By the time I was seventeen years old and starting to apply for colleges, I was certain that I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know if I’d ever be published. I didn’t know how publishing worked. Truth be told, I probably wasn’t even very good at it. But I knew one thing for certain: to be a writer of fiction, one must be an apt liar.
My college admissions essay was called Fantastic Exaggeration and it was all about a writer’s ability to lie, and to lie well.
Ten years later, having earned my BA in English, published two novels and spent some time around editors, authors, agents, bloggers, and readers, this still holds true. When a reader selects a work of fiction, they are asking to be told a lie that they can believe. They are asking for imaginary people that they can love with a ferocity and bravery that is rare in the world of the true and the living.
And to be an author of fiction, one must possess that sort of power.
That’s what it is: a power. An author has thousands of people in his or her palm, believing everything that is said. And there are so many types of stories, from books that make a girl fall in love to books that make us all afraid to turn off the lights. Readers want to fall in love, or be horrified, or worried sick, or content. This is a book’s job and an author’s job, and it is not a power that should be taken lightly, because, but by bit, it’s the stories that can do this that change the world. Books get braver, and people get braver with them.
We read books that were written hundreds of years ago, and those books are what define that generation for us. Sometimes the opinions we form are unfavorable, or silly. I keep a stack of vintage manuals in a basket by my desk. They were printed in the 1920s-1960s by various nom de plumes that most likely belonged to men. The manuals, part of a series, instruct women on how to be supportive wives and good housekeepers, and how to mind their emotions, and how to help their husbands get ahead. One in particular, “How to be a More Interesting Woman” has a place of honor in my living room, because it is such a great conversation starter. Everyone who visits will comment on it, and sometimes we flip through and read the sentences aloud. We do this with laughter, and with gratitude that we live in a time in which this sort of thing seems absurd.
At least, I think we do.
There’s a trend in literature that concerns me. This sort of book starts the same way: A bright young girl is moderately discontent with her circumstances but otherwise forging a path for herself in the world. The girl meets a boy. The boy is debonair but distant. Somehow the two are forced to make acquaintances.
The girl forgets that she is a fully realized person the moment this boy starts bossing her around. The girl spends a few hundred pages tripping over her own feet while the boy tsks and sighs and convinces her that she would be nothing without him. And the girl agrees. The boy will lock the girl away if it comes to that, and tell her whether she can continue on with school or stay later at the party (probably not). If the boy leaves, the girl will forget to eat. She will cry. Supporting characters—friends, siblings, other potential love interests—fall by the wayside, earning a sentence or two just to show that the story takes place in a world where other people meander about without purpose. All that’s really important is the boy. Without the boy, the girl is nothing, and all the reader can do is wait and hope for him to come back so things can get interesting again.
It happens with about as much subtlety as an actual, real life abusive relationship would. It’s desperately unhealthy, and it sends some dangerous messages to the women of the reading world.
Anyone who follows me around the internet at all knows that I am all for unapologetic writing. Books are supposed to shock and amaze and make us believe. We love to feel scared and excited and relieved right along with the characters. But once a reader has turned the last page of a horror novel, the notion of ghosts and things that go bump in the night will eventually subside.
However, somehow, the message of the controlling boy and that once-in-a-lifetime love resonates and is recharged by the next such story that gets written, and the next. There may be more of these stories than there are manuals on how to be a good housewife and how to entertain a dinner party and raise little darlings.
I’m not saying don’t read them. I’m not even saying they can’t or shouldn’t be written. But they, like the manuals, should not be taken as fact. They are not a representation of who women are or what boyfriends should be. Hundreds of years from now, when a student in a “literature of 2000-2020” class reads the stories of today, I don’t know about you, but I want that student to think we were all pretty damn amazing and strong.