Kassia's comment that "real women are blunt to the extreme, yet fictional women never seem to equal their peers" completely resonated with me, not only as it pertains to my experiences writing--and then seeking a publisher for--My Sister's Continent, but in terms of my role as an editor and publisher at Other Voices magazine/OV Books. It's especially fascinating to me that Jeff actually took Kirby for a guy because of the anger and edge to her voice. (Albeit it'd be a pretty effeminate guy since she was lamenting over her hairy armpits, as Kassia pointed out!) I've long been troubled by this divergence between "real" femininity/womanhood, vs. the women of literature--the Elizabeth Bennetts and Bridget Jones of the page, whose thin veneer of "feistiness" can never fail to be assuaged by finding true love or some other such salve. Yes, there are exceptions (Dorothy Allison's tough, furious Bone comes to mind, but that was in the 1990's, before the pendulum swung towards Puritanism and the purpose of fiction became to inspire and cheer people from their post-9/11 anxiety.) But for the most part, especially since 2001, women characters with a genuine edge seem to be retreating from the novelistic stage. Instead of exploring real issues of sex and violence and misogyny and self-destruction and illness, these issues are increasingly fading from "polite," subtle and pretty literary novels, and what passes for real women's "bluntness" has become instead episodes of Sex and the City, where Carrie (of course) declines her kinky politician's request that she pee on him; where Miranda is scandalized by her lover leaving the door open when he uses the toilet; where even Samantha ends up tamely coupled off in the end, and where, I must add, shoes cost 400 bucks a pop, everyone is always decked out to the nines, daily breakfast dates and fancy dinners never cause any of the women to gain a pound, the word "fuck" is always sexy and empowering, and no matter how many men you go home with, nobody ever tries to rape you or stalk you or smack you around. The fact that Sex and the City developed such a cultish following and garnered such praise for its frank depiction of female sexuality has got to tell you two things: 1) that chicks, myself included, will watch just about anything if the fashion is good and 2) that the media in general still has no fucking idea what female sexuality is all about.
But really, Sex and the City is just a TV show (HBO IS TV, contrary to their marketing push. We're watching a TV set; it's TV!) Literature is a whole separate matter, more probing and honest than television, right? Maybe not. Lately, I've been extremely frustrated with the corporate publishing industry over what I call the "plucky heroine triumphs over adversity" syndrome in fiction: a formula that is pretty self-explanatory and seems to be infecting nearly all books by women that come out of the big New York houses these days. Any female protagonist/narrator that doesn't fit into that category runs the risk of being deemed "unsympathetic" by editors and marketing teams. While this is to be expected of chick lit type titles (here adversity is on a smaller scale, ala Bridget Jones triumphs over cigarettes and fatty foods), it's a disturbing trend to see among more literary novels. Yet there it is, in a more subtle form perhaps, but increasingly prevalent.
I call this the Lovely Bones phenomenon. Not because I don't respect Alice Sebold as a writer (actually, I very much do; her memoir Lucky is spectacular, and The Lovely Bones is a good read), but because I believe the explosive success of The Lovely Bones can be credited to the "plucky heroine" craze that's infected the publishing industry, in which good girls are rewarded (after death if necessary), bad guys are punished (impaled with icicles in the eleventh hour if all else fails), grade school sweethearts marry and find eternal bliss, mothers who leave come back, and the afterlife is no scarier than summer camp. This is a book that, due to its genuinely disturbing first chapter and dead-narrator premise, allows readers to believe they are reading a risk-taking, edgy, challenging book, but that actually spends pretty much Chapter Two onward reassuring readers that all is actually well in the world; that horrible acts are the exception and people will all get what they deserve in the end. While it has a compelling premise, it is a hand-holding book, and apparently both marketing teams and readers respond well to hand-holding. If a plucky heroine and her virtuous family and friends can triumph even over a serial killing rapist, then clearly there is no problem so big that fiction cannot reduce it to something we can comprehend and stomach by giving us a spoon of sugar to mask that first, bitter taste.
Life, fortunately, is not as dark for everyone as it often is for Kirby and Kendra Braun. A Freudian tale doesn't permit much lightheartedness (though I actually laughed a lot writing this novel), and often twentysomething angst doesn't leave much room for the optimism that may start to plague one later in life--now, with three children, safely in my 30's, I have to admit that I'm not sure I could write My Sister's Continent from scratch again, as I may have become just too damn cheerful. But as an editor, I hear stories constantly from women writers who simply can't get their books published because their female protagonists don't fit the mold: writers who are tackling explicitly violent or sexual themes in their work and being told by editors that this simply isn't palatable. (One editor who read MSC once said the novel was "so disturbing she had to keep putting it down and leaving the room"--a comment that made my agent very surprised she didn't want to buy it if she found it that powerful.) At OV Books, the independent press where I'm the Executive Editor, we're about to publish one such book: a collection called The Wrong Place in the World, about a young girl who grows up with a schizophrenic, junkie mother who sells her for drugs and rips off her ears when she cries while being gang raped. It's a book that didn't get far with the big New York houses or agents, that was predictably told it was too dark, too bleak, too depressing, too graphic. Nobody triumphs over much of anything, and no one's very plucky, but rather self-hating, desperate and wrecked. And for women writers and women characters, it seems there isn't much of that allowed.
What does it really mean, though, in life if not fiction, to "triumph" over adversity? Do our female protagonists all need to find love or have a baby or find redemption in the land or make peace with mothers dying of cancer, or can anger itself--the refusal to surrender it, in a world that tells women to be passive and forgiving--be the real triumph? Of course, sometimes just surviving is a triumphant act. Kendra may have known that when she decided to disappear. It's as likely that she ran off to live--perhaps more likely--as it is that she ran off to die. By living, by surviving her father, she would have been forced somehow to put the family's secret history squarely in the past: to forgive and get on with her life. Survival is a sanctioning act perhaps, as much as a rebellion. After all, if what was done to you wasn't bad enough to kill you, then how bad can it have been? By allowing Kirby to think she may be dead, a surviving Kendra would force their father's possible abuse to the perpetual forefront of Kirby's life. A dead Kendra cannot be accused of being grudge-holding and melodramatic, whereas a living Kendra would have to grow up, slip into her 30's and 40's and 50's, gain some weight and laugh at funny stories at dinner parties. Sometimes heroines don't necessarily want to triumph over adversity by going placidly off to summer camp or marriage, but rather want adversity to be recorded and acknowledged, in a world where it is often meant to be invisible.
I miss the women writers who emerged between the 70's and the 90's, and will definitely check out some of the twin-themed pieces on Jeff's "syllabus" to complement My Sister's Continent. I was thrilled to see Gaitskill's Two Girls Fat and Thin on there, as I just interviewed Gaitskill for OV and we discussed the fact that if she were a new writer today she would probably have a much harder time getting her work into print than in the 90's, when more was more and nobody batted an eye at a little S/M scene. Maybe American literature really does reflect who's in the White House, and right now the female characters being allowed to appear in fiction ring about as true as the weapons of mass destruction that sent us into war. If so, I'd expect we're gearing up for a lot of pissed off female narrators in 2008 that'll make Kirby sound like part of grandma's knitting circle.