of women’s historical experience, I propose that we are bringing these issues forward for closer examination. But hey. That’s just me.
In conclusion, I can only say that the whole concept of bustlepunk has come to mean more to me than I thought it did. This could, of course, be a result of my own massively over-inflated ego. Or maybe the term really does pinpoint something important. You’ll just have to decide for yourself.