Content note: the following post discusses rape, domestic violence, and sexual/reproductive coercion. The instances are numerous, but not graphic.
All I wanted to do was get some pointers on revising a novel: the next thing I know it's rape and domestic abuse all the way down.
Let me make two things clear at the outset. One: I had done most of the note-taking work for this post before the recent shooting at UCSB took place, before #YesAllWomen and the inevitable douchebag pushback against the many women describing the pervasive fears they deal with on the daily. What was intended as a light, comically astonished post with a tone of See, even here! has taken on a new tenor in light of these events.
Two, James Scott Bell, the author of Revisions and Self-Editing, is clearly doing his best to put together a useful writing handbook for any writer of commercial fiction. He takes care to vary the gender of his pronouns very thoughtfully throughout the text. It's a nice touch and I didn't want it to go unmentioned -- but this is a surface-level thoughtfulness, easy to implement. Much harder to root out are the deeper biases the author may not realize he's prone to, most prominently fridging/damselling, domestic violence, and rape/attempted rape as a narrative shortcut to reader sympathy. These things come up again and again, recommended by the author as exemplary plot devices. Because I am a huge dork, I went through with a pen and post-its and marked the following things: rape, domestic abuse, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Scarlet O'Hara, and instances of possible bias against female authors versus male authors. Afterward, the book looked like this:
That ... is a lot more than I was expecting, honestly. Here's the list, with commentary:
- p. 3: "See Watchers by Koontz ... See The Dead Zone by King..."
Koontz and King are James Scott Bell's go-to authors. They are mentioned so many times that the index doesn't even cover all their appearances (page 3, for instance, is not listed in the index under King, though it does appear under Koontz). I don't object to using either author as an example on principle -- they're both hugely successful and famous for the kind of hooky commercial fiction this book is designed to help with -- but it sets a certain dudely-horror tone for the rest of the text. Dudely-horror is my second-least favorite genre of anything (only beaten by dudely literary fiction that revolves around suburban middle-aged adultery), so this is definitely a part where my own biases come in to play.
- p. 9: Proust's most famous work is a "masterpiece."
Again, I agree with this as a fact. Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu is a masterpiece. Also notoriously long-winded and overwritten. We will have cause to revisit this page later on in these notes.
- p. 13: "Petey is gone again. And this time, he's taken Brad's wife and child with him."
Our first damselling! I thought nothing of this on my first read-through. But I definitely marked it when going through with my post-its, because the idea of putting a male lead's wife/female relative/love interest in peril to raise the narrative stakes comes up over and over again.
Scarlett appears here first as an example of a complex lead character. Which: sure. But she's also notably sexually assaulted at one point in the novel and oh yes, her book is nearly ninety years old. Plus, Scarlett is deeply and aggressively sexualized, not only by Margaret Mitchell but also by James Scott Bell. Perhaps I have my own reasons for marking down Gone With the Wind references as red flags, but it seemed ... odd.
- p. 20: Scarlett O'Hara again; Stephen King's Rose Madder.
This is the section on GRIT, a quality your lead character must have. The rule -- verbatim -- is: "No wimps!" (Emphasis original.) Scarlett is described as someone who "overplays the coquette" but who is otherwise brave. Which: sure, though I'm not sure Melanie's the best person to cite as someone Scarlett is brave for, as JSB does here.
Meanwhile, we get the first of many mentions of Rose Madder, Stephen King's story of a battered wife trying to escape her abusive cop husband. Bell lingers to describe the physical effects of abuse and how it has also made Rose unfit for the wider world, therefore her every little step forward feels like a triumph. He sees this as an excellent way for an author to get a reader to connect with a character; I feel a little queasy watching this realistic misery served up as exemplary entertainment. Telltale quote: " It would have been easy for King to spend ten chapters detailing the abuse Rose took from her husband. But being a master of the craft, he knew that would have been too much 'taking it.'"
I cannot give enough side-eye to the phrase "taking it" when used in the context of domestic violence.
- p. 22: Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler
Another Scarlett mention -- but the character whose lines are excerpted on the page is not Scarlett, but Rhett. Again, Scarlett is shown flirting aggressively.
- p. 23: Scarlett O'Hara the vamp
Scarlett's behavior and physical charms are detailed for about half a page, with an excerpt. The language is active, which is nice -- Scarlett is clearly in control -- but it's highly sexualized and vampish.
- p. 29: Roberta from Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy
I admit, this is a book I'm not deeply familiar with (Dreiser? Really? In this day and age?) so I am limited to Bell's description of Clyde Griffiths' actions: "He seduces the tragic Roberta, consents to marry her (to save his own rep) when she conceives, then lets her drown so he can be free to pursue another woman." Gosh, why aren't they still teaching this in the academy? This is in the section about honor as a means of driving conflict: admittedly, Clyde is presented as a negative example, but a successful negative example. And it's still his perspective that is centered, not poor doomed Roberta's.
- p. 36: Stephen King, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
Young Trisha is lost in the woods, thinking about how her mother is bound to be worried. Another female character in peril, though without the sexualized component of many of the others.
- p. 38: Stephen King, Carrie
An abused young woman uses telekinetic powers to gain revenge -- the full plot is not detailed, and the excerpt here shows young Carrie knocking over the tricycle of a boy who calls her names. I don't think it's going too far to say that unlike Dreiser's novel Carrie is still high-trading cultural capital, and that the gendered aspects of the story (menstruation/the female body and socio-sexual competition) are invoked by the reference. Also, we have the abuse-victim-gains-superpowers trope: always a classic!
- p. 42: Dean Koontz, Midnight
The first of many, many references to this book. This section is about creating complex villains rather than mustache-twirling caricatures. Yet Koontz's villain Thomas Shadduck has the most cliché villain trait of all: eeevil lust: "When we first meet Shadduck, he's floating in a sensory deprivation chamber in the grip of a weird vision: his desire to meld man and machine into cybernetic organisms. It's literally an erotic experience for him ... Shadduck's motivation is visionary -- perverse though it may be." I'm not convinced this is as creative and revolutionary as JSB seems to think: sexualized evil is pretty well-worn villain territory. Hell, I've done it myself.
- p. 46: Stephen King, Rose Madder
Rose is presented as an example of creating sympathy through vulnerability: "Without real-world experience or skills because her psycho husband has kept her a virtual prisoner for years, Rose must figure out how to survive on her own, get a job, and most of all keep from being found by her policeman husband, who knows how to track." Rose does indeed excite my sympathy -- but, again, I am more than a little squicked out at the commercial exploitation by a male author of a real-world danger that mostly affects women.
We are discussing character objectives and their importance, and JSB opines: "A romance is about the characters trying to get love." Which, the first time I read, nearly made me heave the book out the study window. "Trying to get love" is not at all how I would describe most romances. Love in the romance genre tends to be a thing that happens while the protagonists are trying to get other things. Jane Eyre, for example, wants a job that is not as depressing as teaching at Lowood. Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice actively resists love for more than half the book, as does Darcy himself. Even Scarlett, who more than anyone else I can think of is trying to "get love," has other things on her mind -- Tara, for instance, or preserving her own social privilege. (One could argue that even her quest to "get love" is in service of maintaining this privilege. She's acquisitive, even in her affections.) Even books I can think of where there is a deliberate pursuit (such as Sherry Thomas' Not Quite a Husband), it's only on the part of one character, never both at once. I'm quite hard-pressed to think of a romance where both leads are gunning for each other but only held back by circumstances. Love appears in the genre most often as a complication of other goals -- such as the classic HP hero who intends to get revenge on a former business partner by seducing his virginal daughter but oh no now he has feelings for her. And this error is fundamental enough to make me question JSB's credibility in other things -- not least because his schedule shows he's speaking at a couple romance conventions this summer. I have a great many more thoughts on how love functions as a goal (or not) in the romance genre; this may become a whole separate post at some point in the future.
What's more, the whole "get love" thing is part of the idea of sex/romance as a commodity that may be purchased, earned, or stolen -- which is one of the biggest elements of patriarchy that #YesAllWomen was created to critique. Love is not an object, but presenting it as such is pretty directly correlated with all kinds of misogyny.
- p. 48: Stephen King, Rose Madder
This section is about 'adhesive' -- that is, the thing that keeps your protagonist and antagonist fighting, the reason neither can just walk away from the conflict. Rose Madder is cited as an example where "the adhesive is psychopathology. The husband is pyscho." This is not only a pretty shallow reading of psychopathology (and starkly ableist in its approach to mental illness), but also a pretty shallow motivation. Why does my character do what he does? Because he's crazy, man! I will allow that this may be merely a reductive paraphrase on JSB's part rather than an accurate description of the character motivation in King's novel.
Besides, plenty of men terrorize their spouses without qualifying as 'psychopaths.' Domestic abuse is sadly not as unpopular among humans as we could wish.
- p. 49: Stephen King, The Shining
Briefly mentioned as a great use of setting. But this is another King novel featuring domestic abuse, where a mother and her child are terrorized by a 'psycho' husband/father.
- p. 55: The Big Heat (film)
Another fridging: "Glenn Ford plays a cop whose wife is murdered by thugs working for a crime boss."
Also mentioned on this page: It Happened One Night, Romeo and Juliet, and two Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies. Because nothing about romance has changed in fifty years or more.
- p. 56: The Fugitive (film) and Stephen King, Rose Madder
Fridging and domestic abuse: Richard Kimball is on the run because he's been framed for the murder of his wife. Rose "has to stay on the run or she'll be murdered by her husband."
- p. 72: Stephen King, Storm of the Century
"Don't ever get stuck on an island off the coast of Maine in winter if King is writing the story. He's liable to drop a pathological killer in there." Good advice, albeit impractical.
- p. 75: Evan Hunter, The Moment She Was Gone
Fridging: main male character's schizophrenic twin sister (!) has gone missing.
- p. 83: Stephen King, Christine
Citations from the novel include this line: "I heard some kid's rod peeling rubber -- it made a sound in the night like a hysterical woman's desperate laughter."
To demonstrate the technique of weaving backstory into the main narrative, JSB shows a rape victim being triggered by seeing a spider. The rape is included on-page in the excerpt: "Lester made his move in the back of the car. Wendy was helpless. It was all over in five minutes. The spider was at the web now..."
Stephen King uses Maine slang.
- p. 101: sexual coercion and damselling
Another twofer! First we get an excerpt from the Dreiser novel that takes up most of the page. In this passage, Clyde is quite deliberately ignoring Roberta's attempts at deflection while trying to isolate her for sexual purposes. It's a textbook example of rape culture/PUA-style pressure, and it's pretty uncomfortable reading.
Immediately following is a passage where a male main character is talking on the phone to his wife and daughter, who are being held hostage.
- p. 125: Dean Koontz, domestic abuse
Koontz opening line analyzed/explained. There is also an opening line from Anna Quindlen's Black and Blue: "The first time my husband hit me I was nineteen years old." Again, this in itself is very small -- but these citations are beginning to accumulate. This was roughly the point where I initially reached for my stack of post-its and turned back to the first page to make sure I wasn't imagining things.
- p. 130-131: Dean Koontz, Midnight
Koontz begins the book with a woman jogging at night. The woman is then killed for shock value. JSB cites this as an effective entry point for a story: sensory details bring us into sympathy with Janice Capshaw, and we readers are then shocked at her death. I don't know why we should be: this the oldest tactic in the book. See also: Psycho, George R. R. Martin, Law & Order, all the CSIs, and every mystery series ever in the history of television. Even the really good ones, like Foyle's War.
- p. 133: Stephen King, The Dead Zone; Dean Koontz, Whispers
King is cited for sly use of backstory. With Koontz, JSB tells us in awed tones: "Whispers has one of the most famous, chilling action scenes in suspense fiction -- the attempted rape of Hilary Thomas by Bruno Frye. He attacks and chases her in her house, from pages 24 to 41!" That exclamation point gives me the willies. A seventeen-page rape scene! it says. How fun!
- p. 140 - 141: George Eliot, Middlemarch
Remember when I mentioned Proust, earlier? Gosh, that was a long time ago. Remember how Proust's multi-volume work of impressive self-involvement was described as "a masterpiece?" Well here we have Eliot's Middlemarch, a lengthy book but not a damn patch on A la recherche, quoted at length as an example of how 19th-century fiction was more about telling than showing. (Which: someday I'm going to debate this, but not now.) Middlemarch does not get to be a masterpiece. In fact, JSB goes so far as to rewrite the cited passage as he would imagine George Eliot might have done if she was writing in the 1940s.
The rewritten passage is terrible, and terribly dull. I can feel your shock all the way on the other side of the internet.
Proust, Dickens, Melville -- these are held up more than once as positive examples. Only George Eliot gets singled out for the dubious honor of having her lengthy clauses (appropriate for the period in which she was living and writing!) chopped and sliced and simplified.
JSB gives us "an example of lazy telling from a best-selling writer." As if we are not living in the age of Google where such evasions are easily unmasked. I plugged in the first few lines, and ta-da!
Not as sly as you think, sir. Also, "best-selling writer." Not author. Writer. Koontz and King categorically are brilliant masters of the craft; Danielle Steel is lazy.
- p. 146: Hemingway, "Hills Like White Elephants"
Here is an on-page passage where a man is trying to convince his pregnant girlfriend to have an abortion. Because nothing says 'literary classic' like reproductive coercion.
JSB says: "You're never going to mistake a Faulkner for a Koontz, or a Hemingway for a Danielle Steel." I think the first comparison holds much more water than the second; it feels like JSB is commenting more upon content than upon voice/diction/sentence length. Also, I am reminded of this Guardian quiz about gender and narrative voice.
- p. 161: Dean Koontz, Sole Survivor
Fridging in a Koontz citation: "At two-thirty Saturday morning, in Los Angeles, Joe Carpenter woke, clutching a pillow to his chest, calling his lost wife's name in the darkness. The anguished and haunted quality of his own voice had shaken him from sleep." This in a list of examples of distinctive narrative voices -- every single one of which is a dude.
- p. 162: Stephen King, The Shining
Again the Overlook Hotel is cited as an exemplary use of setting.
- p. 169: Dean Koontz, Midnight; Stephen King, "Home Delivery"
Again a lengthy excerpt from the death scene of Janice Capshaw, with the explanation: "She's not going to make it out alive. In fact, she's going to become a treat for a horrible thing that chases her." A treat.
The King excerpt shows a woman worrying about what two men (a reverend, her fiancé) think of her.
- p. 183: Stephen King, On Writing
Brief snip from King's book of craft advice.
- p. 199: Stephen King, On Writing
Completely unnecessary sniping by JSB: "In his book On Writing, he talks about the boys in the basement, his metaphor for the subconscious writer's mind. When you write, and when you revise, you ought to get the boys working. If you're a woman and you don't like the idea of boys in your basement, feel free to come up with your own metaphor."
- p. 230: fridging: Robert Crais, Hostage
Another mention of the hostage negotiator whose own wife has been taken hostage (ooh, irony!).
Another hat-tip to The Fugitive, plus a second fridging: "the thugs plant a car bomb. It blows up the wrong person -- Bannion's wife. Now it's personal."
Brief piece of writing advice.
- p. 236: Dean Koontz, The Key to Midnight
Unrelated to Midnight above, apparently. A Western white man writes a book set in Japan even though he has never been there. Part of his research involved reading Shogun, another Japan-set novel by a Western white man.
- p. 238: Dean Koontz, Midnight
A father and son reconcile. Much less awful, and much briefer, than the other citations of this book.
- p. 240: fridging: Lawrence Block, "A Candle for the Bag Lady"
A lengthy passage where a killer explains his motivation for killing a homeless woman. We learn nothing else about the woman: this scene is all about the murderer's perspective. The woman herself is apparently disposable.
- p. 241: rape: Dean Koontz, Whispers
Again JSB is thrilled to mention the seventeen-page rape scene, with this command: "Read it and learn." I find this language much, much creepier on my second read-through.
And there we are. Done. Finally. Did that feel like a grind? It was certainly exhausting for me.
In reference to The Shining, I realized at one point I was drawing much more from the Kubrick film (which I have seen and admire) than from the book (which I have not read). I immediately found the Tor.com reread post for the book (their reread series is the best! I want to do a Discworld reread for them, honest! email me!) which contains this stunning passage:
King has talked before about the rage he felt in his years of struggle, commenting that there were times when he felt real anger towards his children. It all comes pouring out in Jack Torrance, a bad dad who breaks his son’s arm while drunk (a condition King was later to admit he was in most of the time). All those years of guilt, of fearing that he couldn’t support his family, of feeling like they were a millstone around his neck, he finally shakes it off thanks to his success, and then he puts on a fiction suit and dives right back in again. He even gives Torrance his own bad habits, like chewing aspirin when hung over.
I've talked before (and more recently tweeted) about the fuzzy border between fiction and real life because it's a constant preoccupation of mine. I think one of the things I do as an author, and which King appears to be doing here as well, is taking a seed of a real-life feeling (something primal and often unspeakable) and letting it flower in fiction's fertile soil. This kind of inward-outward exploration may even be one of the greatest reasons for fiction's very existence. But even here, wallowing in his own deepest anxieties and childhood/parenthood traumas, King has limits: "To King, losing sympathy for his characters is the sign of a rotten imagination."
I believe authors have the right to do whatever the hell they want in their fiction. But I also believe there can be consequences, significant ones, to the choices we make in building stories. We don't revise novels in a vacuum, and our own cultural baggage inevitably comes in to play. The benefit of writing fiction is that we do get chances to fix our initial, thoughtless impulses -- but only if we're thinking very critically about the stories we're telling and the frameworks we're helping to shore up. (Especially if we expect to be paid for our work.) One instance of dameseling or fridging or rape-for-sympathy is a blip; a thousand of them, a million, so many that they become the default way to treat female characters in multiple media ... Well, that's a problem. It's a question of scale.
As authors, we have control over which characters we choose to harm, and which ones we put in a position to act. Over and over again, JSB shows us women/girls in peril, passively reacting or dead and men/boys in a dilemma, poised to act. This recent piece on similar trends in video games sums it up rather nicely: "It seems that when you want to make a woman into a hero, you hurt her first. When you want to make a man into a hero, you hurt... also a woman first."
The takeaway of fridging and damselling in narrative: Women are only truly important when they're dead. This is not only repellent to me as a romance author: it's repellent to me as a woman, and as a human being.
This piece from The F Word reviews Stieg Larsson in the context of violence against women in the novels of James Patterson and Dean Koontz.
Questions about Stephen King and feminism are discussed by Grady Hendrix here in a different post for Tor.com.
As always, Anita Sarkeesian's videos at Feminist Frequency are a great example of just how prevalent such clichés are -- her posts are specific to video games, but it's not a great leap to extrapolate her analysis in regard to fiction, film, and television.