“Is my subgenre dead?” Follow Up

Thanks for all of the book suggestions from my post Is my subgenre dead? earlier this week. I’ve populated my Goodreads list with a number of them. It’s telling, however, how many of the books suggested were 20+ years old, or didn’t really fit the criteria I set forth. In essence, sometimes I like to read genre fiction FOR women and BY women, and it’s something I have a hard time finding, particularly if I’m looking for science fiction or secondary world fantasy.

It’s not that I only want to read genre chicklit. I just want it to exist so I can read it sometimes, especially when I get into those cranky, difficult-to-satisfy reader moods. Gwenda Bond‘s suggestion of Sara Creasy’s novels, starting with Song of Scarabaeus, was spot-on, and in fact I had two of the books in the house. They were WFC freebies, but I hadn’t been very interested in them because based on the covers I mistook them for some kind of vampire fiction. (I know, never judge a book by its cover.) So I was delighted to find it was pretty much exactly what I’d been in the mood for.

I now have some theories about why it’s getting to be difficult to find the kind of genre lit that I gorged on back in the 1980′s. One of them is that that particular audience has been siphoned off to vampire fiction. Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series is a prime example. It’s bestselling, supernatural fiction written by a woman primarily for a female audience. It’s extremely popular, and it’s doing very well.

The only problem…if you’re squicked out by the very idea of romance with a dead person, it’s not very appealing. Listen, I don’t understand why so many people think death is sexy, or find the idea of a lover without a pulse compelling, and I am not judging. But if you don’t like that particular thing, it’s not like there’s some other series of books featuring women who save the world by riding dragons and destroying science fictional acid rain. It’s just not being done.

On another level, I kind of blame feminism. I like feminism. I identify proudly as a feminist. Feminism has achieved a lot, and I’ve benefited immeasurably in my life from the advances made in women’s rights. Feminism has advanced the interests of women, but often at the cost of interests and occupations once held by women. Case in point, women have fought for the right to have careers in business, and no one bats an eye anymore at a woman in the boardroom, but for a man it is still shameful to stay home and take care of children, and cook and clean.

I know men who have done it, but they get negative comments, and they get made fun of. Even well-intended friends will often ask a man who is a full-time stay-at-home Dad “How is the job search going?”

And the once-common occupation of full-time home maker, without kids? No one does that anymore. Every once in a while, a young woman will take on that vocation, not seeking a job because her husband has a good salary, and she faces the same kind of pressure as the stay-at-home dad. If there are no kids at home, then, in our society, there is nothing useful you could possibly be doing at home. (Note: I am not talking about people who want to write novels or start businesses or whatever. I’m talking about old school home makers.)

The bias against “women’s work,” can even appear within a workplace. Who cleans the break room kitchen? Who loads the dishwasher? Who cleans out the microwave? These discussions in the work place can be extremely politically loaded. Even some job-related tasks can take on a “women’s work” taint. Years ago, my husband worked in operations for an IT firm. Operations is all about keeping things running, cleaning up, taking care of others, and supporting the programmers so they can do their work. From a skills point of view, being an operator is just as challenging as being a programmer. But at that office, they joked that Operations got no respect, because it’s “women’s work.”

Getting back to reading material, we also have ghettoized women’s fiction. The stacks and stacks of Harlequin romances that some women love and read by the metric ton are ¬†referred to as “smut,” a term demeaning the worth of the literature specifically because it is written for women. (Putatively it is for sexual content, but you’ll find just as much explicit sexual content in highly-respected literary fiction.) In mainstream literature, women’s fiction, aka “chick lit” is a very successful and popular category, but it still gets a condescending wink when it gets noticed (perhaps by being turned into a “chick flick”), and is not considered as important or substantial as “real” mainstream literature, which is not preoccupied by femmy stuff like falling in love.

In the genre of science fiction and fantasy, I see a trend for “strong female characters” in stories written for a general audience–neither male nor female. If there is romance, it tends to be downplayed, taking a back seat to the female character’s journey of independent self-actualization. On the one hand, this is great. We’re getting women into the literary equivalent of the business board room. On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to find any decent smut. Apparently, no one wants to be that writer.

A while back I read a very good secondary world fantasy novel with quite a charismatic romance sub plot, but, for me, it was rather spoiled by the main character’s assertion that should would never marry, and, therefore, refused to even consider any kind of long term relationship with the love interest. Unlike many books, where that sort of belief becomes one of many obstacles to a love interest, and you wonder how they’re going to overcome it, the message in this book was clear that there would be no resolution of the love story, no consummation of the relationship. For a subset of readers, that character may be very validating. But for me, and, I suspect, a majority of female readers, we’d like to see main character eventually hook up with her sweetie. Is that so wrong?

Then there’s this thing called the Bechdel Test, which has bothered me for a long time. The test asks whether there are two female characters in a film that talk to each other about something other than a man. It is putatively a quick and easy way to identify films that tokenize women, and for at least some types of films, you can certainly see that secondary female characters should have something to talk about other than the male leads of the story, and yet somehow don’t.

However, the broad application of the Bechdel Test, and application of it not only to film but to literature, tends to unfairly marginalize books that are primarily about¬†a woman’s quest for a satisfying relationship with a man. Generally, one expects that every scene in a novel will forward the plot, and so in a book with romance as a primary or strong secondary plot, it is not unexpected that most of the conversations between female characters would revolve around men. In essence, the Bechdel test trivializes and marginalizes romance fiction.

I wonder how much of Jane Austen’s work would pass the Bechdel test.

Should a romance novelist insert a scene, somewhere, in her novel, specifically designed to make the book pass the Bechdel test in order to prove that the novel can pass the Bechdel test? Or is it possible that pursuit of love with a man does not automatically invalidate a “strong female character?”

Within the SFF genre, it seems pretty much expected that every book will pass the Bechdel test. Take home message: no smut allowed. Secondary message: if you are a woman who is interested in romance, and thinks and talks a lot about men, you are brainwashed by the patriarchy. (And in nerd culture, the “boy crazy” teen is often ruthlessly denigrated, even though in the real world it’s perfectly natural for girls to be obsessed with boys in adolescence. I think possibly over 90% of my conversations with girlfriends in high school were about boys, and I never even had an actual boyfriend.)

From the publishing industry side, I don’t know what is behind the dry up of the smutty-dragonriding sff subgenre, whether editors aren’t buying it, or writers aren’t writing. I can’t even speak authoritatively on this as a writer, because, even though I do enjoy a smutty genre romance, it’s not my strength as a writer. But, as a reader, I say bring back my smutty science fiction, featuring actual hunkish human love interests who produce actual human body heat. Also, some lasers, aliens, or necromancers would be nice, as opposed to zombies. I can’t take any more zombies.