Last year I came into the madhouse spewing some pretty blasphemous shit that I was certain would start a flame war of epic proportions. But as it turns out, folks were pretty receptive to it and this year Stephanie M. Wytovich has been kind enough to welcome me back one more time for Women in Horror Month. This year I want to take a bit more serious approach and talk about a problem in our society that is systemic in nature and insidious in our early formation as human beings. I’m talking about sexism in literature, and particularly in genre fiction, where it’s as toxic as a nuclear meltdown and just as deadly to us as readers.
First, let me address two questions that come up frequently when I talk about this:
- What makes the problem systemic and insidious?
- Why the hell is this a problem that genre fiction needs to own?
Well, the first question is an easy one to answer, though the answer may be a longer one. The second one is more complex than it seems on the surface and if you’re discerning and I do my job well, it’s answers can be found throughout this essay. But the first one is simple to respond to directly. It’s as simple as this. It starts in early childhood, at the parenting level. Our parents beliefs and habits roll down hill as surely as shit does, and where it lands is on their children. And while this isn’t to dis anyone’s mam or pap, it is to admonish and inform young parents of a problem they likely have and don’t even realize. That is, your reading habits runoff onto your kids, and if you’re embracing sexism, your babies will do the same, knowingly or unknowingly. And it’s a problem that, while it’s a little more exposed due to the righteous outrage of many millennials than it was in my youth, it’s only imperceptibly better, which is about as good as saying not at all.
Let me give you a clear example of what I’m talking about here. As a kid, no parent--and later, no librarian or teacher--ever recommended the works of Judy Blume or Beverly Cleary, just as nobody ever suggested I check out Carolyn Keene or Laura Ingalls Wilder when I started reading more mature materials. No, the recommendations, and thus the literature, of my youth were the works of Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak, Walt Morey and Jack London. And later, when I was becoming more and more interested in horror and adult fiction, my father introduced me to the likes of Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Dean Koontz--back then the holy trinity of horror fiction until Barker came along and delightfully crapped on that party with a new brand of subversive, delightfully erotic and irreverent horror. Every other weekend, I would go to his house to visit, he would introduce me to the work of some new swinging dick to include in my growing repertoire of high quality horror. Skipp and Spector, Michael Slade, Joe Lansdale, a cornucopia of great fucking horror. But not a vagina to be found in the bunch. It wasn’t until I was in college that I experienced the works of Shirley Jackson (that woman I told you to shut the fuck up about last year), Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Mary Shelley. But that brief exposure during what was a tumultuous time in my life did little to change my attitude, which was this: men are just better genre writers than women, unless you’re talking romance or fantasy.
It’s not a problem that’s restricted to the males of the species either. I know plenty of women, including my own sister, who don’t read female penned horror even to this day, believing, as my father taught us, that the female experience just isn’t well suited to most genre fiction. But really? If not women, then who the fuck is? If you think about the female experience for even one minute, that logic starts to crumble very quickly. Women are oppressed throughout their entire lives, marginalized, sexualized, and victimized on a regular basis. They must live their entire lives always wary of the potential for insult or assault, and believe me when I tell you that such is never far away from being reality for them. What the hell is more horrifying than living an entire lifespan under that shadow? Let me answer that: nothing is. Imagine it, folks, just for a minute, picture yourself living that scenario, not just sometimes, or that one time when you were a kid, but all the fucking time. Most dudes would disintegrate like Lot’s wife if made to experience such an existence for one fucking week.
I’m sure, if you’ve read this far, by now you’re thinking, “this is all well and good, but there’s nothing I can do to change it.” But you’re wrong. Dead wrong. It starts with the simple step of changing yourself. I did. I’m 54 years old. My transformation didn’t change until I was 49 years old, the pathetic fact of which I will never stop being sad about. Because I missed a lot of great shit over the years. But let me tell you a little about what happened in my life. It wasn’t me suddenly bursting forth from a magical chrysalis, whole and newly formed as a better me. Nope. It was both grudging and gradual. But gradual is good. It’s all you need in fact, to realize a healthier and more enjoyable reading life.
It started when I began writing book reviews, just five years ago. Simultaneously, I started reading other people’s reviews in an effort to learn and get better. And learn I did, unexpected lesson though it was. Because a lot of those reviewers, both male and female, were raving not only about men’s horror fiction, but were passionately talking about women’s work too. I got curious, but I was timid. I didn’t know where to start, was outright afraid to do so, and I had no real compass to follow. So I went with my greatest passion and started reading women’s poetry, a book here and there, interspersed with the works of my male counterparts. That stuff was a revelation to me. Poets like Addison and Wytovich were taking on some serious and seriously disturbing themes, brutal and blatantly honest, gritty as fuck and gorgeous as sunshine. These ladies had some serious chops. So I took a chance and bought a novel that folks were buzzing about. I remember it perfectly. Life-changing events are always memorable. The author was Caitlin R. Kiernan and the book was Daughter of Hounds.
There was no looking back after that. I’ve read the works of so many women horror and crime authors I couldn’t even begin to name them all, and I’m even considered by some to be an advocate of women's horror fiction, a thing I struggle with because I never feel like I’m doing enough. Maybe there is no enough. But there is try, and try you should. Start like I did if you must, girls and boys, take it slow. Start with a single novel, hell even just a single chapter. Or read a short story or pick up an anthology like the all women penned Fright Into Flight, from Word Horde. Whatever you do, just do it. You’ll find yourself in a world of wonder and imagination you never believed existed. And if it’s fear that you demand from your horror fiction, go check out the works of Poppy Z. Brite, Caitlin R. Kiernan, or Caroline Kepnes. Those badass women will scare the fuck out of you and broaden your horizons. And if you want more, go check out that piece I wrote here last year. There’s a wealth of wonderful women there.
Finally if you’re a parent, librarian, or educator, these words are even more important. Vital, even. Because they aren’t just important to you, Honestly I don’t give a damn about you and your needs in this instance. I care about the children who will follow in our footsteps, who you teach and influence. Those who will carry your influence into adulthood and pass it on to the children they raise and teach. A change in you is a change for the entire future of society, in both literature and the real world. One that’s necessary if we are to continue to function and grow, even to exist. The second most common cause of extinction in nature, after humankind, is a lack of diversity and adaptability. So shall it be for us. So let’s all put our literary dicks back in our pants for a while and see what all the buzz is about with these ladies. It’s important to the world, and it’s important to you. Get on it.
Shane Douglas Keene
Follow Keene at:
Review site: https://shotgunlogic.com/