Sara Paretsky, Shara Summers and Feminism

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

I read a great many books – on average, just over one a week.  I have read so many books that I find it impossible to pick out just one favourite.

I do, however, have several favourite authors.  Authors whose books I constantly go back to, and it feels like visiting an old friend.  Books which affect me in such a way I have to choose carefully what I read following them, because everything else will just seem inferior.

One such author is Sara Paretsky.  I discovered her V I Warshawski series in the early 1990s, back when I was first aware of enthusiastically embracing feminism.  It was a revelation.  Here for the first time I encountered a heroine who represented everything I wanted to be.  A fiercely independent woman who was brave, resourceful, unafraid to speak her mind and without need of a man to define her existence.  Single and childless, V I is sarcastic, blunt and able to hold her own in a fight.  I thought then, and still think now, that she is a fantastic role model for young women.

And even in the 21st century, there are few heroines like her.  Sue Grafton has a similar independent minded, single and childless heroine in Kinsey Milhone.   Kathy Reichs, another writer I admire, has a strong woman in Temperance Brennan, but unlike V I Tempe is a mother, and does occasionally need rescuing by men.

Not everyone shares my adoration of V I, as reviews on Goodreads and Amazon testify.  Some readers – among them women, I was surprised to note – find her too unlikeable.  They don’t like her sarcasm and confrontational manner.

I do not deny that my amateur sleuth Shara Summers was inspired by V I Warshawski.  When I set out to write a crime series, I wanted a heroine like V I – someone courageous and independent minded, who was not afraid to speak her mind.  But I wasn’t brave enough to write a police procedural, so I went for an amateur sleuth.  And in many ways Shara is very different from V I.  She’s not as brave.  She’s not the champion of the underdog the way that V I is.  And she does occasionally get rescued by men.  And because I’m just not as good a writer as Sara Paretsky, sometimes I don’t pull off what I’m trying to do.  Maybe Shara just comes across sometimes as being bitchy instead of courageous.

It’s also clear that Shara is not everyone’s cup of tea.  DEATH SCENE racked up 31 rejections before it was published by Lyrical Press.  One of the most common reasons for the book being rejected was the character not being likeable enough to take through a series.

The revelation that not everyone loves V I Warshawski – because I’ve been enthusiastically recommending these books to everyone for the last 20 years – was a bit of a surprise, and I’ve recently been ruminating on that.  V I is sarcastic, snarky, and blunt.  She can be downright rude – especially to arrogant and patronising men.  In the early books, which seem to be set in the early 1980s, V I is unusual in being a woman P I, and she encounters a hostile reaction to this by many people.  Especially men.

Women are not supposed to embody these qualities.  Even in these times, they are generally expected to be soft, caring and nurturing, and I think this is the main reason that women who don’t possess these qualities are regarded with suspicion.  They are considered to be not ‘normal’ women.

I like the fact that V I is snarky, blunt and rude.  But there are some people out there who might say I embody similar qualities.  And the same people who wouldn’t like V I for these qualities probably don’t like me much, either.

I must confess that now I’m the wrong side of 40 I’ve got to a point in life where I don’t really care if people don’t like me for being me.  As a woman gamer, role-player, and horror writer, I’ve encountered a number of men over the years who don’t know what to make of me.  The fact that I’m deliberately childless also causes resentment in certain people – it’s surprising (and depressing) how many people, even in this day and age, who assume that all women want children and any who don’t are instantly labelled as being abnormal and not to be trusted.

None of these things matter that much to me these days, but I’m pretty sure that the people that fall into the aforementioned categories are not my target readership.

For the length of time that human beings have existed on this planet, we’ve proved to be depressingly stagnant in moving on with our thinking.  I will go on recommending Sara Paretsky’s books to everyone I have a conversation about crime books with – particularly women.  I would like every young women to read at least one V I Warshawski book.  For every one who comes away thinking, “this is the sort of woman I want to be,” then a battle will be won.

There’s a long way to go before we win the war, though.

Advertisements

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: