Our Own Kind of Porn

I’ve discovered something disturbing about my recent book reviews. I’ve only done eight of them, but I have consistently rated the male authors (all four of them) higher than the female writers (there were four of them too.)

In fact, my average rating for women’s books is over a point lower (3 stars versus 4.25 out of five.) What is going on ? I’m a feminist! I’m a huge fan of women authors and a strong supporter of women anything! Am I secretly sexist?

I took a closer look at the books. The four by men include a haunting murder in the Sahara (Deep Sahara), a contemporary thriller about witness protection (Empty Promises), a teen action novel about an ancient artifact (The Ancient Tripod of Peace) and, most surprisingly, a sensitive story of a woman recovering from rape (Off Season) which I reviewed on this blog.

I was glad I read all four books.

All four of the books by women basically centered around two people who really wanted to have sex with each other, who couldn’t or didn’t for various reasons, and then who did, often for many pages. I wasn’t particularly glad I read any of them.

If you don’t like that kind of book, why did you read them? That is a fair question.

The first book was billed as a fantasy romance (Realm of the Dragon). I like fantasy books a lot, but I didn’t get that the genre designation means it is a romance novel that happens to occur in a fantasy setting. My mistake. I didn’t enjoy it.

The second book (First Impressions) was designated an M/M romance. Okay. My protagonist in y1 is gay and has a romantic interest, so I though I would read this one to see how the author handled issues of discrimination and social acceptance with sensitivity. Maybe I could learn something. Uh, yes. I did learn a lot, but it came from multiple-page-long detailed descriptions of every possible gay sex act. I was traveling internationally while reading the book and the descriptions were so thorough I feared being arrested for trafficking in porn.

I won’t make that mistake again.

The third book (Duke du Jour) billed itself as a time travel romance. I love time travel books. How can there not be time travel in this book, I reasoned. There was. The male hunk hit his head and woke up in another time period where he proceeded to not have sex with the female head-strong beauty for the required many chapters. I will say, this author did a lot of research to make her story historically accurate, and I enjoyed learning about the Napoleonic time period. She is the only she to which I gave four stars.

So. Absolutely no more romance novels, I promised myself, no matter what else they claim to be. If it says romance anywhere in the blurb, I will not review it. It is not only fair to me, it is more fair to the romance writing world.

Enter Cloud Whispers, a novel about a woman’s metaphysical awakening after a near death experience. Now this sounds cool, I thought. She’s happily married, got a lot going on, and the book calls itself women’s fiction. Yes. Not a romance novel.

Guess what? The main character has a sister who is, wait for it, an unattached head-strong beauty. Her husband has a brother who is really rich (they usually are) and smokin’ hot (they always are) and you guessed it. Most of the story is these two lusting after each other until they finally do the deed.

Arrgghhh. I was all the more annoyed because I felt like I had been mislead.

I ended up asking myself three questions.

  1. What’s wrong with reading about romance? Nothing. I have no quarrel with lust or love and think they are a great when combined together. If that is what someone likes to read, than that is what they should read. I also have no objection to details that would make a crow blush, although if one is going to go there, I think it’s nice to warn a reader beforehand.
  2. Why don’t you like to read romance? I guess I don’t read to get aroused. I read to learn things and travel places and solve puzzles and understand people. Romance novels provide little if any of that. I find them too predictable. I often find them preoccupied with physical attractiveness, which I think is kind of shallow. They tend towards preoccupation with wealth and fashion, which I think is definitely shallow. I’d rather let my nether regions find their fun elsewhere.
  3. Why do so many women write romance? Because so many women read it. Romance novels are the largest segment of the book industry, particularly the fast growing online book segment. Why do so many women read it? Hold on a minute and I’ll offer my theory.

I heard that 90% of the content on the internet is pornographic pictures and videos. Really? I went searching to see if that had any basis in fact. According to this article in Forbes (yes, Forbes really does have an article about how much porn is on the internet) it is more like 5 to 15%, almost exclusively enjoyed by males. The most popular site (and sight) is a live webcam arrangement where a woman will strip for a man while talking to him.

We all understand. Most men are visually stimulated.

Most women are not, or not so much so. Watching hard core porn actually makes me want to not have sex.

However, we tend to be a verbal gender. By that I mean most women are more verbal than most men, although judgements about specific individuals should not be made. (Most men are better at math then most women, but I’m better at math than 98% percent of either and I’ve got the test scores to prove it, so best not judge my math ability when you see my boobs ….)

Anyway, it has finally occurred to me that steamy romance novels have become (and maybe always were) the feminine version of porn. Judging from the sales numbers, we women as a group might enjoy our version of sexual stimulation more than the guys. We’re certainly entitled to it.

However, if I want to compare male and female authors,  I need to find that smaller percent of women authors who are writing “real” books. (My designation and I take responsibility for it.) They are out there. Many of them fill my shelves and are my idols. I need to get smarter about reading between the lines of book descriptions, so I only select novels by those of any gender that I have good chance of enjoying.

I hope to do a follow up on this post months from now, comparing stats on how I’ve rated non-romance writing women and their male counterparts. I’m confident I will be praising female authors as well, and the numbers will support my assertion that both genders can and do tell stories that speak to my heart and mind and soul.

 

 

Review: Off Season

This is a blog devoted to women’s issues, and I don’t usually review books here. However, I’m making an exception for Off Season, and will do so again for books related specifically to the challenges women face.  See the end of this post for details about reviews on this blog.

Review Summary: E.S. Ruete tells a difficult story with compassion and bursts of eloquence. I rate it 3.8/5.0. My full review is below.

About this book: Dottie woke up wondering where she was and why she was so cold. The first thing she noticed was that she must be outside – she was lying on cold ground and snow was hitting her in unusual places. That’s when she noticed the second thing. Her skirt was pulled up past her waist and her panties were gone. Damn those bastards. It started to come back to her. Dottie is now on an odyssey; a journey not of her choosing; a journey of healing, integration, and reconciliation that will involve her partner, her friends, her enemies, her church, her whole community. And her rapists. As she fights her way through social stereotypes about rape and rape victims, she also finds the strength to overcome society’s messages of who she should be and lays claim her true self. But the memories, the loss, the anger – and the fears – never go away. No woman chooses to be raped. I asked Dottie why she chose to tell me a story of rape. She said that millions of women, hundreds every day, have stories of rape that never get told. She told her story because she could. Because she had to. Because maybe people would hear in a work of fiction a Truth that they could not hear in any other way.

About the author: E.S “Ned” Ruete is an author, speaker, group facilitator, women’s rights activist, LGBTQIPA+ ally, lay preacher, guitar picker, and business analyst. He is the author of Seeking God: Finding God’s both/and in an either/or world and Lead Your Group to Success: A Meeting Leader’s Primer.

Now retired, Ned lives in Niantic, Connecticut with his second wife. He continues to offer pro bono group facilitation and facilitation training to schools, churches, community groups and not-for-profit organizations. He has led strategic planning retreats for United Action Connecticut (UACT), Fiddleheads Food Co-op, and ReNew London. He is actively involved in LGBTQIPA+ advocacy and annually attends and presents sessions at the True Colors Conference. He is a member of the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) formerly served on the Association Coordinating Team (ACT, the IAF Board of Directors). He was associate editor of Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal and has contributed articles to Group Facilitation, The Facilitator, and other publications on group facilitation and management consulting.

Off Season is Mr. Ruete’s first fiction work. See his consulting products at MakingSpaceConsulting.com and his books at MakingSpaceConsulting.com/Publish.

Individual Author Links for Ned Ruete:
Twitter
FaceBook

Giveaway: The author will be awarding a $50 Amazon/BN gift card at the end of the tour. Learn more and register to win.

My full review: This is only partly a heartfelt tale about the effects of rape. It is just as much the story of an older lesbian woman seeking acceptance from her church after having spent years living with her partner but hiding the true nature of their relationship.

What I liked best.

  1. At first, it is hard to fathom why a man would write such a book. Many women would be inclined to think this story should be told by those who can tell it authentically. Yet, when the author explains that Dottie appeared in his head to demand he tell her story, I understood. (I’ve had characters do that, too.) Indeed, he channels her emotions with all the understanding one could ask for. My favorite quote from the book:

We don’t have a word for what is taken from us in rape, but the only thing more intimate, more personal, more important, more irreplaceable is a life. We need a name for this thing, so we can talk about it, understand it, learn about the pain that comes when it is lost.

  1. The author picks an unlikely rape victim, I think at least partly to make the point that sexual attraction and interaction are not at the root of sexual assault. Dottie doesn’t fit society’s stereotype of beauty, she is older and a little overweight. Her complete lack of sexual interest in men makes it clear no misunderstood flirtation is involved, in spite of accusations to the contrary. Dottie’s assault is conveyed without an ounce of eroticism. In fact, the author has one of the perpetrators consider after-the-fact how different real sexual assault is from the fantasies he has had.
  2. This is not a story of despair, it is a story of courage. There is no sugar coating of the trauma or the recovery, yet there is recovery, not only by Dottie but by others as well. Assault survivor Alice, who is also the mother of a transgender child, was an excellent complex character. I loved her approach of “I’m still listening.”

What I liked least.

  1. This is as much about LGBTQ+ acceptance by fundamentalist Christians as it is about sexual assault. I wholeheartedly support this acceptance, but, like many readers, I am not part of this sort of Christian community. I had a great deal of trouble understanding why Dottie stayed with this church, or cared what its members thought of her. The author spends a lot of time presenting his arguments for this acceptance, including descriptions of biblical characters and actual quotes from the bible. If that is ones moral yardstick, I suppose these arguments are needed, but I thought they belonged in a different book, one written specifically for a Christian audience struggling with this issue. I found myself skipping over the lengthy sermons and religious debates, anxious to get on with Dottie’s story of recovery.
  2. On the other hand, the book is short; in my opinion shorter than it should be. I felt several secondary characters warranted having more of their stories told, and resolution reached. Many threads are dropped concerning Dottie’s struggles and concerning the criminal investigation and eventual fates of her attackers. I understand this is not meant to be a crime book, but those of us who came to the book based on its description understandably want to hear the full story we came for, and more about secondary characters we learn to appreciate.
  3. The book would benefit from a few minor corrections. At least twice the author drops into present tense mid-paragraph. While I am a fan of changing points of view, they approach a dizzying pace on some pages. Also, each chapter begins with lyrics from well known songs. I understand how tempting that is, because music is so powerful, but I doubt these lyrics were used with permission of the artists and believe a book about respect for others should do better in this regard.

In spite of these flaws, I commend the author for his deft handling of difficult topics and recommend this book to advocates of social justice everywhere.

Buy this book on Amazon.

The excerpt I liked best: (The font of the following excerpt is to indicate that the character is having a flashback.)

“This is bullshit.”

 “Now Sheri, we don’t use that language here.”

 “The hell we don’t. ‘Bullshit’ is a lot less dangerous than the language you’re using. Telling me that it was my fault, that I wanted it, that I probably enjoyed it. You weren’t there. You didn’t have some … jock sitting on your belly holding your nose while he poured liquor down your throat. … You didn’t get raped. And raped and raped and raped. “

 “Now Sheri, talk like that doesn’t help anyone.”

 “It helps me.”

 “No, it doesn’t. You’re fixating again. To recover …”

 “Recovery, hell…The girl was raped. Rape is not an issue. It’s not an obsession or compulsion or neurosis you recover from. It’s not an addiction that you are in recovery from. It’s not something you own, it’s something that owns you. It’s a violation. It’s a big gaping wound. If you’re lucky you survive it and it heals over, but it leaves a scar that is always there. You don’t recover from it. You don’t even get to the place where you say you’re in recovery. You just is. ‘Raped’ is a part of you the rest of your life. But you wouldn’t know about that, you tight-assed little white male f…”

This review is part of a book review tour sponsored by Goddess Fish Promotions.
Read more reviews at:
May 8: Stormy Nights Reviewing and Bloggin’
May 17: Emily Carrington

If you are interested in a review from me: I hope to review more books relating specifically to women’s issues. I am willing to review both non-fiction and fiction. Please do not ask me to review romance novels here, or stories which promote any particular religion. If you would like to be considered for a review contact me at Teddie (dot) Zeitman (at) gmail (dot) com.

Final Note:  I received a free pdf of this book, which would never be enough to entice me to write a better review for anyone.

 

 

Am I writing sexist science fiction?

daxI’ve been a feminist since I was a teenager; longer than that if you consider wanting to be the chief science officer on the star ship Enterprise as a sign of early feminism. And yet, like other like-minded authors of speculative fiction, I struggle with feminism in my writing.

My first problem is that I define feminism as the radical notion that women are people. This means that some of them (women, or people if you prefer) are foolish. Some are selfish or incompetent, and a few of them are downright mean. All of them have flaws. I believe that to make every female character, or even most of them, models of virtue is to not treat my female characters as people, but rather as carriers pigeons for an ideology.

I recently stumbled on an online group discussion about a book I read years ago. Dreamsnake (a multiple award-winning 1978 science fiction novel written by Vonda McIntyre) defied the stereotypes of the genre way back then by putting a gutsy lady hero in the middle of a broken world. I wanted to like this book so much. But I didn’t, at least not all that much.

dreamsnakeThe main character Snake seemed two dimensional to me. She was everything a feminist hero should be, which was great, and she was never anything else, which kind of bored me. The rest of the women in her post-apocalyptic world were equally unwavering in their strength and capability. There may have been exceptions (it has been many years since I read the book) but my lingering impression was of a cast of characters carefully crafted to make a point. Interesting, but not engaging.

So, my female characters are all over the place. Most of my protagonists are strong women, but my novel y1 features a gay male shape shifter, and his friends.

I remember being so excited when a blog called The Future Fire agreed to review the book, and being so disappointed when the reviewer remarked “I do have to say, I am not really impressed by the depiction of women here. Of the two main female characters, one is shown to be foolish and unstable (where have we seen those words before?) and the other a child-like creature who runs from one daddy figure to another.”

y1-final-smallNo, I wanted to scream. That’s just two of the characters. What about capable Chloe? Resilient Raven? They are just as important to the plot. But of course one of the things you have to learn when you write books is not to scream at your reviewers, even in your own head, no matter how much you think they are missing the point. You just try to make your intentions more clear in the next book.

The other problem I have with my own sense of feminism and writing, is that I want my world to feel real to my readers. Sadly, our cultural stereotypes are internalized from childhood whether we like it or not, and they color our sense of what is believable. A writer can easily have one top surgeon at the hospital be female, and I think a good story ought to have a few of them. However, if the writer insists on making well over half of the doctors female (and more than half of the nurses male) then today’s reader will struggle to settle into the plot. This works fine if gender is supposed to play part in the story, or in the world-building. But if it isn’t, then you’ve got a bright light shining where you don’t want one, and you have to choose between making your point and engaging your reader.

A while back I read a fascinating article on a blog called Mythcreants entitled Five Signs your Story is Sexist.  This wonderful and helpful post included such gems as

“Patriarchy conditions us to think of men as normal and women as special exotic creatures. That’s why in many stories, particularly stories written by men, characters are only women if the storyteller thinks they have to be.”

Excellent point. If every female in the story is someones girlfriend, sister, daughter or mother, I think a good storyteller should seek out a few other characters and change their gender. You know, the helpful bartender who notices something that saves the hero can be a girl, and no, your hero does not have to fall in love with her. She can even be an old woman.

Here is another gem.

“Because most of us have a very skewed sense of what ratio of men to women is normal, the only way to ensure equal representation is to actually count them up and tally the total.”

This is an exercise well worth doing. While I think that a writer may not be able to achieve “equal representation” without making gender an issue in a novel meant to be about something else, I bet writers of all genders will be surprised by how far we all lean towards predominantly male stories. Yes, we can lean less that way and still tell a tale that sounds like it is real.

I’m already working on the novel I hope to write after I finish my 46. Ascending series. My protagonist will be a she, of course, and I already know that she will be smart, capable and kind. That part is easy. Now I’m working on what she doesn’t do well, developing the ways in which she is vulnerable. To me, those traits will be what makes her story interesting, and also what makes her fully human.

“Everest” and “Into Thin Air” and armchair mountaineering

everestI am fascinated by mountain climbing, even though I have never done more than hike to the top of a mountain with a good trail. You can’t pack everything that intrigues you into one life, and this is something that didn’t make it into mine. So when I had the chance to climb a major peak in the Himalayas, in my imagination, along side my character Haley, I welcomed it and relished the research that went with it.

It’s not surprising that I’m also attracted to movies and books on the subject, and I finally got around to seeing the movie “Everest” which came out last September. I knew it was based on the 1996 climbing season when several climbers died in a sudden storm on the world largest peak.

So. Did I like the movie?

climbersNot nearly as much as I had hoped. For one thing, I saw it on our nice big television screen, but think that the beautiful cinematography would have been more impressive in a theater. More importantly, I wanted to get emotionally involved with the climbers, but too many of them were introduced too fast for me to sort them out, much less develop empathy with any of them. Combine the gear each climber wore with the quick introductions and sheer number of them, and I was challenged just figuring out who was who.

I later read that Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 3.6/5 rating and said Everest boasts all the dizzying cinematography a person could hope to get out a movie about mountain climbers, even if it’s content to tread less challenging narrative terrain.” Yeah, that too. There wasn’t so much a story (or stories) as there were a lot of snippets of many people getting ready to climb, many people climbing, and then some people dying. It had more of the feel of a documentary that was very well filmed and used good actors.

Part of the problem was that I had read Jon Krakauer ‘s book “Into Thin Air” several years ago and loved it. Krakauer tells the same tale of the same climbers in 1996, but tells it from the raw emotion of having survived that year’s climb himself. The book is hard to put down and carries an emotional punch that stuck with me for a long time. The movie simply lacks that punch.

I saw that Jon Krakauer did not have good things to say about the movie either, although his criticism centered around how the movie portrayed him, and in fact how the writers created a scene involving him that never really happened. Whatever the writers intent, I can understand how that would irk someone.

The Guardian reviewed the movie and thought that Emily Watson stole the show as the “base camp controller trying to manage the unfolding chaos” and I would have to agree. As one of the few women and one of the few characters not actually climbing, she is easily identifiable and manages to add continuity and tension to the otherwise choppy story.

My husband has no interest in mountain climbing at all. He very much prefers to chase any kind of ball around any sort of field or court. As we watched “Everest” he seemed most taken with the Texan amateur climber who is in over his head and survives, but loses a lot of his body to frostbite. As the movie ended, he looked at me oddly and told me how really glad he was that in spite of my fascination with high mountains, this wasn’t something I felt I had to go do. Yeah, I guess the movie gave me that as well.