The Rule And How To Break It
By Anne R. Allen
April, 2006, 21:14
A recent study says watching a funny 90-minute movie gives a cardio workout equal to a run around the park. So think how many treadmill hours we could skip if we read a whole laugh-out-loud funny book a week.
Unfortunately, there are fewer out there than there could be, especially for women.
This is because of the rule — that a heroine of women’s fiction must be “strong, self-confident,” and “somebody the reader aspires to be.” In other words, a pedestal-perfect feminine/feminist icon, depending on your politics. We’re talking someone you do not want to be caught laughing at.
Guys can skip this. Not all contemporary male protagonists are American Psycho monsters, but from the works of Elmore Leonard to Nick Hornsby, men in popular fiction are allowed to be weak, self-involved and blind to their own faults, at least at the outset of the story.
But not us broads. We got the rule.
Why? We allow housewives to be desperate on TV. Why not in books? Do American women read only to project narcissistic fantasies onto some idealized superwoman with no room for growth or change? Are we too unsophisticated for irony or satire?
Personally, I’m kind of over those Oprah-book, noble-women-victimized-by-bad-men weepers. And I don’t need another “plug-in” mystery featuring a Sam Spade-in-drag, Kinsey Millhone wannabe. I like funny. And I write what I read.
Last month I finished a final draft of my third comic mystery, Ghostwriters In The Sky. Because my Brit publishers have dumped mainstream fiction to focus on the erotica that pays their salaries, I’m officially publisher-less. So I’m researching agents, polishing synopses, sending out queries and praying to the book gods.
Things have changed since I left my last agent four years ago. Most don’t bother to reject e-queries. They reply to snail queries by dropping into your SASE a one-inch strip of paper saying, “not right for us.” No wasting a whole 8.5x11 piece of tree to say, “Dear writer, Go die.”
But one thing stays the same. When an agent or editor does request a read, I get a reply a few weeks later saying, “This is hilarious/charming/terrific writing,” But: “your heroine isn’t strong/sympathetic enough.”
This is the reason I went to the UK. Englishwomen can laugh at themselves. Why can’t we? Where did the rule come from? I have a theory it may have gestated in pulp romance guidelines of the 1950s and oozed into the mainstream as fiction editors climbed from Harlequin slushpile Hell.
It certainly has no roots in the classics. Early novels gave us protagonists like Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy and Tom Jones — not exactly role models. Neither were Mrs. Burney’s clueless Camilla, Austen’s manipulative Emma, the obsessed Catherine Earnshaw or the amoral Becky Sharp. And everybody knows Scarlett O’Hara was so narcissistic that in the end, even her adoring Rhett didn’t give a damn.
But the rule was so powerful by the late 20th century that Amanda Brown had to self-publish Legally Blonde. If she hadn’t had the contacts to market to film, we would never have heard of her hilariously shallow Elle Woods. I thought U.S. publishers had learned from the success of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones that an imperfect heroine can sell books, but the industry has apparently reverted to its Danielle Steel ways.
After a recent batch of “weak heroine” rejections, I checked the Amazon.com reviews of some favourite authors to see if their heroines passed the test.
No way. Here are one-star digs at some of the world’s most popular novels from the rule enforcers:
Camilla/Frances Burney: “The problem… is Camilla herself, who comes across as a(n)… empty-headed ingénue, tripping from one mess to another.”
Northanger Abbey/Jane Austen: “Catherine is easily manipulated and slow to learn… she bumbles into her eventual happy ending completely by accident.”
The Robber Bride/Margaret Atwood: “The characters were all neurotic.”
Tales Of The City/Armistead Maupin: “Naïve Mary Ann is nothing more than a plot device.”
Bridget Jones Diary/Helen Fielding: “The plot is incredible and Bridget…immature.”
Sex And The City/Candace Bushnell: “Carrie is an alcoholic, drug-taking whore.”
…and the book I just finished (and loved) The Thin Pink Line by Lauren Baranz-Logstead: “The heroine is unlikable and her behavior is ridiculous.”
To get your novel past the rule Nazis, better make your protagonist a dolphin-saving CIA hitwoman with the self-esteem of Donald Trump and buns of steel — or better yet, a man. But if you write about goofy, flawed women who bumble through life like the rest of us, you’ll be in good company.
And your cardiovascular system will be in great shape.
Anne R. Allen is a California novelist and book editor who has been living part time in the UK. Her latest comic novel, The Best Revenge, An Historical Novel Of The 1980s, (Babash-Ryan) debuted in the UK in 2005 and is available from amazon.co.uk and most UK bookshops. Her first novel with Babash-Ryan, Food Of Love is available from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com as well as amazon.co.uk firstname.lastname@example.org
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