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Violence Against Women in Literature: the Trending Topic of the ’10s.

6 min read
“Sad Woman” by George Hogan. Courtesy Public Domain Pictures.

When I originally took Thursday as my day to publish articles here, I visualized publishing book reviews, maybe an interview or two with our authors. But it seems this is not my destiny; at least, not the past couple of weeks. I suppose it should be no surprise to me that so many of the social issues of our time spill over into the world of literature. Indeed, literature by nature often reflects the time that it’s in. So when this happened across my feed, followed by a request that a freelancer examine this in more detail, I felt I needed to reply.

Elephant in the Living Room

Let’s talk about the elephant in the living room. The fact is, we’re in the middle of a culture war. There are those who think life was better in the 50s, and we should all crawl back into our hole. And then there are those who think that the sweeping social changes we have made in this time have not gone far enough.

The truth is, we (the magazine) are by definition on the side of the latter. We have to be. To accept otherwise would mean accepting that we should always be marginalized, always be regarded as lesser than male writers, always accept not being given the opportunity to advance beyond the point that a shrinking class of entrenched gatekeepers think is acceptable. We’re not prepared to do that. Here, sisters are doin’ it for themselves.

And I think this is true of the entire literary world. The explosion of fiction by women and other marginalized genders, for women and other marginalized genders, since the 1970s has been awesome in its scope. Just pick up any 1970s sci-fi book to see how far we’ve come; at least, if it wasn’t written by pioneer voices like Joanna Russ, Ursula LeGuin, James Tiptree Jr., and so forth.

So why, then, in this age of unprecedented literary freedom, is the most popular subject a woman’s suffering, pain and death?

Is it Men?

I know many would probably expect me to say that, but it isn’t. Women buy 80% of all novels; men only purchase about 20%. So no, this isn’t about evil men getting their jollies on hearing about suffering women. The numbers simply don’t add up to support that. Women are buying these books that celebrate the suffering of women. Seriously, the boys are off the hook, and I’m glad to know that.

Is it the Publishing Industry?

There’s an argument for that. We’ve known about the bias against women and marginalized genders in publishing for some time. In part, this is why many of us have opted at least in part for self-publishing, and it’s certainly why most of us who write for this site are here. If you scroll down to the last heading in this article at The Pudding, which examines author gender parity in the New York Times bestseller list over the past decades, you will find those figures repeated again. Women don’t get as much promotion by publishing companies. We don’t get high profile reviews. We don’t get taken seriously even when we are reviewed. It’s an old song and dance to us, even if it’s new to you.

BUT. But, 8 out of 10 of those bestselling books of the ’10s were written by women. So what gives here? Are publishers only promoting works by women if the plot involves the suffering of women?

I doubt it. I mean, it’s possible, and I’d love to see a study. But I find it difficult to believe that such conscious malice could be so systemic. Unconscious bias tends to be systemic, and that’s why it has to be called out and examined when it’s seen. But something this reaching and broad? I just can’t see it.

Is it Internalized Misogyny?

Have we absorbed this from the culture around us? Do women believe we are destined to a legacy of pain and suffering?

You could make that argument too. Certainly that criticism has been leveled at E.L. James in the past, and not unfairly.

But… again with the but… many of these stories involve the women who are suffering either standing up against, or indeed, overcoming, the source of their torment. Not the Fifty Shades series (Christian Grey is a child and just… never mind. That’s what a toxic relationship looks like, friends). But The Hunger Games and its clone, Divergent, are all about girls overturning the exploitative system that they’re in. The Help is about standing up to intersectional racism (even though there’s some troubling history about how the author may have stolen a black woman’s life story with no credit IRL.) The Girl on the Train is about a woman who has been dismissed as a mess, who has been gaslit for years, realizing this and standing up to her dangerous abuser. The Fault in Our Stars is about dying with grace and strength, which is all any of us can do in the face of the inevitable. Even Gone Girl or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which are horrible stories about abusive men and the women they torment, involve these women standing up to, or getting away from, the abuse, even if it’s not in a healthy way.

So What Gives, Then?

In part, it’s probably just that there is no story without great challenges for characters to deal with. Common current writing advice is: “The rule for finding plots for character-centered novels, which is to ask: ‘So what’s the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?’ And then do it.”

But I think it’s more likely that the reason these stories are so popular right now is that they represent a collective anxiety.

Women collectively sense the hostility that’s been rising out there since the start of the decade. We know that so-called “Men’s Rights Groups” (not really about men or their rights, it’s more about feeling they deserve sex and have been deprived of their entitled due — I would love to see some actual men’s rights groups because they’re needed) have been gaining in numbers. We know that many of our leaders actively hate us, and if they don’t, they sure don’t respect us. We know that our reproductive rights are being peeled back, or that governments are threatening to do so.

What will we do when the abuser comes in to control our lives, to hurt us or kill us, and the system supports them and not us? What will we do when that abuse and oppression is supported by intersectional racism? What will we do when we live under the yoke of an oppressive dystopian regime, which it feels like the world is edging closer towards every single day?

And maybe, this in part represents the fears of young women, who are coming into their adulthood in this turbulent time. It’s worth considering, since 3 of these 10 books are specifically written for young adults.

Final Thoughts

I’d like to think that the women who are buying these books want to examine the worst case scenarios, and mentally, be prepared. Christian Grey seems like everything the world tells us we should want; he’s rich, handsome, successful, a take-charge kind of guy in every aspect. Do we really want to give up our autonomy, let someone else take on the stress of making decisions, like we sometimes consider in our most exhausted fantasies? Would we flee? Would we try to bend the abuser to our will? Or would we fight like Katniss?

I don’t know what the right answer is for everyone. All I know is what the right answer is for me.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Why do you think these books have been so popular? Do you have data that refutes mine? Have you come up with a different conclusion? Feel free to join the discussion in the comments below, because yes, I think this is worth talking about, and this is an answer we should seek.

Thank you to Anna Sproul-Latimer for putting this idea in my head. You can follow her Twitter by clicking on the above link.

3 thoughts on “Violence Against Women in Literature: the Trending Topic of the ’10s.

  1. I completely believe that it’s about what we collectively fear. In many ways, we look for our own stories in the fiction we read, and so many women/NBs are gaslight, abused, tormented… and ignored by the system even if we do speak out. We cling to tales of those who survived. We search for those glimmers of hope from those who break or even crack the system that fosters our abuse. And we even appreciate those stories of being broken but still loved, valued, strong enough to keep going.

    Sadly, it’s a trending thing now, but it’s also an old, old story. It’s what we do.

  2. When I first saw that tweet, I admit I rolled my eyes — because what the list said to me was the following:

    1. Characters suffer, or there’s no plot.
    2. Women-led books are more popular now.
    3. Women authors are bestsellers now.

    To me, that list was mostly a positive thing — not only are female main characters more popular now, but it’s mostly women authors who are the bestsellers behind them. That’s tremendous progress.

    Sproul-Latimer’s response felt like, to me, the encapsulation of this:

    “More female characters!”

    “No, not like that.”

    If a book is led by a female character, she will have to suffer. Note, “suffer” doesn’t just mean major tragedy. It’s a broad term, when applied to characters, because all characters must suffer in some way — or they’re not particularly interesting. I don’t want to read a book where my heroine has a perfectly lovely life and nothing bad ever happens to her. It’s *boring* and it gives her *no room to grow*. Even if it’s something as small as a pipe ruptures in her house, disrupting her day off, there needs to be *something*. A protagonist needs a challenge.

    (Slice of life, fluff fanfic without suffering? Sure. But in *addition* to the main course, not replacing it.)

    As for why these books are bestsellers — well, yes, *something* in these stories is resonating. I’m personally not inclined to say it’s because of women’s collective anxiety, though I don’t have data to back that feeling up. My opinion is that it’s because people are just hungering for more female-led stories — more heroines, more female characters to read about, and these books on the list happen to hit some other points that make them bestsellers. Bigger stakes is definitely one of those points — so we have more bestsellers where the suffering is on the worse end of the spectrum.

    The hunger for more female-led books will lead to more books being sold that hinge on a female character’s suffering…because most times you don’t have a story without that.

    (I think Fifty Shades is an outlier. A lot of the phenomenon around that book stimulated sales, from people needing to know what it was all about, to see the truth behind the controversy, the fact that it started as fanfic of Twilight, etc. And then there’s the fact that it’s ostensibly erotica — I feel we shouldn’t be looking at erotica sales to measure what’s resonating for people on a deeper level. Sometimes people just want to get off to things that are inexplicable to others — and sometimes those fantasies are more broadly popular than we might have guessed.)

    1. Funnily enough, Fifty Shades being so popular has everything to do with the market. As far as I can gather from fandom historical records around that time, FSOG really got started because everyone knew it was Twilight fanfic with lots of sex added, even if the names were changed. That gave it enough of a boost to get it going on Amazon, and then it kinda took off because it’s the progenitor of the erotica market; before FSOG, selling straight up non-purple-prose porn on Amazon wasn’t really a thing. But FSOG blew that open and now women could get their porn fix without having to worry about people judging them on the bus, because a Kindle = no obvious embarrassing cover with naked men, or whatever.

      I think it’s an interesting case study in its own right, but yeah, have to agree – it’s an outlier.

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