Sometimes you read a book that defies some of the more basic “rules” of writing, or one that’s outside your usual category, but it works for you in so many ways that you can’t help but tell people about it. Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, which I just finished reading on vacation last week, embodies both of these for me.
This book follows Novik’s Uprooted in what I hope will become a series of standalone novels. Both these excellent stories take familiar western European fairy tales and then transform them into an uncanny valley version of themselves, blow them up and out into something so original that you might not recognize the source material in it. Whereas Uprooted played fast and loose with “Beauty and the Beast” in a medieval Slavic world with magic, Spinning Silver borrows key elements of “Rumpelstiltskin” and drops them in the middle of…Russia perhaps? At the time of horse-drawn wagons, the Jews as money-lenders in walled communities inside of walled towns, the tsar and the boyars.
And how does this story break conventional wisdom? It’s a multi-POV novel where all POVs are told from the first person, and new perspectives come into the story late in the novel. Yet all the voices are distinctive and clear, and they all enhance the story well. This is a novel where marriages are strategic and the three young women at the center of the story grow and think and create agency within the limits of their world and the situations, magical or mundane, they find themselves in.
Spinning Silver falls squarely in the YA category, which I often enjoy but which is not usually my very first choice. It doesn’t shy away from genuine violence now and then, but those scenes are vital and artfully crafted, and I could easily recommend this book to any sharp reader as young as late middle school. If I could find a way to weave it into the curriculum for one of my high school classes, I would. The writing is gorgeous, and the structure of the novel really lends itself to deconstructive analysis as a model for what works.
And for those of you who like a long book for your money, this one will do — without feeling like its pacing drags. You should also look into Uprooted if you like fairy tales, and if you like alt-history, Novik’s Temeraire series is particularly charming: the Napoleonic Wars fought from the sky on the backs of dragons.
Spinning Silver won the 2019 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel (also in 2019). I am just not remotely surprised.
This morning I heard a really fascinating report on the place of women in folklore and fairy tales, and of course it revolved around the theme of the witch. I may write more on this subject later, when I’m not trying to be the superwoman of the to-do list, but for now, I want to share this brief article with you and know your thoughts on the matter.
Consider this the most benevolent and festive homework you’ll get this week. Please click on the link above, then read, and then discuss in the comments. I really do want to know what you think!
Instead of a review this week, I want to take a minute to talk more about this series and the reason it was started.
There’s been a lot of press in the last year or so about gender bias in the publishing industry. Many people have observed that it’s hard to get traditionally published if you’re a woman, especially if you’re also writing about women. With the exception of the romance genre, literature is still, somehow, “a man’s world.” And all this despite the oft-repeated statistic that most book buyers (and book clubbers) are women. I’d heard and read all these things over and over again, but for some reason, it wasn’t entirely resonating with me.
Why? I go to conferences, and more than half the agents at every conference I go to are women. In the writing industry seminars and classes I take––whether in town or at a conference––at least half (sometimes far more) of the writers around me are women. I read books by women (though not exclusively). I read books about women (though not exclusively). There’s no shortage of women on my bookshelf and in my recommended reads on Amazon.
But wrapped up in my own experiences, I wasn’t seeing the bigger picture.
The more I investigated this topic, in talking to other authors I know, in reading articles about it online, in seeking out multiple perspectives on this issue on social media, the more I began to see that there really is a problem. It’s not just about the writing industry, of course: it’s about our society more broadly. I’ll try not to be too much of a SJW here, but things like gender bias, discrimination, rape culture, and hating on women are some of the most insidious cancers in our culture. They’re particularly damaging not just because they are bad in and of themselves, but because in our culture, we have a belief that everything we do is infused with inalienable rights, with freedoms to be and say and do whatever we want. Sometimes, though, this crosses a line, as anyone who has ever paid attention to free speech debates surely knows.
Paul Downs Colaizzo said of his play Really Really that its genesis was in part the current youth’s hook-up culture and in part the 2006 Duke lacrosse team rape scandal. He cited some interesting points about American culture in a talkback after a Black Lab Theatre performance of it, directed by Jordan Jaffe, here in Houston last spring. When asked the question, “What do you want most for your children?” the WWII generation wanted their children to grow up to be good citizens. Those children, when grown, when asked the same, wanted their children to be happy. Those happy children? They grew up to tell their own kids they could be whatever they wanted to be.
Does any of this sound familiar? It’s a charming progression. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong with it. But then when a generation of people are raised thinking they can be or do whatever they want…
We get––among other things, some of which are good––our current state of rape culture and Internet trolldom.
What is my point here? It may seem like things are hunky-dory on the surface because we have a lot of personal freedoms (especially if we’re white men). But that’s not the whole picture. Unless you’ve been living in a cave the last couple of months you know that a bunch of the evil -isms of the Human Condition are alive and unfortunately well in our great nation. “Something rotten in the state of Denmark” doesn’t even begin to cover the mess we’re in. I’ll digress too much if I try to list it all here.
Gender bias is just one part of this.
We have to pay attention to it.
The Women Writers Wednesday series on this blog was begun in an attempt to help rectify just one part of this tangled problem.
In this series, female authors share their views on books by other female authors. The idea was to highlight women’s contributions, now and before, to literature. The books are chosen by the reviewers/responders; I don’t curate the titles in general. Want to know something interesting? Out of nearly two dozen reviews/responses we’ve had in this series since November, all but four have been about books written about women––and those four were about both women and men.
So the books are out there. And they’re good. They’re inspiring people. So what’s the problem?
These books aren’t being recognized. And I don’t mean just the books in the WWW series. I mean books by women about women, in general. Check out these chilling pie charts by author Nicola Griffith:
I don’t know where the problem begins, but I don’t think it’s a lack of women writing, or even of women writing well. I also don’t know what the solution is, but I am very sure nothing will get solved if people aren’t talking about it. And preferably in constructive ways. (You know, the kind that don’t involve simply dismissing the issue or attacking women verbally in the public sphere.)