The Danger of Reading Broadly

I have been engaged in love affair with the written word from early childhood. A book is at its best a transcendent experience, with the power to absorb totally and colonize one’s mind long after it’s been closed. A much-anticipated book that fails to meet expectation can be a crushing, while an old favorite that doesn’t live up to memory is a disillusioning disappointment.

My fiction reading has been peppered with disappointments of late. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that I read voraciously, and my non-fiction appetite has broadened considerably these last few years. Where I once conceived of fiction and nonfiction alike as a series of isolated topics that may occasionally overlap or brush borders, that conception has transmuted into as a massive web of interconnected nodes with thousands of concepts infiltrating and influencing one another. This more nuanced understanding has had an unfortunate side effect: many otherwise sound books are now revealing themselves to have been tainted to a greater or lesser degree.

I’m able to simply take some things with a grain of salt, depending on the context of the book’s writing, such as the racism and glaring absence of women in Tolkien’s books. While I recognize these things as problematic, the world has also undergone a number of substantial changes since The Lord of the Rings was first published, and I as a reader am as much a product my time as Tolkien was of his. The same sensibilities in a modern writer would be far less acceptable.

Much to my dismay, I’ve got a growing list of modern writers who habitually display themes and attitudes I can no longer look past. It’s particularly a blight on series fiction, in which the problematic elements have ample opportunity to breed and stack with each new installment.

My current poster writer for this is Patricia Briggs, thanks to her Mercy Thompson series of urban fantasy novels. For the uninitiated, the setting is the recognizable everyday world with some supernatural elements stirred into the mix. Briggs’ novels are heavy on werewolves and fairies, and her titular protagonist is a half-Native American skinwalker who can turn into a coyote.

The setting is where the first red flags start popping up. The Native American aspect of Mercy Thompson is derivative and shallow; my overwhelming impression is of a white writer who has read a bit of folklore and has appropriated it to add flavour to her character without a real clue to how obnoxious she’s being in doing so. This is compounded by the rest of the character’s backstory: Mercy’s mother gave her to a pack of white, male-dominated European werewolves to raise, leaving it up to them to teach her what it means to be a shapeshifter. These werewolves continue to have a controlling influence on her adult life. It’s colonialism writ small. From a Canadian perspective, this looks suspiciously like a kinder, gentler version of residential schools, which infamously tried to “beat the Indian out of the child.” Lest the reader miss the overtones, Briggs thought it would be a great idea to have the fairies confined to reserves by government mandate, save the ones who can pass well enough to avoid it.

Yeah.

This is troubling enough, but I take further umbrage with how the surface portrayal of Mercy conflicts with what Briggs actually does with her. Broadly writ, she is an independent young woman with her own home, who prides herself on self-sufficiency and has worked her way up from car mechanic to owner of the garage. She’s meant to epitomize the modern woman, right down to the grease under her fingernails and the ‘project car’ sitting in her yard. Once established, this image is systematically undermined. An observant reader will swiftly realize that Mercy is entirely surrounded by men, from Adam, the werewolf-next-door, to Warren, her best friend, to Zee, her mentor and former owner of the garage. The only significant women in Mercy’s life are her mother, largely absent from the narrative, and Jesse, Adam’s teenage daughter.

Far from being independent and self-motivated, Mercy is constantly being pulled this way and that by others. Despite having moved away from his pack, she is continually made to acquiesce to the authority of the Marrok, or high king of the North American werewolves. Her ex-lover Samuel, a centuries-old werewolf she first developed a romantic entanglement with in her teens, keeps turning up on her doorstep to try to rekindle their relationship, not incidentally making his chronic depression and difficulties controlling his wolf her problem. Adam, her neighbor and alpha of the local pack, moves in next door to watch over her on the Marrok’s behalf and soon claims her as his mate ‘in name only’ to keep his pack from hassling her.

Adam swiftly becomes the romantic focus of the series. He uses his claim of her, which comes with a convenient spiritual link, as grounds from which to aggressively court her. He persists despite repeated rebuffs. As the series progresses, Adam’s overbearing ways are presented as romantic and highly desirable in both a leader and a mate. The overtone is that ‘no’ means ‘maybe’ and that a man who continues to harass a woman with his attentions is behaving within acceptable limits.

His insistence is eventually rewarded. What changes? In the third book, Iron Kissed, she’s raped in her own garage and Adam swoops in to stomp around impressively and soothe her in the aftermath. While Briggs at least had the good taste to give Mercy the whole next book to deal with the aftermath and her reactions to the trauma are arguably well handled, it is abundantly clear that the author chose to put her character through this to use it to pair up Mercy and Adam. It’s hurt/comfort fiction at its most cliché, and it’s vile.

Hurt/comfort, for those who didn’t grow up on crappy fanfiction, is a storytelling trope in which a character is made to go through some kind of trauma, frequently sexual assault, so that the support of another character during their recovery can become the grounds for a romantic relationship. It’s lazy plot manipulation of the lowest order. Over the next two books, Mercy predictably goes from being irritated by Adam’s extreme protectiveness and controlling tendencies to becoming thoroughly convinced that these are desirable traits in a lover.

While the earlier dynamics made me uncomfortable, River Marked escalated me to fury. Book six in the series, it opens abruptly with Mercy all a-flutter with wedding plans; she and Adam are at the alter by chapter two. The Marrok, whom one may recall arranged Adam to keep an eye on Mercy from the start, gives her away and makes a point of ordering Adam to take care of her. It’s overtly transactional, passing Mercy from the Marrok’s direct authority to Adam’s. Though Mercy continues to argue with Adam in private after the wedding, in public she stands meekly by and allows him to speak for both of them, a woman properly under her husband’s authority. As far as narrative reveals, she isn’t even permitted to decide to keep or take his name. Instead, he robs her of the dignity of self-determination by getting aggressively territorial when, in chapter seven, a bit character addresses her by her own name rather than by his. This is compounded by their sexual interplay, in which his possessiveness of her is presented as right and erotic, and it’s rationalized away as healthy because she’s ‘allowed’ to be as possessive in return.

I’m not sorry I read the books; when I first picked them up I enjoyed them for what they were. I am sorry, however, that it’s taken me several years of personal growth and experience to see the insidious messages packed into them. From where I stand now, there’s no excuse for any of it. One of the benefits of fiction is that, as a writer, one does not have to be bound by racism, sexism or any other ism. When such things appear, I have to conclude that the writer is either hopelessly lacking in self-awareness or has an agenda. It’s the quickest way to lose me as a reader.

As a reader, I cannot passively absorb books any longer. If a book makes me uncomfortable, I do myself a disservice by leaving it unexamined. Applying a critical lens is the only way to challenge, rather than implicitly condone, attitudes I find unacceptable, or even uncover why it sits uneasily at all.

I won’t be buying anything else by Briggs. Good riddance; I can use the shelf space.

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