Saturday, October 31, 2009

Why I gave My Soul to Take an automatic fail

I want to discuss the review I gave My Soul to Take yesterday. Not for any particular reason--no mad publicist or author or blogger has threatened to bar me from the interwebs or anything like that. (As if they could, nyah nyah nyah...) But I realised this morning that maybe the review came somewhat out of the blue, especially for some of my newer readers.

I don't subscribe to many "isms" as politics tends to bore the crap out of me, but gender roles are guaranteed to get me ranty in my panties if I feel this gender or that is getting short shrift.

I believe that authors and publishers have a duty of care to their readers. I don't dismiss books as mere stories. Books, and to a lesser extent songs and films and magazines, have the ability to portray real people and real life. Books approximate real life and real emotion closer than any other medium, in my opinion. I know, what a bizarre statement coming from someone who reads speculative fiction non-stop. Ursula le Guin said something witty about science fiction being able to tell truths about our own lives. That's really what the best dystopian fiction is: the truth about ourselves and what we could become.

The problem I have with Kaylee and Nash's relationship is that if you take away the fantasy element (that is, them being bean sidhes) they're a just a couple with a power imbalance. Kaylee is controlled by Nash, and she not only enjoys it, she encourages it. We've hardly got an Ike and Tina Turner situation on our hands, but I hope you see why this makes me uncomfortable.

At the risk of sounding like a Wowser* or an advocate of censorship, I don't believe that this sort of relationship should be presented in literature in this day and age as healthy and something to aspire to. This book is written and out there and people are reading it now, and by all means do read it yourself. It's a good book, apart from the gripes I've stated above and in my review.

Because books have the wonderful ability to represent real life, it worries me no end that a reader will look at Kaylee and Nash and think, "That's just like me and Ted. Awesome, our relationship is healthy as can be." (I know I was highly influenced by the books I read as a teenager. Nuclear war will make me psychic so I can talk to cats, right?)

I'll stress this point again: it's because the relationship is portrayed as healthy and something to aspire to that I get nervous. And cranky. And dismayed.

I'm being hard on My Soul to Take which is unfair in some respects. But I'm like one of those jaded criminal court judges who've seen it all before and one day decides to take her dismay out on the next poor schmuck who appears in her dock.

You tell me: Am I being unreasonable? Or do you feel the same way as I do?

Further reading

Princesses and Pornstars, Emily Macquire. This is a fantastic book for young women that discusses feminism today from a very personal and readable perspective, and bemoans the lack of positive role models for young women today. The princess and pornstar in the title is a nod to that old Madonna/whore dichotomy.

Graceling, Kristen Cashore. Did someone say positive role model? Hello Katsa!

Anything by Tamora Pierce. Her books are absolutely stuffed full of positive role models, healthy, realistic approaches to relationships and sex and are bloody fun as well.

*"One whose sense of morality drives them to deprive others of their sinful pleasures, especially liquor." From Wikipedia. It's an Australian term.


  1. I agree with you completely on this issue. There is a current trend in fiction being aimed at teen women to portray relationships where the male dominates the female as being healthy. While I do not advocate censorship either, it does concern me as I am seeing girls aspiring for these kind of relationships after reading such books. Bizarrely, this dominance that in many stories borders abuse is often being confused with a gentlemanly protectiveness. It would be one thing if there was an underlying commentary about unhealthy gender roles in relationships but far too often it is instead justified by the fact that the male is "hot".

    Thank you for your honest review on My Soul to Take.

  2. Thanks Terra, I'm glad it's not just me. If I read one more story about a heroine needing to be protected just to go about her day to day business I'm going to scream!

  3. I agree with you 100%. I had typed a comment out on your review about how I wouldn't even consider picking up the book based on the dodgy-sounding gender roles alone, but then I decided I sounded too ranty and deleted it.

    The thing with real-life relationships is, in every couple there's likely to be one person who is more grounded / smart / capable. Even a little bit. Maybe a man, maybe a woman. It's just that when authors put that in books and it's the female who always needs looking after, they're (perhaps unintentionally) perpetuating a stereotype. It's why I avoid grown-up romance novels in general.

    Your review gave me the impression that in My Soul to Take this went beyond the two main characters and extended to all male/female bean sidhes, and to me that's even worse than one happens-to-be-sterotypical couple dynamic. I don't think you're being unreasonable at all.

  4. I agree with you (and Lauren and Terra). I do think it is important to have books that display all different types of gender roles. They exist. I mean, it's unfortunate, but relationships like this do exist. However, writing about them as if they are something to aspire to just kind of creeps me out and disturbs me. Because it will give teens the wrong idea, as you say. And I've been noticing it more and more lately (I think the first book where it really jumped out at me was Melissa Marr's Ink Exchange, although some disagree with me there). And I just don't understand how the women writing these books can genuinely believe that the relationship they are writing about it what relationships should be like.
    Are there really that many screwed up people in the world.

    Anyhow, just wanted to tell you I agree.
    And you should totally read The City and the Stars. Even though it's a male protagonist, it kind of seems right up your ally. Although I note that my boyfriend didn't love it as much as I did.

  5. Hey Rhiannon,

    I think you did a great job with this! I actually totally agree with you on this count, though I think I'm more lenient? maybe? Sometimes this issue jumps out at me and I'm like OMG are you kidding me! A certain series out there gives me this reaction, but I dont know, in My Soul To Take it didn't stand out to me as much, but I think thats because I'm already a Rachel Vincent fan from her adult series where her MC is a very strong female who doesn't require a ton of male protection and is tough in her own right, so I wasn't on the look out per se for this sort of thing.

    With that said, I do enjoy stories that maybe start off with the imbalance, but soon the heroine comes into her own and no longer needs the protection, or becomes equal to the hero or she ends up having to save the hero's butt. THose are great! Classic underdog turned heroine.

    So kudos to you for this thoughtful and informative post and I like that your sticking to your guns about this! Sometimes its hard to have a strong opinion.

    Also I commented back to you on my blog, but thank you for the link!! I just might do it. :-)

  6. I've read to read My Soul to Take and since it doesn't appeal to me, I probably won't, but it sounds like a Twilight situation. Exploiting abusive, controlling relationships as something to aspire to is just not healthy. And then there's the pedophile aspect with Jacob . . . *shudder*

  7. I completely agree, one thing I always look for in every single novel I read is whether or not the female protagonist was strong. If she's clingy, whiny, needy...I'm not liking it. Books like those make younger readers feel like it's okay to never give their best efforts to be the best they can be. I have yet to read MSTT, but I definitely will not be buying it.
    ^Donna: Ugh, the *Jacob* thing gives me shivers. I can't wait to see how they explain that one in the 4th movie, lol.

  8. What? Pedophile? I'm New Moon/Eclipse/Breaking Dawn ignorant, so do tell.

  9. I'm a little concerned at your post.

    First of all, I'm not quite sure how a "healthy relationship" is defined. I think I can recognise such a thing when I encounter it, but that of course brings my prejudices into play and so I feel correct to question the universality of my judgment. Moral relativism perhaps, but I'm fairly sure my likes and dislikes (however 'moral') should not be projected so judgmentally into many areas of private life, including relationships.

    Secondly, I do not believe that it is literature's primary job to preach, in any genre. It is literature's job to entertain.

    Certainly, fiction can carry a message and good fiction, at the very least, holds up a mirror in which we can see parts of our lives in otherwise inaccessible ways (if it does not do this, the story has failed and is not good fiction).

    The sort of concern you raise did not exist in fiction when I was an YA (neither did that genre did exist). I read voraciously throughout my childhood and teen years and had no difficulty in sensing issues and problems in the fiction I read. Sometimes an author so annoyed me I would throw their book at the wall, but if the story was good enough I would pick it up again.

    On occasion an author was so troubled by the attitudes in a work by another novel that s/he wrote something in response. Allegedly this occurred with Haldeman's "Forever War" in response to Heinlein's "Starship Troopers".

    Some art is exploitative and abusive but it is the reader that should apply the censorship. I do not think we should underestimate the insight of YA readers: to do so is patronising and thus in itself unhealthy.

  10. RobH--I'm in no way saying that fiction should dictate or define what is healthy or moral in relationships. And people can read what they like of course. I'm just sick of certain dynamics in relationships that are showing up again and again in recent lit. I know you haven't read any of these sorts of YA yet so would you like me to compile you a list? ;)

  11. And you hit on reasons I loathe the Twilight saga. I don't find it empowering. Edward would be a stalker and control freak in real life and Bella sees herself solely in relation to him. Oh, you were talking about another book. I agree. lol

  12. Twilight is so the elephant in the room for this post!

  13. Princesses and Porn Stars--heh, love the title. I think I have to check that one out!

  14. WORD. (psst, I've got you on my RSS Google Reader now too!)

    Do you think you'll read the second installment?

  15. I just commented on your review, but I wanted to say how much I agree with you : yes, all types of relationships can be portrayed, but no, all cannot be portrayed as healthy. Same goes for other issues. For instance, you can talk about anorexia, but certainly not by portraying it as healthy!

    It's a good point and an important one.

  16. Kay--One or two people have said this about Vincent's books, that the girls become more independent as they go on. So maybe I'll give it a go ;)