No Victims

No Victims, the anti-theme

Cris Mazza

What is a theme anthology? Frankly, its theme is a marketing tool. Just saying, "This is a remarkable collection of stories," isn't always quite enough to sell a book, either to an individual reader or prospective publisher. On the other hand, say "Here's a book of great new stories about _______," and you've automatically got a hook . . . and, hopefully, a ready-made audience, created out of a pre-existing camp. Love-gone-wrong, change-of-life, single parenthood, losing a baby, adoption, physical handicaps, attachments to pets, relationships with food or drugs or alcohol, abusive relationships, regional lifestyles, favorite childhood toys. Collections of stories have acquired the necessity of being about something, proving something, illustrating something, exploring something . . . one thing, a SUBJECT.

The theme possibilities could be limitless. However, perhaps with the growth of publicity-via-confessional, on talk shows, tabloid news and other media - Roseanne a casualty of parental abuse, Carroll O'Connor's son driven to suicide by drugs - a prevailing type of theme anthology is a victim theme, usually a victim-and-recovery theme; sharing the trauma but providing a glimmer of hope, an inspiration, a feel-good reason for grouping together stories about certain types of personal and/or intimate tragedies.

    Let me stop right now and say:

Since FC2 is a publisher of non-commercial fiction, it certainly wouldn't seem apt to do an anthology with a selling hook, especially a popular one, no matter how noble the editorial motivation for choosing the particular victimization as a motif. So an anti-theme anthology seemed an obvious choice. However, a true anti-theme anthology is not necessarily just one without any theme at all - that un-salable book of great stories - but could also be one that explores those fictions which don't seem to fit the favorite marketable anthology themes. Thus NO VICTIMS.

    Well, that's one excuse for this book.

Actually, there's a more seriously contemplated reason for the theme NO VICTIMS. It's true that our Chick-Lit 2 theme did originate from a growing awareness of the large number of theme anthologies involving victim subjects - rape survivors, addictions of all kinds, parental abuse, individuals emotionally debilitated by a particular religion, incest, sexual harassment. Similarly, in reading the 400 submissions to Chick-Lit in 1994, we found that stories about women as victims is a popular trend for women writers. Is this trend bad or wrong? Not at all. Go ahead and continue to attempt to wake the world from its complacent slumber.

But . . .

From the CHICK-LIT 2 rejection letter:
When I proposed the theme NO VICTIMS for the 2nd Chick-Lit anthology, what I meant was: while we're looking for new or alternative voices in women's fiction, let's also look for story content without a trauma that comes from outside the character - unfortunate perpetrations like incest or sexual assault or the disease of addiction, caused not by an individual's choice or motive but by anything from neglectful parents to a patriarchal society to poverty to media to government to money & power all being in the hands of men (oh, I guess that's the same as patriarchal society) - things beyond the character's control which can then be blamed for the aftermath the victim is left to deal with. NO I DIDN'T MEAN 'THEY' ASK TO BE RAPED / HARASSED / MOLESTED! Sexual assaults and harassments and injurious poor body images do exist and have waged a war on women (the American Medical Association says so, too). But for this book, I was interested in seeing what action(s) women [characters] can incite on their own, whether bad or good, hopeful or dead-end, progressive or destructive. We [the editors] hope that women aren't only what society has made them and that there is some individual identity to work with.

In victim-fiction, a perfectly nice, promising person encounters IT. Incest, rape, mugging, sexual harassment, drug/alcohol addiction, sexual discrimination. The now-victim then begins to struggle with the AFTERMATH. Eating disorders, more addictions, self mutilation, low self-esteem, dangerous passivity that allows further harassment or abuse. And that's the story's movement/intensity.

Sample of the typical cover letter we received:

Please consider my story for your "No Victims" anthology. Although the 16-year-old narrator is a victim of _________, she gains strength and breaks the cycle of abuse.

I suspect the troubled industry is subtly driving writers to use what has already proven to be moving material. If so, how about, just for this book if you want, instead of a fiction's drama beginning and developing because of something that happens - randomly, through fate of a fucked-up society - to someone, therefore creating an "inner conflict" which will then "develop," how about fiction by & about women where the movement or tension or intensity stems primarily from who a character is and what she wants. So OK, sometimes she'll still end up a victim, but the story itself isn't based on a thunder bolt from the blue targeting an innocent someone and determining the course of their future emotional duress or social difficulties or personal obstacles.

This editor's defensive sidebar:
In my novel Your Name Here:_______, a character has unconsensual sex as a partial result of "acting out" blindly - out of retaliation, resentment and anger, out of wanting revenge for unrequited feelings. I intended for her to be a victim, but not simply a victim of male society that rapes its women, but of something more subtle (and more dangerous): a victim of whatever causes her to ignore the intellect she's been given, ignore the education she has, ignore the fact that she has a job she's good at, and be guided only by wanting a man to think of her as attractive, desirable, a potential sex partner. A goal more important than career or accomplishment. A goal that supersedes all other noble pusuits. And few women even realize they're doing it. No one forces women to do this. Perhaps that "evil society" encourages it, implants it, but if we're, by now, smart enough to recognize it, aren't we also smart enough to resist it? If not - THAT'S scary.

And yet, you'll find some of the classic trappings of victimhood here - self-mutilation, S&M pornography, non-mutual sexual experiences - but there's a difference. These aren't stories about the traumas of, aftermath of and recovering from victimhood. In fact, certain writers don't seem to consider victimizing situations as victimizing, and the victims don't regard themselves as victims at all!

Could this be a symptom of postfeminist writing?

From the original call-for-manuscripts for CHICK-LIT in 1994:

What is Postfeminist Writing?

If you have no answer or don't even know what the question means . . . good, perhaps you're a postfeminist writer. Just another absurd label, but it - like all labels - represents contemporary criticism's on-going quest to locate, define and thereby understand writers who, for reasons as individual as they are, haven't been embraced or appreciated.

When the first On The Edge: New Women's Fiction Anthology was released in October 1995, my ice-breaker, aren't-I-funny-as-shit identification tag in the call-for-manuscripts had become the subtitle:

Chick-Lit: Postfeminism Fiction

There was even a colon! All of a sudden I was responsible for something, expected to define and defend it, wear the plaque, lead the garrison. Trying to remain undaunted, I offered a complimentary copy to a senior faculty member in English and Women's Studies. "Postfeminist, huh? What's that? Hope you're not implying all the issues have been solved or are obsolete."

My abashed response:

But then someone else said it better. . .

                   THE NEXT SAYS, "YEAH, IT STILL DOES,   
                     BUT I'VE STUCK MY FINGERS IN IT."   
                              two girls review   

Cris Mazza's most recent novel, Dog People, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. Her collection of fictions, Former Virgin, will be published by FC2. She is a native of San Diego and teaches in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

     o    >

Copyright  1996 ebr
and the author. All rights reserved.