Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"Zen And The Art of Lazy Writing" or "Why You Should Stop Giving White People Katanas"

Anyone who's read my blog before knows that I tend to talk about things in the writing profession that upset me. I've discussed misogynistic tropes, called out lazy writing in romance novels, and I've addressed reams of things you should never say to an author. This week I'd like to stick with what I'm good at, and point out another piece of bad writing which I think we can all agree has had its 15 minutes of fame and should move along now.

Unless this is what you want your book to be about?
I'm talking of course about the katana.

The Facts

Why am I picking on the most awesome sword history has ever created, you might ask. Is it because I simply haven't heard the good word of Hattori Hanzo? Am I a sword snob who feels that weapons like the Ulfbehrt (find out what that is here) are superior to the creme-de-la-creme of Japanese weapon smithing? Do I have a vendetta against fun?

Yes. Mostly, though, it's because there are too many facts getting in the way for me to be silent any longer.

What facts could get in the way of this blade?
Let's begin at the beginning, shall we? The legend is that a katana, when forged by a master sword smith and placed in the hands of a trained warrior was a terrifying weapon. The steel, folded thousands of times, could cut through armor and bone, leaving a wake of bloody bodies behind a samurai as he decimated the battlefield. Superior to any other blade ever produced anywhere in the world, the katana still stands as a testament to the purity of the culture that created it.

That's all well and good. The problem is that it's one part myth, and one part bed time story according to this article.

Here are the facts. A katana is a curved sword which, in the hands of a truly capable warrior who had trained with one his entire life, was a deadly weapon. The problem is these swords were forged from tamahagane, which was also known by the more common European designation of "pig iron" in the days of yore. This subpar metal was all smiths had to work with, so they folded the iron 7 or 8 times to beat some of the carbon out of it. The result was a sword that would take an edge and do damage if you swung it like a fishing rod (you'll notice that samurai have a limp-wristed style that is the polar opposite of many other fighting styles), but which would shatter into a thousand shards if you swung it with all your might the way you would a broadsword.

None of that applies to a katana made from the high carbon steel that we can produce today, of course. Even cheap steel would have been a miraculous, near magical thing in the days of feudal Japan, and a katana made from high carbon steel will stand up to quite a beating and an awful lot of use.

The Real Problem: Cultural Appropriation

The real issue for writers is not whether or not the katana is or isn't history's greatest weapon. We have access to magic, super science, inhuman heroes and mutated villains. If we say that a sword has a blade forged in a dying star with a pommel hammered from the holy grail itself then no one can contradict us.

If we have this weapon being wielded by someone with blond hair and blue eyes though, sooner or later someone's going to call bullshit.

This is where we get to the meat of the problems with the katana; it's a Japanese weapon, but there are a whole lot of people wielding them in today's fiction who aren't Japanese, who have nothing to do with Japan, and who really have no reason to own one of these weapons much less be able to use one.

We call this cultural appropriation. For those of you unfamiliar with the term it essentially means that one group of people appropriates parts of another, typically less powerful group's culture. If you saw the VMA awards in 2013 then you saw Miley Cyrus twerking despite that dance being part of African American culture for decades. Having your 23-year-old caucasian stripper with blond hair and green eyes cut down vampires with a sword that only belonged to the warrior class of feudal Japan is essentially the same thing.

Your argument made flesh.

Don't Be That Writer

In an age where representation of different ethnicities, genders, and sexualities is becoming more and more important to readers, writers can no longer afford to rely on tropes like the Mighty Whitey to create action heroes. It falls to us to examine our work with a critical eye and to ask why? Why does a warrior for the Christian God who was born in New York and trained by knights from Europe fight with a katana? How would someone without a lifetime of discipline (and we're talking the feudal kind where training started at age 5 or 6) ever wield this weapon effectively?

What's wrong with just making your main character Japanese, and having the hero come from overseas? Or, if you really want to go the whole nine yards, setting your book in Japan!

If you find yourself coming up with a lot of complicated reasons why someone who is not from a certain part of the world, or a certain culture, has a given skill, trait, item, or other plot-important thing, then you need to put on the brakes and take a good, long look at what you're writing. The last thing we need is another white guy showing up with a katana.

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  1. I recently saw part of the movie and the end of 47 Ronin. Can I say UGH?

    First, they didn't need the white guy as a plot device, let alone the hero.

    Second, I hated the ending. Ugh.

  2. I don't think that Kill Bill is an example of lazy writing. Apropriaion, yes, but that's been David Carradine all along. The series is more of a sendup of a classic Kung Fu chop sockey trope

  3. Fun fact: The Japanese love it when other people admire and mimic their culture.

  4. I've just downloaded iStripper, and now I can watch the best virtual strippers on my desktop.

  5. Some counter-arguments:

    It's not correct that Katanas were made from Pig Iron per se. Pig Iron doesn't occur in nature. They were made from Magnetite ore.

    It's true that Katanas aren't the greatest swords, but they're not significantly inferior to Longswords. The ultimate deadliness of either weapon would largely depend on the user's skill with that particular weapon.

    Regarding the cultural appropriation angle, there's a few variables involved. I would generally say that if you're to write a Katana-user, why not make them Japanese?

    Having said that, white Katana-users are quite plausible depending on the setting. In a modern setting it's actually fairly easy to justify (white people learn Asian martial arts all the time in the US).

    To be fair, the specific example of "knight fighting for the Christian God" probably shouldn't use a Katana. You should probably have the character be Japanese and/or set the story in Japan to make it plausible (Japanese Christians do exist, mind you).

    Though, if you're doing the latter, I'd suggest that giving the hero a longsword might actually be cooler. A Knight in Japan is cool for the same reason a Samurai in the West is cool.