After an interesting bout during a critique meeting, a few of my writers group buddies and I discussed our hang-ups in fiction. Basically, we asked ourselves: during a critique is there anything that you, personally, cannot get past or overlook in another writer’s submission – and it’s an entirely personal reaction, not something like comma-use or story structure or anything ‘writerly.’
For example, my hang-up is the treatment of women in a story. I have next to zero tolerance for what has been termed ‘Mantasy’ because a lot of the elements of this type of fiction treat women in a questionable manner. For example, rape is often utilized in some manner in the unpublished works I’ve seen – often negatively, but rape will still show up in there somewhere. Because this is such a damaging life-altering event in any woman’s life (I hope to heaven it never happens to any readers here!) I hate seeing it used as anything even remotely erotic.
That’s an extreme example, but my hang-up shows up in smaller ways too. If a story doesn’t represent a balanced woman’s perspective I have a difficult time overlooking it. Sure, not all stories need a balanced perspective – but I really think that Of Mice and Men would’ve benefitted a little. (See? It’s a matter of personal taste.)
Anyway, reading The Handmaid’s Tale I realized something else: I’m also irritated when men are not treated in a well-rounded fashion.
As a woman, I had some strong reactions to this book. The dehumanized portraits of women reduced to a color or a duty. The lack of choice. The fear, the threats, the loss. I felt all of it, so two-hundred and ten points to Atwood for that. But something was bothering me throughout the story and I finally realized that it was the men.
So this Handmaid’s Tale society is male-dominated. The dudes are in charge – which just takes it back a hundred years or so and is not a monstrous stretch of the imagination (woe be the day!). And this is where I hit the flaw in the story: men were in charge for centuries prior to this one. They have a certain amount of logic and dominating capability. In fact, when it comes down to dudes “defending” themselves against women, their “claim” is that they are more “rational” and “logical” rather than “emotional” and “passionate” like the chicks. While I don’t think guys are more rational than women, by any means, I do think that a dominating group has certain rationales that drive it.
In Tale, the rationale for the Handmaids is that they have proven themselves in The Time Before as capable breeders. All of them have had children. The Commanders (dudes in charge) want kids. But the Commanders are stuck with their Wives, have negotiated certain rights and responsibilities with said Wives, and the Wives – some of them – are not able to have children. Therefore the Handmaids are brought into the Commander’s homes and assume getting-knocked-up duties.
Now, here’s my issue: the Commanders are in charge. They have certain requirements – namely children. Sure, they negotiated with the Wives prior to the takeover of the world, but now the world is taken over…why still negotiate with the women who aren’t adding to the quantity of children? Of course, it’s the men themselves that are probably responsible for the infertility…but that didn’t stop Henry VIII. Wouldn’t they start the rules for multiple wives, especially if they’re using Biblical precedent?
Like I said – this is my hang-up. There’s no way that Atwood could’ve made that choice, because that would’ve upset the balance of the story – in fact, it would’ve changed the story entirely – and there’s so much that is interesting already in Handmaid’s Tale. But I think that’s the key to creating a good story: the writer has to create a more interesting idea in order to help the reader past their own prejudices/biases/hang-ups.
It does make me wonder how much of our hang-ups make it into our own writing.
What are your hang-ups? Do you think that your hang-ups extend from your reading/critiquing into your writing? How can you spot it without it being pointed out by, say, your writing group?
Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.