Sunday, January 20, 2008

A girl who reads (and sometimes writes) like a boy?

Last I checked, I'm still a woman. But if you looked at what I've been reading lately, you might be excused for thinking otherwise. Just take the six books I've read thus far in 2008--two nonfiction military histories, three historical adventures by male authors with male protagonists, and one lone traditional Regency romance representing the feminine end of the spectrum. And my WIP is an alternate history/military adventure story starring a pair of decidedly male natural-born warriors, one an aristocrat, the other a blacksmith's son, whom I plan to have defeat their enemies over the course of 3-4 books while bickering and exchanging witty quips in the best swashbuckling fashion. It's not that there are no women in the books--there will be at least three important ones, including a True Love for the blacksmith's son--but the story is about the two men and the bond that forms between them. Well, that, and swashbuckling and winning battles.

Partly this is just my real personality coming out more strongly. I've never been particularly girly, and now that I'm in the back half of my 30's, I feel a lot less need to prove my femininity or to be conventional in general. I'd rather be myself and do what I enjoy than struggle to fit in or impress others.

But part of the reason I'm reading like a boy lately is that I'm frustrated with women's historical fiction. Let me say from the beginning that this isn't meant to be a comment on the quality of the books in question or the taste of the readers who enjoy them. I'm just trying to explain why I'd rather read a Bernard Cornwell than a Philippa Gregory.

When I look at what's being published as women's historical fiction these days, I see two main trends. (By women's historical fiction, I mean books that are by and about women and written for a largely female audience. I'm excluding genre works like romance and mystery.) The first trend is the fictionalized biography, the second is what I call the "I am Woman, Hear My Woe" story. Sometimes they overlap.

Fictional biographies are HUGE. And the thing is, I used to like them. I read my hometown library's entire collection of Jean Plaidy growing up, and before that this whole series on the childhoods of famous Americans (with a few chapters at the end on the adult accomplishments that made them famous). But I've lost my appetite for them of late. I'm usually happier with a good biography biography than a fictional one. For starters, I know enough history that most of the time I already know what's going to happen, so that element of suspense is missing where even if I know there's going to be a happy ending I have no idea how we're going to get there. Also, life almost never follows a tidy narrative arc. In particular, with the exception of your occasional Julius Caesar who's assassinated or Horatio Nelson who dies in a crucial battle, death isn't the climax of a life. And so when the novelist feels obliged to follow her subject to her grave, the books just sort of fizzle out. To sum up, I don't particularly enjoy reading these books and can't imagine writing them because I feel too hemmed in by reality. That's what nonfiction is for, in my world.

(There are real historical figures in my alternate history WIP, but the beauty of an ALTERNATE world is I can put them in situations that never actually happened and play with them.)

And then there's the I Am Woman, Hear My Woe books. These have a certain degree of literary pretension, often including a set of book club discussion questions at the back. (And I have to say, the questions are usually painfully basic--almost more about reading comprehension than provoking thought.) In these books, we learn that in the past, women had it bad and were oppressed by men. We see a girl and her oppression. As she grows up, she often falls in love and/or is oppressed by a lover, allowing the author to work in every bit as much sex as your average historical romance, only she's parted from the lover by the end because that makes it more Literary, don'tcha know? Often she ends the book Empowered, how realistically varies depending on the skill and historical knowledge of the author, though still Scarred from her years of Oppression.

These books bore me. Yes, duh, women in the past didn't have the rights we now enjoy, and I am grateful to my feminist foremothers who won me the right to vote, to pursue any education and career that interests me, and in general to stand equal with men before the law. But since I know women didn't have the same rights in Victorian England or ancient Greece or wherever, I don't see the point of these Hear My Woe books. I'd rather read about women who either take the rules of their world for granted and find a way to find happiness within them (which, I believe, is what most of us do WHATEVER our era and its limitations) or else find a way to defy convention and/or work for change without so much Angst and Woe. I'm probably showing my romance roots there, because most romance heroines fall into one or the other of those categories.

Anyway, for now I'm playing with the boys and having fun that way. At least as a woman writing swashbucklers, I can promise that the women my aristocrat and my blacksmith's son meet over the course of their adventures won't be "Bond girls" who only exist to showcase the men's virility. My women will always have their own lives, and with them their own goals and agendas, even if the men are occasionally too selfish and/or hormone-driven to notice.


Danielle said...

The fictionalized bios that I've read were all (where I knew the facts or took the trouble to check them) incredibly historically inaccurate. And I'm the kind of readr that bugs.

I've toyed with the idea of writing about a 19C woman who's been strangely neglected in fiction, but if I ever do I'd use an original (i.e. non-historical) viewpoint character. I think that gives a writer more freedom.

Susan Wilbanks said...

I agree that using an invented character whose life intersects the real historical figure's can bring more freshness and interest to that kind of story. Heck, in a way my beloved Sharpe series does exactly that, since Sharpe is sort of pulled along in Wellington's wake, though since the two men never become close the series isn't really about Wellington.

And I'm totally with you on being bugged by inaccuracy. If you don't like what really happened, then why not just make up a character? Personally, I'm a sucker for fantasy worlds that closely parallel our own and/or alternate histories, and that's a PERFECT place for a characters who's sort of Anne Boleyn or Catherine the Great, but not exactly.

chicating said...

Why do I like women's historica fiction? I guess I was curious about the kinds of day-to-day things about women's lives I didn't learn in history.
Not that I have much time with the crime fiction thing(speaking of...being a boys' club.)
There are a lot of mental gymnastics in being a blonde, female, Raymond Chandler fan

Susan Wilbanks said...

That makes sense, chicating, and I enjoy learning that slice-of-life stuff, too.

One thing I'm going to bring up in a post later this week is statements I've heard from some woman readers that they can't identify with a male protagonist. That baffles me. I don't get why a character carrying a Y chromosome prevents me from connecting to him as a human, you know?