When a Feminist Reads Sexist Books

Sexism sucks. I think we can all agree on that one. As a feminist, I acknowledge it still exists today and want to see it eradicated. That being said, I like a lot of literature that’s also sexist. I’m not going to deny it or try to make excuses for it—I may have fun reading it, but there’s definitely some inequality going on.

I don’t like misogynist works in general, but I’ve enjoyed quite a few. My favorite book category is the Swords and Sorcery subgenre of Fantasy and it has been dominated by male authors for a long time. As a result, it has been historically a bit male-oriented. Sometimes you get some pretty sexist crap—but there are still some otherwise pretty good books.

shrug marilyn monroe oh well some like it hot whatevs

A perfect example is the original Conan the Barbarian stories written by Robert E. Howard in the 30’s. I’ve been reading through them and yes, there is some heavy objectification going on. (Misogyny in Conan? Who’d have thought, right?) As for the Bechdel test, you can just forget about it right now.

So how can I stand—much less enjoy—this sort of thing? There are other elements to the story I genuinely appreciate. The descriptions, for one. Howard had a broad and varied repertoire when it came to setting a scene. The level of emotion and sensation he puts into his imagery is astounding. Sexist or no, he had talent. As a writer, I admit I’m envious.

Then there’s the action. Conan is considered the first in my beloved Swords and Sorcery subgenre and—just as you’d expect—there’s plenty of swords and gobs of sorcery. With unique takes on magic and detailed battles, no one can accuse the series of being passive.

conan the barbarian purpose meaning of life crush your enemies what's best in life?

This is just one example, but Dracula would be another. Bram Stoker’s original is chock-full of gender roles, damsels in distress, and men keeping facts from women because they “can’t handle the truth.” That last one did get annoying—just tell the woman why she can’t move the garlic, damn it!—but I still enjoyed it.

There was a delicious darkness and creepiness to Dracula. It was intense and scary. It made me keep the lights on and wish I hadn’t read it alone during a thunderstorm. I really do understand why it’s remained a part of pop culture for so long.

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There are a number of other more recent works I’ve read (and liked) that are also casually sexist. It’s not necessarily women kept as concubines by the main (male) character. I see it as more subtle things like women’s lives being dictated by the orders and/or actions of men around them.

So why not just read modern feminist Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Thriller books instead? I feel that most the time, when feminist authors tackle certain genres, they get distracted. They focus on fixing the sexist history of the genre and sideline all the things that make the genre awesome to begin with. The monsters and sorcerers and assorted murderous marauders take a backseat—at least in the ones I’ve read.

I love feminism and as a woman, I need it. But as a fan, I also need my Swords and Sorcery fix.

Lots of times, it really feels like a no-win. Either I read something that’s feminist, but I don’t feel delivers the same “wow” factor, or I go for the misogynist book that’s otherwise pretty great. It’s more of a struggle than one would think.

Sometimes I wonder if, as a feminist, I should be reading these things at all. Maybe I should go reread some Charlotte Perkins Gilman instead (whose work is totally badass, even if it’s not my favorite genre). As much as I might love certain series, I see how they’re problematic, often in more ways than one. I’ll be the first to admit it, but I’ll also be the first to point out their qualities.

In the end, I want to read stuff I enjoy. Life is short and reading is meant to be fun. Just like how me liking a character doesn’t equate agreeing with everything the character does, me liking a book doesn’t equate agreeing with everything the author does.

Truthfully, I don’t think we’re ever going to achieve universal feminism, at least not to the point where everyone agrees. Too many people have different ideas of what equality looks like for women. Other people think Fifty Shades is about a woman’s sexual liberation, I think it romanticizes abuse.

There will always be books that fall outside the boundaries of feminism, at least each individual person’s definition of it. So do I ban books for myself? Do I forbid myself reading what I enjoy because there are some issues in it?

I don’t want to regulate myself to a little corner of “approved” books. Yes, there might be some issues with a story, but who knows? Maybe it will offer some perspective on something else. For example, one sexist book I read had some pretty awesome antiwar subplots and also tackled racism. That was totally unexpected and seemed kind of out of place, but it happened. Another one I read had one of the coolest magic systems I’ve seen yet. I’m really glad I read them both.

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I do enjoy certain books despite them being sexist. It might sound odd and some people might disagree that I should even keep those books in my home, but I say people should read what they want. So long as they are aware of what is going on and can acknowledge it’s wrong, why not? At the same time, if you’re uncomfortable with it, that’s fine, too.

Either way, if you’re not perpetuating sexism in reality by reading what you want, I see nothing wrong with it. As for what equals “perpetuating,” that’s up to every person to decide. Maybe you just don’t want to support an author who writes that way. It’s your right in the free market (yay capitalism!).

Regardless, I won’t let anything—even sexism—stop me reading what I really love. So long as I keep working to see people treated with respect and I’m not hurting anyone, I’ll go for the books I enjoy. I think everyone should do the same.

In short, read what you want and be a decent human being.

Top Ten Tropes in Fantasy Books That Make Me Happy

Just so we’re clear: fantasy books in general make me happy. However, there are just a few tropes and standards that I love a little more than all the others. Things that keep me coming back for more!

1. The “Prince Hector” archetype

I’m sure it has another name, but I associate this with characters like Wilek Hadar, Chaol Westfall, and Torian Ahlen. “Prince Hector” is the dutiful son, usually of nobility, with a strong sense of loyalty and morality. He values his people, his family, and his honor above life and how can you not love everything about that?

2. Redemption Arcs

There is something beautiful in watching characters redeem themselves after being evil. It reassures me that no one is ever too far gone and there is always hope.

3. Magical Beasts

I don’t think I need to explain this one.

4. Outlandish Cultures

While I have been known to rant over logistically/anthropologically implausible societies, I do like meeting new and exciting communities between the pages. It gives us a taste of possibility, of what the world could be like with magic, a certain technology, a curse, etc.

5. Earth Magic

I mention earth magic apart from regular magic because to me, it has its own unique charm. The very idea of tangible unity between oneself and one’s environment has a kind of enchantment. It serves as a reminder of how dependent we are upon the world we live in.

6. Dark Sorcery

Converse to earth magic, dark sorcery in books represents the fearsome side of people, the side we would rather keep hidden. Our destructive and self-serving tendencies. The description itself is pretty darn dark, but I appreciate how it explores such a deep-seated aspect of our humanity.

7. Monogamy

More specifically, lifelong marriages. I mean, the way things are going, this is becoming more fantastical than anything I’ve mentioned so far. The idea that people can fall in love and stay in love forever is just too good to pass up.

8. Chivalry

*swoons*

9. Battles

I love military history in general, so combining that with all the above? Yes, please!

10. Mercy

Tied to redemption is the idea that it’s possible for people who have been wronged to forgive even when the other person isn’t sorry. It is truly a massive part of healing and moving on.

What are some of your favorite things in fantasy books? Or just your favorite genre? Books in general? Let me know in the comments!

Why I Almost Never Take Book Recommendations

After reading a mind-blowing book, what’s the next step? Some of us preorder/buy the sequel, others make fanart or fanfic, some of us hunt down the author’s backlist, but all of us—at some point or another—will recommend that book to someone else.

It’s only natural. After all, we just found this piece of printed perfection. Why wouldn’t we nod approvingly at strangers in bookstores, send fervent messages to friends, or even shout from the rooftops? The world must know of the awesomeness we have found!

The problem is, everyone is different. Not everyone is going to love the same books you love. Not everyone is going to love the books even a vast majority do.

And that’s OKAY.

I have been blessed with many bookish friends. With this has come many book recommendations. A lot of them have similar tastes to mine, but not one of us has the exact same tastes—we wouldn’t be individuals if we did.

Every so often, my friends recommend me one and I love it. Most of the time, though, I look into the book I’ve been recommended and decide, for whatever reason, it just doesn’t tickle my fancy. It can get harder, though, when four, five, six, or more friends start recommending the same book I just don’t want to read.

The thing is, time is short. Between writing, blogging, school, and life, I can only read a few dozen of the hundreds of books I’d like to read every year. I want to spend that time on books I genuinely want to read, not something I felt forced into.

And you know the one thing worse than not reading a book all your friends love? Hating a book all your friends love.

Believe me, it sucks. I’d much rather stick to books I think I’ll enjoy than caving to peer pressure and ending up the black sheep. Besides, if reading isn’t enjoyable, why bother with it?

“But how will you know unless you try it?” some might ask. In all fairness, I won’t. It doesn’t matter. I, like everyone else, has the right to read what I want whether that’s the biography of a 16th century banker or a paranormal romance novella (both were great, in case you wondered). People shouldn’t have to justify their tastes in what is supposed to be a harmless recreational activity.

However, even if I don’t particularly want to read a certain book, that doesn’t mean I’m not genuinely happy someone else enjoyed it. I am.

Nonetheless, I know myself better than anyone else, after all. If my search happens to lead me to the same books, awesome. If not, oh well.

Last year I gave myself permission to read what I wanted and it’s working out pretty well so far!

All the same, don’t let me discourage anyone from shouting out their favorite books. If you like it, flaunt it. Maybe you’ve found exactly what someone is looking for. Just remember that everyone is different and not to take it personally if you recommendations never make it to the top of your friends’ reading lists.

And try not to pressure people who haven’t read what you have! We don’t deserve the guilt!

Read and let read, that’s what I say.

Lesser-Known Writers I Love

As a regular reader of indie books, it’s not uncommon for me to fangirl over writers no one I know has ever heard of. Nonetheless, this week I’d like to brag about a few whom I especially adore. So read on for my fangirling and click on the names for their Goodreads bibliographies or websites (depending on what they have).

Enheduanna

It may be odd to start with an author I have never read. This lady was the daughter of the Akkadian king, Sargon I, and the first credited author in recorded history. Living several thousand years ago, I think of her every time I’m watching Downton Abbey and there’s a debate about whether women should be writers.

(Spoiler: They should. Men, too. Seriously, everyone.)

John Marco

I have written one fan letter in my life and it was to this guy. He is amazing. He is underrated. Specializing in military epic fantasy, I enjoy the way he explores both the human and strategic aspects of warfare against the backdrop of wildly imaginative worlds. DID I MENTION HE IS AMAZING?!?!?!

His Tyrants and Kings series dropped into my life right when I was going through some rough stuff later in my parents’ divorce. That trilogy really helped me. I mean, my life was miserable, but at least I didn’t have a semi-immortal druggie with uncomfortably likable assassins out to kill me and my family, right?

Lloyd Alexander

Who says Fantasy books have to be long to be epic? The Prydain Chronicles, based on Welsh mythology, are an imaginative, thrilling quintet and none of the books exceed 250 pages. Disney actually adapted the first book into an animated film, but it didn’t do so great. Nonetheless, the books are great, nay—AWESOME.

Kaitlyn Deann

I have had the honor to know this young lady personally through the magic of the interweb. Her debut novel was far better than my original effort, though we are about the same age. I am continually blown away by the depth and breadth of her stories and I am honored to know her.

Intisar Khanani

The very first eBook I read in entirety was Thorn by this resplendent, brilliant wordsmith. It was she who proved to me that diversity could be written well. Her stories are action-packed, whimsically inventive, but at the same time advocate a value for life that makes me want to hug her to bits.

If someone ever tries to say self-published books aren’t good, I shall pelt them with her entire bibliography.

Tad Williams

This guy’s Shadowmarch quadrilogy holds a special place for me. It was with me through those first few months after my dad filed for divorce. Mr. Williams is high on my list of “must meet someday” and I’m looking forward to reading his backlist.

(When I saw he also left a sparkly review for one of John Marco’s books, I went into Fangirl Overdrive.)

Gerald Morris

This gentleman wrote a series of twelve middle-grade novels, each tackling a different Arthurian myth. Have you ever heard of the dung-cart knight? The damsel and the dwarf? Sir Owain and the lioness? Neither had I, but The Squire’s Tales educated me in the most sarcastic, humorous, enjoyable way possible.

I read all twelve books out loud to my brothers and it was a wonderful family bonding experience. (Also with a special place in my heart.)

Who are some of your favorite less-known writers? Ones that no one—not even your bookish friends—has heard of? What’s your favorite thing about them? Tell me in the comments!

Seven Steps to Becoming an Epic Fantasy Mentor

Step One: Have a mysterious and tragic past.

You will vaguely allude to this past with a far-off look in your eye whenever the villain is mentioned, followed by a moment of pensive silence and/or moodiness for the remainder of the day.

Step Two: You must have a personal reason to hate the villain (whom the protagonist is obviously destined to kill).

You were lovers until he/she chose the path of evil. More likely, he/she murdered your spouse and/or offspring and/or someone else dear to you.

(This is doubly effective if you go with both ex-lovers and murder, though.)

Step Three: Live somewhere remote and hard to reach.

The only worthwhile mentors are inaccessible. If you must live in an urban environment, be the weird/creepy/dangerous person no one likes. Anything to prevent you having friends.

Step Four: Have a secret artifact that the villain will come seeking.

An artifact that has been lost for years and is only coincidentally located once the protagonist turns up.

Step Five: Silence is golden and so is miscommunication.

Never tell the protagonist everything outright. Let them discover the villain’s secrets (which you obviously know because of your past) through a series of (likely violent) misfortunes on their own.

Step Six: By contrast, micromanage the protagonist’s love life.

You must strongly encourage or overtly discourage any attraction the protagonist has to another character. Either way, you must never be neutral under any circumstances.

Step Seven: Sorry…but this is the part where you must die.

*cough* And now we get to the last one. No reneging. You will most likely be killed by the villain in a traumatic event that shall steel the hero’s resolve to destroy the villain. Hey, at least your death was worth it, right?

Things I hate about books

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My room is 60% books, but there are some things about them I just HATE. Things that grate and annoy and make me want to tear my hair out. I’m sure I could think of more, but this is a starter list.

Love polygons

Pick a guy already! This trope is notorious within Young Adult and Romance, but it’s starting to infect other genres as well. IT MUST STOP. Seriously, it’s a relationship, not ice cream. If you’re conflicted between two, you need to stop sampling one or the other because those are people’s hearts, not Baskin Robins.

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You’ve heard of “love triangles,” now get ready for…”love PENTAGONS!”

Mismatched covers

Just…no. I have several series where the publisher did this mid-series or, worse, end-of-series and it made me want to scream. To this day, it physically hurts me to look at them together.

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I mean…how sick do you have to be to do this?

Differing spine heights

This is done by the same monsters who pulled off the cover style swaps and is no less heinous/agonizing.

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I was appalled when the last two “Shadowmarch” books came in the mail.

Bad writing

Don’t draw me in with a pretty cover, good premise, stellar blurb, then have “flashing eyes” and breaths “she didn’t know she’d been holding” every two pages. Also no willy-nilly “hot” seductions where the characters didn’t even make eye contact until two pages ago. I mean…why??? But seriously, there are a hundred things that could go here, but you all KNOW what I mean.

I was going to put a picture here, but I got rid of the books I thought had bad writing.

 Good writing

Bad writing is like nails on the chalkboard. Good writing is like hooked talons that dig into your chest and tear out your bleeding heart. Beware the feels and beware the life-changing revelations.

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To date, four books have made me cry and two of them are pictured here.

Flaky authors

Authors, don’t go and write two to-die-for books and then write 900+ pages of crap when we KNOW you can do better. Get your act together, damn it.

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Yes, Christopher Paolini, I DID lie to your face when I said I liked the ending.

Cannon fodder characters

You know those characters who show up for like half a scene and are sweet and eerily flawless until they’re gruesomely murdered for nothing other than shock value? I hate that.

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Well…can you deny it?

Cancelled sequels

How DARE set it up for another book and not follow through! Leave me hanging with loose ends and questionable ending. Not cool, man.

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There was “kind of” a resolution, but “kind of” not. Also, I just want another damn book.

Biased publishers

I could rant all day about this one. The thing is, it’s luck of the draw as to which authors get “picked” for promotion by publishers (this applies to the Big Six publishers especially). The vast majority of authors are expected to handle promotion on their own dime. Which means we don’t hear about the vast majority of books published!

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Only fan letter I’ve written in my life was to this guy and the publishers don’t share my enthusiasm. Bastards.

Biased bookstores

The thing is, stores like Barnes and Noble and about 97% of other bookstores (unless specified otherwise) only stock the bestsellers’ list. Seriously. It’s why I stopped going so much (besides being broke).

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Crappy photo, but these are two AMAZING books you won’t find in stores.

What are some of the things you hate about books? Do you relate to any of these? Let me know in the comments!

7 ways to identify a fantasy villain

If you’ve just started a new fantasy series and aren’t sure who the villain is, there are some easy ways to find out. Watch for a few key traits and if more than four show up in a character, you’ve definitely found the series baddie.

1. Miserable childhood

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Morgana Pendragon, basically the cover girl for Daddy Issues Monthly.

Fantasy villains cannot have happy childhoods—EVER. In the slim chance one or both their parents weren’t awful, said parent(s) must die a gruesome death, preferably with the young villain watching.

2. Anger management difficulties

Even if the character displays a cold, controlled exterior most the time, they cannot be a villain without an eventual angry outburst, usually in which they do something horrible and violent. Most likely, this results in the death of a character you really liked.

3. Ugly pets/minions

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A face only a villainous taskmaster could love.

Anyone who hires deformed, aesthetically challenged creatures no one else would even look at must surely be a bad guy. However, there is a loophole, so long as the beautiful minions are used for seduction-based intelligence gathering.

4. Racism/Elitism/Sexism/Religious purism/Some other nasty “ism”

The villain will probably be the most prejudiced character in the book. Genocide and lines such as “she’s only a woman” and “it’s my birthright” are dead giveaways.

5. Dysfunctional love life

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Xena and Drago. Some whacked out stuff going on there.

The villain must either a) have lost their soulmate which spurs them on this hellish crusade and/or b) have a long string of serial relationships to put Henry VIII to shame and/or c) wants someone who wants them dead.

6. Is secretly the protagonist’s father/sibling/miscellaneous lost relative

Assuming the villain did not kill the protagonist’s father/mother, then this one of the spot-on ways to identify him/her. Families suck and that is the moral of the story.

7. Creepy obsession with protagonist/protagonist’s love interest

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WTH Rahl? Do you have any idea how bad this looks???

If the villain and protagonist are of the opposite sex, the villain probably has a thing for him/her. If the protagonist is a girl, there will be some rape-y comments in there at minimum, same for a male protagonist’s love interest. The “we could rule the galaxy” speech may also come into play.

Did this list miss your favorite typical fantasy villain trait? Let me know in the comments!