Category Archives: Books

Needless cruelty

Recently, my friend lent me an advance copy of a book we were both looking forward to, as it is the sequel to another book we both seriously enjoyed.  (I won’t be specific about the title or author, because SPOILERS ABOUND.  But even without specifying the book, a lot of this post will sound familiar – you’ve seen or heard similar tropes before.)  Anyway, I couldn’t put the book down; I drank it up for the price of a couple nights’ sleep.  There was a lot to love about the story and the telling.  But one of the last scenes of the book really threw me for a loop, and has sort of obstructed a pleasurable memory of the whole.  I’ve been taking some time to reflect on my response to it.


The novel is fantasy fiction.  Toward the end of the book, some of the characters summon a powerful supernatural being, and the supernatural being rapes one of the female characters.

My first response to this – aside from a mental flinch – was to wonder why this incredibly common act of cruelty was acting as the final flourish of a veritable symphony of unusual, supernatural cruelty.
My next and lingering response was to be equal parts disturbed and annoyed that  this incredibly common act of cruelty was acting as the final flourish of a veritable symphony of unusual, supernatural cruelty.

Let’s have some context, borrowed from Sady Doyle at Tiger Beatdown.  Sady is tired of seeing sexual assault as a way to “spice up” horror.  What I found particularly resonant about her post was the observation that most of the buttons pushed in horror are unusual; massacre and torture are horrific, but are blessedly infrequent occurrences in our part of the world.  Sexual assault, on the other hand, is incredibly common – so much so that the probability of a  survivor of sexual assault viewing any such movie is very high.  And the narrative strategy of using rape catapult a horrific scene into more-horrific is just… insulting, really.  Not to mention unoriginal.  Another thoughtful read on using sexual assault as a narrative tool comes from Shakesville: Melissa McEwan is contemptuous of the suggestion that the viewers need gratuitous sex and assault to demonstrate the extent of a character’s villainy.  (Concerning the presence of this visual shorthand in a fantasy film, she adds: “It says something interesting, and not at all pleasant, about our culture that we are willing to accept a complete reinvention of the planet’s climate for the purposes of fantasy, but not the possibility of a culture devoid of sexual exploitation and rape, as if the weather is just a suggestion but rape is immutable.”)

So back to the why.  I picked up and finished the novel described above while I was in the midst of reading The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson, which has put me in the mindframe for contemplation.  The Art of Cruelty is more exploration than argument, which I like. Nelson sets out to consider and analyze some artworks and poems that she finds disturbing, or that have been criticized for their depictions of cruelty; she’s not interested in a wholesale condemnation or relativistic defense, but she does want to find and model a way to query and assess such works.  The way she goes about this is similar to the way I’ve been taught to read poetry and art: what does x element of the work do?  What cultural bells does it set off, does it cause the viewer/reader to view or read is a particular way?  Does the experience of reading/viewing allow the reader/viewer some space with which to make meaning of it?

That’s what I’m asking myself about the act of rape in this scene, in this book.  What does it do for the narrative?

  • The scene that includes the act serves as a climax of one character’s story, and precipitates the climax of the total narrative.
  • The act demonstrates the  cruelty of the Supernatural Being.
  • The act is a trial for the Female Character to overcome.
  • The act is the source of the Female Character’s own supernatural powers.

Okay, fine. Now what if the scene had been deleted, or replaced with something else?

  • The scene that concludes with the act of rape, would without rape still serve as the climax of her story. As my friend and I discussed a few days ago, the summoning of the Supernatural Being is an incredible scene. It is shocking, horrifying, unexpected, meaningful – everything a good plot twist in a thoughtful book should be. (And then the Being leans her over a table and ZZZZZZZZZ and also UGH.)
  • Prior to the rape, the Supernatural Being demonstrates the extent of his supernaturality and cruelty in some pretty spectacular ways – emphasis on spectacle, with the Female Character acting as a horrified witness to the Being’s casual violence. Emphasis on horror, too, where “horror” denotes a class of events that falls so far outside of habitual human experience that we learn something about our own boundaries. (Not that horror is always meaningful! But there is a reason that the stories of historical cruelties still captivate.) Being supernatural, the Being could have done any number of things to the Female Character. It seems… odd, and out of place, that he chose to reenact that pool table scene from The Watchmen.
  • Setting aside the inherently problematic (and overused) trope of giving a female character a rape to overcome as a part of her character development: this Female Character has already overcome a great deal. Among other things, throughout the novel she negotiates a near-constant barrage of sexual harassment and objectification. Her response is to use these circumstances for her own gain, a compromise that earns her both power and damage. That was all well-written and well-considered, I thought. Adding one final, boss-battle outrage against her body just seems like overkill, an Intro to Fiction misstep.
  • And finally – the rape is the first act of sexualized violence in which the Female Character is utterly helpless (rather than complicit, and acting with some agency).  And it is the act that transforms her into a Supernatural Being herself. She is, in other words, a woman in her own refrigerator. She reminds me of the title character of The Wind-Up Girl, who does not discover her own strength until a barrage of unimaginably (yet attentively described) brutalizing circumstances pushes her past the point of endurances.  Not just brutal circumstances, but gendered circumstances. It reminds me, too, of that awful chapter in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in which the narrator lovingly describes the stoic heroism with which a woman he knows survived a brutal attack. These are not flattering comparisons. They’re called Hideous Men for a reason.

To sum up: no, I can’t think of a single reason why this book – which I was prepared to love, which I did in fact love many things about – derailed me with an act of needless sexual violence. I question the choice to place rape in this seat of honor: narrative climax, boss battle, origin story. I don’t say that it should never be written.  I don’t even pretend to sketch out some rules about when it’s okay and when it is not okay.  I only want to ask – why is this here?

And I wouldn’t mind if authors, editors, and previewers would think to ask themselves the same.


Filed under Books, Gender, Ideas

Blogs, logs, and plugs

I have updated my blogroll with a more transparent list of what I actually read on a regular basis.*  After Bloglines shut down, I tried on about a million feed-readers and finally settled on Netvibes.  Netvibes is a little complicated to explain, but I will try, because I have found it to be a useful organizational tool as well as an effective distraction.  Netvibes allows you to organize yourself a “dashboard” – or more (I have three).  You can add feeds and/or widgets to this dashboard, and view it in reader or widget mode.  Reader mode looks a lot like Bloglines: there’s a window for reading the posts and a sidebar with all of your feeds listed, and when new posts appear the blog is bolded with the number of posts next to it.
But widget mode facilitates my ongoing job search and my ongoing research.  My jobsearch dashboard includes a preview of my Gmail inbox, a preview of Craigslist’s writing/editing job page, two boxes of links to jobsites I check frequently (one for general publishing jobs and one for specific presses I follow), and a to-do box where I copy links to specific jobs I want to apply to later.  The Food Research dashboard is similar, but with links to Calls for papers and web previews of sites I refer to periodically, and – crucial to getting shit done! – a timer.

click to enlarge, but only slightly

If you join, I think there’s a social networking component I haven’t explored.  Look me up; I’m tanglethis, as usual.

Reading feeds is part of my daily routine; I check them when I wake up and when I get home from work, both to to keep tabs on issues that interest me and to unwind with some good reading.  The blogs I choose to read actually have considerable impact on what I know and how I think about it.  It sounds strange to say so; I think it’s not uncommon to feel suspicious of a fairly democratic medium, on which any asshole with an opinion (to paraphrase one of my grandmother’s aphorisms) can broadcast.  On the other hand, some folks who get payment and/or prestige for putting their opinions to print are publishing some truly ignorant and speculative fictions, so. . . Periodically I’d like to take time to respect and admire writers who write carefully, and with care.

Sometimes I’m a tl;dr reader, but lately the posts that cause me to reflect have been posted in something of a series.

  • Ta-Nehesi Coates has been reading Jane Austen, and he loves her.  I think Jane Austen can be somewhat of a divisive figure: people tend to either love her or find her quite overrated, and the former is nowhere near a cohesive group, peopled as it is both by fans of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and by diehard canonists who hate film adaptations except the BBC version.  For my part, I’ve never counted myself as among her biggest fans, but I devoured several of her novels in a week one summer when I had the time to do so.  Coates’ posts remind us that Austen remains readable in part because of her craft – her sculpted sentences, her gleefully dry sense of humor – and I appreciate seeing a male writer admire a female (and, as we culturally code her, extremely feminine!) writer this way.  But Coates also finds intersections between the world of Austen’s marriageable women and the language of hip hop, the texts of American slavery, and his own lifelong education.  I like this not only because I need to be reminded that gender and class always entangle themselves with race, too – easy for a white reader to forget in the ivory landscape of pre-Victorian gentry – but because Coates’ insights are more about why literature matters.
    You can search The Atlantic for Jane Austen, but here are some that stood out to me: “How do you teach beauty?” ; “Snobbery“; “No one man should have all that power“.
  • Captain Awkward has several posts on the art of saying NO – at work, in date situations, and more.  Captain Awkward knows you’ve been socialized to do everything in your power to avoid saying no, or telling people you don’t like what they’re doing, because expressing these negative sentiments are impolite!  Nonetheless, she insists, it is far more polite and safe to set clear boundaries as soon as possible; it’s much harder to tell people NO when you’ve already shown them what you’ll let them get away with.  Saying no gently, firmly, and immediately can save you a lot of irritation, or worse.
    This series has come up in conversation a lot lately; I know a lot of people who could use a refresher on being a little “impolite” in order to put an end to (or at least a damper on) bad coworker or date behavior.  I also wonder what I would have thought if I read these posts in my early twenties, when I needed to hear them most.   I am not sure if I would have understood then.  But now reading these posts is cathartic, almost, because I’ve been there and I know, right?
    No at work; No on dates; and more No.
  • The Fat Nutritionist has some food rules for you: eat food, stuff you like, as much as you want.  These posts are like a manifesto for intuitive eating, which is a concept that I may have alluded to in the paltry few of my “Body Unapologetic” posts, but is well described on FN’s blog.  The blogger, Michelle, has some fairly unpopular views that I happen to share: for example, that people are smarter than we give them credit for (or at least, they could be if we equipped them with information rather than punitive restrictions); that how other people eat is not really our business to judge or control; and that eating is about gaining (nutrition, energy, pleasure) not losing (weight, calories, whatever).  We want to eat food that is good;  No really, we want to eat food that makes us feel good; and for a bonus, “If only poor people understood nutrition!” (which includes a pyramid of food needs that I find pretty compelling).

*If you were previously on the blogroll and were removed, don’t feel sad; it’s just because your blog hasn’t seen an update in an even longer time than my blog.  If I know you and you want me to link you or at least read you, let me know!

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Filed under Body Unapologetic, Books, Fun with the internets, Gender, Lists

PQfEW: This Bridge Called My Back

I’m excited to note that although last week’s Powerful Quotes didn’t receive much comment, it is one of the most viewed and most searched-for posts from the past few weeks.  So here you go again.

All of the quotes this week come from an incredible anthology, This Bridge Called My Back. It was written, collected, and edited by feminists of color in the 80s, still responding to the repercussions of identity politics. The poems, essays, journal entries, and letters in this volume rage against racism and homophobia in mainstream political movements, describe the lived experience of being female and racially marked and perhaps also lesbian in American culture, reflect painfully on personal practices of racism and woman-hate that had to be unlearned, critique colleagues, postulate possibilities. It’s an incredibly visceral read, both indicting and inviting for a reader like me (who is mostly invisible except for that indelible female mark that sometimes looks like a target).

Unfortunately, it’s out of print. Otherwise I’d ask everyone to read it. I read it from a photocopy of a photocopy, but I did order one of the slightly more expensive “Haha it’s a rare book now!” copies because I’m fairly certain I’ll teach from this text eventually.

“Why am I compelled to write? Because the writing saves me from this complacency I fear. Because I have no choice. Because I must keep the spirit of my revolt and myself alive. Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my appetites and hunger. I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you.”
-Gloria Anzaldua, “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers.”

I couldn’t resist another quote about writing, because that is one of the ways for me to enter this text and identify with it. I thought this quote chimed nicely with the Barbara Christian quote  last week, but this excerpt is part of a much longer description of Anzaldua’s struggle with the language, her right to make it speak her mind and testify to her subjecthood, and then her pleasure with language’s ability to metamorphose in the act of writing and surprise her, teach her something she doesn’t already know. “I say mujer magica, empty yourself. Shock yourself into new ways of perceiving the world, shock your readers into the same.”

The rest I submit to you to speak for themselves.

I’ve had enough
I’m sick of seeing and touching
Both sides of things
Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody

Can talk to anybody
Without me

I explain my mother to my father my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks the Black church folks
To the ex-hippies the ex-hippies to the Black separatists the
Black separatists to the artists the artists to my friends’ parents. . .

I’ve got to explain myself
To everybody

I do more translating
Than the Gawdamn U.N.

Excerpt from “The Bridge Poem” by Donna Kate Rushin

I am awake now, my lover still sleeping beside me, wondering how we can blend our two worlds. How to mend the holes in our pasts, walk away bravely from the nightmares.
. . .
We both have no choice but to be survivors though the fears are still there. Whenever i see a crowd of men, my heart sinks to my feet, whenever i hear sudden noises, sudden crashing, anger, male noises, their very laughter is abrasive to my ears I shrink inside, walk close to the walls of my soul, i look for a place to hide

Excerpt from “Dreams of Violence” by Naomi Littlebear

I lack imagination you say

No. I lack language.
The language to clarify
My resistance to the literate.
Words are a war to me.
They threaten my family.

. . .

My family is poor.
Poor. I can’t afford
a new ribbon. The risk
of this one is enough
to keep me moving
through it, accountable.
The repetition like my mother’s
stories retold, each time
reveals more particulars
gains more familiarity.

You can’t get me in your car so fast.


Excerpts from “It’s the Poverty,” by Cherrie Moraga

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Filed under Books, Gender, PQfEW, Race