I finished Bitten. I tried to write a review. It didn’t take.
I then started reading Graceling, and about 5 minutes ago was forced to concede that I could not possibly care less whether I ever finished it, and thus have opted not to. Next on the list is probably Cinnamon and Gunpowder, a story about a chef who gets abducted by pirates and forced to cook for them with the spices they steal. Pirate captain is a woman, chef prisoner is a man. It sounds too good to be true. I guess I’ll find out soon.
I signed off facebook yesterday and can already feel the strain. It’s annoying that so many of my other social media websites – blip, goodreads, pintrest – were all established by the “sign in with facebook” option. Of course I don’t have to use facebook just because I’m signed in, but I’ve been well-trained to use facebook over the past … wow, 5 years? 6? I really want this monopoly to end. I want other social media sites that perform a similar service (though hopefully better) to get big, so that there’s at least some fucking variety. I thought the whole point of living in a capitalist society was competition. And they say communism failed? Hah!
At least it means I’m not aimlessly scrolling through my feed and waiting with bated breath for that little red notification icon to pop up, telling me I’m a worthful human bean whose existence is acknowledged and Liked and sometimes ever Shared by fellow legumes. It means I’m now exerting even more pressure than normal on Tumblr to fulfil this need, but at least in doing so I’m becoming more self-conscious of it and likely to stop, or that’s the theory anyway.
And since I tried to write a Bitten review I may as well just give you the most salient points, because it’s not going to get a full review, but I do feel I have to say something about it.
I have a similar overall stance on Bitten as I do Vampire Academy: there’s some dodgy stuff in the central romantic/sexual relationship that I really, really do not like, but the rest of it is thought-provoking and – at least in the case of Vampire Academy – legitimately entertaining. Bitten has the premise of all natural-born werewolves being male, and thus the only female werewolves are women who are bitten and survive the transformation, which is very uncommon. Our main character, Elena, is the only female werewolf in existence, and there are only 35 total in the entire world, including her. Scarce resources etc.; you would think that the drama would be non-stop with a premise like that, but it actually only becomes relevant right at the end. Which is the main reason I just couldn’t enjoy what Bitten had to offer despite the horrible shit I wish it didn’t have: it offers a lot of setup that leads to very little payoff, if any at all. A big part of that is Elena’s tragic backstory full of sexual abuse and abandonment, and the other big part is the Only Girl in the World premise, which is not even remotely explored until the last fifth of the novel and we finally uncover the villain’s true intentions – and even then it seems like the villain himself doesn’t really care. I’m not saying I wish this book was more unpleasant than it already is; I’m saying that I wish it wasn’t full of false advertising, because the things it teases and then doesn’t follow through with seem much more interesting than the actual story.
It gets really obnoxious, too; there is a lot of throwaway narration about the dark grittiness of the world, including some commentary about how nobody cares if prostitutes are murdered because society doesn’t care about them, how werewolves see women as good for nothing beyond sex or food and, unless they’re one of the Good werewolves who belong to the Pack, they only ever rape women, in stereotypical dark alleyway fashion, and it’s all just … background. It’s there to set the tone, arouse some ambient outrage and discomfort in the reader and nothing else; none of this gets explored, none of this is ever relevant to the actual story, and it’s all presented in info-dump exposition that breaks up the action rather than being woven into it. At least that way it would feel immersive, though for that reason it might be even more exploitative.
I was so interested in the werewolf lore, and I wasn’t expecting to be. Bitten is written like a private fantasy, which would explain some of why it’s so fucking bad about consent and general respectfulness for the issues it throws away like used tissues. But the part of the fantasy that uses werewolves as a metaphor for gender and sexual dynamics in today’s society, most definitely the whole Alpha Male thing and the marginalised role that women play in a male-dominated world – that was interesting. That held promise. Perhaps in later books that pays off, but here it was mostly used for “hot sex”.
One thing I did genuinely like was Elena. She’s messed up, dysfunctional, pretty fucking despicable as a human being, and I liked it. It felt authentic. If only her fucked-up-ness hadn’t relied on a completely exploitative backstory that even as it’s being told – through narration-interrupting exposition, of course – completely handwaves its own impact on her character.
Actually I’ll just show you:
As I grew in to adolescence, the couples who picked me from the home changed. It was no longer the wife who chose me but the husband, picking up on my childish beauty and my fear. I became the favored choice of male predators who were looking for a very special kind of child. (35)
It gets even better:
As I grew older, I began to see them for what they were, not all-powerful bogeymen who slipped into my room at night, but weak creatures terrified of rejection and exposure. With that realization, the fear slipped away. They could touch me, but they couldn’t touch me, not the me that lay beyond my body. As the fear subsided, so did the rage. I despised them and their equally blind wives, but they weren’t worthy of my anger. I couldn’t let myself me angry at them, wouldn’t let myself waste time and effort better spent elsewhere. (35)
I am perfectly willing to believe that there are survivors of this kind of abuse who have found ways to cope that might mirror Elena’s backstory here. That’s not the issue. The issue is one of storytelling: this backstory looks important, looks like it’s telling us something about Elena’s personality, but is actually only even told to us because the thing we need to know about it is that it does not matter. Why, in Elena’s own words, is this story wasting its time and effort better spent elsewhere? Why the hell would you put something in a story that is only included to be explained away as something that does not matter? Everything in a story has to matter. That’s basic storytelling. Life isn’t like that, but life is not a story.
And I mean tell your own story however you want; there are no rules and I stand by that, but that doesn’t mean every decision is going to appeal to everyone. This doesn’t appeal to me, and combined with the lack of concern for readers who might actually have gone through something like Elena has in the way it’s framed and worded, ultimately I just couldn’t like this book. I got through it because the plot was actually fairly well-attended-to – at least in comparison to a lot of the stuff I’ve read lately – and I liked Elena as she actually is, rather than as the book tells me she is, but that’s not enough.
My biggest problem with Bitten was how Elena was constantly paired up with her lover/abuser Clay, who is, I gather, meant to be sexy because he “just can’t help himself” when he’s around her, is “animalistic” in that he’s selfish, impulsive, violent and inconsiderate – which obviously means he’s fantastic in bed, because that’s totally how it works – and this “can’t help himself” bit includes the fact that he’s the one who bit her.
Before she knew werewolves even existed.
When they were engaged.
She was turned into a werewolf by her fucking fiancee.
Her side of the story I get. She is still in love with him, keeps going back to him even though she knows he’s wrong for her, and knows that if she ever discusses what happened between them it’ll mean she’ll forgive him and let him win. I get that because I was in a relationship that had a similar dynamic, though thank god it was also not abuse of a sexual or physical kind. I get Elena because so many people who are in abusive relationships go through this exact same pattern of thinking and behaving. It makes sense, it feels credible. The only problem is that this is supposed to be romantic. Which is how it explains the first sex scene, wherein Clay ties her hands together, hooks them over a tree-branch so that she can’t get away from him, literally rips her clothes off and starts to have his way with her, only to stop before penetration to tell her – get this – that all she has to do is tell him to stop. He’d never do anything to her if she didn’t want it. She’d like to think he would – can’t imagine why – but she knows he really wouldn’t.
She doesn’t say no. I can’t even be surprised. I’m only surprised that every sex scene wasn’t blatant sexual assault.
And even that, her not saying no, in effect explaining away Clay’s violation of her non-consent because she just happened to start liking it halfway through and, well, that means it’s okay, it’s not him it’s her, makes sense. She makes sense. This shit happens.
To people in abusive relationships. They defend their abusers, explain away their misgivings and objections through self-blame; it makes sense that Elena acts the way she does. But this is supposed to be the dark love story that drives the story as a whole. As a private fantasy: sure. Whatever. Private fantasies are private, and they are also fantasies. A fantasy is not a desire; it is speculation. Part of the reason I see Bitten as a book that wants to be a private fantasy is not just the romanticisation of a highly abusive relationship, but also the ridiculous contrivances that constantly force Elena and Clay to be in each other’s company, when either one or both of them clearly don’t want it. And that can be perfectly sexy in a private fantasy, because people are weird and fantasies are, again, speculation.
A published book, however, is not private, nor is it a fantasy, and as such requires consideration of what you’re actually writing, not least because of who might be reading it, and what they might have gone through – or be going through – in their lives. Until books are required to have content warnings, which they should be, y’all gotta do that shit yourself.
The cherry on top of this layer-cake of suck is that, in places, the book seems self-aware enough of how messed up Elena’s situation is that, at some point in this series, it seems plausible that she would find that she actually wanted to get out of the relationship – but then probably not, because the Pack needs to stay together no matter what, so sayeth the Alpha, and oh god the potential here to explore, respectfully and thoroughly, the dysfunctional, misogynystic power dynamic of the Pack and its male-entitled, superpatriarchal ethic. I want that werewolf story. Bitten is not it. About the best thing I can say for it is that it was wasted potential.
One of these days I’ll go back and read the The Magicians saga from start to finish; I aim to read the third book before semester begins, and that one is chock-full of gender and sex issues of a similarly misogynistic nature, with a similarly ambiguous level of self-awareness. The first time I read The Magicians – the “look inside” option via Amazon – I couldn’t stand it. Then I bought it and loved it and I think it’s because it was just so male, in that very straight, cis, able-bodied, neurotypical, privileged white boy way. The sad thing is that what’s “male” is oftentimes also “misogynistic”, as well as a whole host of other things, and I don’t think The Magicians is any different. And no, I don’t mean Quentin, who is meant to be all of those things and that’s part of why I like the series. I mean the story itself, the way it’s framed, the stuff that happens and to whom – I still want to talk about it in my sorta-kinda authenticity-themed “series” on this blog, because it raises some very important points regarding use of the word “authenticity”.
I was about to tell you all that I haven’t been writing. However, I actually wrote over 4k words the other night on my weird mermaid erotica side-project that I’ve never quite been able to bring myself to take full responsibility for, and I’m now thinking “Well, I’ve written a lot of it, and I keep writing it, so why not just admit that I’m writing erotica and actually do it properly?” I mean there’s nothing wrong with erotica, and just in the sense that I don’t want to contribute to its ongoing status as a genre of mockery and sexism I’m kind of politically motivated to bring it properly into my list of Things I Am Writing. There’s the tiny issue of my being a virgin/man and thus having no fucking clue what I’m talking about, but I’ve also been reading The Boss by Abigail Barnette, famously promoted by Mara Wilson in response to how god-awful 50 Shades of Grey is and how it should have been and, what can I say, I’m getting ideas. I doubt any of them are good. But that’s writing/men for you.
So actually I’ll probably finish The Boss before moving on to anything else. It’s the first e-book I’ve read besides Awoken (which you should also check out, if you haven’t already), and I much prefer the PDF format to Kindle, I have to say. I just like having definite page-numbers rather than the weird status-bar. And I’m starting to think that I can actually finish everything on my reading list before uni starts, including all the Kindle books I haven’t read. I’m particularly eager to read Chameleon Moon, which sounds something like if X-Men wasn’t just about coding the characters as queer and were instead actually queer. I believe it was stated that there is not a single heterosexual character in the entire book. I literally don’t think I’ve ever read a book like that, and certainly not in the superhero/fantasy/sci-fi genre. There should be more of them.
And then I’ll force myself to finish my first draft made of chapter summaries before splitting focus between my weird mermaid erotica thing and my highly unimaginative high-school-kids-get-supernatural-powers thing until semester begins – and hopefully continue through the semester as well.
Maybe I’ll also finally learn to play the f-chord on my $500 guitar that I haven’t touched for like 3 years in that time. I can only hope.