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Agency

When we talk about “agency” in literature, we are usually talking about the protagonist of the story: (1) having the ability to act in his/her/their environment, then; (2) acting.

Simple, right?

Well, as it turns out, not for me.

Agency is something I always have to write into my manuscripts after multiple drafts. My critique partners and beta readers always come back to me telling me my characters don’t have enough (or any) agency. The character is supposed to move the plot, not the other way around. It’s a concept taught in every 101 creative writing class.

Yet… it always eludes me.

Struggling with agency is a common problem for a lot of writers, but recently, I’ve been thinking about why it’s such a reoccurring problem for me. You see, it’s not one character or one book or one series that lacks agency for me. It’s all of them. Even though I should know better. Even though I write thinking this time I’m not going to have to edit agency into my character. Thinking this time I’m going to get it right. But I never do, and I have to wonder why.

I think the answer comes from another definition.

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a condition that results from chronic or long-term exposure to trauma over which a victim has little or no control and from which there is little or no hope of escape

[Emphasis added]. Source.

I’ve written about my C-PTSD and how it relates to my reading and writing experiences before, but though I’ve previously connected the two things, I never made this particular connection.

It’s hard for me to write agency, because my mind is wired to believe I have none.

My C-PTSD stems from childhood abuse. That’s all I’m really willing to share about that out here, exposed on the internet, but for purposes of this post, I think it’s important that it’s understood this trauma occurred when I was very young and went on for a long, long time. It shaped the way my brain behaves. Seriously. Physical changes in my brain happened and those things impact my worldview. Deeply.

Though I’m older now, and I have agency, and I go to therapy to unravel and unpack all this trauma, I still struggle. I have an extremely difficult time making decisions. I get overwhelmed easily. When I’m in a dangerous or even mildly upsetting situation, I freeze or disassociate. I have the ability to control my environment, but I struggle to do so. It’s uncomfortable, and it makes me nauseous and anxious.

Because deep down, I don’t understand agency. Agency is, at its root, having some kind of control or influence over your life situation. Something I never had. And if I’m honest with myself, it scares me.

My reactions to the world taking hold of the reins for me are much better. When someone dies, for instance, I’m the most level-headed person in the room. Not being in control is something I’m intimately familiar with and have learned to navigate beautifully. Which is… different.

I started to write unhealthy there, then changed it. Because maybe it’s not unhealthy. Maybe it’s simply different. Maybe it’s how I operate. And maybe that’s okay.

And maybe this is all to say that while I believe agency is important (and I do write it into my manuscripts where it’s needed), lack of agency might be just as important with some characters, and is something I would love to see explored further.

Can you tell a compelling story if your character has no agency? And how should we even define agency? Can’t agency be taking actions to survive, even if they’re not active actions? What if agency, for some characters, is not acting but freezing? What if agency is not striking back, but appeasing? What if agency is looking at a hopeless situation from which there is no escape, but hoping for one anyway?

What if agency could be rewritten?

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Even Rapunzel, locked in her tower, had the agency to let down her hair. But her prince had to find her first. What if he never came? Would her story still be worth telling? Photo courtesy: https://pixabay.com/en/users/Emily_WillsPhotography-8096214/

❤ Always,

Aimee

Let’s Talk: Touch Aversion

Trigger Warning: Discussion of touch aversion/trauma responses including descriptions of panic attacks and discussion of disassociation. 

Anyone who’s been around here for any length of time might remember I’ve mentioned I have touch aversion. If you know me in real life, this is even more apparent due to the fact that I sometimes wear gloves. What isn’t obvious is what touch aversion is and how it affects me.

It recently occurred to me that my touch aversion is something I regularly talk about but never really explain, as if everyone should obviously know what that means. A few days ago, I was having a conversation about relationships with one of my closest friends when I realized she had no idea what the deal with my aversion to touch was about, probably because I’d never explained it, and she felt like it was rude to ask me.

So here we are.

Before we get started, there are some things you should consider while reading this post. First, my touch aversion is a consequence of trauma. Touch aversion is also discussed in the autistic and asexual communities. I’m not a member of those communities, so to hear about touch aversion from their perspective, seek them out. Their experiences are different. Here’s an article about touch aversion from the ace perspective to get you started. Second, as is always the case with marginalized groups, we are not a monolith. My experience may not mirror the experiences of others, even those who have touch aversion stemming from trauma. I’m only one voice.

Furthermore, I don’t expect people to know about my touch aversion, which is why we’re having this conversation. I encourage questions. Not everyone feels the same, though, so respect these boundaries if/when they’re voiced. Mental illness is still extremely stigmatized and some don’t feel (and aren’t) safe discussing their deeply personal experiences. That said, I don’t mind (anymore). It doesn’t make me uncomfortable. If hearing someone talk about these experiences makes you uncomfortable, I encourage you to sit with that and examine why. It likely has to do with some stigma you’ve placed on mental illness that you might want to evaluate further.

Final prefacing note: I have consciously purged this post of the word “suffer”. It’s a loaded word. When I use it, I use it with a great sense of awareness and because I would say it’s an accurate word for my personal experience, but I know it can be painful, so I’ve removed it. Words are powerful.

Okay, this is long, so here we go.

Touch Aversion: An FAQ

Q: What is it?

In its most basic form, touch aversion is exactly what it sounds like. It’s not liking to be touched. When I use it to explain my personal experience, I mean: “Not liking to be touched by other people.” Touch aversion can extend to other living creatures and inanimate objects as well, but for me, it’s mainly people (although when my touch aversion was at its worst, I also had difficulty touching animals, including my own pets).

Touch aversion exists on a spectrum. Some people find human contact to be uncomfortable, others find it debilitating. Some people are okay with hugs but not kissing. It’s all variable and as such, is difficult to nail down. I was going to link to a medical definition, but to be honest, those definitions are all kind of gross to me, using words like “irrational” and “morbid” so I’ll just stick to “not liking to be touched.”

Q: What’s okay and what’s not?

Again, it varies for everyone. For me, I prefer not to make skin-to-skin contact with people (especially strangers). That’s why I’ll often choose to wear gloves when I’m in public. The layer of fabric acts as a shield. If I’m in a situation where I feel relatively safe, I’ll keep them off. If I don’t wear gloves around you, it means I trust you to respect my boundaries.

My stress level can usually be predicted by some common factors: the intimacy of the contact; its duration; my familiarity with the person; and the power dynamics between myself and the person touching me. If someone briefly bumps my exposed skin, I’ll sense it, maybe freeze or falter, but I’ll be able to brush it off quickly. Handshakes I can manage, though I’d prefer to be wearing gloves. Hugs are not my favorite, but I can usually get through them as long as they’re not prolonged, whereas rubbing my back or shoulders (even through clothing) makes me panic. More intimate forms of contact like kissing, cuddling, sex, etc. make me nauseous, skittish, dizzy, and eventually lead to either a full-fledged panic attack, fainting, or an emotional shutdown of some kind (disassociation).

Q: What does it feel like?

It depends. If I’m in a situation where my anxiety is relatively low, the person touching me is someone I trust, and the interaction is short, I’m mostly fine. I notice it, mind you, with acute sensitivity. I consciously register it, whereas someone else might not even think twice, but I can usually move on with relative ease. The flip side is, if I’m in a situation where my anxiety is high and/or with someone I don’t trust and/or am faced with an extended interaction, my anxiety can escalate to dramatic consequence. I might freeze, shake, be unable to breathe, throw up, and in the most extreme cases, pass out. Very, very rarely and exclusively in situations with male romantic partners, I’ll strike. For me, those situations hurt the most. I’m incredibly nonviolent, so when someone pushes me to violence by ignoring my boundaries, it’s soul crushing. The only times this has happened, the end of the relationship followed shortly thereafter.

As to what it feels like in a sensory way, it doesn’t hurt in a traditional sense. It feels almost like an extreme case of caffeine jitters. It’s like an army of ants is crawling just beneath my skin. I want to reach down to my muscles and push them away but can’t. It feels like if there were some way for me to rip my skin open and let all that excess anxiety out, I would feel better. Often, my muscles will twitch and spasm, sometimes lock up and cramp. It’s not pleasant.

Q: Is it worse with certain people?

Yes. I’m much more anxious with men than women, and I have essentially no issue being touched by children. This is definitely tied to power dynamics for me. If you have more power than me (I’m talking mostly physical power, remember, my touch aversion is tied to trauma), then I’m more likely to be on edge.

Trust and choice have big roles to play as well. If it’s someone I trust who gives me the choice to engage (this is where non-physical power comes in), then my level of tolerance for touch tends to be higher.

Q: How does it shape your life?

It’s… hard. Friendships can be hard. Relationships are even harder. Fear of being touched keeps me from public spaces with regularity. For example, before this weekend, I hadn’t been to the grocery store in 6 weeks. People coming near me can throw my entire day into a spiral. It’s physically and emotionally exhausting. I’m worn out all the time from existing on edge. My muscles are constantly knotted, so I live with chronic back pain; I’ve ground my teeth to shit. Because I use clothing as a shield, I wear sweaters and long pants in the summer which can make me sick. I’m prone to fevers and nausea. I throw up so frequently my esophagus never heals, and I vomit blood. And the unhealthy coping mechanisms I’ve tried would take another ten blog posts to unpack.

I walk through life conflicted. Part of me has this deep desire to scream, “I’m not broken, don’t try to fix me.” Side note: If that’s how you feel, that’s incredible and amazing and you are fantastic the way you are. Be you. Whoever you is. If you’re happy, be happy. You don’t owe anyone your touch. You don’t owe society or your therapist or your partner or your friends or your family. It is your body. I cannot say this enough. Because I’m going to talk about change here in the next paragraphs, and I want everyone reading this who might experience touch aversion to understand I am not saying you have to change. If you are happy, be happy. You deserve that. And if you do want to change, dig deep to discern why. Do you want to change because you feel like you have to so you can conform or please someone? Or do you want to change for yourself? That seems like a simple thing, but it’s really, really not. And please, if you’re considering working on this issue, find the right therapist and the right therapy. This is so, so sensitive, and doing damage is so, so easy.

For me, the part of me that wants to say I’m not broken is not a brave voice, proudly declaring, “I’m different, and I am unafraid.” That voice telling me I don’t need to be fixed is the coward within, who is deathly afraid of change. That voice is the voice who says, “This is how I am and there’s nothing to be done about it, so let’s just keep going regardless of whether we’re miserable, regardless of whether we’re doing actual physical and emotional damage.”

Because the truth is, I am miserable. I hate being unable to be touched. It’s a burden. I want to be touched so desperately it hurts. I want to be able to shake hands with someone without flinching, and to have someone jostle my shoulder like a pal without grinding my teeth into nothing, and be able to stand in a checkout line without every muscle in my body tensed, ready to spring away should someone happen to brush up against me. I want to be able to kiss someone without having to turn off my entire emotional experience. I want to be held when I cry. I want so many things most people take for granted, and I can’t have them. And I can’t have them because someone did this to me. I don’t want these things because society tells me I should (though certainly there’s some of that at play), and I wasn’t born this way. This was done to me.

So yes, I’m miserable, and yes, I want to change, and yes, I consciously embrace the language “broken.” I am broken, but I’m not beaten. I’m working to fix myself for myself. Every day I’m working, and I’m getting better. Not better so I can meet some definition my therapists and psychiatrists want to place on me. Not better so I can fit in with the rest of society. Not better so I can please a future partner. I’m getting better for me. I’m defining “better” in a way that’s right for me. And that’s why changing is right for me. I’m not changing to conform, or to “pass”, or to be more pleasing to the rest of the world, I’m changing because I want to.  For me. For my happiness. I’m taking back what was stolen from me.

Have questions? Put them in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer. And as always, please take care of yourselves.

❤ Aimee

P.s. With regard to touch aversion in literature, Leigh Bardugo’s Kaz in Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom comes as close to representing me and my experience with touch aversion as I’ve ever read. This is representation of a marginalized group done right.

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On Failure

I learned how to fail at this gig a long time ago.

When I was eighteen, the University of North Carolina sent me a letter encouraging me to apply for its coveted Thomas Wolfe Scholarship. They’d seen my accomplishments in some writing competition or other and thought I’d be an ideal candidate. The application process was (in my opinion) more rigorous than applying for admission to the University. It required a fifty page prose packet and additional letters of recommendation. I agonized over my submission. UNC was my dream school. It was the only university I applied to; it was the only-thing-I-ever-wanted. Worse, I’d convinced myself that because they specifically asked me to apply, this scholarship was all but in the bag.

It wasn’t.

The rejection letter came in an envelope with the University’s famous Old Well logo on the front. I ripped it open, sure of my imminent success (in those days, I was still a big fish in a little pond, and I was always successful). As my eyes scanned the paper, my heart fell into my stomach. My chest tightened. My hands trembled. They didn’t want me.

I was inconsolable. I screamed and raged like a toddler. I threw fists and spat hurtful words. My father and I got into a terrible argument. I didn’t want to go to college. I didn’t want to do anything. I wanted to curl up and die, and I was sure I would, the rejection hurt that badly. I was a terrible writer. He didn’t understand. Look, there was a letter here to prove how awful I was at this thing-I-wanted-more-than-anything. I was nothing. My dream was dead. I would never write another word.

Little did I know, but that would be the first of many kicks Carolina would deliver to me over my three years as a student in their creative writing program.

If life has taught me anything, it’s that when you get kicked, you get back up, with a snarl and bleeding fingers if you have to. But you keep fighting.

Writing this, I’m torn between a chuckle and a wince. It sounds melodramatic, and truly, it was, but it hurt too. It tore at my foundation, shredded my already fragile self-worth. For someone who has been through as much trauma as I have, you’d think I’d have been tougher. But I wasn’t. Not about this. I lost a lot of innocence too young, but this was the one thing I’d managed to keep pure. This was the one Truth I thought I knew. I was the best writer. It was the only thing I was sure about. When it turned out to be just another lie, it felt like the last of what I thought I was had been stripped away.

One of my ex boyfriends used to call me his “tiger.” He said I was a fighter. He was too. It was the thing that held us together. We were both good at getting back up. Call it stubbornness or stupidity or maybe both. Whatever it is, it’s ingrained deep.

That day was no exception. I got up. I kept writing. I was accepted to Carolina. And when I got in, I realized you weren’t allowed to enter the writing program until your sophomore year. One of my roommates managed to find a way into the screenwriting track early, however–second semester freshman year. That felt like a kick, too. But it hurt less than the one before. And I got up and entered the fiction track my sophomore year.

The first day of class, my professor told the room full of eager students that if anyone would be happy doing something other than writing, they should do that, and there was the door. Four people walked out of that class. I didn’t. This was still my dream, and if I wasn’t the best, I would break myself and rebuild until I was. Fighter’s instincts.

My first piece was a fantasy short. My professor liked it but advised me that writing fantasy wouldn’t help me move forward in the program (when I was at Carolina, you had to apply for a spot at every level of the program, and the spots were limited). Another kick. I gritted my teeth and adapted. I started to write literary fiction. This was still my dream.

I applied for the second level of the program and was accepted. I met the Wolfe Scholar. She was both kind and talented, and somehow, that felt like another kick. I got up. Because this was still my dream.

Every critique I received from my peers and my professors felt like a kick, too. We were clumsy and competitive. We knew there were limited spots available, and we coveted them. We fought for them. Me more than some, maybe more than most. I was eager to fight, to prove myself tough enough. Every time I was kicked, I got back up, heart bleeding. I pushed through it, honing my armor as I honed my craft. And I failed and fell and stumbled and sometimes succeeded. And every kick hurt less and less, until getting up became easier and easier.

I made mistakes (most notably getting into a political argument with Stuart Dybek at a bar. For the record, I had no idea what I was talking about). Sometimes, my competitive edge got the best of me, and I fought those who only wanted friendship. Sometimes, I was more tiger than human, and my teeth were sharp. It’s a knife’s edge that’s hard for me to walk. Sometimes, I don’t know when to stop fighting.

Still, through that program, I learned perhaps the most important lesson you can teach an aspiring writer–how to fail.

So last night, when I arrived at a library where I was supposed to be giving a writing workshop to teens on how to craft a story, and no one showed up, I was pleased to find the armor I’d crafted years ago was still in place.

Don’t get me wrong. It still hurts. Armor only serves you until you take it off, and years of therapy have taught me that I do have to take it off eventually. But at least in public, I was able to maintain my composure, and the armor blunted the worst of the blow, so when I did later remove it, I was able to keep some semblance of control.

Failing is part of this life. It’s probably the reason that professor in my first writing class offered the door. She was trying to present a kindness to those who saw a different way. We all fail. In big ways and small. We are rejected from writing programs and literary agencies. Our writing is torn up by editors and reviewers. Our books flop. Our series are cancelled. We face walls of silence and empty rooms.

But we don’t talk about it much. And when we do, it’s after we’re already safe. It’s when we’ve already attained a measure of success. We don’t discuss the empty rooms when we’re facing one, but only when we’re standing before a packed house. We remember our failure fondly, with a different eye. We talk about our happily ever afters, and our hero’s journey arcs, and that’s okay, but it’s not the only Truth.

Someday, I hope to tell that triumphant story, but right now, I can only tell the story I know, and that is the one of an uncertain ending and an empty room. It’s a story about learning to fail, about getting kicked, and feeling lost and helpless and worst of all–silenced. But it’s a story of triumph too, even if it doesn’t have a happily ever after tied to the end.

Because in this story, I still get up.

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Broken Girl Cured by Love: On Tropes and the Lies They Tell

Author’s Note: For the past few days I’ve been in Tennessee at a workshop hosted by Madcap Retreats about writing cross culturally. It was an incredible, eye-opening experience, and I’m only sharing a snippet of what I learned there, so I highly recommend you participate in one of their workshops if you ever get the chance to. 


There are ways to create narratives of hope that don’t feel like a lie.

~ Leigh Bardugo

To fully understand this post, you’ll need to watch this video (there’s also a transcript, but if you can watch I recommend doing that).

The idea of a single story is (obviously), not mine, but over the weekend, it was one of the concepts that hit nearest my heart. There are single stories for every marginalized group of people. In the video, you’ll hear some of them. During my workshop, I heard others. I’m not going to talk about the stories of others, because you should listen to their voices for that. What I am going to talk about is what the single story for me has been, why it’s hurtful, and why that matters to your writing (and mine).

For those who might not follow this blog regularly, I’ll start by telling you that I’m a twenty-nine year old, cisgender, female. I was raised outside of Philadelphia. I’m privileged. Most people would not think of me as part of a marginalized group. Mostly, I don’t think of myself that way.

I do, however, suffer from complex post traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, OCD, touch aversion, and agoraphobia. I have an invisible marginalization which I can usually hide, but it affects every aspect of my life.

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is defined as a condition that results from chronic or long-term exposure to emotional or physical trauma over which a victim has little or no control and from which there is little or no hope of escape. (Source). PTSD and CPTSD are slightly different in that PTSD can result from single events, or short-term exposure to extreme stress or trauma whereas CPTSD is generally associated with long-term trauma. That said, most people don’t know what CPTSD is, so I typically tell people I have PTSD.

When I do “out” myself, the most typical question that follows is, “What war?”

This is the single story in action. (If you haven’t watched the Chimamanda Adichie video or read the transcript yet, go ahead and do it now. Here’s another link. Seriously, it’s that important.)

PTSD is most often associated with veterans. That’s the single story literature, television, and film have created for us. And because of that single story, my experience somehow seems less valid. When I don’t play into people’s perceptions or expectations, my experience is diminished. Surely, I must be faking it. Surely, I must be overly sensitive. Surely, nothing can be as traumatizing as war. Surely, my experience doesn’t matter.

For years, I resisted fighting against this narrative because it felt like fighting against veterans who have PTSD. The single story of PTSD made me feel like I had no right to voice my own experience because by telling my story I was challenging their story. This is not, however, the case. I’m not challenging the narrative at all. There are veterans who have PTSD. But there are people who are not veterans who have PTSD as well, and their stories deserve to be told too. We can tell multiple stories without threatening others. We, as people, deserve more than a single story. We deserve more than two or three or ten stories. Every story gives us a fuller life experience.

The above example is contemporary, but the single story concept extends beyond as well. It permeates every facet of literature. In fantasy, especially young adult fantasy, there is another single story narrative pertinent to PTSD that’s repeated over and over, and it is this: Broken Girl meets The One and is fixed through the curative power of Love.

This narrative hurts me. It is a dangerous lie.

Growing up, I often escaped to fantasy worlds to help me cope with what was unraveling around me. I still do. But especially as a young reader, I internalized much of what I read. And this narrative, the “Broken Girl Cured by Love” narrative, buried itself deep. So deep I didn’t realize how much it had shaped my behavior until this weekend, and to be honest, I’m still trying to untangle a lot of it.

What I have realized, however, is that I truly believed I could be cured by love. In fact, up until recently, one of my primary criterion for a partner was that I could spend a night with them and not suffer nightmares. I was sure that somewhere out there someone existed who would save me from my nightmares. This internalized narrative that I picked up from fantasy books is harmful to me in real, tangible ways.

One of the ways my PTSD manifests itself is through touch aversion. When I’m touched (especially by a stranger), I experience physical symptoms. My heart rate rises, my breathing shallows, I become dizzy, I grind my teeth, I sweat, my pulse hammers in my ears so I can’t hear properly. Often, I freeze, completely debilitated by terror. Sometimes, I lash out, verbally or physically. This is not a comfortable feeling.

Yet, because of the Broken Girl Cured by Love narrative, I’ve put myself in this position time and time again. I’ve retraumatized myself  while I search for The One To Defeat The Nightmares. I’ve spent nights with people I was revolted by hoping this time I’ll find The One. This time, the Magical Cure Love will save me from my PTSD. I’ve numbed myself with drugs and alcohol while I try to find The One Who Wields the Cure Love, hoping that when I do I’ll be able to be touched without the need for chemical alteration.

It has not and will not ever happen. Love is not a cure for PTSD. That doesn’t mean there isn’t hope; it simply means this narrative is not the “hope” people like me need. The lie of this single story has damaged me, and I don’t think it takes much extrapolation to understand it could damage other people, or to see the damage done could be more extreme than it has been in my case.

One of the main takeaways from my weekend workshop is that words are powerful, more powerful than we might realize. As writers, we have a responsibility to our readers and that is to tell the Truth as best we can. It’s not easy, and it’s not always pretty, but it is our duty to try, to put in the work, and to hopefully do no harm.

There is no such thing as a single story of the human experience, and it’s far past time we stopped trying to tell one. As Daniel José Older told me over the weekend, “It doesn’t have to be sexy.” I suppose the Truth hardly ever is.

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International Women’s Day and the Gender Gap in Literature

Author’s Note: Today is International Women’s Day and here in the States it’s also A Day Without A Woman. That means today I’ve decided to both wear red and tackle a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot recently—gender inequality in literature. As a side note, I’ve been thinking about inequality in literature in all forms recently, but this post will focus only on gender. That said, if you were to break the data I’m about to use down to non-gender minorities, things become even more bleak in terms of diversity (or lack thereof). Okay, here we go.


Gender Inequality in Literary Fiction

The Pulitzer Prize is arguably the highest honor a writer can achieve in their lifetime. The Pulitzer is the award we all salivate over. It’s the award that when you hear someone has won it, makes you sit a little straighter and take notice. It’s the biggest of big deals in the writing world.

Want to know something interesting about the Pulitzer?

Between 2000 and 2014, not a single book written by a woman about women was awarded the Pulitzer. Zero. In the same time period, books written by a man about men were awarded 8 Pulitzers. EIGHT. More than half for those of you keeping track. Three more were awarded to women authors who wrote about men. The other four were awarded to women who wrote about both women and men and the last described as “unsure.” You can see the data here.

In a world where women read more fiction than men, and women are writing bestselling novels with the same regularity as men (15 of the 2016 New York Times bestselling fiction authors were men, 13 were women), there appears to be a problem. Now, let me go ahead and nip this argument in the bud before it even begins.

If you’re sitting there saying, “But Aimee, it’s not about gender, it’s about the best book winning,” then I would challenge you to take a deep breath and contemplate the data. Now, do I think we should have some system where we say, “Okay, a woman won this year, next year it will be a man.”? No. Absolutely the best book should win, and I understand literature is subjective. Boy, do I understand that. However, I think it’s more than a coincidence that in 15 years not a single book written by a woman about women was considered “the best book.” I’m just not buying it. Things would be different if there were simply more men publishing (that would be and in some opinions, is, a separate problem), but that isn’t what’s going on here.

The Pulitzer problem isn’t even precisely a female author problem. It’s a female story problem. Six Pulitzers in the time period described above were, in fact, awarded to women. But NONE of the Pulitzer prize winning stories were stories about women.

What is it about our stories that seems less worthy of a prize?

My first thought was, “Okay, I know literary fiction is this way. I have always known it. It’s shocking to see it all laid out like that, but my genre is dominated by women and women’s stories.” Right about there is when I fell down the rabbit hole and started to do some research of my own.

Gender Inequality in Fantasy

I’m going to bring the powerhouses of my genre in now, because those are the stories I’m most familiar with. When I type “epic fantasy” into Goodreads, I get the following list of authors:

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien
  2. George R.R. Martin
  3. Diana Gabaldon
  4. Patrick Rothfuss
  5. Stephen King
  6. Brandon Sanderson
  7. Robert Jordan
  8. Phillip Pullman
  9. Christopher Paolini
  10. Susanna Clarke

Are we seeing some issues with this list? Besides the fact that it’s 80% male I’ll also point out it’s 90% white.

As Exhibit B, I’d like to present to you the list as it looks when I search “Popular Young Adult Fantasy” (“young adult epic fantasy” yields no results, interesting all by itself).

  1. J.K. Rowling
  2. Sarah J. Maas
  3. Cassandra Clare
  4. Kristin Cashore
  5. Leigh Bardugo
  6. Laini Taylor
  7. Stephanie Meyer
  8. Christopher Paolini
  9. Rick Riordan
  10. Suzanne Collins

This list is a complete reversal in terms of gender (80% female)  but even more dismal in terms of diversity at 100% white (seriously, we need to be better, YA fantasy). This brings to light two points I have regarding the stories we tell and who writes them.

Women write YA stories and those stories aren’t seen as “serious”

For those of you familiar with fantasy, take a moment to breathe these lists in. Think about how you view the authors on each and the books they write. Because before I even compiled these lists, I made similar ones in my head. When I thought: “Who writes fantasy that would be considered literature” I came up with:

  1. Tolkien
  2. Martin
  3. Jordan
  4. Pullman
  5. C.S. Lewis
  6. Neil Gaiman

When I thought: “Who writes popular fantasy” I came up with:

  1. Rowling
  2. Maas
  3. Clare
  4. Meyer
  5. Bardugo
  6. Victoria Aveyard

My OWN list was biased. Why is that? If Pullman and Paolini and C.S. Lewis can write for a young adult audience or even children and be considered “epic” and “serious” why can’t Taylor or Bardugo or Maas?

Romance is a crucial element in women’s writing and that’s not “serious”

Many of the authors on the second list have romance at the center of their narratives. How you feel about the way they handle romance is not the point of discussion here (they all handle it very differently). Most of these authors have a fandom that “ships” these romances (or even fanfiction offshoots of these relationships). These are the authors who hold the keys to the OTP (One True Pairing). Whether it’s Maas’ Rhys/Feyre, Clare’s Clary/Jace, Bardugo’s Kaz/Inej or Meyer’s “Team Jacob v. Team Edward” you have true “fangirling” happening with these authors.

If you’re picturing adoring, teenage fans screaming over Justin Bieber, you’re not alone. It just doesn’t seem serious, right?

But here’s my question—why not? Romance is serious. Sex is serious. Marriage is serious. Childbearing is serious. And all of these things start with a crush. Humanity starts with a crush.

Furthermore, romance is a part of the stories of the authors on the first list as well. It’s a different kind of romance in most cases, but it’s still there. Rand al’Thor in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series has three wives. Tolkien’s Arawen and Aragorn have a romance to conquer kingdoms and even get a happily ever after. Phillip Pullman’s Lyra and Will were the first fictional characters to make my heart skip a beat. So I ask again, why is a man’s depiction of romance more valuable than a woman’s?

Happy International Women’s Day everyone! Go read a female author!

P.s. If you want a suggestion for your reading that is by a female, about a female, and by a woman of color, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. It deserves every bit of recognition and hype it’s receiving and then some.

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This one just keeps being appropriate.