I spent many years in college studying literature, working my way through courses and Comprehensive Exams lists for my graduate degrees. I learned a great deal and loved much of what I read; many of the works I studied have become firm favorites, such as Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and the poetry of John Keats and the short fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and Eudora Welty. Yet for all I value my long days of learning, I came away from them with a fixed desire not to read any new book I didn’t choose for myself. I will take friends’ recommendations under strong advisement, but at the end of the day I will read what I like.
I like stories set in a time and place apart from the here and now, so most fiction set in the realistic present goes unread by me, however highly critics and fans may praise it. I gravitate toward historical fiction, science fiction, and, of course, fantasy. Yet even after I’ve narrowed my options down to my favorite genres, I research prospective reads with certain questions in mind. Will I have an intriguing, if not always purely entertaining, time in the story’s world? Is the prose well-crafted and absorbing? Will the story and the characters engage my mind and heart? Will they ignite my own creative spark and inspire me to write? Will I like, or at least appreciate, at least one of the women in the story?
As I search for answers about books I might want to read, I learn a good bit about books I do not want to read. Nobody can read everything, and websites like Goodreads, Library Thing, Reddit Fantasy, TV Tropes, and Fantasy Faction can raise some very helpful warning flags. Those flags don’t necessarily say that certain books are bad — only that they are not likely to appeal to my own personal taste. Even when a book or series is, by all accounts, good, it may not be for me. So here is an initial short list of books I don’t plan to read, two of which are highly regarded in the fantasy community, and two of which at least have massive fanbases.
Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time series.
This well-beloved series turns up on every “Best of Fantasy” list and may be the most widely praised fantasy series after Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Some might even assert that you can’t call yourself a real fantasy fan unless you’ve read it. But since I don’t think there’s any one series, even LOTR, that a person who wants to call herself a fantasy fan has to read, I’m opting out, because I know that no matter how many other virtues these books might have, I would never be able to overlook the almost uniformly unsympathetic portrayal of women. The word most frequently used to describe Jordan’s female characters, all of them, both villains and non-villains, is “bitchy.” Even the series’ fans would accept this description is fair (one of them even noting he found himself developing a “homicidal hatred of the fair sex” due to its influence), but they argue that the women’s horribleness is a symptom of the world Jordan has built, in which women hold most of the power. They behave just the way men do in a patriarchy, defenders say.
I’ve read my share of stories set in patriarchal fantasy worlds — most fantasy worlds tend to be patriarchal — and in very few of them is every single male character an unpleasant, unreasonable narcissist totally lacking in wisdom and honor. If I read a story in which all men are unsympathetic, and their lack of positive traits is written as a function of their gender, I regard that as a flaw, and it puts me off the book. Whichever gender is in charge, men and women will still be individuals who vary in temperament, skills, and intellect, and I like to see them written as such. If I wouldn’t enjoy a novel in which every male character has the same repellent personality type, why would I welcome one that paints all its female characters this way? And so, while I acknowledge it may have many excellent qualities that have earned it a spot on all those “Best Of” lists, I say a polite “No, thank you” to The Wheel of Time.
Patrick Rothfuss, The Kingkiller Chronicles (The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear).
Here’s another series that almost everyone adores, including quite a few of my friends; it appears on almost as many “Best Of” lists as The Wheel of Time. It tells the story of Kvothe, the first-person narrator who lets the reader know on the first page of the first book how no-holds-barred awesome he is. He parades across the pages radiating awesomeness. In the first book he sees himself as awkward with girls, but by the second book he’s grown so amazing that every woman, from an evil sex fairy to multiple members of a matriarchal warrior tribe, either beds him or wants to bed him, except of course the one woman he respects and cares about, a female character despised by 99.9% of the series’ fans. He manages to neutralize the evil sex fairy with his own unbridled sexual prowess. That’s how awesome he is.
Kvothe’s story, I have on authority, is told in very rich and vivid prose, but there’s one problem, at least from my perspective. He soaks up so much awesomeness that he leaves none for anybody else. The other characters in his orbit have no chance to shine. Those characters only matter as they reflect his own glory in some way. I can’t imagine not losing patience with that, however gorgeous the prose. And these are huge books. Since I tend to prefer stories in which the wealth of awesomeness is shared, at least a little bit, I once again say a polite “No, thank you.”
Stephenie Meyer, Twilight.
This isn’t found on many “Best Of” lists, but legions of fans really, really love it. There’s so much wrong with this series I can’t go into it all, so I’ll focus on what is, for me, the deal-breaking flaw: the female lead, Bella Swan, is deliberately written as an empty vessel devoid of any recognizable concrete personality traits, so that any girl reader can step into Bella’s place and get the vicarious thrill of being adored by not one, but two powerful supernatural hunks, without having to make the imaginative effort to relate to any characteristics she might not share, like black hair or an interest in science.
I don’t like reading about empty vessels, especially female ones. I want characters to have actual features, however different they might be from my own. I like knowing that Shallan from The Stormlight Archive has red hair and loves to draw. I like knowing that Steris in The Second Mistborn Series has a fetish for list-making and planning ahead. I like knowing that Isabeau in The Witches of Eileanan feels ill at the thought of eating meat. I like knowing that Starhawk in The Ladies of Mandrigyn is tall and raw-boned and a seasoned, skilled fighter. It doesn’t matter at all that I can neither draw nor fight, or that I love to eat meat, or that while I may be a bit of an obsessive planner I’m nowhere near Steris’ level. I love these characteristics I don’t share because they make the characters distinct and memorable individuals, and that’s whom I enjoy reading about. So no thank you, Twilight.
E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey.
I really need say no more than that this pulpy bestseller started life as Twilight fan-fiction, and as a result we find another featureless female lead, a supposed career woman who has no observable skills or ambitions. In Bella Swan this might be forgiven in a pinch, since she’s only a teenager, and many high schoolers aren’t quite sure what to do with themselves. But in an ostensibly grown woman, it’s faintly nauseating. It’s the empty vacuousness of Ana Steele, not the detailed sexual situations, that moves me to say “no, thank you” to this series.
If you want to read a story with elements of BDSM in which the heroine has agency and an actual personality, let me suggest Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart instead. I admit that when I read it I found some of those BDSM elements disconcerting, since the courtesan Phedre does experience pain as pleasure. Yet she’s also an intelligent, observant woman who plays a key role in protecting her country from its enemies. When Carey tells us, “That which yields is not always weak,” she offers evidence to back it up. This series I’ll read more of, though I don’t share the heroine’s lifestyle. Once again, heroines don’t have to be like me to be worth reading about.