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Dear Rita,

Many years ago I read your book Rubyfruit Jungle with great pleasure. It’s not every writer that can make a lesbian Bildungsroman a light-hearted and fun read. Also, if you had never written anything except the title of your first book of poetry, you would have earned my respect, because The Hand that Cradles the Rock is an awesome title for a book of feminist poems.

True, I haven’t followed your later books, largely because most of them were co-authored by your cat, and I am allergic to books which feature animals as either authors or protagonists (or both). So whenever I saw “Murder, She Meowed” or “Claws and Effect” at the library I did nothing except wish you and Sneaky Pie well and move on.

All that changed the other day. I went to the library to pick up R. Crumb’s bizarre rendition of Genesis, which I had put on hold, and happened to see one of your books: The Hounds and the Fury. A quick glance told me it was a murder mystery involving foxhounds and foxhunting, which is exactly the sort of book I always think I’ll like, so I got it.

Well.

Ms. Brown, as someone who has written (according to Wikipedia), some 38 full-length novels, I would have assumed that you had mastered that whole “show, don’t tell thing”. I seem to have been wrong. Not only does this book begin with a detailed description of each character – and why are there so many of them, anyway? – including the foxhounds, the horses, and a variety of wildlife – but peppered through the book are explainy explainy boring statements like this:

Freddie wanted to be like Sister, but she was too concerned with her effect on others. Beautiful as she was, this made her vulnerable. She needed praise to feel feminine, to feel good. Sister woke up in he morning feeling good.

How ’bout something like this instead?

Freddie turned to Jason. “Oh Doctor,” she said, “tell me more about your work.”

Jason smiled down at Freddie, making her heart race with anticipation. Funny, she didn’t even like him much, but his smile made her feel warm. “Well, Freddie, how much do you know about medicine?”

“Oh, not much,” said Freddie, a smile blazing across her perfect face. “I mean, my father was a doctor – but I never took much interest.” Freddie kept her eyes locked on the doctor’s, and her two years of pre-med to herself.

I wrote that last bit, by the way. Yes, it’s horribly cliched and stupid, but at least it gets across the idea that “Freddie is insecure and gets male attention by belittling herself” without a boring descriptive paragraph.

Even when you do actually show a character doing something, you immediately follow up by telling us what that shows about the character. Like this:

“Are you alright?”
“Fine. Tired. […] Sam was in the hospital.” He held back he small detail that Sam had been shot. He was tired and didn’t feel like indulging in speculation with people who weren’t close.

Yes, thank you for pointing out the Gray didn’t tell Iffy that Sam was in the hospital. I would never, ever have noticed that in a million years if you hadn’t pointed it out. No, actually I would have, and I would have thought “Huh, that’s odd. Maybe Gray doesn’t trust Iffy. Maybe he suspects Iffy. Hmm…” and it may have added a modicum of interest to the plot.

There are a lot of other unlikeable things about this book – the constant defense of riches and privilege, the ham-handed and unrealistic race relations, the way you keep sticking references to saints’ days in the middle of things, the fact that you not only anthropomorphized all the animals but made them capable of conversing with each other. (OK, if they could talk, I can see how foxes and dogs would communicate, being closely related species, but why the fuck would an owl be able to talk to a horse? They’re wildly different animals with very different lifeways – horses are domesticated pack mammals, and owls are pair-bonding predatory birds – not to mention cognitive abilities. Both horses and owls are pretty dumb, true, but dumb in different ways: prey dumb and predator dumb, bird dumb and mammal dumb, big dumb and small dumb.)

Also the gender essentialism is pretty disturbing, considering your involvement in the feminist movement. I’m talking about statements like this:

“Once a man takes a position publicly, he rarely backs down or seeks a comprimise. It’s a particular failing of the gender…with great effort, especially from friends, most women can be brought around to seek a comprimise.”

Or like this:

Sybil appreciated Shaker’s thoughtfulness. Her marriage, a disaster, had left her a single mother. She liked her sons to be around real men, and Shaker was about as real as it got.

Never mind that feminists have been trying since the seventies to deconstruct the stifling confines of gender roles, to free us all from the idea that there are sets of behaviours and actions that you must adopt if you want to be a “real man” or a “real woman”. You want your gameskeeper character to be a Real Man, so you make Pathetic Single Mom use him to heteronormatize her sons.

(To be clear, if these two characters – Sister and Sybil, respectively – had said/thought these things as a demonstration of their subtle sexism and hidebound gender essentialism, that would have been fine. If a non-feminist writer had written that, it would have merited an eye-roll or two. But coming from the mouths/brains of the two most sympathetic/lionized characters in a book by an ostensibly feminist writer it makes me think, “What the fuck?”)

Speaking of characters, why, again, are there so many of them? By page 200 I was still flipping back to the list at the beginning to check who Betty was again, and what her relationship to Crawford was. And you do realize that the three private school girls could have been rolled into one? That what they’re there for – to show that Sister is a hip old lady who loves young people – could have been distilled down to a couple of sentences in the middle of the hunt.

But I digress. I read all sorts of awful books, and I could have forgiven all this – it still might have been an enjoyalble read – if it hadn’t been for the egregious Mary Sue that you put at the centre of your book.

I’m sure you intended Sister (Jane Arnold) to be an earthy, fierce, inspiring older woman, full of life and vigour and still sexy in her seventies. You certainly make a point of telling us how fantastic she is on every other page. Sister is perfect. Sister can do no wrong. Sister has a primeval instinct for horses and hounds. She knows everything and can both turn a young man’s head AND beat him up.

Unfortunately, as you have written her, Sister is unbelievable and annoying. I’d like to see her actually interacting with someone without them flattering her. I’d like to see her make a mistake or have a weakness or do something to hurt someone. Because then she’d seem like a human being instead of a slightly older and heterosexual embodiment of Rita Mae Brown’s superego.

I have two possible theories for how this horrible excuse for a book came to be:

1)You have complete and utter contempt for your audience. I’m guessing your publisher’s demographic research has revealed your audience to be privileged but unintelligent women aged 50-75, so you tailored your book perfectly to them, being careful to explain everything clearly so they wouldn’t miss out.
2)You have lost your touch and now write self-absorbed bilge.

I lean towards 2) but the facts could support either case. By the way, the denouement comes totally out of nowhere and there really are NO clues (other than Iffy’s hair not falling out) pointing to who the murderer ends up being. Lazy plotting.

On the plus side, you do say lots of nice things about hounds, which I appreciated, being the owner of two Beagle/Bassets. If my dog Madeline could read I’m sure she would have enjoyed it.

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For some reason this has been in the “Top Posts” sidebar for a while. You judge for yourself just why.

Reposted from last May.

Two-page story

One: I woke up. Two: It was morning. Three: I was not at home.

Where I was I didn’t know, or I wasn’t sure, or I’d forgotten. I was alone, and the bed and the walls were strangers to me.

I dressed in strange clothes – strange to me, that is – and walked through the door. I was on a charming canal-side street. A passing old woman handed me a flower and smiled. “Good day, good day, miss,” she said in a sing-song voice with a strange accent.

All along the street and on the other side of the canal the shops were opening, people waking up, people going about their business and starting the day. I turned and strolled nonchalantly along the canal. I passed a little news stand: “Good day, good day, miss,” its proprietor said in the same sing-song tone. He looked just like the old woman – he had the same shock of snowy hair, the same kindly black eyes, the same wrinkled red cheeks like an old dried-out apple. He nodded and handed me a paper. “Oh, I don’t think I have any money,” I said, searching my pockets for any strange coins. “Never mind, never mind, miss,” he said, and with another nod I went my way down the street.

Of course I couldn’t read the newspaper. Its alphabet was as strange and unknown to me as everything else in this strange and unknown land. Still I studied its pages, nodding sagely from time to time, until I reached the end of the canal-side street.

Here where the canal entered a tunnel the city street turned into a lovely landscaped park. Groups of cheerful elderly people were strolling arm in arm, nodding and smiling at me. In the bandstand a group of horn players were setting up and warming up. And in the distance, on top of a hill, an enormous gibbet loomed over us all. It was then that I remembered everything.

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Quiverfull

I finally got my hands on a copy of

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement

by Kathryn Joyce, an investigation into the variety of religious groups who believe that women should a) be subordinate and submissive to men, b) stay out of public life, and c) have as many children as God wants them to.

Curiously enough, God always seems to want them to have one child every 18 months or so from the beginning of their sex lives until menopause or death, whichever comes first.  Now I wonder why that is…

This is a very well-researched, well-written, and sympathetic book.  Joyce doesn’t condemn or mock the women she writes about, but lets them speak for themselves.  Their own words are more than enough to condemn them – Nancy Campbell, for example, of Above Rubies magazine says:

“I don’t dislike the people [Muslims],” she says, but she is worried “since they want to kill all Jews and all Christians and wipe us off the face of the earth, and they want world domination and nothing less…So you see what happens when the Christian church refuses to have children.  That starts filling the earth, instead of what we’re meant to be filling the earth with: a godly seed.”

Putting aside the irony of a Dominionist Christian objecting to anyone wanting world domination, the cluelessness and shallow racism of this passage just jump out.

To me the most disturbing picture to emerge from Quiverfull wasn’t the huge families.  Some people will always choose to have big broods of children, and this isn’t always bad – my father, for example, is the eleventh of twelve – and even if the Quiverfullers get their way and contraception and abortion are banned, people will still find a way to limit their family sizes just like they’ve always done.  It wasn’t even the soul-crushing vision of submissive wifehood pushed by activists like Martha Peace.  Even though that’s pretty bad, as Joyce writes:

…As a lifestyle, being a submissive wife…involves redefining love so that it is not a feeling but a choice that women make day after day.  Beyond being an immature, lust-based emotion that can never truly be satisfied, the idea of a love based on feelings, romance, and attraction, says Peace, is a secular deceit.  Feelings-based love, Peace writes derisively, is like the proverbial pony children always hope for and never receive on Christmas morning…a biblical love is “unconditional” in the sense that it binds a woman to her husband forever, “even if the other person never changes,” and requires her to continue showing him love as a responsibility to God.

By the way, doesn’t this passage remind you  of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex? I’m thinking specifically of the exploration of bourgeois French arranged marriage.  I don’t have a copy on hand, but I recall her quoting a respectable matron, the mother of many children, as admonishing her daughter who didn’t want to marry a man she didn’t love: “My dear, it’s the MAN who loves, not the woman.”

No, what I find the most chilling is the vision of the world promoted by the patriarchs and their female collaborators: one in which individual humans are reduced to cogs in a machine, where one’s individual happiness is subordinate to the needs of the family, the church, the will of God.  If they get their way, we will all be sacrificed to the made-up desires of an imaginary being.  That human beings are capable of turning their backs on all the joyful things about life, to cut off the development of their natural capacities and mold themselves into automatons, and to demand that everyone else do the same, all over nothing – over a complete mirage – is really depressing when you think about it.  What is the point of life if everyone on earth is miserable?

I like being alive.  I like breathing and sleeping and having sex and eating ice cream and exercising and lying in the sun and reading and writing and crying and feeling.  I don’t want to be turned into a laundry-doing, husband-submitting, baby-making machine.  I want to contribute to the world through music and writing, through being a friend and a dog owner and an entertainer.  When I have children, I want to have only as many as I can responsibly care for and have a close and loving relationship with.  (No matter what you say, I don’t see how this is possible – for purely practical if not emotional reasons – if you have 18 of them.)  While Joyce’s book gave me a new understanding of (and more sympathy for) its proponents, it has made me heartily reject the Quiverfull philosophy.

Anyway, it’s a really good and awfully scary book.  I highly recommend it.

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In this episode:
Soldier
“I lied about my wedding ring…”
Two-page story
Sax solo

Music:
“Egyptian Song” (Rupert Davies, arr. and performed by Benjamin Mueller-Heaslip
My dorky piano rendition of “Dream a little dream of me”

Link.

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I just found this in a notebook.  It might be some kind of prose poem or the beginning of a science fiction novel.  Hard to say.  It’s called “Two-Page Story” because the only constraint I set was that it had to fit in exactly two pages of the notebook. I think it’s from this February, which would account for both the springtime imagery and the feeling of lurking doom.

Two-page story

One: I woke up.  Two: It was morning.  Three: I was not at home.

Where I was I didn’t know, or I wasn’t sure, or I’d forgotten.  I was alone, and the bed and the walls were strangers to me.

I dressed in strange clothes – strange to me, that is – and walked through the door.  I was on a charming canal-side street.  A passing old woman handed me a flower and smiled.  “Good day, good day, miss,” she said in a sing-song voice with a strange accent.

All along the street and on the other side of the canal the shops were opening, people waking up, people going about their business and starting the day.  I turned and strolled nonchalantly along the canal.  I passed a little news stand: “Good day, good day, miss,” its proprietor said in the same sing-song tone.  He looked just like the old woman – he had the same shock of snowy hair, the same kindly black eyes, the same wrinkled red cheeks like an old dried-out apple.  He nodded and handed me a paper.  “Oh, I don’t think I have any money,” I said, searching my pockets for any strange coins.  “Never mind, never mind, miss,” he said, and with another nod I went my way down the street.

Of course I couldn’t read the newspaper.  Its alphabet was as strange and unknown to me as everything else in this strange and unknown land.  Still I studied its pages, nodding sagely from time to time, until I reached the end of the canal-side street.

Here where the canal entered a tunnel the city street turned into a lovely landscaped park.  Groups of cheerful elderly people were strolling arm in arm, nodding and smiling at me.  In the bandstand a group of horn players were setting up and warming up.  And in the distance, on top of a hill, an enormous gibbet loomed over us all.  It was then that I remembered everything.

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