I read the international bestselling novel The Little Paris Bookshop for book club in April. By the time I finished, I was really glad a hardback copy of the novel had been gifted to me, and I didn’t spend any money on this read. I posted a review for the book on Goodreads, which you can read here. The novel was full of the kind of gender roles and gender essentialism that upsets me as much as the use of “perfect” bodies as a “hero’s reward” for upright moral behavior. Which was another major theme in this book.
A young woman named Manon, who is determined to love two men equally, is killed off before the story even begins. And no other woman in the book ever makes a claim that two men might be better than one. So the most compelling piece of information in the whole novel was never really addressed in the story, other than to say that perhaps Manon’s early demise was meant as a cautionary tale to other polyamorous women. (And Manon certainly blames her cancer, at one point in her diary, on her inability to love only one man. As in, she views her breast cancer as a kind of moral punishment for her inability to remain monogamous.)
(In case any Thought Candy reader cannot make out the text in the above meme, it says: Life’s better in 2 player. It’s even better with more.)
Polyamory will play a big role in future Mark of the Pterren books, and it also plays a crucial role in the project I am working on now. The challenge in writing about polyamory, simply from a craft point of view, is that it is easier to focus a character’s desire on a single person, for the purpose of narrative tension, rather than to diffuse a character’s desire between two or more lovers. Setting aside the moral censure against polyamory in popular culture, I think the biggest challenge in polyamorous storytelling is in keeping a character’s burning passion for another character equally high when the focus of that desire is divided.
The writer of polyamory in fiction has to separate love from an “either/or” mindset and shift into a “both/and” mindset. And since I personally don’t inhabit a polyamorous erotic mindset (seek to have sex with more than one partner), this is challenging in multiple ways. In my personal life, I’ve met enough swingers and married folks of both sexes seeking to have an affair (with me, or with others) to know that it would be extremely easy to have a mister or mistress of my own, but I just don’t feel any kind of drive like that. And if I did decide I wanted (or needed) extramarital sex, I would put everything out in the open, the same way Manon did, rather than lie and betray my husband. I think if more people were open with their partners about their sexual needs, the world would be a happier place. Monogamy works for some people, like boring old me, but monogamy clearly does not work for everyone. And I really wish those people didn’t have to sneak around, lie, and betray their spouses in order to be their true selves: a person who forms passionate bonds of romantic/erotic love with more than one person.
I read so many books that try, in some way, to question society’s monogamous norms — and I often feel that these books massively fail the challenge, and that the writer simply wasn’t up to the task. In the case of The Little Paris Bookshop, the novel offered up gender essentialism as profundity, promoted gender roles and monogamy as wisdom and truth, rather than explore the possibility that Manon’s courage to love more than one man was her correct path, and should never have been viewed as the possible cause of her cancer. (She had a lump on her torso removed, leading me to believe she died of breast cancer, though I don’t think her specific cancer was ever named in the book. I skimmed the last 100 pages, and that information might’ve been in a passage I skimmed over.) No one in the book seeks to follow Manon’s example. Instead, her polyamory is something all of the other characters must “heal” from in the wake of her demise.
To be fair to the author, Nina George, she intended the book to focus on the journey of grief her male main character undertakes, not Manon’s sexuality. But there was still a lot of strong moral messaging going on throughout that novel, regardless of what the author intended. As a reader, I cannot ignore what the bigger picture is telling me, which is why I saved this issue of polyamory for a blog post, rather than addressing this particular set of problems I had in the book review.
In my first novel, The Etiquette of Wolves, I unwittingly did the same thing Nina George did: presented a lot of moral messaging. I can’t speak for Nina George’s intentions, but I can speak for my own, and state that I didn’t intend for certain moral messages to come across in that novel, but that doesn’t mean I can deny they are there.
In the case of The Etiquette of Wolves, the problem is not my representation of gender roles, which are abundant in that book, since the story focuses on the relationship between a sorority and fraternity at a fictional Ivy League school. My big writer failure was my moral messaging around ableism — a term defined as “discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.” My ableism in my first novel is quite severe. There were powerful moral messages broadcast in that story, moral messages I never consciously intended. But that is the big danger in writing fiction: so much of creative writing is performed by the unconscious, and the unconscious possesses a lifetime of accumulated cultural bias.
This is certainly what happened to me when I wrote my first book. Which is not an excuse for my ableism, only the explanation for what I have done.
By the time I finished my final drafts of Bloodshade of the Goddess and Kinned to the Sea, I had learned enough about ableism that I could recognize my linguistic ableism in those books, and take steps to remove the linguistic ableism from those novels. I worked really hard, over a period of three months, to remove the worst ableist slurs from those stories.
But ableism exists on a macro as well as a micro level, and linguistic ableism is the micro level of ableist moral messaging.
When I realized what I had done in The Etiquette of Wolves, I almost removed the book from sale. My friend Amanda, who has helped open my eyes and teach me about ableism in popular culture as well as in literature, advocated that I keep the book up for sale. So I decided instead that I would use my blog to confess that I have a lot of ableist blood on my hands, when it comes to my first novel, and I intend to write about my failures. Before the end of 2017, I’ll have something ready to share with my blog readers. But for everyone who witnessed, with silent horror, the ableist discourse in my first book, and didn’t give up on me as a writer, I apologize for what I have done, and I thank you for deciding to stay with me, and keep supporting my work, even though my writing is deeply flawed.
In other writing news: Bloodshade of the Goddess is still winning the free-download competition, with 292 downloads on Smashwords. Kinned to the Sea lags far behind with 158 downloads on Smashwords. I was surprised and delighted to discover that seven people bought either Kinned to the Sea or Bloodshade of the Goddess on Amazon, even though the books are available for free. That means I have earned $15.00 in book sales this year, which is awesome! If four more people buy Kinned to the Sea, it will surpass Mark of the Pterren in overall sales count, which is kind of funny, really — but these are the honest sales figures of a self-publishing author with no marketing platform.
I keep hoping that some of the people who have downloaded these two ebooks for free will take the time to read them. I keep wondering if I should light some candles and pray for people to open the ebook file in their digital library, and check out my work. I hope for this all the time, though I haven’t lit any candles yet.