Discomfort and Disarray

When do morals or ethics come into play for a writer? For a storyteller?

There seem to be readers who take umbrage with certain aspects of story- I hesitate to use the word “trope” since (a) certain website(s) have hammered the word into meaning virtually nothing but becoming a microscopic look at window dressing- that mirror Life.

Wait, I’m starting too big.

At some point or another someone gave my wife (or I) one of the Stig Larsson “The Girl Who…” novels. I was vaguely aware of their existence, partially because when it was announced that an American version of the Swedish filmic adaptations was in the works, an actor friend of mine lamented that she might not get to read/aud for it, despite being a good fit for the role of Lisbeth Salander.

That was the extent to my awareness of the series, that and that there was a sort of Grrrl Power thing attached to the books- or the films- due to this character apparently being an ass-kicking chick and what not. Now, again: this was my vague cultural awareness, despite not having read a word (or a review) or seen a frame (or read a review) of either the novels or the movies.

Time passes, I run out of books to read, so I pick up The Girl Who Played with Fire. I am unimpressed. I’m also mildly concerned about the rumblings I feel I’ve heard about Lisbeth Salander being a pop-cultural feminist hero. Mainly because it seems like lip-service feminism, and disingenuous.

My father chastised me for reading the second book first: “You need to read them in order! It makes more sense-” he said.

I strongly disagree with him: these are pulpy, formulaic thrillers (and I must point out, I love thrillers, there is nothing wrong with that) but this is a highly successful series of books. I really, really doubt that I’m missing some fundamental understanding of the texts by skipping the first one.

I get that the books are called “The Men Who Hate Women” in their original printings. I certainly recognized that rape, sexual slavery, and abuse of women are a real and serious issue.

I also get that the late author was an investigative reporter (like his other lead character, Blomkvist) who was traumatized and guilt-ridden over witnessing a rape when he was a young man- driven by this to being a damn good investigative reporter who helped uncover abuse and the ways in which the system marginalizes sex workers etc.

My issue with Salander as a “feminist action hero” isn’t because she is a rape survivor- nor am I saying “Larsson can’t even write a feminist lead because he has a penis”-nor is it even really important here. I found Larsson’s fetishization of Salander to be creepy, I found his technique of having every single male who doubted Salander’s innocence/ability (even a little) to be later revealed as genuinely Evil to be a really weird choice that actually devalued the story for me.

If Every, Single, Man who isn’t Blomkvist (and a few other sterling silver, upstanding perfect exceptions) is
a sick misogynists with weird lesbian hate, or porn addictions that make them violent, or just run-of-the-mill rapists- it kind of lowers the stakes of the novel, rather than raising them. I became so desensitized by Larrson’s nihilistic world view that I was just shrugging by the end of the book. “Eh, serial killing cannibalistic rape Nazis, whatever”.

So ANYway- as well as people who Love these books/movies, there is a lot of “YUCK!” type responses. I read a bunch at a website the other day, and while a few people seemed to articulate the same general feeling of unease that the “feminist” or “pro-woman” tag was being applied erroneously… most of the disgust or dislike for the books wasn’t based on the writing, but on the subject matter. As in, how dare he write “another” character who has been raped and now fights back, eeew, that is so gross.

And that got me to thinking: well, certain things like Racism and Rape and Intolerance are just bad- I agree on this. Everyone I know seems to think so. Violence isn’t really cool or sexy, it is fucking gross. Yet, we also can all agree, they do happen.

So when is a writer or storyteller obligated to drop it?

When do we change the back-story, to avoid the dark alley? I understand that “glamorizing” or romanticizing or using rape/incest/whatever for titillation is just creepy. I KNOW that, but what if a writer doesn’t intend it as such?

“Oh, not ANOTHER tough young female character who is a rape/incest survivor!” the cry seems to go up on every board or comments section about fictional characters, be they filmic, TV or print. Is filmic a word? Can it be?

That is kind of like saying “oh, not ANOTHER reluctant hero.” or “oh not ANOTHER cop/detective who is On The Edge.”

I like to think that we (as readers, viewers, story-catchers) only will react like this to poorly told stories. Because it is usually then that these characters, devices and ideas seem stale and overly familiar.

But (creaky grampa voice) “nowadays with this dern interwebs” it seems that EVERYTHING falls into those “tropes” to someone. And it makes me wonder…

I certainly don’t think that Larsson’s books are outright awful or anything. I certainly don’t think they should be banned or edited to not have all the rapey parts (which, granted, wouldmake them a lot shorter) removed.

But I do wonder- is it the creator/writer/storyteller that is duty-bound to present fictional events that mirror real life atrocities and horrors in such a way that we are reminded of “the horror… the horror”?

In my never-to-see-the-light-of-day novel there is a rape survivor, there is some pretty unsettling violence (according to 2 of my readers) and there is a pretty horribly racist asshole. I guess I would defend these choices by saying that it is true to the story. I think violence is and should be unsettling. The female survivor is a bit messed up in the head from what happened to her. Is this exploitive? Am I being a gross storyteller who should be censured for using unpleasant aspects of the real world in a story that I have tried- pretty damn hard and for about three goddamn years now- to make emotionally truthful?

In the first draft, my two protagonists called each other “Fags” from time to time. I edited that- uncomfortable that I was making it “ok” to be mildly homophobic by not having my protags learn the errors of their way. I didn’t write a sequence where they said: “You know, we shouldn’t use that word, it is disrespectful to homosexuals.” because I don’t feel that such an awakening would happen to a pair of 15 year old blue-collar kids. They also call each other retards. Should that get fixed?

And then- and then- and maybe the female character should NOT be a survivor of rape. And maybe she SHOULDN’T use sexual favors as currency, despite being a drug and alcohol addled runaway who has been living in hobo camps for over a year. And maybe the racist character SHOULDN’T use “The N Word”. Maybe he shouldn’t have SS tattoos or a swastika ring either and I should drop that whole “Prison Aryan Brotherhood” aspect of that villain, since there were REAL Nazis who did AWFUL, TERRIBLE things.

I mean, I edited out “fag”, I should lose the sexual violence, the trauma, the villainy and horror. The violence should be toned down too- so instead of the sound of a man’s cheekbone shattering when he is struck in the face with a weighted club, followed by his whimpering and spitting out blood and teeth while curled up on the ground he should just get “knocked out”.

My panic, my discomfort, my unease comes from “but am I using these elements because they are True to the story, and the characters?” Because what if I’m not? or what if someone thinks that I am not? what if the reader thinks I am being gross or exploitative?

It is easy to say, “ah, well that is on the reader than.”

Not for me it isn’t.

What I hear?

I hear that stomach lurch of self-doubt, that I’m just using “tropes” rather than moments. That I’m being exploitive because it is “cool”. And then I worry that I’m Stig Larsson. Except, you know, not dead or published.

Because I really doubt Larsson was all: “I’m gonna write me some sexy sexy RAPE and shit, and then make it ok by having the girl be a bisexual sexy asskicking super-hacker math genius kickboxer who falls in love with a fictionalized version of ME!” while eating a Swedish meatball and drinking some akavit.

I bet he was writing a story, telling a tale, and it happened to be dark and kind of nasty.

So, you see, I’m the reader. It is all on me there. I think that The Girl Who Played With Fire is creepy and seems bullshitty about it’s “feminist” heroine.

So what makes me any better?