Last week, we addressed the #MeToo movement in the literary world by focusing on some of the headlines and debates that were taking place regarding the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature, and the revelations regarding Junot Diaz. Today, we thought we’d take a look into the literary implications of #MeToo, and the way the movement is changing how we read and write fiction.
Not surprisingly, perhaps the most prominent field where such changes have been occurring is romance, where issues of consent and power have always been debated and discussed pretty prominently. Now, as The Guardian observed, we see workplace romances getting reconsidered, and the consent being made extra-explicit and enthusiastic (by a number of authors, if not across the genre as a whole). And that is terrific. As I reader, I have long been awaiting a turn in the genre to something more out-and-out progressive, feminist, and focused on fulfillment.
But it seems that other genres have been thinking hard about the portrayal of women in literature, as well. The Hugo Awards for science fiction have been honoring the achievements of women and people of color for several years now, despite some highly-publicized campaigns to derail those efforts. The establishment of the Staunch Book Prize launched a wide-reaching and generally thoughtful debate about how we treat out female characters, why we hurt them, and what we can do about it. Heck, there is even an opera due for release in the UK this summer focusing on the victims of Jack the Ripper, in order to restore humanity to women who have been historically described by their gruesome deaths.
But have such sentiments actually translated into our literature? To an extent…yes. The world of publishing is not quick to react at the very best of times, and it will most likely be some time before the paradigm shift that the #MeToo movement has been establishing will be truly reflected in the books we read across genres. But I’ve been noticing a trend over the past few years, as discussions and debates surrounding women’s issues, women’s lived experiences, and the intersectional problems that people of color, LGBTQIA people, working-class people, and people with disabilities face on a daily basis in our world have grown in prominence–stories are, in fact, beginning to change. It sometimes subtle–and sometimes it isn’t at all, and that’s super, too. But it is there. So if you are looking for some works that are tackling issues of power, abuse, identity, and truth-telling, here are some ideas from around the world of fiction. Some of these books are overtly speaking to the current cultural moment, and some are merely reflecting on them in a way, but all of them, in their own way, are acknowledging that it’s time to think outside the proverbial box–and we are all the better for it.
Note: This is not to say that older books have not tackled these issues. They absolutely have. See Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, or Barbara Vine’s A Dark Adapted Eye. But this is a round-up of a few new books that reflect some of the positive changes and debates taking place in fiction right now.
The Nowhere Girls: Amy Reed’s novel is at once a wonderfully fulfilling coming-of-age, misfits-united novel, and a searing indictment of the rape culture in which these characters are growing up. Grace Salter is the new girl in town, whose family was run out of their former community after her southern Baptist preacher mom turned into a radical liberal; Rosina Suarez is the queer punk girl in a conservative Mexican immigrant family, who yearns for a life outside of their plans; Erin Delillo is obsessed with two things: marine biology and Star Trek: The Next Generation, both of which help her cope with her concern that she might be an android. When Grace learns that Lucy Moynihan, the former occupant of her new home, was run out of town for having accused the popular guys at school of gang rape, she’s incensed that Lucy never had justice. For their own personal reasons, Rosina and Erin feel equally deeply about Lucy’s tragedy, so they form an anonymous group of girls at Prescott High to resist the sexist culture at their school, which includes boycotting sex of any kind with the male students. This is a story with worlds of positive representation, from queer characters to female characters with autism-spectrum conditions, from religious and cultural difference to debates about sex and feminism–but it’s also one heck of a compelling read, especially as these Nowhere Girls lead a crusade for justice that is as applicable to the world outside the book as it is to them.
Anatomy of a Scandal: Sarah Vaughan uses all the insight and nuance she gathered during her career as a journalist in this story about political scandals, accusations, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to endure. The novel focuses on Sophie and her husband James. In Sophie’s eyes, James is the model of a good man–a caring father, a devoted husband, and a highly successful politician. But then James is accused of rape, and Kate Woodcroft is appointed by the Crown to prosecute him. Kate is convinced that James is guilty, and is willing to bring all her legal expertise to this fight to bring him down. But as this story unfolds, with the help of flashbacks and shifting narrative voices, we as readers are shown that no actions are isolated, and that all actions and all choices have tremendous impact, far into the future. Vaughan is especially talented at crafting her female characters. Sophie and Kate could not be more different, but they are both nuanced, compelling, and, in their own way, sympathetic characters, which makes their journeys in this book uniquely harrowing and suspenseful. A top-notch courtroom drama as well as a pertinent look into the effects of power and privilege, this is a psychological thriller that fits in beautifully with our current real-world debates.
Fellside: This book is something of an outlier as a result of its age (it was published in 2016, which is by no means ancient, but what a difference a few years makes!), but M.R. Carey’s strange, haunting, and unforgettable novel deserves to be on this list for a number of reasons. At the center of this work is a heroin addict named Jess Moulson, who is facing life in prison in the isolated and, frankly, terrifying Fellside prison. Jess, we are told, is weak. But no matter how many times the characters in this book repeat this judgement of her, Jess quietly and repeatedly proves she is anything but weak. This is a story that repeatedly shows us the hopelessness of life, especially for those in prison–the ruthlessness of people who feel they have nothing left to lose, the craven violence of those who cling to power, obsession, greed, addiction…but this is also a story that repeatedly rejects those qualities in favor of hope. Bleak hope, perhaps. But hope. So, for its discussions of abuse of power, its emphasis on the integrity and dignity of those whose humanity is so often overlooked, and the intimate discussions about what penance, sacrifice, and love really look like, this book definitely deserves consideration in this discussion.
And also, there are a huge number of romance novels to add to this list…but in the interest of time, we’ll have to get to them another day!