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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.