I’ve written a handful of stories featuring women non-heroes that keep getting almost-published. Each one has been praised and short-listed more than once.
The stories are all well-crafted, I think. They are at least better written than some of my earlier published work based on the responses they’ve received and the extra time put into editing. All of them have actual plots, realistic characters with lives outside of the story, good grammar and proper formatting. None are wildly experimental. (Okay one has a sort-of-sonnet right smack dab in the middle of it, but there was no way around that. Sonnets happen.) All of them have been allowed to steep and simmer long enough to attain a good thematic consistency.
One clue to the problem with these stories is in the guidelines for submitting, especially in self-identified feminist calls for entries. They typically imply or say outright that they want to read about strong women and female empowerment. In horror and speculative fiction, women are often under-represented, misrepresented and grossly victimized. I get that. I don’t want to write “woman in the refrigerator” stories. But I also don’t want to write super-hero stories.
My non-hero women aren’t the same as my villainous women. My villainous women are unrepentant. They are an easy sell. Non-hero women are more complicated. They make bad decisions. They allow the world and the patriarchy to influence them and tell them who they are. They do not often recognize the traps they are in. Sometimes they create or refine those traps themselves. They are prone to committing murder and meeting unhappy endings, even when they inhabit fairy tales. Most of all, they don’t know what to do with their rage.
If all of this makes you uncomfortable, that’s good. You should feel uncomfortable about women who are oppressed, especially when they internalize the oppression or seek it out.
I stand behind my unfeminist fiction. The struggles, failures and acts of desperation in the stories ring true to my ears after sixteen years of counseling other women. And from having female friends and existing as a woman. Difficult characters and unhappy endings may not be marketable, but this run of stories felt like it needed to be told. I stand behind my non-hero women who are just trying to survive, even if they’re doing a really bad job of it, getting life all wrong and leaving a trail of bodies in their wake.