I've spent much of the past few years reading literary fiction, which I enjoy for the ideas it contains as well as the artistic use of language, but I didn't realize the literary world was suffering from a such paucity of ass-kicking feminist heroines until I made the leap to genre fiction. Sure, literary fiction is home to dozens of wonderfully-drawn female characters, but they are likely to end up dead, broke or mentally ill. Most of them do not kick ass. If they do kick ass, it is only momentarily, and sometimes by accident.
There are exceptions to this, of course, but the only ones I can really think of are Lizzie Bennett from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and Janie from THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD. For the most part, though, women in literary fiction who are lucky enough to be something more than a vehicle through which another (usually male) character fulfills his destiny will still usually end up dead, broke or mentally ill.
(Perhaps that is merely a function of literary fiction, which is more interested in telling us something about the Human Condition than in telling a rollicking good yarn. In that case, depressing and pathetic female characters make sense because the Human Condition is often depressing and pathetic. Although, it doesn't explain why there are plenty of heroic male characters in literature. I blame the patriarchy.)
This is why I was so happy to read the Sookie Stackhouse books. I got into them after realizing I was obsessed with True Blood. Like scarily so, to the point where I read recaps and check out online communities and Twitter feeds about the show. I am but an extra hour in the day and a tad less dignity away from writing slash fanfic with myself as a character. I am THAT OBSESSED. (Someone help me. Please.)
Anyway, I picked up the first two books and I was sucked in almost immediately. Unlike Sookie in the TV show ("Soo-kah!") Book Sookie is brave, smart and tough. She likes men and she likes sex but she's intelligent about it, not just hooking up with any guy who will have her. She's not afraid to deliver an ass-whupping when it's warranted, which it often is. She gets beat up more than I'd like, but hey, it's a book series about vampires and werewolves. People are gonna get beat up.
I took a break from the vampiric world of Bon Temps so I could pick up Stieg Larsson's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, which I had been eyeing ever since I heard about it. (What can I say, as a tattooed girl I am always fascinated by other tattooed girls.)
The book is a compulsively-readable murder mystery, but it is begging for some feminist literary analysis. I would do it myself, but honestly, my ability to analyze fiction is limited to "I liked it" and "I didn't like it." (Okay, it's not that bad, but it's not that good, either. I'm better at analyzing news media.)
The main female character is a 25-year-old punk hacker named Lisabeth Salander. Lisabeth has a whole mess of problems: a mom in a nursing home, an educational system that has deemed her incompetent, a lecherous guardian, an inability to relate to people on an emotional level.
I felt sorry for her at times, just because she was unable to see what an incredibly gifted person she was, but whatever pity I had for her quickly evaporated when it became apparent that she could handle pretty much anything sent her way. There is one particular scene in the book in which she takes the most delicious revenge possible on a sex offender. I don't want to ruin the scene, so I'll just say two words: Tattoo. Gun. I squealed and bounced up and down on my bed with delight as I read the passage. Feminazi bonerkiller wish fulfillment FOR THE WIN.
I have so thoroughly enjoyed these books that I found myself questioning why I had been such a snob about fiction in the past. For some reason I internalized the idea that a book had to have Deep Meaning in order to be worthwhile. A book that was Merely Entertaining was little more than a handy way to murder trees. Intellectually serious people did not read solely to be entertained. They read to have access to Great Ideas while being entertained, dammit!
How juvenile of me. But the thing is, I know I'm not the only one who looks at books this way. There is definitely a group of readers who perceive books as falling somewhere along a hierarchy of worthiness, and these judgments are often applied wholesale, without regard to things like the quality of the writing or the intricacy of the plot.
But thanks to Sookie Stackhouse and Lisabeth Salander, I've come to see the error of my ways. What's more, I've realized that middle-grade and genre fiction can absolutely be a vehicle for some pretty great feminist art and culture. (Yes, I said it - genre fiction can be art.) Not everything has to be Alice Walker or Maxine Hong Kingston to be amazing and powerful. Sometimes all you have to be is a Louisiana barmaid with the ability to fight vampires in order to kick ass.