The Better Bombshell

Guest blogger Rich Chiappone writes about women’s roles in fiction.

Since attending something called a “pitch” conference recently, I’ve found myself fascinated with the all-important first chapters, even the first ten pages of novels—wherein a manuscript lives or dies at the hands of agents and editors. So, when asked to comment on the way women’s roles are portrayed in fiction, I couldn’t help wonder how the early pages of recent novels won readers for the book. 

Conventional wisdom has it that the lioness’s share of book-buyers today are female. And that the largest portion of those are “women of a certain age,” as it was once gently described. Given the competition that novels now face from every electronic distraction and diversion a person can hold in her hand or on her lap instead of a book, my question is: How does an author present women in a way that will set the hook into the contemporary novel’s largely middle-aged, middle-class, educated, female audience?

Obviously, there are as many individual and varied female protagonists as there are authors and their books. And I make no claims of expertise in the area of “women’s fiction” (books written about women by women). I’ve read very few recent women’s novels, and almost exclusively only those written by female friends—which means, I don’t dare say anything about them here

Luckily, my wife is a voracious reader and book buyer (and a woman firmly in the demographic previously mentioned); there seems to be an endless river of novels flowing across every horizontal surface in our house. So, I grabbed a bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner from the flood. Let’s look at the opening of A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

On the first page, the female main character (Sasha) steals a wallet from a purse in a hotel restroom. She is no Victor Hugo waif in dire need. She’s not even interested in whatever cash may be inside. She steals for the thrill of it. She is remorseless about her theft and what it might cost her victim, but also understands intellectually that this behavior suggests a neurosis she needs to curtail, and attempts to do that by way of talk therapy—though she doesn’t try very hard to change. In a flashback we find out that there was once a person she actually favored with momentary empathy: a poor old maintenance man in her building. Then she stole from him.

You have to ask yourself: What kind of respectable, educated female wants to spend time with a self-absorbed twit and sociopath like this one? How does an author make such a character more appealing (saleable)?

First of all, Sasha is rich enough to afford therapy (always a seductive trait for readers of both genders). She lives in New York City, is thirty-five, in good shape because she exercises a lot (much easier to read about it than to do it) and—get this—passes for seven years younger and dates a much younger guy (very seductive); she has an interesting job with a big record company (very cool), and is not only a musician herself (also very cool) but a harpist! The harp has to be the most putatively sophisticated, and least threatening instrument in fiction. Angels play them, for Christ’s sake. A female protagonist who plays lead guitar or alto sax would scare the crap out of this book’s readers.

True, Sasha’s tendency to shift from insufferable narcissist to nearly redeemable sharp-minded woman and back again is the narrative tension that keeps readers reading all the way to the second chapter. Fine. And the writing is excellent. But the assumption (by the publishers) that this is how female readers want their protagonists to live is a little disheartening in the way it implies a willingness to embrace really crummy behavior—as long as the packaging is enviable. New York lifestyle, weekly therapy, cougar love life, music industry pals. (A harp! The musical instrument equivalent of “auburn” hair in commercial fictions. Got to have it.)  We have entered Women of a Certain Age Fantasyland. It’s as blatant as any Jim Harrison novel with a broken-down, older, male protagonist who keeps running into cocktail waitresses, nurses, and all manner of nubile young women who want to fuck broken-down, older males, there in Old Guy Fantasyland. I mean, try giving Sasha’s unsavory attitude and neuroses to an overweight, unemployed former Keno runner who looks ten years older than her driver’s license photo and lives in Erie, Pennsylvania and see how many book clubs snap that one up.

Ok, maybe you can’t judge a reader by the books she reads. But then again, book buying is more or less voluntary. Still, I’ll admit my premise that reader envy and an accompanying desire for a vicarious (and more glamorous) life fuels book sales might be entirely wrong-headed and that the female characters in books really don’t tell us anything about the qualities or traits or situations that female readers long for.  If they did, what would the classics say about that?  As with any other argument, I’ll to pick my examples carefully.

Take the nineteenth century. On one hand, I think that a comfortable life is a reasonable desire, and that there are probably a fair number of overworked, underpaid female readers out there today for whom the idea of sitting around a well appointed parlor having servants fix your lunch while you’re gossiping with the Bennett sisters about other women’s marriage prospects sounds more than a little appealing. I don’t see P&P going out of print any time soon.

On the other hand, it’s a hard to believe modern women long to suffer the grueling tests of patience and decency that Charlotte Bronte inflicted on the plucky and pure-of-heart Jane Eyre. And I hope to hell not many wish to be pillow-chewing hysterics like Cathy in Dithering Heights. But it gets trickier when I come to my personal fave, Emma Bovary.

It’s been said that when Madame Bovary swallowed that mouthful of arsenic, Romanticism died with her and Modernism was born. Her life leading up to that tragic end was one disappointment after another. She was eternally unsatisfied with her husband, her home, her children, the rustic uncouth town in which she lived. Everything about the dreary French farming community disgusted and depressed her. Unlike the Bennett sisters who lived in a nice house and had fine things (but managed to whine a lot anyway), Emma B., surrounded by clods, longed for elegant furnishings, finer people, romance, beauty, music, dancing. Hard to fault a gal for that. So, all the spectacularly self-destructive and foolish things Emma did over the length of that novel, the things that ruined not only her but her husband and even her children, are at least intellectually understandable: she wanted out of her crummy circumstances, and didn’t have the skills to make that happen.

Then there’s Sasha. What part of being well off, hanging with recording stars, and being unbelievably fit and good looking encourages us to care when this character makes bad decisions?

Bottom line: By romanticizing the female characters’ lives in contemporary fictions, idealizing their living situations, glamourizing the characters themselves, authors play into old Romantic notions that the people in stories should be grander, richer, and better looking than we poor slobs who read about them. It’s a tradition that started with the gods and sword-wielding kings of the first great tales and sprawled all the way to the Victorian landed gentry and then on to the pampered antebellum heroines of the Old South.

Some of us sort of hoped it had died on the battlefields of the Civil War and/or World War One. But alas, not exactly. Even as modern readers began to doubt that heroes existed at all, they knew for sure they would rather be manor-born than a slave in the fields. So, with a few great Modern exceptions (Nathaniel West, Carson McCullers come to mind) the emphasis merely shifted from adoration of gods to envy of beautiful and well-heeled mortals. The current puffed-up worlds of the hip, fit harpist types jump right over the Modernist insistence on the grittiness of reality. (Nobody wants to live like anyone in The Day of the Locust or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.) Romantic reader envy and desire to live vicariously through well-off characters is alive and well and living as comfortably in women’s novels as it ever did.

Not that male novelists were any different. What I remember about For Whom the Bell Tolls is not the long existential conversations among the Spanish revolutionaries: what I remember is handsome Robert Jordan traipsing through my testosterone-addled mind toting a backpack full of dynamite, drinking wine from goatskins, and a sleeping in a cave with a Spanish gypsy woman. What guy wouldn’t want to live like that — vicariously and safely? Guns and bullfighters and expensive cars sent novels flying off the shelves for much of the last century. Today, as men leave books behind in favor of X-Boxes and ESPN, it takes the right shoes, the great job, cool friends and big city apartments to effectively pitch a novel to the distaff book buyer. No doubt about it.

All I’m saying is: I thought women were a little smarter.

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This blog is part of The Better Bombshell, a collaborative literary and art project that seeks to redefine female role models.  Our book will be released in February 2013.

Illustrations by Michelle Anderst, Pacific Northwest oil painter who synthesizes botany, technology and anatomy. Michelle holds a certificate in Natural Science Illustration.

Rich Chiappone has published stories and essays in magazines from Playboy to ZYZZYVA. His two collections are still in print.  He teaches in the MFA program at University of Alaska Anchorage and at the Kachemak Bay Campus of the Kenai Peninsula College.

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