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Anna and the French Kiss The 10PM Question

For the first part of this series of posts, please read: On Showing & Telling & Making My Head Explode

I want to begin this second post by analysing examples numbers three and four in my list of novels that have been read in both feminist and anti-feminist ways. My current working theory is that the centrality of the problematic or controversial aspect to the novel or story’s overall themes makes a world of difference when it comes to the extent to which the plot is allowed to speak for itself. But it’s entirely possible that there might be more to it than that.

In Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Anna’s relationship with Meredith, the first person she befriends in France, shifts into understated tension over the fact that both of them are in love with the same boy. Likewise, Anna’s best friend back home disappoints her by becoming involved with the boy Anna liked before going to France. As I said before, I spent about two third of the book worrying this was going to be yet another girls-do-nothing-but-fight-over-boys sort of story, and my ultimate conclusion that Perkins avoided this huge pitfall is by no means universal.

What I think places Anna and the French Kiss firmly in portraying-is-not-endorsing territory is Anna’s realisation that this a problem, and how this ties in with the novel’s overall theme and stance on human relationships. Anna and the French Kiss is unapologetically a romance, but the points it makes about trust, communication, the dangers of entitlement and the slow build-up of intimacy go far beyond romantic relationships. In the end, Anna rekindles her friendships with Meredith and Beatrice not because some sort of agreement is reached about who “deserves” to get the boy, but because they all learn something about what you can reasonably expect from those who are close to you. They all learn about honest communication and entitlement and control – they all grow up, and thus grow closer as human beings.

In Kate de Goldi’s The 10PM Question, the protagonist, Frankie, befriends a girl named Sydney. Both Frankie and Sydney have complicated family backgrounds, and upon learning Sydney’s history Frankie has several uncharitable thoughts about her mother, including comparing what she does (letting the guys she’s dating pay the bills) to prostitution. This is thought in definite loaded and shaming terms, not in a neutral she-is-a-sex-worker sort of way. I’m in awe of the way de Goldi prevented the thoughts of her close third person protagonist from becoming the only voice that is heard within the story, and try as I might I’m not sure if I can exactly point out how she did it. The 10PM Question is actually a novel that goes beyond my current working theory, because it’s not that slut-shaming and the complex circumstances sex workers find themselves in are exactly central to the story. Yet de Goldi manages to introduce enough plurality into the universe of the novel that Frankie’s anger is shown for what it is and Sydney’s mother is ultimately humanised.

Something that worries me when I consider how I position myself before these stories is how much of my reading is influenced by factors outside the text. Some of these books came recommended by other writers or bloggers I love and respect – how much does that predispose me to give them the benefit of the doubt and read their ambivalent aspects in a positive light? Then again, we never read in a vacuum, so perhaps this shouldn’t worry me – perhaps I should just embrace it as an inevitable part of how we engage with texts.

Another issue I keep returning to is that of didacticism – I’m tempted to say that no, I certainly don’t want YA or any other form of fiction to be didactic, but then again, I’d first like to come across an unambiguous definition of “didactic”. Like “preachy”, I suspect it’s often used to mean “takes a clear stance about something I disagree with”. In a comment last week, my partner in crime Jodie said:
I think some of the best modern novels in the world include didactic 'comments' in amongst ambiguity, it's just that they do it much more elegantly than the word didactic implies. Paulo Bacigallupi's 'The Wind Up Girl' for example is hugely complex and ambiguous to the max. He never really lets his characters go off on 'here is the point I am trying to make' speeches and pretty awful things happen to good people, but there are deaths and consequences in his novel that reveal where he stands on everything, while he still allows the reader the freedom to make up their own minds on many issues.
This put me in mind of a point John Carey makes in the excellent What Good Are the Arts: that the idea that literature should strive to be “neutral” can and often does turn into a plea for it to be apolitical and disengaged with any sort of Big Issue – which is the opposite of what some of the most beloved literary works of all time have been doing for centuries and centuries. There is certainly such a thing as heavy-handedness, but I’m inclined to distrust those who are too quick to file any novel that makes some sort of political or social point under this heading.

This brings me back to my original question, which yes, I realise remains unanswered: where do you drawn the line between ideological engagement and heavy-handedness? What about between subtlety and disengagement? As we have seen, the centrality of the issues being dealt with to the novel as a whole have a role to play; afterthoughts rarely work (except when they do). Another factor that I think might be important is how the world at large frames the topic at hand – is it unacceptable enough that most readers will see a subtle critique for what it is?

Again, I shall quote my partner in crime, who took the words off my mouth in her comment to part one (and who really should be writing these posts for me):
… if general society perceives something as absolutely wrong a book is much more able to cast aside didacticism and effectively explore an issue from all angles, without being read as condoning that issue. So, for example, 'Lolita' presents a paedophilic protagonist that the reader is initially encouraged to sympathise with, but each reader knows that general society condemns paedophiles, so we're more willing to go along and see where Nabokov is going with this and feel like what he writes doesn't threaten out particular stance on this issue. Books about rape are different, because we don't all know that general society agree with our individual stance on rape (every day there's proof that many people just don't get what constitutes rape) and so anything written more ambiguously can lead the individual reader to feel like the book threatens to lend help to a view they despise.
I think this is absolutely true, but the supposed “revenge rapes” in Tender Morsels are actually of the kind society is mostly willing to accept as “real rapes” – unambiguously brutal and involving strangers. Still, the point nonetheless stands: it just might be that some readers are too wary of how rape is generally perceived and portrayed to tolerate any ambiguity at all; anything but firm, clear condemnations. As much as I sympathise with their wariness, though, I don’t think this makes for particularly good art (or even politically effective art, if you choose to think of it that way).

But suppose it’s murder we’re talking about rather than rape: a story like Shirley Jackson’s brilliant and chilling “The Lottery” doesn’t critique anything explicitly, but you’d be hard pressed to find readers who claim it endorses ritual killings (or so I hope, at least). Everyone knows that what happens in the story is a big no-no, so no explicit commentary is necessary. This is also true of a novel like Never Let Me Go (I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll refrain from saying more, but those who have read it will know what I mean). Yet if we return to slut-shaming and the Lyga story I mentioned in part one, the picture is much less clear. I don’t think slut-shaming has been exposed for what it is enough in the real world for a story like this to speak for itself. It goes on around us all the time, and it’s widely accepted as only right and proper. That makes the lack of overt pointers in the story problematic. Regardless of authorial intent (which only means so much, at any rate), it’s much too easy for Andi’s fate to be taken at face value exactly because this is what happens in real life.

But is it really the role of a writer to do something about this? Can you introduce these overt pointers while maintaining the narrative elegance Jodie speaks of? In Part Three: The Big Questions, I’ll attempt to address these questions, as well as others such as what can we reasonably expect from literature, and what does it all mean?

Date: 2011-06-07 06:53 am (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
I love the whole bit about John Sutherland's ideas on the neutral novel. I do think there's a postmodernist trend for authors to claim they're not interested in making political statements and scoffing at anyone who does. Then what they end up doing is making political points that scream anti-feminism etc. That's ok though right, because their political point isn't 'PC', it's edgy and against majority thinking ('cept sadly it's often not) so they're rebels just like the writers of old who challenged society's views. Le sigh. I just want to take them to task for being deeply conservative writers and thinkers who have bought into the media spin of a liberal, PC takeover.

Returning to Bacigalupi (are you reading Shipbreaker? Read Shipbreaker! There's a man who is part dog and courageous, untrustworthy teens. You'll love it)there's an interview where he refers to what he calls 'mommy voices' (which is y'know weird, but mkay). He says some people thinks he needs a few less and he'd be brilliant if he'd just stop banging on about the environment and some people think he might need a few more. I think he concludes by saying he needs to be open to listening to those voices, but he can't listen to them all, all the time. And I think if you look at 'The Windup Girl' and the reaction to the rape scenes in that, it's pretty clear how his own blinkers come in to which political messages he recognises as needing slight signposting and which he doesn't even see to signpost, if that makes sense. Which I think offers some evidence that attitudes towards rape aren't yet uniform enough to be handled unambiguously if the people writing the rape scenes can't even seen how problematic they might be.

Re: the Tender Morsals scene again something Bacigalupi said in that interview makes me wonder about it. He said something like in 'Shipbreaker' no one gets het up about the suffering, because those who suffer most are 'meth addicted men'. I don't think that's totally accurate, but he seems to...so I was wondering if maybe it's not that it's rape as revenge that some of the people commenting object to so much, but that it's men being raped for revenge. I can see that being a shock for some readers in a way that seeing women raped for revenge wouldn't be (not that that's ok, just that it might factor in). Not sure, got to read the book.

I am soooooo looking forward to post three! Thanks for writing them, because they're really clarifying a big jumble of thought I couldn't even begin to approach. And y'know, you quoted me *blushes*. Ta.

Date: 2011-06-07 12:59 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Ahhhhhhh you are going to be reading Shipbreaker!:) So happy!

I feel like we need some kind of sarcastic flash graphic to convey your last line here. Possibly with people raising placards and fainting couches.


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