The name of this blog, “Telling Herstories,” reflects the mission of the organization it represents, Story Circle Network, to nature and support women’s voices and stories. I thought of that mission recently as I followed an email discussion among a group of women writers.
The thread involved a mystery writer who had taken over her father’s famous series after his death. She picked up the thread of his characters and stories, but wrote the new books under her own name and with her own twist. Her tales shifted the point of view of the series by taking a woman who had been a minor–and somewhat cliched character, as one commenter pointed out–and had given this character a starring role. Adding a woman’s voice and perspective changed the voice, tone, and focus of the stories.
Some of the commentators on the list didn’t like those changes. Others chimed in to say they knew mystery writers who had commented negatively about the new additions to the series and thus, they didn’t intend to read them. Still others pointed out negative reviews on Amazon. Several said they had sampled the daughter’s books and been disappointed about the amount of Native American culture in the stories, versus in the father’s books.
As I followed the discussion, I grew uncomfortable. Not simply because the author in question is a friend, though she is; because I felt like a group of women who are writing “herstories” were not reading herstories. By which I mean, I felt as if they were judging this woman’s work against her father’s, instead of reading it with fresh eyes for what this author, an award-winning writer herself, brought to the series.
I thought for a while–I am a slow thinker! And then I wrote a careful comment giving some background on the daughter’s choice to take on her dad’s series, and how hard it had been for her to make that decision given her particular situation. Then I got to the point that I felt was really important:
“I think part of why some people don’t like the books is simply because they are written from a woman’s point of view, not a man’s. We’re used to the way men write, and we sometimes have a hard time shifting to women’s more intimate, “quieter” way of telling stories. Not that these particular stories are quiet; they open with a bang, and move quickly. But they’re different from the father’s.
“Seems to me that [the daughter’s] portrayal of Native American culture and place is just as strong, but it’s the domestic side of that culture, which is subtler, less flashy–more human in some ways, and more focused on family and healing relationships the on the public ceremonies.
“I think the ‘color and flavor’ that [one commenter] mentions missing is just that [the father] was writing about the male side of that culture, and [the daughter] is writing about the more female side of that culture. It’s interesting to think about how habituated we get to one way of telling a story and how hard it may be to change our perspective.”
One of the things I value about this group is that its members think, and consider. Their responses reflected that, including this one:
“The daughter brings new perspective and more dimensionality to the characters. Men are from action-adventure; women are from motivation and psychology, to paraphrase a famous book title, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” That one gave me a chuckle.
And this one from another: “I agree that we do get habituated to how an author tells his or her story, especially if a reader has followed a series. I think that is definitely the case for me with this particular series.”
Another commenter added this thoughtful twist: “You could be right about it being the change in perspective on Native American culture being what I’m picking up. . . . I’ve decided I’m going to keep reading her, not only because I found her books enjoyable, but because as someone pointed out, her perspective shift, while feeling less “authentic” to me (and isn’t that embarrassing–that I, who have known exactly one Southwest Native American, would set myself up as an authority on whether or not a book based in the culture sounds authentic), might be equally valid.”
Another commenter checked the negative reviews on Amazon and quoted this one that inadvertently makes the point about our gender bias relating to how a story “should be” told: “I couldn’t get used to seeing the story unfold through [the new female lead’s] eyes versus that of the main male police characters. But of course [the daughter] is a woman so I will just have to accept it.” Yup. You will….
We ARE women, and we do write from our own perspective–that’s a gift, not a fault. We’re not simply trying imitate men’s ways of writing and telling stories; we’re telling our own, in our own ways. It hurts my heart when we fall into the trap of criticizing another woman for finding her own voice and her own perspective. Seems to me that if we’re going to write herstories, then we also want to be informed readers of herstories, to check our biases, and be supportive of other women’s work.
Perhaps you’ve guessed who the discussion was about, but in case you haven’t and you are curious, we were talking about Anne Hillerman’s books, Spider Woman’s Daughter, Rock With Wings, Song of the Lion, and Cave of Bones. They follow up on her father, Tony’s, famous Chee and Leaphorn series, set mostly on the Navajo Reservation of northern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. Anne’s latest, Cave of Bones, debuted at Number 7 on the New York Times bestseller list, so I’d say she’s onto her own successful series!
Susan J. Tweit • plant biologist and award-winning author, speaker, teacher
Read her work at http://susanjtweit.com
Winner of the Colorado Book Award, the EDDIE, and the Colorado Author’s League Award (five times!)
Fellow, Women’s International Study Center, Santa Fe
Writing Resident, Carpenter Ranch, and Mesa Refuge
TEDx speaker, and past chair of the National Writing Panel for YoungArts
“What we do best comes not from our heads but our hearts, from an ineffable impulse that resists logic and definitions and calculation: love. Love is what connects us to the rest of the living world, the divine urging from within that guides our best steps in the dance of life.” –Susan J. Tweit, from The San Luis Valley
One reason I don’t like to read a series where the characters are “picked up” by another author is I miss the original’s perspective. That’s fine, but I also need to remember that a new, fresh point of view, is equally valid. Especially a woman writer’s! Thanks for the eye opener!
Linda, Thanks for reading and thinking about my point about reading without biases! The part that worries me the most is that we have been taught without even realizing it to consider good writing the male way of telling a story. Which leaves women’s voices in the realm of not-good. It’s a subtle bias, but sadly, it’s prevalent in the industry and in readers. For instance, if you look at literary awards over the years, it’s depressing to realize how few woman win them. So opening our eyes as readers and reviewers is critical to nurturing women’s voices.
“We ARE women, and we do write from our own perspective–that’s a gift, not a fault. We’re not simply trying imitate men’s ways of writing and telling stories; we’re telling our own, in our own ways.” ABSOLUTELY!
Lynn, Thanks for your enthusiastic affirmation! Isn’t it interesting how we sometimes forget how important it is to recognize that when we’re reading, even if we remember when writing?