Sunday, June 10, 2012

Book Report

Summer reading is a luxury I eagerly anticipate every year.   Like overpriced cheap ice cream from a truck, there's just something elegantly indulgent about feasting on a book during the hot sticky months.  My children will tell you, when I read, I hear nothing but the words on the page.  If allowed, I will go for hours until the book is finished, without food, without talking, without really moving.  That world that the author created, becomes the more real world than the real world for the time of the book. I also cannot leave a book abandoned.  If I start it, I have to finish. 

I like to read women's fiction, mostly historical fiction. 

But lately, I've noticed a trend. Maybe it's the books I've picked up and it is just a coincidence, but these are books that sold very well, most are best sellers, so cumulatively, they reveal a pattern even if I have only my experience to back up my thoughts.

It is very quiet but I've begun to wonder if it is ubiquitous.

First, there is always a reluctant benevolent abortionist. It is sort of a variant on the hooker with a heart of gold, an unquestioned conceit that enjoys tacit acceptance by the publishing world, and thus the reading world.  The woman who provides the medicine is usually the narrator. She's been gradually introduced to the skills of midwifery and initiated into the secret world of women.   Being present for birth, deaths, suffering, tears, all of these great and epic moments gives her gravitas in that historical context and our own.  Hers is the school of experience, and we grant it the full measure of a Ph.D. We the reader are swept along with her, trusting her understanding of all these events as being both truthful and truth.   

Thus when girls come to her sobbing and begging to have their children destroyed, the woman who has seen so much and has a greater understanding of the risks involved in pregnancy than we the readers, agrees. (In Neferetiti, she is pained by the irony of giving what she unwillingly received --handing them the poison that was used on her) but we don't spend much time on this, she merely remarks that she's pained by the irony. We're told, not shown.We get sprinkled reasons without delving into them (an affair, an abusive father, too many at home, old, a failed romance). She's remarkably incurious, she simply dispenses the requested herb. This is treated rather as a business transaction, an emotionless thing such that when she must travel, her attendant/servant steps in to take her place and provide the herbs as needed. No big whoop.

I first encountered this archetype reading "Don't Bet on the Prince," a collection of feminist fairy tales with the story, The Green Woman.  At the time, I thought it was a modern writer imposing modern sensibilities on an older time.  Next, I notcied it was in Myst of Avalon, but it was a minor plot detail so I glossed over it. But it kept popping up, like moral kudzu.  In Nefretiti, she is both the victim and the performer of such deeds.

Now I am reading the Red Tent and while I am enjoying it, it is there.  The wives of Jacob collude to help the abused slave of their father.  Everyone agrees that the abused woman they have ignored all this time, should have her pregnancy terminated.  They give her the herbs needed to abort her child.  Everyone agrees this is the right call. But there is no discussion other than how and when, no questioning of why or should.  The doomed Ruti gets a bit of fellowship and sympathy afterwards, but ultimately, she goes back to being ignored and eventually slits her wrists when she will be left behind with her abusive master.

The second cliche is the ubiquitous ancient secret use of all sorts of birth control in the earlier world. Drinking fennel tea to prevent conception, or use these crushed herbs, which Nefretiti, the Green Woman, the wives of Jacob, the women of Mysts of Avalon who have been part of the temple, all know and use.  

This is not a demand for  a rubber stamp on all literature before I read it. I've merely noticed that the stories we read, reflect the myths of the time.  The stories we buy, reveal what those who authorize publication, believe we want to read. Ergo, the books reveal what we want to hear, the myths we want retold.  The myths being sold are stories that say we have always been as we are now, and no one need engage in any questioning of any of soothed and know that all of this is normal and always was normal, it's just those uptight silly people who think we ought to think about these sort of actions and their long term ramifications.  We've always done this.  It's normal. It's not a moral question. 

But we haven't always done this.  

Historical fiction thrives on creating creative ways of linking the modern mind to the ancient world...but they are essentially other than in the researched details of what people ate and wore, for the most part, wikipedia versions of those realities.  For all our imagination, the authors are simply super imposing our own modern sensibilities on a holographic past setting. And these sensibilities emerge in the characters, whether they wear star fleet uniforms or togas or corsets. If the author does drop into the thinking of the time, it will be for the sake of creating a person who is stuck in their time, a villain or stooge or simpleton who cannot move the story along.  The person we follow must endure them, overcome or help them "evolve." It is the stuff of fiction.

In this case, there is a clear series of messages beneath the surface of woman's fiction. The herbalist woman has become the convenient catch all for every plot hole on how to get modern medicine and sensibilities into past times, with the wink and nod that this type of information of the past was lost because of superstitious religious folk simply not understanding...and actively seeking to destroy it.  Abortion is no big deal and legitimate if you want to cover up an affair, have a mean husband/boyfriend or don't want any more children.  Sex is a burden and a pain, even if it brings pleasure. Intimacy of story, intimacy of the mind is reserved for talk between women, not husband and wife. 

The added bonus in historical fiction is that the woman (thanks to being a midwife), know of scores of women that they have witnessed dying in childbirth, ergo they can use fear of death against intimacy with their husbands as a result.  They manage their men.  The gulf between the sexes is wide and deliberate, with protagonist women often surprized if the men they marry or that court them turn out NOT to be monsters.   This is in their minds, the exception of men, not the rule. Men who become acceptable husbands are beautiful, pleasurable, noble and utterly secondary in their rendering. They show up for the babies and the courtship and at the appropriate dramatic moments, but hold no actual weight.  These are not men.  These are female myths of men.  They are as airy as the fem fatales of penny dreadfuls and meaningful as sex dolls.  There is no meeting of souls and minds, only tenderness of touch and agreement on all things; Ken dolls with verility and in occasional cases, fecundity for secondary lead women.

Ultimately, these stories have me noticing the myths being perpetuated that erase the moral element of sex, of abortion, of birth control and reduce all relationships between men and women to those of power and eroticism. The new myths being crafted in our popular culture whisper perpetually, there is no real intimacy, only pleasure, no discussion, only agreement. You "Like" or you do not.  You must be an island to be free, you must be an island to be happy. You also must agree with every other island to be enlightened. Everything else is a throw away or sell out of you, your future and your life.   Appetites of the self, must be appeased. (Twilight, Eat Pray Love, 50 Shades of Grey)  Appetites of another...may be endured if they coincide with my appetites or lead to a greater thing I want (children, a diversion of the male so someone else can escape, or a deception to gain access to greater power or information which is also power).

All of which makes me wonder....if someone wrote a different sort of story, would it be dismissed as a fairy tale?  While it's harder, the beauty and realness of male female relationships and what they demand and entail would be more fun to write...and read. 

All this from summer reading....wait until we start going to summer movies.  So what am I doing today?  Finishing the Red Tent and I think there is a Dove Bar calling me.  Happy Summer!



shelley colquitt said...

I totally agree with you my sweet friend

Anonymous said...

I've noticed this too. I'm not so forgiving as you. If the book came from the used book store, I toss it immediately in the trash (That's what happened to The Red Tent) or return it to the library right away. I think it is a not so subtle attempt to change what we think of history by repeating it in historical fiction. "All women secretly approved of birth control and abortion because evil men tried to keep them down. We are so liberated now!" I think it's a crock, which is why I can't tolerate it for myself. Sometimes, though, when I have really been enjoying a book up until the point where these things are introduced, I wish I could see past it.


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