Hello humans! I’ve been doing a fair bit of thinking lately on book marketing. It’s actually the field I work in, though I work in non-fiction so it’s not quite the same as the books I blog about. That being said, it does give you an understanding of what goes into marketing books, and the need for a ‘hook’ on which something can be sold.
It’s why so many books are marketed as being similar to The Night Circus or A Song of Ice and Fire when usually that just means ‘sometimes there’s a circus’ or ‘mentions a dragon and people have sex’. I think as consumers we’re fairly in-the-know about these things, we understand that ‘hook’ is often fairly tenuous but we read it anyway. The number of books I have read because I love The Night Circus is quite astonishing.
But there’s been one trend recently (or within the last couple of years) which has me a little bit bothered. That’s the tendency for a book to be described as ‘feminist’. Now don’t you fret, this isn’t me saying that we shouldn’t have feminist fiction, the day that happens please assume I have been taken over by alien parasites and send someone round to check on me. But I do think it’s worth examining what we mean by the word feminist, particularly in the world of speculative fiction.
Because if we’re going to say a book is feminist we had better be holding it to high standards, we had better be stretching ourselves for the most feminist book we can possibly have because when it comes to equality I don’t think we should be settling for less.
For me, one of the key aspects of calling something feminist is that it should be intersectional. It’s not feminist if we aren’t including people of colour, people of diverse sexual orientations, people of diverse gender identities, people with disabilities and a whole host of other identities to boot. And, it should go without saying, but these people shouldn’t be token. I read an interesting tweet this week that feels pertinent.
That if you have a gay character in your television show, unless they have a queer best friend/community, and lovers, they’re a token. The queer person w/ a group of entirely straight friends is an absolute fiction that centres the cis/straight supposedly ‘universal’ audience. https://t.co/scflApasZN
— Zoe Whittall (@zoewhittall) July 9, 2018
So if a book is called ‘feminist’ because it has a female main character who in some way defies a male system that, at least for me, doesn’t quite hold true. I’m not saying that it’s, therefore, a bad book, not by any means, some of my favourite books from the past few years have been ‘woman smashes male-led system’. What I’m saying is that when we splash ‘feminism’ all over such books we’re saying that feminism doesn’t have to be intersectional – and it does.
Where this feels particularly interesting (at least for me) is when we get into the realms of speculative fiction. It’s an old argument but it’s one that still stands; if you’re writing a book in which magic, dragons, curses, goblins, aliens, time travel and more exist, why can your story not be diverse?
I do see the value in books that call attention to the struggles that women face by turning them up to eleven. The Handmaids Tale (which has a lot of issues and which I would never describe as intersectional, don’t get me wrong) is an important book because of how it shows how easily sexist attitudes can lead to something all the more horrifying. Upcoming title Vox imagines a world where women are only permitted to speak 100 words a day, another wake-up call to how apathy is only one step away from being complicit.
That being said, there are some stories that take the idea of being feminist that just don’t quite work. In my opinion, recent ‘feminist’ retelling The Surface Breaks missed the mark hugely. On the one hand, I can see how it was interesting to put The Little Mermaid in a horrifying patriarchal society and then not have everything magically fix itself through true love on the surface. It was interesting but I don’t think I would have called it ‘feminist’, perhaps ‘more feminist than other versions’? I mention this in an upcoming review but what was missing for me were those moments of triumph, the light in the darkness, the win. Without those moments all you’re reading is a book about a sad mermaid learning the truth about how men run the world and everything is terrible.
This is speculative fiction. Yes, we’re shining a light on real-world issues by placing them in an entirely different setting, but we can also let people escape, let them imagine a better world. Where are the feminist retellings that have intersectional identities, that have women in charge, where women are the monsters, where women are the romantic leads, where women are those in power? (Yes, there are some The Seafarer’s Kiss is an exceptional Little Mermaid retelling -I would gladly recommend pretty much anything Julia Ember has written – but I want more).
Now pulling myself back into reality, it’s a good thing that things are having feminist slapped on them (I think) because when these books sell well hopefully publishers and booksellers will take that not as an instruction to put ‘feminist’ on anything where women do anything, but to seek out truly feminist books. To seek out authors writing these kinds of intersectional, imaginative stories. After all, I’ll buy them – and that’s at least one sale.
Now I know I will have left a lot out of this blog post, and I’m sorry if I gloss over anything in here that should have more importance to it, this is a difficult subject to discuss and I have to acknowledge that I have a whole load of privilege in this situation. Call me out if I say anything catastrophically wrong, please!
I could probably blab on about this all day, but I’ve already blithered too much and it’s time for you to have a say – what do you think makes a feminist book? Let me know in the comments below!
I agree that books that are called feminist should be held to high standards, and I’m really sad that The Surface Breaks doesn’t seem to quite fit that label.
Great post! 🙂
YES YES YES to this entire post. I’m delighted that feminism is increasingly seen as a positive thing that publishers WANT to market to readers (especially young girls whoo!) but I agree with you that often it’s just used as a cool label or buzzword on books that really aren’t progressive by today’s standards.
I fully agree about intersectionality. And I don’t think it’s enough to call a book super feminist just because it stars a feisty heroine trying to break out of an uber patriarchal world because HELLOOO this style of book has been around since *literally forever* (Jo March anyone????!!). If all your women are treated like shit bar the One Token Strong Sexualised Female who Breaks Free (cough nearly every fantasy book written by a man ever cough), your book is NOT feminist, in fact it’s reinforcing the normalisation of patriachy. I’m so sick of reading about patriarchal universes, since we already live in one. Is it too much to ask that we use our limitless imaginations to conceive of worlds WITHOUT patriarchy? (shocked gasp!!) Or maybe with a matriarchy? Now THAT would be actually radical!
YES TO THIS ENTIRE COMMENT 😀
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