Sunday, September 18, 2005

What Women Want (Not Quite a Book Review)

I titled this "What Women Want" because I believe that women are the target audience for my examples or at least the primary one. To me, that's a bit scary and you'll see why if you read a bit further.

Of my reading pile, this covers Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik and 2 Harlequin Next books (Riggs Park by Ellyn Bache and Old Boyfriends by Rexanne Becnel).

I'm putting these three books together though I did not read them in this order for a very simple reason: they are all about damaged women. Did I enjoy the books? Yes. I had some issues with them, but overall, they were good reads individually. What struck me most about them though, and this could be a proximity issue, was that the female characters almost all suffered from some kind of spousal abuse varying from being ignored and infidelity to physical violence. Those few that had good relationships got to suffer the death of their spouses or a fatal disease such as cancer, or both. Again, I might have thought it was a chance thing, except that I spent last year, at my husband's request ;), watching Desperate Housewives and now this year the new ShowTime program WEEDS. It shows the same pattern of broken women. The main character's husband died and the secondary female character not only has a husband who ignores her and who is sleeping with someone else, but she also has breast cancer that was discovered late.

Not really about the books at all, but this concept of what appeals to the American public and specifically the American woman is a little disturbing to me. What about Shirley Valentine where a woman who stagnated in her life went off to discover adventure? Oh, wait. I think that was a British author. Which leaves me with the grand impression that people are no longer interesting in and of themselves. It is the scars they have, the burdens they bear and how, if at all, they're surviving these things that appeals.

I look back over that last sentence and find myself agreeing with it in general. The problem I have is that the characters all have the same scars, the same burdens. Has spousal abuse became the common thread that connects us? Has it become so prevalent that what provoked responses of "try harder" or "you don't deserve him anyway" so recently is now an automatic sympathy call? Or are people still ignoring the cry for help under lame excuse after lame excuse from their next door neighbor in favor of devouring book after book where the main characters attempt to rediscover life after abuse or to survive it?

Sigh. Not quite a book review or reviews. More a rant. Whether because of this growing discomfort with the setup, or because they really weren't my type of book to start out with, this is the strongest impression I came away with. One of the Next books had a plot thread I really enjoyed and could have read a whole book about that relationship. The concept of a reluctant man being pursued by a persistent woman as a positive thing is rare enough in romance to feel fresh to me. And I liked the ending to another plot in that same book as well. Was the abuse necessary for either of these threads? No. Was it in fact necessary for any of them? Yes, but only the one where the wife believes her husband is cheating on her.

So why the whole abuse setup? Is it a free ticket to character sympathizing? Is it necessary for practically every character in the novel to be suffering some dramatic abuse or disease? Is someone wanting to change, to get their life in order, to recover what was lost no longer remotely interesting? And what does that say about us as an audience? My examples span prime time television, a mainstream novel and Harlequin's new romance/mainstream line.

Someone on Romancing the Blog mentioned how the basic Harlequin has become more and more graphic as time goes on to the point that they cannot be given to 13-14 year old girls with a clear conscience (I looked for the link but can't find it). I see the same trend with the thriller romance and now this.

Romances used to raise girls' expectations, give them hope and discourage settling for the first guy to smile at you. Now? They tell you the world is a crazy, dangerous place in which, if you're lucky enough to survive, you might still find someone who won't beat you, stalk you, or murder you. I have no answers. I just write it as I see it and I'm not happy with what I see.


Valerie Comer said...

A very interesting peek, Mar! And you're right, it wouldn't give a girl much to look forward to. Yeeps. I'm interested to know if others have found a similar thread through books THEY have read or shows watched.

Deirdre said...

Wow, this is gonna make me sound old, and I'm not (stamping foot and whining)!

In the same way that swearing has become everyday, and fighting has become an expected answer to a bad situtation - people have come to expect larger and more painful situations to be the only way to solve problems. The average public finds old movies to be trite and unbelievable, but the exact same plot when it involves violence in some form is considered modern and racy.

Example: Sunset Boulevard (subplot) Guy falls in love with girl who's already engaged to other guy. Other guy has left town for work, girl falls out of love, breaks engagement and new couple gets to be together.

That's trite, but the same story and the other guy a) has an affair b) finds out and freaks out or c) girl can't make decision and kills herself because of it are all considered's the same story but in order to keep today's audience riveted you need the extra layer of violence.

It's a sick sad world we live in.

Margaret said...

Val, yes on the Yeeps. It's why it took me a bit to write this. I didn't want to see it myself.

Dee, not to sound worldwise, but it's not a sick world, it's a sick US. On Forward Motion, we have an international community but a US base. I've had several baffling conversations about the ratings guidelines because in the US, sex (and now I'll get spam :p) is considered taboo while violence is appropriate. In Germany, and I believe, Sweden, what we have out on the shelves for anyone to see is not allowed or hidden in the back, while what we hide is readily available. Amazing isn't it :).

Jean said...

I have a couple initial thoughts.

a) Stakes. I haven't read these books, but is it possible the author, editor, or publisher is looking for higher stakes and thinking this is the way to get them--via multiple abuse situations?

b) As for why people read this, is it possible we have greater levels of abuse (you don't cite traditional examples of abuse, yet the ones you cite do qualify), and women are reading these books to know they are not alone?

c) Hmmm. The reluctant male pursued by the persistent female. My hubby might say he can relate to that...or, rather could, fifteen years ago. Patience is a virtue in some instances, especially while the guy gets around to having his words match his actions.

d) An interesting comment about what's taboo where, even in seemingly similar cultures.

Margaret said...

Hi Jean,

Yes, stakes is exactly why they seem to be doing it...well some of the times. When it's a backdrop, it's getting something better that becomes the stakes. I just think that's a bit of taking the easy path. You don't have to work hard to make your character likeable if you tell me up front that they are coming out of such a betrayal. It's instant sympathy. Makes me nervous about what's next when the audience gets tired of "instant sympathy" and demands something even more hideous.

As to not being alone, I think that is definitely part of it, but doesn't this somehow support that situation? In none of these books was the abuser turned over to the police, or reported in any way. Most cases, they were already dead, but in one, he went on to marry someone else. Isn't that telling people suffering abuse that the only way out is to wait for death to take the abuser? Or at the least to keep your mouth shut and not ruin the abuser's life? If it was intended as a support network, I personally think these books fail and may even encourage the avoidance of intervention.

Of course, I may just be too sensitive on this issue ;). I have a wonderful husband, but have known enough people not in that situation to know just how lucky I am. I read the "Mr. Perfect" style romances and didn't settle til I found the right one for me :D.

Jean said...

Maybe if I'd have read romances when I was younger, I might have made a better choice the first time around. But my sister did, and I don't think it worked for her.

Excellent point about it being a poor support system. Until I got credible advice to the contrary, I believed I had to wait for my ex to die. I finally used the criteria "Would I rather spend the rest of my life alone or with this guy?" When the answer was "The rest of my life alone is fine with me" it got real easy.

I also agree with the stakes being the easy way out. I'm not satisfied that death is the highest stake. In too many instances, that's the easy way out. I struggle with stakes, but life or death doesn't do much for me when I'm writing. At least, not yet.

Margaret said...

Hugs on your former husband. At least you were strong enough to ask the question. There's too many out there who think this is the way things are supposed to be. And they fear being on their own more than living with what they have with the children usually being the deciding factor, i.e. It's all right if I'm the only one getting hurt, but if my spouse (since abusers come in all genders) attacks the kids, I'm gone and they're with me.

As far as stakes, I can tell from my own life that the stakes are much higher if you survive. Ever seen The Princess Bride? To the death is easy, to the pain on the other hand will sap the will. That's why torture works. It's the will to survive that keeps people going even in the worst of circumstances.

Nanzar said...


The following is a copy of a rant I had on another blog (just this week) about this topic:

"I'll give you my rant next. As a wannabe writer, I am always saddened by the fact that most good stories come out of the pain of murder, adultery, or untimely death. I'm saddened because it is obscene to me that the acts of perverse people or the stories of sadness and death get glorified in the process of our discovering little truths about ourselves. I do wish there was another way to tell a good story because it's not what I would choose to write about. (If anyone has insight into this question I would surely love to hear it.)"

This problem has been plaguing me ever since I decided I wanted to "grow up and become a writer." I've thought about genre as a way to avoid the problem- romance was one of my go-to forms, but from what you say that wouldn't help either.

As it looks now Christian is the only market where I might be able to write stories about people with problems without glorifying death and murder, but I'm sure I can't totally avoid it there either!

But I know I've read plenty of stories that had something to say, and didn't have to use the big three- Huck Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; the series by Carlos Castaneda...

OK I'm getting a picture here...I like philosophical stories! I think I may have just had an Ah-Ha moment. Ok... carry on with your discussion. I think I've got something I can work with now. Thanks for confirming my suspicions about modern American storytelling.

Margaret said...

Hi Nanzar,

Yes, the world of writing seems a little dark right now, but don't give up on it all together. Thriller romances or romance/mainstream romances like the Next series do have the darker elements, but there are many types of romances that do not go in that direction. Check out Harlequin lines like Super Romance and Presents for example. The guidelines are available on line here:

Though this is a trend, it is not an all-consuming one any more than every tv show has become a reality tv show just because there are so many. You need to choose your authors carefully and know what their expectations are to avoid the darker elements, but it can definitely be done.

Still, philosophical is a way to go, as is literary, that would take you a bit away from the dark, gritty feel of the modern world. We didn't really outgrow cyberpunk, we became it :).

Nanzar said...

Thanks Margaret for the guidlines and advice. I have an epic romance story in mind actually, I've held off writing it because I didn't think there was a market. It sounds like something worth doing now. Thanks, you've lifted my sense of possibilities.

What does, "We didn't really outgrow cyberpunk, we became it :)." mean exactly?

Margaret said...

Glad to help. It's amazing what resources are out there once you know where to look.

On cyberpunk. Hmm. Well, the cyberpunk genre proposed that the world would became a corporate-controlled, big brother-like situation with freedom being found only through electronic mods and the inherent dangers of street life. Most is dark, bloody and pessimistic. (Okay, you cyberpunk addicts out there, don't kill me, but feel free to offer alternate views :)).

As a genre, it is hard to find someone willing to publish cyberpunk anymore and it is often considered an ugly stepchild because of the depression and stark negative look at reality.

At the same time, much of what it predicted has come to be, both in the armorment and personal weaponry available on the street and in how corporate power has increased. Combine that with murder statistics, school shootings and the like and we've "won" at least the edge of the cyberpunk world.

On the literature side, that pessimism has seeped into writing to the point that novels without a darkness are often classified Young Adult regardless of their true audience (see Pern for an example) and it is hard for a reader to avoid the dark underside when attempting escapism that novels used to promise.

Okay, so I put a lot of meaning behind one snarky comment, but I know at least one person who reads this that would have gotten it ;).

Nanzar said...

Very interesting explanation. Thanks for enlightening me on the subject.

I tend to believe that the amount of darkness that is actually out there is highly hyped. However, we like to be entertained, and even Shakespere knew you had to have a dead body somewhere to get people to come to your plays.