Competence

I recently discovered that a number of readers have decided that my books fall into a category that I’d heard in passing over the last several years – “competence porn.”

I don’t have a problem with readers finding my protagonists competent – as well as even some of my villains. My problem lies with the category itself, possibly because I’m definitely old school, and while I can’t object to knowledgeable adults reading and viewing pornography, it’s definitely not my thing. As Marian Zimmer Bradley – who definitely knew pornography – once observed, pornography is mainly concerned with anatomical plumbing. Combining pornography with competence exalts the former and degrades the latter.

And I have a real problem with degrading competence, especially at a time in our history where everyday competence is getting rarer and when fewer and fewer young people can read or write competently. Classifying books with competent main characters as a type of pornography is the last sort of thing we need today.

Part of the idea behind the “competence porn” classification is a failure to understand that competent characters aren’t perfect. Even the most competent individuals make mistakes; it’s that they seldom make stupid mistakes in their own field, because competence requires knowing your field.

Another problem with the term “competence porn” is the current tendency of far too many readers to denigrate genres, subgenres, styles, and authors that they don’t like. I understand that many readers like and want fallible characters who get into messes because they’re not competent. Some readers want to root for such characters. That’s what they like. But that doesn’t mean that what they don’t like is bad. Sometimes it is; many times it’s just not to that reader’s taste.

I don’t have a problem with that. I do have a problem with anyone who denigrates books that feature excellence and competence. If an author doesn’t write competence well, one can fault the work, or the way it’s handled, but terming books that feature competent main characters as competence porn is a disservice to both the authors and to the ideal of competence.

7 thoughts on “Competence”

  1. Hanneke says:

    When I have seen the term used, it did not seem intended to denigrate, but to indicate that reading about competent characters was something they enjoyed.

    But then I’ve only seen it used by some bloggers who talk about the books they liked, and why they liked certain (kinds of) books, and generally don’t talk about books they didn’t like (i.e. not professional reviewers).

    I agree, it is an unprepossessing term for a positively intended meaning. Though presumably the consumers of porn enjoy the content, a lot of people view it negatively. So using that as shorthand for ‘is something I enjoy’ is very offputting to a lot of people.

  2. DS says:

    The use of “porn” as shorthand for “something that you get enjoyment from” has wandered around the Internet for years now, probably coming out of Reddit with its subreddits like MapPorn (for people who enjoy maps) and HistoryPorn (for people who enjoy historic photographs) hanging around for a decade or more. “Competence porn” is intended as shorthand for a work for people who enjoy competent protagonists.

    1. Postagoras says:

      This sums it up very well.

      A bit of searching turned up the blog post from 2009 where John Rogers, a writer for the show Leverage, first used the term.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    “it’s that they seldom make stupid mistakes in their own field, because competence requires knowing your field.”

    And because in your stories and sometimes in reality, those who fail to learn from mistakes early in an escalating struggle would put their survival at risk (precluding anything more than a cautionary short story); and even effectiveness can have a high price.

    Anyway, other posters have suggested it’s a compliment, if perhaps a backhanded phrase; might as well take it as a compliment. 🙂

  4. Christopher Robin says:

    Having read all of your books I can see why some would label them as “Competence porn” although I do not feel that to be accurate. Your books are for people that enjoy topics/characters that stimulate thinking critically about various topics.

    The reason some struggle with understanding your protagonists is their inability to realize that certain character qualities are required for someone to accomplish great things. Work ethic, understanding political/social realities and so on are necessary to achieve the great things your characters typically strive for.

  5. Joe says:

    Your books do not harp on about the characters’ emotions. Instead we see what the person believes by his actions, since your heroes are not hypocrites. For those who only know how to melt into a puddle of empathy, such portrayals are probably quite alien. So they dismiss your books as competence porn.

    Unfortunately harping on about protagonists’ emotions unskillfully seems to be fashionable, ruining existing series, such as the Expanse’s 5’th season and it made the new Star Trek Discovery literally unwatchable.

  6. M Kilian says:

    The other posters have good points, though I would also like to add some context that comes from having watched Japanese anime and been immersed in that culture. There is a genre that has risen to some prominence in the last few years that is termed “torture porn”, in that the main characters are tragically incompetent, and suffer immensely for it.

    It’s like a constant comedy of tragedies, in which the protagonist suffers constant terrible circumstances, barely getting by not by their own abilities, but by sheer chance, help from another, or abuse of some strange power that still involves them suffering failure leading up until death until they reach a preferable outcome.

    So I suppose in juxtaposition, your characters manage to overcome terrible odds at times by often being underestimated, sometimes by themselves, often by others, but acquiring the skills and experience to do what they need to, when they need to. They don’t get everything right, but their success is largely their own.

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