Literary Deal Breakers. I was inspired to put the post up due to a strong reaction I had as I tried to read Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence and the conversation that followed made me think of how men and women react to literary content differently-- especially when it comes to the delicate subject of rape.
Whenever this topic comes up, it's inevitable that someone will say something along the lines of murder is worse than rape and walk away from the subject as if that was some kind of conversational coup de grâce. End of discussion. I win. You lose.
Except it's not the end of the conversation if you're a woman.
Now, I'm not arguing that rape is worse than murder. But I am arguing that it is something that is, unfortunately, a real threat to most women-- more than it could ever be to most men. And that makes it harder to read about than most anything-- even murder.
When I read fantasy fiction, it's not unusual to read about murderers and thieves. Assassins are frequently main characters and, against all common sense, they can be written to be sympathetic characters. But rapists? They don't engender any sympathy in my opinion. So why the difference?
I can only answer that from a woman's perspective-- and one woman's at that. But something tells me I won't be alone in my thinking.
Where to start?
Being female means knowing that we have physical limitations when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex. This is something we become aware of very young. I had three older brothers and learned how to throw a good right-hook before I knew how to ride a bike. But I was never under the illusion that I was going to beat them at arm-wrestling. Your average feminist will hate me for saying it, but men are women are different. Simple as that. As I got older, gender differences became more pronounced for obvious reasons and I learned to be wary of men who exuded a certain aura. My caution has served me well. I've been stalked (before anyone knew the meaning of the word) by someone who called into my job and described what I was wearing on a daily basis-- but I've never been attacked. I'd be interested to know how many women out there have similar experiences-- and how many men really understand the feeling of vulnerability that comes so naturally to my gender.
So how does this translate to fiction?
When we read stories about murder and mayhem it's usually in some kind of hyper-reality. It might be in the context of a horror novel or an epic fantasy, or maybe a cable drama about a serial killer. But there are usually clear lines between fantasy and reality because most people have a natural aversion to casual criminality. If we are meant to sympathize with a killer, the set-up often includes a thread of vigilantism in which the 'victims' are the type of people we can tell ourselves have it coming. We also know that these are not scenarios we'd accept in the real world.
But rape cannot be introduced into a story as easily because it's impossible to say that a character deserves to brutalized in such a way. And no matter how repugnant a character is-- the person performing the act has to be worse in this situation. No way around it. So it's nearly impossible to make a rapist a sympathetic character. And seeing someone we like forced into the situation is so close to our own fears is extraordinarily hard to read. In the rare instance that a male character is similarly attacked it's often framed in the context of a prison-yard attack and, much like reality, it's about establishing a very ugly power structure and we're not likely to have any empathy for the instigators in that situation either.
Does that mean I think rape should never be addressed in literature? Of course not. But it's a minefield like no other. If it presented as almost a passing thought, a throwaway scene, it has a high likelihood to offend because it will appear to a female reader that the writer not only doesn't "get" the weight of this crime, but also that they don't care.
It's just a book...What's the big deal?
The thing with rape is that it is primarily a crime against women. There are still cultures that blame the woman if she is victimized. Even worse, there are societies that know women will be rejected by their family if they are raped, so it becomes a very effective tool of war. Women know that every man has the power to victimize her in a very particular way and that we cannot know when this threat will surface. We can't walk to our cars at night free of worry and we have different standards for safety when it comes to our sons and daughters because of it--how many sons have to be told to guard their drinks when going to a bar against date-rape drugs? This is the bogeyman of a lot of women's nightmares.
And the trickiness of the topic doesn't just end with the crime, it continues with the aftermath. How is it possible to convey the proper gravity or sympathy for the character? How long is the victim supposed to dwell on the act before the reader is satisfied? How long before we say get over it already? Or do we have the right to say that at all?
I'm not sure why anyone would want to tackle this monster.
I can understand the desire to stay true to the integrity of a story and include rape as part of the storyline if it is important to the narrative. But it's the kind of thing that can't be handled casually in my opinion. I do see it more in popular fiction as the popularity of urban fantasy increases along with the number of leading female characters who throw themselves in harm's way. But whether or not it's a wise decision to make it part of the story is debatable in my opinion.
Ultimately I think it's something that can't be viewed equally by men and women because it's going to resonate as a more realistic threat to women and no one likes to be reminded of their vulnerabilities--or worse, have them dismissed too easily.