Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Christie made an interesting comment on my last post about how some of the people in her RS reading group found Austenland a little bit trashy. It was interesting to me because I had a very similar conversation with a friend this morning.

As an aspriring novelist who is first and foremost and LDS person, sex is a very tricky issue. If you are not going to treat it at all, then you are stuck writing novels that are only of the LDS variety, or ones that are completely devoid of romance (which is hard to do because we learn a lot about ourselves as we fall in love and work through relationships). Whether we like to admit it or not, sex and romantic love are pretty closely connected in our society. Even in LDS circles, there are plenty of young men surrounded by wonderful friend-girls who they are not attracted to and will never marry for that reason.

Shannon Hale's novel, Austenland, makes no pretenses of being for anyone other than adults. The protagonist is in her mid-thirties, single, un-religious and living in New York. This is not a novel aimed (necessarily) at an LDS audience, and certainly not aimed at teenage girls. Implying that a woman living such a lifestyle is automatically trashy because she is just following the rules of the culture she lives in is jumping the gun a bit, I think.

In fact, Hale works very hard to let the reader draw their own conclusions. Other than a little descriptive making-out, she avoids the sex question entirely, by merely implying there are times this main character was okay with it and times that she wasn't. No descriptions, no titilating details, no smokin' hot love scenes. . . .

Now, the Twilight saga (the word used on Amazon) on the other hand . . . (I promise, I'm not getting holier than thou here. I've read them all and probably will read the next as well. I'm just trying to make a point.) Stephanie Meyer has kind of painted herself into a corner. These books are obsessesed with descriptions of physical attraction (and physcial attractiveness) and she is never shy to put her characters into very close and compromising situations. After all, any Bishop worth his salt will tell you that merely not having sex is really not enough, and having your boyfriend sleep in your room every night is definitely over-stepping the bounds of what is and is not appropriate. When it comes time for Edward and Bella to finally just get past the tension, marriage or not, she will have to alienate a certain portion of her readers. Her younger and/or more conservative fans (read: LDS) will mostly be disappointed if she includes the gory details, feeling like she sold-out. Still, they will probably comfort themselves with the fact that "at least they are married." On the other hand, her older, non-LDS readers will be disapointed if she allows the great consummation to take place behind closed doors. "What!?! 1500 pages of passion burning the pages up and she leaves out the undressing of Edward!!!!???????!!!!!!!" It is almost like the whole abstience thing in the Meyer books is just a way of obsessing about sex.

It is an interesting question, but I have to admit I found Austenland, for all of its implied sexuality, much less trashy than Eclipse, with its relentless sensuality. As LDS authors (and actors) become more and more mainstream, it will sometimes be hard to make choices about what is really appropriate. And make no mistake, LDS authors will have to bear closer scrutiny than their less religious peers. There is no getting away from it: our culture affects everything we do, even when we are trying to operate outside our culture; and those outside our culture watch us very carefully.

In an unrelated news item, did you guys know this is called the "Dead Star." That's what Patchy Pirate says. Of course, Scallywag tells me that Patchy is still a padawan learner, and not yet a full Jedi.


FoxyJ said...

I am constantly being surprised by what people around me find offensive, but I also read a lot and somehow find little to be bothered by. What bothers me is how many people look only at the surface of what is there instead of the underlying message. That's why I really limit what my kids can watch, because even if there isn't obvious boobies or anything, I don't like the messages of most kids movies. Personally I didn't really find Austenland bothersome at all--like you said, that was her cultural milleu and there wasn't anything graphic at all. I did find the sexual tension in the Twilight books annoying.

Scully said...

It is an important point to distinguish between sex and sensuality. I remember one scene in the Harrison Ford version of 'Sabrina' that if you were just listening would be a conversation about where he got his hair cut, but if you were watching, was totally charged and sensual, and dare I say, slightly erotic. Same with a dance scene in the Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma. Way more powerful than if the characters had just gone after one another. I think a lot of LDS people are so focused on the taboo act, that they don't think about other issues surrounding the taboo that could be just as 'trashy' or offensive.

(By way of an introduction, I'm a lurker who found your blog through Miss Nemesis. Obviously anyone she links is a right-thinking person worth reading.)

Nerd Goddess said...

Interesting points made, and I would have to agree on most. Do read Shannon's other books, though. She's so fabulous, and I (slightly) obsess over her. One of the things I like about her books is that they're all so good in different sort of ways. Have you checked out her blog? (

BTW, I don't think I've posted here before, but I found your blog via Miss Nemesis.

Andrea said...

I'm mulling the idea of culture and LDS professionals.

Choices lead to habit,
Habit leads to tradition,
Tradition leads to culture.

I'm glad my profession doesn't put me in the cultural spotlight. I hope those who are can send a positive message to a culture that doesn't always make good choices.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Ooo. . . . didn't mean to imply that I wouldn't be reading any more Hale. I think she is great, and I really love her characters regardless of the story she is telling. (See last post.) I was using Austenland as a way to bring up the broader discussion.

Great comments girls.

Christie said...

The woman who found Austenland most offensive had a 14-year-old grandaughter who read it, thinking it was another Shannon Hale book for young adults. Well, HELLO! No where is it billed as young adult. I didn't say it at book group (didn't even think it, in fact), but it's cruddy to blame the author when you're offended by a book that you read out of ignorance. What really gets me, however, is not being able to tell what's in a book by reading the jacket or reviews. I am a modern prude. I don't like reading the F-word or novels with gratuitous sex or violence. Gritty and real is one thing -- flippant and banal is another. I have my degree in English and am against banning books, but is it so wrong to want some sort of rating system like video games/movies/music albums have?

Nerd Goddess said...

Gah! I knew you would be reading more of her. I was just encouraging it, because as an unofficial Shannon Hale stalker it is my duty. ;) I also looked at the last post, and I figured you would. Especially since you liked The Goose Girl. :)

Z. Marie said...

I haven't read Austenland and don't know whether I will; I haven't read any Shannon Hale books. But I just finished Twilight and completely agree with you. I'll probably end up reading the rest of the saga, but we'll see.

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

I feel Christie's pain - I rarely read books that haven't been recommended by someone I trust because I don't like unpleasant surprises.

A book rating system might be helpful, but I worry many authors might begin writing with the ranking in mind, just like moviemakers go out of their way to "earn" at least a PG-13 rating because they fear they won't be taken seriously if their film is PG. Or (heaven help us) G.


Lauren picked up this book and read half of it before she deicded it wasn't her thing at all. I oversee her Library selections and was suckered in by the Shannon Hale name....oh yeah, and the fact that the Library had it shelved in the YOUNG ADULT section!!!

Flashlight Girl said...

Hale versus Meyers, interesting concept. Having thoroughly enjoyed all things by Ms. Hale, I must say that Princess Academy was my favorite. Now for the Twilight series. I enjoyed Twilight. It was different, exciting and filling a spot for easy-read fiction after I finished the Harry Potter books. That being said, I was disappointed in the other 2 books. How much drama can a gal take? Besides being heavy on the sexual tension, I'd have to diagnose the main characters (Ed,Bella,Jake) as having Borderline personality disorder! Sadly, I'll likely read the 4th book just to see how it turns out, but I can't say that I'm looking forward to it. I'm sure Stephenie Meyere knows that her audience is largely composed of teen girls. Good luck to pleasing the LDS and everyone else.

P.S. I linked here through Christie's blog.