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“Hey, girl! Break free of the chains of the ‘virgin/whore’ dichotomy and get in touch with your power and sexuality! Um, you’re ultimately going to have to die for it. But you’re OK with that, right?”
This is the way it was in literature (and sometimes in life) for women for a long time. Any spark of power, either of the self-determination kind or the sexual freedom kind, in a female character had to end with the woman in question either returning to her “natural” place in the social order through a complete rejection of what she’d done as evil or, if she refused to repent, through death. This served as a warning to any woman who dared, in real life, to try and follow her literary sister’s journey.
There has always been the dichotomy of Angel and Devil, Virgin and Whore, in the history of women’s roles. Even in our “modern” society, we still look down on women who refuse to suppress their natural, healthy sexuality. We view them as shameful and the new name we have for them isn’t new at all: ho. And god help the woman who is authentically assertive; the name we give her has been around for centuries: bitch.
This history is one reason why the romance genre is so ground-breaking and something we would do well to keep in mind as we create our heroines. But to get where we are, we had to break free from where we were.
In a recent presentation, Sara Hackenberg dissected a very specific, and interesting, manifestation in the history of women in literature: the rebirth, in Victorian literature of the mid-19th to early-20th centuries, of the lamia. A lamia is, for all intents and purposes, a female vampire. Whether she is sucking away another’s speech, life energy, or blood, the traits of the lamia are thought-provoking—she’s beautiful, powerful, and powerfully sexual, both with women and men. She is the ultimate uncaged female unleashed on the world.
The beauty of the lamia is that she isn’t just a manifestation of the Devil/Whore. She is much more powerful and romantic than the traditional “fallen woman.” There have been versions of her in every sacred tradition in history and in her Victorian incarnation, her self-determination and sexuality echo the women-centric religions found in ancient Egypt, Greece, and other pre-Christian societies, as well as modern sacred cultures in India and Asia. And she’s immortal, so she doesn’t have to die for the “sin” of being an actual woman with actual self-will and sexual appetites.
Her re-emergence at that time is interesting. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and the political and social suppression of women’s innate will in this time period is legendary. It was also an age in which women were told “it was permissible to take part in physical intimacies within marriage, so long as it was done ‘without a particle of sexual desire’” and oft-quoted men of science made statements such as “I should say that the majority of women are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind”; is it any wonder this über-female arose in response? The lamia is one hell of a reaction, exploding the suffocating strictures within which women were expected to live. The time was ripe for the vengeful spirit of women’s suppressed power to burst out on the page (and it’s interesting that men wrote of lamias as well). The lamia gives voice to, and flaunts, women’s power and sexuality.
She proclaimed loudly that restricting women to angelic, and powerless, roles was a form of violence in itself. Many lamia stories play out a confrontation between the “ideal” version of women and a more real (albeit hyper-real) version, where the “angel” is sucked dry by the lamia, symbolizing, in part, how draining the angelic role is. If the angel had been at all empowered—if these two aspects had been balanced—she could never have fallen prey to the stronger side of herself.
So yes, the lamia represents female power out of balance. But when the pendulum swings, it destroys everything in its path as it screams toward the expression of the repressed side. And as is the case with all extreme expressions, it needs to be re-integrated.
And this is where the romance genre comes in. This lamia is, I am willing to argue, one root of our romance heroines. She is one of the underpinnings of our genre, and shows how what we are doing is so very, very radical in the history of literature.
Our female protagonists are the synthesis of the explosive power of the lamia and the nurturing nature of the angel. Both sides have something women need and we are weaving them back together by creating women who are a balanced mix of the lamia and the angel—they are self-willed, caring, have great sex, nurturing, and are in charge of every aspect of their lives, even down to which men they will and won’t have sex with and even what kind of sex they’re going to have, and they are not only allowed to live at the end of their stories, they are expected to go on having interesting and exciting lives and great sex. In the process, they do not suck others dry because they have the balancing aspects of the angel. They make it OK to be real women, not caricatures. What a radical premise!
This, my writer friends, is nothing short of a revolution. It may well be one reason why “the romance genre” is so maligned in our culture—we might be hearing a cultural echo of the censure against self-determined women interested in owning their power and their sexuality. Nice women just don’t do that! No, instead, romance must be some silly genre we should all look askance at as we proceed to the Literature section of the bookstore.
Where you can find all the books where women have to die for trying to live the very lives we create on paper every day.
So I’m all for bringing the knowledge of the history of women’s roles in literature to the forefront so we can consciously integrate the lamia and the angel into the souls of our heroines. It shouldn’t be a radical statement to create such characters, but it appears there are still many reasons why it is. So I raise my glass to all of us, who are showing, every day, that the new femininity is the radical notion that being a real woman can, and should, include both nurturing and sexual and personal power—and live to tell the tale.
 Ph.D., Stanford University 19th C. British and American literature; narrative mystery; popular and visual culture.
 Mary Wood-Allen, in her popular and influential book What a Young Woman Ought to Know, published in 1913, as quoted in Bill Bryson’s book At Home.
 Sir William Acton, The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, in Childhood, Youth, Adult Age, and Advanced Life, Considered in Their Physiological, Social, and Moral Relations, first published in 1857, and quoted in Bill Bryson’s At Home.
This month I found myself, in the midst of reworking a story, wondering why I bothered. There are times when this feeling surfaces in me where I think of the long hours I put into my art, my craft, and wonder if the balance of a story’s existing is worth the effort. Wouldn’t my time be better spent volunteering at a women’s shelter or writing non-fiction articles about issues I’m passionate about? Is my writing fiction just a way of softening the edges of the injustices and suffering I see in the world around me (or in myself), a way of couching dirty realities in pretty language paintings?
For these moments, I have two notecards covered with quotes. I take those cards out and read them when I start feeling like this, like there is just not a story in the world that could possibly matter more than teaching starving people how to grow food. What they remind me of is that stories are, in their own right, a very necessary kind of food—a food without which we cannot live any more than the kind of food we put in our mouths.
Stories aren’t just passive entertainment. We turn to stories to tell us how to make it through those times we don’t think we’re going to make it through. In college I needed to see Scarlett O’Hara and Madame Bovary live through loving the man they couldn’t have (in my case, the man I couldn’t get back). Sometimes I need to watch Holden Caulfield and Beloved wrestle with their versions of despair so I can contextualize mine. And sometimes when a darker emotion has me in its sway, I want a story full of sparkle and sass, a life raft from the shadowy depths of my internal ocean, reminding me there is a surface, after all.
That’s perhaps the most important reason to write—stories are our collective wisdom regarding how to make it through any and everything. There are endless reports of rescue workers in the depths of war zones and the scenes of natural disasters holding frightened children close and telling them stories. Yes, they’re also providing life-saving care, but stories are a part of that care. They help knit together shattered safety. Stories can help us form a context for understanding what’s happened to us.
Stories also help us explore, or discover, who we really are and what is at the root of our struggles. The meaning we ascribe to a story reflects this perfectly. To me, Hamlet isn’t about hesitation—it’s about what happens when we let our intellect overrun our heart. “Being too much in your head” is one of my biggest challenges and Hamlet reminds me of the cost of living there. And that’s why a good story isn’t just a fun read—it’s a journey of self-revelation: how many times have you been reading and thought “I’m totally like that” or “I’m nothing like that” or the ever-popular “Oh crap, I didn’t think I was like that, but really I am”?
I read a book recently about a woman who was in a great marriage…and then an ex-lover showed up. I love my husband, he’s amazing, but I learned a lot about my own longing from that book, and the way I can get trapped in a fantasy world just like that woman did, imbuing past lovers with magical qualities when my husband and I aren’t connecting the way I think we “should.” Danger, Will Robinson! Note to self: watch the gossamer-myth spinning. It distracts from what I need to pay attention to in the present.
And that’s why I have those quotes. When I forget the power of our collective storytelling, my reminding factors poke me and say, “Stories help us live, and make sense of, our lives. Keep writing.”
To say that I was surprised when I first heard the audio book market was exploding would be an understatement. Who would listen to a book when you can read it? And where are all these people listening to these books?
Turns out everyone, everywhere. Whether CD or audiofile, more and more people are choosing to listen to their stories. According to BookStats, numbers compiled by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, which “includes data from about 1,500 publishers, including the six major trade houses,” audiobook sales keep going up and up. “‘You’re seeing an evolution in terms of the way that people are accessing content,’ said Dominique Raccah, a former chairwoman of the Book Industry Study Group and the publisher of Sourcebooks, a midsize publishing company in Naperville, Ill., outside Chicago. ‘Audio downloads are up, e-books are up. There’s a migration in format clearly occurring. Customers can now access books in a lot of different ways.’”
You would think it’d be six of one, half dozen of another between carrying a book in your bag and carrying a mobile device. So what’s pushing sales of the audio book, this strange hybrid between print and technology? “Publishers attributed the increase partly to the widespread use of mobile devices.”
I read that line and immediately felt it missed something bigger. The more I thought about it, the more I agreed with what a friend of mine said during our discussion of this very topic—we want to be told stories. But what really goes on when we hear, as opposed to read, a story?
My dad read books to my sister and me when we were children, and when I focused in on what it was about those times that felt different from just reading the book myself, I remembered how he read with different voices for different characters, how he used inflection and accents and brought the emotion of stories alive with his voice. I remember when I started reading stories to my own child, how important I felt it was to do the same. I thought about how we, both my father and sister and me and my son, would act out pieces of story to each other after, laughing until we cried. Why? It’s clear we were adding something to the story by the way we read it aloud, but what?
And then I thought about all the stories we tell each other at parties and just hanging out, to our friends and families and, sometimes, even complete strangers; stories that make us scream with laughter, or clutch our chests while we try to breathe normally, or press tissues to our eyes.
I realized what’s happening during all those separate events is people are creating relationship. We’re getting close to one another in ways that can only be done through the medium of voice. Listening to someone speak is an intimately human experience—we open ourselves up through hearing a human voice. We drink in the nuance, allow the tone and resonance to evoke emotions, literally let another person live with us in our heads. It can create an incredibly intimate space in a world more and more stripped of intimacy.
All this explains why reading aloud to someone has such power, and revealed why my own first experience into audiobooks was so strong. My son and I listened to a book narrated by Brendan Fraser. Our only CD player was in the car (curse you, digital music! And yes, I know I could have downloaded it to my computer, but honestly, this was much more fun), and we were so hooked we would invent any excuse—“We’ve only got three-quarters of a loaf of bread left!”—to jump in the car and drive 50mph on the freeway to the furthest-away store we could find so we could listen to as much as possible. (Because, of course, you can’t just sit in the car in front of the house. That would be weird.) The story was great, but really it was Fraser’s voice, his inflection, his accents (just his accents alone cracked us up!), the way he brought the characters to life—the book was bursting forth from my speakers, alive in the air around us. It was Fraser’s voice that drew us, again and again, to my car.
When we listen to a story, we are entering into a relationship with the person we’re listening to. There is such power in the human voice and whether conscious or unconscious, audiobooks are tapping into this longing for connection. As far as I’m concerned, that is a bigger factor in audiobook sales than what device we have in our pocket. So presenting our stories in spoken formats might be a good marketing strategy, but it’s much more than that; it’s a deeper way to connect to readers, a way to create an intimacy that can never be reached through words on paper. We are storytellers, after all—let our stories be told.
I read a piece by Joyce Carol Oates in which she mentioned Charles Dickens’ essay “Night Walks,” about how, when he had an ongoing and intense bout of insomnia, he walked through the streets of London until dawn, and how this profoundly unsettling state of “night-restlessness” led him to rename himself “Houselessness” for the course of those evenings. Oates observed: “No one has captured the romance of desolation, the ecstasy of near-madness, more forcibly than Dickens, so wrongly interpreted as a dispenser of popular, soft-hearted tales.”
“Yes,” I thought immediately, “I know that intoxication.” I closed my eyes and let myself fall, for just a moment, into that delicious 3a.m. hush, when thoughts charge through our brains unrestrained, and words curlicue like smoke from our souls. Worlds end at 3a.m. Lives are unbearable and yes, desolation and near-madness can lick up around the edges of our minds, and the blood surging through our veins at those moments turns our pages red.
Wait, what? The “romance of desolation”? The “ecstasy of near-madness”? And then there is “dispenser of popular, light-hearted tales.”
This is the lit fic rallying cry. It embraces the idea that writers write because we can see the demons everyone else ignores, and we cannot rest until we wrestle them down onto paper, over and over, forever. Writing is our barbaric yawp, and we send it out over the rooftops, hoping to help dim the bedlam of lives lived in the vicious grip of the mundane. Anything less is inauthentic.
I hear the siren call of this idea, and I know it lives deep inside me. And yet my brow furrowed over Oates’s words. I know writers for whom this is not necessarily the state of their souls. They aren’t carving out pieces of the collective subconscious and nailing them to the page. They write about nice people who have all the trouble they need trying to get together with a person they’re attracted to without having to face an existential crisis on their way to dinner. These writers scoff at this idea: “That’s ridiculous! You don’t need to court madness and desolation to be authentic.”
I think both responses are correct. But how can that be, when they’re fundamentally opposed?
I was stumped until I started looking at it from a completely different angle. If you want to understand a culture, one of the biggest sources of information is that culture’s stories. What a bonanza the explosion of story forms in the last two centuries has been—among them commercial fiction, graphic novels, comic books, movies, and video games. And that got me thinking…
Amazing insights can be found by using all these stories to dissect, for example, what a culture fears, how it loves, and what it thinks is possible. Crime, horror, and paranormal, romance, and science fiction do just that. And lit fic, which is busy analyzing and digging into the underlying darkness of the psyche, gives the cultural sleuth an intentional glimpse of the gritty machines grinding away behind the beautiful facade people try so hard to preserve. And with those statements you can already see how this perspective makes murky the line between the two sides—there is just as much commercial fic that gives this glimpse as lit fic that fails to.
This broader view gives us the objectivity to look at fiction as existing on a continuum of human experience. This continuum goes from dark to light. And since no shadow can be thrown without light and no light can exist without creating shadow, there is no way to have sides. Even in a book without shadow we notice its absence, just as much as we notice the absence of light in a book consumed with shadow. The question, therefore, becomes not “What kind of book is this?” but “Where on the continuum of the human psyche does this book fall?” This question invites the reader to engage every book they read on a much deeper level.
If we’re honest, we, as writers, exist on this continuum, too. So what should matter most is how our story answers that second question, because we’re creating roadmaps of the human psyche, whether we’re aware we’re doing it or not. Our duty, collectively, is to provide as many different roadmaps as we can, not dismiss one story or another because of an imaginary literary fistfight. Only through all our approaches can we capture enough variations to get a glimpse of the true play of light and shadow in the soul, and this could lead to the deepest insight of all: When I look at you, your lights and darks, I see myself.
Kelly Hannow knows she has to get away from Chax. The question is, how?
For Major Camden Williams and Major Devin MacGreggor, Green Berets, after what they survived in Iraq, it’s nothing to them to catch a burglar. But when they see Kelly’s scar, the dark rage that burns hot beneath their surfaces is kindled, and just sending her on her way is no longer an option. Teaching Kelly defensive strategies takes an unexpected turn when the heat of battle turns to a very different kind of heat. Now the only question is, what kind of future can three lost souls possibly find together?
Here they are, the first ten sentences of my WIP, Breaking In.
Thanks to Karysa for such a cool idea! And thanks to all who read. I really appreciate it!
Breaking and entering was not on the list of things Kelly had hoped to accomplish when she graduated from college. But she also wasn’t one to run from good fortune when it decided to shine on her, which had been damn little in the last few years, and not at all in the last month. Breaking and entering posed the most welcome opportunity she could imagine at the moment.
Music bellowed from the speaker mounted on the ceiling and she let her mind create patterns in the dusty spider webs vibrating with the bass. Across the dingy pub Chax shoved crumpled, sweat-damp bills around on the bar. “Adam! Christ, you gonna give me change or what? No way I’m leaving you four bucks tip.”
She rubbed her thigh, a habit she hated and needed to break, even though finally her touch wasn’t met by a hot sting. She lifted her glass to her mouth and gin smoked its juniper tendrils toward the back of her throat before she swallowed. The familiar hollow feeling, like her chest had been emptied out, began to spread.
Thanks for reading! And be sure to check out the other authors who are posting for Snippet Sunday.
There are hundreds of types of fiction, but, arguably, they all boil down to three: literary, genre, and crossover. I’m forever interested in the distinctions between those three (and why those distinctions exist in the first place), but recently I had a conversation about distinctions from a completely different perspective—the reader’s.
I know, you’d think I would have understood the influence this perspective has on these distinctions a long time ago. I did, to a certain extent, but it was more along the lines of “Hey, reader, come on this journey with me! Maybe it won’t be what you expected, but I promise it’s going to be worth it!” It wasn’t until I saw, and understood my reaction to, the movie Pain & Gain that I really got that what I was saying wasn’t taking into account the power of what a reader brings to our books before they even pick them up off the shelf or download them. I’m talking about the power of expectations.
But first, Pain & Gain. I love Mark Wahlberg and pretty much trust, at this point, that the movies he’s in are going to be of a certain caliber. The trailers for Pain & Gain, at least the ones I saw, portrayed it as a comedy. I was all on fire to see it. When my husband and son went on a camping trip together, I eagerly bought my ticket and a great big box of Reese’s Pieces and claimed my seat in the exact center of the theater.
True to the trailers, when the movie began, it was very funny. But as I sat there in the dark, munching tiny peanut butter spheres, it became harder and harder to maintain my laughter. In fact, as the true awfulness of the situation became clear, I stopped laughing all together. These horrible things had really been done to a real man by the real main characters.
This was not a funny story—not at all. In fact, it was horrifying.
Fast forward to my discussion with other writers about reader expectations.
I’ve always maintained that, as long as you write a good story, your readers will come along for the ride. I’ve done my fair share of genre-twisting, running on the far side of a “rule,” playing with the tropes and definitions of our genre. And, to a certain extent, I think those are good things to do.
But the lesson I learned from Pain & Gain was this: if you tell your audience you’ve written a certain kind of story, in a certain genre, they come into it with certain expectations. And those expectations can be a good thing. They prime the pump of your audience, predisposing them to like your work.
On the other hand, if you lead them to believe your story is one thing, and it’s really something else, those same expectations are going to sink you.
For example, you can write amazing romance, absolutely knock that ball out of the park, but if your cover blurb, Amazon description, and jacket copy try to sell it as lit fic, you are going to get bad reviews. Because your story is bad? No! Because you failed to meet the readers’ expectations—they aren’t expecting romance, and won’t recognize your efforts in that genre. (And vice versa!) They’re looking for lit fic, and they’re not getting it, and they hate your book because of that.
I hated Pain & Gain because it wasn’t funny (whether or not it is a good movie at all is a different discussion). I couldn’t change my expectations half-way through and re-imagine the movie as whatever it was trying to be, because I was too busy being horrified by the subject matter, which certainly didn’t meet my expectations.
Ultimately, we can write whatever kind of book we like. We can tweak and twist the “rules” of our genre every which way (and this can be, in part, the definition of “crossover”). But it’s also our responsibility to understand the expectations of our audience. There are rules to our genres and sub-genres, and when we write, whether we like it or not, our stories are going to be judged, in part, on whether or not we met the expectations of our audience, based on those rules. Does this mean we’re locked into tropes and the like? No. But if we’re going to push the genre, we need to be clear exactly which direction we’re pushing in. We can’t just presume our readers will love the sushi we serve them when they very clearly ordered lasagna.