Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Walters on Pretty Heroines in Fantasy

Over at The Federalist, Elise Walters (Tentyrian Legacy) talks about why pretty heroines and romance shouldn't be taboo in fantasy. Excerpts:
Debut author Erika Johansen, who made headlines in 2013 for landing a seven-figure advance from HarperCollins to publish her first book called The Queen of the Tearling, would like us to question the very place where beauty and romance abound. ...

She takes issue with two main themes in fantasy fiction: first, their heroines are just too darn pretty; and second, they have plot lines overly reliant on romance, and therefore men. In conclusion, Johansen urges audiences to demand more from their books and for heroines to reflect "real women with their priorities in order, to whom both male and female readers can relate."

That last point, who can argue with that? Wouldn’t books where women demonstrate they get how the real world works and with whom readers can relate be a success? Yes, and they are. So why are we acting like these books are few and far between? ...

The fact is, books with pretty heroines and love lives reflect aspirations that we don’t need to be ashamed of or reject in books. And when they are coupled with a captivating story, we should celebrate those books, not shun them as outdated and oppressive tools of some secret plot in the literary world to advance a patriarchal agenda.
Read the whole thing, and note that Walters is offering an argument far beyond the whole fantasy-is-escapism trope with which literary types have tarred genre lovers ever since Tolkien. Rather, she drills down to the truth that storytelling can be aspirational: "The most fundamental human expectations and dreams remain what they’ve always been. We are attracted to beauty. We believe in love. We think romance is something to be cherished if we have it; something we want if we don’t. This is the 'happily ever after.' All of this comprises what it means to be a human being. So naturally these themes find their way into our books."

A valid point. However, I'd also add that narratives can be didactic: An author turns a character's beauty towards the themes he wants to emphasize. Walters notes how "Katniss Everdeen, Daenerys Targaryen, Susan Pevensie, Dominique Francon, Anna Karenina, and Scarlett O’Hara" get noticed apart from their beauty "because they are interesting and exquisitely rendered as complex characters with emotions that seem all too familiar to the rest of us." But Nurse Ratched and Catherine Tramell draw our attention for entirely different reasons. By all means, let's have robust discussions over the role of beauty in genre, but let's try to first comprehend what the author's trying to do with it.

(Picture: CC 2012 by Sabrina Krilic)

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