Lately in my leisure time, I’ve been coming upon some incredible reading fatigue. This is pretty rare for me (and somewhat fatal in this business) as, like Hannah Green in WONDERBOYS, I read all the time because it’s compulsive. I’ll read the nutrition panels of cereal boxes at the breakfast table, the ingredients of shampoo bottles in the shower, the backs of people’s newspapers on the subway, etc. More and more I’ve been turning to comfort rereads instead of actively searching for something new and this is a bit troubling.
What do I want in a book? I want really wonderful, three-dimensional female characters, a great story, and a great romance. A lot of books I read deliver on two of the three, but rarely on all points. Many books deliver on a great story, but it’s where ladies and love are concerned that I’m feeling a certain wariness.
It’s hard to discuss those two points as two separate ideas when in fact they’re intertwined. You can’t have a convincing romance without a convincing character. The romance is the least important aspect of my reading (but don’t think it’s not important!) because if I don’t have a female character I love, then I won’t really care about who she loves either (be it man, woman, or Beast).
I don’t need my heroine to be “cool” or “awesome” or any other adjective that somehow loses its significance when attached to a character. I need my heroines to be real, with real fears and real desires. A simple request, yet it’s harder to find than I’d like.
When I describe my friends and family, I don’t really describe them by their actions or their hobbies. My friends encompass, but are not defined by their activities. Psychic Roommate loves yoga, but she’s also an incredibly determined, somewhat stubborn, and fiercely passionate. My father is a gruff curmudgeon who hides a tender, nurturing heart behind a sharp tongue.
A good female character would be described in those terms instead of what she does. I don’t care about her hobbies; who is she at the core? (I care that she HAS hobbies and interests, but I don’t really want them to the only thing she has.) All my favourite female characters are so real you could practically pluck them off the page and have a nice chat with them over tea.
Lyra Belaqua would probably smoke cigarettes and ash them into her teacup while making up outrageous stories. Anne Shirley would probably sit by with a slightly horrified expression on her face, but join in with dreamy, fanciful stories of her own. Phèdre nò Delauanay would smile and act the consummate courtesan, all intelligent conversation and light laughter, and then zing us all with kinky sex stories and tales of travelling all over the world. (I imagine Anne would blush something fierce and Lyra would be awed.)
I don’t always get that sense that a certain character is real. Or perhaps it’s an issue of chemistry. You’re friends with some people and not with others. Regardless, I think the measure of a woman is taken during duress; you gotta pit her against awful, horrible circumstances. How she reacts and how she handles it determines whether or not I want to be friends.
So…the romance thing. As much as I really love a good romance in a book, sometimes I feel that it can detract from the awesomeness of heroines. Not always, of course, but when a guy enters the picture, sometimes everything ends up being about him. No thanks. I’d like everything to be about her, if you please.
One of my favourite couples is from JANE EYRE: Jane and Rochester. Now, not everyone agrees with me and that’s totally fine. But I LOVE the two of them for many reasons. One, I love that they are friends, first and forever. Two, I love that Jane doesn’t put up with any of Rochester’s bullshit. (And boy, has he stepped in one huge cowpie.) Three, Jane doesn’t sacrifice her morals/ethics/standards/what-have-you for love. Rochester was in the wrong and she knew it, and he knew that she knew it. She would rather starve than lose his respect. Girl, I love you. I love you LOTS.
In many love stories, I feel a lot of readers get caught up in the sweetness/sexiness/what-have-you of the hero. (Standards are slightly different when it comes to gay love stories–speaking of which, I would love to see more mainstream romance between women.) Of course, I’ve never hidden the fact that I adore Rochester, but my love of the would-be bigamist isn’t quite earnest. I love that he is a total dick, morally questionable, emotionally manipulative, and a selfish, selfish man. Why? Oh I don’t know, probably for the same reasons I love whenever Benjamin Linus ruthlessly kills people. People don’t need to be “good” for me to love them; they merely need to be interesting.
Heroes need to be worthy of my heroine. This is why I don’t often like love stories where the guy is “perfect” and she is “not”. No, no, the “perfect” guy has done nothing to deserve her save be perfect. I want him to be as real as she: unintentionally thoughtless, sometimes emotionally obtuse, but most importantly, I want him to call her out on her shit. When she’s being stupid, I want him to tell her so. None of this molly-coddling; it makes me sick.
Perhaps I’m just soured on heterosexual love stories. Someone recommend me a book where the love story just happens to be a lesbian one, please! (Like the relationships in the KUSHIEL books or NAAMAH’S KISS by Jacqueline Carey.)
Anyway, my thoughts. Help me get over my reading fatigue!