Yet again, writelessness defines my current existence. It’s fine. I can do things other than write. Such as read Bitten by Kelley Armstrong, who I am indebted to for the title of her book Industrial Magic that gave me enough of an idea to build an entire story premise out of (which I have yet to do anything with).
Bitten is … I mean I’m still reading it. It’s rather engrossing. I’ve never read werewolf fiction before; I’d heard a lot about how wolf pack dynamics are translated into super-dysfunctional power dynamics within werewolf culture – so far this is holding true – but actually reading it is … interesting. The main character, Elena, is rather messed-up and I like that, though I’m not sure just how credible her messed-up-ness is considering the reasons given for her messed-up-ness. Also there’s comparisons between psychopathy and animalistic behaviour that I don’t like, mainly because the term “psychopath” does not mean what it’s insinuated to mean here; it is not a synonym for “violent murderer”.
Also there’s some passing off of rape as hot sex.
This is not a YA book; this is aimed at adults, and presumably adults already have a healthy understanding of sexuality, including the very important line between fantasy and reality. Rape fantasies are a thing. They’re quite a common thing. They are not the same thing as wanting to rape/be raped. And while we can argue forever about death of the author and reader agency and what-the-fuck-ever else, at the end of the day there are plenty of adults who are just as impressionable as your stereotypical teenager when it comes to sexuality. Just because your target audience should be mature enough to understand that a sex scene involving sketchy consent that was obviously written to be sketchy consent is not necessarily a justification for when it happens in real life, doesn’t mean that they won’t. And also, yeah, it happens in real life; and also in real life survivors of sexual abuse sometimes read books. There are a lot of books – a lot of media in general – that handle sex, rape and consent just as badly as Bitten has thus far, and in fact many handle it even worse.
It’s not okay.
Now, all of that on its own is more than bad enough – but then there’s Elena’s backstory of messed-up-ness in which rape and sexual abuse are the main feature, and are also, it seems to me, played for rape-as-drama value and nothing more. What struck me about Elena’s backstory is that it doesn’t seem to affect who she is as a person. She obviously has trust issues, but sexual trust issues? Not that I can see. And obviously survivors of sexual abuse can and do recover and go on to have healthy sex lives; that’s not my problem. That’s, like, the opposite of a problem. My problem is that this is not real life; this is a story, and whatever gets put in a story HAS TO MATTER. Thus far – and I’m not even halfway through the book, so take this all with a bucket of salt – a lot of it doesn’t, other than as generic trust-issues angst-fuel that could have been just as effectively achieved if Elena’s backstory just went for the foster-family-didn’t-want-me angle. Thus far, the sexual abuse aspect only serves to confuse and infuriate, because it has no bearing whatsoever on who she is as a character. Bad writing and bad ethics.
Why am I still reading this again?
Well, I persist in reading Bitten because a): I paid money for it instead of checking my local library like a smart person, and b): I am honestly quite fascinated by unethical art. I am doubly-fascinated because, again, this is my first official encounter with werewolf fiction. It’s why I like songs like Every Breath You Take and Dirty Dancer; they tell us something about our culture, the people in it and the norms and values that are given precedence. The whole “beast within” thing has massive influence on our culture in particular, where repression and aggression are set up as diametric opposites in a false dichotomy of self-expression, the constant struggle between becoming an alpha or being made someone else’s beta. Werewolves just fit the bill because they’re both wolves and humans, and as we all know, wolves are ruled by an Alpha (per pack) and humans are assholes.
Except, well, that’s only half true. Humans are assholes, but wolves – in the wild – don’t actually have an Alpha. It’s only with captive wolf packs, where members are not always family members (according to the research linked above, wild wolf packs are family units; the “alphas” are just parents being parents), that the Alpha Wolf phenomenon occurs. In other words, only with human intervention did wolves ever adopt that particular power dynamic.
So actually, werewolves having that toxic Alpha/Beta mentality where their culture, such as it is, is based on unbridled aggression and an “only the strong survive” mentality … actually makes a lot of sense. But only because of their human nature being too strong to resist, ironically enough.
I like it, and I’d like it more if that was the point. Again, I’m not even halfway through this book yet; maybe it’ll surprise me with hitherto un-hinted-at insight and self-reflexivity. I’m going to finish it regardless because, again, I paid for the damn thing and I want my money’s worth – and it is fascinating. I want to write my own werewolf thing; actually my friend and I want to co-write a werewolf thing, inspired in part by the article I linked above, so it behoves me to do some research into the market.
It’s also interesting how Elena is the only female werewolf in existence – lycanthropy (never called that in the book) is only passed down through the male line, which is horrendously sexist (and makes the “no it’s totally not rape” scene even worse), but I like it for that reason. We’ve got this little world run on the same dog-eat-dog, hypermasculine ideology that our contemporary real-world society runs on, and it’s werewolves. And the one female werewolf in all of existence, who is very much aware that her role within the pack is to provide sex and/or dinner (well, she says she’s aware of it), is the main character. Never mind the story; that premise is enough to keep me reading, even if it’s not explored quite as thoroughly as I’d like – not yet anyway. I guess we’ll see. And it’s certainly giving me ideas for my own writing, and I guess at the end of the day that’s what matters. I’ll try and construct a review/critique thingy once I’m done reading; I still haven’t done my Vampire Academy one that I started in October 2013 so don’t hold your breath or anything, but I’ll try.
In the meantime, if you have to take some kind of lesson away from this post, let it be this: if you’re gonna put rape or sexual abuse in your book, do it for more than just a dark backstory. It’s old, and it marginalises the severity of rape and sexual abuse, which are real things that happen to real people. So … yeah. Don’t do it. Do your research. And just be a baseline decent human being.