Fanboy Comics Advance Review: Beyond the Wall: Exploring George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and FireWritten by Bryant Dillon, Special to CC2K
Fanboy Comics' Bryant Dillon reviews Beyond the Wall, the latest from Smart Pop Books.
For those in Geekdom who are not familiar with Smart Pop Books, I want you to know that you’ve been missing out - big time! Fortunately, I’m here to save your geek cred! Smart Pop Books is the pop culture imprint of independent publisher BenBella Books and offers a variety of engaging and thought-provoking, non-fiction titles focused on the discussion and exploration of the best of pop culture TV, books, and film. I was introduced to Smart Pop Books years ago when they stepped into the Whedon world with two must-read titles: Seven Seasons of Buffy and Five Seasons of Angel.
CC2K's Book Editor Beth Woodward is out this week. CC2K TV Editor Phoebe Raven fills in for her and takes a look at the wildly popular Fifty Shades of Grey books, which are currently all the talk on the internet.
A large part of me does not want to write this article. Because this large part of me is ashamed that I am in a position to be able to write this article. And the other part of me is chastising the ashamed part of me for genre bias, which is a problem our resident Book Editor Beth Woodward has raged against time and time and time again.
See, here’s the root of my dilemma: I recently read Fifty Shades of Grey. Then I read Fifty Shades Darker. And then I read Fifty Shades Freed.
Yes, I admit it: I read the entire Fifty Shades trilogy by E.L. James in a span of less than two weeks. And now I don’t know what to do with myself.
For those who don’t understand why this is throwing me—lover and defender of literature with great language and lofty subject matters that serve to make the reader think—into emotional turmoil, let me give you the background to the much buzzed about Fifty Shades books.
They started out as fan fiction. And what’s more, as Twilight fan fiction. That right there should be enough to scare me off. But when the buzz around these books just wouldn’t stop and even Alexander Skarsgaard said in an interview that even though he hadn’t read the books, he would consider starring in a movie version of them, which is in the works right now, I just had to see what the hype was about. Besides, my classes for the semester were over and all I had left to do was move to another continent. Perfect timing to read a bit of BDSM romance, no?
Oh, did I not tell you that part? Yeah, the “controversy” surrounding the Fifty Shades trilogy not only stems from the fact that it is originally a fan fiction romance based on Twilight, but that it depicts sex scenes inspired by the world of BDSM. Even though one has to say that the book hints at some more “extreme” sexual acts, the actual sex acts that do occur in Fifty Shades aren’t all that hardcore BDSM. They may not always be “vanilla sex” either, as one of the central characters calls sex without toys or role-playing etc., but the book is far from shocking to anyone who knows the first bit about their own sexuality.
The actual story of Fifty Shades goes as follows: naïve, albeit witty, college graduate Anastasia Steele, who is a virgin, meets successful, mysterious business man Christian Grey, who was adopted as a small child and suffers from childhood trauma. He compensates this by shutting people out emotionally and relieving his tension as a Dominant in BDSM relationships. For these relationships he requires his Submissive to sign contracts and a non-disclosure agreement. He is incredibly rich, incredibly handsome, an incredibly good lover and incredibly messed up. And sweet little Anastasia is blown away by him. Can her love save him from all his inner demons?
The set-up for the story is trite and convenient. The fact that Anastasia is a virgin makes her an “easy target” for Christian Grey’s proposals, since she has no frame of reference and hence has to trust what he tells her on the subject of sex. The fact that Christian is unbelievably rich takes care of a lot of every day nuisances Joe Normal would have to deal with, but which are boring to read on the page. Plus, it offers the opportunity for luscious settings and adventures, such as helicopter rides, trips around Europe on expensive yachts and outrageous gifts like new cars and designer clothes.
In many aspects Fifty Shades is a teenage girl’s fantasy made manifest on the page and I suspect only teenage girls will truly be “shocked” by any of the sex acts described in the books.
Yet whether or not the sex is really as controversial as it is made out to be by some of the more prudish readers (and let’s face it, Twilight was written with those kinds of people in mind), what really is infuriating about the Fifty Shades trilogy is the abhorrently bad prose and writing style. If I hadn’t been reading the books on my Kindle, I would have thrown them against the wall, repeatedly. Possibly until some of the pages had fallen out of the book by their own accord. E. L. James’ vocabulary is so limited and so juvenile that it seriously hinders the depths she can lend to her characters or her scenarios. I could make a long, long list of words and phrases she repeats ad nauseum—and I mean that literally, some words occur more than thrice in the span of two pages—and I would love nothing more than taking my red pen to her manuscript and giving it a good work-over. If E.L. James needs anything, it is an editor. A harsh editor. And then maybe she’s got something going here. She falters specifically in her descriptions of body language and facial expressions, falling back on the same phrases time and time again, offering no variety and hence making many of her scenes interchangeable in the reader’s mind. Instead of being absorbed by the scenes, which sometimes are quite heavy and psychologically deep, I was torn out of the story by the terrible language and I yearned for better descriptions of the characters, so that I could learn more about them.
Let me clarify my complaint: I fully endorse publishers branching out and looking for fresh authors in the realm of fan fiction, because there is no reason why someone who writes fan fiction can’t be a good writer. If you think that, then you are just genre biased. And E.L. James’ story, which was originally posted under a nickname on a Twilight fanfic forum, has potential, if not merely for its somewhat controversial sex scenes, then also for the depth she attempts to give her characters, if barred by her limited ability to express herself in language. With a good editor, these books could have become infinitely better. Even a pleasure to read, I believe.
The problem is that the Fifty Shades books are published by a small online publisher, The Writers Coffee Shop, based in Australia, who I suspect did not spring for a thorough edit of James’ books before they went to print/release.
(The publisher also announced in March that the Fifty Shades trilogy is no longer available through their publishing house, because British E.L. James has signed a deal with a big U.S. publisher.)
A clear sign that E.L. James is a “young” (in terms of experience) writer is that the prose gets marginally better as the trilogy moves on. Every writer improves with every sentence they write and re-write, every chapter they draft and redraft, every story they finish and refinish.
This improvement process, in my opinion, should happen before an author is published, at least to a certain level of skill and expertise. After all, we don’t want to watch a tennis player practicing his serve for years until we finally see him play a match either, right? And even if a writer remains somewhat limited in certain areas of their writing, that’s what a good editor or a writing workshop is for: to help with those problems that remain.
Nevertheless, as irritated as I was with the language, I was interested in the characters, particularly in the character of Christian Grey. As slowly but surely in the course of the trilogy his personal history is revealed and we learn more about the way he thinks of himself and his place in the world, he becomes quite endearing and sympathetic. And knowing everything he has had to endure and how self-flagellating he has become as a result gives a different quality to his actions in the first book, which I am currently re-reading.
The character of Anastasia Steele is less intriguing, because she is not drawn as a convincing, modern day college graduate. She doesn’t own a computer or a cell phone when she meets Christian Grey and she is claimed to not only be a virgin but to never even have masturbated in her life. She objects to Christian giving her expensive gifts because she says it makes her feel cheap, yet she mooches off her friend Kate and Kate’s parents’ money by moving with Kate into an apartment in Seattle that Kate’s parents have bought.
Since the whole story is told from Anastasia’s perspective, there is no getting away from her thoughts and the way she deals with things in her head. As a reader I quickly tired of the italics that are supposed to give her thoughts on events, yet often don’t extend beyond a breathless “Oh…”. And I couldn’t take another reference to her “inner goddess”, who is always in favor of “kinky fuckery” (term from the books) and her studious “subconscious” (a term the Freud student in me violently objects to anyway), disapprovingly glaring at anything sexual or daring Anastasia does. Again, these are weaknesses in E.L. James’ writing and they prevent her from making Anastasia as endearing a character as she ought to be. Most of the time she is just annoying, but we have to endure her if we want to learn anything more about Christian Grey.
I won’t go into the ridiculousness of the blackmail and kidnapping plot in the second and third book here, I have bagged on James enough. The mechanics of language and plotting undoubtedly give her away as an inexperienced writer living out teenage fantasies on the page and I object more to the former than the latter. But she obviously does something right as well and gives a voice to the teenage part of a lot of female readers. That is the basic point I am trying to make: the Fifty Shades trilogy is a very specific piece of writing that will appeal to only a very specific kind of audience in its current state, meaning female readers who have held on to some of their teenage fantasies of love and a frog that turns into a Prince.
I fundamentally believe Fifty Shades does not appeal to men and even with the heavy editing I would put the books through this wouldn’t change drastically.
I definitely wouldn’t recommend reading these books to any of my friends. They are far too infuriating in their language and some of their morals to be thoroughly enjoyable as literature.
I would, however, be interested in a movie version of these books, given that the central focus is shifted away from Anastasia and onto Christian and the right actor is cast for the part. What I personally love most about the character is that he is copper-haired. If the movie version could stay true to that, I would be a happy camper. But it’s Hollywood. We’ll end up with Miley Cyrus and Alex Pettyfer or worse. And that’s what ultimately remains for me in relation to anything Fifty Shades: disappointment. Because it can and should be more and better than what it is, but it isn’t and it will never be.
CC2K Co-founder Robert J. Peterson shot the book trailer for his sci-fi novel The Odds last night. Here's his report:
We shot the book trailer for The Odds last night at my friend Dennis Mao's incredible Japanese grill Robata-Ya on Sawtelle in Los Angeles. I had lunch there while scouting the space, and I can't wait to go back. Thanks to Dennis for the space!
I love time travel stories. They just appeal to me on some fundamental level. I’m a big history junkie, so the idea of being able to travel to the past appeals to me. I would love to spend some time hanging out in the Colonial era or the Wild West or Regency England or ancient Egypt. I’d love to meet Alexander Hamilton (my favorite historical figure) and John Adams (my second favorite—I have a thing for early American history) and Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters and William Howard Taft (a distant relative of mine, according to family lore). Speaking of family, I’d love to trace my own roots through Ireland and England and Germany and Sweden (or maybe it was Scotland).
I’ve written about Stacia Kane’s wonderful Downside Ghosts series before, but it occurs to me that I haven’t reviewed one of the individual books to talk about why I like the series so much.
The series takes place in a world where, in 1997, murderous ghosts rose from the grave and began to slaughter people. After most of the world’s population was killed, a magic-wielding church rose to contain the ghosts and began to dominate the social and political landscape of this new world.
So I was in Barnes & Noble recently, shopping for a gift for a young relative. I was looking in the section of classic children’s books, when I saw it: an abridged version of Little Women.
When I was about seven years old, I got a book of abridged versions of classic children’s books from the 19th century: Black Beauty, The Secret Garden, What Katy Did, and…Little Women. Little Women was the first book I read, and the one I devoured most voraciously. Why this one in particular? In my seven-year-old mind, the logic was simple: it was the book that featured a character named Beth. With a lead character named Beth, how could I go wrong?
Poor Beth didn’t have it easy in the book. She was so shy she couldn’t even talk to anyone, and she spent much of the book sick with scarlet fever. (To this day, I’m not exactly sure what scarlet fever is.) But names aside, the character I related to most was Jo, who wrote stories and never quite fit in. The book ended on a happy note: Beth got better, and Papa March came home from the Civil War. All was well in the 19th century.
Years later, I found out that Little Women didn’t have such a happy ending. Turns out, my “abridged” version cut off after the first half of the book. In the second half, Beth dies, Jo gives up her writing, gets married to a stick-in-the-mud, and living the kind of life she dreaded as a teenager.
It was horrible! I felt betrayed! Not only Alcott killed off Beth, she made Jo give up her dream of becoming a writer for a life she never wanted…and with Professor Bhaer, of all people! Maybe if it had been Laurie, it would have been a little bit better, but Professor Bhaer? What exactly did he have to recommend him as a character? Poor Laurie ended up with selfish, spoiled Amy. Regardless, the message was clear: Jo had to put away childish things (writing) to grow up, get married, and raise a family.
Granted, I resent Little Women a little bit more because of the bait-and-switch my childhood copy pulled on me (perhaps not so coincidentally, the copy I saw recently ended at the same place). But it seemed to be a theme of many of my childhood favorites. Anne of Green Gables: Anne grows up, gets married to Gilbert, and gives up both teaching and writing. A Wrinkle in Time: Meg Murray grows up, gets married to Calvin O’Keefe, and gives up a brilliant mathematical career so she won’t give her children inferiority complexes. (Seriously, that is actually what happened.)
Granted, these series are dated, and they reflect norms that have changed significantly in the last several decades. But it seems to reflect a prevailing trend, not only in literature but in life. Kids get to have the dreams, while adults need to give them up.
And that, quite frankly, sucks. Why should we have to give up our dreams just because we grow up? Yet that’s the culture we have—and for once, I’m not just talking about a feminist issue. No, this is something both males and females are bombarded with (though admittedly, I still think males and females are given a different set of expectations).
For years, people have asked me what my long-term goals are. “I want to be a fiction writer,” I’d tell them. “Oh, that’s nice,” they’d say, “but what are you really going to do?” Time and time again, people have told me it’s time to grow up, settle down, and lock myself into a real career.
But why should I have to give up my dreams? Why should anyone? If you don’t have anything left to dream about, what do you have that’s worth living for? Look, you can have a regular job with a regular paycheck, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop painting or writing or playing bongo drums or whatever.
But over and over again, that’s what we hear in our children’s literature. Kids have dreams. Grown-ups have responsibilities. It sucks. And I’m tired of it.
So I say we take back the literature. Kids can dream. Adults can dream, too. And the cool thing about being an adult is that you can actually work to make these dreams happen. We should reflect that in our coming-of-age books. Let’s let the kids who dream become adults who dream, both in real life and in fiction.
So I skipped over Little Women. Hell if I would pull the same bait-and-switch on some child that was pulled on me. I got The Secret Garden instead.
Recently, urban fantasy author Allison Pang wrote a blog entry titled, “Did Buffy Destroy Urban Fantasy.” She makes the argument that before Buffy, urban fantasy was not considered a genre unto itself, but rather just a small part of the larger fantasy genre. She makes the argument that, in the post-Buffy world, urban fantasy has been pigeonholed as “female fantasy” because most of the books are written by women and feature female leading characters.
Meanwhile, a few days ago, I read about a male author who had difficulty getting his debut novel, a romance featuring a male protagonist, published. Seems editors kept telling him that women did not read romances by, and about, males. (I bet Nicholas Sparks and Nick Hornby would be surprised to know that.)
I know I’ve written about genre bias many times before, and this is a different—and alarming—permutation: the idea of dividing fiction genres into gendered categories. In addition, this disproportionately seems to have the effect of segregating so-called “girl books.” (In fact, there’s an entire subgenre known as “women’s fiction.”)
I get that there are always going to be books that are read disproportionately by women, and books that are read disproportionately by men. That’s not what I have a problem with. But the issue is that girl books are relegated to a lower place in the fiction hierarchy. Furthermore, while it’s totally acceptable for women to read typically male fiction, but woe to the male who decides to pick up one of these girl books.
Honestly, it seems like there are only two requirements for something to be classified a girl book: a) It’s written by a female, or, b) It has a female protagonist. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except that girl books are somehow looked upon as lesser than their male-written and -dominated counterparts. As Pang puts it, “Sometimes it feels like I have to apologize for not writing a “real” book in a “real” genre. (Oh, it’s just Urban Fantasy, nothing major. Not like Game of Thrones, or anything cool like that.)”
It’s worse for romance, which is often treated like the metaphorical red-headed stepchild of the literary world. Forget the fact that romance outsells every other fiction genre. They’re just girl books, and clearly all of us girls are bubbleheads who can’t evaluate quality literature.
Why is it that we need to assign weights to genres at all? Why can’t we evaluate books on their individual merits, rather than what genre they belong to? Furthermore, why do those stereotypically girl books get assigned a lesser weight/relevance/importance than the stereotypically boy books?
I keep imagining a world in which people can read whatever they want and not be judged on it, a world in which a man can read (or write!) a romance novel and a woman can read/write a spy thriller and it’ll all be good.
I’m so tired of needing to get up on my feminist soapbox to say, “This is why we still need to work on male/female equality.” But really, this is a problem that affects both men and women. By putting ourselves into comfortable “male” and “female” boxes, we’re limiting everyone.
How did you come up with the idea for Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters?
Well, I wanted to write a book that was sort of a response to the Gossip Girl/Clique/etc. craze - a book about a REAL girl in NYC, who isn't drinking martinis at the Savoy while clutching a limitless platinum card and having X-rated affairs with half of her school, but who drinks wine coolers in her friend's living room, has parents that drive her insane, and thinks everyone is having sex but her. A book with a cast of relatable characters like the ones I loved growing up, who made me feel like I wasn't the only awkward bookworm in the world. And since I'm always getting into ridiculous situations that my friends find very amusing, I thought readers would enjoy a character who had a similar affliction. The idea for the book was always more about the characters than the plot... that sort of unfolded itself as I was writing.
Was your own freshman year of high school anything like Kelsey’s?
My freshman year was hard but ultimately really rewarding, so I guess the answer is mostly a yes. I started at a brand new school that year - and it was an all-girls' school, which I was NOT thrilled about. I had to maneuver around a totally unfamiliar campus (it was made up of many different buildings and not just one like my old school) and make all new friends, which was especially tricky because many of the girls had been going to school together since they were babies. Suffice it to say, there were rock-solid cliques that had existed for years. And of course I missed my friends from middle school. But I actually ended up loving it - I did make lots of friends, and figure out where to sit at lunch, and got cast in a lead role in the school play, and somehow ended up on the lacrosse team - a sport I'd never even heard of before. (In a related story, I was TERRIBLE at it. But I stuck it out, just like Kelsey does.) And of course, there were plenty of disasters...
One of the things I liked about the book is how Kelsey’s voice and inner monologue sounded so authentic. How did Kelsey’s character develop for you?
You know, I didn't really have to think too hard about it. Kelsey is based so much on me that I just sat down and wrote what she felt. I still remember so distinctly how intense everything was when I was a teenager, and how much meaning was imbued into everything that was happening - the smallest slight, the most minor mistake... feeling so sure that every eye was on you at all times. (As an adult, I guess I'm supposed to have learned that most people are really only paying attention to themselves... but I still get tangled up in that web sometimes!) And since most of the adventures in the book are based on my real experiences, all I had to do was comb through my memories for stuff to torture Kelsey with as the story got longer, and let her comment on it.
Most of the defining experiences of Kelsey’s freshman year seem to be embarrassing experiences. Do you have any embarrassing teenage moments of your own you’d be willing to share?
As I said, most of Kelsey’s embarrassing experiences were based on my own (though details have been tweaked slightly to protect the innocent)., so you’ve already read a bunch of them! The two MOST embarrassing moments of my young life, however, do not appear in this book. One happened on the first day of sixth grade... I always liked to wear a skirt to school on the first day, and my mom had gotten me this outfit I ADORED - it was a matching skirt and top and it was cream-colored and it had these blue bicycles printed all over it. (It was the early 90s, okay? Gimme a break.) After the morning assembly, I jumped off the bleachers to go meet my friends, and the skirt got tucked in on itself and completely exposed EVERYTHING. Luckily for me, another kid told me about it and as far as I know, no one else saw... but I was so horrified that it was months before I'd wear a skirt again. Even thinking about it now makes me want to cry. The other most embarrassing moment involves me, age 14, on a trip to the Busch Gardens' Safari, a pair of lions mating, and my insane parents refusing to drive on and wanting to talk about it instead (in vivid detail) with me and my sister while a line of angry rental cars honked at us. That one might make it into a book sometime - free preview!
It seems like teenage behavior in books goes one of two ways: either toward full-on debauchery or 1950s sitcom clean. The teenagers in your book are somewhere in between. What are your thoughts on drinking, sex, and drug use in young adult fiction?
I wanted to write a book that was realistic, and to me that IS an in-between place. Teens explore alcohol, drugs, and sex in real life - that’s just a fact, though of course every kid has his or her own journey. I tried to show that in my story; each of Kelsey’s friends and Kelsey herself handle these tricky topics differently. Of course I realize that "real" is going to be different for everyone based on their own experiences, but the world of this book reflects my own experiences and those of pretty much all the kids I grew up with. And also those of the girl I was babysitting at the time I wrote the book, who went to a school much like Kelsey's and lived in Park Slope. The reaction to the "bad" stuff has been interesting and surprising to me - some people think there is too much drinking. And of course everyone is entitled to their opinion, no question. But to me... that's flat-out what high school was like, right from the start. Whether you participated or not - and not all of Kelsey's friends do, by the way - alcohol was omnipresent. Ditto smoking and hooking up and all that other stuff. And I wanted the book to reflect that. And also to show that, just like in real life, sometimes there are consequences to trying "bad" things, and very often there are not. That's just how life works. But every YA book is different - some kids aren’t ready to read about a “realistic” experience, or don’t want to, and that’s fine. Other teens are interested in reading grittier content, which is also okay. I think it’s great that there’s something for everyone out there. I know when I was growing up I read all kinds of books about all kinds of experiences, and it was important to me to reflect on how my own world was similar... or not.
What were some of the books that inspired you as a teenager?
I’ve always been an avid reader and nothing was off-limits in my house (literature-wise, anyway). I read everything from post-modern lit to my old YA faves to sci-fi and fantasy to romance novels... I just read and read, and everything inspired me, simply because I was adding new information to my impression of the world in general. Nothing has changed - I’m usually reading a few books at the same time, and always learning about the way people interact with each other or experience loss, love, other places, genius, history, fear, war, hilarity... reading is an adventure, always.
How did you get into writing young adult fiction?
I’ve always been drawn to quirky and/or funny girls in YA classics - like the Anastasia books by Lois Lowry, or Judy Blume’s and Paula Danziger’s novels. Years ago I babysat for a girl who was about 11 at the time, and I thought her YA books were kind of cookie-cutter and not especially well-written, not to mention almost exclusively about the kinds of things I mentioned above - super rich and sophisticated kids, or supernatural creatures. Both of which are fine... but ultimately fantasy. So I decided to write something of my own that was more like the books I had loved. I guess I'm sort of a young adult myself, still; I'm a person who spends a great deal of time in PJ pants, watching cartoons and dyeing my hair crazy colors, after all. And I have never forgotten how it feels to be that age, and all the insecurities and excitements that go with it. I still feel them! I connect to tweens and teens really easily out in the real world - better than I do with a lot of "grown-ups," if you want to know the truth. And while I love books in general, there's something about literature that's both nostalgic for adults and relatable for kids that's really appealing to me. So I think it’s a great fit for me as a writer.
The young adult market is hot right now. Are there any other YA authors whose work you really like or admire?
I just finished “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs which was nothing like I expected and absolutely wonderful. I also love Cassandra Clare, JK Rowling, Meg Rosoff, Louise Rennison, E. Lockhart (who was kind enough to blurb my book!), Kathleen O’Dell... so many! I have to get my hands on John Green’s books; everyone is buzzing about his latest novel and I haven’t read any of the others yet! Of course, I still love my old school YA - the authors I mentioned above, plus my beloved Christopher Pike, Ellen Conford, Roald Dahl, Lois Duncan... I could do this all day.
What was your path to publication like?
Getting to the release date of this book was very challenging - mostly because of forces out of my control. Without going into too much detail, once I finished the initial manuscript, I sent the book out to a few agents and one of them signed me. She started sending it to publishers and one of them - Putnam - decided to buy it. After that, the struggle began. My first editor gave me a lot of confusing notes and asked for totally pointless and time-consuming rewrites that never got used. He was eventually let go, and the publication date got pushed back and back... it was incredibly frustrating. But I got picked up by a new and fabulous editor who totally got me and the book, and it's been smooth sailing since then! Do you have any other projects in the works? I wrote a children's picture book that I'm hoping will find a home soon, and a friend and I wrote a super-creepy horror feature. (So, some pretty different stuff!) I'm also working on a second YA novel. It's not a sequel to Freshman Year..., but it takes place in the same world, so you'll see some of the characters again - including Kelsey!
Thank you so much for your time, Meredith!
Thank YOU for having me on the blog! ;)
A little over a year ago, I was revising a novel I had been working on. I really liked the story, but I worried that potential readers would have a hard time accepting my heroine. See, she’s screwed up. Really, really screwed up. I would go as far as to say that she’s damaged.
Fact is, there aren’t a lot of damaged heroines in literature. There are flawed heroines, which is great. Obviously, we don’t want our characters to be perfect. But damaged is a whole different threshold. “Damaged” is someone who repeatedly does unhealthy, destructive things. “Damaged” is someone whose sense of self-worth is permanently degraded by the things she’s done or experienced. “Damaged” is someone so far outside of society’s standards for normally and acceptably flawed that we often have to do some mental gymnastics to understand their thoughts and morality—let alone sympathize with them. (And some of them, quite frankly, are just not sympathetic.)
I can think of several male characters off the top of my head who fit this description. Humbert Humbert. Holden Caulfield. Hannibal Lecter. The Phantom of the Opera. Dexter. Several of the male leads in J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series. Some of these characters are sympathetic, and some are not. But their morals, behavior, and/or psyches are so far outside of society’s norms that, if we met them in real life and knew who and what they were, we’d more than likely walk in the other direction.
But I couldn’t think of a female equivalent. Female characters almost always seem to fall into that “acceptably flawed” category—if they don’t fall into that “just too damn perfect” category, that is. It’s almost as if we’re afraid that, if a female character deviates too far from societal norms, she’ll no longer be someone the audience wants to read about. There’s also the question of sympathy. Several of the male characters listed above are unsympathetic characters to most or all readers. (Humbert Humbert comes to mind as particularly reprehensible.) But others are sympathetic on some level, even when we don’t agree with their actions, like Dexter. (Full disclosure: my knowledge of the character comes from the first few seasons of the television show, not the original Jeff Lindsay book series.) Dexter is a serial killers, a sociopath. But he only kills other killers. He seems to feel some attachment to his family and friends—in his own, highly unusual way. And his pathology was caused partially because of a violent childhood trauma that permanently etched into his memory, and partially because of a loving but rather misguided adoptive father who didn’t know how to deal with his damaged son. Would a female character exhibiting the same type of behavior be regarded as somewhat sympathetic—or just evil? Can readers enjoy a book about a female character they can’t sympathize with?
Then last March, I read Stacia Kane’s brilliant Downside Ghosts series. (Unholy Ghosts, Unholy Magic, and City of Ghosts are the first three. The fourth book, Sacrificial Magic, will be released on Tuesday.) I was completely awestruck. For the first time, I was reading about a heroine who was decidedly damaged—and it was fantastic!
Chess Putnam works as a witch for the Church of Real Truth, which has ruled the country since the government fell. In Chess’s world, ghosts are real—and have an unfortunate tendency to attack the living. The Church promises to protect people from ghosts, which is how Chess got her job. Chess is also a drug addict. Orphaned as an infant, passed from one abusive foster home to another, Chess uses the drugs to chase away the demons in her head. She’s incredibly self-destructive and self-loathing, and her addiction often gets her into trouble. (In fact, it’s the whole catalyst for the plot to Unholy Ghosts.) Yet in spite of all this you root for her. She takes pride in her job and tries to do it well. She does her best to help other people. And when she develops a tenuous relationship with Terrible, a local gang enforcer, you want her to succeed, even though she does her best to destroy it every chance she gets. Yes, she can be thoughtless and unintentionally hurtful to the people who care about her, especially Terrible. But through her eyes, we can see how this is motivated by fear and a lack of self-esteem, not selfishness. It’s hard to like Chess all the time. But it’s impossible—for me, at least—not to feel for her.
I fell in love with this series partially because of its willingness to explore the dark, scary places of the human soul, and I applaud Kane for taking the risk of going there with a female character. That’s not to say that every reader will embrace such a female character, a topic I already explored here a few months ago. But as someone who was immediately sucked into this series, I can say that Kane has managed the difficult balancing act of making Chess both damaged and relatable.
Why is that? I’ve never been addicted to drugs. (Hell, I’ve never even tried any.) I didn’t have an abusive childhood. I’ve certainly never hunted ghosts. But I have felt worthless. I have been self-destructive. I have done my best to push everyone away. It’s not the way I feel now, but I was there, and I remember it all too well.
Maybe that’s the thing about damaged characters: at some point in our lives, don’t we all become a little bit damaged? Chess’s experience is very particular, but there’s a certain universality to it. I sympathize with Chess because I’ve had to overcome my own demons, and in reading about Chess’s struggle I feel connected, like someone else has felt the way I once felt.
I suspect that’s why the heroine of my own novel came out the way she did: in some unconscious way, I brought my own battles to the page. I just hope that more authors take the risk to go down that road, because I don’t think I’m the only woman who can, on some level, relate to a damaged heroine.
I’ve made no secret of my love for The Hunger Games series (like here, and here, and here). I remember reading the first book back in 2008, just months after it was released. At that time, it was gaining popularity, partially because of some well-timed praise from Twilight author Stephenie Meyer and horror master Stephen King. (I challenge you to find two authors who represent more drastically different aesthetics and ideologies than that!) But it was still kind of a low-key thing. No one—besides avid YA readers—had heard of it.
Then, as each subsequent book was released, I saw the frenzy grow bigger and bigger. Now, with the release of the movie just days away, everyone seems to have developed Hunger Games fever.
And that is the coolest thing I’ve seen happening in the book world in a long time.
The Hunger Games books are not fluffy. They’re about oppression and rebellion and war. This is a series that features children killing one another. It’s a series that portrays both the Capital and the rebellion as corrupt. It’s a series that questions whether humans can ever govern themselves without getting into futile, ultimately meaningless wars. It’s a series that provides a small, ambiguous ray of hope only after everything else has been irrevocably broken. Katniss is one of the strongest heroines I’ve ever encountered—in YA or otherwise—yet part of her dies because of the things she’s done and experienced.
These are not easy books to read. There are no easy answers, and there are no “happily ever after” endings. Yet both teen and adult readers are embracing them.
I’m glad. Books should challenge your paradigms and make you think sometimes. Mockingjay was one of the hardest books I’ve ever read, and I suspect it was partially because it hit so close to home. My younger brother is in the Army and deployed to Afghanistan right now. He’s only two years my junior, but I still think of him as the blond-haired kid with a bowl cut and squeaky voice. That said, at 26, my brother is hardly a child anymore. My mind keeps wandering back to the 18 and 19 year olds who join the military right out of high school. Collins’ youthful protagonists are nearly the same age. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
That’s not to say books can’t, or shouldn’t, be fun or fluffy, a la the last big YA phenomenon, Twilight. I want to set one thing straight, for the record: I liked the Twilight series. I enjoyed reading the first three books so much that I preordered Breaking Dawn so that it would be waiting on my doorstep on release day. I was disappointed in Breaking Dawn because Meyer used some cheap plot devices (Jacob imprinting on Renesmee, the anticlimactic battle scene near the end) to ensure happy endings for everyone. There were also some undertones in the story that I didn’t care for, such as Bella’s constant self-deprecation in contrast to her hero worship of Edward, and her casual acceptance of Edward’s controlling, stalkerish behavior. As an adult, I can separate these messages out, but I worry that teenage readers might internalize these values more than I’d like. But that came later. When I read the books, I enjoyed them for what they were: an escapist fantasy about a teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire.
There’s nothing wrong with escapism. I read escapist books all the time. They’re important, because they allow you to push the real world away and submerge yourself in fantasy. Let’s just face it: in the high-stress, high-demand world we live in, sometimes we need escapism.
But escapist books are easy. Books like The Hunger Games trilogy are not, because they make us face darker things, make us ask the difficult questions. There was no easy way out for Katniss, nor will there be for readers of the series.
I’m just glad we have a culture of readers that makes room for both.