Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club: The Best of Everything

Justine Larbalestier and I have started a book club to talk about bestselling women’s fiction of the 20th century. We’re both curious about the whole idea of the publishing category of “women’s fiction,” particularly how and when that label started. And, of course, we also wanted to see how well the bestselling and most long lasting of the books with that label stand up. Because usually books like Valley of the Dolls (1966) and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (1958) and Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1958) are considered to be, at best, middle brow. Yet now some of these books are being taught in university and they’re all back in print or have remained in print.

Last month we started with Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. You can find the post and the discussion on Justine’s blog.

This month we’ll be reading The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe, which happens to have been published the year I was born! Bonus excitement!

The Best of Everything (1958) is Rona Jaffe‘s first novel. It is the story of five young employees of a New York publishing company.

PLEASE JOIN US on April 28/29 (that pesky international date line): in the evening on Monday April 28 in the USA and Tuesday April 29 in the Oz/NZ; morning April 29 in the UK/Europe.

The primary focus of the discussion will be here, on my blog, but there may be some spillover onto Twitter.

 

Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club

This post is up at Justine Larbalestier’s blog, but I’ll repeat it here:

(Justine and I) have started a book club to talk about bestselling women’s fiction. First book we’ll discuss is Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls. A post with both our takes on it will go up here on 12 March (in the USA) 13 March (in Australia). We’d love to hear your thoughts on it too.

We’re both curious about the whole idea of the publishing category of “women’s fiction.” Particularly how and when that label started. And, of course, we also wanted to see how well the bestselling and most long lasting of the books with that label stand up. Because usually books like Valley of the Dolls (1966) and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (1958) and Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1958) are considered to be, at best, middle brow. Yet now some of these books are being taught in university and they’re all back in print or have remained in print.

But we’ll be pretty broad in what we consider as women’s fiction. Some of it will be bestselling fiction written by women that may not have been categorised as “women’s fiction” when published or even now.

At the moment we’re not considering any books published later than the early 1990s because we want at least twenty years distance from what we read. We definitely want to look at Flowers in the Attic (1979) for no other reason than Kate has never read it. It’s past time she experiences the joys of overthetop writing and crazy plotting that is V. C. Andrews’ first published novel.

I would love for us to read Han Suyin’s A Many Splendored Thing (1952). Her novel, The Mountain is Young has always been a favourite of mine. Sadly, though, Splendored seems to be out of print. It’s certainly not available as an ebook. Unfortunately that seems to be a problem for many of the ye olde bestsellers. Being in print, even if a book sells a gazillion copies and is made into a movie, can be fleeting, indeed.1

If you have any suggestions for other books you think we should look at. We’d love it if you shares.

TL;DR: 12 March (US), 13 March (Oz) we’ll be discussing Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls here. It will be joyous fun just like the book.

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AGAIN: The first discussion will take place on Justine’s blog (there may be some spillover onto Twitter). Later discussions will switch between her blog and mine.

The Squee of Ile-Rien: Comments on Martha Wells’ Fall of Ile-Rien Trilogy

I don’t review books. I don’t have the temperament for it. But I’ve made a bit of a promise to myself this year to talk more about books I’ve read and am reading. I won’t mention everything I’ve read because I won’t keep up, but I’ll do my best.

On March 12/March 13 (Hawaii/Australia time) Justine Larbalestier and I are going to begin a discussion of women’s fiction, old school blockbusters. We begin with Jacqueline Susann’s VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.

But I do not like to neglect my first and most heartfelt love, sff. So today, fellow readers, I am going to go full squee on Martha Wells’ The Fall of Ile-Rien Trilogy, which consists of 1: THE WIZARD HUNTERS 2: THE SHIPS OF AIR & 3: THE GATE OF GODS.

I really loved Wells’ Books of the Raksura, and I’m thrilled that Raksura novellas are forthcoming later this year. But I have to say that I loved Ile-Rien as much and in some ways possibly more (without in any way down-grading my love for the Raksura universe).

Let me talk about why.

I will do my best to not inflict too many spoilers on you but there will be some, and I guarantee there will be spoilers in the comments so fair warning.

1. FoIR is fantasy, with science, with a (spoiler, see note 1 below). I could also describe it as historical science fiction, with wizards. Wells pulls this trick off neatly, and with her usual insouciant flair. Her ability to toss off this kind of difficult juggling act always impresses me. Oh, yes, you may think you are reading a story set in a fantasy version of late 19th century/early 20th century Paris with different names but it is never that simplistic. The setting is shot through with alterations that fit perfectly and then meanwhile so many new vistas are about to open that I can’t even begin to tell you about them for fear of babbling incoherently about the world building things I love and adore in this series.

Listen, you know I am hugely picky about world building. I can love a book and series for its characters even if it has a fairly standard or somewhat blandly default world; that’s cool. But not that many writers REALLY impress me with their world building. Wells consistently does. She’s INCREDIBLE. The combination of memorable characters I want to read about with world building that wows me is the exquisite fictional meal I savor above all else.

2. Everything she does with the Syprians was evidently mainlined from and for all my reading kinks.

This includes a classic example of a marvelous fantasy society that does interesting things with gender roles.

Tangential rant begins:

Yet this series is NEVER DISCUSSED when it comes time to talk about fantasy that does interesting things with cultural gender roles. The trilogy was not a huge success; I know many haven’t read it (a terrible shame). But every time I see an online conversation or essay about X new novel/writer has *finally* done something interesting with gender/women’s experience/what-have-you in fantasy, as if these sorts of explorations weren’t being done before, I want to scream. Writers (mostly women) have been doing interesting work with gender roles in sff, with women’s work, with sexuality, with varied and diverse characterization, and every time we trot out a new (or old) work as if it is the Exceptional Girl among a raft of Default Man Focus (whether the work is written by a woman or a man), we erase the footprints of this important tradition.

Tangential rant over.

The other thing Wells does really well is to only tell you the cultural details you need to know at the time you need to know them. There is no infodump, there are no long detailed descriptions, and yet I came away with a strong sense of each of the societies encountered within the three books.

3. The main character, Tremaine Valiarde, begins the trilogy depressed. Not mildly depressed but deeply depressed:

It was nine o’clock at night and Tremaine was trying to find a way to kill herself that would bring in a verdict of natural causes in court, when someone banged on the door.

“Oh, damn.” A couple of books on poisons slid out of her lap as she struggled out of the overstuffed armchair. She managed to hold on to the second volume of Medical Jurisprudence, closing it over her fingers to mark her place. The search for the elusive untraceable poison was not going well; there were too many ways sorcerer-physicians could uncover such things and she didn’t want it to look as if she had been murdered. Intracranial hemorrhage seemed a good possibility, if a little difficult to arrange on one’s own. But I’m a Valiarde, I should be able to figure this out, she thought sourly. Dragging the blanket around her, she picked her way through the piles of books to the door. The library at Coldcourt was ideal for this, being large, eclectic and packed with every book, treatise, and monograph on murder and mayhem available to the civilized world.

 

IMO Wells does a brilliant job with Tremaine’s depression. It’s real. It affects how she reacts (or doesn’t react) to events and individuals as she is plunged into danger. She begins the trilogy with a bit of a flat affect that is entirely realistic. How she changes across the story is part of the story. That Tremaine is also deeply snarky and inappropriate at the wrong times just makes it all better. Also she can stare down almost anyone, and initially that is in large part due to the fact that she has a bit of a death wish and thus doesn’t care that she’s in danger.

4. Ilias. Okay, I am a sucker for physical men who are competent, level-headed, loyal, brave, well built, and amazingly good fighters. If they also are not assholes and are in fact reasonable, thoughtful people who almost never jump to conclusions, who listen to people and make mature decisions, then it’s gold. If they are also best friends with a Chosen One, and not one bit resentful at being the sidekick/bodyguard, and have a bit of an angsty back-story which they don’t belabor, it’s even better. ALL THE FEELS.

Wells excels at using the culture she has set up to refine and enhance the characterization. People behave within the societal expectations of their culture, or clash against them, or struggle to understand how to negotiate wildly different sets of cultural behaviors.

5. Many characters in this novel appealed greatly to me, large and small. Wells limns them efficiently, lets dialogue and action do most of her work, and consistently uses humor at the right moments. The ways people from different cultures misunderstand each other is believable, and the ways people of good faith cooperate even though they are misunderstanding each other is refreshing. I would say more but I’m trying to write this main review without spoilers. There are in fact many secondary characters and I had no trouble keeping them all straight.

6. THE WIZARD HUNTERS (book one) had a bit of a slow start for me. There was nothing *wrong* with it. Well is always solid. The world(s) and (catastrophic) situation is carefully set up and revealed. It was intriguing enough to interest me. However I got hooked at a very specific place, where the two main storylines meet, somewhere around page 90 in the edition I was reading. It wasn’t that I found it boring before that — by no means — but from that point on I couldn’t stop reading until I had read all three books. There was, alas, a bit of a delay because I had reserved book 2 from the library and it had to come from another branch. I read book 2 and 3 basically in one weekend. I INHALED them.

So IF book one has a bit of a slow start for you, stick with it. For other readers it won’t have a slow start at all. As always, YMMV.

7.  I checked out the first two books from the library. However I have had to buy e-versions so I can re-read certain passages OVER AND OVER AGAIN.

Highly recommended.

There is much more I can say about the book but I will leave that for comments.

If you have read the Fall of Ile-Rien Trilogy, please join up in the comments.

I AM ALLOWING SPOILERS IN COMMENTS.

 

 

 

Note 1 (from above): THIS IS A TECHNICAL SPOILER EVEN THOUGH IT COMES EARLY IN BOOK ONE.

Multiverses. I love them.

A Valentine For My Readers (A Spiritwalker Story)

Dear Readers,

There are days when the work flies through me and I am mighty. There are days when the work is one long slog of dragging weights behind me in the form of recalcitrant, uncooperative words. There are days I sit in despair staring at a wall mottled with self doubt. There are days I write like it is my job, which is not a bad thing when one has (presumably) skill and competence and a love for one’s work.

But every day I appreciate YOU, the ones reading my books.

I am grateful that you read them AT ALL. (I’m still kind of amazed by that.) I can work as a writer because you buy my work. I THRILL to the remarkably astute and brilliant analyses you write (& now and then mope sadly to a negative review, although negative reviews can also be useful as a perspective on the work and — as always — any review helps a writer be more visible in a crowded literary world). I adore the fan-art, and while I have to avoid reading fan-fic for legal reasons, I think it’s pretty cool that people write it. Did I mention I adore fan-art? And strange as it may seem, I really enjoy “meeting” (so to speak) and interacting with readers on social media. My books aside, I’m a reader too with the same love for reading and I never get tired of talking about books I love.

So: THANK YOU.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, a story for you, set in the Spiritwalker Universe. Yes, there might even be some sexual situations (fair warning).

Con or Bust Auction 2014

Con or Bust helps people of color/non-white people attend SFF conventions (how to request assistance; upcoming cons). It is administered by Kate Nepveu (that’s me) under the umbrella of the Carl Brandon Society, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization whose mission is to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the production of and audience for speculative fiction. Con or Bust isn’t a scholarship and isn’t limited by geography, type of con-goer, or con; its goal is simply to help fans of color go to SFF cons and be their own awesome selves.

Con or Bust is funded through donations and an online auction held each February.

That’s right: The auction is on NOW and will end at midnight February 23.

 

There are many many wonderful items available to bid on.

Among them, Orbit Books (and I) are offering two signed sets of the Spiritwalker Trilogy PLUS “The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal” — that auction page is here.

I’m also offering “bespoke fiction” here:

I will write a 1500-3000 word (that’s about 5 – 8 pages) story, drabble, essay, fake journal entry, descriptive passage, scene, fanfic, set of vignettes, or other form of your choice, set in the Spiritwalker universe, to a prompt(s) of your choosing.

Con or Bust Auction: Signed Set of Spiritwalker Trilogy + Secret Journal

Item Name & Description: Two signed sets of Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker series (Cold Magic, Cold Fire, Cold Steel, and The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal)

default Beatrice_Cover_Front

The author describes this series as “an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency fantasy adventure with airships, Phoenician spies, the intelligent descendents of troodons, and a dash of steampunk whose gas lamps can be easily doused by the touch of a powerful cold mage.” Publishers Weekly calls it “a swashbuckling series marked by fascinating world-building, lively characters, and a gripping, thoroughly satisfying story.” Orbit has donated two signed sets of these trade paperbacks.

Starting Bid: $15.

Notes: Top two bidders win (new bids must increase over the last bid). Shipping limited to the US and Canada (because of publishing rights). Because the books are being shipped by the publisher, personalization is not available.

Bidding will open Monday, February 10, 2014 at 12:01 a.m. Eastern (GMT -5); it closes Sunday, February 23, 2014 at 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time. More Information.

TO MAKE A BID: GO TO THE CON OR BUST SITE (don’t make a bid here).

In Defense of Unlikable Women: Guest Post by Kameron Hurley

I am excited to welcome writer Kameron Hurley with this excellent guest post.

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IN DEFENSE OF UNLIKABLE WOMEN a post by Kameron Hurley

 

A fall-down drunk who’s terrible with relationships and makes some selfish, questionable choices, goes in search of love, and fails at it.”

This is actually the general plot to two films – the well-received, critically applauded film Sideways and the much maligned, controversial film Young Adult.

One follows a drunken, frumpy loser who steals money from his mother to enable his soon-to-be-married best friend to cheat on his soon-to-be-spouse; the other follows a drunk, frumpy loser who drives to small-town Minnesota to try and hook up with her happily married ex. Both films created stark, harrowing portraits of their protagonists’ pathology and inability to connect to others. Both protagonists are even writers! The biggest difference in the reception of these films, I’d argue, is that one featured a male protagonist – and thus was critically celebrated. The other told the story of a deeply flawed woman, and become instantly “controversial” because of its “thoroughly unlikable” heroine.

I see this double standard pop up all the time in novels, too. We forgive our heroes even when they’re drunken, aimless brutes or flawed noir figures who smoke too much and can’t hold down a steady relationship. In truth, we both sympathize with and celebrate these heroes; Conan is loved for his raw emotions, his gut instincts, his tendency to solve problems through sheer force of will. But what we love about many male heroes – their complexity, their confidence, their occasional bouts of selfish whim –become, in female heroes, marks of the dreaded “unlikeable character.”

Author Claire Messud takes this issue head on in an interview when her interviewer say her female protagonist is unbearably grim, someone the interviewer wouldn’t be friends with. Messud responds:

“For heavens’ sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”

 

Male writers, and their male protagonists, are expected to be flawed and complex, but reader expectations for women writers and their characters tend to be far more rigid. Women may stray, but only so far. If they go on deep, alcoholic benders, they best repent and sober up at the end. If they abandon their spouses and children, they best end tragically, or make good. Women must, above all, show kindness. Women may be strong – but they must also, importantly, be vulnerable. If they are not, readers are more likely to push back and label her unlikeable.

I actually wrote a recent guest post where I noted that in grad school, I sometimes drank two bottles of wine in a sitting and smoked cigarettes. A couple of commenters on another forum said I must be an irresponsible alcoholic. I couldn’t help but wonder what their reaction would be on hearing a 23-year-old male college student occasionally drank two bottles of wine in a sitting.

Boys will be boys, right? But women are alcoholics.

And so it goes.

But why is this? Why do we read the same behaviors so differently based on the presented sex of the person engaging in them?

I’d argue it’s because women have been so often cast as mothers, potential mothers, caretakers, and servants, assistants, and handmaidens of all sorts that’s it’s become a – conscious but also unconscious – expectation that anyone who isn’t – at least some of the time – must be inherently unnatural. And when we find a woman who doesn’t fit this mold, we work hard to sweep her back into her box, because if she gets out, well… it might mean she has the ability to take on a multitude of roles.

Let’s be real: if women were “naturally” anything, societies wouldn’t spend so much time trying to police every aspect of their lives.

I like writing about complex people. I like writing about women. Hence, the women and men I write are flawed and complex. They have their own messed up motivations. They don’t always do the right thing. There’s not generally a rousing ending where everyone realizes they were a jerk and has a big hug. Life is messier than that, and so are women. We’re not any better or worse than anyone else. I’m flawed. I often make poor choices. I’m very often selfish.

So are many of the people I put on the page. And to be dead honest, I like them a whole lot better that way. Roxane Gay gives several examples of successfully unlikable heroines in fiction in her article “Not Here to Make Friends.” (which I strongly recommend you read). As Gay writes:

“…(this is) what is so rarely said about unlikable women in fiction — that they aren’t pretending, that they won’t or can’t pretend to be someone they are not. They have neither the energy for it, nor the desire….Unlikable women refuse to give in to that temptation. They are, instead, themselves. They accept the consequences of their choices and those consequences become stories worth reading.”

There is something hypnotic in unlikable male characters that we don’t allow women, and it’s this: we allow men to be confident, even arrogant, self-absorbed, narcissistic. But in our everyday lives, we do not hold up such women as leaders and role models. We call them out as selfish harridans. They are wicked stepmothers. Seeing these same women bashing their way through the pages of our fiction elicits the same reaction. Women should be nurturing. Their presence should be redeeming. Women should know better.

Female heroes must act the part of the dutiful Wendy, while male heroes get to be Peter Pan.

Pointing out this narrative, of course, isn’t going to fix it. But I do hope that it makes people more aware of it. When you find yourself reading about a gunslinging, whiskey-drinking, Mad Max apocalypse hero who you’d love if it was a guy but find profoundly uncomfortable to read about when you learn it’s a woman, take a step back, and ask why that is. Is it because this is truly a person you can’t empathize with, or because somebody told you she was supposed to be back home playing mom to the Lost Boys, not stabbing her land lord, stealing a motorcycle, and saving the world?

Stories teach us empathy, and by limiting the expression of humanity in our heroes entirely based on sex or gender does us all a disservice. It places restrictions on what we consider human, which dehumanizes the people we see who do not express traits that fit our narrow definition of what’s acceptable.

Like it or not, failure of empathy in the face of unlikable women in fiction can often lead to a failure to empathize with women who don’t follow all the rules in real life, too.

Stories matter. Fictions matter. It all bleeds out.

Be careful what you cut.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR Kameron Hurley is the award-winning author of the books God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines such as LightspeedEscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF.    Visit kameronhurley.com for upcoming projects.

2014: In Which My Eyes Are Bigger Than My Stomach

2013: Not a good year.

The new year is a hopeful time for me even though the calender’s change is to a great degree arbitrary. The difference between December 31 and January 1 in terms of the time of sunrise and sunset is small but in my mind I can create a transitional zone that helps me make sense of moving forward.

I always have too many goals at the beginning of the year but I’ve learned that it is okay to embrace the idea that my eyes are bigger than my stomach, that I pile too much on my plate and maybe leave some things unfinished.

In the new year I have a lot of work to do.

I’m slated to be one of the Guests of Honor at Fantasycon 2014 (York, England, Sept 5- 7).  AND I plan to attend Loscon 3 (Worldcon 2014) in London on August 14 – 17. This is all intensely exciting!

So far this year I have

1) turned in the revised manuscript of my forthcoming (2015) YA fantasy, MASK. This is my Little Women epic fantasy in a setting inspired by (but not specifically derived from) Greco-Roman Egypt.

 We four sisters are sitting in the courtyard at dusk in what passes for peace in our house. Well-brought-up girls do not fidget or fume or ever betray the least impatience or boredom. But it is so hard to sit still when all I can think about is how I am going to sneak out of the house tomorrow to do the thing my father would never ever give me permission to do.

 

2) battled intense self doubt regarding the epic fantasy manuscript I am working on, mostly brought on by a crisis of confidence about writing epic fantasy at all. It’s complicated. The most important thing is to persevere past the negative internal voices, and not hate on yourself that you have those voices (and sometimes lose ground to them). That’s human. I have to remind myself that it is okay to believe in yourself. It’s not rude, or cocky, or unseemly. Confidence belongs to everyone.

I have 175,000 words written and a lot of revision to do plus some chapters to write and insert, but in the end I decided that to make sure the layers worked and to understand the story’s architecture I needed a plot board outline, which I finally finished today. At the same time I color coded the five points of view (one per chapter). You can see both the plot board and the post-it tagged manuscript below:

TBWplotboard

I am in the process of finishing and revising this novel now.

Beyond that I have

1) a Spiritwalker novelette very close to being finished that I hope to post for Valentine’s Day

2) a few more Spiritwalker universe short stories that I would really like to finish. My ultimate goal is a short story collection set within the universe.

3) Two novels on deck. No timetables I can share yet.

4) a short story collection coming 2015; I have more work to do on that.

5)  How much I will post over the next few months remains up in the air but I hope to post more regularly and especially I hope to answer some of the many questions I have backlogged. My apologies for not getting to them sooner. I also want to highlight work I’m reading/viewing by others.
As for non-writing related things:

Get more in shape (I have an entire regimen planned and in progress for this).

The other usual things (eat better, spend more relaxed time with people, read more, you know all that).

But if I had to say ONE THING I hope to accomplish this year, I would say: Have a successful trip to Europe (as per above) By my way of thinking success in this context means: hang out with friends, make new friends, spend time with people I’ve been longing to visit, talk talk talk, avoid exceptional hassles, stay healthy, and pick a couple of places I’ve not yet seen that I really want to visit. Also: people!

I don’t know if a new year means the same to everyone — but for me it is a chance to let go of some of the burdens I carried the previous year, to set goals I won’t fully achieve but keep striving for regardless, and to aim for one or two carefully chosen accomplishments or events, however large or small. I’d be interested in hearing how you approach the new year.

 

Julie Dillon Art for the Spiritwalker Trilogy

I have written before about “The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal”available in PDF and now with more print copies in stock! So if you were waiting for print, it is available at Crab Tank.

The Secret Journal contains black and white illustrations of the Spiritwalker characters, done by the wonderful Julie Dillon.

Last week over at A Dribble of Ink we debuted another amazing Julie Dillon piece, this one a color illustration of a scene in Cold Steel (dragons! fire!).

And today at Orbit Books a fabulous color illustration (also from a scene in Cold Steel) of Amazons.